Is Mandarin Difficult?
Many people are under the belief that Mandarin is difficult. The fact is that any language is difficult if you’ve never learnt it. What’s important is whether or not Mandarin is difficult to learn. Compared to most other languages Mandarin is not difficult to learn. Here are five reasons why.
1. The Grammar is Easy
Mandarin is an almost completely inflectionless language. That means it’s easy because the words don’t change that much. For example the word eat (chī 吃) is the same regardless of whether you ate yesterday have eaten this morning, had eaten last night, or are eating right now. It’s always the same word (chī 吃).
There is no inflection for tense, but there is also no inflection for first, second and third person. So it doesn’t matter whether you are hungry, I am hungry, she is hungry, he was hungry, we were hungry or someone will be hungry, it’s all the same verb (shì 是). Although English does have some inflection for sex (he and she are both the same word in Chinese) other languages such as French have far more complicated systems of male-female inflection. Either way Chinese is the easiest of the lot, and we’ve not even mentioned subject-object inflections (he-him, she-her) or inflections for plural (this-these, that-those).
Mandarin also doesn’t really distinguish transitive and intransitive use of verbs. Anyone who has studied a bit of Japanese will know that when a language makes a strong transitive-intransitive distinction it can be very troublesome. I opened the door. The automatic door opened. The Japanese translation of these two sentences would have two different words for opened. Thankfully Mandarin doesn’t make these kind of distinctions, and so things are a lot simpler.
Mandarin rarely uses the passive and only has one conditional (Japanese and English both have four) Also, Mandarin often makes no distinction between nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs . All this means it is more difficult to make grammatical mistakes in Mandarin. I could go on listing examples of how the grammar is easy, but if I haven’t convinced you by now then I probably never will.
2. The Vocabulary is Easy
For native English speakers Chinese vocabulary is a bit of a double edged sword. Since about a quarter to a third of all English words come from French then of course French (and other European languages) are much Easier than Mandarin. There are few loanwords from English to Mandarin or Mandarin to English, so when you start out learning Mandarin it is difficult.
However, the lack of loanwords makes Chinese vocabulary extremely easy when you get to an intermediate level. Someone studying English at an advanced level will have to get to grips with lots of vocabulary of Latin, Greek, or French origin (and a lot of other languages too) but advanced Mandarin vocabulary usually just consists of combinations of simpler Mandarin words that you have already learnt.
For example an aeroplane is a “fly machine” a camera is a “photo machine” and a photocopier is a “print again machine”. Once you get to an intermediate level in Chinese then you can usually guess what a word means even if you have never heard it before. It’s also a lot easier to guess how to say something. Imagine you’re travelling around China and you need to wash your clothes at a hostel but you don’t know the word so you ask if they have a “wash clothes machine”. Congratulations, that’s actually the word. It’s that simple.
The simplicity of Mandarin vocabulary becomes increasingly evident as you get to a higher level. One time a former colleague of mine was very ill in a Chinese hospital and when I went to visit the doctor told me that she had cirrhosis. I had no idea what cirrhosis was, so I asked in Mandarin and the word is “liver hard-ification” (肝硬化). I actually understood the Mandarin but not the English. Similarly I never learnt the Chinese word for diabetes but when I overheard reference to “sugar piss disease” (糖尿病) I knew exactly what it meant.
So although Chinese vocabulary might be a bit tricky at the start, it becomes extremely easy if you learn to an intermediate level, because there is effectively no, or at least very little, advanced vocabulary to learn.
3. The Speaking is Easy
Lots of English speakers seem to think that “the four tones” make speaking Chinese difficult. Four is not a large number, and learning four tones shouldn’t be difficult. It is no more difficult than learning the correct syllable stress in English words. In fact it might be easier. In some ways the tones in Mandarin and the syllable stress in English can be seen as two sides of the same coin. The four tones in Mandarin don’t really depend on pitch, but instead rely on direction, and so each tone sounds very different. Compared to the seven or eight tones that many other Chinese dialects have Mandarin is very easy. This is probably why it was chosen as the standard dialect.
Also, there are not too many sounds in Mandarin that cause huge problems for English speakers. By contrast most Chinese people who learn English have significant problems with certain parts of English phonology, although exactly which parts they struggle with often depends on what part of China they are from
4. The Listening is Easy
If you go the some remote rural area in the American south and start saying “I’m sorry I don’t understand your local speech, can you please speak standard English?” it probably won’t go down too well. Certainly if you go to Scotland and start telling them their dialect is non-standard and that they need to speak the Queen’s English then you’ll be looking to get your head kicked in at some point.
Fortunately Mandarin is a strictly standardised language, so when you speak to people who have a local accent they will usually do their best to drop their accent and speak to you in “standard Mandarin”. Whilst British people might be proud of their local accent Chinese people will usually see it as an embarrassment if they are unable to speak standard Mandarin. If you tell someone that their Mandarin isn’t standard they will usually be embarrassed rather than angry. In Britain primary school students don’t have pronunciation classes teaching them how to speak English with a standard pronunciation. Chinese primary school students do have such classes.
5. The Culture Makes it Easy
If you spend any time in China you’ll know Chinese people can be loud. In fact some older people seem to have no control over the volume of their own voice. Not only does this give you opportunity to practice your listening by eavesdropping on conversations on the subway or in Starbucks, it is also an indication of how Chinese people usually aren’t too shy about talking.
If you’re in Family Mart in Japan all you will usually hear from the staff are some very polite but ultimately meaningless phrases that have been rehearsed to sound almost exactly the same each time. Whether it’s with the young girl working at the Family Mart checkout, the guy sat next to you on the train, or the man driving the taxi, in China it is usually very easy to start up a conversation with people. Especially if you look foreign.
Many westerners in China will at some point complain about how impolite Chinese people are (I’ve met some very polite Chinese people but unfortunately it’s often impolite people that leave the strongest impression on expats.) In most cases Chinese people certainly aren’t over-polite, and this is beneficial when learning the language. If you talk to a Chinese person and they don’t understand they will usually be quite blunt and tell you they don’t understand, or they might re-word what you said and say it back to you in way that sounds more natural. Within a couple of weeks of first going to China I lost count of how many times I had been cut off mid-sentence because I’d said a word with the wrong tone and the person had repeated the word back to me with correct tones before I even finished what I was saying. All this pushes the language learner to constantly improve.
Obviously there are some aspects of learning Mandarin that can be difficult. If you disagree with the conclusions here, would like to share your experience or give suggestions for a “five ways Mandarin is difficult” article please leave a comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org