I don't think Mandarin entirely deserves it's "crazy hard" reputation, though fluency in any foreign language requires more time and devotion that the typical beginner learner would even like to fathom. Today, I wanted to talk about what the most difficult aspect of Mandarin Chinese has been for me in this recent era of learning a language in the country where it's spoken.
My pride demands that I point out that all of the purple underlines denote names, not words I don't know. Sometimes distinguishing names of characters is difficult, so I've been underlining them to set them apart.
These are what most people are thinking of when they write off Mandarin as an exceedingly difficult language. And I'd never be one to claim that characters are easy! I'd say that I know between 1,000-2,000 characters. I need to get a good bit more than 2,000 characters to be fully literate in the language, but I can understand bus signs and advertisements and I can get the gist of most things I casually read. I'm currently, as practice, reading through the translation of Around the World in 80 Days and am marking up my copy by underlining words that I don't know and writing their translations in the margin. It's very slow going, and as you can see, I look up a lot of words--possibly in part because a book written by Jules Verne in the 1870s doesn't use the most commonplace of vocabulary. I don't think, though, that characters are necessarily the most difficult feature of this language. Once you get the hang of them, and what different parts are repeated and combined to make different words, they aren't bad at all. When I was taking Japanese courses in college, my classmates all groaned when kanji were introduced, but to me, kanji were the easiest part of the Japanese language because I was advanced enough in my Chinese study that I already knew the kanji that were being introduced (don't get me started on Japanese grammar, though!).
Really, the only trouble with Chinese characters is that there's so many of them!
Now these are problems. You think English is tricky with its to, too, and two? Or their, there, and they're? No. That's child's play.
Mandarin Chinese, as you most likely already know, is a tonal language. There are 4 tones (plus toneless, so 5 all together), and these tones affect how you say different words. A syllable, let's say shi, for example, can mean totally different things if you say it with a rising tone, a high tone, a falling tone, or a low tone. But because the tones are different, those are just near-homonyms, though they sound pretty close to identical to us foreigners who don't come from a background of tonal languages. The trouble is, sometimes words are pronounced exactly the same way, tones and all, only they mean completely different things, and as such, are represented by different characters--but in spoken Chinese, because you can't see the different characters, you can only tell which word is meant by context.
This isn't a Mandarin-specific difficulty, but a really tricky part of learning any language. Angel especially has been frustrated by synonyms lately--when you're in the early stages of learning and using a language, there's nothing so mind-boggling as the fact that you can express the concept "happy" or "teacher" using multiple different words in the foreign language, despite the fact that we effortless use synonyms and understand their accompanying connotations and the appropriate situations under which to use different words that have similar meanings in our native languages.
My copy of the Chinese translation of the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy." Practice is a good thing, right?
In other words, the way real, normal people talk.
This is what is by far the hardest for me in my journey towards fluency in Mandarin. In the classroom, we're usually taught standard "Beijing Pronunciation." In the real world, people do not sound the way our ever-patient professors or our language learning recordings sound. ShenZhen is a city of immigrants from many different provinces--they speak their own native dialects of Chinese in addition to Mandarin, and plenty of times, words don't sound exactly the same as they did when I first learned them. Being able to make the connection that the word I learned to say long is the same as the word that my friend happens to pronounce nong takes a quick mental leap--one that tricky for me to make successfully. Then there's the matter that just like native English speakers, native Mandarin speakers talk fast, skip entire words that are implied by context, and use colloquialisms, slang terms, and local proverbs that aren't too easy to find in a dictionary.
Yes, my most unhelpful conclusion is that the most challenging obstacle in achieving Mandarin fluency is the very nature of language itself--the fact that in practice, much that you studied so carefully in your grammar textbook kinda flies out the window and you just have try to keep up with the conversation around you, because I can guarantee, the times when you'll actually be called upon to use your foreign language are never going to sound much like:
A: "Excuse me, can you please tell me the way to the post office?"
B: "Yes. Keep walking straight in this direction until you come to a bank. Then, turn left at the corner. The post office is on that street, you can't miss it!"
A: "Thank you for your assistance. Goodbye!"
B: "You're welcome. Goodbye!"
P.S. This postscript has absolutely nothing to do with linguistics, but remember the eBook I published a few weeks ago? I'm pretty proud of it. Anyway, if you haven't laid your hands on a copy of it yet (and, by "lay your hands on" I clearly mean "download"...because it's an eBook), there's a giveaway going on here today!