How difficult is Chinese?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the growing importance of Chinese. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world and Chinese is fast catching up English in the top languages on the Internet. There are now more Chinese than Americans online, so the trend looks set to continue.
So it makes sense for people outside China to think about learning a Chinese language – most likely Mandarin. Unfortunately it’s rumoured to be one of the hardest languages for a foreigner to learn.
I don’t speak Chinese (although I’m thinking maybe I should start trying…), so I went on a mission to find out whether Chinese is really that hard.
My first stop was ‘Why Chinese is so damn hard’ written by David Moser of the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies.
Moser says that Chinese is hard even for native Chinese speakers:
Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth.
He goes on to say that Chinese teachers estimate that it takes 7-8 years for a native Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write 3000 characters, whereas French and Spanish teachers estimate that students in those countries reach a comparable level in half that time.
I’m assuming Chinese didn’t get any easier since 1992, but let’s hear from some more recent Chinese learners / speakers.
What makes Chinese difficult?
Ivy gives 3 practical reasons why it’s hard to learn Mandarin, and in particular written Chinese:
1) It is written with characters.
Each word is a really a picture. In order to be able to read the newspaper, you’d need to at least recognize 2,000 of these pictures. While there may be clues in some characters to help you understand its meaning or even hint at its pronunciation, learning to recognize and write each character consumes a lot more time and effort than learning vocabulary from an established alphabet system. Often, the only way to memorize these characters is to write the words over and over again until they stick in your mind. It also takes constant practice. Since learning the language mostly relies on memory, constant practice is essential to retain writing and reading ability.
2) It has a tonal system.
That means tones are used to distinguish words. A mistake in one pronunciation can potentially change the entire meaning of the sentence. Being able to differentiate and pronounce these tones will take time to grasp.
3) It’s difficult to use the dictionary.
Unlike languages that use alphabets, searching in the Chinese dictionary is a big pain. Since it isn’t always possible to figure out what the character sounds like just by looking at it, it is not possible to search the Chinese dictionary by using an alphabetical index system. Instead, you will first have to count the strokes of the characters, search it through an index categorized by stroke numbers, which will then point you to the page with the character. It’s a very time-consuming, frustrating exercise. (Thanks to online translators like mandarintools.com, it’s now easier to search for the meaning of words.)
With that said, it’s very gratifying once you get the basics down. In the Western world, Latin has played a big role in the development of modern Western languages. I’ve studied French and Spanish for many years, and I wasn’t too surprised when I realized I could read Italian as well since they all share Latin roots.
The Asian counterpart to Latin is classical Chinese. This means being able to read, speak, write in Chinese will make studying Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and any other Chinese-influenced language a lot easier as they all share Chinese vocabulary.
And if you spend just some extra time to look into each character, you will come to admire the beauty of the Chinese character system. Let’s take the word “?” for example. This is the traditional Chinese character for “country”. The outer box represents a country’s borders. The sub-character “?” on the left means “spear”, which represents the military. And underneath the spear is a smaller box “?”, the abbreviation of “??”, which means “general population”. And the horizontal line underneath the “?” represents the land. So the character “?” essentially explains what the ancient Chinese believed constituted a country: a plot of land with a population that is protected in an enclosed boundary by the military.
This is something you could never figure out from reading a string of alphabets.
Chinese has a lot of words
The complex writing system does provide some challenges. It’s harder to reinforce new words you learn in Chinese, because the writing system is not phonetic; you can’t hear a new word and guess how it is written, and when you see a new character there are usually few clues as to how to pronounce it or what it might mean. Plus, there are loads of them.
John has this to say:
Don’t believe the “Chinese has no grammar” hype, but Chinese grammar is indeed pretty sparse and forgiving. No conjugations, only a few preposition-like things that are pretty easy to master, and even some cool particles (i.e., ? and ?) that make constructing certain kinds of sentences easier than English.
Vocabulary is a bit tougher, though. Thanks to characters remaining largely the same despite several thousand years of sound changes, Chinese has a lot of accumulated vocabulary. There are many, many words for things and concepts, and choosing the right one can be tricky (maybe a comparison would be if English speakers used modern English, middle English, middle French and Latin simultaneously).
Kelly explains more:
One of the most frustrating things you’ll find, even after years of studying Chinese, is that you will always encounter unknown words and characters in any book you read. Even children’s books like Harry Potter can be a challenge as you will rarely see the word ?? (wand) used in any other context. It’s quite disheartening to have trouble reading a book that many Chinese schoolchildren can zip through.
I recently read a Chinese translation of Dan Brown’s “Deception Point”. It took me a long time to get through the book as I kept coming across words and characters I was unfamiliar with. In all fairness, many of these words were technical jargon and political terms, words I would probably never have to use in everyday conversation.
You’re bound to come across unknown words in your own native tongue on occasion so I suppose it’s unreasonable to think you will never come across an unknown word in book written in a foreign language. Reading a novel in Chinese can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming but you’ll have a great sense of achievement if you manage to make it to the end.
There are many Chinese dialects
When we talk about Chinese in this post we mean Mandarin, but in fact Chinese has many different dialects. There are 7 main dialect groups (Mandarin is the most common) and each one contains many variations. This can complicate things – but it’s the same in any language, right? Kelly says:
Dialects and slang can make language learning even more difficult. You’ll find that standard Mandarin will get you only so far. If you plan on living in China, especially if you’re living away from Beijing and Tianjin, you may have to learn a little of the local dialect and familiarise yourself with language you will never learn from your textbooks or language classes.
I find dictionaries such as the slang and popular expressions dictionaries on the Chinese-Tools.Com website quite helpful for expanding my knowledge of colloquial Mandarin. The Shanghai Daily Buzzword blog is another fountain of knowledge. It not only lists new buzzwords and popular expressions, it also provides the necessary cultural background and explanation behind the origin of the terms. If you’re living outside the Sinosphere, it helps to read blogs like these to keep up to date on the latest Chinese trends and expressions. After all, language is always evolving.
Don’t give up!
John has encouraging words for anyone considering starting to learn Mandarin – in his experience it’s not as hard as people say:
Chinese is no harder to learn than any other language (though no language is really *easy*, is it?), it’s just hard in different ways than, say, Spanish. If your native language is Indo-European, Chinese throws some discouraging curveballs at you that makes it seem a lot harder than it is.
What are these curveballs? We’ve already talked about vocabulary, and John says that Chinese characters and pronunciation are also things to look out for:
Lots of people, myself included, were drawn to Chinese by the characters. They’re beautiful, but they are also many. Learning to read Chinese is simply orders of magnitudes more difficult than learning to read most alphabetical languages. Writing them from memory is even more of a pain. Thankfully, they 1) have at least some internal consistency and 2) aren’t infinite in number . You just have to accept that learning to read Chinese at any real level is going to take a while, and get started early.
Tones are hard to grasp, but once you are making them reliably the Chinese sound system is pretty simple. Like characters, it’s a matter of willpower to get the tones down, and once you’ve done that you’re home free.
In John’s opinion the most difficult part of learning Chinese is getting started. If you can make it past that point you’re well on the way!
I think more than anything Chinese has a steep initial learning curve that scares a lot of people off. It’s very hard to get started, but once you get past the initial difficulties it’s not too bad (I never made it past the various cases in Spanish, so it’s not like other languages don’t have their scary parts). If you know going into it that the first couple months (or years, if you’re just playing with it) are going to be really slow going and you persevere, Chinese isn’t that hard at all.
So, if you’re thinking of learning Chinese now you know a bit more about what to expect. But the experiences of these three Mandarin speakers show that learning Chinese is not impossible, as long as you’re prepared to work at it. Are you up to the challenge?
Top 10 languages on the Internet: Chinese is catching up
Dedicated follower of Chinglish: the evolution of a new language?
The Economist in Chinese: the volunteer team who translate The Economist into Chinese, every week