Mandarin is a tonal language, so the same word with different tones has different meanings. In Romanic languages, intonation often drives the meaning or intent of the overall sentence, right?
Take the word “right”. If I say it as a question “right?”, it sounds similar to the second tone in Chinese, with the pitch going up, like raising your eyebrow. If I use it as a confirmation or exclamation “right!”, it sounds more like the Chinese forth tone with the pitch going tone, like stomping your foot. But it is still the same word with the same meaning “right = correct”. In Mandarin, the same word with a different tone has a different meaning.
Chinese words are usually short, just one or two syllables. So you only have a quick chance to get it right, including the correct tone. With longer words in other languages, like dictionary or definitely, if you get one syllable wrong you still have a decent chance that someone will understand what you are trying to say.
Some initials, especially those sh- and dj-type of sounds (zh, ch, sh, z, c, s, j, q, x), at the beginning of a word are difficult for many foreigners to pronounce, which also makes it hard for some to hear the difference between them. And the Chinese language has many words that start with these sounds. Added to that challenge is that many Chinese outside of the cozy comfort of Mandarin language schools pronounce those sounds differently, so a “sh” may sounds like a “s”, which can confuse this poor foreigner even more.
In my opinion, it is not too difficult to learn a basic Mandarin vocabulary to get your point across, however clumsily. But it takes a much bigger vocab to actually understand the average Chinese person speaking. The reason is that the Chinese language has many many words with only a slightly different meaning, or pretty much the same meaning but being used in different situations.
For example, there are a variety of words in Mandarin that mean “happy”. Chinese people will likely understand you if you use the one word for “happy” that you learned, even in the wrong context, but you may have no idea what they are talking about if they use a different word for it.
Now, Chinese grammar is supposed to be simple. And it is. No conjugations, past, past perfect, future and other tenses. While it is nice that you don’t have to learn those things, it makes it harder to decipher the meaning of a sentence without those grammar clues when coming from a different language background.
Also, the word order is completely different and multiple verbs are often strung together for specific meaning. This leaves me sometimes understanding every word of a sentence and still with no clue what the speaker was trying to say. Understanding spoken Chinese is certainly a challenge for me personally, and I know a lot of Mandarin learners who are much better than I am at deciphering what Chinese people say. So you should take my assessment with a grain of salt.
5. Chinese characters
And then there are Chinese characters. Many foreigners opt not to learn characters and focus on the spoken language because learning how to read and especially write characters can be very tedious. Even Chinese people sometimes forget how to write a certain character.
A big disadvantage of not being able to read, besides the obvious – not understanding signs, newspapers, etc – is that reading is a great way to learn and reinforce vocabulary. For example, when learning Spanish you can read simple books to get more exposure to the language. For Mandarin, you need to learn characters first, like learning a separate written language in addition to the spoken one.
So, why again should you learn Chinese as expat in China? And with all those obstacles, how do you learn Chinese? Well, as with everything challenging, you just jump right in. Find a teacher or class that works for your learning style, celebrate the small victories using Chinese in everyday life, and don’t get frustrated when at times it doesn’t seem to go well.
And most importantly, go out and try to talk to Chinese people and practice with them, not just with other foreigners in class. (I know this is the hardest part, at least for me. I admit I don’t practice enough what I preach here.)
Learning Chinese is not easy but it is quite doable. And it is very rewarding. Please feel free to share your own experiences, obstacles and victories in the comments.