Ask a five year-old American child “what’s an archipelago?” and the child probably won’t have a clue. Ask a Chinese child the same question (in Chinese, of course), and they’ll know or at the very least they’ll be able to guess, even if they’ve never heard it before. This is because the Chinese word for archipelago is a self-defining term composed of the two words “group” and “island,” referring to geological formations like Hawaii or the Philippines.
This is one of thousands of terms that are far easier to learn and remember as a Chinese-speaking child, which is part of the reason that perceptions of Mandarin as the world’s hardest language to learn are all wrong. As I’ll explain in this article, even after accounting for tones and characters, Mandarin is significantly easier to learn and use than English which is why we should all be a little annoyed with the British empire for spreading the wrong language around the world. Way to go, guys.
Let’s take a closer look at the idea that Mandarin is much more intuitive than English and see how this might impact society.
Whereas English words are formed with roots from many languages, Chinese forms complex words by combining simple terms. This makes their meaning self-evident and removes thousands of long and unnecessary words from the language.
For example, Mandarin speakers have no need for the term “respiratory tract.” A Chinese child simply learns the term breathe-in breathe-out path (呼吸道 huxidao) in anatomy class. In physics, we learn “accelerate” while a Chinese child just learns the term “add speed” or 加速 (jiasu). In language arts class we learn unwieldy words like adjective, homophone and synonym while a Chinese child learns “describing word” (形容词 xing rong ci), “same sound word” (同音词 tong yin ci and “same meaning word” (同义词 tong yi ci), respectively.
In hundreds or thousands of such examples we find that Chinese terms are perfectly clear and self-explanatory. The result is that Chinese children can spend less time and effort learning and remembering words and more time learning what they mean. For this reason, Mandarin fulfills its purpose as a language far better than English, allowing people to learn and talk about the world more easily.
The Root of the Problem
The key difference is that English terms have many roots from many languages which aren’t recognizable except to language experts with a deep familiarity with latin and greek roots. For example, the English word “homophone” breaks down to the same meaning as the Chinese term 同音词, but one must know that “homo” means same and “phone” pertains to sound in order to decode its meaning. In contrast, no expertise is required for a Chinese child–they simply know “same, “sound” and “word,” from common experience which makes the Chinese term self-defining while the English term is masked.
As a result, students are less likely to fall behind because of cumulative gaps in literacy.
Those with a knowledge of simple everyday Mandarin are already fairly well equipped to study anatomy, physics, linguistics and so on. English children may or may not surmise that the root “agr” implies something to do with farming, but a there’s no guesswork at all for the Chinese child who learns the word farm (农 nong) and finds that it is fully intact in other words related to farming, such as “agriculture” (农业).
In this way, instead of jargon forming a barrier to entry for students, Mandarin eliminates a lot of long words which makes it easier to achieve a full education and deep literacy in Mandarin than in English.
Save Your Breath
It’s well and good that Mandarin is so intuitive, but the amazing thing, linguistically, is that every one of the terms we’ve mentioned so far is shorter in Mandarin than in English.
In fact, if you count to one thousand in Chinese, you would utter 2552 syllable where an English speaker requires 4022. This means that the average 3 digit number has around 60% more syllables in English than in Chinese and this general pattern is true throughout both languages.
That is an incredible combination of benefits that you will not find in any European language. For example, many German words are as intuitive Chinese terms, but they achieve this intuitive accessibility at the expense of length.
For example, the German word for “slug” is “naked snail” (nacksteshnecke) and the word for turtle is “shield toad” (schildkröte). These examples are intuitive and even charming, but they’re two or three times longer in German than in English, which begs the question is it really worth it to have an intuitive language?
But in Mandarin, there’s no such tradeoff–the words are way more intuitive and way shorter, and as you’ll see in part two, that’s a big deal.
Yet there’s another fact which renders this incredible, which is that Mandarin actually has far fewer total noises (or phonemes) to work with. Mandarin has a total of 32 phonemes, while English has 44.
You can sort of visualize what this means if you imagine dumping out a bag of scrabble pieces and trying to make as many different phonetic combinations as possible. This is where the underlying math of both English and Mandarin becomes very interesting and pertinent.
If you had 2 special scrabble sets with pieces representing each phoneme for both languages and you did this exercise with 4 letter words (everyone’s favorite length), you would be able to produce about 1 million different permutations with the Chinese set and about 3.7 million different permutations. From this we see that a different of just 12 more phonemes in English produces an extra 2.7 million permutations because exponential math is crazy like that.
Well that’s a truly massive difference and we would expect this to mean that English words would be much shorter on average than Chinese words, but exactly the opposite is true. Even though Mandarin has fewer total sounds, its words still tend to be significantly shorter than English words.
If this were Hockey, Mandarin would be beating English with 4 players on the ice, which might not sound like much but there isn’t a single team in the NHL that could play man-down for 3 periods and win against any other team. It’s an incredible feat. So the question is, how is this possible?
The answer has to do with a detail about Mandarin that gives it a huge leg up in the underlying math of combinations and permutations. And ironically, the thing about Mandarin that set’s it apart is exactly what outsiders tend to think is its greatest weakness.
The Magic of Tones
A lot of people think it funny and entertaining when they hear that in Chinese “ma” can change from “horse” to “mother” depending on your inflection. But the joke is on those of us without tonal languages. Because instead of causing awkward situations, tones allow Mandarin to expand its storage capacity into another dimension, which has cascading benefits throughout the language.
For example, tones allow the two-phoneme utterance “li” (pronounced like the name “Lee”) to change from meanings such as “power,” “to depart,” “pear,” and “inside” depending on which of 4 tones are used to say it. As a result Mandarin can dramatically increase the total number of short root words, and root words this short make it possible to create a language which is intuitive, without compromising on length as we see in German.
In fact, it also becomes possible to make more than 100 other meanings with a sound like “li” by adding it with another short sound to clarify what it means. And the funny thing is that is works, because context provides clarity and helps keep Mandarin even more concise.
As a result, Mandarin doesn’t have to resort to the linear growth of words like “archipelago” in English and “nacksteshnecke” in German to form a complete language. Tones allow for a proliferation of short words which form the basis of the entire language while English has no such option.
In the end, what this means is that Mandarin can encode more meaning in less space, which leads to useable word roots and makes Mandarin far more intuitive and brief at the same time, breaking archipelago down to “group of islands” and shrinking “group of islands” down to “qun dao” (群岛).
In part 2, (coming soon) we’ll see why this reduce length is a significant cognitive benefit, and address the arguments that Chinese characters and tones make the language too cumbersome. In contrast, you’ll see that Mandarin literacy is hardly any more difficult to achieve than English literacy and that Mandarin is a better operating system for the brain. Not only is it easier to learn than English, but it’s more practically useful.
[Jaras Watts is a vegan bodybuilder and writer living in Southern China. He is fluent and literate in Mandarin and Spanish, enjoys playing ping pong and suspects he could qualify for a Guinness world record for most tofu eaten in a 1 year period. He advocates for reduced meat consumption with a focus on China and the US which are the number 1 and 2 consumers of meat on earth. He is an aspiring writer and really appreciates when people sign up for his email list and share his work.]