Why Mandarin Chinese is harder than you think

And why it doesn't really matter

Mandarin Chinese is often described as a difficult language, sometimes one of the most difficult ones. This is not hard to understand. There are thousands of characters and strange tones! It must surely be impossible to learn for an adult foreigner!

You can learn Mandarin Chinese

That's nonsense of course. Naturally, if you're aiming for a very high level, it will take time, but I have met many learners who have studied for just a few months (albeit very diligently), and have been able to converse rather freely in Mandarin after that time.

Continue such a project for a year and you will probably reach what most people would call fluent.

If you want more encouragement and factors that make Chinese easy to learn, you should stop reading this article right away and check this one instead:

Why Mandarin Chinese is easier than you think

Chinese is actually quite hard

Does that mean that all the talk about Chinese being difficult is just hot air? No, it doesn't. While the student in the article linked to above reached a decent conversational level in just 100 days (I spoke to him in person close to the end of his project), he has said himself that reaching the same level in Spanish took just a few weeks.

Another way of looking at it is that Chinese isn't more difficult per step you have to take, it's just that there are so many more steps than in any other language, especially compared to a language close to your own. I've written more about this way of looking at difficult as having a vertical and a horizontal component here.

But why? What makes it so hard? in this article, I will outline some of the main reasons why learning Chinese is significantly harder than learning any European language. Before we do that, though, we need to answer some basic questions:

Difficult for whom?

The first thing we must get straight is difficult for whom?

It's meaningless to say how difficult such and such a language is to learn in comparison to other languages unless you specific who the learner is. The reason for this is not difficult to understand. Most of the time spent learning a new language is used to expand vocabulary, getting used to the grammar, mastering pronunciation and so on. If you study a language which is close to your own, this task will be much easier.

For example, English shares a lot of vocabulary with other European languages, especially French. If you compare other languages that are even closer, such as Italian and Spanish or Swedish and German, the overlap is much bigger.

My native language is Swedish and even though I have never studied German either formally or informally, I can still make sense of simple, written German and often understand parts of spoken German if slow and clear. This is without even having studied the language!

Exactly how big an advantage this is doesn't become clear for most people until they learn a language that has zero or almost zero overlap with your native language. Mandarin Chinese is a good example of this. There is almost no overlap with English vocabulary.

This is okay at first, because common words in related language are sometimes also different, but it adds up.

When you get to an advanced level and there's still no overlap between your own language and Mandarin, the sheer amount of words becomes an issue. We're talking about tens of thousands of words that all have to be learnt, not just changed a little bit from your native language.

After all, it's not hard for me to learn many advanced words in English:

Political conservatismPolitisk konservatism
Super novaSupernova
Magnetic resonanceMagnetisk resonans
Epilepsy patientEpilepsipatient
Alveolar affricateAlveolar affrikata


Some of these are very logical in Chinese and in that sense, learning them in Chinese is actually easier if done from scratch compared with English or Swedish. However, that somewhat misses the point. I already know these words in Swedish, so learning them in English is really, really easy.

Even if I only knew them in one language, I would automatically be able to understand them in the other. Sometimes I would even be able to say them. Guessing will sometimes do the trick!

It will never do the trick in Chinese.

So, for the purpose of this discussion, let's discuss how difficult Chinese is to learn for a native speaker of English, who may or may not have learnt one other language to some extent, such as French or Spanish. The situation will be almost the same for people in Europe who have learnt English apart from their native languages.

What does "learn Mandarin" mean? Conversational fluency? Near-native mastery?

We also need to discuss what we mean by "learn Mandarin". Do we mean to a level where you can ask for directions, book train tickets and discuss everyday topics with native speakers in China? Do we include reading and writing, and if so, do we include handwriting? Or do we perhaps mean some kind of near-native educated level of competency, perhaps something similar to my level of English?

In the other article, I discuss why learning Chinese is actually not that hard if you aim for a basic level in the spoken language. To really flip the coin here, I will lookt at more advanced proficiency and include the written language. Some of the points here are relevant for beginners and the spoken language too, of course:

  • Speaking and writing - As if learning thousands of characters isn't enough, you also need to know how to pronounce them, which is largely separate or just indirectly related to how they are written. If you can pronounce Spanish as a native speaker of English, you can sort of write it too, at least if you learn some spelling conventions. Not so in Chinese. Knowing how to say something tells you very little about how it's written and vice versa. It's not true that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though, and you can make use of that, but it still makes learning much harder.
  • Nothing for free - I have already written about this above. If you haven't learnt Chinese or any other language completely unrelated to your own, you don't know how much you have for free when your learn closely related languages. It's of course very hard to make estimates, but let's just say that there is a very big overlap between academic, medical an technical terms in European languages. You have to learn all that from scratch in Chinese.
  • Language variation - Chinese has several dialects and is spoken over a huge area by more than a billion people. Mandarin is the standard dialect, but there are many variations within that dialect, regional and otherwise. It's not uncommon to have several words for the same thing (look up the word "Sunday" for instance). We also have a very big difference between formal and colloquial vocabulary. Then we have classical Chinese, which is almost like a language within the language that often spills into modern written Chinese. Even if you're just focusing on modern Mandarin, all these other variations keep interfering and mixing things up for you.
  • Pronunciation and tones - While basic pronunciation is relatively easy to get down if you have the right teacher and spend the necessary time, tones are really hard to master for most learners. In isolation, yes; in words, yes; but in natural speech without thinking too much about it, no. It's really hard to feel the difference between syllables said with the same initial and final but with another tone. Unless you are terribly talented, you will probably keep making tone mistakes for the rest of your life. After a while, they won't really disturb communication that much, but it takes a while and most students never get there.
  • Listening and reading - In the article about why Chinese is easy to learn, I listed several things that make it easier to speak, such as no verb inflections, no gender, no tenses and so on. However, this information is still present when you communicate, it's just not encoded in the written or spoken language. The words look and sound the same. This means that it's easier to speak because you don't need to bother that much, but it makes listening and reading harder because you have less information and need to do much more interpreting yourself. This is a result of Chinese being an isolating language. Listening is further complicated by the fact that Mandarin has a very limited number of sounds, even including the tones, which makes it easy to mix things up and the number of homophones or near-homophones (words that sound the same or almost the same) is very large compared to English.
  • Culture and mentality - One of the major obstacles for reaching an educated native level in Chinese is the huge amount of culture you don't know about. If you study French, you share most of the cultural history and knowledge about the world with the native speakers, and even though you need to fill in the gaps that are particular to France, the general framework is the same. When most people start learning Chinese, they know almost nothing about the Chinese speaking world. Can you imagine how long it takes as an adult to learn everything about the world that you know now through years and years of schooling, living in the country, reading newspapers, books and so on? Added to this, the underlying thinking or mentality is sometimes very different. Humour doesn't always work the same way, what a Chinese person thinks is logical might not be logical to you, cultural values, norms and customs are different. And so on. If you want to read more about differences in culture and mentality, I suggest a book called The Geography of Thought.

Does it really matter how difficult it is?

Now you might think that learning Chinese is really impossible, but as I said in the introduction, that's not really the case. However, as is the case with many other tasks, achieving mastery takes a long time. If you want to approach the level of an educated native speaker, we're talking about a life-long commitment and a life situation that allows you to either work with the language or socialise in it.

I've studied Chinese for almost nine years and I daily come into contact with things I don't know. I expect this will never stop to be the case. Of course, I have learnt the language well enough to be able to listen, speak, read and write about almost anything I want, including specialised and technical areas I'm familiar with.

Almost all learners would have settled for much, much less. And rightly so, perhaps. You don't need to spend ten years or become an advanced learner for your studies to pay off. Even studying just a few months and being able to say a few things to people in China in their own language can make all the difference. Languages are not binary; they don't suddenly become useful at a certain level. Yes, they become gradually more useful the more you know, but exactly how far you want to go is up to you. It's also up to you to define what "learning Mandarin" means. Personally, I also think that the amount of things I don't know about the language makes learning more interesting and fun!