Chinese Isn't That Hard To Learn (Here's How Long It Takes)
- Written byJasmine Chiam
- Read time10 mins
“How hard is it to learn Mandarin Chinese?”
One of the most common beliefs about Mandarin Chinese is that it’s difficult to learn.
It’s not surprising to see why.
The Chinese writing system utilizes characters to represent entire words, and these characters are strikingly different from phonetic scripts (alphabets).
But learning to read and write Mandarin Chinese is just one challenge.
Another unique aspect of this language is its tones, which may be completely foreign if you’re accustomed to speaking non-tonal languages like English, Spanish, or German.
Before you throw in the towel, let’s get a few facts straight.
Learning any language takes hard work and perseverance.
But having the right Mandarin resources and opportunities to practice speaking the language can really boost your progress.
Of course, Mandarin Chinese may be more difficult to pick up than other languages, but it’s not as difficult as you think.
It’s definitely possible for a new learner to pick Mandarin up, no matter their age or experience!
Today we’ll explore some of the most common challenges linked to learning Mandarin and certain features that might make the learning process easier than you think!
I’ll also include some tips on overcoming the challenges you might face while learning Chinese.
What are the most common challenges when learning Mandarin Chinese?
Certain aspects of Chinese stand out as foreign and unique, and particularly challenging.
Read on and I’ll explain each one.
Learning to recognize, read, and write Chinese characters can be one of the hardest aspects of this language.
The Chinese writing system is made up of characters and symbols.
The characters in the Chinese language are known as 汉字 (hànzì), and each represents a single syllable with its own meaning.
This may feel completely foreign if you’re accustomed to Western languages that use the alphabet.
In such languages, the alphabet consists of just 26 letters, which are used to structure and build the words in the language.
This may make it easier to recognize and pronounce different words.
However, Chinese words are represented in a completely different manner.
Chinese writing is logographic, and this means that each character represents a single unit of meaning or a short segment of speech.
Each character comprises different components, which can be mixed and matched to form various words.
We’ll cover a little more about this further below.
It’s also good to note that the Chinese writing system can be differentiated into traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.
Simplified Chinese is less complex to write than traditional Chinese and is the standard way of writing in mainland China.
Mastering different tones
For speakers of non-tonal languages, picking up a tonal language like Mandarin Chinese may pose a rather steep learning curve.
There are four main tones and one neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese.
The first tone is known as the flat tone, the second is the rising tone, the third is the dipping tone, and the fourth is the falling tone.
Each word you speak in Mandarin uses a specific tone, and changing the tone could completely change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
These tones are used to differentiate between words and are integral to learning the Chinese language.
If you’re keen on learning Mandarin Chinese, it’s crucial that you start focusing on learning and practicing these tones from the very start.
It helps to start by speaking slowly and clearly, exaggerating the tone for each word.
You can also record yourself speaking and compare it against a target model.
Getting your pronunciation right
Certain words in Mandarin Chinese are pronounced in a way that sounds foreign to English speakers.
Wrapping your head around these sounds and knowing how to pronounce them accurately can be difficult when you first start learning this language.
In Mandarin, Pinyin is a special system created to help people learn to pronounce different Chinese words.
This system utilizes the alphabet to help learners get a good idea of how to pronounce each word.
For instance, the Pinyin for the character 我, which means “I” or “me,” is wǒ.
This is an example of a straightforward pronunciation.
However, it’s best to be cautious that some Chinese pronunciations may sound different from what you would expect from the Pinyin spelling.
Take, for example, the word 轻 (qīng), which means “light,” “soft,” or “gentle.”
One mistake that new learners may make is to pronounce the “q” sound as “ch.” Though they may seem similar, the “q” sound is pronounced with the curled up higher against the ceiling of your mouth and the tip of your tongue touching the bottom teeth.
There are multitudes of video and audio resources that can help you refine your basics of Chinese pronunciation.
It’s crucial to get this right from the very start, but once you do, pronouncing Chinese characters will be a breeze!
Finding opportunities to practice
When learning Mandarin Chinese, one of the fastest and most effective ways to improve your speaking skills is to converse with people in that language.
Some learners are great at memorizing Chinese characters and remembering their Pinyin in their heads.
That’s fantastic! But since certain tones and pronunciations may be foreign to non-native speakers, it really all comes back to putting what you learn into practice and being able to speak sentences correctly out loud.
Based on your circumstances, finding people who speak or understand Mandarin may be challenging, and this could limit your opportunities to speak the language and receive feedback.
One of the best ways to overcome this barrier is to attend virtual sessions with a Mandarin tutor or use a speech-recognition app.
You can also try out platforms that connect you with native Mandarin speakers who wish to learn English, such as Tandem, where you can both take turns practicing English and Mandarin.
Why learning Mandarin is easier than you thought
Though Mandarin Chinese is thought to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, there are certain aspects of the language that are easier to pick up.
Here are some reasons why learning Mandarin Chinese can be simpler than you think.
Chinese grammar has to be one of the simplest to pick up, especially in comparison to English.
There are a few reasons why Chinese grammar is pretty easy to catch on to.
Firstly, there are no verb forms used to represent tenses in Chinese.
There are a few ways you can express the present, past, or future tense in Mandarin Chinese, but there isn’t the need to use verb forms, such as “go,” “went,” or “goes,” like you would in English.
The same goes for “state of being” verbs, such as “is,” “are,” and “am.” The same word, 是 (shì), represents these in Mandarin Chinese.
Take a look at the following examples:
Other than that, the language’s basic subject + verb + object sentence order is similar to the English language.
Take, for instance, the sentence, “I eat noodles.” This is translated to 我吃面 (wǒ chī miàn) in Mandarin Chinese, where 我 (wǒ) is the subject, 吃 (chī) is the verb, and 面 (miàn) is the noun.
Chinese grammar is quite easy to master once you’ve got the basics under your belt!
Pinyin as a pronunciation and tonal Guide
The Pinyin system was developed to boost the literacy rate in China, and to this day, it’s still used to help people learn Mandarin Chinese.
As mentioned earlier, Pinyin shows how each Chinese character should be pronounced and is the core of learning to read and recognize Chinese characters.
Many modern textbooks, guides, and learning resources utilize Pinyin to facilitate learning.
This system encompasses all the possible sounds you’ll use when speaking Mandarin and can be used to search for words you hear in a Chinese dictionary.
Many people also use Pinyin when typing characters because it’s much quicker.
All in all, Pinyin makes the Mandarin language accessible to more people, including new learners!
There are many Pinyin apps and digital charts out there that can help get you started on learning Pinyin.
It’s highly recommended that you start with an online, interactive Pinyin chart covering all the possible sounds in Mandarin Chinese.
Once these basics are covered, you’ll know how to correctly pronounce most (if not all) characters in Mandarin Chinese when given their Pinyin.
Logical structure for Chinese characters
At first, Chinese characters may look complex.
But as you dive deeper into the language, you’ll realize that the writing system is made of a finite number of components and elements mixed and matched to form different characters and words.
Chinese radicals are elements that form the base building block for Chinese characters, and they’re typically found on the leftmost or topmost of the character.
These radicals can give you a clue about the sound or meaning of the character.
One of the most commonly used Chinese radicals is called 三点水 (sān diǎn shuǐ), which literally translates to “three drops of water.” This radical represents liquid-related nouns, such as 河 (hé, river), 洗 (xǐ, to wash), and 汤 (tāng, soup).
Another example of this is the radical 女 (nǚ), which represents “woman” or “female” in Mandarin.
Examples of characters based upon this radical include 妈妈 (māmā, mom), 姐姐 (jiějiě, older sister), and 妹妹 (mèimei, younger sister).
Apart from radicals that form the basic building block for Chinese characters, you’ll also notice that individual characters can actually be combined to form a word with a new meaning.
Some of these combinations are pretty logical.
For instance, the word “airplane” is made up of two individual Chinese characters; 飞 (fēi) and 机 (jī).
飞 means “fly,” while “机” means “machine” or contraption.” You can see the logic behind this.
Another example is the character 火 (huǒ), which means “fire.” This character is used to form words such as 火车 (huǒchē, train), 火箭 (huǒjiàn, rocket), and 火山 (huǒshān, volcano).
You can see how these three items can be related to fire (or burning fuel).
As you get acquainted with Mandarin, you’ll start to see more of these patterns emerge, which makes learning simpler and more enjoyable!
Wide range of Mandarin learning resources
As Mandarin Chinese continues to grow in popularity, you can expect a vast range of Chinese courses readily available online.
This gives you the opportunity to start learning the language yourself, maybe even without spending anything.
There are so many ways to expand your knowledge of this language.
You could watch Mandarin Chinese YouTube channels or order books for language learning.
Alternatively, there are a host of interactive Chinese learning apps that gamify the learning process to make it more engaging.
How long does it take to learn Mandarin Chinese?
Different sources will give you different answers.
Learning Mandarin Chinese should take around two years, though many people tend to take 4-6 years to get good at Mandarin.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) states that it takes around 2,200 active learning hours for native English speakers to become fluent and well-versed in Category IV languages like Mandarin (or Cantonese).
Of course, how quickly you learn Mandarin Chinese depends on many individual factors.
NOTE: We’ve actually developed a free language learning calculator that can estimate your time to learn Chinese.
Some people may focus on a specific area, such as speaking the language, rather than writing or reading.
Getting a tutor and having opportunities to practice speaking the language might expedite the process, but it really all boils down to your commitment and dedication to learning Mandarin.
Mandarin Chinese is one of the harder languages to learn, but it isn’t as hard as you think
Mandarin appears completely foreign to native English speakers.
Its writing system uses characters that look completely different from the alphabet, and the key to speaking fluent Chinese lies in mastering the different tones and pronunciations.
But don’t let this stop you from learning the language.
It’s one of the most spoken languages in the world, plus the simple grammar and Pinyin system can make learning easier than you might think.
There are also tons of decent Mandarin resources out there that can help kickstart your learning process.