There are three things that makes Mandarin hard to learn for westerners, and these three seem to be the biggest reasons that put people off learning Mandarin or as it is in Chinese pinyin Pǔtōnghuà ('common speech').
1. The Look of Romanised Pinyin
For English speaking people who are not as willing to learn, the Romanised pinyin uses many characters that are barely used in the English language the majority of the time. Many people are dismissive over lots of Z, X, Y and J’s as looking the same. This of course is nonsense but is a major hurdle for those learning to get over.
2. There is No Alphabet
Instead there are thousands of separate characters, used to represent the syllables. Knowledge of about 3,000 characters enables you to read about 99% of the characters used in Chinese newspapers and magazines. To read Chinese literature, technical writings or Classical Chinese though, you need to be familiar with at least 6,000 characters.
Every character is given exactly the same amount of space, no matter how complex it is. There are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up multi-syllable words are not grouped together, so when reading Chinese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.
The largest Chinese dictionaries include about 56,000 characters, but most of them are archaic, obscure or rare variant forms.
3. Intonation of Words
Western languages are very simple in the way that they are spoken, with a fairly open intonation where you can change the way you say something on your mood. Mandarin demands that you have the proper intonation of words, otherwise you could end up calling your mother a horse, as many Chinese syllables have four or more other meanings depending on the tone that you use.
Chinese Mandarin has 5 different possible tones that each syllable can be said with. This is briefly depicted in my pinyin vowel chart where intonations are represented by the 'accents' placed above them in the pinyin Romanisation.
There are many homophones in Mandarin; this is words that sound the same in terms of both syllable and intonation. These homophones are usually paired with other syllables to make words and phrases that are understood in context, and when written have their own syllables.
There are about 1,700 possible syllables in Mandarin, which compares with over 8,000 in English. As a result, there are many homophones - syllables that sound the same but mean different things. These are distinguished by the tone they are spoken with and in written Chinese by using different characters for each homophone.
Put the hours in to recognise the Chinese Language and break the mystery;
To clear this trickiness up, when you start to learn and religiously decide to put the time into learning this language, the words become clearer and the more you use it the easier it becomes to distinguish between words, syllables and sentences. The characters themselves are also recognisable the more you use them.
Please give mandarin a go, and leave comments here about your experiences.