3 Reasons Why Mandarin Chinese is Difficult

Posted on September 26th, 2016.

You may also watch our video, on which this article is based.

The greatest Olympian Swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, during Beijing Olympics, said Mandarin was harder than winning 8 gold medals in the pool. Not one gold medal, but 8 gold medals. He’s a pretty smart guy, who could speak English, French, and German. So, why did he find Mandarin Chinese difficult?


It appears that he is not alone. Mandarin Chinese is categorized as Category V, extremely difficult, by the FSI, and university students drop out of the Mandarin course after one month. So, why is Mandarin so difficult?

Here are 3 reasons why Chinese is so very difficult.
(And don’t be sad yet, because I’m gonna show you how to overcome it.)

1. Three “Units” of Brain Power to Learn Each Character

Remember when you were learning English?

To learn an English word, you needed to memorize one thing: the meaning. That’s all.

To learn a Chinese character, you need to memorize

  1. the meaning,
  2. the shape of the character, and
  3. the pronunciation.


I mean, that’s 3 things. That’s like, 3 units of brain power. Because in Mandarin, there are no alphabets. Every character is different.

And it’s not just you. Even the Chinese themselves can’t read the encyclopedia until age 12.

2. One syllable has different shapes, meanings, and tones.

For example, when someone says, “mao”, they could mean

  • cat,
  • hat,
  • hair, or
  • spear.

Different shapes, different meanings, and different tones!


In fact, usually, each syllable, like “mao”, “ba”, or “ma” has four tones and more than 50 shapes & meanings.


This phenomenon can be demonstrated by a poem that contains only the syllable “shi” and makes perfect sense in Chinese!


source: yellowbridge.com

3. Poor learning methods

The Chinese language is immensely different from the English language.

The problem is, most people teach Chinese like they teach English.

They just say, “Hey, here’s a Chinese character. Here’s the meaning, the pronunciation, and the tone. Now memorize it!”

I mean, you kidding? You can do that with English, because it’s phonetic! But in Chinese, you can’t just use pure memorization. It will frustrate you and make you drop out of learning Mandarin.

And you know what’s even worse? Most of the Chinese textbooks I’ve found give you ridiculously long sentences, and expect you to get it. I mean, NO.

Also, the font is very very small. The only way to at least learn something from these textbooks is to become Ant-Man.

And that, dear readers, is why Chinese is notoriously famous for being difficult. Do you agree with our reasons, or have more reasons to add? Have you ever experienced these difficulties while learning Mandarin?

Leave your comments below. Thanks for reading! I need to make a post on the reasons why Mandarin Chinese is so easy. Soon! Do follow us on Facebook for more updates.


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