The difficulties involved in learning Mandarin Chinese

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Many people are put off learning Mandarin Chinese because they think it is going to be too difficult. It certainly does have its difficulties – however, they are perhaps not what a learner of any other language would expect. The good news is that a number of the difficulties come at the very beginning and, once they have been dealt with, progress can happen very quickly. Here, then, are the difficulties involved in learning Mandarin, so that you know exactly what to look for.

Alien sounds

The very first part of learning Chinese, mastering the sounds, can be fraught with all sorts of difficulties. The problem is that not all the sounds exist in English, or indeed any other language, and it can take a long time to be able to pronounce them correctly. There are also some sounds that sound quite similar – chi (pronounced like the chir in chirp) and che (pronounced as ch-errr) that can take some getting used to. This part of learning Chinese, coupled with the tones, can take several weeks to grasp.


Another common difficulty is the tones. There are four tones in all, plus a neutral one. The first tone is on a level and relatively high when spoken. The second rises, the third falls then rises and the fourth falls. The neutral tone has no emphasis. The difficulty comes because each sound has four tones and yet, when spoken independently, one sound with a particular tone can have more than one meaning. For example, ma, spoken in the first tone, can mean mother, but can also mean to wipe. Thankfully, the characters for the different meanings are also different.

No grammar as we know it

There is little in the way of grammar in the Chinese language – or at least, not in the way that we know it. There are no tenses, for example, but adverbs are used instead to express time. There are also ‘particles’, which are used to convey subtle differences and meaning. These really need some work to master and, in fact, many fluent speakers of Chinese are hard pressed to explain exactly why a particle is need in a particular sentence.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Probably because the language is unlike other languages, it involves a lot of repetition and memory work. Whereas in French, and even Japanese to a certain extent, there are a number of words that are very similar to the English version, that almost never happens in Chinese. It therefore takes that bit more work to ensure that vocabulary is ingrained in one’s mind. And because there are few grammar rules, learning key phrases again involves much more memory work.

Reading and writing characters

The one difficulty that stands out in most people’s minds is the reading and writing of Chinese characters. The problem is that there is no alphabet in Chinese and each word needs to be learned for its own meaning. This does involve a lot of work. Again, repetition is vital – writing the characters out time and time again. Even worse, some characters can be very similar to others – although the meaning is completely different.

Any potential student of Chinese should consider these factors before committing themselves. Nevertheless, don’t forget that once you are through the first few weeks, you will be amazed at the progress you have made. And then the wonderful world of Chinese culture is just that little bit more approachable.


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