Spoken by 1.4 BILLION people in China and around the world, Mandarin Chinese is #2 of the most spoken languages in the world. It is definitely a useful language to learn for work, travel, or for the culture.
However, many of you may have the impression that Chinese is so different and so hard to learn! Don’t let that stop you from learning this beautiful language, because we are here to help!
Chinese vs. Mandarin
We realized that some people are confused with Chinese vs. Mandarin, so let’s clarify before we start!
First of all, “Chinese” and “Mandarin” are not exactly synonyms. Mandarin is the standardized form of spoken Chinese. It is the most spoken variety under the umbrella of the Chinese language family; therefore, it will be the focus of this article. This chart will illustrate it better:
Is It Difficult to Learn Chinese?
Whether a language is difficult to learn or not depends on different factors, such as your mother tongue and immediate language environment. We believe that with the right methods, resources, and a clear goal, Chinese is not as difficult as you think.
To help you get started, we will give a brief overview of Chinese — characters, grammar, and tones, with a focus on Mandarin, ending with 5 fun facts about Chinese.
Are you ready? 你準備好了嗎 (nǐ zhǔn bèi hǎo le ma)?
Chinese Characters & Writing System
You probably know that Chinese characters do not go by Latin alphabets like English or most European languages. The Chinese writing system is based on a combination of logograms (written symbols), pictographs (simple pictures), ideograms (represented ideas), and phonetic loan characters (characters that sound similar but have different meanings).
Sounds complicated? Maybe a bit, BUT! The good news is that there is a romanized system called “pinyin” (拼音) for beginners to learn how to read and pronounce Mandarin Chinese. Here are some examples:
|你 好 嗎 ?||How are you?||Nǐ hǎo ma|
|學 中 文||Learn Chinese||Xué zhōng wén|
|晚 安||Good night||Wǎn’ ān|
So, as a beginner, learning pinyin is your first step to understanding the pronunciation of these Chinese characters. You will be able to read and pronounce Chinese before actually learning the characters.
You have probably heard that there are traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese (used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) has more strokes to write, but it helps you to understand the meaning and origin of a word. This article uses traditional characters for this reason.
Simplified Chinese (used in China and Singapore) is easier to write but harder to make sense of the meaning. Some examples to illustrate:
The 4 Tones in Mandarin
The tones in Mandarin Chinese may be challenging to distinguish at first, especially if your native language is non-tonal (such as English and most European languages).
Mandarin has 4 tones plus a 5th neutral tone. You can see from the pinyin above, all the accent marks on the vowels are the tonal indicator. The “ma” sound in tone 1 is “mother,” and in tone 2 is “numb,” and so on. The intonation of the word can COMPLETELY change the meaning of the word, so it is vital to know these 4 tones.
A fun poem called “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” (pronounced as “Shī shì shí shī shǐ” in pinyin) demonstrates the crazy, but super cool, tones in Mandarin Chinese:
Basic Chinese Grammar
Forget about the writing and intonation that may seem overwhelming. Chinese grammar is actually quite easy compared to English and other European languages. First of all, there is no difference in gender, like der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neuter) in German. Can I get a HALLELUJAH?
Action verbs also do not change. There are no grammatical markers of different tenses — such as past, present, or future tense — like in English. The time of the event or action is simply indicated by time markers like “today,” “tomorrow,” and “yesterday,” or understood by the context.
Similarly, there is no difference in singular-plural because the number of that noun is sufficient to show. You just need to follow a simple “Number + Measure Unit + Noun” formular:
|English Singular||Chinese||English Plural||Chinese|
|One cat||一 隻 貓||Three cats||三 隻 貓|
|One person||一 個 人||Four persons||四 個 人|
|One cup of water||一 杯 水||Five cups of water||五 杯 水|
Subject + Verb + Object (SVO) is the basic sentence structure in Mandarin Chinese, which is the same as English. You can already make a lot of sentences with this formula. Here are some examples:
|Chinese sentence (SVO)||Word-for-word |
|我 喜歡 你||I like you||Wǒ xǐ huān nǐ|
|我們 吃 早餐||We eat breakfast||Wǒ men chī zǎo cān|
|他 打 籃球||He plays basketball||Tā dǎ lán qiú|
How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?
The honest answer is: it depends.
We wish there was an easy systematic way to calculate the time you need to learn Mandarin. Also, what is your goal? Be fluent or be able to order food in China?
However, we do have some statistics for native English speakers. Experts estimated that if you dedicate 5 hours per day to study Chinese, and only Chinese (not simultaneously with another new language for example), it will take you approximately 2,200 study hours or 88 weeks to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
5 hours x 5 days a week x 88 weeks = 2,200 hours
(well, if you are EVEN MORE dedicated than that and want to study Chinese 7 days a week, then it will “only” take you 62.8 weeks instead, lol.)
How Many Words Do You Need to Know to be Fluent in Chinese?
That’s another abstract question that is difficult to give a simple answer because it, again, depends on whether you use Chinese for travel or work, or living in China? But just to give you an idea: 1,500-2,000 characters.
As we have shared in another article, there are officially a total of 50,000 characters in Chinese. The good news is, only 2,500 of the characters are commonly used, and you only need to know about 1,500-2,000 to be considered fluent. That means you can handle your daily life with only 3.5% of all the Chinese characters.
Bear in mind that if you are planning to take the official Chinese proficiency test (HSK), then character count is a major factor in measuring your Chinese fluency. There are 6 levels of proficiency ranging from 150 to 5,000 vocabulary counts.
5 Fun Facts About Chinese
1. Chinese used to be written from top right to bottom left
Back in the old days, Chinese was written vertically, from top right to bottom left. Thanks to westernization, nowadays most Chinese text is written the same way as Western languages — horizontally, from left to right. However, you can still find some Chinese books or newspapers printed in the traditional vertical layout.
2. Chinese has become an official UN language since 1946
Standard Chinese — among English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic — is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Therefore, you will find the Chinese version of all UN documents and website contents.
3. “Mandarin” is also the name of a fruit
Mandarin orange is a citrus fruit that has become popular in Western countries. It is usually eaten alone or added as a salad topping. It is smaller in size, less sour, and sweeter in taste than a regular orange.
4. There are quite some English loanwords from Chinese
Many of them are food-related and some are a total surprise! Some examples:
|Tea||茶||tú (ancient Chinese)|
|Ketchup||茄 汁||ke-zap (Cantonese)|
|Ramen||拉 麵||lā-miàn (Mandarin)|
|Typhoon||颱 風||tái-fēng (Mandarin)|
|Brainwash||洗 腦||Literal translation|
|Long time no see||好 久 不 見||Literal translation|
5. There are also many Chinese loanwords from English
Because of the popularity of English in Chinese-speaking countries, Chinese also adopted a lot of English words. Here are some examples:
|Chocolate||巧 克 力||Qiǎo-kè-lì (Mandarin)|
|Sofa||沙 發／梳 化||Shā-fā (Mandarin)|
|Coffee||咖 啡||Kā-fēi (Mandarin)|
|Golf||高 爾 夫 (球)|
The last word just means “ball”
|Gāo’ěr-fū (qiú) (Mandarin)|
Go-yi-fu (kau) (Cantonese)
|Strawberry||士 多 啤 梨||Si-do-be-lei (Cantonese)|
|Cheese||起 司 / 芝 士||Qǐ-sī (Mandarin)|
5 Tips to Start Learning Chinese Today
We hope that all of this made sense so far. You may be excited to try learning this beautifully complex language but thinking “where do I even start?” Bù-yòng-pà (不 用 怕; don’t be scared), we got you covered!
Below are 5 quick tips to help beginners get started today:
|Area of focus||Tips for Beginners|
|Pronunciation||Start with pinyin and here is a good online tool.|
|Watch Chinese or Taiwanese TV shows.|
|Speaking + Conversational||Hang out with a native Chinese speaker.|
|Writing||Invest in a writing workbook, softcopy or digital.|
|Reading||Start with Chinese children’s books.|
And… a bonus tip: Ask lots of questions and stay curious! We have also prepared some more tips to help you learn Chinese. Check them out!
We Can Help You Learn Chinese
The Swap Language community has a growing number of native Chinese speakers who are based in different countries that can help you practice Chinese. Sign up and start “swapping” your language with Chinese for free today! If you are interested in teaching Chinese, you can become a teacher with Swap Language too!