How Hard Is It To Learn Mandarin?
Chinese Grammar Is Easy – Seriously, It is.
- “OMG, how hard is it to learn Mandarin?”
- “Wow, you are learning Chinese, that’s amazing, Chinese is soooooo hard.”
- “Ugh, I could never learn Chinese grammar, Chinese is too hard!”
Speaking as a native-English speaking Mandarin student who has also learned Spanish, I always have mixed feelings when I have this type of conversation.
On the other hand, unlike Spanish grammar, Chinese has never hurt my brain.
Chinese learners can blissfully skip past gender agreement, irregular verbs, and conjugating verbs to reflect different tenses.
In fact, I’d venture to say that Chinese grammar is actually quite simple. The main challenge lies in abandoning the grammar habits from your native tongue and learning to express your ideas in new and unfamiliar ways.
Cognitive struggles aside, the true challenge for learning Chinese grammar is finding resources to help you understand the grammar and the effective methods for practicing and remembering what you are studying.
Too many Chinese textbooks have low-quality English explanations, few sample sentences, and use jargon that is inaccessible to most language students.
This article will, first, point learners of all levels to resources – some popular, some lesser known – and then provide tips to put your newfound grammar knowledge into use so that you are equipped with all grammatical structures you need the next time you want to travel across China, order a milk tea in your local Chinatown, or go shopping for a hard-to-find item while studying abroad!
So how hard is it to learn Mandarin? Let’s delve in and give you some tips you should follow to get you on the road to success
How Hard Is It To Learn Mandarin Tip #1 Chinese Grammar Wiki
One of the best starting points to learn Chinese grammar is Chinese Grammar Wiki.
Chinese Grammar Wiki is a Wiki-style website full of Chinese grammar lessons. The explanations are concise, direct, appropriate for different levels, and avoid using complex jargon.
This website is a perfect supplement to classes, a good guide for self-learners, a useful place to review old grammar, or even a good refresher for teachers trying to figure out the simplest way to explain a grammar point to a student.
Grammar points are sorted by levels using the Common European Framework levels ranging from A1 (total beginner) to C2 (upper-advanced).
This is not all the Chinese Grammar Wiki does to help learners of different levels.
Lower-level example sentences have characters, pinyin, and English.
English is always written in smaller, grey text to encourage readers to try to read characters and pinyin first.
The training wheels slowly come off at the higher levels.
By C1, pinyin and English have disappeared completely and example sentences are written only in characters.
As a warning: This website is a work in progress. But, never fear! Most grammar points from HSK 1-5 are covered. Only the most advanced of learners may find this website lacking – and advanced learners should be pushing their Chinese by looking for more information on Chinese-language websites anyways!
How Hard Is It To Learn Mandarin Tip #2 Baidu Translate is Your Friend
While it is true that Baidu Translate leaves much to be desired when actually trying to translate texts, it can be your secret gateway to troves of bilingual example sentences for all your Chinese grammar and vocab needs.
As a word of caution, these sentences are not hand-picked for beginners. This trick is best suited for learners HSK 3 and above to more effectively and thoroughly learn Chinese grammar in context.
- Set the translator as Chinese to English. Make sure that the translator is translating from 中文 (zhōngwén, Chinese) to 英文 (yīngwén, English).
- Enter in the word or phrase. Enter in your word: Enter any word or phrase into the translator.
- Press enter. If you are on your phone, press the blue “翻译” (fānyì, translate) button.
- Scroll down. Scroll past basic translations and the definition in Chinese. You want the section 双语例句 （shuāngyǔ lìjù, Bilingual Sample Sentences).
- Expand the list. The default mode displays five five sentences. For more, click “展开全部” (zhǎnkāi quánbù, Expand All)
You can generally get 20+ sample sentences through this trick.
Read through these sentences (try to read both the English and Chinese, not just English) to get a better idea of when this phrase is used.
This is safer than just relying on a dictionary or your textbook, which often don’t give you an accurate understanding of the context in which the phrase is used.
How Hard Is It To Learn Mandarin Tip #3 Write Your Own Sample Sentences
Immediately using the newly acquired grammar is the best way to make it stick.
While writing your own sample sentences may seem like a chore, this truly is an effective way to check your own learning and solidify the knowledge in your brain.
Make this fun and increase your retention when you learn Chinese grammar by writing sentences that are funny or interesting to you.
I learned to word zombie (僵尸，jiāngshī) at an oddly early point in my Chinese language learning journey.
This was one of my favourite words to use when writing sample sentences.
Perhaps you are trying to learn Chinese for business purposes – write business-related sentences if that keeps you motivated.
If you are less serious, write silly sentences about animals, write sentences that are total lies, it doesn’t matter as long as the sentence sticks in your memory!
Level up by illustrating these sentences. You don’t need to be an artist, even a stick figure drawing can help increase knowledge retention.
How Hard Is It To Learn Mandarin Tip #4 Verbally Apply Your Knowledge
Speaking can be one of the hardest areas to get practice, especially if you are learning Mandarin outside of a Mandarin-speaking country.
This isn’t a free pass from speaking practice though! Speaking and listening are extremely important, especially for developing your 语感 (“gut feeling” of the language, yǔɡǎn).
Read the sentences you wrote aloud.
Try recording yourself reading them aloud and then listen to the recording.
Listening to yourself is cringe worthy, but it is an invaluable tool for improving your pronunciation and a good way to reinforce the grammar through listening.
Imagine contexts in which you might use the phrase. Have a few lines of back and forth dialogue with yourself (ideally when no one is around to judge your sanity…).
Imagine you are at the store, asking a favour of a friend, or asking directions on the street.
How might you use this newly learned grammar in this context?
Crazy Cat Lady Tip: You can also try out your grammar on your pet. While they (probably) won’t follow your orders or answer your questions, trying out your phrases on pets or small children is another way to get speaking practice if you have no practice partners.
Grammar is A Tool, Speaking Chinese is the Goal
Many novice language learners hyper-focus on grammar and neglect to use it to practice the four core skills of language learning: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Don’t trust the little voice in your head that thinks you need to learn more grammar before you can truly start using your Chinese. This will only slow your growth.
Grammar is useful so that you have the structures to express yourself, but the perfectionist idea that you must “master” grammar before beginning to practice Chinese will only slow you down and ultimately lead to worse grammar, not better.
Which means, practice! Find the study methods that bring you joy! Whether you use these tips here or already have a routine, make sure that your study habits ultimately build up to these four skills. Even beginners can and should find ways to practice speaking from Day One.
Find a partner online, study abroad, or even intern in China to truly speed up your Chinese learning! And remember: 好好学习，天天向上！ （hǎo hǎo xué xí , tiān tiān xiàng shàng, Study hard and every day you will improve!)
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