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Mandarin Chinese: not as difficult as you’d think

Mandarin Chinese: not as difficult as you think

It’s understandable for a Westerner to assume that Chinese is terrifyingly difficult to learn. With its impenetrable written characters and unfamiliar sounds, at first sight it can seem like a complex machine that only highly skilled experts are capable of understanding and using.

But when you take a little time to scratch the surface and pick up its principles one step at a time, not only is it quite similar to English but also refreshingly logical and simple. For example, here is an introduction to Chinese characters from the British Council:

‘Let’s take (ren) as an example. A single means a person, a human being. Two make a new character, (cong), which means to follow (one person followed by another person). Three make , which means the masses or a crowd. Likewise, a single means a tree or wood. Two make , meaning woods. Three make , which means a forest.’

That’s childishly simple and kind of fun. More complex characters are built up in a similarly logical fashion. When it comes to speaking, the sounds of Chinese are fairly straightforward as well, much easier for English-speakers to get their tongues around than, say, French or Italian.

Probably the toughest part is the fact that Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that meanings change according to how a syllable is ‘sung’. There are four tones, ranging from flat through slowly rising, dipping then rising, and sharply falling. In pinyin, these tones are represented by a appropriately rising or falling line above the character.

So with a few months of practice and a lot of singing up-and-down syllables, a Westerner should be able to ask for directions, order food, bargain at a market, make hotel reservations, talk about the weather and express some interests and opinions.

Basic Mandarin courses have naturally been around for a long time. But for the twenty-first century, it’s desirable to learn key phrases associated with technology and the world of business. An up-to-date course in this regards is Duolingo’s new offering, which includes material useful on social media such as WeChat, the behemoth chat service that nearly every Chinese person is signed up to. After all, it makes sense to learn how to communicate via the media that you are likely to be using on a daily basis. But you’ll still be able to buy your vegetables at the local market.

For a quick introduction to the basics of Mandarin Chinese, the best place to start is right here on, with this low-cost Chinese Fast Track program