No. Mandarin is not as difficult a language to learn as most people believe. The reputation Mandarin has for being so difficult is largely attributed to its system of reading and writing, which differs greatly from the Roman alphabet which English uses.
The Defense Language Institute (DLI), a United States Department of Defense education and research institution, lists Mandarin as a Category IV language. DLI states that on average Category IV languages take up to four times as much time to master as Category I languages such as Spanish and French.
One reason why so much more time is required to learn Mandarin is that its language distance is much further from English than Indo-European languages such as Spanish and French. Languages belonging to the same family share sounds, grammar and vocabulary. Mandarin and English, being languages which belong to different families, have almost nothing in common.
With that said, the DLIí»s estimate on amount of time necessary does assume that learners are striving for fluency in all four aspects of language learning (speaking, listening, reading and writing.) As such, learners initially interested in only learning to speak Mandarin will find they progress quite quickly, as oral Mandarin is not very difficult.
Almost every learner of Mandarin starts off learning pinyin. Pinyin is the Romanized version of the sounds which make up the Mandarin language. Beginning with pinyin allows you to begin speaking right away without having to spend any time learning Chinese characters. Almost all beginner-level textbooks include pinyin, as do most dictionaries. With a little practice and the right teacher, anyone can develop standard pronunciation through learning pinyin.
Another aspect of learning Mandarin which makes people believe it to be difficult is its use of tones. Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that each word has a specific tone in which the word is pronounced. Changing the tone on a word can completely alter its meaning.
In the next section of this guide, we will see how learning Mandarin in China will dramatically increase the speed at which you master the language.