Due to China’s economic boom in recent years and becoming the largest economy in the world , bar the USA, a Mandarin-learning fever has spread across the world. In Singapore, many people learn the Chinese language to attain fluency in Chinese to forge international business ties. At the same time, Mandarin is one of fastest growing courses in education circles, with various institutions across the country incorporating Mandarin into their foreign language training rosters.
Under these circumstances, many people admit that they are put off by Chinese language due to its perceived difficulty. But how hard is it for the average English speaker to learn Chinese? The answer is, astonishingly, that it is not that challenging as long as you’re ready to commit yourself to studying a new language. Of course, you will need to dedicate your time and effort, and this includes registering for a Chinese language course. In this respect, Chinese is akin to any other language. Read on for more insight.
Part of what makes learning Chinese seem intimidating to many people are the over eighty thousand Chinese pictographs, called characters that need to be studied through continuous reading and writing over time. Fortunately, you only need knowledge of about 3, 500 characters in Mandarin. In fact, you can get along with just 1,000 of the most common characters and still be able to read many books. Similar to vocabulary, once you begin learning the characters, regular practice should be the order of the day.
Another seemingly difficult aspect with Mandarin Chinese is that it’s a tonal language, which means words vary in meaning depending on tone and pronunciation. This may be baffling for English speakers because they often apply emotive tones over a sentence. For example, rising intonation signifies a question. In contrast, Chinese tones are linked to every syllable’s meaning, meaning tonal change changes the meaning completely and can pose challenges to non-native speakers.
The easy aspects
Enough with the seemingly hard aspects, so what makes Chinese somewhat easy to learn? Chinese has a limited number of sounds, about 1,200 syllables. That’s far fewer compared to English, which boasts of more than 8,000 syllables.
The best bit of learning Mandarin is the grammar. Chinese grammar is rather straightforward for English speakers. Moreover, sentence structure largely resembles that of English where a subject is followed by a verb and then an object. Verbs come in a single form, without any conjugations. There are no plural nouns and gendered sections of speech. Those who are familiar with French, Spanish or German would find Chinese grammar surprisingly basic and more accessible compared to other languages.
Considering the difficulty of the Chinese written language in comparison to the relative simplicity of its grammar, potential students of Chinese should concentrate on speaking first, and only then look at the written language if their profession dictates so. Even though the correct tonal variation of spoken Chinese isn’t easy, this may be mastered pretty quickly, compared to the several years needed to master the thousands of written characters that native Chinese speakers have learned over time. Of course, most Mandarin courses offer both spoken and written Chinese language. The decision rests with you to decide where to focus your needs.
Commitment and perseverance
Unlike languages which share linguistic similarities with English and can be learned pretty quickly through self-study, competency in Mandarin demands a lot of commitment and determination. The truth is that you will not learn Chinese effectively with once-a-week, one-hour sessions. Instead, consider looking for Chinese courses in Universities and special language schools. Once you’ve mastered basic conversational skills, practice and practice again. Go out and interact with Chinese speakers. Buy a book, order coffee, engage in a chat about the weather or seek directions. Real fluency comes from speaking the language as part of your daily life.