Mandarin Chinese has a reputation for being extremely difficult for westerners to learn.
It’s a not an undeserved reputation. The writing system is obscure, with thousands of different characters, and there’s no way to learn them except through memorization. The language is tonal, which means that depending on the contours of the pitch of your voice, a single syllable can have many vastly different meanings. And there’s a massive cultural gap between the east and west, meaning that the idioms that Chinese people spout—most of which have root in old folk tales, literature, and history—are going to be incomprehensible to a westerner. Put all this together, and you end up with a language that presents massive barriers to adoption for people on this side of the planet.
But what if you decided to try anyway?
That’s what I did for much of last year. I didn’t commit too many resources to it: I did it in a relatively small share of my spare time, and spent little to no money on the pursuit. But by now, although I’m far from fluent, I’ve achieved a good enough understanding of the basics of the language—both spoken and written—that if I were to travel to Beijing tomorrow I think I’d be okay getting my way around.
And although it was difficult, it most certainly wasn’t impossible. In fact, in the Internet Age, the idea that something like this is “impossible to learn” is damaging and artificially limiting. If you’re able to read this article, your access to knowledge, culture, and learning resources is at a level that is completely unmatched throughout history. All you have to do is harness it.
I want to again take you through the barriers to learning Mandarin that I listed above, but this time with a more positive outlook, showing you how I used the resources at my disposal to work around them.