Is It Easy To Learn Mandarin Chinese?

“Is it easy to learn Mandarin Chinese?”

This is one of the most common questions among people who are thinking of learning Mandarin, yet one of the most difficult to answer.

I understand why people ask it. We live in an age of instant gratification and we don’t want to waste our time. We want to get things done and we want to get them done yesterday. Acquiring language skills is no different.

Now you might be thinking, “I guess it would be cool to be fluent in Mandarin. Those characters, although rather mesmerising and beautiful, look very difficult to learn. Should I start this journey, or should I start a cooking YouTube channel instead?”

I’m going to play amateur psychologist here and say you’re not only wondering whether it’s easy (because you already know the answer to this one), but you want to know if learning Mandarin is worth it.

Unfortunately, only you can answer that last one.

But before I make my case for why Mandarin isn’t as difficult as it may seem, I’m going to give you what you want: a short and succinct answer to your question.

You don’t have to be of high intelligence to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese as an adult. Language learning isn’t about being ‘smart’. It’s about being curious, committed, and hungry. Plenty of nations all over the world are populated with bilingual people (including China). They’re not all smarter than you. You just have to be honest with yourself and decide if learning Mandarin is worth your time and effort. Then, commit to actively engaging with the language every day over a sustained period of time.

What Makes a Good Mandarin Learner?

Some people are drawn to languages like a moth to a lamp.

Not me.

I was never a languages kind of guy growing up.

I’m from England, and sadly a lot of native English speakers where I come from lack curiosity in other languages. I was guilty of this, and even though I ‘studied’ French and German at school, I can’t remember any of what I learned

“I don’t need to learn another language because I already speak English.”

Me and loads of other native English speakers.

What’s your excuse for not learning Mandarin, or any other language? You can probably find it on the list below.

All jokes aside, it’s important to breakdown the most common excuses of why people decide not to learn languages.

“I’m not good at languages. It’s impossible for someone like me.”

As I mentioned earlier, there are countries all over the world where almost every single inhabitant is bilingual. Do you think they’re literally all gifted geniuses in possession of a skill that the gods have decided not to bestow on you?

The answer is no.

There is no ‘language gene’. You have decided you’re not ‘good at languages’, nobody else has done that for you.

If half of the globe can learn a second language, so can you.

“There’s no point in learning a language as an adult, it’s impossible to become fluent.”

Science has long since called BS on this one.

There are literally millions of people all over the world who have learned a second language as an adult.

They might have learned differently from a child, but they’ve still learned successfully.

“You need to live in China to speak Chinese.”

Wrong again.

Every tool you need to learn Mandarin Chinese to an advanced level can be found online. That’s a fact. There are a number of fluent Mandarin speakers who have never set food in a Mandarin speaking country.

Sure, being in China or Taiwan will help improve your language skills, but you don’t need to live in a Beijing Hutong for a decade to become proficient in Mandarin.

By pointing out the ridiculousness of excuses, what I’m trying to say is…

You’d be surprised at how easy learning Chinese becomes when you actually want to learn it.

How to Make Learning Mandarin Easier

Now although learning Mandarin isn’t as difficult as some would make out, you still don’t want to be approaching the endeavour completely ignorant to time, money, and effort saving practices.

Here are a few things for beginners to keep in mind.

Find your purpose

It wasn’t until I moved to China and realised I was going to have to learn functional Mandarin to make my life easier on a day-to-day basis.

I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy taking it further until I committed myself to learn Chinese.

Without a purpose for learning Chinese, you will run out of steam very quickly and quit. Your purpose could be one of many, but it will usually be one of the following:

  • You will be studying to improve your career opportunities.
  • You might be moving to China for work and want to be functional in Mandarin to make your life easier.
  • You might be studying Mandarin at university, either in your home country or abroad.
  • You might be fascinated by all aspects of China, including the language.
  • You might have a Chinese partner and want to be able to communicate with their family in their mother tongue.
  • You might just have a voice inside of you that says “I have to learn this language.”

Whatever your reason is, it has to be a good one.

Although becoming proficient in Mandarin isn’t as tough as people make out, it takes sustained concerted effort over a period of time. If your reason for learning isn’t good enough, you’ll find yourself at the top of the heap of quitters in no time.

Look deep within yourself, and find your purpose.

Commit for the long-term

Once you’ve started learning, you need to commit to at least a few hundred hours of study.

If you hire a private tutor for an hour a week, and then after a few lessons say to yourself, ‘I can’t read Tang Dynasty poetry yet, this is ridiculous!’ Then you need to revaluate your expectations.

You don’t have to study Mandarin for hours a day until your eyes bleed.

If you miss a day of studying here and there, you’re not a failure who’s destined to speak only one language forever.

In the very beginning, aim to study for 15 minutes a day, and keep this routine going for a few weeks before you choose to scale up.

Not sure how or where to start? There will be much more information on recommended resources for learning Chinese at the end of this post, so keep reading.

Be OK with not knowing what you’re doing

You’re a beginner.

Every single person who does anything for the first time is terrible at it.

I’m pretty sure the first time Roger Federer held a tennis racket even he didn’t know whether to hit a ball with it or hit mosquitos with it.

Well, the same goes for language learning.

I can’t tell you the number of times when I thought to myself, “I literally don’t know how to learn.”

Other doubts include…

  • “Why am I doing this?”
  • “Have I actually learned anything over the past week?”
  • “These aren’t words, are they? This book is a practical joke!”

Calm down and allow yourself to develop a sense of trust with your brain and let it do its thing.

With sustained time and effort, your brain will start to reveal its gratitude as your language skills grow.

If you’re looking for study guides and resources, as I’ve said previously, wait until the end of this post.

The learning Mandarin/bodybuilding analogy

You know how bodybuilders go to the gym and lift weights every day and eat loads of chicken, and then over time they end up growing big muscles and stealing all of your potential Tinder matches?

The same principle of repetition can be applied to learning a language (minus the Tinder matches).

Former English students of mine would come into class and brag about what wonderful students they were.

“Jesse, I watched a whole episode of Friends last night.”

Cool story, bro.

Come back to me when you’ve watched the same episode 10 times, shadowed it, transcribed it, and written a synopsis in your own words, and had it checked by me.

Repetition in language learning is essential, but so few people are willing to do it.

The quicker you accept this and use it as a strategy when learning Mandarin, you’ll discover how much easier it is to develop your Mandarin skills.

Enjoy it

There are going to be times when you’re fed up with learning Mandarin. Don’t worry. This is normal.

You might reach a point where you’re thinking, ”What’s the point! This is ridiculous! By the time I’ve learned Mandarin, there’ll be a microchip I can shove in my brain that makes me instantly fluent!”

Take a break, have a cookie (or a vodka), and come back to it later. This is a journey, and for every negative, there will be a positive.

I, and many other higher level Mandarin learners, have found that we enjoy studying Mandarin more as we’ve improved – the snowball effect of pleasure and progress is definitely real.

Sometimes it’s hard to gauge your progress when you’re so obsessed, but rest assured there will be times in the future where you’re overwhelmed with pride.

Stay strong, and don’t burn yourself out.

Embrace the embarrassment

Learning a new language is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, and this is coming from a man who fell asleep in a bush and wet himself at a cousin’s wedding.

If you can get used to making mistakes in Mandarin on a daily basis, your soul and language skills will benefit in ways you never imagined.

You don’t have to be the biggest extrovert in the world to learn a language (I’ll explain why next).

However, if you’re very timid and you choose never to practice what you’ve learned, it will hold you back. If you don’t want to make mistakes in front of a language partner, a tutor, or a Chinese friend, your progression will be slower.

The quicker you accept regular feelings of embarrassment, the better.

Input is King/Queen

I’m stealing a quote from the great Steve Kaufmann here, but the thing that will improve your Mandarin skills the most is simply time spent with the language.

Time spent with the language doesn’t mean talking about learning Mandarin Chinese with friends, making a Facebook status about your progress on Duolingo, or searching for podcasts that you’ll never listen to and TV shows you’re never going to watch.

Progress means actually consuming the language with your eyes and ears.

Language needs to be acquired with your eyes and ears to be understood, then it can come out of your mouth.

This is why when people say “Extroverts are the best language learners because they talk to everyone!” are talking nonsense.

In fact, in my experience meeting foreign learners of Mandarin, I’ve found introverts who are happy to spend time alone reading and listening to be those who advance the fastest.

Of course, learning Mandarin isn’t a race.

My point is that those who spend more time with the language tend to learn more Mandarin Chinese.


Learning Mandarin Chinese doesn’t require a higher than average level of intelligence to learn.

Learning Mandarin requires time, enthusiasm, and commitment.

If you’re looking for more tips and recommended Mandarin learning resources, check out the further reading below.

Mandarin Learning Resources

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