Even nowadays in our more open and globally connected world, the Chinese language retains a degree of mystery that leads people to believe all kinds of unfounded ideas about it. Those new to Chinese often seek answers to perplexing questions like: Is learning Chinese easy or difficult? Does Chinese have grammar? Is it hard to learn Chinese characters…? Whether arising from a lack of information or cognitive bias, widespread myths and misconceptions can discourage people from trying to learn or understand the Chinese language. In this article, we endeavor to demystify some of the top misconceptions around Mandarin, and in doing so, we hope to persuade readers that learning Chinese is achievable and worthwhile. At the same time, perhaps our myth-busting can help people avoid wasting time on dead-end strategies that don’t lead to productive outcomes.
With that said, let’s get on with debunking 9 common myths about learning Chinese.
Myth #1: You have to live in China to become fluent in Chinese.
The idea that living in China is necessary for fluency often deters potential learners from the language. While it’s true that immersion is a powerful language learning tool, it is by no means the only path to fluency, nor a guarantee that you’ll become fluent. We’ve all encountered or heard of people who reside in a foreign country and yet live in a language bubble, associating predominantly with other speakers of their language and never learning the host country’s language even though they are surrounded by it. (Let’s face it, many English speakers are guilty of this!)
Thanks to advances in technology and the globalization of education, access to authentic Chinese language resources has never been easier. With online platforms, language apps, and a wealth of digital content such as The Chairman’s Bao, learners can immerse themselves in Chinese language and culture from anywhere in the world. They can engage in online conversations with native speakers, participate in immersion programs, or keep up with Chinese news, movies, and social media, all without leaving their home country.
It’s entirely possible to create a Chinese-rich environment in your own surroundings, whether through language meetups, joining local Chinese communities, or enrolling in language and culture courses. The key is active engagement and a structured approach to language learning, more so than geographical location. Successful Chinese learners around the world have reached fluency without residing in a Chinese-speaking country: for inspiration, check out YouTuber Will Hart, and podcaster/blogger Mischa Wilmers of I’m Learning Mandarin.
Myth #2: Chinese is one single language.
The very term “Chinese language”, used as if it was one entity, oversimplifies the linguistic diversity across China and the broader Chinese-speaking world. In reality, Chinese is a family of related but distinct languages, each with its own unique features, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The most widely spoken and standardized form is Mandarin, known as “Putonghua” in mainland China and “Guoyu” in Taiwan, but there are many other Chinese languages or dialects as discussed in this article.
One major distinction within the Chinese language family is the division between Mandarin and non-Mandarin languages. Mandarin, the official language in mainland China, is commonly taught to learners worldwide; while other languages/dialects like Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka, and Hokkien are spoken by millions of people in different regions of China and among Chinese communities around the world. These dialects can be mutually unintelligible when spoken, although the writing system is similar.
By the way, the very distinction between a “language” and a “dialect” is far from clear-cut. There is a saying, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, which highlights the fact that political power and influence can be the factors that distinguish a so-called dialect from a language.
Myth #3: Chinese doesn’t have grammar.
The truth is that Chinese grammar is very different from the grammatical structures and components of English and its adjacent languages. Somehow this has led to the false notion that Chinese has no grammar at all, a misconception that crops up now and again. While Chinese may lack some of the grammatical elements that we are used to in English, it does indeed have a unique and logical grammatical system that governs word order in sentences, relationships between words, and nuanced meanings.
Chinese grammar is in some ways simpler than many world languages like English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian: there are no Chinese verb tenses, conjugations or gendered nouns to memorize (yay!). Chinese grammar relies heavily on word order, context, and use of particles to convey meaning. In Mandarin, the word order for SVO or subject-verb-object sentences is generally consistent (similar to English). However, the omission of subjects and the use of context to infer meaning make it a more concise and sometimes ambiguous language compared to English.
Chinese grammar encompasses aspects such as tense markers, aspect markers, and particles. For example, we use the particles 了 (le) for indicating completed actions or changes of state, and 把 (bǎ) to mark the object of an action. The Chinese grammar system may seem unconventional to English speakers, but dismissing the very existence of grammar in Chinese is a serious misconception. For more information, check out Chinese Grammar Wiki, or The Chairman’s Bao grammar explanations included with every article.
Myth #4: Beginner Chinese materials are boring.
In reality, even beginner learners have access to meaningful and engaging content in Chinese, if they know where to find it. This includes the extensive library of news articles here on The Chairman’s Bao, available at HSK1 level and above; take a look at this article on easy Chinese news for beginners for more tips and resources. There are also email subscriptions for Chinese beginners (Maayot), Chinese podcasts for beginners, and entry-level graded reader series that use a selection of the most common Chinese characters (such as Mandarin Companion breakthrough books).
The notion that novice language learners have to start with boring and basic content probably derives from people’s experiences of textbook-based language lessons at school. Such courses typically have mundane beginnings, such as “Hello, my name is…”, “The car is red”, “I have a brother and a sister”, counting from 1 to 10, etc. It’s not that this approach is wrong per se, but it is such common practice in beginner language classrooms and study materials that you would think it was the only or “correct” way to learn a language – which it isn’t.
In fact, according to successful language learners such as polyglot YouTuber Steve Kaufmann, one of the most important motivators for learning is access to interesting content. When the learner’s engagement and interest in the material overcomes the brain’s resistance to doing something difficult (i.e. reading/listening to a foreign language), the process of learning becomes smoother, and acquisition of language patterns and vocabulary is accelerated. So, even if you’re a beginner, you have a good reason to ditch the boring materials and find something you enjoy studying.
Myth #5: Tones are not that important in Chinese.
According to some, “if you speak fast enough, tones become irrelevant”. This is likely based on wishful thinking, an attempt to bypass one of the more difficult aspects of learning Chinese: namely, mastering tones. The reality is that tones DO matter, especially as one becomes more advanced in the language and wishes to engage in high-level conversations that are more abstract and unpredictable in nature. Because Chinese has such a large number of homophones – syllables and words comprised of the same sounds – tones are an essential aspect of conveying meaning.
In some situations, tones may matter less: for example, if you’re getting by in basic everyday Mandarin and communicating within a clear context, such as ordering food while pointing to what you want. In this case the predictability of the conversation makes it hard to create serious misunderstandings, even with imperfect tones. And if you speak a sentence that is otherwise clear and grammatically correct, and you mess up the tones in one word, your interlocutor may be able to guess what you meant based on the surrounding context. However, relying on guesswork is not a good foundation for effective communication – and sometimes, context alone is not enough to clarify meaning.
If you’ve had any experience trying to decipher someone’s speech in English when they have a very strong accent and/or they stress the wrong syllables in words for example, you’ll have an idea of the difficulty Chinese natives face when listening to speakers with poor tones. Ultimately, tones are key to comprehensibility. Mischa Wilmers of I’m Learning Mandarin is a good authority on this subject, as an advanced Chinese speaker who overcame his own challenges of mastering tones rather late in his Chinese-learning journey. If you struggle with tones or you’ve written yourself off as “tone deaf”, check out Mischa’s advice, and find yourself a Mandarin teacher who specializes in teaching tones to foreigners.
Myth #6: Chinese characters are pictograms.
As you probably know, there is no Mandarin Chinese alphabet; there are characters called “Hanzi”, alongside romanized forms of the language such as pinyin, which was created to make Chinese more accessible to people familiar with the Roman alphabet. When first encountering Chinese characters, people tend to assume that the Hanzi are stylized pictures of the objects they represent. In fact, only a small proportion of the characters – around 600 – are pictograms. These include:
- 人 rén (person)
- 日 rì (sun)
- 雨 yǔ (rain)
- 火 huǒ (fire)
- 木 mù (wood/tree)
There is an understandable appeal to making connections between the written characters and real-world objects, especially for beginners. Many beginner books present basic Hanzi in this way. But it will only get you so far, as there are other systems underlying the formation of Hanzi.
Actually, the majority of Chinese characters are comprised of a phonetic (sound) component, and a semantic (meaning) component. Rather than treating Hanzi as pictograms, you will have greater success in decoding characters if you learn the underlying systems and “read” the components of a character. For example:
- 妈 “ma” (mother) has the character 女 meaning “female”, and 马 (ma) indicating pronunciation.
- 远 “yuan” (far) has the radical 辶 meaning “walk”, and 元 (yuan) indicating pronunciation.
- 情 “qing” (emotion) has the radical 忄 meaning “heart”, and 青 (qing) indicating pronunciation.
Myth #7: Learning to hand-write characters is a must.
With the widespread use of digital communication and keyboard input, writing Chinese characters by hand is less of a necessity these days, even for natives. So, many Mandarin learners may look at the significant time investment required to master handwriting and conclude that it isn’t worth it for them – which is perfectly valid. It depends on what your goals are.
People who have learned to write well in Chinese have observed that the main application of this skill in the real world is filling out forms. This may be a part of everyday life in China, which means being able to hand-write at least to some degree is an important practical skill if you plan any kind of longer-term stay there. Furthermore, handwriting in Chinese is likely to be essential for academic purposes, such as studying at a Chinese university or taking written exams.
Another benefit of learning to write is that it can facilitate the process of learning and memorizing characters, so in that sense, reading and writing go hand-in-hand (no pun intended). But still, it’s a very time-intensive practice to master writing, and some will conclude that it isn’t a top priority. For many Chinese learners, that time could be better spent honing other skills, such as spoken fluency.
Myth #8: “This one hack can make you fluent in Chinese!”
In an effort to create clickbait or build a following, some individuals make bold claims about how X technique will make you fluent in a language incredibly fast, or with minimal effort. They sometimes overhype the efficacy of their favored method, when the reality is that language proficiency is a gradual process that involves multiple skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) which develop at different rates.
One example of a recent trend in the language-learning community is the “comprehensible input” method. Although the method has definite merits, its popularity online has led some people to believe that the key to fluency is just massive amounts of input (reading and listening), and that we don’t need to worry about output (writing/speaking), as those skills will eventually come naturally once we’ve received enough input. The claim is that this is a natural process akin to how babies and children acquire language.
However, contrary to this theory, there are many people who have achieved an advanced level of reading and listening comprehension in a foreign language, who nevertheless have difficulty expressing themselves in speaking or writing. Furthermore, the difference between babies/children versus adult learners using the comprehensible input method, is that in addition to input, babies and children spend countless hours producing sounds, experimenting with language and making mistakes, while getting a huge amount of feedback from their parents and the world around them.
In the writer’s opinion as a seasoned language learner and teacher, to master a particular skill requires actively practicing that skill. If you spend a disproportionate amount of time studying flashcards, you are mainly training yourself to become ace at flashcard tests. If your Chinese studies consist of sitting in class and conversing with teachers and classmates, you’ll become adept at using Chinese in the familiar context of the classroom, but you might struggle during real-life interactions on the streets of China. To become a proficient Chinese speaker, you have to – you guessed it – practice a lot of speaking. (Of course, all language skills can help to reinforce each other, so it’s a “both-and” situation, not an “either/or”.)
Myth #9: Compared to other languages, Chinese is hard to learn.
Okay, there’s some truth to this. Realistically, for a native English speaker with no background in Asian languages, becoming competent in Chinese will take longer than reaching the equivalent level in a Romance language such as Spanish, because the latter has an innate comprehensibility (due to shared vocabulary/grammatical roots with English) that Chinese does not have. Yet, in some ways Chinese has fewer complexities than Spanish, as noted above when discussing Chinese grammar. The initial lack of comprehensibility should not deter you: things will get easier once you have acquired some basic vocabulary, grammar, and the most frequent Chinese characters.
Mastering any skill comes with challenges, setbacks, and periods of stalled progress. Learning Chinese is no different. But like any skill, it is attainable with sufficient motivation, self-discipline, and effective study methods.
This article aimed to debunk some common myths and misconceptions about the Chinese language. If you’re still wondering, but really, is Mandarin Chinese hard to learn? There’s only one suggestion left for you: give it a try and find out for yourself! An unfamiliar language like Chinese can seem impenetrable until you begin learning it, and you discover that it has its unique form of order and logic and beauty, as all languages do. For those who have already been studying Chinese and are further along in your journey, hopefully this article has provided insights that could help you avoid pitfalls and plateaus in your learning.
Daisy Ward is an experienced online English teacher, writer and content creator with a passion for foreign languages and cultures. Her expertise in effective language-learning strategies is derived from many years in language classrooms, both as a teacher and as a student. Fluent in French and competent in Mandarin Chinese, she attributes much of her success in learning languages to the use of apps and other online tools.