Mandarin Chinese is often described as a difficult language, sometimes one of the most difficult ones. This is not hard to understand. There are thousands of characters and strange tones! It must surely be impossible to learn for an adult foreigner!
You can learn Mandarin Chinese
That's nonsense of course. Naturally, if you're aiming for a very high level, it will take time, but I have met many learners who have studied for just a few months (albeit very diligently), and have been able to converse rather freely in Mandarin after that time. Continue such a project for a year and you will probably reach what most people would call fluent. So definitely not impossible.
How difficult a language is depends on many things, but your attitude is certainly one of them and it's also the easiest one to influence. You stand little chance of changing the Chinese writing system, but you can change your attitude towards it. In this article, I'm going to show you certain aspects of the Chinese language and explain why they make learning a lot easier than you might think.
How difficult is it to learn Mandarin Chinese?
Of course, there are also things that make learning Chinese harder than you think (or perhaps as hard), sometimes even the same things from different angles or on different proficiency levels. That, however, is not the focus of this article. This article focuses on the easy things and is meant to encourage you. For a more pessimistic outlook, I've written a twin article with the title: Why Mandarin Chinese is harder than you think. If you already study Chinese and want to know why it's not always easy, perhaps that article will provide some insights, but below, I will focus on the easy things.
Difficult or easy for whom? With what goal?
Before we talk about specific factors that make learning Mandarin easier than you might think, I'm going to make some assumptions. You are a native speaker of English or some other non-tonal language not related to Chinese at all (which would be most languages in the west). You might not have learnt any other foreign language, or perhaps you've studied one in school.
If your native language is related to Chinese or is influenced by it (such as Japanese, which largely uses the same characters), learning Chinese will become even easier, but what I say below will be true in any case. Coming from other tonal languages makes it easier to understand what tones are, but it's not always easier to learn them in Mandarin (different tones). I discuss the downsides of learning a language completely unrelated to your native language in the other article.
Furthermore, I'm talking about aiming for a basic level of conversational fluency where you can talk about everyday topics you're familiar with and understand what people say about these things if targeted at you.
Approaching advanced or even near-native levels requires a whole new level of commitment and other factors play a bigger role. Including the written language also adds another dimension.
Why Mandarin Chinese is easier than you think
Without further ado, let's get into the list:
- No verb conjugations - Partly because of bad teaching practice, many people associate second language learning with endless verb conjugations. When you learn Spanish or French and care about being accurate, you need to remember how the verb changes with the subject. We have this in English too, but it's much easier. We doesn't say we has. In Chinese, there are no verb inflections at all. There are some particles that change the function of verbs, but there are certainly no long lists of verb forms you need to memorise. If you know how to say 看 (kàn) "look", you can use it for any person referring to any period of time and it will still look the same. Easy!
- No grammatical cases - In English, we make a difference between how pronouns are handled depending on if they are the subject or the object of a sentence. We say "he talks to her"; "him talks to she" is wrong. In some other languages, you need to keep track of different objects and sometimes also not only for pronouns, but for nouns as well. None of that in Chinese! 我 (wǒ) "I, me" is used in any situation referring to myself in any way. The only exception would be plural "we", which has an extra suffix. Easy!
- Flexible parts of speech - When learning most languages other than Chinese, you need to remember different forms of the words depending on what part of speech they belong to. For example, in English we say "ice" (noun), "icy" (adjective) and "to ice (over)/freeze" (verb). These look different. In Chinese, though, these could all be represented by one single verb 冰 (bīng), which incorporates the meaning of all three. You don't know which one it is unless you know the context. This means that speaking and writing becomes much easier since you don't need to remember so many different forms. Easy!
- No gender - When you learn French, you need to remember if each noun is meant to be "le" or "la"; when learning German, you have "der", "die" and "das". Chinese has no (grammatical) gender. In spoken Mandarin, you don't even need to make a difference between "he", "she" and "it" because they are all pronounced the same. Easy!
- Relatively easy word order - Word order in Chinese can be very tricky, but this mostly becomes apparent at more advanced levels. As a beginner, there are a few patterns you need to learn, and once you've done that, you can just fill in the words you've learnt and people will be able to understand. Even if you mix things up, people will usually still understand, provided that the message you want to convey is relatively simple. It helps that the basic word order is the same as in English, i.e. Subject-Verb-Object (I love you). Easy!
- Logical number system - Some languages have really bizarre ways of counting. In French, 99 is said as "4 20 19", in Danish 70 is "half fourth", but 90 is "half fifth". Chinese is really simple. 11 is "10 1", 250 is "2 100 5 10" and 9490 is "9 1000 400 9 10". Numbers do get a little bit harder above that because a new word is used for every four zeroes, not every three as in English, but it's still not hard to learn to count. Easy!
- Logic character and word creation - When you learn words in European languages, you can sometimes see the word roots if you're good at Greek or Latin, but if you take a random sentence (such as this one), you can't really expect to understand how each word is constructed. In Chinese, you actually can do that. This has some significant advantages. Let's look at a few examples of advanced vocabulary that are really easy to learn in Chinese but very hard in English. "Leukemia" in Chinese is 血癌 "blood cancer". "Affricate" is 塞擦音 "stop friction sound" (this refers to sounds like "ch" in "church", which has a stop (a "t" sound), then friction (the "sh" sound)). If you didn't know what these words meant in English, you probably do now after looking at a literal translation of the Chinese words! These are not exceptions in Chinese, this is the norm. Easy!
These are just some of the more obvious reasons that reaching a basic level in Chinese is not as difficult as you think. Another reason is that Chinese is much more "hackable" than any other language I've learnt.
The difficult parts are easier to hack
What do I mean by this? "Hacking" in this case means understanding how the language works and using that knowledge to create smart ways of learning (this is what my website Hacking Chinese is about).
This is especially true for the writing system. If you approach learning Chinese characters like you would learning words in French, the task is daunting. Sure, French words do have prefixes, suffixes and so on and if your Latin and Greek are up to par, you might be able to use this knowledge to your advantage and be able to understand how modern words are created.
For the average learner, however, that's not possible. It's also the case that many words in French (or English or many other modern languages) can't be broken down or understood without doing serious research into etymology first. You can of course break them down yourself in ways that make sense to you.
In Chinese, however, you don't need to do that! The reason is that one Chinese syllable corresponds to one Chinese character. That gives very little room for change, meaning that while words in English can gradually lose their spelling and morph over the centuries, Chinese characters are much more permanent. They do of course change, but not that much. It also means that the parts that make up the characters are in most cases still present and can be understood on their own, thus making understanding a lot easier.
What all this boils down to is that learning Chinese needn't be all that hard. Yes, reaching an advanced level takes a lot of time and effort, but getting to basic conversational fluency is within reach for all those who really want it. Will it take longer than reaching the same level in Spanish? Probably, but not that much if we only talk about the spoken language.