The Difficulty of Learning Mandarin: An Alternate View

Professor Lu Bisong who is the President of both the Beijing New Asia University and International Society for Chinese Teaching in the World, and the ex-President of the Beijing Language Institute, wrote a piece for a website called TransWorld Education entitled “Don’t Think Chinese is as Difficult as you Imagine.”

I could not find a reference to when the article was published, but it does mention the the world is now “past the gate of the 21st Century,” so I assume it to be fairly recent.

This article is probably more appropriate for students of Chinese who already have a few classes under their belts. It is not written at a level that novices would understand.

My experience with and knowledge of learning Mandarin differs dramatically from that of Dr. Lu. That is, I am a non-native speaker and not an academic, whereas Dr. Lu is a native speaker and a professor. In many ways, he is better qualified than I am to comment upon the intricacies of the Chinese language. My experience is both “on the street” and in classrooms.

I think that the article makes the mistake of largely focusing on a few arcane features of the Chinese language, attempting to explain how they make learning Chinese easy, and ignores many of the difficulties that foreign learners experience. I applaud the news that professors are finding more efficient ways of teaching characters and writing, and I agree that Chinese grammar is easy to master, but I seriously doubt statements like “In my opinion, the difficulty in learning Chinese pronunciation is relative in nature; that is to say, this difficulty can be surmounted by constant practice, and your pronunciation can then be like Chinese.” Certain individual sounds in Chinese may be easy to reproduce, but stringing a series of words together in a sentence, using accurate tones for each syllable, is a difficult task for a Western mouth.

Further, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese writing system has no alphabet, and that even though there are only 100+ radicals, a few of which make up any one character, memorizing the stroke order and the combination of radicals that form a character is a very difficult task for a foreign learner.

I’ll let the reader decide for him/herself whether or not Dr. Lu successfully provides support for the thesis that learning Chinese isn’t all that difficult. Comments welcome.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Difficulty of Learning Mandarin: An Alternate View

  1. Yup, ain’t easy. Yet I have no yardstick to measure by as i have no interest in any other language. I am fascinated by the characters which I think is important, as I would not be able to get very far merely by listening / voice recognition.

  2. It’s as if you just say it’s so, it will become so. But no matter how Chinese teachers profess Mandarin is easy to learn, it just is not going to become so. I think it is better to face the fact that it is difficult, and prepare yourself for the journey. My experience watching students come to learn Mandarin in our school is those who expect to put a lot of time and energy into Mandarin are the ones who are successful. Those who think they can pop in and do homework sometimes (and, really you can get away with this for languages such as Spanish, and still be able to ‘get by’ in the language), will get absolutely no where. The language is beautiful, fascinating, inspiring, and god awful hard. Do the work, put in the time, and eventually after much hard work you will learn to speak.

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