Mandarin is easier to learn and easier to use than English. As a language, it is a better learning tool, a better operating system and a better basis for performing thought. This article explains why Mandarin is easier to learn and use than English.
The first point is that it’s a better operating system for the brain, which I mean very literally in that it makes better use of our Brain’s equipment and limitations than English.
To see why this is true, consider what psychologists call the memory span, which describes how much stuff you can memorize or think about at once. If I say 50 numbers and ask you to repeat them back to me, your mental span would dictate how many digits you would remember. But this mental space is much more than a napkin to scribble phone numbers. It is the area of the mind that we’re most familiar with in everyday life, and the place where thought takes place.
The mental span is basically the part of the mind that is in use when we pay attention, think and learn. It can use reference materials like a book at your side, a speaking teacher, or something in your long-term memory, but ultimately, the mental span is the holding dock where ideas can be considered and where problem-solving is performed.
And Mandarin makes better use of this cerebral hardware than English because it is shorter, both in terms of syllables and phonemes per word.
In the last section we mentioned that it takes 2552 syllables to count to 1,000 in Mandarin and 4022 syllables in English, a 56% difference. We also saw that this is true of most long and complex words–Mandarin has a clear upper hand because it’s tones help to economize on length.
To see why this might matter, try reading the following list once and trying to repeat the words out loud:
- me, by, cat, do, sit, tie, yes, top
Then try the same exercise with 8 words that are longer and more complex but still have just 1 syllable each:
- “strong, graphed, crawled, strict, throngs, trained, frowns, claspedWhat you should notice is that it’s far easier to remember the first four words and hold them in your short term memory. This shows that the total number of phonemes per word increases the storage space it requires in your immediate memory where you hold information and think about. But if you’re not convinced yet, let’s expand into multiple syllables. See if you can read once and remember the following 8 unrelated words:
- “smattering, aerodynamic, malleable, bellicose, rambunctious, ostentatious, worrisome, nullification.Clearly, it’s much easier to remember and think about short and simple words while long, multi-syllabic words are mentally weighty. This is something cognitive psychologists have known for decades. The capacity of your mental span is inversely proportional to the length of words and the total syllables (Baddeley, Thomson and Buchanan, 1975). Thus, it’s not just easier to learn Mandarin words because they’re more intuitive. It’s also easier to think in Mandarin once you know it because the words are shorter in terms of both syllables and sounds.The advantage is clear. Tones help Mandarin store more information in fewer sounds helping Mandarin speakers make more efficient use of the mental space they have.
But what about the characters?
The question that remains for most is: Can these advantages possibly outweigh the challenge of learning to read and write thousands of Mandarin characters? My answer is absolutely yes–the challenge of learning characters is somewhat overblown while we underestimate the challenge of learning to read English. But if there’s any doubt, grammar ends up tipping the scale way in favor of Mandarin.
While it’s true that Chinese characters are far greater in number than the 26 letters in the English alphabet, it’s much easier to learn how to read and write in Mandarin than we might estimate while English is much harder than most of us remember.
First, we have to recognize that English is not a phonetic language.
If it was, the following sentence surely wouldn’t make any sense: “read rhymes with lead and read with lead, but read and lead don’t rhyme and neither do lead and read.” This showcases that our letters have split personalities and only sometimes follow rules which sort of misses the point of having rules in the first place.
The K in knife, the L in island, the P in pneumonia, the H in hours, the TH in Asthma, The B in Climb and several other letters seem to do whatever they want, whenever they want and endings like “ough” also fail to follow any clear pattern in words like “cough,” “tough,” “through,” and “thorough.”
The alphabet certainly helps, but it’s far from easy learning the thousands of exceptions.
Moreover, it’s wrong to assume that Mandarin characters are completely non-phonetic. Many if not most characters contain some clue as to the pronunciation of the word.
For example, the character “几” (pronounced “ji”) is the right side radical in the characters “肌,” “饥,” and “机” (components of “muscle, starvation and cell phone respectively) and in each case it provides the character with its sound (which is also “ji”). Thus, a knowledge of the most common character components and a peak at the right side of a character makes it possible to guess at and easily remember how to read thousands of characters.
In short, native speakers who’ve spent their lives with our hodge-podge language see it as completely phonetic and sometimes wrongly assume that Mandarin has no rhyme or reason, but neither of these viewpoints is entirely right.
How We Read
A related point is that the actual task of learning how to read is almost exactly the same in English and Mandarin. This is because reading is not performed letter by letter, but word by word. We don’t read “A-P-P-L-E,” we just see the word as a whole and the same is true of thousands of other different words.
Achieving full literacy requires learning the overall appearance of thousands of words and storing them in our minds. Taht’s why it’s posislbe to raed txet whcih has been meixd up as lnog as the frist and lsat letetrs are in the corecrt locatoins.
Thus it’s basically irrelevant that Mandarin has thousands of characters, because reading fluently requires learning the overall appearance of words and storing it all in your mind. Thus the task and the leg work is not materially different between English and Mandarin.
Also semantic clues flavor characters with meaning, making them easier to remember. For example the radical for heart (忄) is found on the left side of many words pertaining to emotions, and the radical for grass (艹) is above most characters pertaining to plants, fruits and vegetables. This makes learning characters memorable, logical and frankly, entertaining.
Is it harder to learn to read Mandarin than English? Absolutely. But learning the gap isn’t nearly as big as we’d imagine and it is more than compensated by the incredible ease of learning Mandarin grammar.
Most European languages have hundreds of irregular verbs like “eat,” “drink,” and “sleep” (none of which have an “ed” ending in the past tense.
In Spanish, even regular verbs can undergo nightmarish conjugations that don’t exist in Mandarin.
For example, the simple Spanish word “to walk” is conjugated as camino, caminas, camina, caminamos, caminais, caminan, camine, caminaste, camino, caminamos, caminasteis, caminaron, caminaba, caminabas, caminabamos, caminabais, caminaban… (the horror continues for another 9 or 10 tenses with 6 conjugations each) based on who is walking and when.
But English isn’t much better. The English word “to be” is alternatively written as “is, am, are, was, were, been, being and was being” depending on on who and when.
Meanwhile, a word as essential as do changes to “does, did, doing, was doing, done, and had done” depending on the situation. The same holds for literally hundreds of irregular verbs which follow no rules and require great effort to learn as a second language. In fact, most native English speakers never really learn fully proper English. (Pop quiz: “Today I swim, yesterday I swam, but before yesterday I had never ____ before” A. Swam or B. Swum?)
From personal experience teaching Chinese children and even designing curriculums, I can say without exaggeration that about 40% of English class work in the first three years is devoted to teaching children how to change verbs based on when and who is involved in the action.
In contrast, Chinese verbs are spoken and written the same in all situations.
One size fits all.
Mandarin shows that verb conjugations are completely unnecessary and burdensome. They’re dross and clutter from hundreds of years of linguistic evolution. The sentence “Yesterday I go to the store” is every bit as clear as “Yesterday I went to the store” and “he like bananas” is just as clear as “he likes bananas.” This added difficulty of learning really matters from the perspective of foreign students an if English speakers which to maintain their relevance, perhaps it’s worth considering a long overdue simplification of our language.
In Chinese, do is just zuo (做) no matter who dunnit. In Chinese, you have, he have and we all have, because have is always simply 有, which is only fair. Meanwhile “to be or not be” isn’t am, and they aren’t is. In all cases, 是 (shi) gets the job done.
Thus, instead of modifying words and keeping track of hundreds of irregular verbs, there’s just one version of each. Meanwhile tense is achieved in all cases by adding a simply particle like, 了, 过, 会 replacing dozens to hundreds of endings and exceptions a piece. Neither the pronunciation nor the spelling differ.
So indeed, while it’s true that Mandarin characters are somewhat harder to learn I would personally trade that task for learning English or Spanish grammar any day, especially since the characters are half of what makes Mandarin so fascinating.
Overall, it’s advantages are substantial from a psychological perspective and if the time should come to select a world language for common communication, my vote would be for Mandarin far ahead of English or something completely different altogether, preferably with tones.
Mandarin isn’t just easier to learn than English, it’s easier to learn with. The intuitive make-up of the language makes hundreds and thousands of domain specific terms self-explanatory, which levels the playing field in providing education for the masses. And once you’ve learned the language it’s easier to think and do math in Mandarin because the tones shave away a great deal of excess syllables and sounds–saving valuable space in the mind. These are some of the key reasons that Mandarin is a better operating system for the brain’s hardware than English.
While this much is not likely to change, we can at least make English easier to learn by simplifying and systemizing its countless exceptions.
Baddeley, Thomson and Buchanan. Word Length and the Structure of Short Term Memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. (1975)