Mandarin Masterclass: Navigating the Difficulty Curve

Chinese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. You may be interested in learning Chinese for various reasons: for work, study, or personal interests. 

However, you might face much confusion when learning Chinese. First, there are many different dialects, such as Cantonese, Hokkien, and more. Here, we’ll focus on Mandarin Chinese, the standard and most common dialect. 

Is Mandarin Chinese notoriously difficult for native English speakers to learn? Why is that so? In this article, we’ll be answering these questions for you!

Why It’s Hard?

1. Totally different writing system.

Mandarin, like other East Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese, has an entirely different writing system than Latin languages like English. It might take some effort to get used to. 

There are thousands of unique characters in Mandarin. You will need to remember how to read and write them. Many characters can mean different things in various contexts; plenty also looks alike but have entirely different meanings. It’s pretty easy to get confused.

For example:

模 (mó) means model, and 摸 (mō) means to touch. The only difference between them is the left side, and it’s really easy to miss.

2. The tonal system.

Mandarin has four tones: first, second, third and fourth (第一声 dì yī shēng、第二声 dì èr shēng、第三声 dì sān shēng、第四声 dì sì shēng). It means that a word can be pronounced in four different ways, each representing a different character with a different meaning. 

For example, the word “ma” in the first to the fourth tone, respectively:

妈 (mā): mother.

麻 (má): numb.

马 (mǎ): horse.

骂 (mà): to scold.

There are also more complex pronunciations, such as 翘舌音 (qiào shé yīn), which are very difficult for many learners to differentiate. Not to mention 多音多义字 (duō yīn duō yì zì), making one character hold different definitions in the way it’s pronounced.

Is It As Hard As It Seems?

The reasons listed above could seem intimidating, but we are also here to bust some myths that make Mandarin seem “extremely difficult”.

1. Simple grammar.

The good news is – verb tenses and gender-specific grammar don’t exist in Mandarin! It is an obstacle often faced by people learning European languages. 

You can use the same verb in Mandarin at different timeframes just by adding a time in your sentence. Unlike in English, where you have to use different tenses. Here’s an example:

我去学校。(wǒ qù xué xiào): I go to school.

我正在去学校。(wǒ zhèng zài qù xué xiào): I’m going to school now.

我昨天去学校。(wǒ zuó tiān qù xué xiào): I went to school yesterday.

我明天去学校。(wǒ míng tiān qù xué xiào): I’ll go to school tomorrow.

All in all, basic Mandarin grammar is pretty straightforward. Most of the time, the sentence structures are similar to English, subject + verb + object.

2. Pronunciation.

You might be intimidated by the tonal system in Mandarin that we’ve explained just now, but fear not! Some sounds are similar to English words. Try finding their counterparts in English when you stumble upon a Mandarin character that seems hard to pronounce. For instance: 

秋 (qiū), which means autumn or fall. The “q” is pronounced as “ch” here. So, “qiū” sounds similar to “chew.”

纸 (zhǐ), which means paper. The “zh” may look complex, but it’s actually pronounced just like the “ge” in “strange.”

You can find plenty of Mandarin pronunciation guides like this online that cater to English speakers. But most importantly, you need to listen frequently and practice speaking!

3. Similarities in characters.

As mentioned before, there are tons of characters you may need to memorize. But there are some useful tricks too. Mandarin characters are hieroglyphics, meaning they originate from real-life images. 

For example, try finding the similarities between these characters:

洗澡 (xǐ zǎo): to take a shower.

河 (hé): river.

湖 (hú): lake.

海 (hǎi): sea.

All these characters have something to do with “water.” That is why they all have a “三点水” (sān diǎn shuǐ) at the left, which looks like three droplets of water.

It is one of the fun ways to learn Mandarin characters! You’ll discover more similarities like this as you learn more. Also, don’t worry about remembering thousands of them, as 200-300 is enough for daily conversations.

Tips to Overcome the Difficulties

Here are some ways that can definitely help you in your journey of learning Mandarin. 

1. Increase exposure to media.

Consuming entertainment and media is a highly effective way to learn the language. Pick a form of media you enjoy – music, animation, or podcasts, and start learning Mandarin! It’ll keep you interested and engaged, and you get to learn more about Chinese culture.

Some great Mandarin media to start with are Mandopop songs, ancient Chinese costume dramas (古装剧 gǔ zhuāng jù), and Taiwan Dramas.

2. Find study buddies.

Studying a foreign language alone can be difficult without help and support from like-minded pals. You might quickly lose motivation whenever you encounter any problems.

You can solve it by looking for study buddies to study Mandarin together. You can attend language classes or join online learning communities. Discuss your problems with them, and set goals to achieve together. More is always better than one!

3. Learn with native speakers.

Lastly, it is essential to have a native Mandarin speaker help you in your learning progress. Mandarin is a language with many deep nuances, and many things could get lost in translation. Therefore, a native speaker who is also good at English can help you overcome many obstacles.

How to find a native speaker to teach you Mandarin? You could find a language teacher or a language partner in various online communities, like Chinese Discord.


Overall, Mandarin definitely seems complicated. But, as long as you know how to study smart, it will not be too big of a problem. After all, you can’t expect to master any foreign language in one day without any hard work or dedication.


Check out our articles if you want to know how to make studying Mandarin easier. You can also subscribe to Maayot for more bite-sized fun Chinese stories!