Today is first day of Chinese New Year (the year of the golden tiger begins) for all Chinese and also Valentine's Day for the rest of the world. So, other than uttering Gongxi Facai (恭喜发财) in Mandarin & Gong Hei Fat Choi in Cantonese, the words for lovers are Wo Ai Ni (我爱你) in Chinese. That's Je t'aime in French :-)
Now, the newest trend is to learn Chinese. I've seen and met a great many students who come from across the world to learn Mandarin in Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen. Students from U.S., France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Korea and even Kazakhstan. Mandarin is the language of the new decade, it seems.
Well, it's a little complicated where this language is concerned. Chinese Language, what is it? Why do they sound different in different parts of China? Let's differentiate between a language and dialects first.
There is only one language, ie. Chinese Language. It's written form is the same in all of China (but there is a little difference in Taiwan & Hong Kong. The traditional Chinese & the Simplified Chinese. China itself has adopted the Simplified Chinese while Taiwan & Hong Kong still use the Traditional Chinese way of writing (more strokes in the word itself).
Chinese Language is one of the most complicated, not so much in its grammar but rather in the way the words are written & pronounced; many strokes & same pronounciation may have different meanings under different context as well as with different combination.
Firstly, the official language of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC, ie. commonly known as China) is the language spoken in Beijing. Known as Mandarin to the West & Putonghua to the Chinese as well as Huayu to the South East Asian Chinese. Aside from Mandarin, China has 6 major dialect groups. Within each dialect groups, there are some differentiation in accent depending on where it's spoken & which village or town it originated. Around 70% of China's population speaks Mandarin but that doesn't mean it's their first language. In some cities like Guangzhou, Hongkong & southern China, Cantonese is spoken more often. Cantonese is also one of the major dialects & it sounds entirely different from Mandarin but in all chinese dialects, the written form is the same.
Trivia: Take a guess, how many Chinese characters are there?
Answer: About 56,000 characters.
Generally, for the well educated, one would know or use about 6000 to 8000 characters. To read a newspaper, you need to know at least 1500-2500!
Chinese words usually is a combination of 2 or more characters. To make it even more complicated, there are countries outside China which uses different form of the same word, notably in Hongkong & Taiwan. China has in 1954 simplified about 2200 chinese characters by reducing the number of strokes for each of the different characters, while Hongkong & Taiwan prefer to use the traditional full-form characters. In other words, if one doesn't read widely, it is very possible one would not recognised the same character of the 2 different forms when one sees it. So, a young student from China may not be able to read the newspaper in Taiwan even though he/she has no problems reading it had it been published in China!!!
Spoken Mandarin has 4 different tones while 6 different tones in Cantonese. It's said that Cantonese is harder for a foreigner to master because of this.
爱in simplified Chinese.
For example, the word love 爱. It's the 4th tone of the pronounciation ai 4.
The first tone of ai may be a word like 挨(ai 1 骂 ma 4), meaning getting a scolding.
The second tone of ai may be a word like 癌 (ai 2), meaning cancer.
The third tone of ai may be a word like 矮 (ai 3), meaning short.
[BBC has produced a mini tone guide which I found interesting. Check it out!]
So, it is most important to get them right! :-)
I do speak Putonghua/Mandarin and also 3 other Chinese dialects. It comes naturally to me. Having learned Indonesian Language at a young age, it helps in learning Mandarin. I also speak some Japanese. I do find that within these 3 languages, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese (possibly Spanish too), the pronounciation is similar. Hence, it is easier for those who know these few languages to learn spoken Chinese (may not be so easy to learn the written form though).
In order to learn Chinese Language well, you need lots of time, at least 10 years of exposure. Some may learn to speak in less but to write beautifully, it may actually take a lifetime! Calligraphy is also a trained art which I'm fond of. Generally though, I think the world is at a stage where by Chinese Language will be a major language in the near future (about 5 to 10 years down the road). As it is, about 1/3 of the world population speaks this language! I've read in recent times that some parents in New York City are hiring nannies who speak Chinese to their children from a young age so as to prepare them well in advance where learning Mandarin is concerned.
From my own personal experience, it pays to pick up whatever languages you'd like to learn from a young age. It's extremely difficult to learn a new language once you reached adulthood. From observing Chinese Singaporeans trying to learn Mandarin, I'd say that's quite the case. I did learn English only from the age of 10, so, it's not too late for many. All in all, the earlier the better :-)