Not that most Australians care about learning a foreign language, but Asian languages have always been relatively popular here (compared to European ones) because Asia is our nearest neighbour.
When I was in University I took up Chinese as a minor elective because none of the subjects in my own faculty interested me. OK I lie. I did actually take Film Studies but after only 2 lectures I was already bored and frustrated. It was a hard task to coordinate taking another subject from another faculty but it was totally worth it. For one, I got to meet people outside my own tightly-knit (and often snobby) faculty but I got to improve on what I had already learnt before... and I had fun doing it.
I ended up taking it over 2 years with a break in the middle. The funny thing was, I even met up with an old family friend that I hadn't seen since I was about 8 years old who was also taking a subject outside his own faculty and we've managed to stay in contact ever since! (the way I look at it is - good things always happen when you go outside your comfort zone). Anyway...
Chinese is definitely a language where it's hard to get accurate pronunciation because of the different tones. I've read that the only major benefit to learning a foreign language when you're young is to get an accurate pronunciation because after a certain age (usually around puberty/12 years) your hearing isn't as acute and if you can't hear the subtle little differences you can't pronounce them.
I came across Julien Gaudfroy on YouTube quite some time ago so now I'm finally doing a post on him! I found his story truly remarkable. Before I'd read about him though, I'd guessed that he must have extremely good hearing to speak and pronounce Mandarin EXACTLY like a Native would. And guess what? He only started learning it at age 20! So anything's possible!
I actually often wondered if there was a correlation between music learning and foreign language learning (in terms of having acute hearing ability) because I learnt piano for 8 years and wondered if that actually somehow contributed to my success of learning French... I don't know...
From China Daily
For musician, the sweet sound of Chinese
By Viva Goldner
When circumstance put an end to Julien Gaudfroy's first great love, the former musician discovered his passion for the Chinese language.
Before carving a career as a media personality in Beijing, the Frenchman was a professional cellist, performing at the Paris Conservatory with top classical players and conductors.
The gifted 28-year-old was forced to stop playing due to injuries eight years ago - which he still does not want to mention - and decided to focus on the "challenge" of learning a new language.
With the same dedication that saw him rise to the top of European musical circles, Gaudfroy would not rest until he attained the level of a native speaker.
Those impeccable language skills, coupled with a good dose of charisma and keen sense of humor, propelled Gaudfroy into the limelight. He co-hosts a Chinese talk show, broadcast daily by the CRI network, called "The Foreigner's Point of View". He travels China as a popular TV host, and is an accomplished cross-talk performer.
Gaudfroy began studying Chinese in 1998 while still in France, creating within his Paris apartment an "almost 100 percent Chinese environment". Helped by a Chinese girlfriend, he studied at home for hours and engaged in conversation with any Chinese person he happened upon.
"I didn't have much else to do so I would spend all day long studying Chinese in any possible way," he says. He tried a language course at a Paris university, but lasted just weeks, finding tapes and self-study to be a more suitable method.
Gaudfroy recovered from his injuries two years later, but was not prepared for the investment it would take to revive his former musical career. He used to practise cello for up to eight hours a day, and risked recurring complications from his earlier injuries. Instead, he chose to further his Chinese studies.
"It was some kind of desire," he says. "I think the main thing is, from the start, I really wanted to get myself to the level of a native speaker."
Hailing from Lille, Gaudfroy first came to China in 1999. He left the following year, but returned in 2002 and has lived here since. To improve his reading and writing skills, Gaudfroy consumed whatever Chinese language material he could - novels, newspapers, magazines and historical texts.
He constantly listened to television and radio shows, and would repeat new phrases to himself until he was sure the pronunciation was perfect.
Gaudfroy believes his musical background helped him pick up the tonal sounds of Chinese, but puts his successful quest in learning mostly down to hard work.
He is a regular performer of cross-talk, the popular art of stand-up comedy with a linguistic bent. He says it has brought a new level of sophistication to his Chinese.
"It has helped me with the way I use it, to feel the rhythm of the language for the stage," he says.
What's interesting is that he was basically a self-taught learner and I think from all the stories I've read of people who are good with foreign languages and/or are polyglots, they are self taught. I think when you're self taught you have to be really dedicated and motivated in the first place as you can't just turn up to class and rely on the teacher to do all the work for you! Having taught teenagers for some months now, my opinion now is that the 'best' age to learn a foreign language is in your late teens to mid 20s (which funnily, also corresponds to the age range when you're at your peak physical condition!). By that age/time when you have actually acquired some maturity and WANT to learn it as opposed to being forced to by the school curriculum/your teachers/your parents, I think is the best time. And you're still young enough to have some hope of getting close to the native accent. But it just depends on how good your ear is, of course :)
I think it's a load of crap that people of European origins think they can't learn a non European language. When I was living in Shanghai I met lots of foreigners including French, Americans and Australians who could speak Chinese. And if you go on YouTube there are stacks of them too who have successfully 'tackled' the language.
If you can't understand Chinese Mandarin you won't understand the videos above so check this out instead (it's in English, which he speaks fluently too, of course):