Today, Chinese Mandarin is spoken by 15 percent of the world population. That is 1.3 billion people worldwide! So if you have 6 friends, know that 1 person in your friend group should speak Mandarin. Although spoken widely, it is undoubtedly one of the hardest languages to learn. The characters, the grammar, and the pronunciations are some of the most difficult aspects to learn. This is because Mandarin is completely different from English, with different alphabets, grammar structure, and pronunciation. But are these really the only things that make Mandarin hard to learn?
The thing with the mandarin languages is the use of Hanzi, or simply known as the Chinese characters. They do not use Latin alphabets like English or many other languages, which makes it hard. There are 50,000 recorded Hanzi characters in the Mandarin language. However, only 20,000 out of the 50,00 characters recorded are still used on a daily basis. Each character has different meanings and is read differently. A character is a combination of several strokes. You would have to remember all those lines, woosh, and slashes that made up the 50,000 characters that existed today. If you want to master Hanzi fast, you might want to consider learning them now 🙂
2. Tones and Pronunciation
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Writing and reading Chinese using Hanzi is one aspect of the language. But speaking it is a whole different spectrum you have to get to. Chinese is a tonal language. This means that all the words are differentiated by the pitch of the sound they make and their pronunciation. Two words can be read the same way but have different tones, which gives them different meanings. Give an example of shu (book) and shu (tree). If you get the tones wrong, people would understand the other meaning instead of the one that you meant.
There are also challenges in pronunciation. The Mandarin language is a “monosyllabic” language. Each word only has one syllable to its pronunciation. Getting your pronunciation correct and accurate will need a lot of practice. For instance, beginner learners may find the pronunciation for “b” and “p” or “ch” and “zh” similar. Many beginner learners think that these words “sound the same” when in actuality they do not. Pronouncing them correctly just needs extra attention and practice. You need to put the effort into shaping your tongue and the shape of your mouth to get the correct sound. A hard challenge indeed.
3. Dialects and variations
If you think that being able to speak and read Mandarin can get you everywhere in China, chances are, not really. This is because Mandarin Chinese has dialects and variations! These variations of the language and dialects vary from region to region and have a lot of differences as well as similarities.
If you visit the Southern parts of the Chinese regions like Hong Kong, you will find that most of their populations do not speak Mandarin Chinese but Cantonese. Cantonese is not considered a dialect but more of a separate language as they are another linguistic form of Mandarin that was developed separately after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 AD. They have 9 tones instead of the normal 5 tones in the Mandarin language. Additionally, they have different consonants, such as “l”, and different word endings, such as “k”. Cantonese still use the simplified characters of the Hanzi although there are some applications of the traditional mandarin characters in their writing systems.
A common dialect that is still spoken today includes Hokkien which you can find spoken in mostly easter regions of China like Pu Jian. Hokkien sounds more similar to Cantonese but has 6 tones instead of 9. Their writing is more similar to Mandarin Chinese although they have incorporations of the traditional Chinese characters.
Variation of the Mandarin language, not only include the way they are pronounced but also the way they are written. The most popularly known variations of writing Mandarin are the traditional Chinese characters. Although the traditional characters are older and more complicated, some of these characters are still used in Cantonese and Hokkien as mentioned previously. Traditional Chinese characters are widely used in the region of Taiwan. Taiwanese people still speak Mandarin Chinese but write with traditional characters which makes it, of course, a lot harder than it already is.
4. Practice hours to mastery
Learning Mandarin takes time. Learning it takes A LOT of time. One of the most time-consuming parts of learning the language starts with the Hanzi characters. Earliest records of Hanzi date back to the bronze age. Currently, there are 50,000 Hanzi characters on record with 20,000 used daily. To read these characters, you have to learn them ONE BY ONE. You can’t expect yourself to automatically guess the reading of the characters. When learning how to read the Hanzi, you might find yourself learning simple Hanzi characters. Another method to learn the Hanzi characters is to learn starting with the radicals and their meanings. Learning the Hanzi in this way will create a great base to essentially create a guessing sense to know the meaning and or reading of the character. It is said that you need 2000 hours of practice to master the language. So getting you to the level of comfort for Mandarin will take 1000 hours. If you practice for one hour every day, that will take you 3 years to get comfortable with Mandarin and 6 years to master the language! Talk about investing time in learning.
Why Must I Learn Mandarin? Is It even Worth It?
After all the difficulties that come with learning one language, you might be re-thinking your decision of NOT learning the language. But why is it a hard must thing? Must we really go through all the struggle and spend A LOT of time? Well, truth be told, learning ANY language takes time, dedication, and skill. Mandarin just takes more time and more skill but does not mean it cannot pay you back as learning other languages in the future. Consider it a must, because learning Mandarin has just as much worth as learning English.
Although main speakers of Mandarin Chinese reside in China, being able to speak the language will help you spread your network, make friends and possibly open up new opportunities in the future. There are 40 million Mandarin speakers that live outside of China. One of them, or more, could just be your friend! Why miss an opportunity to make friends with someone who could be just as cool and awesome as you?
If you are in business, chances are, you might have some connection to China later in the future. 13 percent of the world’s export and trade is led by China in 2020. Chinese businessmen are more likely to accept business deals when they know that someone on the other side speaks Chinese and understands the culture. This strong preference can be seen in the movie Crazy Rich Asian when Aunty Eleanour mentioned the term “Ka Ki Lang ”, meaning “our own kind”. This preference goes way beyond marriage partners with deep roots even in Chinese business culture today.
If you ever consider traveling to China, then why not learn Mandarin? China is also rich in culture with a vast number of unique traditions waiting to be discovered. Learning mandarin can give you a whole different experience. While learning Chinese, you will slowly learn their culture too. Learning a people’s culture will always give you an upper hand when you travel. You will know where to ask, what to do and what to look for. Essentially, you can get an authentic unique experience of culture and traditions without getting confused.
So, why not start learning Mandarin? Who knows what opportunities lie in the future for you!