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

3 Things to Do When Getting Started with Mandarin Chinese

So recently, I began learning Mandarin Chinese, knowing full well that it would be a challenging language to learn. I was less worried about my ability to speak (as arrogant as that sounds), and more about my ability to read and write. To be perfectly honest, the hard part of Mandarin, and I suppose Cantonese and Japanese as well, is reading and writing the language, as there’s a point where you can remember words in speech more easily than in text. With thousands of characters with unique meanings and overlapping pronunciations, Mandarin is truly a beast of its own caliber. However, there are a few things I’ve found helpful to making headway into the language. As you read this article, I’m assuming you know a few basic things about Mandarin.

1. Learn tones in pairs as they are spoken in speech.

I can’t stress this enough as it threw off my pronunciation for an entire month until I realized what I was doing wrong. Knowing the tones in isolation is somewhat helpful, but it is much better to learn them in pairs, as this is the most basic level at which tones change. The reason I say in speech is because of the third tone specifically. The third tone is NOT a falling-rising (“bouncing”) tone as many textbooks and online sources will tell you. Most of the time, anyway. The third tone is actually more along the lines of a low flat tone, almost the opposite of the first tone, which is a high flat tone. The only time that the third tone is pronounced as falling-rising is in isolation and when stressed. Hacking Chinese’ explanation of the third tone is also quite helpful. There are probably regional variations in how people pronounce the tones, but standard Mandarin pronunciation is usually your best bet, unless you have your own reasons for learning a regional variety.

Yangyang Cheng’s video on tone pairs is extremely helpful (linked here). She has a lot of other videos on pronunciation and phrases as well, so be sure to take advantage of those, as well her website: https://www.yoyochinese.com/. Here’s a useful link on tone changes as well: http://www.trinity.edu/sfield/chin1501/ToneChange.html.

2. Do not learn characters by rote!

I swear, if you study the characters only one way, do not let it be rote memorization! This is an extremely bad idea as you will not only overload your brain with hundreds of characters but also you won’t be able to remember as many. Hacking Chinese has a very apt metaphor for this:

There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.

Hacking Chinese has a very good guide for getting started in learning the language in its written form. Radicals are very important, as they help you understand the components of the written language, and it helps you develop an intuition for what a new character might mean. Here’s the link to the first part of the Hacking Chinese method.

3. Get a textbook and use it.

Despite what Hacking Chinese points out about Chinese textbooks on the third tone, that is not to say that Chinese textbooks are bad at teaching the language. In fact, they provide a good source of exercises for you to work with and a place to practice your reading (this goes for most if not all languages, really). I’m currently using Modern Chinese: Learn Chinese in a Simple and Successful Way by Vivienne Zhang. My only issue with this book is that it does not actually tell you how to pronounce the tones at all. Therefore, I highly suggest going through tones somewhere before purchasing the book, as otherwise it is pretty good for supplementary exercises and some grammar reference. I prefer most online Chinese grammar sources personally, and two of the most useful ones I’ve found are Chinese Grammar Wiki and Chinese Grammar Boost.