How difficult is Chinese?

March 23, 2009 25 comments ,

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.

Ivy is from Singapore and is a native speaker of English and Hokkien (another Chinese language). She speaks fluent Mandarin. She blogs about world cultures and more at Nanyate?!

Kelly studied Chinese at university and uses her Mandarin skills doing translation work. She writes about languages on her site Aspiring Polyglot.

John has lived and worked in China for almost 6 years and uses Chinese every day. His site is Yuehan.org

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.)

Hidden Rewards

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.


Image credit

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:

Characters
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.

Pronunciation
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?

Read more:
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

About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
Other 501 posts by

25 Comments

  • This is a very good summary about learning Chinese. FYI: http://www.confuciusinstitute.net/ is another good resource to learn Chinese.

    BTW: My college English teacher used to encourage us:

    “You guys are so lucky that you’re born to know the most complicated language in the world; so, cheer up, learning English should be a piece of cake!”

  • Hi Jensen, thanks for the tips! Glad you liked it.

    It’s good to read about your experience – maybe the next post should be ‘How difficult is English?’ – the Chinese point of view!

  • Actually I am thinking about “How easy is Chinese.” mmm…

  • Even better!

  • Interesting article.

    This is a much debated topic in Chinese studies. I think it is more like this: whilst European languages have an easy learning curve, Chinese tends to have a steep one. For example, English has an alphabet which, once learnt, means you can spell out any word in the language. The alphabet is also partially phonetic. Plus, if your first language happens to be a European one, there will be some cross-over when it comes to similar vocabulary items. HOWEVER, my impression of English learners is that whilst the basics are relatively easy to master, the more advanced stages can be quite difficult. This is because English, both syntactically and lexically, is quite complex, and incorporates elements from a wide variety of different (mostly European) languages.

    Chinese, by contrast, has been more or less isolated for the past five or so millenia. Therefore, its language system is more logical and self-contained. Yes, there are a lot of characters, and this presents a very large stumbling blog for most learners at the beginning. However once this learning curve is surmounted, in my opinion, Chinese suddenly gets easier! Once you get over that massive character block, its quite enjoyable to read Chinese texts because you’re not shackled down by the complex grammar systems other languages have.

    Just my two cents. Cheers.

  • Oh wait, I just re-read the last two paragraphs and realised other learners had made similar remarks. It seems great minds think alike after all!

  • Hi Carl. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s a good point that English has assimilated many different influences and that makes it difficult once you get past the basics. In fact, I was talking about exactly that with some English learners yesterday. Good to hear your encouragement for Chinese learners as well!

  • Learning Chinese is devilishly difficult. It takes a great deal of willpower and dedication to learn the language. The hurdles you mention above are more like road blocks.

    That said, the language is logical. There are no confusing (and sometimes moronic) grammar rules, as there are in English. Looking at translated vocabulary you can see how practical the language is, as opposed to the linguistic stew that is English.

    Listening to well spoken Mandarin is like listening to poetry: It’s beautiful. I have been learning for 4 years and am still miles away from fluency. It bears mentioning that most people (foreigners) that learn Chinese never learn to read or write, learning to speak (and be understood) is difficult enough.

  • Thanks for contributing Stevo – useful insights.

    In my experience (which doesn’t include difficult languages like Chinese) there are always road block phases in learning a language which you can only get past with willpower and persistence. It sounds like with Chinese these phases are so much harder than in other languages.

  • oohkuchi

    “Chinese is no harder to learn than any other language”–John, this simply is not true and you know it. I spent two years learning French, in which I am pretty fluent, and I have spent fifteen years on Chinese, and I am still intermediate. I can just about read Chinese at first go, if it is news or economic copy, my area, but anything else I don’t even attempt any more, even though I could happy plod through any French novel. Sorry folks, but Chinese is UNBELIEVABLY DIFFICULT. If you venture into this, be aware that you have a life sentence and even then you will never be really comfortable with it. Yes, ultimately it all comes down to ‘difference’ rather than ‘difficulty’ but the distinction is irrelevant. It is really, really hard to get good at Chinese.

  • a very informative essay for Chinese learners I must say.

  • Thanks! Good to have your opinion!

  • help me am not sure which language to study, chinese or french???

  • I like to think of it from the other side … we say that Chinese is difficult, forgetting however how difficult English really is!

    http://mandarinsegments.blogspot.com/2009/05/stop-whining.html

  • Neilfox00&

    Don’t kid yourself. Vietnamese is far more difficult than Chinese. Loan words are more than 1000 years old. A native Chinese speaker Will learn English much more quickly than Tieng Viet. Don’t let the Romanticiezed alphabet fool you. The subtleties of this language and written dipthongs leave even native Asian speakers in the dust.

  • Charlie

    There is a thereshold in Chinese learning. But after it is stridden over, it is possible to find certain disiplines which can make Chinese learning much easier. Memorizing the characters does need efforts, but the grammar is much easier to master. A lot of the words can be both used both as a verb and a noun, and don’t need conjugation which can be seen everywhere in English, Spanish, Japanese etc. Chinese is based on logic and feelings instead of grammatical rules. Chinese is beautiful. In its characters, tones and also its way of communicating.

  • S1123

    Chinese is really beautiful with lots of poem and traditional culture, so learning chinese is not only for using but also improving yourself and your thought.

  • I am from China

    我不会英文 所以我就先用中文打了

    汉语总共有4声 我记得我小时候老师教的是:一生平 二声扬 三生拐弯 四声降 此外还有一个轻声

    汉语的所有发音都是由以上5个音调发出的

    在一个 汉语确实不太规范。

    有些有偏旁的字还好说 但是也有相当一部分的偏旁很冷门 甚至没有偏旁 。。

    如果是2汉字或者是2个偏旁组成的一个新字 那么这个字就相当好学

    比如:远

    但是也有稠字。 比如:赢 餐 。

    还有很多相当冷门的字 连我这个中国人都不认识。。

    比如:嚭。

    我觉得 中文之所以难学 主要是他太复杂。

    什么多音字 近义词 反义词什么的。。 太复杂。。

    我也不知道怎么说

    有事给我发邮件吧。

    xyj5747xi@126.com

    中国-河南-席皓雨

  • Vicky

    I’m a native Chinese speaker and I am definitely not going to agree that learning Chinese is easy. I’ve been learning the language practically since I was born (my first words were spoken in Chinese) and I started writing my first words in Chinese too. I’ve been learning the language for around two decades and I’m still struggling with reading large Chinese texts, especially those really technical ones. English, on the other hand, grows on me very fast, and the structure of the language (alphabets, grammar) makes more sense to me. I have to keep practicing writing in Chinese to remember what I learnt in elementary and high school, but frankly speaking, its really boring and no fun. Speaking the language is much easier for me though.

  • Learning Mandarin

    I have just been to China for the first time, visiting Lijiang. Was a beautiful city. I have been attempting to study Chinese using Rocket Chinese (link attached below). It was extremely useful and did give me a good understanding of basic day to day Mandarin to allow me to ask for things I neeeded, but like most languages the hardest thing I found when there was that for all the words and sentences I could put together my biggest struggle I had was listening to the answers to my questions as native speakers spoke to fast for me to fully comprehend and pick up what they weer saying. That being said since returning home I have continued to study using th programme attached below and am seeing solid improvement in both speaking and listening. Great language to learn but bloody difficult. But all things worth doing take desire and effort.

    http://76ec101q1q7au80crcyftqkkar.hop.clickbank.net/

  • I teach Chinese free to a Iranian by skype (explain by English ). I knew her because i work as a foreign trade salesman . We do not become a business partner , but I am a Chinese who like to communicate who need to learn .
    my skype : gas_solution_tim
    email: 290905104@qq.com

  • I am native Chinese speaker.
    Learning Chinese at start is difficult because Chinese has more than 60,000 characters (but of those, only about 3,000 characters are common -use characters).

    To be proficient in Chinese, you only need to master those common-used characters. I would say most of Chinese native speaker cannot understand those non-common use characters.

    Once you master those common-use Chinese characters, you will find learn Chinese is actually quite easier than you think before.

    Another difficulty in learning Chinese is the diversity of Chinese, even you master the simplified chinese and putonghua (common-spoken chinese). You may still face difficulty in communicate people in Hong Kong (which is a spoken in Cantonese and written in Traditional chinese characters.) or Taiwan (which use Traditional Chinese characters).

    Another difficulty is the learning classic Chinese. Classic Chinese is the Chinese language used on or before Imperial China, which is no longer used in today Chinese world. However, many modern Chinese slang and words are influenced by Classic Chinese. So in Chinese School, chinese students still require to learn classical chinese, which is extremely difficult to learn and study even for most of native Chinese speaker.

  • 勇氣

    Some of this information is wrong… I’m not a native Chinese speaker, but here’s a post I would like to challenge: “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. ”
    The characters rhyme, and look the same, at least in the traditional form (I can’t argue for simplified, since I have never been exposed to it before). But before you discredit this post, let me show you the evidence:
    So ok, what about 假 and 蝦? pinyin: jia4 and xia1. Notice how the right side of these two characters are the EXACT same, and they rhyme? The pinyin speaks for its self, a tone, and a letter is changed, but the sounds are still there. Its like saying hush shush in English. Chinese does have sounds, you need to look harder at the characters my friend. =)

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