New guest blog: Tim Nash, Minute Mandarin

12 Jan 2016

We are pleased to share the following piece written by Tim Nash of Minute Mandarin.

Mandarin Chinese is 87% easier than we thought

Most of us approach a foreign language by trying to learn a few useful words and phrases. We want to know how to say: “Hello,” “Good-bye,” “Two beers, please” or, if we are 7 years old, “bum.” So we start to compile a mental or written list, or we buy a list someone else made earlier in the form of a phrase-book, and we set about trying to memorise the list word by word, line by line.

  • Hello = Bonjour (said ‘bon’ ‘jew-er’)
  • Good-bye = Au revoir (said ‘oh’ ‘re-voo-ar’)
  • Two beers, please = Deux bieres, s’il vous plait (said ‘duh’ ‘bee-air’ ‘sill-voo-play’)

Some of us find it easier to get all this into our heads than others, but most of us would look at the task in Mandarin Chinese and say it looks near enough impossible.

  • Hello = 你好 (said ‘nee how,’ obviously)
  • Good-bye = 再见 (said ‘zzz-eye gee-enn’)
  • Two beers, please = 两个啤酒 (said ‘lee-ang ger pee gee-oh’)

And yet, given that 1 in 5 human beings find this language perfectly normal, we surely have to wonder if we might perhaps be looking at this in the wrong way.

The Oxford University Press helpfully produced a list of 1000 useful words and phrases which were then translated into different languages for us. I compared the list in Mandarin Chinese with the list in English and made some fascinating discoveries:

  • The English list used 1524 words; the Mandarin just 1273 words.
  • When you spelt the words out, the English had an average of 5.23 letters per word; the Mandarin just 2.97 letters per word.

Which means that there is at least 16% and as much as 43% less material to learn in Mandarin Chinese than there is in English. They didn’t tell us THAT in school, did they?

I delved deeper. Each syllable in Mandarin Chinese is represented by a character (a symbol or icon). Since most items in the English list had at least 2 syllables (Hel-lo, Good-bye, Two-beers …), it was not a surprise to find that the 1,273 Mandarin words comprised 2,385 characters. What was a surprise was to discover that there were only 896 different characters, because each character was used 2 or 3 times in the list.

I then looked at how those characters were pronounced and found that there were only 606 different sounds for the 896 characters in the list, because some characters sounded the same (compare “sure” and “shore” in English: different words that have the same sound).

Sounds in Mandarin Chinese are further recycled using the 4 tones (high, rising, dipping and falling pitch patterns), which means that the same spelling (“ma”) can be used to make 4 different spoken sounds (mā, má, mǎ, mà). What shocked me was to discover that the 606 different sounds in the list comprised just 305 different spellings, because each spelling (like “ma”) was used with at least two different tones (like “mā” and “má”).

It was good news to find that I had 16-43% less material to learn in Mandarin Chinese than I did in English (or French, German, Italian or Spanish). But it was staggeringly good news to discover that I only had to master 305 spellings to unlock the 2,385 Chinese characters I needed for the list of 1000 words and phrases.

In other words, I had 87% less to learn than I had thought!

See more from Tim at and

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