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5 Myths About Learning Mandarin Chinese

Last week, I was chatting with a new friend who had just moved to Shanghai from London for work. I asked her whether she planned to learn Chinese.

“No way!” She replied. “It seems totally impossible!”

It’s fair to say this is a pretty common reaction for Westerners thinking about learning Chinese. Mandarin has a reputation for being one of the most difficult languages in the world, and the differences in writing method, pronunciation, and grammar can seem daunting.

Having not learned any Chinese before she arrived, my new friend was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar writing and sounds around her, and decided the best thing to do was just stick to cafes and restaurants where people speak English.

But does Chinese deserve its intimidating reputation? No! The hardest thing is making the decision to start, and Yoyo’s successful students show that non-native speakers really can reach basic conversational fluency in Chinese quickly and easily.

That’s why in this blog post I’m myth-busting five misconceptions about learning Chinese.

Myth #1: You need to learn thousands of Chinese characters

Chinese characters - 汉字 (hàn zì) - are the main reason why learning Chinese seems impossible. For people used to an alphabet, learning loads and loads of characters, each with a different meaning and pronunciation, seems like a huge task.

But, the number of characters used in everyday Chinese is surprisingly small. With just 300 characters, you can get by shopping, eating, and doing most everyday tasks in China, and form 64% of all written Mandarin.

Because of the way Chinese root characters combine to form new characters, and characters combine to form words, the more characters you learn, the easier it gets!

With just the 600 most common characters covered in the two Yoyo Chinese Character Courses, you can form 80% of all written Mandarin.  That's a lot!

And, thanks to technology, writing Chinese is much easier than it used to be! Instead of memorizing all the strokes for each character, to write Chinese on a computer or phone you just need to learn 拼音 (pīn yīn) – a simple tool for writing Chinese characters using the Latin alphabet.

(Get instructions for setting up a Chinese character input keyboard on any device here.)

Myth #2: Traditional classroom courses are the most effective way to learn

Most people think that learning a language means taking the time to go to a traditional classroom course. 

I have tried a bunch of different ways to learn Chinese, from traditional classroom lessons to computer programs, to language exchange.  Believe it or not, I’ve been learning Chinese for around five years, but have spent only two months of that time in a full-time traditional classroom course!

There are definite benefits to traditional classroom courses - particularly getting live feedback from a teacher on your speaking.  But there are some drawbacks as well:

  • You can't manage your own study pace: you follow that of the entire class
  • You can't manage your study schedule: you are limited by the class schedule
  • You are often learning Mandarin with your teacher's specific pronunciation and regional way of speaking, instead of a wide variety of native speakers.
  • You have limited tools to track your progress and review

Ask me which method is the most effective, and the answer is “it depends”. The most important thing is that you can fit learning Chinese into your everyday life.

That’s why courses like Yoyo’s, are one of the best ways to learn Chinese - especially as a compliment to traditional classes you might be taking.  You can manage your own study pace, practice whenever you want, and follow a proven curriculum that uses unscripted dialogues filmed all over China, so you're exposed to how Mandarin sounds outside of the classroom.

Myth #3: You have to have native speakers to practice with

When I first moved to China, I assumed that surrounded by Chinese native speakers, I’d quickly pick up the language naturally. I was wrong!

Like my friend who recently moved to China, I was totally overwhelmed by the differences between Chinese and English, and interacting with native speakers was useless because I had no base in Mandarin to build from (instead, I used English or awkwardly pointed at things).

It was only once I started learning Chinese myself in a structured way that I actually made any progress. It took around two months of part-time self-study to be able to start doing some everyday tasks like reading a menu and ordering food in Chinese.

To make the most out of practicing with native speakers or even learning in an immersive environment, you first need the fundamentals - pronunciation, tones, basic grammar and vocabulary.

Once you have those, then you can start to complement structured learning with picking up the language in a more natural way through interaction with Chinese people, music, and TV.

(And don’t assume you need to find a Chinese person to speak Chinese. My husband and I – both British – often practice by speaking to each other in Mandarin).

Myth #4: Learning Mandarin Takes 5-10 years

During my first couple of months of learning Chinese, I felt like it’d take me at least 5 years to even have a conversation, and 10 years to read a newspaper. But the great thing about learning Mandarin is that the first part is the most difficult.

After you get used to the major differences between Chinese and English, you can reach conversational fluency just by studying a little every day.

(In fact, Yoyo’s Beginner Conversational Course guides you to basic conversational fluency in less than 6 months, studying only about 30 minutes a day.  Their full Five Course Program can be completed in about 2 years, and builds you up to a high level of fast, real world fluency.)

Over the years, I’ve found that each milestone unlocks new doors that makes the next stage easier. For example, once I learned 拼音 (pīn yīn), I started to type in Chinese, which meant I learned new things through texting and messaging.

And once I learned around 1500 characters, I tried to read articles on simple topics in the newspaper. Although I didn’t understand everything, I gradually built up my comprehension through trying to puzzle out the parts I didn’t get.

Myth #5 – Chinese is really complicated!

In high school, I studied Spanish and French, and found the grammar was the most complicated aspect. There were so many rules and options that it seemed impossible to get it right.

(For example, in many European languages, the gender not only of the person but also the gender of the word has to be considered!)

When I started learning Chinese – having heard Chinese was super difficult – I expected Chinese grammar to be really complex.

But, one of the great things about Chinese is that the grammar is wonderfully simple compared to English or European languages. In fact, Chinese doesn’t even have verb tenses. Instead, you typically use context to communicate when something happened.

Let’s take an example: "我开始学习中文 (wǒ kāi shǐ xué xí zhōng wén) – I start learning Chinese."

If I started yesterday, I can just add the word for yesterday - 昨天 (zuó tiān) – to indicate this: "我昨天开始学习中文 (wǒ zuó tiān kāi shǐ xué xí zhōng wén) – I started learning Chinese yesterday."

Or, I can use 去年 (qù nián) – last year to show I started last year: "我去年开始学习中文 (wǒ qù nián kāi shǐ xué xí zhōng wén) – I started learning Chinese last year."

And Chinese vocabulary tends to be super literal, which makes it easy to guess the meanings of words once you have the basic building blocks.

For example, the word for “pork” just pairs the characters for 猪 (zhū) – pig, and 肉 (ròu) – meat, to make 猪肉(zhū ròu) – pork. Simple!

Hopefully I've busted some myths and changed your mind about taking on the challenge of learning this amazing language. 

If you're already studying Chinese, what have you found easier (or more difficult) than expected about studying Chinese? What tips would you give a new learner? 

Let us know in the comments!