What is the Hardest Part About Learning Mandarin?

Mandarin can be a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t scare you away from all the benefits that come from learning it!
 By far, the hardest part about learning Mandarin Chinese is commonly agreed to be memorizing and writing the characters.

In Mandarin, pronunciation can be practiced. Tones can be trained. The grammar has no gender, plural, conjugations, or declination. The vocabulary is often literal and makes sense (for example Computer = Electronic Brain 电脑 (diànnǎo), Plane = Flying Machine 飞机 (fēijī)). By far, the hardest part about learning Mandarin Chinese is commonly agreed to be memorizing and writing the characters. Let’s take a look at why this is. 

  1. Sheer Numbers


English has a humble 26 letters, while the archaic Mandarin Chinese language has anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 different characters depending on the dialect and location. It is estimated that the average educated Chinese person knows around 8,000 characters, and about 6,000 of those are used to navigate daily life (A beginner needs roughly 3,000 to be able to read a newspaper). 


It takes more time and endurance for an English speaker to learn Mandarin than a Romance language, such as French or Spanish. While the time differs per person, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) estimates that it will take English speakers 88 weeks (2,200 hours of active learning) to reach native/bilingual Chinese proficiency. 


“The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers.” – David Moser, Author and Academic


      2. Similar Components


In English, each letter stands by itself and is written the same way each time. In Mandarin, components of the characters can be rearranged in different orders which change the meaning:


旭 xù (brilliant, rising sun) – 旮 gā (corner, nook) – 旯 lá (corner, nook)


In the example above, these three characters have the same “building blocks” but arranged in different orders which leads to three different words. This can be confusing for an English speaker who is trying to memorize thousands of characters by recognizing their components. 


      3. Complexity of Writing the Characters


The smallest unit of Chinese Mandarin is called a stroke. There are six basic strokes, some with variations, and these strokes are combined in writing the Chinese characters. Because Mandarin does not have an alphabet, these strokes are the ‘building blocks’ of the language, and students must memorize the proper order in which to write the strokes in order to form the characters. Each Chinese character has two components, one that indicates pronunciation and one that indicates meaning and characters can be combined to form even more complex characters. For example, Zhé (noisy, verbose) requires 64 strokes:

It takes more time, effort, and rote memorization to master both the strokes and characters of Mandarin. For comparison:


Average English students Grade 2:

  • Understand the Alphabet
  • Read 20,000 to 24,000 words, express 5,000 to 7,000 words 


Average Mandarin students Grade 2:

  • Understand strokes
  • Read 1400-1600 characters, write 800-1000 characters


Mandarin students are not less intelligent or hardworking than English students, the Mandarin language simply takes more time and effort to master the strokes and characters.

      4. Not Phonetic


In addition, Chinese characters are not phonetic, meaning that the pronunciation of a character cannot be determined simply by looking at it. In English “N” always makes an “N” sound and the word “No” can be sounded out combining the consonant and the vowel. In Mandarin, the character 书 (shū) (Book) sounds exactly like the word 输 (shū)  (To Lose) even though the characters are completely different. While English learners can use phonetic clues to help them guess the meaning and spelling of a word, Mandarin learners must rely upon their memorization skills and context clues. 

      5. Continual Upkeep


If you study Spanish and then don’t read it for three years, you will still be able to sound out the letters and remember a decent amount of words. In Mandarin, unique characters are more easily forgotten over time if they are not used daily. 


“The tendency for characters to disappear if they aren’t written (practiced) on a regular basis. Since I stopped studying Chinese three years ago, I am only able to write the most basic and common of characters, despite still being conversationally fluent.” – Joseph Lemien, lived in Beijing, and majored in China in university


Mandarin can be a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t scare you away from all the benefits that come from learning it! If you’re looking for an amazing program that will help you or your child with your Mandarin reading, writing, pronunciation, and grammar, all while having tons of fun, check out Cultural Bytes’ One-on-one tutoring classes. 

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