Is Mandarin difficult or easy?

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Many people say that they think Mandarin Chinese is the most difficult language in the world.  Is that true?

The way we feel about something depends on how we look at it.  That means that whether we feel Mandarin Chinese is difficult or easy has less to do with the language itself and more to do with our perspective.

Let’s compare Mandarin Chinese with the languages English-speakers have most frequently learned at school.

Take an English word like ”person” – picking up the equivalents in Spanish, French and German is pretty easy.  You almost don’t even need to learn the word: you can just say the English word with a different accent!

English: Person

Spanish: Persona

French: Personne

German: Person

Chinese: 人 (rén)

Unlike Indo-European languages, Mandarin Chinese has 2 distinct forms: spoken and written. The sounds of the spoken language appear to be unrelated to those of Indo-European languages, and they include “tones” to differentiate between words simply by intonation. The written language is not an alphabetic transcription of the spoken but a representation of words with symbols.

On the other hand, for most English-speakers, based on their experiences of learning Spanish, French or German at school, tend to say: “I’m no good at languages.”  When you press them, they tend to say things like: “I don’t understand how there are so many words for ‘the’ and everything has to be masculine or feminine.  I mean, why is the ‘floor’ masculine and the ’table’ feminine?  It just makes no sense!” The very things that make Spanish, French and German difficult for English-speakers to learn do not even exist in Mandarin Chinese!

Take a look at a verb like “to go.”  In order to be able to use it in different contexts, you actually have to learn a bewildering number of different versions – 56 different versions in the case of “aller” in French!  So many of these conjugations are irregular, which means they don’t even follow predictable rules.  No wonder so many English-speakers feel they can’t do languages.

Amazingly, in Mandarin Chinese there are no conjugations and no irregulars.  There is only one word to learn – “去”!

If you learn a simple sentence like ”I see her” in French, you immediately see that the equivalent words are in a different order.

English: I see her/She sees me

French: Je la vois/Elle me voit

Chinese: 我 (wǒ) 看 (kàn) 她 (tā)/ 她 (tā) 看 (kàn) 我 (wǒ)

Amazingly, in Mandarin Chinese you have no new words to learn when you flip things around.  You just rearrange the words you already know!

Mandarin is easy!

  1. No genders
  2. No declensions
  3. No irregular plurals
  4. No conjugations
  5. No word changes

Whether we feel Mandarin Chinese is difficult or easy has less to do with the language itself and more to do with our perspective.

Mandarin Chinese is not just a different language to add into the existing teaching and assessment systems alongside European languages; it is a different kind of language and thus needs to be presented and tested in a different way. If we do that, then learning Mandarin Chinese can help us to see the wider world from a different perspective too, so that we can navigate it with greater confidence.