by Chris Parker
Let’s face it, learning Chinese can be very daunting when you first start. To make matters worse, Mandarin is often referred to as the “most difficult language to learn,” and even Chinese people often believe the idea! However, once you start learning, you find that it’s actually quite easy to put words together and start speaking the language, and you can quickly start to recognize Chinese characters. Hopefully you’ve managed not to be dissuaded by all the hype about how “difficult” Chinese is, but if not, maybe the following facts will convince you…
1. With just 3000 characters, you can read practically everything
Yes, there are thousands of Chinese characters in the dictionary, but what most people don’t know is that you hardly ever see most of them. If you needed 50,000 characters to read the language, even Chinese people who use the language every day wouldn’t be able to crack it. Research has shown that with just 3000 characters, you can read 99.2% of modern Chinese. With 2000, you can read 97%. It’s really not an impossible task. And if you forget how to write characters, you can always look them up on your phone wherever you are.
2. Chinese characters may be hard to write, but they are easy to read
I admit it. It takes time to recall how to write Chinese characters, but recognising them is much easier. It’s not that much more difficult just because Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. If you can see an object and recall a completely arbitrary word in another language then you can recognize a Chinese character. If you look at a list of characters, they may look similar, but remember, when you are reading, you have the context of the sentence to help you!
3. If you pay attention to Mandarin pronunciation, it’s not as difficult as people say
It is true that Mandarin Chinese has four tones. In other words, each syllable can be pronounced in four different ways. For example, your voice can go up in pitch or fall in pitch. This is something you need to pay attention to when you speak, but anybody can learn it if they practice enough. Think of how you raise your voice when you ask a question. You are raising your pitch in a similar way to the second tone in Mandarin. Also, you don’t need to be musical to learn Chinese and if you can learn the gender of a word in German, then you can memorize the tone of a Chinese character. The pronunciation simply takes practice. Start very slowly and take a lot of care, you’ll get there!
4. There are a huge number of learning materials and tools for learning Mandarin
Mandarin is not an “obscure language to learn” with only old wartime textbooks or very old-fashioned grammar books. There are thousands of courses and websites that can help you. Popular series like Colloquial, Teach Yourself, Pimsleur, Assimil, Living Language all have Mandarin courses. I have opened up many of the teaching videos on my website, to help to give beginners the best foundation in the language. Dimsum Chinese and Wenlin are great reading tools to use on your computer and Pleco gives you a dictionary on your smartphone wherever you are. Arch Chinese can also teach you to write characters.
5. Chinese people appreciate foreigners speaking Mandarin, even if you get things wrong
Before I started learning Mandarin, I read a lot of posts online suggesting that Chinese people prefer to speak English to foreigners or often respond in English when tourists try to speak Chinese. In my experience, nothing has been further from the truth. If you are visiting the country as part of an “English speaking tour group” or you are talking to students from an English department, this can happen, but I assure you, if you step into a taxi in China or speak to a street seller, they will appreciate the fact that you can speak a bit of the language, and as long as you can get the message across, they won’t care about your mistakes.
So what are you waiting for? If you have been thinking about learning a bit of Chinese for a while, then why not get started. It will only get easier as you go on!
Chris Parker has been speaking Mandarin since 2006. He has worked as a translator and simultaneous interpreter between Chinese and English and has taught interpretation in the UK and Beijing. He now works in the media, specializing in international communications strategy. He also teaches Chinese through his website, www.fluentinmandarin.com, his Facebook page and his Youtube channel.