How Easy Is It To Learn Mandarin Chinese?

28 August 2017


Hi Hank,

In my experience it is hard. But it is not impossible!

You can detach reading and writing from speaking and listening.

To learn to read Chinese characters, use the smartphone app called Memrise. There are loads of modules that can help you memorise the characters. I prefer the ones that let you aim for the official Chinese government exams called the HSK. To eventually take the HSK 1 exam (there are 6 levels) you need to memorise around 150 characters.

Typing characters isn't too hard once you install the Chinese language pack on your computer. It's also supported by Android and Apple phones. To type characters you need to learn a system called pinyin. This system is quite easy to use.

Writing characters by hand is not too difficult. However, memorising them well enough to be able to write them from memory is exceedingly difficult. You'll probably find you're unable to master this unless you start at the age of 3! Still, in this digital age being able to type the characters is a really neat party trick.

Although there are 5000+ characters, you'll find that by the time you master 500 or so you can read an awful lot of signs etc. In fact when you master just 100 characters you'll be able to recognise commonly used characters you'll see on TV or on tattooes.

As to the spoken language, well this gets more complicated. "Chinese" is not a language as such, it's a broad term for languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese. These are the two most well know languages, but there are many more! In fact most cities in China have their own particular dialect.

Most foreigners tend to learn Mandarin. It's the easiest Chinese language to pick up, and also the most widely spoken.

The good news is that many aspects of Mandarin are easier than English. There are no plurals, no tenses and no different word endings.

On the downside it is a tonal language which makes it fiendishly difficult to pronounce - even when you know the word for something. This can make it very hard indeed.

Listening is also hard. Well it is reckoned to be the hardest part of learning ANY language. To get better at listening, just listen to as much authentic material as you can.

How I got started learning Mandarin was to enrol on a Mandarin course at my local University. It's quite easy to find Mandarin courses in your local area. I have to say that my UK based teachers were far better than the teachers I had in China itself! After a few weeks of lessons I was good enough to pass the HSK 2 exam with a score of over 80%.

Find a native speaker who runs courses as it's crucial to learn how to pronounce the tones correctly.

Good luck with your language learning experiences!

29 August 2017


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