So You Want to Learn Mandarin Chinese?

To be fluent in Mandarin Chinese, here’s what you need:

1. A great dictionary.

2. A motivating teacher.

3. The perfect learning method.

4. The proper texts and the latest learning technology (e.g. Podcats and language learning software).

5. Encouraging classmates.

Etc., Etc., Etc., Right?


If you want to learn fluent Chinese, you really only need one thing.

A deep, burning desire to learn Chinese. Another way to say this is you need a very good reason to learn Chinese, something other than “I think it would be cool to learn Chinese” or “Gee, I really should learn Chinese.” Even “I think learning Chinese will make me a lot of loot” isn’t a motive that will sustain you through the process. You must be absolutely, 100%, “you can pry my character flashcards from my cold, dead, fingers” dedicated to learning this language and learning it well, or you will do little but waste your time and spin your wheels.

If you’re looking for an easy road, go and learn Spanish or Italian. If you’re not afraid of a bit of a challenge, learn French, German, or Japanese. Only those with a serious jones and an endless fascination for learning Mandarin are going to actually learn it.

If you aren’t really sure whether you want to learn Chinese, you probably aren’t equipped with the motivation and fortitude to learn it successfully. You might take one course and see if you like it, but chances are, you won’t (like it). That’s because you needed to take a course to figure out whether you wanted to learn Chinese or not.

There is nothing wrong with this. Most non-Chinese people aren’t equipped to learn to speak, read, and write fluent Mandarin. That is why the ranks of Mandarin speaking foreigners, while expanding, aren’t expanding very quickly.

Think of it this way: How many people do you know who want to become professional writers? Dozens? Hundreds? Most of your friends and yourself? Okay, now how many of them are actually professional writers? None? I thought so. Why? Because becoming a professional writer requires the fortitude of Heracles and the work ethic of Paul Bunyan. That elimates 99.99% of all possible candidates. Lots of people want to write, but very few people have to write, and rewrite, and write again until their fingers cramp and their butts go numb.

The bottom line: If you want to learn to speak (and possibly even write) Mandarin Chinese fluently, you have to want it so badly that you simply can’t NOT learn it.

If you’ve got that, the importance of the method you use to learn Mandarin pales in comparison. You’ll get to your goal because you have to. You will not be stopped.

But be forewarned–many people learn to speak and read Chinese, maybe even write it, but still don’t sound like native speakers.

That’s because if you want to learn to speak Chinese like a native, you’ll need two other things:

1. An undying commitment to getting the tones and pronunciation of Mandarin syllables correct.

2. A natural talent for mimicry.

If you don’t have those, and few people do (these types are so rare that they are legendary among expat circles), you’ll always sound like a foreigner. That’s actually okay. There are plenty of foreigners who work as multi-directional interpreters who have foreigner-accented Mandarin. It isn’t really a huge problem, but I need to mention it because some of you have unrealistic expectations.

Uncle True doesn’t want to discourage you from learning Mandarin. I want to make sure you know what you’re getting in to. If you don’t have what it takes, don’t be hard on yourself. There are plenty of other endeavors in life that are just as rewarding and that you are probably better suited to.



Filed under Language

6 responses to “So You Want to Learn Mandarin Chinese?

  1. Can you explain why Japanese is just “a bit of a challenge” and not in the same league as Mandarin? Japanese also use characters (although the number may be smaller, I think it’s still high enough to be a daunting task) but, unlike Mandarin, it has quite a lot of morphology. The fact that it is an agglutinative language is also a barrier for speakers of English.

  2. truettblack

    Japanese is easier to pronounce, it has phonetic syllabaries, and a plethora of English loan-words. There are no tones.

    Saying it is a “bit of a challenge” doesn’t mean it is easy, and isn’t meant to offend anyone. Learning Japanese is challenging, but most people who have studied both Mandarin and Japanese will tell you that Mandarin is the more difficult language (tones, characters, pronunciation, etc.).

    Anyway, it’s a bit ridiculous for us to pedantically bat this back and forth. The key point with this post is that if you want to learn Mandarin, you’ve got to really want to learn it, or it isn’t going to happen.

  3. Hello,

    Great post for learning Japanese.

    Japanese is so hard for me. I’ve lived in Japan for 2 years but failed to speak fluently. Now, I’m in China, I’m having an easier time with Mandarin. I wrote a blog post about the difficulties I had learning Japanese over Chinese. TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know if you are interested with link exchange.


  4. Ben C

    Dear Mr. Black,

    I discovered your informative blog while researching Chinese language learning. I am a recent college graduate who has never studied Chinese, and I am currently deciding on an offer to teach English for ten months at Jiangsu Polytechnic University in Changzhou. I am trying
    to get a sense of how much Chinese language proficiency is reasonable to expect if I take a two-month intro course this summer in New York
    City and then practice as much as I can while teaching in Changzhou for ten months. Regarding immersion, I would devote myself as much as possible to finding a class and conversation partners, but for my social needs I would undoubtedly spend a lot of time with English-speaking Chinese and expats.

    I have no illusions of fluency, but I would hope to come away with something useful: basic communication skills, enough worth listing on
    my resume alongside my non-native fluency in Spanish. I would also hope to be able to retain a meaningful amount if I worked at it. It would be extremely helpful to know whether such hopes are completely unfounded, or reasonable, or somewhere in-between. The deadline for my
    decision is about 18 hours from now — I thank you in advance for your help given such short notice.

    Kind regards,


    • truettblack

      Ben, I have met many people who could achieve a decent level of fluency in a year of living in China or Taiwan. You won’t by hyper-fluent, but you’ll be able to hold conversations. All of it depends on how willing you are to do the work that it takes. You’ll quickly see what I mean once you get started. You have to have a thirst for it, or a strong aversion to ignorance. I used both to my benefit.

      Good luck.

  5. Hi True,

    I just wanted to say this post really struck a chord with me (as many on your blog have, in the hour or so I’ve been fascinatedly reading.)

    I studied Japanese at high school. Picked up the basics quickly but found advancement interminable. In an opera course at university I studied Italian, German and French, and was unable to form a connection to any of them. In my second degree, I chose Mandarin for one of my starting units purely based on a penchant for Kung Fu and a love of Firefly.

    And I LOVED it.

    I don’t have time for Kung Fu anymore, let alone watching TV; my idea of relaxing is character drills, or expanding the non-textbook side of my vocabulary (I’ve been studying for a year and a half and I can discuss at least five species of dinosaur), or translating my textbooks from other classes into Chinese just to see if I can. Chinese is an addiction for me. And very few people in my class understand why. The few who do are my only rivals.

    I’m not going to pretend I’m good at Chinese–I’m pretty good for the time I’ve studied and the sum total of two weeks I’ve spent in China thus far (moving to Zhejiang for two years come January), but I know just how far I’ve got to go. On the other hand, I know what’s got me this far and what will keep me going isn’t talent or even perseverence: it’s because it’s an OBSESSION.

    I don’t know whether Japanese is harder or easier than Mandarin. I know for me it was harder, because I didn’t have the burning drive to learn it. But I love studying Chinese so much that any amount of work I put in is 乐趣, not 辛苦。 It’s fantastic to hear that sentiment echoed by someone with experience. Thank you.


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