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Home Communication & Others Thinking about learning Mandarin? Not as difficult as you may think!
Thinking about learning Mandarin? Not as difficult as you may think!
Communication & Others

Learning Mandarin

Every Chinese person will tell you that Chinese is incredibly difficult to learn and are totally in shock when they meet a foreigner who is fluent in their own language! Granted, to actually learn to read Chinese – you need to memorize at least 2000 characters – and this will take approximately 2 years of full time study. But to learn Mandarin, to be fluent in the language – I met many foreigners who picked up the language in a year – while studying Mandarin at a local language school and living in China.

I worked with a young British fellow who’s goal was to learn Mandarin during his one year stay in China. He hired some personal tutors for himself and spent many hours teaching himself the language. And, at the end of his year in China, was able to give a speech to the local townspeople – in Mandarin – explaining the differences he found between their local dialect and Mandarin. Pretty impressive! The townspeople were shocked!

Don’t let learning Mandarin scare you. Yes, some of the sounds are unusual and it takes some tongue and jaw practice to get it right. Yes, there are 4 tones to learn in Mandarin and 8 tones to master in Cantonese – but overall – I believe it is much easier to learn to speak Mandarin than it is to learn to speak English. There are no tenses! That cuts out thousands of words and grammar rules you never need to master. And there are no articles (a, the, etc.). And no feminine and masculine to worry about!

Many university students from around the world come to China to learn Mandarin. I met a lot of business people in Guangzhou who had studied Mandarin at school there and within a year were fluent to converse in Mandarin to do business - and able to read many Chinese characters. Of course, it helps to learn Mandarin while living full immersion in the country. You are forced to use the language each day, and that helps you to quickly grow your language skills and learn many new things as you go along.

Learning even a few phrases in Mandarin Chinese will make your stay in China much more enjoyable.

China's Main Languages

Mandarin is the official language in China (70% of Chinese speak Mandarin) – however, in Hong Kong and Guangdong province in southern China – the people speak Cantonese. Although the language is spoken differently, the Chinese characters remain the same.

Not only is Mandarin and Cantonese spoken – but every town seems to have it’s own dialect - so even when you think you have mastered the language (be it Mandarin or Cantonese) – sometimes you still can’t be understood – or understand the local people.

There are 8 major dialects: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Minbei, Fujian – Taiwanese, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka.

With so many different dialects – the Chinese people can immediately determine if other Chinese are locals or from different parts of the country. This leads to a lot of discrimination among the Chinese people themselves. It makes it more difficult to get information or work if your dialect cannot hide that you are from a different part of the country.

In school, the students learn Mandarin – even if they speak their local dialect every day – so most people these days can understand Mandarin. Unfortunately for me, I learned some Mandarin – but my Chinese in-laws only spoke and understood the local dialect and we were never able to actually communicate.

Don’t worry if you can’t speak in full sentences – just stick to the main word and people will try to help you and figure out what it is that you are trying to communicate. The Chinese are always in awe if a foreigner can speak any of their language. Don’t worry if they laugh – it is just that they are amazed and find it quite unusual to see a foreigner speak their language. Don’t take it personally. Just jump in – even if it is a word or two to start. You’ll find learning Mandarin can be a lot of fun!

If you plan on bartering in the fabulous markets of China, learning Mandarin - at least a few important phrases - is an absolute must! This is when a Mandarin Phrase Book really comes in handy! And if you absolutely can't master the Mandarin phrases - you can at least point to them in your Phrase Book - and the locals will read it and understand what you want.

Mandarin Language Phrase Book

Before you leave your home country, you should purchase a Mandarin or Cantonese phrasebook. They contain a lot of very useful information about the country, basics about learning Mandarin and many useful phrases that you can quickly learn.

Chinese Pinyin:
Back in 1958, an official system was adopted in China for writing the Chinese language using the roman alphabet. This is known as pinyin and around China, in the larger cities, you will see pinyin written next to Chinese characters on street signs, store fronts, in the subways and on advertising. Pinyin sounds are not all grammatically the same as what we are used to in North America – but the phrasebook will quickly teach you the half a dozen or so differences so that you can get the pinyin pronunciation more accurate.

The phrasebook is usually pocketsize – great, because you should have it with you always until you are comfortable speaking in the language. I never saw a pocket phrasebook for sale anywhere while I was in China, so be sure to buy one before you go. Also, keep your eye on your copy - many people will want to take it from you. The Chinese find it very useful for learning English as well.

Back to the phrasebook – it is an invaluable tool – whether you are visiting China or living there. It contains so many useful phrases for many different situations, the phrases are written in English, pinyin and in Chinese characters, as well as having an English to Chinese dictionary and Chinese pinyin to English dictionary. Not only does the phasebook help to teach you the Chinese language, but it gives you many useful tips on understanding how to function in China.

Other Tools for Learning Mandarin

If you are living in China and learning Mandarin – in the large books stores there is a good sized selection of books to help you learn the language and even video teaching programs. You can also hire a tutor for a very reasonable price and get one-on-one lessons.

Another fabulous tool available is an electronic pocket translator. I picked up a couple in Hong Kong. One could translate English words to Chinese – and let you here the word – however, I found that the translations were not always accurate. The other translator I purchased was for my Chinese husband. He could write in the Chinese character and it would bring back the English meaning. This was very useful.


China Yellow Pages