Many people are afraid of Mandarin Chinese and in many cases, I totally understand where their fear is coming from. Thousands of characters, tones and a different grammatical system? Heck, there are even Chinese characters for numbers! Seems impossible, right? Wrong! Today, I’m going to explain to all of you why Mandarin Chinese actually isn’t as hard as you think it is. I want to reiterate the fact the this article will be about Mandarin Chinese specifically. There’s are tons of other languages that are spoken in China that all get lumped under the same “Chinese” Umbrella. I only really have experience with Mandarin, so that’s the only Chinese language that I can really speak for.
I have a love hate relationship with Chinese. I started learning it back in 2011 when I was still in high school. I was very motivated, but scared just like a lot of you probably are right now. A lot of my fears stemmed from ignorance rather than facts. Let’s call this phenomenon “Learn-Chinese-o-Phobia”. The things that personally scared me the most when I was starting out were the “Millions” of characters that each had “like 10 meanings, bro!”, The tones and specifically how one word apparently meant horse and one was apparently a grave insult to the listener’s mother if pronounced with incorrect intonation. The third thing that scared me (as a mildly seasoned language learner) at the time was the fact that it was a different language family because I thought that it would take forever to learn words from a new language family. I was terrified! How on earth would I get past all these obstacles? It honestly seemed near impossible until the day I found myself speaking, thinking and dreaming in Chinese about a year later. How was all of this possible if it was impossible to learn Chinese? How was I able to accomplish this without the “Language gift” that so many people talk about? Let’s start with the tones
The hundreds of evil tones
The common consensus is that there are 4 tones in Mandarin Chinese. I know you’ve probably heard that there are more than 15 or 20 (depending on who you ask) or some other outrageous number, but there are only 4.
The first tone is a high pitched tone
The second tone is a low, rising tone
The third tone is falling and then rising tone
The fourth tone is just a falling tone
See? They’re not that bad. We actually use intonation in English too when we ask questions, get angry, use sarcasm and in many other situations. Tones are how we differentiate between 吗,妈,嘛, and 马 . They’re all variations of “Ma”. As I mentioned above, one of my biggest fears was that I’d accidentally insult somebody’s mother by using the wrong intonation. My other fear was that nobody would understand me… but insulting people and their families normally results in more dire consequences. The good news is that Chinese people can actually understand people even when they use incorrect intonation. If they weren’t able to do this then Chinese music wouldn’t exist because if they all sang with correct intonation 100% of the time, the music would sound dull or just like somebody talking over a beat. Although incorrect intonation makes it harder for Chinese speakers to understand people, they rely on context more than intonation alone.
“Bro, Chinese literally has a million characters.”
I’m not going to lie, Chinese does have a lot of characters. There’s no denying that, but you don’t have to learn as many as you think and they’re not as complicated as you think either. Most Chinese speakers in mainland China used simplified Chinese characters (Also locally known as 简体字) whereas people in Taiwan use traditional Chinese characters (locally known as 繁體字). Chinese characters may seem mind numbingly complex at first glance, but they’re actually not. Many characters that seem very complex are actually more or less just several less complicated characters clumped together. This is not true for ALL characters, but it IS true for a great deal of them. The example that I remember learning in Chinese class was how the word child (子 “zi” Third tone) and the word woman (女 “nü” Third tone) come together to create the character for the word good ( 好 “hao” Third tone) because a woman with a child was viewed as good in ancient China.
Learning to read and recognize characters is a lot easier than learning to write them and I think that’s all the average person really needs nowadays because we’re moving farther and farther away from paper and rely more and more on computers. I hardly ever write Chinese anymore, personally. I only really type it nowadays. I used to write it a lot when I first started learning in order to learn the stroke orders (Which are surprisingly very important) and also because I found that I could remember the characters a lot better if I was also able to write them.
I’m not going to lie, I did really struggle a the begging when I first started learning Chinese characters, but it was mainly because I didn’t really know how to go about it back then. I discovered a website called memrise.com and started using their spaced repetition system to learn the characters a lot faster. Using Memrise to learn individual characters and then lingq.com to see them in context really sped up my learning and I recommend both of them to all of you. Memrise was free back when I used it, but I think you may have to pay for it now unfortunately.
The Chinese writing system is also actually very aesthetically pleasing once you really get into it. Especially if you choose to learn the traditional characters! I also have good news! You don’t even have to learn the characters if you don’t want to! When people in mainland China type in Chinese, they generally use a system called Pinyin. Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet to transcribe the sounds of Chinese characters. I’ve met a few learners who skipped the characters completely and just use pinyin when they read and write. I personally struggle without the characters because although I can easily extract the sound from Pinyin, I struggle to extract the meaning without the characters being present. That being said, I still recommend learning the characters, but if you choose the Pinyin only route, it will probably take less than an hour to feel comfortable with it.
The scary Chinese grammar!
Grammar, grammar, grammar… Don’t you love grammar? No? Well you’ve chosen the right language. Chinese grammar is in many ways very straight forward and simple. I don’t recall being taught about very many exceptions by my Chinese teacher either. I still do make a lot of mistakes when I use Chinese, but the initial grammatical learning curve was a lot shorter than languages such as French and German.
In Chinese you say
我吃饭 (I eat food)
If you want express that something is a current ongoing action, you add “在”(Zai, fourth tone) after the personal pronoun. So 我“在”吃饭= I’m eating instead of just “I eat in general”
If you want to say “I ate food yesterday” you just add the word “yesterday” and the participle “le”（了）which indicates that something has already happened.
我昨天吃饭了(I yesterday eat food “past participle)
吃饭= Eat food
了=Past participle indicating that something has already happened
If you want to say that you will eat food tomorrow, you add the character 会 “Hui” and tomorrow
我明天会吃饭(I tomorrow will eat food)
会= ‘Will“ in this context
Seems pretty easy, right? It gets better! Pronouns in Chinese are straight forward too
我-Wo (Third tone)= I
你-Ni （Third tone)= you
他，她，它- Ta (First tone for all of them)=He, She and It respectively
我们-Wo men (Third followed by neutral tone)= “I plural” aka “We”
你们-Ni men( Third followed by neutral tone) = “You plural” aka “Y’all”
他们，她们，它们 ta men (First followed by neutral tone)= “He plural”, “she plural” or “it plural” aka “they”.
Chinese grammar is still a challenge, don’t get me wrong. I’ve only scratched the surface here, but it’s actually a lot easier than you think. Verbs also don’t need to be conjugated in Mandarin Chinese either, so if you know the pronoun and the verb you want to use, you’re set!
Numbers in Chinese are very simple and some studies show that Chinese speaking children get a grasp on numbers faster than non-Chinese speaking children because of their simple numeric system. Speakers of other languages eventually catch up, but this is still an interesting linguistic phenomenon to say the least!
一 (Yi, but pronounced like the e in Key. First tone)
二 (Er, but pronounced like “are”. Fourth tone
三 (San, pronounced like the “San” in San Francisco. First tone
四 (si, I couldn’t think of a good example for this one. It’s similar to the sound of a snake hissing maybe? It’s fourth tone anyway.
五 (wu, but pronounced like the “oo” in stool. Third tone
六 (liu, but pronounced kind of like the name Leo. Fourth tone
七 (qi, but pronounced almost like the chi in Tai chi. First tone
八 (Ba… just think of a singing sheep that wants to hit the high note.. or the “Ba” in babel. First tone
九 (jiu, but pronounced like the name Joe. Third tone
十 (shi, but pronounced like the word “sure” when it’s being used to ask a question. Think of how “sure” sounds in the sentence “Are you sure?”. Second tone.
If you know the numbers 1-10 in Chinese, then you can instantly count to 99. While other languages use several different words for numbers (i.e Twenty, thirty, forty in English), Chinese uses a sort of “ten” system. 十一 means 11, but literally translates to Ten-One. 十五 means 15, but literally translates to Ten-five. 25 in Chinese is 二十五 (literally Two-Ten-five). 36 is Chinese is 三十六(literally Three-Ten-six). This is how you count all the way to 99 which is 九十九(literally Nine-ten-nine). After 100, you just need to add the Chinese word for 100 (百“bai”, but pronounced like “buy” and is Third tone) and the pattern continues on. This gives you a huge head start when you start learning to count in Chinese!
Alright, so as you can see, I’ve spent most of this article talking about how easy Chinese is, but there’s always a catch isn’t there? Well kind of! Although Chinese is way easier than you think it is, it still will have a steep initial learning curve if you’re coming from non-tonal language families. English is my first language, so learning a language that was completely different was difficult because I couldn’t rely on common words and cognates ( Words that share the same linguistic derivation) to get by. If you know the word for water Spanish, it’s easier to learn and remember the Italian, Catalan or Portuguese versions. That wasn’t the case with Chinese. As a Second language learner of Spanish and a native speaker of English, I had a huge head start when it came to learning Italian and Catalan because they’re from the same family as Spanish and also share a few commonalities with English. I felt like I was starting from square one with Chinese. All this did however, was slow me down a little bit at the beginning, but once I’d gotten my bearings, it got a lot easier. Spanish, on the other hand, started off easy and then got very complicated whereas the initial learning curve for Chinese was very steep, but once I was over the initial hump, it was smoother sailing from that point on… unless of course you decide to get into Chinese idioms（成语）, but thats a story for another day.
See? Learning Mandarin Chinese isn’t actually as hard as it seems. It does have a few difficult aspects, but most of them are blown out of proportion or exaggerated. Learning Chinese is very useful and bridges cultural barriers. I’ve met a lot of Chinese travellers and students that struggled with English and from my experience, they’ve generally been very happy and relieved to know that I took the time to learn their language. I remember meeting my friend’s landlord a couple years back. He’d lived in Canada for more than 15 years when I met him, but still couldn’t speak English. He panicked when I greeted him in English, but looked so relieved and shocked when I noticed he was struggling and switched to Mandarin. He was even happier when I tried a few of the Cantonese phrases that I knew. People really appreciate others taking the time to learn more about their cultures and languages.**Ps this is not saying that all Chinese speakers are bad at English, please don’t misunderstand**Anyway, China is becoming a bigger and bigger player in the global market, so the language could also help you in business as well. I personally learned it solely for fun and out of interest and have no regrets!
So are you feeling empowered yet? Head over to the library or book store and get yourself some Chinese materials and start learning! It’s waaaaaaay easier than you think!
I apologize for any incorrect examples in this post. Chinese is not my first language!