Mandarin Chinese is easier to learn than you might think

The number of Westerners learning Mandarin Chinese has risen markedly in recent times. This surge in popularity is the result of a combination of the emergence of China as a major economic power and the increasing accessibility of China as a place to visit and to do business.

Mandarin is regarded as one of the world’s more difficult languages for the Westerner to learn. The British Civil Service, for example allows its officers two years to reach a level of competence equivalent to that which it would expect after six months for French. It is tonal, each sound having four recognised tones (Cantonese has six!) that dictate its meaning.

One of the main obstacles facing the learner of Mandarin is the system of Chinese writing. All Chinese characters are individual and often give few clues as to their pronunciation. This means that anyone wanting to learn to speak the language faces an immediate hurdle.

To help overcome this difficulty, a number of systems have been introduced over the years. One of the most common Romanization systems used for much of the twentieth century was the Wade-Giles system. Developed in the second half of the nineteenth century by Thomas Wade, a former British Ambassador to China and Cambridge University scholar, it was later refined by another British diplomat, Herbert Giles, and his son, Lionel.

In the early twentieth century, the Chinese themselves introduced a phonetic system that we now call Zhuyin Fuhao (it was originally known as Zhuyin Zimu). This system uses a series of symbols to represent the sounds and tone marks to indicate the tone. Still used in Taiwan, where it is often called by the nickname Bopomofo, it has to some extent fallen out of favour elsewhere as Pinyin (see below) has spread.

In the 1950s, a new system known as Hanyu Pinyin (more commonly simply called Pinyin) was introduced by the Government of the People’s Republic of China. As with Wade-Giles, this system represents Chinese words in Latin script so that their pronunciation is easy to “see”. Because it is so easy to learn, Pinyin has taken over as the most popular method of Romanization worldwide and it will be familiar to most learners of Mandarin.

Once a beginner has learned how to pronounce the words, then Mandarin becomes relatively simple. Chinese grammar is not at all complex. For example, it has no complicated verb conjugations, tense being indicated by context and sometimes the addition of a particle. There is no need to worry if a noun is “male’ or “female” and there are no special endings to indicate part of speech. So, with a little effort and a good teacher, you should be able to speak a little fairly quickly.

But don’t expect too much in the early stages if you are trying to converse with a native Chinese. You will find that, even if you are understood, you may have difficulty understanding. China is a huge country and, like you, many Chinese are not native Mandarin speakers, particularly older people. In Guangdong Province, for example, Cantonese (Yue) is the main local dialect. And even among native Mandarin speakers you will find any number of different accents. But not to worry. If you are having difficulty just remember that the Chinese themselves sometimes have trouble to. I remember in the late 1970’s HUA Guofeng, MAO Zedong’s successor, was interviewed by the journalist Felix Greene. HUA’s own interpreter occasionally stumbled when trying to understand HUA’s Mandarin.

Learners of Mandarin should not restrict themselves to the spoken language. Written Chinese is basically the same throughout China and is well worth learning. Written Chinese is not as complicated as it seems. Characters are written in a particular stroke order and actually have identifiable components that make them easier to learn. They are in two parts – a radical or root (of which there are 214) and a phonetic or semantic part. The Chinese themselves recognise the difficulties inherent in their writing system and have introduced a large number of Simplified characters that have fewer strokes than the original or Traditional characters and so make them easier to learn.

It is often said that being able to recognise around 3,000 characters will allow you to read a Chinese newspaper. This is not really the case. Characters are used in combinations that affect their individual meanings; if you do not know a particular combination then, although you might be familiar with every character in a given string, the meaning will still be elusive. Also, Chinese writers love to allude to Chinese history and use sayings based on historical events. It’s worth learning a few of the more common ones to help you understand articles.

Learning Mandarin Chinese might sound difficult, but once you get into it you will be hooked. If you have the chance give it a try. But if you progress well, as you will with a little effort, try to keep your feet on the ground. I once knew someone who boasted that he had heard that his Chinese acquaintances had said that his Chinese was so good that he even had a Shanghai accent – little did he know that saying that someone has a Shanghai accent means that their pronunciation is awful!