Mandarin Chinese is a language shrouded in complexity.
Be it because of the cultural distance between China and English speaking countries. Or the difficulty of taking on a tonal language. Or even the flowery, somewhat poetic style of Mandarin Chinese prose.
There is no doubt that Mandarin Chinese deserves its reputation as a difficult language to learn. It is within that context that many people pose the question, one which we will attempt to answer, how hard is Mandarin Chinese to learn?
The simple answer is that Mandarin Chinese is a hard language to learn. But, the answer is more complex than that.
- Vocabulary – Mandarin Chinese has something of a clunky way of forming vocabulary but over time it becomes both fun and logical. There are a large number of loan words to speed up progression too.
- Grammar – The grammar is subject-verb-object which is similar to English, there is no conjugation, there are simple rules for word order so the grammar at the start is very quick to pick up.
- Speaking/Listening – There are a lot of different sounds in Mandarin Chinese that are not found in English. It is useful to learn and then use the pinyin writing system to denote these sounds in practice. There are tones, which of course make it tricky, but thankfully only 4 of them.
- Writing/Reading – The writing system is in theory easy to understand but in reality somewhere you would have to invest a lot of time. First you need to learn the radicals, then the characters and then words.
Mandarin Chinese would take a long time to learn, if you have the time then read on to find out more!
So, how hard is Mandarin Chinese to learn really?
Mandarin Chinese vocabulary is polysyllabic. Words are often formed by compounding together existing simpler words.
- Computer – 电脑 – diànnaǒ – electricity + brain
- Train – 火车 – huǒchē – fire + vehicle
- Owl – 猫头鹰 – maōtoúyīng – cat + head + eagle
Words can also often have a simple prefix or suffix added to an existing word to form a new word.
Mandarin Chinese has taken loans words from Sanskrit and Pali through the spread of Buddhism in China and then later English, French and Japanese following the invasions starting in the 19th century onward.
There are a large number of English loan words across a wide ranging number of vocabulary topics.
Basic English Loan Words
- Aspirin – āsīpílín – 阿斯匹林
- Ballet – bālěi – 芭蕾
- Bikini – bǐjīní – 比基尼
- Bungee jumping – bèngjí – 蹦极
- Champagne – xiāngbīn – 香槟
- Whisky – wēishìjì – 威士忌
- Yogurt – yōugé – 优格
In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
- The apple is red — Zhège píngguǒ shì hóngsè de — de denotes an adjective
- It is John’s apple — Zhège shì John de píngguǒ— possessives are straight forward and use de
- I give John the apple — Wǒ gěi John zhège píngguǒ— The word order is sub. + verb + indirect object + direct object
- We give him the apple — Wǒmen gěi tā zhège píngguǒ— men denotes plural
- He gives it to John — Tā ba tā gěi John — when the direct object is non specific it comes before the verb with ba
- He doesn’t give it to John — Tā bù ba tā gěi John — direct object between not and ver
- She gives it to him — Tā ba tā gěi tā — he, she and it denoted by ta pronoun
- I gave John the apple — Wǒ gěile John zhège píngguǒ — le denotes past action
- I must give it to him — Wǒ bìxū ba tā gěi tā — auxiliary verb + base verb combination is straight forward
- I want to give it to her — Wǒ xiǎng ba tā gěi tā
The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Mandarin Chinese. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.
- Word Order – Mandarin Chinese grammar has a subject-verb-object word order.
- Pronouns – The spoken words for pronouns don’t change for gender, but the characters do. For example he, she and it are spoken as ta, but the characters are 他, 她 and 它 respectively.
- Nouns – The nouns are the same for singular and plural apart for with some rare examples including people. The nouns also do not have a gender. The nouns are usually formed by two character syllables together.
- Counters/Classifiers – When counting things there is a classifier between the number and the noun. The order is number + classifier + noun.
- Adjectives – the adjective comes before the noun and often has the classifier particle de between.
- Verbs – Verbs don’t change with the subject or dependent on tense. Rather tense is shown by context, adverbs of time (yesterday, tomorrow…) or particles like le to show past action.
- Auxiliary verbs – are expressed together in the same order as English.
- Be – The verb for be, shi, is only ever used with nouns.
- Have – We can use the word yǒu to say we have something in Mandarin Chinese.
- Negatives – Negatives are expressed with prefix word bu before the verb or adjective.
- Questions – To form a question you only need place the particle ma at the end of a statement.
- Direct and Indirect Objects – They have simple fixed order, unless non specific then the order of the direct object changes.
Mandarin Chinese has 45 phonemes made up of 24 consonant sounds and 21 vowel sounds. Chinese is also a tonal, syllable-timed language.
- Consonants – m, k, j, p, w, n, t, l, s, ŋ, f, t̠ʃ, ts, kʰ, pʰ, x, tʰ, tsʰ, tɕ, ɕ, tɕʰ, ɹ, ʃ̺ and t̠ʃ̺ʰ
- Of the 24 consonants the following 13 are shared with RP English but 11 are not.
- m, j, w, n, l, s, ŋ, f, t̠ʃ, kʰ, pʰ, tʰ, ɹ.
- Vowels – e, iː, uː, ə, ɪ, ʊ, ɔː, æ, ʌ, ɑː, ɒ, aɪ, aʊ, eɪ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, əʊ, ɜː and ʊə
- Of the 21 vowels the following 1 is shared with RP English but 20 are not.
- 1st – level and high pitch – mā – 妈 – mother
- 2nd – rising, start from a low pitch and end at a slightly high pitch – má – 麻 – hemp
- 3rd – falling then rising, start at a neutral tone then dip to a low pitch before ending at a high pitch – mǎ – 马 – horse
- 4th – falling, start at a slightly high pitch then go quickly and strongly downwards to a low pitch – mà – 骂 – scold
Tones in Mandarin Chinese involve a combination of pitch, duration and clarity/quality.
The Mandarin Chinese script comes in two forms: traditional (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan) and simplified (Mainland China, Malaysia, Singapore). Simplified Chinese was created and set in the 1950s and was an attempt to promote literacy in the PRC.
My hovercraft is full of eels – 我的氣墊船裝滿了鰻魚 (Simplified Chinese)
The red script is the character symbol and the blue and green script are the radical symbol.
Both simplified and traditional Chinese is made up of over 50,000 characters of which an university educated Chinese person will know around 8000 and it claimed that only around 3000 are needed to read your average newspaper.
These characters are in turn made of a number of different radicals of which there are 214. To give an example 好
- 你好 (nǐ hǎo – hello) — is made up of the characters 你 (nǐ – you) and 好 (hǎo – good)
- 好 (hǎo – good) — in turn is made up of the radicals 女 (nǚ – woman) and 子 (zi – child)
- The script is written from left to right.
- Words are made from characters, characters are in turn made up of radicals.
- The letter shapes are formed through strokes.
- There are a very large number of characters to learn.
Why Learn Mandarin Chinese?
In my opinion there are three key reasons to learn Mandarin Chinese.
- It is one of the most difficult languages in the world and if you are able to achieve even basic fluency you will gain a great deal of respect and admiration.
- You can deep dive into the complex and long history of China, in particular the turmoil of the 20th century.
- China is a spoken by over a billion people and is a massive piece of the global economy. Anyone with language skills in Mandarin Chinese will find a lot of interest from prospective employers.
But let’s dive in a little further.
Mandarin Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan language. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Repiblic of China (ROC). It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore and one of the working languages of the UN. It is spoken by 920 million people as a 1st language and 200 million as a 2nd language.
Travel, Culture, History and Economy
China is a huge country located in Eastern Asia. It borders 14 nations and is around the same size as the United States of America. It has the world’s largest population at around 1.4 billion.
The world’s oldest continuous civilisation offers visitors something of a unique mix of troubled history, complex culture and contemporary technology. Visitors can expect huge mega cities, temple-topped mountains retreats, long forgotten villages, cutting edge public transport, and mix of different peoples and ethnicities.
The Chinese economy is now the largest in the world measured by GDP PPP. The major cities include Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. China is now a world leader in a number of fields within manufacturing, medicine, technology and finance. The country regulary posts GDP growth figures of around 6%.
Taiwan is an island country located in East Asia, off the coast of southwest of Japan, south east of mainland China and north of the Philippines.
Taiwan is actually governed by the Republic of China since 1945 when Chang Hai Shek abandoned the nationalists fight with the communists on the mainland. The country has more than 23 million people, and has a largest high tech developed economy.
The island of Taiwan is covered in rocky mountains and lush forests. The capital city Taipei has a fascinating culture, entertainment, cuisine contemporary clubs and bars and a uniquely energetic feel to it.
The economy has been struggling lately in large part due to competition from other economies in the area including China, Japan and South Korea.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Mandarin Chinese.
They rate Burmese as a category 5 language along with languages like Arabic, Japanese and Korean. They believe it would take 88 weeks (2200 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.
In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Mandarin Chinese.
- Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
- italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
- lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.