Learning Chinese: Is the value worth the time?


Experts in linguistics have said that in the past two or three decades Mandarin has become one of the most popular languages and will only increase in popularity. Along with this growing popularity comes a great difficulty. Mandarin has been voted as one of the top five hardest languages to master but is regarded as one of the top most useful languages especially in terms of business and foreign relationships in emerging markets.

 The Roadblocks of Learning the Language

Even before really entering the full process of learning such a complex language, some cultural roadblocks will play a large part in the process. One of the first considerations and realizations will be that languages are very undervalued in academic communities and being monolingual is somewhat of an American value.

In other countries and mainly in Europe, learning more than one language is mandatory and heavily embedded into the education system. European culture emphasized multilingualism and considers it of equal importance to math and science.


Learning the language can often be expensive and finding an effective method is also difficult. Some people choose private tutors which seem to be the most effective method but also the most expensive. The most common method is taking a class at a college or university, because unfortunately online learning is more difficult and turns out to be a less effective method.

The reason face to face learning is crucial for Mandarin is because of the four tones that the language is dependent on. The meaning of a word is completely dependent on its tone; high level, rising, falling and rising, and falling. Therefore, finding an adequate learning environment is the first step towards the tenuous learning process.

Language Difficulty & Level of Fluency

After finding an academic environment for the language, several years of learning must take place. Not only is the oral part of the language difficult, but the written portion can take native speakers a lifetime to master. With about 8000 characters and 4000 that are used daily, the undertaking of learning such a language is a huge endeavor. As mentioned, spending years in order to learn the language can be very costly and obviously very time consuming.

The level of fluency trying to be achieved is also completely dependent on the person and their needs and can determine how much of a roadblock or investment this part of the process could become. Another issue that also comes along with the learning of such a complex language is the colloquialisms that come with the different dialects spoken throughout China because of its size and population.

Diversity of Dialects

Due to the size of China and its large population there many regions where the Mandarin spoken is unique and has developed into local dialects belonging to each region. In addition to the sub-dialects of Mandarin there are also many other languages spoken throughout China such as; Cantonese, Hakka, Taiwanese, Wu, and many others. The key difference between these languages listed and the regional sub-dialects of Mandarin is that these languages are not mutually understandable. However, there may be some similarities in the language simply due to the common root of these languages, but it would still be very difficult for speakers of one language to easily communicate with one another.

Even though there are many dialects and languages other than Mandarin, Mandarin has become the “common language” in more developed areas in order to allow for easier administration. Not only is it the “common language”, but the written component also provides a vast linguistic common ground that often helps for long distance commination throughout the regions.


After going through this process of learning the language and going through years of teaching in order to acquire mastery or whatever fluency is trying to be attained, each person must then ask themselves if the time and resources is worth the value. After reading all of these steps and understanding the whole process of learning one of the most difficult languages people might weigh the value differently than before.

Even though this value obviously depends from person to person, the real question is will the learning of the language give more than had to be given for it (output>input). Another consideration that people might make is the level of fluency that they wish to have and how long it will take for them to achieve that. If someone can reach a comfortable fluency or learn the parts of the language that they need most then maybe that might be the best and most effective way to take charge of the learning process.








Photo Credit: Zsoolt

Photo Credit: Amy Adoyzie

Photo Credit: Patrick Bombaert

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