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Is Chinese Too Hard to Learn? Confronting the Biggest Myths About Mandarin

“You’re learning Chinese? Why don’t you just pick something easier?”

“Are you sure you want to do that? It’s going to take forever.”

“I could never learn such an intimidating language.”

These are all things that teachers, family members, and friends said to me when I started to learn Mandarin Chinese at the age of 16. Yet despite all the comments I heard about the “extreme difficulty” of the language, I always felt that it was actually quite intuitive to pick up. As much as I would love to pretend to be a genius with an innate gift for Chinese fluency, the fact of the matter is that many people perceive Mandarin Chinese to be more complex and difficult than it really is.

It’s true that there are numerous challenges for native English speakers to overcome when learning Chinese, such as learning a new writing system and mastering the phonetic differences between the two languages. However, there are also a lot of aspects of the Chinese language that make it less complex than English. In this article, I will reveal the features of the language that make it easy to pick up, but I will also address the parts that make it difficult and how you can overcome those obstacles using tried-and-true tools and strategies.

If you’re ready to get started, let’s begin with the reasons why Chinese is quite an easy language to learn.

Three Reasons Why Mandarin Chinese is Easy for English Speakers

1). Mandarin Chinese verbs never change based on context

For native English speakers, verb conjugation is something we do without even thinking about it. We grew up learning to modify verbs based on their subject, for example “I have” or “she has,” but in Chinese, verbs will always remain the same no matter what the subject or object is. Going back to the previous example, in Chinese you can just say 我有(wǒ yǒu, I have) and 她有(tā yǒu, she has), no change required.

Verbs in English also have tense, meaning that the verb’s spelling and pronunciation will change based on the time when something happened, such as “I have” and “I had.” Verb tense also doesn’t exist in Chinese; the language uses syntax or other markers to indicate when something happened.

When it comes to learning a new verb in Chinese, you only need to learn one character and one pronunciation. On the other hand, a native Chinese speaker studying English would have to memorize multiple verb forms based on who is doing the action and when it’s happening. This is just one example of how Mandarin Chinese can be simpler than English.

2). Imperfect pronunciation will not prevent you from being understood

Chinese is a tonal language; words change meaning based on the tone you use while saying them. You’ll often hear that if you mispronounce one word, suddenly you’re saying something completely different than what you meant (oftentimes something wildly inappropriate or silly). However, the missing key here is context. When having a conversation, you can have imperfect pronunciation and incorrect tones, but the person listening will still understand you based on the other words you’re saying and the overall conversation you’re having.

Take the example of the difference between 妈 (mā, mother) and 马 (mǎ, horse). It’s true that the tone is the only thing that differentiates these two words when spoken aloud, but nobody is going to think that you went to your horse’s house last night for dinner.

Accurate pronunciation is a key part of fluency and is something that we should strive for as learners, but many people let the fear of being misunderstood prevent them from even beginning to learn the language. The truth is that tone mastery comes with intentional practice and time. Nobody, except for maybe a lucky few, uses tones like a native from the get go, and that’s perfectly okay!

3). You don’t need to learn to write Chinese characters to use them

Another factor that many English speakers find intimidating is learning to write characters by hand. It can seem like a massive undertaking to train your hand to trace different lines and memorize correct stroke order. It’s like going back to kindergarten and starting from scratch. If you feel that learning to write Chinese characters takes too much time and effort, I have great new for you: you don’t have to!

Similar to English, most people are more comfortable typing in Chinese than actually writing, and this is true of native speakers and learners alike. Learning to type Chinese characters is quite simple and can be as easy as typing the pronunciation and selecting the character from a list. Nowadays, there are very few situations that would require you to write characters by hand, such as sitting for a written Chinese exam.

There are several benefits to practicing handwriting, including improving your ability to memorize new vocabulary words, better understanding the structure of Chinese characters, and making it easier to use Chinese dictionaries and various typing input methods. But being unable to write characters by hand won’t prevent you from being able to reach fluency and communicate in Mandarin.

Part 2: Three Reasons Why Mandarin Chinese is Hard for English Speakers and How to Overcome Them

1). There is a significant learning curve for beginners

There are many factors that make Chinese so different from English, including the writing system, tones, pronunciation, and grammar. Rather than looking at them all individually, let’s step back to see the big picture. When approaching Mandarin Chinese for the first time, there’s a lot of new information to process, and that can intimidate new learners before they even begin. However, it’s important to keep in mind that new concept quickly become familiar, and your fluency will grow exponentially once you get over the initial hump.

How do you get past that point, though? For many languages, not just Chinese, taking time to intentionally concentrate on the foundations of the language will have a massive payoff both in the short and long term. For example, learning the different components of Chinese characters will massively speed up your progress in reading and writing. Familiarizing yourself with the sounds of the language will help you better pick out different words and tones while listening and can boost your speaking skills significantly.

2). Mandarin Chinese has an extremely vast amount of vocabulary to learn

Thinking about the number of Chinese characters required to achieve a high level of fluency can make your head spin. Most native speakers know around 8,000 characters. The highest level of the HSK 3.0, the standard exam used to measure Chinese fluency, requires over 10,000 characters. While it’s true that expanding your Chinese vocabulary will improve your ability to read complex texts, express yourself eloquently, understand complicated speech, and write like a native speaker, in reality, you can know a much smaller number of characters and still function in the language.

For example, by learning the 100 most common Chinese characters, you’ll be able understand almost half of everyday conversations. If you learn the 1,000 most common characters, that number will increase to almost 90%. Taking the time to learn three characters a day could help you reach that level in less than a year.

Learning a new language is always a marathon, not a sprint. But it can be extremely motivating to know that you can make great strides by growing your vocabulary in consistent, small doses.

3). Native Chinese speakers can be very difficult to understand

Mandarin Chinese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Having so many native and non-native speakers from around the world also means that there are many different accents and dialects, each with their own phonetic nuances and particular vocabulary. In fact, the Beijing Mandarin accent is referred to as 儿化 (érhuà) to describe the way that speakers excessively add the 儿(ér) sound at the end of words, sometimes making their speech unintelligible to outsiders.

While there is a whole wide world of accents to attune your ears to, they share many of the same phonetic bases. And like all things, the ability to listen and understand comes with time and targeted practice. If you feel intimidated thinking about how many different accents there are, know that you don’t need to learn them all. You only need to learn the ones that are relevant to you, such as the accent spoken in a region you plan to visit or the dialect that your relatives speak. The internet offers a wealth of resources for standard Mandarin and almost every variation you can think of.

If you find yourself intimidated by the vastness of the language, breaking things down into smaller pieces and focusing on the most essential things first will help you get your bearings and gradually guide you towards mastery.

A Final Word

While my own Chinese experience began with others telling me that I couldn’t do it or it wasn’t worth it, I proved them wrong because I decided to tread my own path.

For many others, that negative voice can come from inside. There may be that part of you that says “oh, that seems too complicated” or “I’m really out of my comfort zone here.” It’s important to question if those thoughts are coming from preconceived notions you have about the challenge ahead or about your own abilities. The difference between thought and reality can be striking.

If you’re interested in starting your Chinese learning journey, but you hear that little voice telling you that you can’t do it, give yourself permission to try. Sometimes we discover that we’ve been standing in our own way.

I hope that this article has shown you that Mandarin Chinese is a unique language with its own challenges but also a language that you can adapt to easily if you approach it with thoughtfulness and openness.

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Calla Thielsen

In addition to being an editor and writer for DigMandarin since 2016, Calla is also a translation student in Montreal. As a contributor, their goal is to help others learn Mandarin in fun and creative ways. Calla believes that hands on techniques are the best way to help teach foreign languages.

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