How much Mandarin can a beginner learn in an hour a week?

I’ve been offered the opportunity to try a few language classes through work at lunchtimes, for an hour a week. I’m planning to take up the offer of brushing up on my French, but I like to think I used to be fairly good at that and am sure an hour a week, plus some of my own homework, will be enough to help me improve.

Another class being offered is Mandarin for beginners. I’m definitely what you’d call a beginner in any form of Chinese - I know “ni hao”, and have probably gleaned a little from menus…

As I understand it, Mandarin is very different from English, in ways that I might not even think of as someone who has only learnt English, French and German. Could I realistically learn anything in an hour a week? I don’t expect to become fluent, but I’d be happy having a basic understanding of the language and being able to say a few things.

Bonus questions:

I’d like to know more about the different Chinese dialects, as well as what the difference is between “simplified” and “traditional” Chinese.

And how does an English speaker generally go about learning Mandarin? Learning to speak it, as well as reading and writing it in the Latin alphabet is one thing, but what about reading and writing in Chinese characters? Do Chinese people generally learn to read and write their language using the Latin alphabet too?

Any other information - helpful or just interesting - would be appreciated.

ETA: “beginning” should be “beginner” in the title, in case it wasn’t obvious.

I took two semesters of Mandarin in college. It is a very easy language in which to pick up the fundamentals, as it is practically devoid of grammar and words are not inflected. So you will very easily be able to pick up the capacity to form simple sentences. Once you have that, you can progress as rapidly as you can leaen new vocabulary words. The only hard part is getting the knack of speaking the syllables in their correct tones, or voice levels, of which Mandarin has four.

This will come quicker if you ignore written Chinese, and just learn spoken Mandarin using phoneticized texts. The other dialects (such as Cantonese, of Hong Kong) are as different from spoken Mandarin as English is from Norwegian or Bulgarian, but they can read each others newspapers because the characters have the same meaning, regardless of how they are pronounced.

It’s really a hard language to learn. I think the US military rates it one of the top three most difficult for English speakers to acquire.

I’ve found that people who are successful (I know several who have acquired near-native speaker proficiency) really devote a lot of effort to it, are around Chinese speakers who don’t speak English a lot (like parents-in-law) or are just geniuses in language acquisition (one Mandarin speaker I know is also fluent in French, German and Finnish in addition to his native English)

Three big challenges. It’s a tonal language, there is no alphabet and there are almost no recognizable words, as you might have learning Spanish or French, even Russian. There are so many homophones or near-homophones context is everything. But when you are learning, you have little understanding of the context.

lol what does “practically devoid of grammar” mean?

My degrees are in Linguistics. Mandarin was the 4th language I attempted to learn (not just study). I took it for 2 years, 5 days a week, in Univ of Calif (San Diego)'s renown language program. I could barely speak or understand it. And I’m GOOD at languages.

The tones of Chinese are a separate category of language features. So like, in English, we have voiced consonants, voiceless consonants, plosives, fricatives (even though most speakers don’t know that). The tones in Chinese are a whole other set of things that as English speakers we don’t even know how to listen for.

1 hour week would be some pretty slow going, I’d think. With that set-up, following up your French is probably your most effective use of the opportunity.

Xiao Long

I don’t speak Mandarin but my understanding is that English has a number of grammatical complexities that Mandarin does not.

Verb tenses are much simpler in Mandarin. You don’t have to learn different tenses like see/saw/seen because they’re all one word in Mandarin. You establish the tense by how you place the verb in the sentence or by the context of the sentence.

Mandarin does not have articles like a or the. So cat, a cat, and the cat are all the same word in Mandarin. Again, if you want to distinguish between a cat and the cat you have to do it explicitly or implicitly by context.

Mandarin doesn’t have auxiliary verbs. “Can you/Could you/may you/should you/would you drive me to work tomorrow?” all have different meanings in English but they’re all the same question in Mandarin: “You drive me to work tomorrow?”

Mandarin uses a lot less pronouns than English, which means there doesn’t have to be rules which associate pronouns to the nouns they represent.

Mandarin uses less complex sentence structures than English. In English you might say something like “I have to go shopping tomorrow so I can buy all the ingredients for the meal I’ll be serving at my party this weekend.” In Mandarin, this would be broken up into shorter sentences, like “I am going shopping tomorrow. I will buy ingredients for a meal. I will serve that meal at a party this weekend.”

As others have indicated, it’s a difficult language. There are no “tricks” to picking up big gobs of vocabulary blocks, (for example, in learning Spanish, words that end in -tion in English end in -cion in Spanish and are otherwise almost identical). There are no loan words that you’ll recognize. Learning characters is pure grunt work rote memorization, at least until you get to know the component radicals well. The difference between simplified and traditional is in written characters. The spoken language is the same. The different “dialects” are more correctly different languages of the same language group, and are for the most part mutually unintelligible. The tones are very very difficult for English speakers to get, because there is nothing like it in western languages. The tones don’t just change the nuance of a word, they change the word completely. The same sound, say “ma,” for instance, means horse with a third tone (falling then rising) and mother with the first tone (high flat). To a Mandarin speaker, those sound like completely different words (they are), but to an English speaker they sound virtually identical, because we don’t hear tone as a part of a word. The only saving grace to Mandarin is that the grammar is straightforward. Studying an hour a week will get you almost nothing useful in the way of speaking or comprehension.

No articles, but measure words! I forgot about measure words. Of course, you can always just “ge” your way through, but to really speak it (and comprehend) you’ve got to pick up some of the common ones, or at least recognize them when you hear them.
I always liked the lack of complex sentence structures. Chinese has an almost telegraphic simplicity of expression, like in old-style telegraphs where you paid by the word so a message was expressed in short, concise elements.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have an opportunity to seriously practice regular conversation with people, length of studying won’t do much. You should develop some literacy over time but getting the hang of tones and the language structure, in my opinion, is something you have to do in practice along with study. I have met very few people who only studied Chinese in the US who could actually speak with any fluency. In China, lots of foreigners don’t try to learn it, but those that do make the effort learn fairly quickly. I studied formally in China for a 10-week program, then spent about a year there in total, often in small towns with few English speakers. Getting up to a level where I could get by for the most part and have decent conversations was not hard at all.

If you have people who you can reliably practice with, go for it. If not, you might be better off studying something else, or contenting yourself with getting ok at Chinese writing and waiting for an opportunity to get your speaking in order in the future.

Bonus Qs:

Standard Mandarin is originally a constructed official language based on the Han Chinese dialect spoken near Beijing. Many Han Chinese areas have dialects that are never called languages because the Chinese government already has enough problems with nationalisms. Many of these dialects, however, are mutually unintelligible with Mandarin, even if grammatically they can be similar.

Randomly Chosen Example:
English: He said, “I am an American.”
Mandarin: Ta shuo le, “wo shi mei guo ren.”
Zhuji Dialect: Si gong ge, “nyo ze mei go ning.”

The most diverse dialects are in the South, and Zhejiang and Jiangsu have many distinct dialects. Recognized ethnic minorities in China are usually recognized as having their own languages, separate from Chinese. These include Mongolian, Uighur, and Tibetan.

After the Communist takeover, there was a movement to consider language reform. Some wanted to abandon the Chinese writing system entirely in favor of an alphabet. What they eventually did was “simplify” a bunch of common characters by reducing the complexity of their strokes. Areas of China that they did not control did not adopt these reforms, and they use “traditional” Chinese. Most characters remain the same and it is usually not a big effort for Chinese to read the one they are not used to using. That said, Chinese who grow up using Simplified often have a harder time dealing with classical Chinese, because some of the relationships between characters were obscured by the simplification.

I think a classic way to go about it is to treat reading, writing, speaking, and listening as fairly discrete subjects in studying, and then bringing them together in practice. You will have to write the characters a lot to remember them. I just have my own experience on this. I think there is a split on how much pinyin should be emphasized, but it will come in very handy for typing. Most Chinese learn at least basic pinyin too, for this reason.

The most annoying thing for me in China learning Chinese was that if I saw a character or a sign or something that I didn’t know, I couldn’t ask a friend about it later unless I took a picture or wrote it down. It made it hard to absorb words from the environment. I think, though, that there are phone apps that can help with this a lot.

You aren’t going to learn it. That’s not unique to Chinese. I don’t think you are going to learn much of any language from scratch in an hour a week without some serious homework.

But if you are just interested in learning about the language, it could be interesting. And it could be a way of assessing if you want to invest more.

I learned Mandarin through 10 weeks of small group study in speaking, followed by a couple years in a small town with bi-weekly tutoring in a regional dialect (with some effort to keep learning but not really dedicated study). After that, I could converse for about half and hour or so easily and read enough to navigate a train station, navigate a basic menu and know (usually) what kind of store I was entering. I was nowhere near, say, really understanding a TV show or being able to read a newspaper.

Learning to speak and/or read are only loosely connected, and it’s hard to have a really integrated program, as the things a beginner needs to say (“Hi, I’m an American named John!”) are different than what beginners need to read (“Twice cooked pork”).

Most people work on speaking first. Don’t freak out about the tones. They aren’t as hard or strange as people say they are, and there is a fair amount of leeway to do them poorly.

Actually, those menus may very well be in Cantonese instead of Mandarin. Most of what Westerners know as Chinese food is specifically Cantonese because a huge number of early Chinese emigrants were from Guangdong. The restaurants they opened generally were seen as THE definitive Chinese cuisine.

Obviously, not all Chinese restaurants are Cantonese (especially over the last decade or two), but I thought it was an interesting bit of info.

In an hour a week, you will probably get tourist-level phrases and a brief introduction to reading characters.

It is feasible to grasp tones, which is a big deal. Forget learning grammar, even though it is easy once understood, you just simply aren’t going to have time.

IIRC, after my first semester of college, I knew about 150 characters well, knew a bunch of rote phrases, was just beginning to grasp tones, and generally had a solid foundation but limited ability to communicate. That was probably 85 classroom hours.

Menus will always be in Chinese since they’re written (although they might be in Traditional Chinese if it’s a Taiwanese restaurant). The Mandarin/Cantonese distinction only applies to spoken Chinese.

I, too, am good at picking up languages. When I was traveling to Taiwan a lot, I tried learning some Mandarin and found it incredibly difficult. Mainly the pronunciation and the tones. One hour per week is probably just enough to completely forget what you learned by the time the next lesson rolls around.

It means it does not have such a cumberson structure of grammatical rules that have to be learned and adhered to for even simple sentences. The OP asked about picking up the beginning fundamentals in a non-intensive study program, any complexities of formal grammar would not come into play until much later in the program.

I don’t agree with the statement that Mandarin is devoid of grammar; it is just a lot simpler than English. Here’s a good discussion of why:

My experience may offer some guidance, or maybe not, but I’ll relate anyway.
I’m a Brit who, other than a few words of French, is ansolid monoglot. I’ve always loved the idea of learning another language, but have never been prepared to put the effort in to do more than pick up a few words. I was asked if I’d move to Shanghai for a year and jumped at the chance. One of the things in my package was the offer of professional one on one tuition from a native speaker. While I don’t formally need Mandarin for my job, it’d make life a hell of a lot easier.
Anyway, here I am three months into my new job. How’s my mandarin? Er, non-existent.
After three lessons, I gave up. There were some factors working against me, mainly the heat (tuition in a non air conditioned office when it was 36°C and 85% humidity) and the long normal working day (up at 5am, home at 7pm) left little enthusiasm for learning. But that aside, it is hard, and I had a good teacher. She was very patient with me. I’m not stupid, but no great intellect either. So what were the problems?

  1. Progress is slow, it’s really very very different from English
  2. A lot of the learning involves simply trying to mimic sounds which are in themselves hard to make.
  3. There is very little familiarity to anchor to. Not being able to easily relate what’s spoken with what’s written made it hard for me to link things and memorise them.
  4. Listening was really hard for me. I just sat there with this stupid dumb blank look on my face totally mystified.

They were my main problems. I discussed this with my tutor and she was great. She said one hour long lesson a week was too much in one go for me and recommended taking a few shorter lessons. Above all she stressed the need to listen repeatedly to our (recorded) lessons. Without this there would be no real progress she explained. So that was it. I wasn’t prepared to commit the time required to make the progress I felt necessary to justify it. Circular logic I know.
A couple of weeks ago at work I was kidding around with someone trying out a few of the words I have learnt (ma fan :wink: ) when I managed to put a bit of a sentence together.
“Are you speaking English or Chinese?” he asked me. Case closed.

So, do try, but be prepared to study a bit and listen listen listen.

I’ve been living in China for 1 1/2 years, plus taking 3 hours of chinese classes per week, plus doing homework, and my level of chinese, particularly listening comprehension, remains woeful.

It’s not that the language is that hard per se (as others have pointed out, it dispenses with many of the grammatical fluff that european languages have), but it’s just so different to English that it is very tough for a english speaker to learn.

One of the problems you’ll encounter, for example, is that in mandarin there are very few valid syllables: something like 1% as many as English has. So very often you learn a new word and it sounds very similar, or is identical to, a word you’ve already learned. So you have to be able to retain both these, and other, meanings linked in your mind to the sound, and when people are speaking to you, find the correct words from the possibilities available.
Sometimes even with a sentence written out it, it can seem like a puzzle, as you have to guess the right meaning of one word to start being able to parse the others. To do this in real time with spoken language is hard, no doubt.

Thanks for all your replies. If I’m realistic about the amount of effort I’m willing to put in, it sounds like I probably shouldn’t bother with the Mandarin classes. I have no particular desire to go to China, unlike France, which I’ve visited many times and will do so many times again. One of my favourite parts of languages is using my knowledge of others to work out meanings. I’ve used French to understand some written Spanish and Portuguese, German to understand Dutch, Scots to understand Swedish, and even some knowledge of the meanings of the Latin names of animals can be helpful. It can be exciting, in a way, to deduce the etymological links between the words “pinniped” (seal), “penne” (pasta), “pinion” (wing/feather), and, of course, “pen”. I suppose I’ll stick to European languages for now. Maybe I’ll try beginner Spanish.

Yes I think that will be much more fruitful.

One thing I would say about languages in general though, is that it’s quite valuable just being able to read out text written in a different language, and that’s something that for many languages (that are more phonetic than English), can be achieved with just a few days or even hours of study.
For example, I’m about to spend 2 months in Sweden. I’ll try to learn a few phrases but know I basically have no chance of constructing an understandable sentence myself (and of course English is widely-spoken there anyway).
But I am studying how to read Swedish letters so I can get people’s names right, ask for directions to places, read things out from a menu etc.

Obviously for Mandarin you aren’t going to learn how to read Hanzi in a few hours. But pinyin you could learn, with the same benefit of at least getting the proper nouns right. Also, that’s a good point to stop and consider whether you like the language.