Learning Chinese isn’t as hard as you think

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


There are lots of misconceptions about learning Chinese, spread to an equal extent by native speakers and foreigners. Most people’s reaction to my studying Chinese is that it must be extraordinarily difficult. This is wrong. I’ve thought about this a great deal, and I’m convinced that it’s much more difficult for Chinese people to learn proper English than it is for foreigners to learn proper Chinese. In this short article I’ll try to explain why Chinese isn’t as difficult as most people think.

The first problem arises from the confusion of the words “difficult” and “requiring much time”. These two are indeed related, but they are not synonymous. In this context,”difficult” can mean “requires skill”, as opposed to “requires time”, and even though one can achieve skill through diligent practice, they still aren’t one and the same. Learning to write Chinese characters is a prime example of this: it requires almost no skill whatsoever, but on the other hand, it does require the student to spend thousands of hours practicing. Provided normal memory functions, anybody can do it. On the other hand, learning to construct sentences requires actual insight and understanding of the language, which naturally is a result of studying over time, but isn’t necessarily directly proportional to the amount of time invested.

Before I go on to explain why I think spoken Mandarin is fairly easy, I’ll discuss the two things that might actually cause trouble: pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation in Chinese is wildly different from Indo-European languages. Not only are there quite a lot of sounds which sound very similar to the untrained ear (and still are essential for communication), but there is also the problem of tones. I still haven’t formed an opinion as to what determines one’s ability to learn the tones and characteristic sounds of Mandarin, but if learners pay attention in the beginning, most seem to be able to learn this (I don’t even think about it anymore, and I’ve only studied for one and a half year). Vocabulary is a bigger problem, but entirely related to time. Assuming one’s native language isn’t related to Chinese, the languages have few or no words in common. When learning French, I can guess at the meaning of many words, but in Chinese, this is completely impossible (one can of course guess the meaning of Chinese characters and words based on previous knowledge of Chinese, but that’s a different topic entirely). In short, all words have to be learnt from scratch.

Up until now, I’ve only discussed difficulties, so what is it that makes Chinese easier than most people think? Grammar. I think I can safely say that even though I cannot use all of it, I have already studied most of the grammar necessary to speak or read Chinese. If we compare this to French or German, Chinese grammar is extraordinarily simple. Please don’t get me wrong here, Chinese grammar is flexible and dynamic, and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s inferior or anything, but it’s a lot easier to learn than any other language I’ve tried.

Most importantly, there are no inflections. A verb in the present, past or future looks exactly the same (even though it takes different auxiliary verbs, just as in English), number (i.e. singular or plural) does not affect other words, and there’s no gender to take into consideration. In addition to this, the separation between different parts of speech isn’t very distinct; most words can function as verbs, nouns or adjectives without any transformation whatsoever. Thus, new vocabulary is flexible and can be used in a variety of situations. This especially useful for understanding written Chinese.

Now, please form a mental picture of the reverse situation; somebody with Chinese as their native language trying to learn English (or French or German). First, they need to construct a completely new way of thinking about time, it becomes important when something happens for how you are going to say it (and some of the tenses in English are far from easy), you have to inflect verbs depending on the person(s) performing the action, parts of speech are clearly delimited and sometimes a verb and its associated adjective/noun are completely different. And not only do you have to learn when to use these different inflections and variants of words, but you have to learn to use them instantly, in the flow of normal speech. This challenge seems far more daunting than my own approach to Chinese.

Conclusively, I don’t mean to imply that Chinese is easy to learn, but it’s certainly not difficult in the way that most people I talk with assume. It requires an awful lot of time to learn to read and write Chinese, but if I would have ignored the written language and only focused on speaking, I’m sure my spoken Mandarin would be very, very good by now. As it is, I think I’ve come pretty far in the limited time I’ve had at my disposal, much longer than I think I would have if I were a Chinese exchange student coming to Sweden to study Swedish. Learning Chinese takes diligent studying over a long period of time, but it isn’t as hard as it might seem.

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  1. Min Min’s avatar

    I totally agree with you. Chinese is not a difficult language, but fun and challenging. If any of you are interested to learn Chinese, please visit my website

    Reply

  2. Gerrit’s avatar

    I agree, when I was living in Singapore I found it difficult to read the Chinese symbols, however learning to speak it with Rocket Chinese was much easier.

    Just because they don’t use the Roman alphabet, doesn’t make their language more difficult than learning any other language.

    Thanks for your great article!

    Reply