Challenge #9 Recap: Why Mandarin Chinese Is So Difficult to Learn

Written by Don P on . Posted in Challenge #9

(Reading time: 2 - 3 minutes)
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For Challenge #9, I chose to learn Mandarin Chinese, because out of the two main types — those being Mandarin or Cantonese — supposedly Mandarin is easier to learn and the most commonly spoken amongst the people of China.

Note: When I say "easier to learn," I still mean hard as shit, although the entire language was simplified thousands of years ago; meaning somehow it used to be EVEN MORE difficult.

The Chinese language originated out of the necessity to send messages thousands of miles without having to play the world's most complicated game of telephone. So the people decided, like a toddler would, to just draw tiny pictures of everything needing to be conveyed, thus completely giving the middle finger to spell check.

DonDoes30.com - Fuck Spell Check "你他妈的!!!"

This system actually worked for a very long time. Simple things in ancient China like trees, animals, or fireworks were fairly easy to figure out from a drawing. Just think of everything you talk about and how easy it would be to get your point across with images of stick figures.

Before they knew it, shit had kind of gotten away from them. At one point there were dozens of ways to write each word. So Emperor Qin Shi Huang graciously stepped in and narrowed the symbols down to a more palatable tens of thousands of characters, which is pretty much what they still use today. And we all know what what great tattoos they make.

Why is Chinese So Hard?

Besides having to memorize thousands of characters, Chinese is spoken in different tones. Mandarin has 4 tones while Cantonese has 6. Check out this Chinese tongue twister:

English: Forty-four is Forty-four (Not so bad, right?)
Mandarin (phonetic): sìshísì shì sìshísì (What. The. Fuck?)

The only differentiator is the tone in which those "sishi" rises or falls, which is indicated by the accent marks above. Maybe this chart will clear up some of your confusion:

DonDoes30.com - 4 Mandarin Tones Crystal clear now.

I knew I was fucked. The first day I started the program, the instructor from the Pimsleur Mandarin course asked, "Did you hear the rising/falling tone in that word?" No. No, I fucking didn't, because rising and falling are complete opposites.

But the beauty of Chinese is that everyone writes using the same characters. However, like the United States, China is a huge country, and different areas have different dialects that evolved around the characters that had no phonetic instruction to them. It'd be like handing a bunch of babies a book and having them grow up guessing how to read. Eventually that would figure out a system of sounds that make sense to them, but it would be totally ass backwards from everyone else.

So over a long period of time, the more isolated a town was the more distinct their "dialect" became. This now results in pretty frustrating moments as people who grew up 50 miles apart from each other may not have any idea what the other person is saying. Some of these dialects are more like horrible Boston accents, while others are completely unintelligible like Mississippi or Kentucky.

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