Chinese is often considered one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. While this reputation is somewhat deserved, much of the perceived “difficulty” stems from how different Chinese and English are as languages. Chinese and English evolved completely separate from one another. As such, they don’t share a common linguistic ancestor. However, the benefits of learning Chinese are enormous. The English speaking world is conducting increasingly more business with countries where Chinese is the native language. Mandarin, the dialect spoken in mainland China, has even begun to rival Spanish as the first choice for a second language to learn among native English speakers. Today we’ll try to dispel some of the mystery surrounding Mandarin Chinese and provide a fair analysis of the challenges you’ll face learning the language.
Most Western languages, including English, only use tones to add emphasis or express emotion. Chinese is a tonal-based language, meaning that the tone you use to enunciate a word changes its meaning. Mandarin Chinese possesses four distinct tones and one “neutral” tone. This is fairly forgiving compared to most other Chinese dialects. Cantonese, for example, uses six tones (nine if you include all variants), requiring a greater degree of precision in your pronunciation. You’ll have to get used to the idea that the tone of your voice affects what you are saying, not just how you feel about what you are saying.
Unlike Korean or Japanese, Chinese lacks a phonetic alphabet. Written Chinese consists entirely of logographic characters that represent both sounds and symbolic meanings. The number of Chinese characters required to achieve a basic level of proficiency varies widely depending on who you ask. I’ve seen estimates for the number of characters needed to read a Chinese newspaper range from 2000 to 7000. While this sounds like a lot, it’s important to remember that low-end estimates for how many words the average, non-college-educated native English speaker knows fall in the thousands. You will need to spend a great deal of time diligently memorizing characters, but the process isn’t nearly as daunting as it first seems. Recent language reforms and technological advancements have made reading and writing in Chinese much simpler than it used to be. We’ll look at those next.
Traditional Chinese characters are incredibly elaborate, requiring a dozen or more strokes written in the correct order. Fortunately, the People’s Republic of China began introducing a system of Simplified Chinese characters in 1949. (“Unofficial” simplified forms existed long before this.) Most of the characters you’ll read or write on a daily basis have simplified forms at this point. This actually makes learning Chinese characters more straightforward than Japanese Kanji. Although Kanji is only part of the Japanese writing system, the characters it uses were adopted from Chinese long before their simplified forms came into official usage. If you deal primarily with companies or individuals based in mainland China, Simplified Chinese will take you pretty far. There are still some traditional characters you’ll need to know, but technology can assist you with that.
You might be wondering how on earth you type a language without an alphabet on a standard keyboard. Well, the good news is that technology has made writing in Chinese considerably easier. When you type Chinese with a keyboard, you use Pinyin Romanization. Pinyin is China, Taiwan, and Singapore’s official phonetic system for transcribing Mandarin pronunciations into the Latin alphabet. You begin typing in Pinyin and your computer or mobile device prompts you to pick the correct character(s) from several possible choices. It’s like an incredibly robust version of the auto-complete feature found on most smart phones and tablets. You do still need to be able to read the most commonly-used characters well enough to choose the correct ones, but at least you don’t have to remember how to write the characters from scratch.