MIDWAY : How difficult is Mandarin?

It has 6,000 written characters and four oral tones. To anyone brought up with the Roman alphabet, the prospect of learning Mandarin — with 6,000 written characters and four oral tones — might at first sight seem a mite daunting and perhaps even formidably impossible. Brits are notoriously poor linguists but clearly a nation that revels in a challenge.

According to a new study by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the University of Stirling, in central Scotland, the number of Mandarin students at the universities in the United Kingdom has almost doubled in the past several decades.

By contrast easy continental languages are in sharp decline with French undergrads down a third and German students plummeting by more than two-thirds.

The reason for the shift is unclear. It could be an Olympic side-effect, a spin-off from all those Zhang Yimou films or perhaps the widely held belief that Chinese speakers are on the verge of inheriting the entire planet that once was blithely believed to be under the dominion of western countries.

But how many of the 392 students now cramming their pictograms will master a language that was — in a gloriously opposite mindset to English — originally written and read from bottom to top and from right to left?

In terms of the volume of characters to be learned, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian are a comparative doodle. To read a Chinese newspaper, you need to know 2,000 pictograms.

The different tones — a high, flat tone, a rising tone, an undulating tone and a falling tone — can give a character as simple as “ma” four completely different meanings.But hey, it is not impossible. More than a billion people know the basics.

The key is to keep a steady pace, slowly building up your strength — a bit like swimming, in fact, which might be why Michael Phelps has taken a dip into the language.

But the greatest Olympian in history admits in the latest edition of Sports Illustrated that “learning Mandarin is even harder than winning eight gold medals”. Now what do you say to accepting the challenge bigger than an Olympian competition?