A little while ago, an article was published by the Guardian about how British Prime Minister David Cameron wants his country’s citizens to learn the most popular Chinese language, Mandarin, but also about how, according to the article, this is apparently a task too complicated for the average person.
It even lists eight reasons why it’s too hard.
This might not be what you want to hear if you’re currently learning Chinese, but I’m going to tell you right now that most of this article is wrong, or at least deceptively misleading.
I’m not going to hide it — learning Chinese isn’t a walk in the park — but it really isn’t as terrible as the article makes it out to be.
Before reading on, take a look at the original article and see what your first impressions are. You can read the article here.
Read it? Good.
Now let’s look at each point one-by-one.
1. You’ll find the writing baffling
Alright, fair enough. For a beginner who has never learned anything about Mandarin or Chinese characters, the writing system could seem like a huge hurdle to cross. But like anything else, practice makes perfect. You weren’t born knowing how to write your native language either.
And while many expatriates in China indeed do choose to forgo learning the characters because “it isn’t worth it,” it is also true that these people often work in international companies where English is the only language needed. However, they severely limit themselves outside of work.
2. Tones are a nightmare
Again, for the beginner who has never learned anything about Mandarin, the tones might look intimidating. As quoted in the article, “Pretty much everybody learns the tones wrong the first time…. And then, after a few years, they realise they sound ridiculous.”
I’d argue that everybody who learns anything new does it wrong the first time… and many times after that too! If you want to get good at something, you need practice, as well as have the ability to not care if you sound ridiculous.
I’d also argue that after a few years, you won’t sound ridiculous anymore (though you might look back and think that you did at one time, but so did everyone else!).
Here’s a good interactive chart you can use to acquaint yourself with the sounds of the Chinese language. It includes all possible sound and tone combinations in Chinese.
3. The mistakes can be filthy
The article implies that by making mistakes with your tones, you might end up saying some pretty outrageous things.
For example, the word for “to ask” is 问 (wèn), whereas the word for “to kiss” is 吻 (wěn). It also states that the word for “pen” is 笔 (bǐ) and the word for female genitalia is bī (it’s not often written with a character, or when it is written, simply an X is used).
However, in the context of the classroom, the teacher knows that you’re currently learning Chinese and isn’t going to be offended if you say something inappropriate. In fact, the teacher will know that you didn’t mean to say anything wrong because they probably never taught you those “filthy” words anyway and wouldn’t expect you to be intentionally saying them.
Likewise, if you go to China and try to speak to someone on the street, it’s unlikely that anyone would fly into a rage if you mixed your tones up and said something inappropriate. From the context of the sentence, they probably wouldn’t think twice about it and would likely know what you’re trying to say (if anything, they’d probably just chuckle at your unintentional mistake).
And if they didn’t understand you, they would just ask you to repeat it. Simple enough, right? (however, if you really want to know some “filthy” words in Chinese, this book should help).
4. Your progress will be glacial
Compared to an English speaker learning French or Spanish, your progress when learning Chinese will indeed be much slower. But this isn’t cause to throw your hands in the air and give up.
After 3-4 years, your Chinese level will probably be pretty decent. If you worked hard during this time, you should be able to read and write most things, as well as have good conversational interactions with the average person.
You might not be able to discuss topics like quantum physics or the details of a statute of limitations, but I would guess that you probably can’t talk intelligently about these things in your native language either. No offense intended, but there are some topics that are pretty complex unless you’ve taken the time to specifically study them on their own.
5. You won’t be able to text message
This one is just not true. You absolutely can (and Chinese people do!) send text messages. It’s true that depending on what you’re writing that you may not be able to type as quickly as in English, but many input systems are now able to guess what you’re trying to type.
For example, if typing the verb “like” in English (e.g., I like, she likes, etc.), you’d need to input four letters. If you were to do this in Chinese, you’d need to input the two characters 喜欢 by first typing in the pinyin “xi huan”, and then selecting the characters that are presented to you for input.
However, you can often just type “xh” or “xih” or “xihu” and the computer will guess (and probably guess correctly) that you are looking for the word “xi huan.”
And you don’t even have to select what is presented to you by the computer before inputting the next word; once 喜欢 appears, you can just start typing the next word and the computer will insert 喜欢 as your selected word by default.
In reality, the way to type in Chinese is slightly different than in English, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily more complicated — just different.
Furthermore, you can also choose to use words with fewer characters in them in order to text faster in Chinese while still portraying the same meaning.
For example, instead of typing 星期 [xīng qí] for “week,” you can just use the character 周 [zhōu], which has the same meaning. This way, if you type 周一 [zhōu yī] for “Monday” instead of 星期一 [xīng qí yī], you save typing one character.
Do this over the entire message and you will have saved a lot of space and time.
6. Good teachers are in short supply
While it may be the case that people you might do a language exchange with are not trained teachers, formal Chinese courses absolutely do employ people who know what they’re doing.
And if it is the case that teachers are in short supply in a particular area, I might argue it’s because they aren’t allowed to come (or to stay long enough) in a foreign country due to rules and regulations in employment standards. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be standards at all, but that they should perhaps be reconsidered in some way.
From my experience, it can be difficult for a teacher to stay in a foreign country if they can’t prove that there is no one better for the job or if only part-time work is offered by a single employer.
Regardless, in this day in age, you might not even need a physical teacher from whom to learn. There are so many accessible online resources available these days, such as Rocket Chinese, ChinesePod, ChineseClass101, and Skritter, that you can now take charge of your own learning.
Add to those some great apps like Pleco and the Outlier dictionary, and you may never have to go to a physical classroom to learn Chinese ever again (though you definitely still can if you prefer this type of learning environment).
7. In any case, most of the people don’t speak it
Again, not true. While there are tons of dialects and sub-dialects used in China, all students are educated at school in standard Mandarin Chinese, so while they may speak mutually-unintelligible dialects of Mandarin at home (or even another Chinese language like Cantonese or Hakka), it’s more than likely that you’ll be able to talk with most people in China in Mandarin (over one billion people).
And if you do find the odd person who can’t speak Mandarin for some reason, just look to the person on the street behind him to ask your question to instead. They should probably be able to answer it just fine.
8. China’s leaders don’t speak Mandarin
Again, false. Like my point above, these people may have grown up in areas where standard Mandarin was not their first language (in reality, it’s nobody’s first language, just like standard English is not spoken natively by anyone), but government officials absolutely do need to be able to speak it for a job in the government.
And while some officials may have a regional accent when they talk, that is not the same as not being able to speak the language. Even if they use regional terms when they talk, they could just be asked to clarify what they mean.
This is akin to a person from the United Kingdom speaking English to a person from Canada. Both parties will understand most of what is being said, but if there are any uncertainties stemming from the use of regional terms, a simple clarification can be asked for.
Simple, right? It’s like this in Chinese as well.
I hope this article was able to clarify some of the exaggerated difficulties that you may have heard about learning Chinese. If you still haven’t read the original article that this one is based on, you can link to it here.
Although learning Chinese is a unique path, it’s also an enlightening one with much to offer students, so don’t give up and keep on going! You’ll make a lot of progress even before you know it!
If you’re looking for a good way to start (or to continue) learning Chinese, get an account over at Rocket Chinese, ChinesePod, or ChineseClass101 and start exploring. They’re three great resources for really improving your Chinese language skills.