Is Learning Mandarin Chinese Tough?

When it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, there is no such thing as instant gratification. Slick marketing promises of quick-fix packages and programmes to learn Mandarin Chinese are misleading and should be treated with caution.

Mandarin Chinese is widely considered to be a difficult language for native English speakers to master. This view arises from the fact that Mandarin Chinese isn’t related to the Indo-European family of languages and Westerners struggle to pick it up as easily as, for example, French or German. Apart from the obvious challenge that Chinese literacy i.e. character recognition poses, learning to converse in standard Mandarin is difficult for Westerners, as the language is both analytic and tonal, with different meanings conveyed by changes in the pitch of a particular syllable.

The complexity of the Mandarin Chinese language is illustrated by the fact that the US Government’s Defense Language Institute rates it as a “Category IV” (out of four) language, while its Foreign Service Institute ranks it as a “Category III” (out of three) language. In comparison, the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian etc) and Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish etc) are classified as either Category I or Category II.

Clearly, the motivation to master the Mandarin Chinese language must come from within. Prospective students will need to apply themselves, as a fair amount of concentration and effort are required. Learning Mandarin Chinese is rewarding and great fun, but should not be undertaken lightly. The serious student of Mandarin Chinese who is in it for the long-haul will likely achieve a high level of proficiency. On the other hand, the fickle entrant hoping for instant gratification or kicks-and-giggles is likely to squander the learning opportunity. Given the level of difficulty of serious Mandarin Chinese learning, there needs to be strong rapport between teacher and student, akin to the relationship between the gongfu master and disciple, so that the bar can be raised higher and long-term milestones achieved.

Ideally, those wishing to learn Mandarin Chinese should have some form of connection to the People’s Republic of China (or the Chinese people) on a personal or business level. Strong connections to China serve to motivate our language students to pursue a deeper understanding and knowledge of the Mandarin Chinese language with concomitant leaps in their ability to read, write and converse. Such connections can be as simple as the intention to travel within China or an affinity for Chinese history and culture.

That said, the Chinese language has for too long been perceived as being beyond the grasp of Westerners. This misconception is for the most part caused by unimaginative and misguided teaching methods that, for example, don’t utilize an accurate system of character Romanization.

It is important for prospective students to note that it is not necessary to learn Mandarin Chinese when very young in order to become fluent. New research has elucidated the plasticity of language learning in people of all ages and backgrounds. The adult student’s drive and passion to learn Mandarin Chinese will far outweigh any challenges associated with being a late starter!