Is Chinese Really That Hard?

Does learning Chinese leave you frustrated?

Many people regard Chinese as being one of the toughest languages to learn. That in itself might be reason enough to learn it, since many like the challenge that comes with it and relish the looks of amazement that passers by give when they hear that you can speak Chinese! In my personal experience however, I found that many of the reasons given for Chinese being so hard weren’t actually that hard when broken down. This meant that I was learning a language that others thought was very hard, when actually that wasn’t necessarily the case (much better than learning something that others think is easy but actually isn’t!) Here are some of the main obstacles that people encounter when trying to learn Chinese, and my personal solutions to overcoming then.

The Tones
This is the initial challenge that most beginners face. How can mài mean “to sell” while mǎi mean “to buy”? So now, not only do you have to remember that shuì jiào means “sleep”, you better remember that there are two fourth tones there or you risk talking about “dumplings” instead of “sleep.” Surely having to memorize the extra tone element on top of each new vocabulary word would drive any learner crazy?

My solution: This issue here is usually enough to weed out most beginners, which is great for the rest of us (less people to share the stage with!). The trick here is that this is only a problem in the beginning. The more you expose yourself to the language, the more your brain will automatically fuse this element into your language learning until you get to the point where you unconsciously start recognizing the tones for new vocabulary. Compare these two scenarios:

Student: How do you say “United Nations” in Chinese?
Teacher: Lián hé guó
Student: “Lian he guo”, ok. And what tones does that use?
Teacher: Three second tones.
Student: Got it, thanks!

Student: How do you say “United Nations” in Chinese?
Teacher: Lián hé guó
Student: Lián hé guó. Got it, thanks!

In the second scenario the student has automatically learned to associate tones with new vocabulary. If you were to ask him what the tones were, he would have to repeat the words in his mind first and pull the tones out from there, since the tones and the words are already associated together.

A great exercise to get to this level is mindless repetition of sentences from native speakers, so that you start to develop the ebb and flow of the language by yourself. As you listen to the podcasts in this course, use the pauses provided to repeat after the speaker, even with vocabulary you are already familiar with to get yourself in this mode.

The Writing System
This is of course a challenge for many, including native speakers themselves. One of the reasons given for the slowness in progression of Chinese learners is that because reading and writing takes so long to learn, we learners lose out from the experience of learning from reading. In English, if we come across a word we don’t understand we can easily write it down and look it up later. How do we do that in Chinese when you come across a word you don’t know that uses characters that are equally unfamiliar? How do Chinese speakers look up unfamiliar characters in a dictionary?

My solution:There are a couple of separate issues here. If it’s just learning new vocabulary and language usage from reading you are looking for, there are plenty of pinyin resources out there, including on this website. Similarly, if you come across a new word in your learning, it’s easy enough to write it down in pinyin and look it up in a pinyin dictionary. Learning characters of course is another story, and one that has been touched upon in other categories.

Grammar: This is an aspect of Chinese that is often neglected because it actually is much simpler than in other languages. The extra time put in learning to read and write is offset by the time you don’t have to put in learning conjugations of verbs, tenses and other issues present in other languages. This can be a problem in itself since the lack of grammar rules makes Chinese very context sensitive. Sentences can have multiple meanings that may seem to contradict each other with only subtle clues to distinguish between them.

My solution: The answer here is the same as the answer for tones. Fortunately (or unfortunately for some), it’s not something you consciously study or memorize to understand. You learn by getting the feel for the language from experience. Listen to enough podcasts, and get yourself experienced with enough dialogues and you’ll slowly start to gather a “feel” for the language. You’ll find yourself instinctively responding with the right expressions without even knowing how or why.

The road to fluency: When learning any language, you will find some aspects easier than others. This is a result of usage patterns. In my daily life, I find myself listening to a lot more Chinese than I speak. As a result my listening skills are greater than my speaking skills. Similarly my reading skills are more advanced than my writing skills. The nice thing about all of this though is that my fluency matches my level of requirement. My listening skills are greater because I have to do a lot more listening than speaking in my daily life. Similarly I rarely have to physically write anything in my daily routine (especially in this age of computers), whereas reading is more useful for me, so the latter skill is more developed.

There’s no rule that says all skills have to be equal. Focus on the areas of importance for you and improve those areas first. Learning any language (or any skill for that matter) is only as hard as you make it out to be. Take advantage of the many tools available in this course and on the web to focus on your areas of weakness. Then gloat that you are able to do what so many others have failed or given up on doing. Jiāyóu!

5 Responses to “Is Chinese Really That Hard?”

  1. Anonymous

    I agree with everything written on this insight blog. People think it is impressive when you can speak languages such as Spanish, German and French, but they think it is more impressive and much cooler if you can speak Chinese.

    It is true that Chinese is not as hard as it is portrayed to be. It is probably portrayed as being too hard because Chinese characters look like meaningless swiggles to the untrained eye. However, I do think that it is much harder for a western person to learn Chinese than it is to learn other languages. For instance an English person who has never studied Spanish could pick up a Spanish newspaper and understand about ¼ of it because so many Spanish words sound and look a lot like English words. This is not true of Chinese because a person that had never studied Chinese would not be able to read a single word from a Chinese newspaper.

  2. Thanks Tom – I agree that listening to or reading European languages is certainly easier for English speakers. However there are other aspects of Chinese that are much easier, which makes up for its difficult areas. For example, a lot of Chinese vocabulary is just a combination of smaller simpler words such as dàxué (university) being “big school” or cāntīng (restaurant) being “meal hall.” It’s much easier for me to remember new words in this way than having to remove brand new words like “university” or “restaurant.” So the time you save there, you can put towards figuring out the written side!

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks Adam

    Yes I agree with you. If you were learning English and you had never seen the word ‘University’ before, you would have no chance of knowing its meaning. However if you saw dàxué and you knew dà meant big and xué meant school then you could guess that it meant university if it was in the right context. Cāntīng reminds me of the English word ‘canteen’ so that word is easy to remember.

    Chinese is a more visual language than English in that they have based their words on combining together two or more words that form an image in your mind such as wǒ mǎ shàng huí lái (我马上回来) (To come back soon). You form the image of a person racing back on a horse which is much quicker than walking.

    However this simplicity can lead to confusion. You could easily think dàxué meant a big school and not necessarily University. I think most people the first time they see the word huǒchē (火车) think is means fire vehicle (fire engine) and not train. Once you know that it means train, it does make sense because trains used to burn coal to create the steam to drive the train.

  4. Yes Tom, the simplicity can definitely lead to confusion. Part of the fascination with learning Chinese for me, as I’m sure it is with most others, is the culture associated with it. So I like to break down new words into their literal meaning just to get a feel for how the concept was originally described. The examples you gave of “I’ll be right back” and “train” are perfect since you can visualize exactly how and why they came to describe it that way, which also helps in remembering it.

    It doesn’t always work the other way though, as you said. Seeing “fire vehicle” might not instinctively conjure up images of a train in this day and age. However, if you knew what “small school” and “middle school” meant, you could probably guess that “big school” meant university. I feel for Chinese people having to learn separate names for each of these terms in English!

    This has given me a good idea for a future post, so thanks!

  5. Anonymous

    It’s always fun to read such things like “People think it is impressive when you can speak languages such as Spanish, German and French” because I’m actually a German.

    For myself I can agree Adam for it’s important to get the feel for the sound and the language. Tones weren’t that big problem, at least for listening. I don’t have so much possibility to actually talk Chinese. But I think these will come when I have a reasonable amount of words to talk and not just can say “Hi” and “How are you”.

    The biggest problem with Chinese is writing and reading. I mean pinyin is fine, but just not widely used on chinese web pages or so. The other things aren’t really problems. I guess most letters in pinyin sound more like German letters than like English letters but a lot of them sound quite different to any Language that I know.

    So it’s really challenging and the more satisfied you can be if some chinese people can actually understand you.

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