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Is Mandarin Chinese hard to learn?
The popular belief is that the Mandarin language is one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers. But it’s not as hard as you think. Here are the steps that will make it easier to learn:
Table of contents
- You Don’t Need a Practical Reason to Learn Mandarin
- 1. Mandarin Tones Are Not Limiting
- 2. Use Your Favourite Medium to Learn Mandarin
- 3. Practise to Learn Mandarin More Easily
- 4. Always Learn Everything You Can
- 5. Empty Your Head. I Am Ready to Pour.
- Congratulations! You Now Know How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Effectively
If you want to learn Mandarin, don’t hold back. You just need to find the right study method to go about it. Take in from a guy who did learn Mandarin Chinese.
Before we dive into the tips I have for you, I want to remind you of something.
You Don’t Need a Practical Reason to Learn Mandarin
Spoken languages are meant to be an active dialogue between two or more people. People don't speak to each other because it's the hot language of the month, because it's advantageous for business, or because it’s the only way to stand out amongst the piles of university applications.
If you feel like learning Mandarin, let your heart feel it, embrace it, and do it.
Now let's break down learning Mandarin, shall we?
Here are the 5 ways to get started saying, “Ni hao ma?” instead of the alternative, “Sup dawg? I'm feelin' some baozi and bubble tea right now, wanna hit up Chinatown?” Though that, of course, is also useful.
1. Mandarin Tones Are Not Limiting
Mandarin Chinese is a stress-timed language. It has four tones, and their application can change the meaning of words.
The 4 tones in Mandarin are:
- Tone 1: Level Tone (ping) –> —
- Tone 2: Rising Tone (shang) –> /
- Tone 3: Departing Tone (qu) –> V
- Tone 4: Entering/Stop-Final Tone (ru) –> \
Technically, there’s also a fifth tone, the neutral tone. But because it is “neutral”, there are debates about whether or not it’s actually considered a tone.
Let me show you how this works by writing a sentence in pinyin, the official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet.
“Hi, my name is Benny. I like learning languages.” → Ni3 hao3, wo3 jiao4 Benling. Wo3 xi3 huan1 xue2 xi2 yu3 yan2.
Don't you just love how that worked out?
If you’re still unsure, I understand. Tones might look new and scary. But Cantonese Chinese, a syllable-timed language, has six tones. Vietnamese has six tones in the North, and depending on other regions, it might have just five. The Jul-hoan language of Africa has some 30 click consonants.
Have some faith in yourself! Even if you completely mess up, the locals will probably be able to understand bits and pieces of your jumbled Mandarin. Have a good sense of humour and take it easy on yourself when you do make mistakes.
If you’ve decided to work on this, check out this article on Mandarin Chinese tones.
2. Use Your Favourite Medium to Learn Mandarin
My favourite way to learn a language is by doing full immersion in the place where the language is spoken by natives. For example, Mandarin Chinese is one of the official languages in mainland China as well as Taiwan (R.O.C.) and Singapore.
But travelling to a foreign country isn’t always an option. And it’s not necessary!
If your city has a Chinatown, pay attention to the conversations between the owners and workers there. They will usually speak Mandarin or Cantonese.
If you need more options, ask yourself how you like to learn a language best.
Are you a classroom-textbook-teacher-student learner? Perhaps you’ll want to sign up for Mandarin language classes at your local community college.
Are you a one-on-one private learner? Perhaps you can find a tutor to speak Mandarin on italki.
Are you a drop-me-on-the-Great-Wall-from-a-helicopter-and-see-if-I-survive type of person? Aka a deep and immediate immersion type? Then perhaps you’ll improve your language skills by living in China (or Taiwan).
If you don't know yet how you learn best, try all the various learning methods out there. See what works. It's never too late to start learning a new language in whatever medium you prefer.
I’ve put together a list of the best resources to learn Mandarin Chinese so you don't have to roam the Internet for resources. Use this advantage to start practising now!
3. Practise to Learn Mandarin More Easily
Like with any challenge in life, it takes time and consistent practise to embark on an immersion challenge and succeed.
The practise of speaking Mandarin does not need to feel like pulling teeth.
Here are some of the best ways to practise your Mandarin.
Ask Your Chinese Friends to Speak Mandarin Chinese With You
Even a 5-minute conversation with simple greetings is better than nothing.
A good friend who doesn't mind speaking with you is all you really need. Treat them to a simple meal or bubble tea and chat it up for a while.
If you do that enough times, you may start to realize you can speak more than you thought you could.
If you don’t know anyone who speaks Mandarin Chinese, you should try HelloTalk! HelloTalk is one of the best apps to learn Mandarin Chinese. It allows you to have full-text conversations with native Mandarin speakers. And it’s free!
Go to Chinatown and Eat at the Local Restaurants
Go to the places that have menus all in Chinese and nothing in English.
Most of the patrons are Chinese speakers, too. These places are usually good options and have tastier, more authentic foods. Go there.
Watch Chinese Movies or TV Shows
This is one of the best ways to continually practise Mandarin. Just reading about the language won't make you start speaking it like a native. You need to hear it, too.
By watching a movie or TV show in Mandarin, you will:
- hear the proper tones,
- pick up vocabulary and idioms in context,
- understand the human connections being made,
- and more!
Here’s a list of 15 Chinese cartoons to get you started.
Listen to Chinese Songs in Mandarin
You can learn a lot by listening to popular Chinese songs. I listen to some of my favourite Chinese/Taiwanese artists because I think Mandarin Chinese is really beautiful.
On top of that, try karaoke! Don't let the embarrassment of messing up or your frog-like voice keep you from having a great time.
Music is a fun and effective way to learn the language.
Teach English While Living in China or Taiwan
This is a great way to get full immersion in the country and while still supporting yourself.
Many foreigners enjoy teaching English in these places. They are supported by the organizaion or school they are teaching for and also take Chinese classes.
If that sounds like something you want to do, google ‘teach English in China' or ‘teach English in Taiwan' and start your research from there.
Keep this list of options with you! You never know when you might need it.
4. Always Learn Everything You Can
The moment you stop learning is the moment you start dying.
Learning is a daily process, a daily activity, a daily habit, a daily exploration and a daily discovery. Learning has the potential POWER it has to transform your life, your world.
Learning Mandarin is no exception. There is always room for improvement, sure. But is that all we aim for? To have absolute perfect tone, pitch, accent?
Or is it to feel at one with the language? To feel comfortable speaking it, conversing with the locals?
Learn by doing. Learn by trying. Learn by making mistakes but not letting those mistakes stop you from continuing on.
5. Empty Your Head. I Am Ready to Pour.
I want to share a beautiful Zen tale with you here. You can learn a lot from it about facing Mandarin Chinese.
Once upon a time, there lived a Zen master named Nansen.
A professor of philosophy walking wearily in his travels came across Nansen's cottage. Nansen invited the professor into his home. The professor looked to be in a hurry, but Nansen said, “I will prepare tea for you. You look tired. Wait a little, rest a little and have a cup of tea. And then we can discuss.”
Nansen started boiling the water and at the same time looked over to the professor. The professor was boiling within, too. The teakettle was making sounds and so was the professor, chattering and continuously talking.
The professor was preparing himself — what to ask, how to ask and where to begin. Nansen smiled to himself and thought, “This man is too full, so much so that nothing can enter him. The answer cannot be given because there is no one to receive it. The guest cannot enter the house — there is no room.”
The professor became uneasy as Nansen slowly poured the tea into the cup: it was overflowing. Soon, it would be spilling onto the floor.
The professor finally shouted, “Stop! What are you doing? The cup cannot hold any more tea. Are you mad? What are you doing?”
Nansen smiled at the professor and replied, “The same is the case with you. You are so alert to observe that the cup is full and cannot hold any more. Why are you not so aware of your own self?
“You are overflowing with opinions, philosophies, doctrines, scriptures. You know too much already; I cannot give you anything. You have travelled in vain. Before coming to me you should have emptied your cup, then I could pour something into it.”
What Nansen was saying to the professor was, “Empty your head. I am ready to pour knowledge into it.”
When you try to learn Mandarin Chinese, don’t assume you know everything. Empty your head of what you think learning Mandarin is like. Easy, hard? It doesn’t matter.
Leave all judgments at the door.
This is how you learn. This is how Mandarin is actually easy, rather than difficult.
Congratulations! You Now Know How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Effectively
Obviously, this doesn’t have to be the only method you use to learn Mandarin. Like I said earlier in the post, use what works for you.
But don’t worry about how hard or easy Mandarin is. Give it your best effort and be ready to learn. You can do it.
I believe in you!
If you’re looking for more discussion about learning Chinese, head over to episode eight of the Language Hacking podcast. Shannon and I talk to Louisa about how she learnt conversational Chinese in 90 days thanks to the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.