Learning a new language is never a walk in the park. It’s especially so if your target language is Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese is often seen as one of the most difficult languages to master. This is true in some ways since Chinese is very different from English with a unique logographic writing system, tones, etc.
However, learning Mandarin Chinese may not be as difficult or bad as you think. We understand why most people think it’s a hard language to learn. But in fact, some parts in Mandarin Chinese may be easier to pick up, especially if you speak English.
In this post, we look at 8 solid reasons why Mandarin Chinese isn’t as hard as you may think. Hopefully, it will help ease your fears and encourage you to learn Chinese.
Let’s get started!
There’s a Romanized Version of Mandarin Chinese
One of the biggest fears many people have with Mandarin Chinese is the writing system.
First of all, it looks alien. Everything looks squarish. The characters are full of odd strokes here and there, and everything looks super hard to write.
This may be true since Mandarin Chinese is one of the few examples of a logographic writing system. Some other examples include Japanese Kanji and Korean Hanja. In this writing system, you create a logo or symbol to represent meaning.
This differs greatly from other writing systems, such as alphabetic or Abugida. These writing systems are easier since they use letters or characters. Then, you string them together to form a word.
These writing systems allow you to spell the words out, but not Mandarin Chinese. You need to remember the character pictorially in your head. If you don’t, you cannot write it.
But what if there’s an easier alternative? In comes the Hanyu Pinyin.
Hanyu Pinyin is the official romanization system of Mandarin Chinese, aka the “alphabet”. It uses the Latin alphabet indicate the pronunciation of Chinese characters. There are 5 special marks to indicate the tone of the word as well.
While Pinyin cannot replace Chinese characters, it is widely used in teaching Chinese, typing in Chinese, and looking up Chinese words in dictionaries. It’s the first step of your Chinese learning journey.
You Always Pronounce The Words The Way They Are Spelt
In some languages, the pronunciation and the spelling can be illogical. For example, in English, there are odd rules where you do not pronounce the ‘Silent H,’ such as Honest or Hour.
Many imported words in English makes its pronunciation inconsistent. For example, restaurant and voyage takes the French pronunciation, and kindergarten is pronounced with a ‘d’ sound rather than a ‘t.’
These odd pronunciation rules can be very confusing to learners. Many also make mistakes when speaking.
However, things are much more consistent with Mandarin Chinese in the spelling department. You always pronounce the words the way they are spelled (in Pinyin).
Hanyu Pinyin gives a clear romanized pronunciation guide for every Chinese character. There are also markings to indicate which tones to use. That’s pretty much it. There are no other odd rules.
This makes learning how to pronounce Mandarin Chinese easier and gives you confidence. If you can read Hanyu Pinyin well, you will not be caught off-guard by some weird pronunciation rules.
There’s Simplified Mandarin Chinese Script
The Mandarin Chinese writing system comes in two major types, traditional and simplified. The traditional script is much more complicated and may be harder to learn and write. It is used mostly today in places such as Hong Kong or Taiwan.
However, in 1956, the Mainland Chinese government introduced a simplified Chinese script. The simplified script greatly reduced strokes in traditional Chinese, which helps to simplify writing.
For example, here is a sentence written in both Mandarin and Traditional Chinese. As you can see, the word 几how much and 岁 age are much more complex in Traditional Chinese, despite with no change in pronunciation.
- 你几岁了？（How old are you in Mandarin Chinese）
- 你幾歲了？（How old are you in Traditional Chinese）
The invention of simplified Chinese has made Chinese language much easier to write than before, It has also greatly improved China’s literacy rate. It also facilitates foreigners to learn Chinese.
In fact, simplified Chinese script is the most popular writing script in Chinese. Unless you only learn Chinese to go to Taiwan, you can ignore the traditional script and focus on simplified Chinese instead.
Similar Word Order To English
When learning languages, grammar is a key aspect. Generally, the more similar the target language’s grammar is to yours, the easier it will be for you to learn it.
If you dig deeper into Chinese grammar, you can actually notice some similarities between Chinese and English. For example: word order or sentence structure.
Word order is how a language strings together words to form a sentence. Linguists mainly look at three elements – subject, verb, and object.
Many world languages, including English, use the subject-verb-object (SVO) pattern. Take, for example, the sentence:
Johnny (Subject) Cooks (Verb) Chicken (Object)
What about Mandarin Chinese? It uses the SVO word order as well.
他(Subject) 炒(Verb) 鸡(Object)。
The similarity in word order should help you learn Mandarin Chinese a lot easier. Since the sentence structure is rather similar to English, you can form sentences without thinking much. In many cases, you can simply trust your instinct and do not need to scratch your head to rethink your grammar.
No Grammatical Gender
If you have learned European languages like French, German, or Russian, you must know that gender can be a real headache in language learning, especially in the early stages.
English nouns do not have gender. And so does Chinese! You don’t need to spend time classifying nouns and worrying about their gender. That can save you a lot of time and effort.
Apart from grammatical gender, Mandarin also has few gender forms for words. For example, waiter and waitress, actor and actress are the same in Chinese. Pretty easy, right?
Even the third-person pronouns 他 he and 她 she have the same pronunciation in Chinese (tā). So at least in spoken Chinese, you don’t need to worry about whether you are talking about a male or female. In recent years, TA is also used as a gender neutral pronoun in written Chinese.
Verb conjugations could be a nightmare for many language learners, as the rules can be complex and hard to get. In fact, many learners consider conjugations and tenses a struggle to learn in English.
In many languages, verbs inflect, or conjugate according to person, gender, number, tense, case, mood, etc. For example, in English, the verb hear can take on different forms like hear, hears, hearing, and heard.
For many languages like Italian, Spanish, and Russian, verb conjugations can be a lot more complex, with 6 or more forms of conjugation.
But in Chinese, there is none. That is, no matter who did something, when they did it, and in what way, the verb always stays the same.
In Chinese, time is indicated by certain phrases or words instead. For example, rather than adding an ‘ed’ the verb, you add a modifier ‘了’ (le) to indicate past tense.
- He cleaned the room.
This makes learning Chinese grammar a much easier experience for many learners. There is no large conjugation tables to scare you off. Once you learned a verb, it’s yours and you know how to use it.
Easy To Find Resources
Mandarin Chinese is one of the most spoken languages in the world, with more than 1 billion native speakers. It’s not only spoken in China, but also in many Southeast Asian countries likeSingapore and Malaysia.
Mandarin is also a very popular language to learn around the world. It’s widely taught in schools and universities around the world. As a result, there are a lot of high quality resources you can find online. For example, language app LingoDeer offers great beginner Mandarin courses that you can learn on the go.
If you want to test your Mandarin ability, you can also sit for proper Chinese proficiency tests, such as the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi). You may see HSK as the IELTS or TOEFL, but for Mandarin Chinese.
Thanks to the large Chinese learning community online, you can also easily find learning partners, tutors, or language exchange pals. When you have questions, it’s also easier to find answers with a simple google online.
While many people may overlook this reason, if you have tried to learn a less popular languages, you’ll see how learning a “big” language like Mandarin Chinese comes with benefits itself.
You Do Not Need A Lot Of Chinese To Start Using It
Finally, here’s one more great reason why learning Mandarin Chinese is not as hard as you think. That is: you do not need a lot of Chinese to start using it.
In total, there are more than 100,000 Chinese characters in dictionary. Native Mandarin speakers know about 8000 of them but use only 2000 to 3000 actively.
So if 3000 is our ultimate goal, how many characters do you need to know to hold conversations with native speakers?
The answer is only 100 to 200. With only 100 high frequency vocabulary in Chinese, you should be able to read and understand up to 50% of the language. You may not get everything, but you should be able to identify words here and there to understand the text.
Sounds appealing, isn’t it? If you wish to start learning these high frequency Chinese characters or expand your vocabulary, here are some HSK vocab lists you start with.
How To Get Started
Hopefully this article has eased your concerns about learning Mandarin Chinese. It is not as hard as most say, and you can be fluent in the language with some effort.
Check out LingoDeer’s Mandarin Chinese course to start your learning journey. See you there!
Dr. Nigel Ong has a Ph.D in linguistics, and is a language teacher. He speaks five languages, and is currently learning German. He blogs about language learning regularly at LanguageLearningDIY.com.