Mandarin Chinese – Is it hard to learn?

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Before I start a new set of posts teaching Mandarin Chinese I wish to express my views on this beautiful language.

Chinese is a fascinating and beautiful language that does appear tough to foreign learners but has imaginable rewards for those that do. Let’s discuss the grammatical differences and nuances with Mandarin to begin with.

For those of you who have been put of learning languages because in school you ‘didn’t get’ French or German then Mandarin is perfect for you. Here’s why:

  • There are no masculine or feminine nouns
  • Verbs don’t change at all regardless of person or tense (i.e. I go, he goes, I went… = Wo qu)
  • There are no plurals except one ending used for people (and only then if you want to use it)
  • Words go in a logical order (verbs aren’t placed at the end of the sentence)
  • There are no words for ‘the’ (let alone two or three like French and German)
  • There is no word for ‘a’ or ‘an’
  • There is no subjunctive!
  • Adjectives don’t agree in number or gender and all come before the noun like in English
  • Word building is logical (e.g. Mobile = shou ji or ‘hand machine’)

So ok, not everything about Chinese is so easy.  I apologise if you were getting too excited!  Here’s a list of Mandarin’s oddities:

  • All words after a number or the words ‘this/that’ need a counter (three glasses of milk, this animal dog)
  • The writing doesn’t tell you how to pronounce the words, it’s an idea (girl 女+ baby 子 = good 好)
  •  Pronunciation is a little tricky (like French)
  • There are tones.  The stress you put on a word changes its meaning entirely (e.g. mä = mother but mâ = horse)
  • There are few prepositions meaning that verbs are often used to describe relationships (e.g. qu = ‘to go’ but also used to mean ‘to’ Wo qu Shanghai = I am going to Shanghai / Wo yao yi zhi qu Beijing de piao = I want one ticket to Beijing)

It’s not all bad however and you can get your head around it pretty quickly.  Unlike French and German though, there are relatively few loan words and vocabulary seems tricky at first due to the lack of similarity with English.  Some loan words do resemble the English words, such as:

  • shafa = sofa
  • kekoukele = Coca Cola
  • boke = Blog
  • Xibanya = Spain (from España)

However the vast majority don’t.  Even the words above ‘mean’ something in Chinese because of the characters used to write them down, such as Cola.  It roughly translates as ‘exciting taste in your mouth’ in Mandarin.

Other loan words, such as Countries, tend to use a small portion of the word.  A good example of this is Germany and France which are Deguo and Faguo respectively.  Guo = country and therefore you are saying Fa instead of France (a combination of letters that are impossible in Chinese) and De (from Deutschland).

All in all Mandarin is a new experience for learners and I strongly recommend learning the basics.  Remember that China is quickly becoming the world leader based on economic factors and all Chinese people have to learn Mandarin much like all Scandinavians learn English.  This is because of China’s vast size and the large number of local languages and dialects that are spoken.  See my next blog on Mandarin vs Cantonese for further info.

Hope to see you back and learning Mandarin soon!


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