As complex as it seems on first glance, Mandarin Chinese is remarkably easy to get the hang of. The main challenges most adult learners face are the tones and the large volume of characters, which can be mastered with practice.
Learning a new language unlocks one’s ability to communicate with a larger segment of the world’s population. By learning Mandarin Chinese, for instance, one can speak to and understand more than 955 million native speakers—more than any other language on Earth.
Chinese seems like a daunting language to learn; after all, a logographic script that does not correspond to an alphabet will boggle the mind of a speaker of a European language. But appearances can be deceiving.
As a language, the spoken dialects of Chinese are remarkably simple in terms of grammar. Sentence structures in Chinese are simple in construction and the most complex sentence structures are rarely too difficult for the intermediate learner to grasp. Mandarin, for instance, has a rather simple tense structure and, unlike Romance languages, Mandarin Chinese does not have gender-specific nouns and pronouns and no need to distinguish between singular and plural noun forms.
What stands as the biggest challenge in learning Chinese are the tones and the written language itself, which can be daunting even for educators. Getting acquainted with the language doesn’t take that much time to learn, and teachers with access to books on the Chinese language can get the hang of the vocabulary with practice.
Written Chinese characters (Hanzi) represent one of the most daunting aspects of the Chinese language. The two variants of written Chinese (simplified and traditional) are logographic, with each symbol representing a new word. Historically, the language being written this way made it easier for people speaking disparate regional languages and dialects throughout the country to read signs and edicts.
Then as now, studying the complexities of written Chinese takes several years, and most Western learners often learn a specific spoken Chinese language before attempting to take on the complexities of written Chinese. Fortunately, of the more than 50,000 logographic characters used in written Chinese, only a few thousand are in frequent-enough circulation to be learned by an average speaker, making the task of learning the written language a lot less difficult than it first appears.
Besides the complexities of Hanzi, there is also the matter of learning the tones and pronunciations of Romanized Chinese. Most Chinese languages are tonal. The Chinese many foreigners today learn, Mandarin, is a sterling example of this, with five different tones. Many words in Mandarin are pronounced similarly, differing only in tone; others are homophones and are distinguished only by the characters as written or by context. At least one poem, translated in English as The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den, comprises 120 different characters that are all pronounced “shi” in varying tones.
When learning the tones, a little wariness is to be expected. After all, homophones can lead to embarrassing situations when a simple tone change can lead to a respectful request turning into something ridiculous. Indeed, Chinese humor is rife with wordplay.
Most of these tones and pronunciations are transliterated to the Roman alphabet using the Modern Pinyin system, which has since displaced the Yale and Wade-Giles systems of Romanization that would have sounded more intuitive for some speakers. Writing and reading Pinyin transliterations is often the non-Chinese learner’s introduction to the Chinese language. Once mastered, Pinyin transliterations are the first step toward understanding the tones and nuances of Chinese for the foreign learner accustomed to Roman.
Tones are learned by practice. As a learner continues to learn the words, the tones fall into place gradually.