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Why is Mandarin so incredibly easy to learn?

By Memrise Blog

This might seem like a rather unusual title, given the amount of time people devote to harping on about how impossibly hard it is to learn Chinese. But there really are a lot of reasons why Mandarin Chinese is in fact a very easy language to learn. I struggled with European languages through my school career, and by contrast found Chinese fairly straightforward. Let me try to explain why.

1. Grammar. Grammar was my nemesis when learning European languages. All those rules that made no sense. I learnt Latin for about ten years and I never really got my head around what “cases” actually are. I am pretty hazy on what a “declension” is as well, if I am totally honest. I feel fairly confident of my ability to write grammatical English prose; but ask me to spot a subjunctive and my mind turns blank.[1] Chinese has no real “cases”, no “declensions”, no masculine or feminine; you don’t even have to change words to make them plural. Even the tenses are done in a pretty simple way – you tend use a word to indicate when something happened or will happen. For example, if you want to say, “Tomorrow I am going to play football,” you just say, “Tomorrow I play football”. Simple. You have already said that you are doing it “Tomorrow”, so why bother changing the verb etc to hammer home the point that it is happening in the future? The pragmatic Chinese realise that you don’t need to.[2]

2. The word order is similar to English. You often find that a direct translation from English to Chinese, word by word, words pretty well. Even better, if you can imagine how a Chinese person who speaks English quite badly would speak, then you are almost certain to get the word order right.

3. Vocab size. To be an undergraduate at an English university you need to know about 20,000 words. To be an undergraduate at a Chinese university you need to know about 5,000 words which use about 3000 characters. It is slower to learn the words in Chinese to begin with, because you need to learn a new character for almost every word. But you have far fewer words that you actually need to learn. 2000 characters covers over 98% of all the characters that you need to get by in reading Chinese.[3]

After reading all of which, you are no doubt thinking to yourself, “That all sounds sensible enough – so why do people complain abut it being so hard?” Well, I believe that there are two major reasons:

1) The initial learning curve can be steep.

Take “Hello” as an example. This might be the first word you learn in Chinese. 你好. The two characters mean “you” and “well”. So it directly translates as, “you well”. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see this as being similar to saying, “Are you well?”, which would be a perfectly reasonable greeting in English. But to learn the characters, what do you have to learn?

The first character, 你 is made up of three building blocks. In order to make sense of it, you need to learn these three – either you can learn them explicitly by looking at them individually, or you can learn them implicitly by just learning the whole character; either way you need to learn how to combine a large number of abstract lines together to make this character. The second character, 好, is made up of two building blocks. So to learn to say “Hello” you are actually learning five building blocks and two characters. That makes seven separate items. On top of that, you will learn the pinyin[4] for those characters – this turns out to be another five items[5]. Learning the pinyin will require you to start getting your ear around the concept of “tones” – which is another five things to learn. So in total you are having to learn something like seventeen separate nuggets of information in order to learn to say “Hello” properly.

That is a pretty steep curve. But even here there is a flip side: in learning to say “hello” you have learnt seven separate characters, each of which will help you to learn many more characters. It is a snowball effect. I feel that it is time to throw in a graph. So here is a graph showing the difficulty in learning a language on the y-axis and the level of language ability is on the x:

 What it is saying is that Chinese is very hard when you start out, but it quickly falls to become pretty easy to make progress. Then as you start getting really sophisticated in your use of language, it becomes harder again. European languages, on the other hand, tend to start off pretty easily because you know so many words already, and become harder as you get better and as you start to use more and more sophisticated grammar.[6]

2) The second reason that people like to chunter on about how difficult Chinese is grows from the first point. People who have got pretty good at Chinese have had to overcome the initial learning barrier. People who give up learning Chinese have failed to overcome that initial hurdle.

Neither group has much to gain from going around saying “Chinese is actually pretty easy to learn”. The people who gave up want to say that it is impossibly hard in order to mitigate their personal failure; the people who managed to get through are pretty keen to perpetuate that rumour and so accentuate their personal victory. What is the point in struggling to get over the hurdle if you can’t brag about it a bit afterwards? Which means that almost no one is incentivized to spread the truth about just how easy Chinese actually can be to learn.

At Memrise we have put a hell of an effort into reducing the initial hurdle to learning Chinese. So now you breeze up the steep learning curve quickly and with minimal effort. Then you can see for yourself how easy it is to learn Chinese. Then you can tell some other people; or you can keep right on telling them how hard it is and reap the admiration and adulation of anyone who is still foolish enough to believe that nonsense. Its up to you.


1 My pride compels me to say that this is not in fact true. I am exaggerating for comic effect and in order to make a point. I am, in truth, a consummate and widely noted spotter of the subjunctive.

2 I am, of course, oversimplifying a bit here. There are extra words that you have to learn to drop in to indicate tenses, and you have to learn how to use these words properly. But I find that learning a new word to drop in is a far simpler task than learning all those different verb endings for the different tenses.

3 Wang H & Chang B-Y (1986) A frequency dictionary in modern Chinese. Beijing: Beijing Language Institute Press (in Chinese). 4 This is the way that the pronunciation of Chinese words is written using roman letters

5 This is because two of the building blocks don’t have pronunciations

6 This graph is obviously a bit fatuous, but I hope it helps to make my point clear.