Is Mandarin easy to learn after all?

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Betteridge's law of headlines states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."  The title of this post ends in a question mark, but as its author, I mean for it to be answered by the word yes.

Early yesterday morning, I posted "Fluent bilingualism in Singapore " (5/28/19).  Less than six hours later, around noon, I posted "Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2 " (5/28/19).  Both posts fortuitously touched upon the real or imagined difficulty of Mandarin, the former allegedly attested in the poor record of getting Singaporean students of Chinese ancestry to attain fluency in the language and the latter in the results of a large scale survey on the perceived difficulty of languages carried out two years ago on Language Log.  In both cases, Mandarin came out looking as though it were a very hard language to learn.
As someone who has studied many languages (from Sanskrit to Russian, German, Japanese, etc.), I felt that Mandarin was easier than all of them.  The grammar and morphology are simpler than the other languages I learned; because I have a good (musical, I suppose you could say) ear, the tones didn't pose a real problem; images and terminology tend to be more concrete (less abstract) than in most other languages I tackled; the spoken prosody is a great boon to understanding (parsing) sentences (to this day, even for Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, which I've been teaching for more than four decades), I can tell right away if a student misconstrues a sentence by the rhythm with which he / she reads it); etc.

Above all, from the very beginning, I stubbornly refused to think of Mandarin as a language composed of monosyllabic Sinographs, but as a language made up of monosyllabic (a small proportion), disyllabic (the vast majority), and trisyllabic (or higher number of syllables) words. Thus first, as I like to put it, I learned Mandarin the way a baby does, as a spoken language, eschewing the customary emphasis on the Sinographs that plagues Chinese and Japanese language teaching around the world.

Thus I was deeply gratified when Neil Kubler, one of the master teachers of Mandarin of our generation, commented on both of the posts under discussion.  What he wrote is of such profound importance that I highlight his remarks by quoting them here:

From the Singapore bilingualism post:

The Chinese language learning situation for most ethnic Chinese in Singapore is neither L1 (Chinese as first language, as in China) nor L2 (Chinese as second language, as in China) but rather something in between, sometimes described as L1.5. Especially for the younger generation, English is dominant; the general direction of Chinese in S'pore is moving from L1.5 toward L2. This is probably inevitable, no matter what the government and schools do, given that English is used almost exclusively as the language of the government and the work place — plus the crucial need to respect the mother tongues and cultures of the other major ethnicities in Singapore, the Malays and the Indians. As regards the learning of Chinese, the anonymous correspondent is correct that Hanyu Pinyin should be given greater emphasis at the initial stages of reading and writing and that a greater effort should be made to locate or create "important, interesting texts." So contrary to the views of many conservative, traditional Singaporean educators (and teachers who have been brought in from China and Taiwan), there should be lots of texts all in Pinyin, written as a language, not as a transcription for characters (pengyou NOT peng you). However, the correspondent mentions only TEXTS; it is not texts but SPEECH that must have the greatest emphasis, since written language is based on spoken language. The overall tone of the post is also a little unfair to the government and thousands of dedicated Chinese language teachers in Singapore who have been making concerted and moderately successful efforts to teach Chinese to citizens of ethnic Chinese background, including adopting the most modern teaching methods, effectively using educational technology, and engaging hundreds of advisors from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, North America, and Europe. If it weren't for these efforts, the position of Chinese in Singapore would be even more precarious than it already is. Yes, political leaders there don't have a consistently accurate, scientific understanding of how the Chinese language (writing system included) really works, but in my work there as advisor for 10+ years, I have found they actually understand more about language than political leaders in many other countries; and, without a doubt, Singaporeans overall have better basic communicative skills in more languages than citizens of most countries.

From the easy and difficult languages post:

When I worked at FSI (the U.S. State Department training institution that came up with Categories I to V that Professor Mair describes above), we on 2 or 3 occasions had to curtail students' training assignments from 88 to 44 weeks due to illness on the part of the officers at posts whom they were being trained to replace. To help them attain the highest possible level in speaking in the shortest amount of time, we transcribed into Pinyin all the Chinese characters in their speaking and reading textbooks and materials (including newspaper readers, so they could discuss international news, etc.). The students were able in half the normal amount of time to reach the regular training goal of S-3 in speaking (though obviously not in reading, which must be in the official Chinese writing system, which currently is still Chinese characters). This experiment seemed to demonstrate, though admittedly with a very small sample, that if Chinese were romanized beginning tomorrow (which it could be, if written more or less as spoken), then training time for native speakers of English could be cut IN HALF!

This is precisely what I have been pleading with Chinese educational and governmental authorities for the last three decades and more, namely, that they provide massive amounts of reading materials in Romanization and in Sinographs with phonetic annotations for each character, but parsed correctly according to the official orthographic rules.

This is also what Alex Wang, the father of two young boys in the Shenzhen school system and a regular contributor to Language Log, has been calling for during the past few years.

I have little doubt that wherever such practices are instituted, whether in Singapore, Hong Kong, the PRC, America, or elsewhere, students' ability to learn Mandarin efficiently will be greatly enhanced, and there will be far less suffering and mindless copying of Hanzi (tīngxiě 听写 ["dictation"]).

It is also worth noting that Neil Kubler is a member of the famous "Cornell School" of East Asian language pedagogy presided over by Eleanor Jorden (1950 PhD under Bernard Bloch at Yale), whose members include Ron Walton, Galal Walker, Mari Noda, Jerry Packard, Jim Unger, and many others (not all of whom studied at Yale, but who adhered to Jorden's precepts.*  Another giant of East Asian language teaching who subscribed to the same tenets of emphasizing spoken language over written language in the early learning process was John DeFrancis (1948 PhD from Columbia, but with substantial influence from George A. Kennedy at Yale, where he received his BA degree).

As I've reiterated countless times, Mandarin is the easiest spoken language I've ever learned, but by far the most difficult written language (other than Literary Sintitic / Classical Chinese, which I'll write a separate post about within a day or two) I've had to deal with.


[note from Neil Kubler]

Jorden is sometimes misunderstood as being in favor of Romaji as opposed to standard written Japanese but, as you understand, that is not at all the case. For training in reading, she insisted on authentic written Japanese — no Romaji, no "rebus" method, no katakana and hiragana only when normal written Japanese would use kanji. She was 100% for authentic written Japanese, but only when students were ready, meaning after they had a very solid foundation in spoken Japanese — and for that her textbooks had only Romaji for the Japanese portions (but that was only for reference, not as a major focus of spoken learning, which of course had to be based on…SPEAKING and listening, either of live native speakers or audio recordings).

[note from Neil Kubler]

Jorden was trained at Yale, as was John DeFrancis. It's interesting to try to trace back who influenced whom and what influenced what. There is no doubt that American structural/descriptive linguistics (Sapir, Bloomfield, Bloch, and in his own brilliant way Y.R. Chao) had a deep impact on the teaching of Chinese and Japanese in the US (and even in Asia) as did WWII and the army Asian language programs.

Yet many younger teachers of Chinese in the US know little or nothing about this extensive and complex background and believe everything of value is 1980s or later!

Of course there has been progress in many areas, but some excellent programs already existed many decades ago. (I'm thinking here of FSI in the 1950s and Cornell in the 1960s, but I suspect your own experiences also fall into this category.) Vice versa, there are plenty of seriously deficient programs around today that clearly haven't learned some of the "lessons of the past."


"How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)

"Beyond fluff" (3/19/17) — esp. this comment

"Learning languages is so much easier now" (8/18/17) — esp. this comment

"How to learn Mandarin" (7/17/18)

"How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08) — esp. this comment

"How not to learn Chinese " (4/16/17)

"Learning to read and write Chinese " (7/11/16)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14)

"The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading"  (4/8/15)

"Chinese without a teacher" (2/6/16)

"Ruby phonetic annotation for Cantonese" (5/6/19)

"Phonetic annotations as a welcome aid for learning how to read and write Sinographs" (4/26/19) — with dozens of additional posts on the value of phonetic annotation listed in the "Readings" section at the end

"Spelling mistakes in English and miswritten characters in Chinese" (12/18/12) — esp. this comment

"Homographobia" (9/27/10) — thanks be to John DeFrancis

"Homophonophobia" (2/7/15) — esp. the penultimate paragraph of this comment

"Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard" (8/91)



"Learn Nepali" (9/21/16)


  1. Gregory Morrow said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:55 am

    The impression I get about MSM is that it is relatively similar to English, in that it is easy to learn but hard to master. English has all of those idioms (e.g. all of the "take + PP" combinations that are non-analytic, so that even if you learn "take" and "on", you have to also learn as a lexeme "take on", which itself has several different meanings), and all of those nuances: "butt dial" versus "booty call", "cottage in the forest" versus "cabin in the woods", "father I have sinned" versus "daddy I've been bad". My impression is that MSM is rich in very similar ways (although due perhaps more to polysemy more than multiple ancestor languages contributing synonyms).

  2. Jade said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 4:18 pm

    Mastering any language has a learning curve, but man Mandarin has been a real doozy! I had to download dropsend and get loads of help from my tutor! I hope to figure it out soon! Thanks for the post, it was a most enjoyable read.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 4:44 pm

    "cottage in the forest" versus "cabin in the woods"

    Speaking as a native English speaker, those mean exactly the same thing to me. Is one of them an idiom?

    Searching Google for "cottage in the forest" gets real estate listings. Searching for "cabin in the woods -movie -film" also gets real estate listings. They appear to be totally synonymous.

  4. Belial Issimo said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    @Michael Watts — I wondered that also, and had to think about the pair. Best I could come up with was that a cabin in the woods sounds more simple and more remote than a cottage in the forest. The Unabomber lives in one of them and the Seven Dwarfs live in the other. But if one or the other of those has a non-obvious idiomatic meaning, it's escaped me for several decades as a native US English speaker.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 5:34 pm

    As a native British English speaker, I would never equate a cabin with a cottage. But as to whether "butt dial" and "booty call" are or are not synonymous, I would have no idea , since neither means anything to me whatsoever.

  6. Thaomas said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 5:39 pm

    I have a nephew who learned Chinese fairly quickly and, to my ear, quite fluently when speaking to his wife. I'm sure he sent no time on characters and uses his phone to negotiate them when necessary.

  7. Doctor Science said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:02 pm

    I've been reading Dr. Mair's posts for many years, but have only recently actually started thinking about learning Mandarin. The stimulus has been Chinese TV dramas, especially Nirvana in Fire|琅琊榜|Lángyá Bǎng and Guardian|镇魂|Zhèn Hún . Pinyin subtitles for such shows (or movies like "The Wandering Earth") would be a SUPER good learning tool, because they come with both sound and context, the same way children learn.

    I'm currently watching Nirvana in Fire with my (English L1) family, and we end each episode by watching the closing song with pinyin & English subtitles. And singing along! I just wish more of such pinyin lyrics were done including the tone marks.

  8. Doctor Science said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 10:05 pm

    @Philip Taylor:

    "Butt dial" is when you call someone on your cell phone by pressing buttons accidentally while it's in your pocket.

    "Booty call" is dropping by someone's place to see if they want to have sex.

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 11:12 pm

    There's no tactful way to say this but it does seem, after seeing perhaps a hundred examples, that Philip Taylor is trollish when it comes to American English. (He also could use Google.)

    I was puzzled at first why anyone would associate 'butt dial' with 'booty call', as I don't use 'booty' with that meaning, but got it as soon as I started thinking about it. I assume Philip would likewise 'get' many American phrases if not for silly prejudice/obtuseness.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 11:31 pm

    In my American English, a cottage is like a small house, but probably used as a vacation home, though I'm aware that in Britain something called a cottage may be someone's only home. A cottage has decorative features and probably a garden (in the American sense). A cabin is primitive, with walls probably made of unpainted wood though not necessarily logs. I don't think of cabins as existing in Western Europe.

    I'll take Michael Watts's word that "cottage in the forest" turns up real-estate ads, but my first association with it is a fairy tale involving a poor woodcutter.

  11. Kristian said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 12:34 am

    I studied several languages and tried to study Mandarin, which I have found very difficult. There are a lot of barriers one encounters in the very beginning, the writing system, the entirely different vocabulary, and the pronunciation. The difficulty of the pronunciation is not just the tones, there are several consonant pairs that are hard to pronounce/distinguish. Also Mandarin words are very short (usually bisyllabic) and the syllables all follow the same few patterns morphologically, so it is necessary to learn these difficult pronunciations to be comprehensible or to understand what is being said.

    Lots of people think that Mandarin should be easy because the words don't inflect at all, but in an inflected language it's generally easier to recognize, e.g., which sentence is the main verb even if one doesn't understand the meaning, so one learns to detect patterns in what one hears.

    I developed the sense that Mandarin is very hard to learn unless one can spend significant time being exposed to a Mandarin speaking environment.

    It seems to be more true of Mandarin than other languages, that there is a general consensus that it is very difficult but then there are some people who claim it is relatively easy.

    I have never heard the expression "butt dial", I vaguely remember having come across "booty call" somewhere but had no idea what it meant and have never heard it used in real life. I know what the difference between cottage and cabin is, but otherwise the distinction between "cottage in the forest" vs "cabin in the woods" is unclear to me (for me, if anything, "woods" is more picturesque). And it's not as though English is somehow special for having expression with small differences in meaning.

  12. Vanya said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 4:25 am

    I developed the sense that Mandarin is very hard to learn unless one can spend significant time being exposed to a Mandarin speaking environment.

    I agree that it is very hard to learn Mandarin from books, compared to, say, French or German. Or even Turkish. But thankfully we now live in age of podcasts and YouTube. It has never been easier than today to learn spoken Mandarin while living outside of China. A lot of the podcasts are quite good. It is sad that Popup Chinese is no longer active, but the older episodes are still available.

  13. TZK said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 9:53 pm

    As a new Chinese learner long, long ago, I didn't have as much difficulty with characters as most of my classmates did, just by dint of having a pretty good visual memory. In some sense I even found them to be a helpful replacement for the sort of implicit etymological scaffolding I'd always had (as a native English speaker) when I was engaging with a European language, so I could think of vocab words as more than just random sounds.

    At least that's how I felt about it for a long time. But now, all these years later, I find that when I read a novel in Chinese, what slows me down isn't so much unfamiliar words, but the compulsion to whip out Pleco each time I come to a character whose meaning I might know, but where I am not confident I have the tone or pronunciation right. Maybe not everyone has quite the same level of qiangpozhen(g? <- nope, not going to look it up) as I do in this regard, and I think lots of people don't hear words in their heads at all when they read (in fact I think you're not supposed to, right?), but nonetheless I bet phonetic annotation would be super valuable not just for beginners, but even for the growing number of people like me who are no longer formally "learners" but are still trying to improve.

    Of course there are lots of texts for children, but I wonder whether anyone knows of a publisher out there doing proper grown-up books with pinyin or zhuyin annotations? I know there's some stuff written in pinyin only, but my guess is that reading, e.g., Jin Yong or Three Body in a pinyin-only text would require a near-native-level vocabulary and cultural fluency.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 5:37 am


    If even someone like you, who was enamored of (if not addicted to) the characters for such a long time, now feels the need for phonetically annotated texts, that shows how badly we need them. Unfortunately, there are no publishers (including educational authorities) who are currently producing them on a large scale or a regular basis.

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