March 08, 2011

Learning a difficult language – Part 1.

Learning a difficult language – Mandarin
By Vladimir Skultety MA., BC.

Table of contents


General reasons
The difference of Mandarin
Inner logic of Mandarin

Specific reasons
Vast unknown vocabulary
Writing system
Memorizing characters
Hand-writing characters



Hello everyone and welcome to my podcast. First of all I’d like to apologize, for the fact, that it took me a while to upload this article, but there are a number of reasons for that. I originally wanted to continue my recordings with the “Learning intermediate languages” series, but didn’t have that much inspiration in the past few weeks and had much better ideas for a recording about difficult languages instead, so in the following series I would like to talk about learning difficult languages. Unfortunately since Mandarin is the only difficult language I’ve learned, these episodes will be about Mandarin only and will relate to learning difficult languages as a whole only to a certain extent. Another reason for publishing my recording so late is, that I didn’t want to record an episode only for the sake of putting something online and as it takes me some time to write a presentable article, it took me almost 3 weeks to publish this one. In this first episode of the Learning a difficult language series, I will try to talk a little about what I personally think makes a language difficult and why I consider Mandarin to be a difficult language. In the episodes to come, if possible, I will try to look back at my studies and step by step develop a learning strategy for us westerners on how to learn Mandarin from scratch which will be based on listening and speaking only.

Like I said in previous episodes, I divide all the languages that I’ve learned or studied into 3 simple groups based on their difficulty. I have not learned that many languages in my life and there are some people on youtube for instance who have studied 40,50, 60 or even more languages and I am sure they could give you a much more detailed division than the one I use, but based on my experience I use this simple 3 group system.

When it comes to difficult languages, there is only one difficult language that I’ve studied and that is Mandarin Chinese. Before Mandarin, I have already reached a very comfortable level in a number of western languages and even though of course it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t that difficult either when I look back at my studies now so of course when I started learning Mandarin, even though I was aware of the fact that it was a very very difficult language to learn, I was confident I could learn it well and I was confident that I could learn it fast and I think this was the first big mistake that I did.  It took me a very long time and a lot of nerves to get to the level of Mandarin where I am now and only about 3 months ago, I would not trust myself to do a podcast of this sort, because I didn’t have enough confidence in the language and thought that if I was not really comfortable with Mandarin myself, I should not be in the position to give advice others. It was only recently that I finally had a relatively good feeling about my skills, therefore now, if possible, looking back at the whole learning process in this episode I would like to talk a little about my reasons for why I think Mandarin is a difficult language to learn. It is by no means meant to be a discouragement for people who learn or want to learn Mandarin, it is just a description of what makes Mandarin difficult and what can and can’t be done in order to speed up the learning process. These reasons as everything I say are completely subjective and represent only my point of view and my own experience.

So first I would like to talk about some general reasons that make Mandarin a difficult language to learn.

General reasons
The difference of Mandarin

The first and probably the most important reason for why Mandarin is so difficult for a westerner is the fact, that it is distant from our languages in every possible way – in width, depth and time. Of course it has different sounds, grammar and vocabulary, but it has also developed them in a completely different time and space. Speakers of Mandarin are so far from us in every possible way that while learning their language you necessarily also have to take into account historical, cultural and structural differences of the society where this language is spoken and the dynamics that take place in it, otherwise you might just not be understood. These inner dynamics of the society and their isolated continuous development over a very long period of time are completely different from what you have previously known from the west and are something that is much less of a factor while learning western languages and these differences need to be taken into account, because otherwise you will have big problems communicating with native Mandarin speakers.

Inner logic of Mandarin

The inner system and logic of the language (I do not mean different grammar, but the way you convey thoughts into sentences, not the way you say things, but the way things come to be said) is the most difficult part. Of course there is the pronunciation, the tones, the vast unknown vocabulary, to some extent the characters as well, but the way things are said proved and proves to be the most difficult part of the whole language for me until this point. Everything else can be learned with practice but for this, you need to have a feel and a lot of time. The way you want to express your most basic of thoughts (again, it is not the grammar or the image, or structure of the Mandarin sentence that is different, it is the sheer basis of the concept of the way that things are said) is so different from anything I knew that it made improvisation and expressing even the most basic of sentences in Mandarin almost impossible without previously having heard the sentence I was about to say in real life context before, having to use exactly the same sentence I heard or a slightly altered one, otherwise I was not understood even though my pronunciation and vocabulary were correct. This makes improvisation a very very difficult thing to do and since improvisation and relaxed discussions in different life situations are the best way to practice and develop any language in my opinion, it is something that can be done only very very slowly in Mandarin and is one of the reasons, why Mandarin is so difficult to develop.

These were the two general reasons, that make Mandarin difficult in my point of view, which I am guessing might relate to any difficult language a student might want to learn. The following set of reasons are specific to Mandarin and relate to other difficult languages only to some extent. In this section I would like to talk about which individual structural parts of Mandarin are difficult to grasp for a westerner and why.

Specific reasons

Mandarin words are very very short and sound very similar to the untrained ear. Mandarin sentences are also very short. They contain fewer structural elements than a western language sentence and are very contextual. As a result you have the same information flowing into your brain in half of the time, which is incredibly difficult to get used to and because of the contextual nature of Mandarin, if you do not know the language very well, you will probably not correctly understand a given sentence in isolation and will require the preceding and following sentences as well. Another problem is, that Mandarin contains a great deal of sounds which do not exist in our western languages and therefore it is also difficult to first realize what sounds you just heard before you actually start decoding the information that these sounds hold. It of course happens in fractions of seconds but when added up, is a great great burden for the brain in the initial phases. I will try to give you a simple example based on the simple sentence What is your name. If you are a westerner and you hear these two following sentences one in Chinese and one in Italian: ni jiao sheme ming zi and Come ti chiami – you would have very little problems phonetically transcribing the sounds of the Italian sentence on a piece of paper, even if spelled wrong, but written phonetically correctly, whereas you’d have very big problems transcribing the Chinese sentence. The first problem thus is not the fact that you’re having problems understanding what you hear it is about not being sure what exact sounds you hear in the first place. It took me… well I don’t even know how long, until I could speed up my brain to the pace of the information that a Mandarin sentence contains. Even when it comes to the most simple of sentences, it still is a very difficult task in the beginning stages and make communication and relaxed conversations very tiring.


Tones are another problem, but now I realize that they are mainly a problem because of the way that they are explained and taught to western students. Tones are something that we are not very used to. We do have tones in our languages but they rarely change the meanings of syllables, which is a permanent feature in Chinese. When it comes to tones, more then ever I hate myself for studying Chinese the way I did and the way I was told.. yes there are 4 tones in Mandarin as everyone knows and I am convinced more than ever that it was the biggest mistake anyone ever did, when he explained to students, that there are 4 tones in Mandarin. Chinese themselves do not know that they have 4 tones and speak perfectly well, I don’t understand why students of Mandarin should know it. Tones are extremely important of course, but the way they are explained to students is very academic and not practical. This ‘scientific’ approach to Mandarin might be suitable for some, that maybe do not have such a good hearing or just cannot move on with Mandarin otherwise, but is terribly energy consuming and for instance completely destroyed my Mandarin pronunciation. In a later recording I will talk about this a little more as this topic deserves a whole set of recordings. For the moment, I would like to say that it should be stressed to a student that the pitch of a Mandarin syllable is extremely important and that the student should make his best effort in reproducing it based on what he hears and never look at tonal graphs, charts, numbers, explanations or ask about the number of tones for that matter. All of this mentioned information is too complicated for the brain to process in the short amount of time it has to do so and is instead much more practical to concentrate on the simple sound and rely on aural memory purely. It is also insane to expect from students to be able to reproduce almost perfectly the tones (pitch and curve both) in even the shortest of sentences and it is even more insane to ask them to reproduce them almost correctly the first time. In other words, the student is required to look at the tonal chart and pronounce the tone based on the sound and image he sees. The student is also expected to get very close to the correct pronunciation on his first try (listen and repeat). This is almost impossible, because you need to hear and not see the tone at least 50 times to realize what it sounds like and not what it looks like on a piece of paper, so no graph will help you and is a big interference instead. Not to mention the fact that I think now that it is very confusing to talk about the fact that Mandarin has 4 tones, extract these tones and talk about them in isolation and rather permanently merging them with specific syllables and meanings. The reason for this is that among other things Mandarin is multiplied by 4 this way. A good example is the syllable Gei3. This syllable can only be pronounced in the third tone and only has one possible meaning - to give. So the only way you can hear or say the word to give in Mandarin is to pronounce the word Gei in a low tone. But you as a student of Mandarin do not know this. If you study Mandarin the traditional way, you are prepared for the fact, that the syllable Gei has 4 tones and thus has at least 4 different meanings, so when you hear this syllable in speech, you don't trust your ears and literally overhear a word that you know how to pronounce as the tone itself doesn't make it distinctive enough for you as a beginner/intermediate student. I say forget about the fact that there are 4 tones, but be aware that there are some syllables that can be pronounced high or low. Based on whether they have a low or high pitch they are linked to completely different specific meanings (makes much more sense this way). Also, don't worry about making mistakes which will get you speaking faster, but never forget that the pitch of a Mandarin syllable is extremely important and do your best while trying to reproduce it based on what you hear only. After hearing the syllable for the 200th time you will eventually realize, what makes it distinct and why and when you get blank stares from Chinese. It might seem too long but honestly, how many people speak Mandarin with correct pronunciation and have mastered the syllables natively? Even people who've been studying Mandarin for years including myself still don't sound native, so making mistakes in the beginning is no big deal.

When I started learning Mandarin I was constantly asking myself – is it really possible to speak a language like this? Every syllable has one of 4 possible tones, how can anyone speak Mandarin and have in mind all of this information? All the different meanings of syllables with the same sound, the difficult pronunciation and on top of that 4 possible tones, which change in combination with other tones…and of course no one can speak effortlessly like this constantly bearing in mind all of this information. This is a scientific analysis of Mandarin sounds, not the language. The language is very simple and straightforward for anyone born in its environment, but very alien when scientifically explained to us western students because we are used to something completely different and historically, linguistically and culturally developed in a different way. Our languages also do have tones, but they rarely change the meanings of words. We use them naturally and don’t even notice that we are doing so and we are perfectly capable of learning tones as adults as well. Mike Campbell for instance has found a fairly complicated system of permanently present tones in American English, where some of the tones have the same feature as Cantonese for instance (low rising, mid rising and so on. Please see his video for reference - and a lot of foreigners studying English do master these tones without even noticing. I don’t know who and why applied a scientific approach to learning Mandarin and why that person decided that it was the correct way to teach it, but he made things a lot more complicated and difficult than they already were. I also don’t know why everyone else including me has followed. Just for reference, since I have dropped my conscious concentration on the 4 tones my learning speed became 4 times faster and made me save a lot of energy, time and preserve my nerves.

With all this said, however it may be, the fact still is and remains, that Mandarin has 4 tones and even later when I completely changed my approach, they were an additional burden throughout the learning process.  Continue to part 2.


  1. Hi Vlado,

    thanks for this article and especially for this note: "As a result you have the same information flowing into your brain in half of the time...", I started wondering couple of weeks ago is it just my brain that lacks processing power when it comes to spoken Mandarin. I am not learning the language for a very long time and I do understand simple spoken sentences, but it is very frustrating when I can't understand a spoken sentence that I would understand if I'd seen it written. I just hope that it will get better with more exposure...

  2. Dear Aineko,

    thank you for the comment.

    Mandarin comprehension will get better with exposure. In my experience and after so much frustration I think it is best to start out really slow in the beginning phases when it comes to listening practice. Even the most simple of sentences should be spoken out and listened to at much lower speeds. It took me maybe 3-4 days per sentence on average in order for it to get into my 'active listening memory" if I can call it that way. After that I could understand it with much less effort.

    good luck

  3. Dear Vlad, what can I say? This is an outstanding article that every mandarin learn should read (and listen to) before approaching Mandarin. Thanks for showing your invaluable insight into Mandarin with us. Luca

  4. Dear Luca,

    thank you very much for the nice comment.

    hope all is going well.


  5. Dear Vladimir,

    Thanks for sharing all your thoughts and I truly appreciate it. I wonder what kind of "inner logic" of Mandarin did you find different from other languages? Could you tell me some examples? Thanks again.

    1. Hello Jody,

      thank you for the comment. I wrote this article a long time ago, so I'm not totally sure what exactly I meant by 'inner logic' in this article, but looking back at my studies, I think I meant the way you have to think, put your thoughts together and words and word order you have to choose when you convey your thoughts into spoken language. One example that comes into mind:

      I was in Taiwan exiting the building I lived in passing the reception and I had a plastic bag in my hand which I didn't want to take out with me, wanted to leave it at the reception and pick it up 5 minutes later when I'd come back.

      Issues related to the different inner logic in this situation from top to bottom:

      Cultural level:
      Is this even acceptable to ask in Taiwan? I mean, is it normal when people leave stuff at the reception of the building they live in?
      Will this not put the receptionist in an uncomfortable position, asking him to do something he is obviously not supposed to do (in Taiwan)? If I don't know it's not supposed to be asked and I still ask, it's my fault and he has the right to be offended.
      If yes, how should I approach the receptionist?
      What should be the first sentence?
      What should be the second one?
      When should I introduce my question so that it is not rude?
      How polite should I be?

      On the level of the language:
      How the hell should I even say: Can I leave this bag here? I'll pick it up in 5 minutes.
      What words, sentence patterns can you use to say this sentence and which ones are usually associated with the level of politeness for this particular situation?
      What do Taiwanese/Chinese people with my educational background usually say in this situation?

      I had to ask my friend and she said she would say this:

      先生不好意思,這個袋子我可以借放一下嗎 我等一下過來拿

      I'd never come up with the construction on my own had I not asked my friend and I would have never learned it had I not been in that particular situation. That's why Mandarin is so hard in my opinion, because you have to experience a lot of situations on your own and can't learn in any other way.

      Of course I could've said that sentence in my own words, but it would have been terribly off.


    2. Thanks for your reply, Vladimir.

      I find the same situation when I learn English. Even though I am a polyglot(Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, English, Malay, Japanese, some Teochew, Hakka and Thai) but I still find it difficult to express myself in a "native perspective". Most of my sentences are still just a translation from my native language because of different ways to see thing/logics in different languages.

      And of course when I was teaching I found some of my students (usually mono-English speakers) who express a sentence in a way we don't normally say. If I told them we don't normally say in that way, they could not understand (that different languages have different ways to express opinions and they aren't just translations) and some might even think Mandarin is impolite. There are some cases we don't have to use certain polite words in the sentence to show our politeness but we do show politeness in other ways.

      Eg. A student asked how does he say "You are very good." to a waiter to show appreciation and I told him we don't usually say 你很好 because it doesn't mean anything and I bet the waiter would get confused. Instead we could say 真的很謝謝 to express we really appreciate his service.

      In western culture, you seem to emphasize more on the person and in Asian culture, we tend to focus more on what have been done.

      Normally other speakers who have learned more than a language can easily understand but mono language speakers usually have a hard time to understand this.

  6. Hello Jody,

    thank you for the comment. I usually try to ask "what do people usually say in this situation?" when I want to know how to say something rather than "how do you say this?" to bypass this problem.

    "In western culture, you seem to emphasize more on the person and in Asian culture, we tend to focus more on what have been done." - interesting way of looking at it. I think it's more the fact that Asian cultures tend to omit the subject of the sentence (quite often to avoid situational responsibility imho:) which causes this effect.


    1. Hey Vlad,

      thanks for the great blog, I've been following it since I started learning Mandarin in 2012. I come back again and again.

      My Mandarin is at a point that I can basically express anything I want to, but it is inaccurate, imprecise, and completely non-native.

      Your suggestion to find out "what people usually say in this situation", I think, is the way I need to go from here on out.

      So I wonder, after a friend tells you what people usually say in a situation, what do you do after that in order to remember the phrase and situation?

      Thanks again man,

  7. Hello Bobby,

    thank you for the comment. I'm glad you like my blog.

    I just try my very best to remember the whole situation and the phrase and try to go back to it a few minutes later, then half an hour later, maybe a few hours later just to refresh it in my mind.


    1. Vladimir,

      thanks for the tip! i will apply that in some shape or form.

      Thanks again,

  8. Hi Vlad! ^_^

    You probably get many video requests, but I thought I would ask anyway! :)

    Could you possibly make a video discussing slavic languages? I would love to hear what Russian, Polish, Czech and Slovak have in common, the differences, maybe things like reading comprehension and listening difficulty for English speakers? (of course I know your native language isn't English haha)

    Many thanks!

  9. Hi Rom,

    thanks for the comment.

    This would've been a wonderful topic 10 years ago when I was learning Russian, because I was noticing these differences all the time, now I just forgot what they were:/

    It's a good topic though, I'll write it into my potential topics list and maybe in the future I'll make a video.

    When it comes to the difficulty these languages present for English speakers, I would only be making wild guesses so I probably will not make a video like this, but I'll maybe make an interview with someone who has learned Russian well.