Learning Mandarin – How Hard Is It Really?

20 May

Learning Mandarin is not as hard as popular opinion has it. The problem is rather that is very different language, but once you get used to the differences, the task will seem much easier.

Learning Mandarin is considered to be a pretty amazing feat. People that learn to speak Chinese are few and far between, even in China’s expat communities. Popular opinion is therefore that learning to speak Mandarin is very difficult. This is not the case. Mandarin is not more difficult to learn than any other language. The complication with mandarin language studies is rather that Mandarin is very different from Germanic and Latin derivates such as English, German and Spanish, but once you get over those differences, learning Mandarin is no harder than achieving proficiency in a second European language. This point is very hard to argue from a scientific point of view, but I have learned to speak English and I have learned to speak Mandarin. In my experience of these two language, of which neither is my native tongue, which Swedish, I would not say that one is much harder than the other.

I would however not have said that during the first few months of studying Mandarin. I, like everyone else, was absolutely baffled by the language. For starters, as I had expected, the writing system was completely different. Secondly, which I had not really expected before coming to China, the spoken language was different in a very strange and fundamental way. Chinese, or more specifically Mandarin, has 5 ways of pronouncing each syllable. Right now, if you have no experience of a tonal language, you are probably scratching your head. Trust me, so was I.

To try to explain this conundrum in a simple and concise way – for example; the English word for father is comprised of 6 sound, each symbolized in written form by one letter; F, A, T, H, E and R. Chinese or Mandarin, has not got an alphabet so this way of doing things is not really an option. Instead they have pictures, composed by strokes, which are called characters. These characters have (almost) nothing to do with pronunciation. The Chinese spoken word for father is best written, with the English alphabet as baba. Now to the real kicker here: the English alphabet cannot actually capture the complexity of that word. There are two so-called tones that need to be imparted for the word to make sense in Chinese.

Baba, two syllables – ba and ba, is as far as we can go. But in Chinese this is not very far, and certainly not far enough. Just writing the syllables points the reader in the right direction but baba can actually be pronounced in 25 different ways. As I said before, each syllable can be bent in 5 ways. Neutral and 4 different pitch modulations. 5 by 5 is 25, so you can see that we are not really able to understand Chinese by understanding how English works, in the same way as we can understand German based on previous experience of a different European language.

But once we get passed this and a few other major fundamental differences we are in much more sensible territory. Chinese is super structured and very very logical in its mark up. I can often guess at a word that I have never heard, and as you may have realized before; when something is intuitive is very easy to remember. Somehow the brain’s memory banks are wired in the same way as our analysis capability. If you buy that point, great, if not don’t worry about it. Either way you can see that a language that you can guess at is pretty convenient. I remember a few months into my studies when I had gotten past the complicated weirdness and I first guessed at a word. The word was airport. I knew the words for machine, for flying and for bus station. Combined they make up the word for airport. The word airport could be pretty much anything, or at least a few things, for me, a Swedish native, when I encounter the word for the first time. Flying machine station can only be one thing. Learning mandarin is therefore not really that hard, it is just hard initially.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School that is a great option for those that want to study Mandarin in China.


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