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Rosetta Stone Language Software
Mandarin Language Profile
Home > Languages > Mandarin

Difficulty: *****

Probably one of the most fascinating languages in the world - definitely the hardest.

UsefulnessWith 1 billion speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. For many people, this is also the language of the future, with China becoming more powerful every year and a huge economy that buys and sells all over the world. There are several languages spoken in China, but Mandarin is by far the dominant language in China and is also spoken in Taiwan and by part of the Chinese community of Singapore.
Beauty The spoken language is more fascinating than beautiful. The writing system is amazingly intricate and you will learn to both love and hate it.
Chic factor

With its reputation for intractable difficulty, speaking and writing Chinese fluently is seen as the gold standard of intellectual achievement. If you are fluent in Chinese and have no Chinese background, nobody should ever have a doubt about your intelligence.

Of course there are many other difficult languages out there, and all Chinese speakers are not rocket scientists, but chic is about image, is it not?

Speakers About 800 mio speak it as their mother tongue, plus 200 mio as a second language. Keep in mind that all the Chinese languages in China are written more or less the same and that if you can read one, you can read all.
Countries Mandarin is spoken in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. The other leading Chinese language, Cantonese, is spoken in Hong-Kong, South-East China and Singapore.
Regional Variations Thanks to the homogeneous Chinese school system, there are limited regional variations in Mandarin Chinese. However , other languages are also spoken in China such as Cantonese or Wu.
TravelTraveling with Chinese is limited to China, but what a country it is ! Sea, desert, mountains, forests, huge cities, just name it and you'll find a passionating Chinese version.
CultureMulti millenarian culture, with literature a thousand years old, castles, palaces, poetry, calligraphy, excellent cuisine.



The most dramatic aspect of Mandarin Chinese is the tones. You have four tones in Mandarin and the sence of a word will depend on the tone. Learn more

The phonetic system of Chinese is not difficult to master. Some of the consonants are similar to English. Most are not but easily manageable. Do not try to find an English equivalent for eachsound, they do not exist. You should listen to the speaker, place your tongue correctly and try your best. And don't be afraid in twisting your tongue in the back of your throat to produce certain sounds.

SyntaxIf there is one easy thing about Chinese, it's the syntax. No flexion (words never change, verbs have one unique form) and a simple word order makes you almost feel as if you were speaking gibberish. Click for more about Mandarin Chinese Syntax ...

For Western language speakers, there is practically no recognizable vocabulary in Chinese. You have to learn everything from scratch. However, as the words are usually very short (one or two syllable) for the majority, the memorization is not that hard. The plurisyllabic words are made from combinations of the monosyllabic words. As your basic vocabulary increases, you can begin to guess what the combinations will mean.

When you learn a new word, you also need to memorize the tone. From that it could be said that learning to speak Chinese is probably easier for people who have an oral memory than a written one. As we will see with the characters, learning to read Chinese is probable just the opposite.

When the tone changes on one syllable, it normally changes completely its meaning. There are however some notable exceptions. For instance, the word mai with a falling rising tone means to buy as mai with a falling tone means to sell.

OrtographLearning Chinese, you understand better why linguist speak of a language as the spoken part only : there's no relationship whatsoever between what you hear (the word) and what you write (the character). So the Chinese have a way a writing how a character is to be pronounced, this is pin-yin, a phonetical alphabet based on our own alphabet.

The problem is even worse because of the Revolution : where Mao simplified most characters, people in Taiwan kept the complex character. So you can have two ways of writing a character, and 5 ways of reading it (one for each main dialect).

Every word is represented by a different character and there is no link between the character and the sound. It means that you have to learn every character one by one, with its pronunciation and meaning. This is as difficult as it looks. There are an estimated 80'000 characters in Chinese but you need roughly 1500 to 2000 to read a standard newspaper article. The only way I have found to learn is to find a mental hook inside the character and to invent a story about it.

Some people just give up learning the characters at the beginning and concentrate on learning the spoken language, which is very rewarding up to a certain point. Not being able to read is a definite limitation.

Overall difficulty

This is the subject of heated discussions among Mandarin students. The spoken language is not as hard as people would think. The grammar is about as complex as in English, but the vocabulary takes more effort to learn, since it is not related at all to the English vocabulary. I rate it as ***. The written language is considered by many including the Defence language institute as on of the hardest in the world. I give it a *****.

Time neededThree to four years at least to learn to read, but you can speak in one year.

Learning material
Books and tapesThere is no excellent package for Chinese, although we found a very good one.

Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential Chinese, has only one volume,   30 lessons, 15 hours, and can only be a good if not cheap  introduction to the oral language. You can buy it from Simon and Schuster from Amazon :

The Foreign Service Institute has a huge modular package it uses to teach Chinese to US military intelligence officers. There are 3 basic modules and then 10 specific modules and three optional ones. Each one normally comes with (good) tapes and a "book" (rather a bunch of typewritten sheets clipped together). This is the best package we have found for the self learner, with over 150 one-hour tapes. The total cost is stratospheric because they are made on the demand by the NTIS. The total package can set you back by $1700. If you want to go ahead, you can go to the NTIS website http://www.ntis.gov and search for "Standard Chinese : a Modular Approach".

Audioforum sells a good stack of flash cards with about 700 basic characters in both simplified and traditional script for about 30$.

If you are looking for a dictionary, look well. You have to decide whether you want simplified or traditional characters, and then try to find one with the pin yin for every variation, not just the basic character.

(no, I neither work for Pimsleur nor for the FSI)

SchoolsI can offer no advice on this at this time.
If you're serious about Chinese, you'll soon need a software to type it correctly. NJStar sells an excellent one, where you can type the pin-yin and it shows you all the possible characters for the sound you typed. Click for more links...

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