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John Dowdell

If I hadn't had much exposure to any language of the region, and if I didn't have a special interest in one particular language, then I think that spoken Mandarin may offer the most value for the least cost. Here are some factors:

+ Mandarin (or Putongua) is the language of Beijing and is the official state language. It is spoken as a second language across China and the world. Like English, Putongua is a hub language.

+ It's easier to achieve basic spoken proficiency than in many other languages. (No "i am, you are, he is" inflections, no system of verb endings, intuitive grammar.)

+ There are many resources available for this study -- it's easy to find courses, books, audio recordings, video in subtitle and soundtrack.

+ In most future scenarios, China plays a very significant role, one way or another.

John Dowdell

Reading Chinese is another thing entirely, however. It requires a long period of study. But knowing the characters is a great help in understanding any language of the region. Big cost, but big payoff.

One way is to start by focusing on signs -- how to recognize "Entrance", "Exit", "Push", "Bus Stop" and so on. You won't be able to read texts with only a few hundred characters, but you will be able to make practical use of the skill.

For me, writing the characters helped in remembering them. Some people like flash cards. There are electronic devices but I haven't found one that fits me.

The characters changed over time and area. The written system is based on spoken Putongua, and other languages like Cantonese are not spoken as the text is written. Fifty years ago the mainland simplified the character set, and the choice of Simplified or Traditional characters can have political implications. Characters entered Japan, Korea and Vietnam at different times -- variance is similar to how Latin has influenced European languages.

One important thing for me was to work on really seeing the characters -- it's easy for me to panic and not really look. For the Japanese character set, the 2000 basic characters are made up of 600 basic shapes. If you learn the shapes then you can make up little stories to remember the meaning ("'rice plant' next to 'fire' means they're burning the field in 'autumn'", eg). Reliably recognizing the parts is easier for me than trying to remember each character as a whole, as a schoolchild might.

If you can read and write Chinese you've got a very useful skill, but it also takes a lot of work to achieve it.

John Dowdell

Hindi surprised me by not being as directly useful as I'd first hoped. In India, English is also a common language across regions.

Hindi is the language of everyday life in the New Delhi / Pakistan area. The area around Bangalore uses Kannada for daily communication.

If I were to become directly involved within India I would definitely enjoy studying Hindi again, but right now I don't see when or how such study would pay off. English gets me almost as much as Hindi, from where I am now.

John Dowdell

Japanese has an advantage in having a massive amount of learning materials available. Putongua is starting to catch up, but the ready availability of instructional materials in Japanese could be a deciding factor.

John Dowdell

Spoken Japanese and Korean varies with the social setting. In English we might say "yes", "yeah", or "yes, I would like that, thank you" in different settings, but if the king gives the beggar something the same verb is used as if the beggar gave the king something. The verbs themselves differ according to the social relationships, whether in-group or out-group in addition to social hierarchy.

After two years of classroom study of Japanese I was still completely baffled at what I heard Toshiro Mifune saying....

You'll still be understood, but there's a risk of social damage if the correct level of speech is not chosen. This adds to the learning costs.

John Dowdell

Everyday exposure could be another criterion. Recorded material is helpful, but hearing live speech is useful too. Cantonese is very common to clearly hear around San Francisco.

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