Seriously, why Chinese?

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolote. 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.


I have studied Chinese a year now, and people often ask the question why I am doing so. Here in Taiwan, the situation is not different, because Taiwanese people also want to know why I study Chinese. My habitual answer is because the language intrigues me. Today, however, I asked myself that question. Seriously, why am I studying Chinese?

This question implies that there are reasons not to study Chinese, and believe me, there are, even assuming that studying a foreign language is on the agenda. Many people believe that Chinese is difficult, but I do not think that that is the right word. Chinese requires an extraordinary amount of time to master, which is very different from any European language, for instance. Why is this the case? Because learning to write and read Chinese is many, many times more time-consuming than learning to write and read any Western language.

The problem is that the properties of a Chinese character has practically nothing to do with how it is pronounced. If Chinese was written using a phonetic system, I would not say that the language was more difficult to learn than, say, French. Probably much easier. However, this is not the case. Learning Chinese, one has to learn to pronounce and write every word, two entirely separate processes. Also, the writing itself is complicated and learning thousands of characters requires many thousands of hours of practice. Sure, it takes a while to figure out how French is spelled as well, but nothing close to several thousands of hours.

Today in class, reviewing a white board full of Chinese characters, I did not feel certain as to why I wanted to learn Chinese. The vocabulary on the board would have take me less than an hour to learn in another language. Is it really worth it, I asked myself? Since this is a fairly important question, I decided to write this text in order to straighten things out, mainly because I need it myself, but also to make you understand my situation. To understand my relationship to Chinese, it is necessary to first take closer look on other languages I know.

In my life so far, I have studied four languages: Swedish, English, French and Chinese, in that order. I am very interested in languages, so I do not think I need to explain why I want to study languages in general. This is about Chinese. Swedish I know fairly well by now. Sure, I would like to develop my proficiency, especially when it comes to writing fiction, but such a goal is very different from learning a new language is a beginner. My knowledge of the English language is also adequate for most purposes, even though I would like to spend some time in an English-speaking country. With these two languages, I have reached a level where it is very easy to learn more on my own.

This leaves French and Chinese. Since I do not study languages for the sole reason that I happen to be interested in them, I care about what level I have achieved. My French would probably be good enough to be genuinely useful if I spent a year in France; I need to refresh what I have learnt and practice what I already know. I have the basics,  I can read moderately difficult novels, I can express myself in fairly down-to-earth situations. French is a candidate for more studying. One might say it is a rival to Chinese.

So why study Chinese if it is so troublesome and requires so much time? There are many reasons. First, I like Chinese characters, even though learning them is perhaps not as enjoyable. Second, I like the spoken language. It has nice structure and is fairly straightforward, and I also like the sound of it. Third, since Chinese is so difficult to master, I hope that mastering it will make me more desirable as a teacher (or otherwise). Fourth, I have already studied a year, so stopping now would mean that a year’s education has been wasted.

So, for the moment it seems like I am stuck with Chinese. I will do my very best during my stay here in Taiwan to learn as much as I possibly can. I want to be good enough to be able to continue studying on my own, perhaps trying to find Chinese people in Sweden to keep developing my speaking proficiency. It will be very hard in the beginning, because there is so much to learn that it feels overwhelming at times. It is not very pleasant to study a chapter for many hours, and, when reviewing the chapter the next day, to realise that most of what I learnt is lost again. Learning to write Chinese requires diligence above all, and it requires a lot of it. I have been known to possess that quality before, so let us hope I have enough to achieve my goals.

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  1. Staffan’s avatar

    I picked up chinese again, this time using Pimsleur type lessons, it seems to work surprisingly well actually, though I think it will be hard to learn chinese this way if you have not already learned to pronounce correctly. Just a tip to anyone thinking of picking up this language after being intrigued by Olle. :)

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  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Staffan: Nice to hear it. :) I can add Chinesepod to the recommendation. They have over one thousand audio lessons for Mandarin Chinese, sorted into different levels according to ability. Very, very, very useful.

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