I am for sure a language enthusiast. I have found myself mimicking the lines spoken in foreign languages in TV shows and movies, copying down love poems in French in my bullet journals, and asking my friends who speak a foreign language how to say commonly used phrases in their first language. As much as I love learning new languages, I also enjoy sharing my thoughts on mastering Mandarin–my native tongue, the language in which I have learned how to say ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, and which has given me my first lessons on resilience, kindness, and bravery. Here are some of my tips on how to learn Mandarin if you are thinking of starting:
Tip #1: do not be discouraged by the alleged claim that ‘Chinese is the hardest language to learn on this planet’
There are many ways in which I believe Chinese is easy, the most prominent feature being the lack of grammatical intricacies. There is no verb conjugation and no tenses in Chinese because the time at which the action occurs is indicated in adverbial phrases (i.e. one would say ‘I eat pizza yesterday’, ‘I am eat pizza now’), and the pronouns already indicate the subject of the sentence (i.e. ‘I play badminton’, ‘You play badminton’, ‘He play badminton’–the verb stays the same regardless of what pronoun you are using). Another piece of great news–the adjective does not have to agree with the singularity or gender of the noun either, unlike many Latin-based languages like French and Spanish.
Tip #2: work hard on your pronunciation and writing
So why does everyone say that Chinese is hard to learn, despite its lack of reflexive verbs and tenses?
Reason #1: pronunciation, specifically the tones. There are five tones in Mandarin Chinese–flat, rising, dip, falling and neutral. If this is making absolutely no sense to you, think about how you could change up the tune of a song, only the lyrics would mean completely different things if your tune changes. The Chinese language is like that. When you are speaking, it is very easy to confuse others if you mess up the tones, because the meaning could change completely. The best way to overcome this is simply through practice. Listen to how native speakers talk. Exaggerate the differentiation in tones when you practice. If possible, find a tutor or a native-speaker friend to listen to you when you talk so that your mistakes can be caught.
Reason #2: writing. Unlike many other languages, Chinese writing is not phonetic. In other words, you cannot try to figure out the writing of a character by the way it sounds. Each character is made up of a combination of different strokes–the vertical stroke, the horizontal stroke, the left- and right- slanting downward strokes, the dot stroke, the folding stroke, and many more. There is also no ‘pattern’ as to what strokes a character constitutes–you simply have to remember the way a character looks in order to write out its exact copy, similar to how you would memorize the map for a geography quiz, or a photograph. This is perhaps the hardest part about learning Chinese, and the part you will be spending the largest amount of time on. The best method to learn Chinese writing, in my opinion, is to print out the characters you are learning and use tracing paper to trace over them. Only stop until you have remembered mechanically how to write them.
Like learning any other language, there are difficult aspects of learning Chinese, and also easy parts. Work hard to get through the difficult phase, and you will be able to devour the satisfaction of enjoying the fun. Good luck!