If you’re considering learning Chinese, you’re probably intimidated by the things that people think of when they think of Chinese: the characters and the tones. Yes, these are difficult.
Chinese characters are a bear to learn. There are allegedly about 50,000 of them, but most of those are not in common use. That’s a bit like interesting and rare words that no one knows, or really needs to know, in English or any other language. When it comes to real life, an educated person knows maybe 8,000, and about 2,000 or so are needed to do everyday things like read a newspaper.
That’s still a lot, and far beyond what a student of Chinese needs. In our Language Garage Mandarin 1, you’ll learn a few hundred super-common and useful characters, and you’ll do it slowly and gently. Even better, if you don’t need or want to learn characters at all, the course is also in pinyin, which is basically just Chinese written in an alphabet that you can recognize. So along with 你好 ! you’ll see Níhǎo! (Hi!)
The tones are the other intimidating thing about Chinese. It seems so odd that a pitch can totally change the meaning of a word, but a lot of languages use tones. Mandarin Chinese has four of them (other languages have more!), and you already know how to produce them.
The first or high tone is a bit like you’re at the dentist: ā. The second or rising tone is like you’re asking a question: á? The third or dipping tone ǎ is a bit like the tone you use when you show surprise or disbelief: You did whǎt??!? And the fourth or falling tone à sounds like the last item in a list: I went to the party and saw Maria, Joe, Sue, Tom, Elizabeth, Karen, and Pàt. Here’s an adorable video about tones.
Apart from these two things, Chinese is actually pretty easy. For example, if you’ve studied Spanish or French, you’re used to having to memorize gender of nouns: le livre (the book) is masculine, but la table (the table) is feminine. Adjectives take different endings depending on the gender and number of what they’re describing: el libro es bueno (the book is good) but la película es buena (the film is good). And: los libros son buenos (the books are good) while las películas son buenas (the films are good).
And the verbs… different endings on verbs depending on the subject and the tense and all sorts of other things to remember so that there are literally books full of nothing but verb conjugation tables.
Mandarin literally has none of this! In fact, it has less than English!
Mandarin nouns don’t have separate singular or plural forms. So 女人 nǚrén means woman or women. Mandarin doesn’t have articles (the, a), so女人 nǚrén can actually mean woman, a woman, the woman, women, or the women, depending on context. Of course there are ways to specify number or other things when needed, but you don’t have to worry about memorizing a bunch of things other than the noun itself.
Mandarin verbs don’t conjugate (I speak, she speaks) or have tenses (spoke, have spoken) like English or other languages you may be familiar with. You usually just use a word like yesterday or a simple particle to indicate tense. In that sense, Mandarin grammar is pretty easy. Of course there are things to learn, but you won’t be memorizing a bunch of endings or irregular forms.
So, like any language, Mandarin has some things that are easy to learn, and some things that are not easy to learn. And one of those not-easy things – the characters – are pretty much optional for learners, especially if you’re just trying to get by in the spoken language.
Mandarin is a lot of fun to learn, and it’s a hugely important language. So, don’t panic – just start learning.