As the language with the largest number of speakers, and spoken in an important trading area, learning Chinese (Mandarin) may prove invaluable for both business and social reasons. However, many Westerners believe it to be one of the hardest languages to learn. But how true is that statement?
Learning Chinese – Why is it Difficult?
In the Western world, learning Chinese (Mandarin) is infamously hard for several reasons. Firstly, it is a language with tones, and using the wrong one can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For instance, you might think that you are asking for the bill when you are in fact asking to buy eggs.
Then there are characters, which, unlike the European alphabets, are an unphonetic script with a specific stroke order. Finally, the language has linguistically nearly nothing in common with the European languages.
For instance, you might think that you are asking for the bill, when you are in fact asking to buy eggs
However, there are many elements to the language that make it, from a logical point of view, simple – even if hard because Westerners are not used to these particular features.
What is perceived as “hard” in a language?
What makes a language difficult to learn in the first place? You might say it depends on your mother tongue, which is a perfectly fair point. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has categorised a number of more commonly taught languages into five groups, based on how big the cultural and/or linguistic differences are in comparison to English.
The bigger these differences, the more hours an English speaker would need to master the language. For instance, as Mandarin Chinese has little in common with English, it is categorised as “exceptionally difficult” by the FSI.
As Mandarin Chinese has little in common with English, it is categorised as “exceptionally difficult” by the FSI
But what if we were to ignore the mother tongue? Could we then speak of an objectively “difficult” language? Even though linguists are yet to come up with a black-and-white answer, it is worth considering factors that may influence a language’s complexity.
Many language learners tend to think that they have to master two things to be fluent: vocabulary and grammar. However, these two terms are extremely broad, and fail to take many other important elements of a language into account, such as word length or whether the language is phonetic or not.
How can vocabulary be less complex?
When the language that you are learning is from the same language family as your native tongue, the vocabulary will have similarities too, which makes the new language feel much more accessible. How else can the difficulty of vocabulary be judged? And can we objectively speak of “complex” vocabulary – without comparing it to another language?
Can we objectively speak of “complex” vocabulary – without comparing it to another language?
Breaking down the vocabulary into chunks can give a little more insight into how logical a language may be. English, for instance, has many words of Ancient Greek or Latin origin. As a consequence, if you were to come across the words “perfume” or “pneumonia” for the first time, you would be required to look them up, unless you happened to know Italian, French, or Greek.
On the other hand, in Mandarin Chinese, the meaning of these two words are literally “fragrant water” and “lung infection” when broken down into their basic components. Assuming that you were already familiar with these components, you could reasonably guess what the compounds meant, despite having never come across them before.
What about learning Chinese characters?
But how does one become more familiar with these components in the first place? Though pinyin is used as the official Romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese, and essentially works as a completely phonetic alphabet, it is still problematic for learners.
It is an effective tool for making the spoken language more accessible, but in itself isn’t enough to gain access to the genuine content that the natives use themselves – as this is primarily available in Chinese characters only. And to the average Westerner, that unphonetic script is unlike anything they have encountered before, and incredibly challenging.
Each character started out as a written and consistent form of depicting a certain object or concept, and over time evolved to the way we know them today
However, it is important to realise that Chinese characters are logograms, which means that each character tells its own story, as they represent meaning rather than sound. Each character started out as a written and consistent form of depicting a certain object or concept, and over time evolved to the way we know them today.
Consider the first three numerals in Mandarin Chinese, or “concave” and “convex” – could you have guessed the meaning of these without having any prior knowledge of the language?
By grouping characters, or vocabulary building blocks, you get a similar effect as “fragrant water” for perfume or “lung infection” for pneumonia.
Characters might also be combined, by either repeating the same character, such as in the image below or taking multiple different characters and merging them.
By taking a base character, and adding new parts to it, more complex characters can be created. However, the reader can tell which base characters were used to create this more complex one and assuming that they already know what these individual parts are, they can also guess what the final result is likely to mean – a feature that is typical of the language.
Mandarin Chinese also has remarkably straightforward grammar. Unlike e.g. German or Russian, Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have conjugations nor cases – significantly reducing the burden of having to memorise endless tables that we are all familiar with from our school days.
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have conjugations nor cases – significantly reducing the burden of having to memorise endless tables that we are all familiar with from our school days
Instead, it has a strict word order, which in fact will make the beginning stages of reading and listening slightly easier. Another great advantage of Mandarin Chinese is its lack of exceptions – the language is remarkably regular.
But what about the tones?
Perhaps seen as the trickiest feature of all to master, the four tones that learners stumble over can make all the difference between being understood or embarrassing yourself. Though it is certainly true that tonal languages are rarely found in Europe, this doesn’t mean that non-tonal languages don’t have tones at all.
The four tones that learners stumble over can make all the difference between being understood or embarrassing yourself
However, these kinds of tones do not change the lexical meaning of words. Instead, the entire sentence may be affected, changing e.g. a statement into a question, or implying that the speaker is being sarcastic.
Realising that you already have the ability to use tones in your mother tongue, even if unconsciously, is a first step towards making Mandarin Chinese seem a lot less difficult. It is just a matter of training yourself of being able to instinctively use the correct tone at the right moment – which is still challenging enough, but it shouldn’t be seen as a feature that makes the language more complex.
As tones result in an additional way of forming lexical contrasts, there is no need for any particularly long words
This is particularly the case, when you think about the connection between tones and word length – as tones result in an additional way of forming lexical contrasts, there is no need for any particularly long words. Consequently, syllables in Mandarin Chinese consist of usually two, and possibly three distinct sounds. On top of that, it is extremely rare to find any words that have more than three syllables (or characters).
So, learning Chinese – difficult?
At the end of the day, any language has their own challenges, which come with different rewards. If you are tackling a language with many cases, the word order will be flexible. If you are working with an unphonetic script, the logograms will help you on your way when it comes to meaning. If the language is tonal, you will be faced with a shorter word length.
At the end of the day, any language has their own challenges, which come with different rewards
Due to the logical nature of the Mandarin Chinese vocabulary, and the depicting function of Chinese characters, word-guessing is more likely to be accurate.
On top of that, once you have reached a certain base vocabulary, this logic will make the retention of new words easier, enabling a rapid growth of vocabulary. Having said that, if you are learning Chinese as your first Asian language, you are effectively starting from scratch, as your previously learnt languages won’t offer you any base to hold on to.
So, is learning Chinese (Mandarin) difficult? For a Westerner, probably yes, as it has so many features that are unheard of in the European languages. However, is it a complex language? Not particularly, and with the right support and a strong foundation, you can improve rapidly.