Why Mandarin is Not “Hard”

After going home for my winter break, I’m back in Shanghai! I’m meeting some of the new study abroad students, who have varying experience in Mandarin. Among the learners, I hear a lot of concerns about learning Mandarin, which is not that uncommon.

Mandarin, for a variety reasons, has a reputation as a difficult language to learn. The Foreign Service Institute at the US Department of State lists Mandarin (along with Cantonese) as a Category V language. It is described as “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”, requiring 88 weeks or 2200 hours to learn.

The tones in Mandarin are usually what throw people off. That said, I think tones are fairly easy to teach, especially with the aid of pitch charts (see right). I realize that some may find Mandarin easier because of personal aptitude, but I’m not convinced that talent entirely accounts for one’s ability to learn a language.

There are many homophones in Mandarin, which can cause confusion for a learner. However, in my experience, context can often help determine what you mean to say even if your pronunciation was off. For example, the words 腳 and 角 are both pronounced jiăo, but the first means “foot”, and the other means “angle” or “horn”. Realistically, there are few instances where the use of these words could be interchangeable and still make sense.

The real issue in Mandarin has less to do with the language, and more with the way it is taught. In my classes in Shanghai, the radicals of characters are emphasized more for learning new words. Radicals are the basic building blocks  of Chinese characters. In the United States, I find that Mandarin learners are often unaware of the logic and structure of Chinese characters. They’re expected memorize a list of characters and that’s supposed to be the bare minimum. In reality, you need to be able to at least guess at unfamiliar words, through reading and listening to conversations. Because this ability only comes with practice, it requires active commitment to learning the language.

Mandarin itself is not difficult to speak once you’ve learned pronunciation and tones, since the grammar is quite straightforward. The primary difference between most languages in the West and Mandarin (and to some extent Korean and Japanese), is that the grammatical structures center entirely on sentence coordination. Because there are no verb conjugations or noun declensions, Mandarin grammar is mostly about the way you construct a thought, rather than the individual words.

Learning the turns of phrase to express complex thoughts is what can be truly challenging, but only because there are so many nuances and things that you can say. Having a functional, conversational command of the language is not the hard part. Reaching advanced levels of fluency is where one encounters difficulties, but that’s not unique to Mandarin.

In short, I don’t believe that Mandarin has to be as difficult as it’s made out to be. It is the system of teaching that often gets in the way of learning Mandarin effectively, and I think that if we change the way we approach Mandarin and other languages, we’ll find that they’re easier to learn.

Some useful links and apps for learning Mandarin:

All Set Learning (pronunciation, grammar)
Tone Pairs with Yoyo Chinese (tone pairs and tone sandhi)
Pleco Chinese-English Dictionary (has Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations + traditional characters + example sentences); available on the Apple and Android app stores