Chinese Mandarin is Easy
Comparing Its Difficulty with Japanese, German, and Spanish
by Mike Wright
"The biggest impediment to learning Mandarin seems to be fear--sometimes caused by the teachers. I've studied quite a few languages, and none of them were as easy for me as Mandarin."
What I came to believe is that Mandarin is pretty easy for native English
speakers, while Japanese is one of the most difficult. Mandarin syntax is easy
to teach using pattern drills. Furthermore, Mandarin sentence order is similar
to English--but simpler, having no inflections (thus no irregularities) and with
gender, number, tense, etc. being optional, whereas they are obligatory for most
of the world's languages. The only difficult part of spoken Mandarin is the tone
system. Even that isn't a big problem for practical use. I know that my tones
have always been weak, but when I was using the language regularly, I had no
problem communicating. What turned out to be more important was to adapt to the
basic pronunciation and vocabulary used by the average Hokkien speaker when
speaking Mandarin. Of course, I never got to go to China. I do remember how
wonderful it was to run across a native of Beijing or Tianjin in Taiwan--it was
Mandarin was my first serious language, after some Spanish and German in high school and college, and it was the easiest by far.
Comparison with Japanese
I didn't find Japanese too difficult while studying it at Defense Language Institute,
but when I arrived in Japan, I found that I had a lot of trouble communicating.
This was very different from my experience with Mandarin. When I arrived in
Taiwan, I could pretty much discuss any topic. On the other hand, I spent a
total of 7.5 years in Japan, much of it associating with people who spoke little
or no English, yet I never felt confident in the language. It's not so much the
syntax--the conjugation of verbs and adjectives is quite regular--but the way
the language is used. In many respects, it seems to be as much a problem of
culture as of language per se.
Comparison with German and Spanish
In comparison, German and Spanish are difficult because of inflection and
gender. Although many people consider these languages easy because of the
large number of English cognates, my personal experience is that vocabulary is
nothing. You will pick up as much as you need--as you need it. The really tricky
part is the syntax. If you don't have that down, no amount of vocabulary will