Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It?

For the past year or so, the number of U.S. news items related to learning Mandarin has exploded. Just today, I read an article announcing the opening of another Confucius Institute, this time in Southern California at UCLA. The Confucius Institutes are vehicles for promoting Chinese culture, and serve as Mandarin learning centers, a la the British Council with its English programs.

In this week’s International Edition of Newsweek, Asia scholar Stephen Noerper writes in his piece “Over a Billion Served,” that the Chinese government predicts that 100 million people worldwide will be studying Mandarin as a second language by 2010. The U.S. Department of Education has set the goal of having 5% of all students in the U.S. enrolled in Mandarin language programs within the next two years.

What nobody is really talking about* is whether or not these people will actually be able to learn to speak Mandarin with any degree of fluency. For anyone who has been thinking “Gee, I’d like to learn Mandarin,” I think you ought to know something about learning Mandarin: getting fluent in Mandarin is extremely difficult, and very few non-Chinese people are able to become functional speakers and writers of Mandarin.

(Warning: Horn tooting follows) As an American who speaks, reads, and writes fluent Mandarin, I always encourage people who want to learn Mandarin to remain dedicated to the task. Matter of fact, over the past eighteen years, I’ve spent a good many hours offering advice and coaching to would-be Sinophiles who want to learn to speak the language of the Middle Kingdom.

Some language learners DO learn to speak and write Mandarin fluently. I worked with a group of missionaries way back when, and I’d say 20% of them were really fluent after a year or so in the country. But these were missionaries, guys and gals who devoted their lives to language (and scripture) study. The other 80% either gave up or achieved marginal functionality in the language. So yes, some people are able to get fluent enough in a few years to be able to interpret, translate, conduct business, etc.

Still, the fact of the matter is, the percentage of Mandarin students who are able stick with their learning program, overcoming the stress, frustration, and constant headaches involved in becoming fully, functionally fluent in Chinese is lower than the Navy Seal training graduation rate. I’d venture to guess that there are plenty of Navy Seals who can handle starvation and sleep deprivation but who would ring the bell after a few months of learning Mandarin.

Why is learning Mandarin so difficult? Check out this article by David Moser on http://www.pinyin.info for a humorous primer on why learning Mandarin is so tough. Mr. Moser’s article deals with some of the technical problems inherent in learning Mandarin. To add my own two cents, there are some very practical problems for native English speakers who want to learn Mandarin, namely:

1. You won’t really get fluent in Mandarin if you don’t live in Taiwan or China for at least six months to a year.

2. You can’t get fluent in Mandarin unless it is your all-encompassing mission in life to do so. Most people don’t have that kind of time or desire.

3. Even if you get somewhat fluent, you will probably always sound like a foreigner, and Chinese people will laugh at you and correct you all the day long. Are you prepared to deal with this somewhat disconcerting cultural difference? Note: I don’t think that Chinese people realize how hurtful it is to laugh at a foreigner who mispronounces a word or phrase in Mandarin. For them, the situation is humorous, but not really in a “you’re an idiot” sort of way. The problem, of course, is that even if you approach this situation objectively, there is something cutting about someone laughing at you or publicly correcting you that is difficult to digest without some difficulty.

4 . You’ll probably never learn to write by hand very well. You’ll have to get by with using a phonemic alphabet called BoPoMoFo to type, and your writing will always seem foreign.

For a more comprehensive report on the difficulties involved in learning Mandarin, see my article in Taiwanease Magazine entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Mandarin.” (Note: The link takes you to a .pdf download. My article begins on page 4, and is written under my pen name, Steven D. Quinn).

I don’t want to discourage people who want to learn Mandarin, I just want them to know what they are getting into. Ergo, if you are thinking of sending your kid or your next China-based product manager off to weekend Mandarin classes, hoping that they’ll learn enough to “get by” after six months or a year of classes, I think you’re dreaming.

I’d first find out whether or not your student has a burning desire to speak fluent Mandarin, and is willing to stick with the program until he is indeed fluent enough to function in a Mandarin-speaking society. Otherwise, you’d be better off sending him to a modern Chinese history course, taught in English.

*To give credit to Mr. Noerper, he does mention in his article that “…the language is hard, with more than 2,500 characters generally employed in daily writing and a complex tonal speaking system.” These are good points, but they are only the tip of the linguistic iceberg.

If any of my readers wants specific advice about what you can realistically expect out of U.S.-based Mandarin classes, please feel free to e-mail me.

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52 Comments

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52 responses to “Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It?

  1. I found your take on this interesting, since i am a teacher of English as a second/foreign language and an adult learner of a foreign language (French) myself.

    Linguists have long held the belief that there is a critical period for language acquisition, and this period ends around puberty. Thus, learning a foreign language after puberty is often extremely difficult for anyone (regardless of the language and its perceived difficulty).

    While i understand that your article is really addressing adult learners, you do throw the following in there:

    if you are thinking of sending your kid or your next China-based product manager off to weekend Mandarin classes, hoping that they’ll learn enough to “get by” after six months or a year of classes, I think you’re dreaming.

    (emphasis mine)
    I completely agree that the product manager is unlikely to be able to get by with weekend classes, but you might be surprised by the kid.

    I think it’s important, too, to make the distinction between fluency (a level of language use that few adult learners — or children not raised in a bilingual environment — ever feel they have achieved) and communication ability (getting by, if you like). While nice to have, fluency is not necessary to live comfortably in a foreign country.

    Just a thought :-)

  2. truettblack

    Thanks for the comment.

    Sure, kids learn languages more easily than adults do. The point I’m making with this piece is that Mandarin is so far removed from any foreign langauge a native English speaker is likely to have encountered (e.g. Spanish, French, German, Italian) that becoming fluent in Mandarin is on par with scaling a mountain by walking on your hands. When I wrote my own magazine piece on the difficult of learning Mandarin, I was trying to dispel the thought that so many people have these days along the lines of “Chinese is going to be the next big language. I’ll send my kids to Mandarin classes.” If you sent English-speaking kids to Spanish classes, I could see them being able to converse in six months or a year. With Mandarin, it will take much longer, if it ever happens.

    I completely agree with the distinction you draw being being able to use a foreign language order a dinner with a server or tell a cab driver where to go and actually being able to have a long conversation with either person. In the case of Mandarin, I doubt there are more than twenty or thirty thousand native English speakers on the planet who are truly fluent.

    • John McMann

      judyb12 made an excellent point with the “critical period” hypothesis. regardless of how far removed a language is from one’s native language, if it is learned before a certain age, an foreign-accentless and fluent ability in community can be acheived. For example, my native language is Amharic (the main language of Ethiopia) and I started learning English when I was about 4 years old. Within 3 years I was able to speak and write with the same ability as my peers and really encountered no problems after that. Point is, its when you learn it and how you attempt it that matters, not similarity (and let me tell you, Amharic is preeety far from being close to english). Children don’t focus on conjugations, gender and cases when learning a language — they can naturally absorb all that without forcing it. Adults have an impairment in this ability, so the way they attempt to learn it is different. They choose the way that requires memorization of prepositions, conjugations, etc. It’s a matter of immersing yourself in the language and trying to absorb/”memorize” naturally rather than forcing it into your head.

  3. I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  4. truettblack

    Maximus,

    I’ve written a draft of a follow up article. My blessing is also my curse–I’ve got so many writing, training and consulting projects going that it is hard to update the blog as regularly as I’d like. I’ll try and polish the follow up piece over the weekend and post it next week.

    You might also let me know what you are specifically interested in–I’ll try and address that area with the piece.

  5. Pingback: How Hard is Chinese? : Prologue « Kelly Translates

  6. vanessa

    Dear Sir,
    I am considering going to Shanghai to enroll in a mandarin immersion program for six months next year. I wonder if this will just be a waste of time or if it is possible to become at least conversationally proficient in such a short period. Any feedback would be great.
    Thanks
    -Vanessa

  7. truettblack

    Hi Vanessa,

    The answer to your question depends on many variables, such as number of course hours, the way the curriculum is designed, how much conversation practice you’ll get, how “social” you are personally, whether you’ll be in situations where you can only rely on Mandarin, materials studied, etc.

    Personally, I took a semester of Mandarin at university and then moved to Taiwan with the John DeFrancis texts in my suitcase. I studied an hour each morning, carried a vocabulary notebook with me as I went about my business each day, was a madman about asking people to help me figure out words they’d spoken that I didn’t understand, and pretty much spoken Chinese all day.

    In six months, I was able to hold a conversation, though I didn’t yet have sufficient vocabulary to be able to discuss most topics in depth. I had to used circumlocution (“talking around”) to get my point across.

    So no, I don’t think it will be a waste of time. You could get to the point where you could have many shallow conversations (e.g. talk about the weather, sports, people) and some deeper conversations about areas you’re interested in.

    Honestly, at lot of this depends on how aggressive you are about opening your mouth and speaking, and about how well you listen and mimic the sounds around you. There is also a “natural gift” component here that very few people consider, i.e. some people are just more naturally blessed with language acquisition skills than others, and they will learn faster.

    Finally, if you’re going to enroll in a Mandarin immersion program, it is best to be in China or Taiwan when you do it. Definitely preferable to being in a non-Chinese speaking country.

    Good luck to you, and let me know if you need additional advice.

    -True

    • Esmail Afsah

      the Brittish foreign service believes that less than 3% of the population is actually able to learn languages of a completely different concept and alphabet, such as Mandarin.

      I fully agree with all the things you are saying.

      In my mind language schools are above all about meeting other people on holidays under the pretext to do something useful — the vast majority of money is wasted.

    • Leigh F.

      What are your thoughts on keeping with the path of Mandarin for my 8 and 5 yr old boys. I am hoping, long down the road, that Mandarin will be ;helpful for the business world. My brother graduated business school and moved to Hong Kong and there became (what I call) fluent in Mandarin and speaks some other dialects as well. Anyway, for my oldest, we have invested in 2 summers of Mandarin, and he now has it after school 2 days a week. My youngest is just doing 2 days at school a week. I don’t know if I expect them to really be able to write and become truly “fluent”, but I was hoping that of the languages out there that this was one with the most value in the world of business. Since they are so young, I was hoping time and then possibly moving there for immersion after college would get them what they need to succeed. What are your thoughts, and would there be a different language for the business world you would suggest. Have your travels taken you elsewhere?Thanks~Leigh

      • truettblack

        I have written several posts that answer your questions. In brief:
        -Getting fluent does not mean being able to write. I can type, and that’s all I need. I do not write, and I am just as functionally fluent as any educated Chinese person. Learning to write by hand is extremely time-consuming, and nearly impossible to maintain, even for Chinese people who type more than they write.
        -Nobody can predict the future. Will China be a land of opportunity for your children in 20-30 years? I don’t know. Do they enjoy learning Mandarin? I think that’s the better question.
        -A few semester in China or Taiwan after several years of study is an absolute must for fluency. Better if they go in middle or high school, for as long as you can let them be in China.

        Good luck.

  8. It is difficult to learn Chinese but it can be done. It takes years. I started aged 39, thirteen years later I’m fluent in that I can converse for extended periods in Mandarin by listening carefully, reproducing the pronunciation of words I don’t understand and asking (in Mandarin) what the word means. I has been a long haul, and although a few days or a week or two here and there may have gone by without my getting down to a spot of study, I have by and large been on the case throughout the past decade and a third. The main problem is that I am English, and would far prefer to reside in England than in China/Taiwan. Fortunately, the Internet affords plenty of opportunities to listen to Mandarin, and there is no shortage of Chinese printed matter readily available in England. Of course there is little opportunity to converse using the language, but likewise no reason for doing so. This doesn’t stop me from speaking Mandarin however, and probably actually improves the quality of my speech, the reason being that more than 95 percent of the Mandarin I have ever spoken has been spoken along with a recording of a native speaking it. In consequence, I can practically recite the twelve main texts of ‘Taiwan Today : An Intermediate Course’ by heart. In my opinion, talk of the need to learn tones is counterproductive, the best way for English speaker Joe Bloggs (US JohnDoe) to get to speak Mnadarin well is to listen and repeat,listen and repeat, listen and repeat………………

  9. Zhenia

    Hello, I have applied for Chinese Studies at one of the universities of the UK (that is not my birth country). Now I am confused and wondering if I can learn this language in 4 years. I always thought I can pick up languages very easily as now I am fluent in 3 different ones and can speak 2 more at a lower level.
    So do you think that studying Chinese at the university (3 years at the UK and 1 year spent in China) is a waste of time and you still will be unable to communicate or find a job concerned with the language?
    Thank you in advance.

    • truettblack

      Hello,

      No! I don’t think what you suggest will be a waste of time. I just want you to understand that if you are a native speaker of English or some other Romance language and you’ve learned French, German, Spanish, Italian, or even Japanese, you’re going to find Chinese to be more difficult by half. There is no alphabet. You have to memorize 3,000 characters before you’ll be able to read the newspaper and understand the gist of what you are reading. There are four common tones which, if pronounced incorrectly nor not at all, will distort the meaning of what you’re trying to say or make you sound like a laughable amateur. There are very few commonalities between English and Chinese grammar. Chinese communication styles are very different from anything you’re used to.

      If you understand all of these realities and are not daunted, then move ahead with faith and confidence. It is definitely possible to learn to speak, read, and write Chinese in a four year university program. What you’ll find, after four years, is that some of your classmates will be excellent and reading and writing but crap at speaking. Others will be good mimics and fluent conversationalists but won’t be much for reading and writing. A few of The Chosen will be skilled on all fronts.

      When is the year in China? I hope it is Year 2, or Year 3 at the latest. You’ll get far more benefit out of subsequent study, and you’ll avoid reaching the point of marginal return on your efforts, if you can get over to China or Taiwan after a year or two of classroom work in the UK.

      As for finding a job where you use Chinese every day, stay tuned. I’ll put something up on all of the possibilities soon, as I get many, many e-mails and requests for advice on careers using Chinese.

      Best of luck to you!
      True

  10. Dimitri

    hey my name is dimitri iam taking mandarin class 2 times a week i grew up around mostly asians i study chiense for at least 6 hours a day by watching tvs shows listing to phrases online reading books and talking on the phone in mandarin, but girlfriend is also mandarin how long will i be fluent in

    • truettblack

      Dimitri, you have to give me more information if you want me to help you.

      Do you mean your girlfriend is Chinese? Do you speak Chinese or another language with her?

      How long have you been studying?

      You’re still going to have to get to China, Taiwan, or an area that is dominated by Chinese speakers and live there for 6 months to a year before you’ll really be fluent, and that’s if you’ve got a bit of talent for the language.

  11. Mary

    Hi,

    My name is Mary. I am currently trying to study Mandarin with my husband. We take 2 classes a week online with a Chinese teacher from Wuhan, China. It is a internet based school. We have done probably 3o lessons so far so are still fairly new. And we have been doing this for the past year. We probably know about 400 words but making sentences is difficult. We are not learning how to write the characters. Just learning how to speak the pinyin. Outside of our class we probably review for an hour each day after work etc. My question is I am wondering how long it would take us to get really fluent? I would like to be able to converse in basic conversation (more than just asking where something is though!) in about a year. Is this a realistic goal with the pace we are going? My husband is from the french side of Canada so he speaks 2 languages already. Should it be alot easier for him to learn mandarin?
    Anyfeed back would be great!
    thanks

    • truettblack

      Mary,

      You’re not going to make much progress using an online course of study. You’ll have to get yourselves into a Chinese-speaking environment. Most people don’t want to hear that, but there really isn’t any way to get fluent in Mandarin unless you live abroad for a while. You can make progress in your home country to an extent, but all you’re really doing is building a foundation. You won’t experience a breakthrough until you’re overseas and completely surrounded for several hours a day by people who will only speak Chinese with you.

      I suppose there may be a way to create or find such an environment where you are. You’ll know better than I will whether that’s possible or not given the demographics in your area.

      I don’t know of any correlation between being bilingual in English and French and picking up Mandarin more easily. Sorry.

      Best of luck to you.

      True

  12. oohkuchi

    As a Chinese-to-English translator who is self-taught in Mandarin, I can only say I agree entirely with the writer of this article and commend him for re-sounding this warning. You often read on the Net that Chinese is not so hard because the grammar is ‘simple.’ And indeed, it is quite easy to order a beer or drool ‘wo ai ni’ to a good-time girl in a Shanghai bar. Taking it beyond there, though, is another matter altogether. You just do not pick up this language. Mandarin mastery, or even maintenance, cannot be achieved without serious study or REGULAR STAYS IN A CHINESE-SPEAKING ENVIRONMENT. Absent this, and it is not worth it for most people.
    I’d like to cover here a few points I think the writer could have said more about, coming at this as a linguist who works in several languages.
    (1) The hardest thing with Chinese, I think, is aural comprehension. Compared with Japanese or Korean, which are no pushover either, Chinese is much more difficult in this area. This is due to the unfamiliarity of tones and homophones, the speed with which Chinese speak, the heavy use of dialect in all Chinese communities, which often blurs the already difficult distinctions between words, and not least to the complete lack of English loan words (in total contrast to Japanese and Korean) to fall back on when all else fails. You just cannot bluff it as you can with Spanish or Italian. Even after years of study, you will still find that entire sentences are just mumbo-jumbo to your ear because you have missed one key syllable.
    (2) The pronunciation and the tones. Most people think the tones are the big problem, but in fact basic pronunciation is very hard as well, as Chinese (of all dialects) has many tricky consonants that do not exist in western languages (here Japanese is much easier). The basic pronunciation—being able to distinguish and reproduce ci, zi, ce, se, ze, she and shi for example—takes weeks of tape recorder work.
    The tones are never fully mastered by a foreigner, though this is a similar problem to that of gender in French or Spanish—you build up a hard core of words with the right tones, and the rest sort of fall into place eventually. You will still fall over repeatedly, but after a couple of years it will stop being a problem. You do have to get pronunciation and tones basically right, though, or you simply will not communicate.
    (3) Learning to read is, predictably, an enormous job of work, but this is not primarily due to the characters. Characters are actually not that hard to read, for reasons I do not have space to go into; but if you doubt this, try turning a chunk of Chinese text into pinyin using one of the online converter sites and see how easy it is to understand. If you have intermediate Chinese, you will soon be wishing to have the characters back, because they eliminate the ambiguity.
    What makes Chinese infernally difficult to read is, believe it or not, the ‘simplicity’ of its grammar. In Chinese, everything that can be abbreviated is, and sentences often seem pared down to piles of words without any markers of grammatical function—no articles, no subject sometimes, no tense, no plural, no conjunctions. It or them? Will or would? A or the? Because of or in spite of? Sometimes it is not clear. It can even be hard to distinguish nouns and verbs. Plus, the Chinese love long, long sentences. Unless you can read between the lines, you will have difficulty in fully understanding most text, and will not be able to read quickly for years (about five to ten).
    (4) Writing. But let me end this thoroughly disheartening essay on a bright note. Once upon a time, up till about ten years ago in fact, writing Chinese was beyond the hope of any normal foreigner. Handwriting competently still is, though it can be fun trying, but something wonderful happened a few years back. Predictive IME fonts and other software tools mean you can now just type in lines of pinyin and up pops the Mandarin, for the most part with the right characters. Even I can fix the errors. In short, foreigners can now write Mandarin fairly easily, for the first time in three thousand years. You can email in Chinese, and with the well-chosen help of Google translator, you can blog and comment comprehensibly in Chinese too.

    These are seminal steps forward, but, be under no illusion, Mandarin is never going to be a lingua franca. Even within China it is not always a lingua franca—I know of a Hong Kong woman and a Sichuan girl who prefer to use English to communicate. Study it, but do so mainly to better understand what will probably be top dog nation in our lifetimes. Don’t expect much more than that, unless you are a sinophile.

  13. manifestus

    I’m curious as to what a good strategy would be for an individual like myself:

    Moved to the USA when very young (Taiwanese), with easy accessibility to fluent speakers and writers, and conversant (but not “fluent”) in Mandarin.

    I’ve never really bothered to pick up writing in Chinese and haven’t had any sort of structured study in verbal communication (in Mandarin, or for that matter, in Taiwanese). In terms of verbal communication I’m not that daunted, given the network of native speakers I can surround myself with at any given time. I’m looking for a good place to start with writing, without all the repetition of tones, grammar, and miscellaneous tidbits that are already second nature.

    Additionally, what did you do to build peripheral vocabulary? I can hold a conversation fairly well, but once in awhile find myself reaching either for: (1) words that are slipping my memory but I know when someone directs them back at me; or (2) words I absolutely don’t know. What sort of practice would you recommend to focus on to extend and build peripheral vocab? I’d like to work towards building “true” verbal fluency as well as work towards a solid foundation in writing.

    I do have a vested interest in learning this, so motivation is pretty sky-high. Any recommendations as to where to begin would be pretty helpful.

    • truettblack

      Sorry for my late reply, manifestus.

      1-Start with Reading and Writing Chinese by William McNaughton. You might also pick up a set of flashcards (or use the digital equivalent) to help you learn stroke orders. You might then graduate to the elementary school texts, which have writing workbooks. That’s if you want to learn to write like a native does.

      Personally, I never learned to write much using a pen and paper, but I type a great deal of correspondence in Chinese on a regular basis. I never really need to write using a pen, so I never learned.

      2-There is no way to pick up peripheral vocabulary other than to converse with native speakers, write down what you don’t understand, and then use it in another conversation. I filled 6 notebooks with vocabulary the first year I lived in Taiwan. I reviewed the words constantly, and I remembered them because I’d been exposed to them first in a specific context.

      Chinese is a gorgeous language. Best of luck to you in your endeavors.

  14. Pingback: Why Learning Chinese Is Hard | Sinosplice

  15. Fredsie

    Hi

    This is a great thread, which I stumbled upon while looking for smart-phone based learning aids. My response in not a question, but an observation and a viewpoint.

    I started learning Mandarin last year at the Confucious Institute in Liverpool, UK. I have a good native speaker teacher, and excellent resources at he institute. Also, the university itself is well populated with chatty Chinese students!
    My initial experience corresponds exactly with your main piece. Facility in European languages is no indicator of facility to learn Mandarin. As an English speaker, you will have some affinity with Germanic and northern European languages. If you have learned one of the Romance languages (probably French if you live in the UK) then learning any of the others only amounts to a conversion course. I did also do a year of Arabic, so I do also have experience of one of the other “hardest” languages to learn.
    But Mandarin is on a level of its own. As you say, there is no alphabet (unlike Arabic, which although it looks strange, is soon readable phonetically, and pronunciation is fairly easy). I don’t think people approaching Mandarin with experience only in alphabet-based languages fully appreciate what this means; you cannot see a new character and know how it should be pronounced. You just have to learn it by rote. You need probably 3,500 of them to make a good stab at understanding day-to-day texts, such as the news. Then there’s the issue of what to do when you’re reading and come across a character you don’t know. So you’ve bought a good dictionary, now how do you find your new character in it? Typically the characters are listed by sound, but you don’t know what it sounds like do you? First, you have to examine the character in detail, as it will have an element (called a radical) which is possibly obvious but could also be somewhat hidden in the character, or in a mutated form. These radicals will be listed in a table at the beginning, grouped by the number of “strokes” in them. But what counts as a stroke? Every line in a character is not a separate stroke; some are, but some apparently two-stroke parts are written continuously. Assuming you find your radical (by no means a certain prospect for a beginner!) , you then need to look up the radical in another table to find the rest of your character, again sorted by stroke number. This will give you an index to the page number on which your character will hopefully be found. Easy!

    Then there’s the grammar. Don’t expect much help here from your existing knowledge of languages. Word order in particular will seem odd. However there is a logic to it which will become evident in time. You will come to see for example that the context for an action is expressed first, then the action itself.

    Speaking. This is just hard, for a Brit. Apart from remembering and executing tones, which everyone is aware of, the sequences of sounds which come together are often just difficult to say for a European, a bit like “Peter Piper picks” etc. This takes a lot of practice.

    BUT – despite all this, after less than a year, I’m hooked. The language is almost indescribably beautiful. The characters are miniature works of art. The history of each character is fascinating. A knowledge of the vocabulary gives an exclusive insight into the values of Chinese society (the character for “good” is a marriage of those for “son” and “daughter”; having both in your family is the definition of good).

    I’m hooked. I know I won’t ever have the fluency in mandarin that I have in say French, but no matter. For me the learning is now an end in itself. I carry around crib notes and lists of words. I practise all the time. My wife thinks I’m obsessed. She’s right. It’s just what I want to do. It’s wonderful and I want to know more. And there’s always more – much more – left to learn!

  16. Daanish Zaidi

    Hi!

    Thanks for the great read. I’ve been interested in east Asian culture since I was a kid and now that I’m in college I was thinking of taking my interests further by enrolling in Mandarin classes. Ultimately I plan on working in east Asia and therefore I see myself using Mandarin to conduct business as well as daily life. Though you may not have intended to, I can’t say that I’m not a little discouraged with my prospects of being able to speak the language fluently, but my question is this: will the fact that I was practically born bilingual in two completely different languages, Urdu and English, and continue to speak, read and write both with fluency, confer any advantage to me in mastering Chinese?

    Also, I apologize if someone else has had the same question as me, I didn’t have time to read through all the comments.

    • truettblack

      Hi Daanish,

      I have no idea if there is a causal relationship there, but the popular wisdom seems to be that if you aren’t daunted by becoming bilingual, learning a third language should be a bit easier for you. You at least have developed the neural pathways that allow you think in two totally different languages.

      Best of luck to you. My purpose is not to discourage, but to help people understand the realities. My advice is to give it a full effort for three to six months, then make a decision as to whether to continue or not. You may just end up being on of those rare and few who learn Mandarin quickly.

      True

  17. Jessica Liu

    I’m fluent! Although that’s because my mom sent me to live with my grandparents in china a few years ago. The first year was horrible, and I had no idea what anyone was talking about. But at least I’m bilingual now! My english suffered from it though, since by the third year Chinese had become my primary language, and I had to make the transition back to english. But anyways, if you stick yourself in China for a few years you could totally become fluent, even if only in the spoken language.

  18. Matt C

    I am an avid learner of new languages and I was thinking of embarking upon Mandarin as my next labour of love but I have a question (which I feel might have been answered from reading this article and the longer one you link to).
    How well do programs such as Rosetta Stone work for learning a language as complex as Mandarin? I’ve used these before for European languages and thus haven’t had much problem, but as you say it’s a whole different animal with Chinese.

    • truettblack

      Matt,

      I’ve heard both good and bad things about Rosetta Stone for Mandarin. I have never used it or even seen it used.

      I’ve never met anyone who used it who could actually speak Mandarin, but I think that may be more a matter of correlation than cause and effect, i.e. if you require a software program to learn Mandarin, you probably don’t have the right stuff to get fluent in it.

      I imagine that Rosetta Stone may have some use for beginners, but eventually, you need to listen to and speak with native Chinese speakers if you want to get fluent.

      Best of luck to you.

  19. Matthew

    On the topic of this how useful are programs such as Rosetta Stone for learning Mandarin? I use these frequently as a hobby, and do try and immerse myself in as much of the language as possible to be fully fluent but how effective would this method be for Mandarin?

  20. Jeffrey

    Very interesting article! Honestly it was a little disheartening, however it definitely puts things in perspective regarding the difficulty of mastering mandarin.

    I have recently started studying Chinese to communicate better with my fiance’s family. My fiance is fluent in both english and mandarin, so if I have access to mandarin rosetta stone and a fluent mandarin speaker in the house, what would be the best way for me to practice?

    • truettblack

      Rosetta Stone is of marginal utility, and so is the fluent Mandarin speaker, if she is your spouse. Spouses need to communicate, and seldom have time to practice foreign languages together.

      See my article on How to Learn Fluent Chinese. You’ll need to get a set of John DeFrancis books. It’s all laid out in the article.

      Best of luck,

      True

  21. Kynan

    Thanks for this article. I’m going to be a medical student in Canada and I’ve been interested in working in public health in China a little beforehand and then maybe go back later, ie rural clinics and training. I was thinking of moving to a city there for a few months to study mandarin and then begin with the health work. How long should I expect to take to develop reasonable conversational abilities if I’m immersed and dedicated?
    Thanks,
    Kynan

    • truettblack

      Kynan,

      I don’t know what ‘reasonable’ means, so I”m not sure how to answer your question. If you mean that you’d like to be able to carry on a normal conversation, it takes a few years for most people. For you (Based on intuition, the intelligence your writing displays, and the fact that you’re smart enough to get into med school), I suspect it will be six months before you’re able to follow the big picture and express some general ideas and about a year before you’re somewhat articulate.

      Best of luck,

      True

  22. Nathan

    Good article. But Scary. Haha I just called on a mission to Scotland/ Ireland and will be teaching the Chinese immigrants in Mandarin. You have any tips or do you think the MTC will get the job done?

    • truettblack

      The MTC will not get the job done. It will teach you a few hundred words and some very basic sentences. Is that enough to have a deep conversation?

      90% of the missionaries you work with will not become fluent, but that’s mainly because they will be lazy about studying and learning new vocabulary, once they can get by with basic Mandarin. Learning really fluent Mandarin is 90% hard work and mindset.

      My blog is full of tips. Have a look around.

      And I doubt you’ll be “teaching” many people. More likely you’ll spend most of your time trying to convince your target customers that it’s worth it to sit down with you for an hour.

      Good luck.

  23. My perspective is that you can learn a language without having the objective of becoming fluent. How about the objective of making it easier to travel in China for work or pleasure? How about the objective of being able to get your point across to a taxi driver, waiter or shop assistant? How about enjoying getting an insight, even if basic, into a new culture and way of thinking?

    As a counterpoint to David Moser’s article, read 8 Easy Things about Learning Chinese – http://www.graspchinese.com/blog/easiest-things-about-learning-chinese/4.aspx

    • truettblack

      I agree with you. That’s always been my thinking.

      But if you want to get fluent, you’ve got to pay the price.

  24. Brian

    I’m currently a High school Senior who is interested in learning Mandarin. I have a knack for language learning, before my sophmore year I never spoke a word of Spanish, but in less than 2 years of classroom Spanish i obtained the ability to hold a conversation in Spanish, and in my third year I’m closer to fluency (though i still plan on living in a Spanish speaking country to attain fluency completely.) I’m really interested in languages in general, and I want to learn Mandarin precisely because it is a challenge. So there are a few questions I have for you:

    1) Is the ability to pick up a language quickly generally an indicator of how fast someone could learn any language in general?
    2)Are there any stand out difficulties about learning Mandarin that English speakers in particular face?
    3)How helpful would Rosetta stone be before enrolling in a college Mandarin class?
    4)For someone who practices and is devoted to learning the language, how long does it typically take to gain fluency in Mandarin?

  25. john

    为了看懂你们的对话我还用了google翻译,我现在也面临着练习英文发音的麻烦。我感觉中国人说英语就是找不到美国人说话的那种感觉。。。

  26. xd

    Bah. I think you’re setting the bar too high.
    Sure if you want to function at 80-100% of your fluency in your native tongue (English presumably) for ALL tasks then sure, it’s almost an insurmountable barrier.

    If, however, what you’re shooting for is to be able to function at a social level then hell, you don’t even need to be grammatically correct. I’ve had tons of experiences where I’ve gone to lunch or whatever with people who are not fully fluent in English and it was perfectly possible to have a conversation with them.

    From that perspective, learning to *speak* Mandarin absolutely has to be much easier than learning to *function fluently* in Chinese *Culture* which is really what you are talking about.

    Here’s a *much* lower bar: I bet I could learn, say, 3000 words of Mandarin and pronounce them reasonably clearly and be able to have pidgin conversations with no use of English inside of one year. Fluent? No but useful? Hell yes.

  27. Matt

    Hey,

    I am just about to graduate from university and have no background at all with speaking or learning Mandarin. I have several options of what I want to do before I apply for PhD places. One of them is to teach basic English in China or Taiwan. Obviously, in these scenarios, although I am teaching English, I will be surrounded by the local language. I am also a very sociable guy and would try to integrate with the community spending a lot of time with my head in a phrase book trying to talk to the locals. In that year, am I being rediculous in thinking I could become conversational without preperation before going out? To be honest, although it would be amazing to do so, I am not too fussed about being able to write mandarin as I feel being able to speak will be much more essential out there.

    Cheers

    Matt

    • truettblack

      Matt, I don’t think writing is a very valuable use of your time. I personally just type using pinyin and then selecting the right characters. If you’re very sociable, it will help you a lot in becoming conversationally fluent. But I think you should take a few classes to get you started. Or find a significant other in TW or China who doesn’t speak any English :).

  28. malaysia

    I am from Malaysia. I have study Mandarin on and of for about 20 years. I agree , in order to be fluent you much be in an chinese environment. Back in college I use to hang around mainland chinese student and my mandarin improve. After a long period of no chinese contact, I pretty much lose much of my mandarin skill. After coming home , I work in a supermarket with chinese co work….my mandarin became better. Leaving my job , and moving to a new company with no chinese friend , my mandarin start to to suffer.

    No that I have a chinese bf, thing start to look up again. I evern enroll for
    chinese writing class and advance class to improve myself. I cant believe how far I progress, now that I speak mandarin during break fast/lunch and
    dinner and also while making love .

    Mandarin is a beautiful language.

  29. Hi, I came across this site while browsing around trying to see how hard it is to learn Chinese. My university requires me to take two semesters of a foreign language, and I can speak enough Cantonese to do basic tasks and survive in Hong Kong and I was wondering how much of a step up it would be for me to learn Mandarin. I know that the two languages are pretty far apart and the pronunciation is worlds apart, but should it be relatively easy for me? My other choice would be Spanish, which I’m sure pretty easy, though I know that taking two semesters of Spanish will be entirely useless for my future, while I may be able to use my Chinese in the IT field (especially with outsourcing and communication with offshore teams). What is your advice?

  30. Interested

    What do you think about Mandarin Immersion schools (Kindergarten to 6th grade) taught by native speakers? What level of fluency do you think children will achieve at the end of the 6th grade? Schools claim that you only need to know about 3000 characters to become fluent. How likely would it be for them to maintain their fluency if they only take 1 or 2 content classes in Mandarin throughout middle and high school.

    • truettblack

      Fluency depends on use. If kids are fluent by sixth grade and then never use the language again, they’ll lose it. 3,000 characters is what’s required for written fluency, not spoken fluency.

  31. adam

    You’re right. It’s really hard to learn Chinese and people looking to study the language should know what they are getting into.

    I have been studying Chinese since 1985. I started as a nineteen year old in Taiwan and altogether spent 10 years in China, although mostly in Hong Kong. I think I am pretty darn fluent, but it is all relative. Conversational fluency just scratches the surface of fluency that an educated Chinese person has.

    My daughter, who grew up in China and attended Chinese schools is also fluent in Chinese. Of course, her fluency is more of a native fluency than mine. But since she doesn’t study the language like I do on a daily basis, she will probably never have the vocabulary that I have.

    Like i think you said here, it’s a life long endeavor and kind of like trying to become an expert in some complex subject matter. Except you’re just learning to do something 1.3 billion people know how to do. Either you got to be lucky like my daughter and learn while you are young in a Chinese school or you have to spend your life learning it.l

    • truettblack

      Yes, you understood my point. Most people read what they want to, skipping the actual comments made by the author.

      However, please be aware that many Chinese people do not speak Mandarin well, or at all.

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