How hard is Mandarin Chinese?

In general, Mandarin Chinese is not as difficult or impossible as you might think, but not easy to become fluent in, either.

Some reasons that Mandarin Chinese is easier than you think:

  • Pinyin is an intuitive and simple way for English speakers to learn spoken Chinese. It negates the obstacle of written Chinese
  • Verbs are not conjugated, nouns have no gender and so on…
  • Chinese vocabulary is built in a very intuitive way. For example, “computer” translates to “electricity + brain” (or simply an electric brain). Easy to remember!
  • Chinese written language, once you begin to learn it, is also intuitive and based on radicals. The stylized representations are easy to remember.
  • Many students become infatuated with Chinese culture and immerse themselves in idioms, songs, dramas and history to help supplement their language.

Overall, I think that Chinese grammar is simple, but not always easy. Here are some examples of why a Chinese learner in the intermediate stages may tell you that grammar is easy:

  • A simple Chinese sentence consists of a subject, predicate and object: “I wash my hands” in Chinese is “我 Wo (I) 洗 xi (wash) 手 shou (hands)”.
  • Chinese grammar does not give objects gender or singular/plural.
  • No verb conjugation
  • No tenses! This is the big one that learners enjoy. If you want to express when you did something, can say: I yesterday eat, I now eat, I tomorrow eat, I in future eat, I plan to eat. If only life could always be this simple!
  • No subject/object forms of pronouns (I/me, We/us). In Chinese, “We like her, she likes us” would be “We like her, her like we”.

And, here are some aspects that are difficult about Chinese grammar:

  • So many measure words in addition to the overused “个 (ge)”!
  • Words often function as verbs, nouns or both, depending on their context.
  • Spoken and written grammar in Chinese are often quite different, so reading as a past-time may not improve your speaking. If you read on your own and apply it to speaking, your language will sound odd.
  • Mixing formal and informal language together
  • Being immersed in dialects with grammar different from Mandarin can often throw learners off, particularly in the south of China.

Mandarin Chinese is difficult if you start out on the wrong foot:

Once you know why you are learning and what you need to plan for, there are a few options for how to build your foundation in Mandarin Chinese.

First, let’s list some things you should not do.

Some common mistakes people repeat when first beginning their Mandarin Chinese language learning:

  • self-study through textbooks and pre-recorded videos only
  • learning with a non-native Mandarin Chinese teacher
  • practicing Mandarin Chinese with other non-native Chinese learners
  • have a “study buddy” that isn’t qualified to teach or provide professional feedback or advice
  • being motivated by financial gain only and not by cultural and personal enrichment

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