Mandarin Chinese definitely belongs among the most important emerging languages at the world stage. Its number of native speakers is by now nearing 1 billion people – one seventh of the entire planet. That, combined with China’s continued economic and political rise, have made Mandarin the language to learn for future generations.
The only thing holding Mandarin back is its reputation as being an incredibly complex and unlearnable language. Today, we’re taking a look into if that is truly the case.
A Quick Introduction to Mandarin Chinese
When people talk about Mandarin, they’re actually referring to a group of varieties of Chinese, all related to each other. Despite that, these dialects, found mostly in northern or southwestern China, are not always mutually intelligible.
Interestingly, they are still often grouped together and form the most common “language” by number of native speakers. Mandarin Chinese isn’t the only grouping of different dialects – six to twelve other groups exist in China – but Mandarin is by far the biggest of these, covering around 70% of the population. Another reason Mandarin is so influential is that this group also includes the Beijing dialect, spoken in the capital.
That is also why, when people say “Chinese”, they most often mean this particular set of colloquial varieties of a language group. But next, let’s take a look what really makes Mandarin unique. The most common answer that springs up when asking what makes Chinese so difficult, have to do with writing and speaking it.
The Writing System
On the writing front, the issue comes with the use of hànzi – Chinese characters, instead of a fixed alphabet that most western languages use. Although very foreign in this part of the world, this writing system is not unique to Chinese, since Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese have similar setups. So, by number of users, this format greatly exceeds any western alphabet.
The biggest difficulties for western learners come from the characters’ apparent abstraction. It is just something completely different to what you’re used to seeing. And, to make matters worse, there are tens of thousands of them. Although, most of these thousands only exist in old texts and have died out of everyday use.
Still, learning writing in Mandarin requires you to learn thousands of abstract characters which can only be done by memorising them. Additionally, the characters give away very little in the way they’re supposed to be pronounced.
Pronunciation Using Tones
Then, when you do finally start getting your head around how to pronounce the characters, you run into the next problem – tones. Although tonal languages are incredibly common (it is estimated that up to 70% of all languages use pitch to distinguish meaning), this is an almost unheard-of phenomenon in western languages. Using tones in a language means that words have different meanings depending on how you pronounce them.
The most famous example here is the syllable ma – depending on your pitch, it can transform itself to mean either mother, hemp, horse, or to scold.
Most of the different dialects that make up Mandarin have four tones, although a fifth, neutral (or light) tone exists as well. And they really matter. If you speak English monotonously, or place emphasis on the wrong syllable, you’re still understood without issues. With Mandarin, the tones change the meanings of words cardinally, so that you can make entire poems using one syllable in a different tone.
Why Mandarin Is Still Easy
At this point, you might be starting to think it’s impossible to ever learn Mandarin. But it’s really not all bad. Mandarin can be easy if you make it easy for yourself – language difficulty really boils down to your own motivation for learning it. And Mandarin offers up some very good incentives.
Additionally, even with its reputation as being a difficult language, Mandarin is actually not that bad.
Once you get past the initial shock of seeing a different writing system, you start to realise that most of the characters are made up of basic building blocks that can give you clues to their meaning. And you don’t even need to know that many – you can start making sense of the world around you with around 500 characters. And there are ways to make learning a lot easier.
Speaking of writing, one of the best aspects of Chinese is its incredibly simple grammar. For starters, it has no cases (already beating Hungarian). But it also doesn’t have tenses, genders, or differences for singular and plural.
And while tones do take some getting used to, it’s not that hard with enough practice. The good news is that locals will still be able to piece together what you’re trying to say from the context even if you get a tone or two wrong. The important part is to not get deterred by making a few mistakes.