My parents are Chinese immigrants, so it might seem like I have an unfairly rosy view of Chinese, but my knowledge of written Chinese and spoken Mandarin was attained through the torture that is known as Chinese school. I feel comfortable in saying that my experience with written Chinese is about the same as any other Westerner who is taking Chinese classes. I have a slightly easier time with Mandarin than most other people would, since I speak Shanghainese at home with my parents, but Mandarin has four tones, Shanghainese has only two, and my ex thinks I’m tone-deaf, so I feel qualified to consider myself a novice to Mandarin as well. Chinese dialects are often quite different from one another though, and knowing one dialect is not guaranteed to ensure you comprehend another. My sister-in-law is from a different province, and it’s been a huge source of arguments at home. My brother wants my parents to speak Mandarin, because she can’t understand us at all. My father speaks another third dialect that my mother cannot understand at all. So, I have a slight edge from knowing one dialect, but it’s really quite slight.
There’s a difference between being able to speak Chinese and being able to read it. The former is pretty easy. Chinese has no articles, no plurals, and no verb conjugation. Phrasing every sentence with SVO syntax is good enough to make yourself understood. It requires a much higher degree of self-consciousness to go from Chinese to English.
For example, if you want to indicate a sentence is in the subjunctive mood in English, you would have to say something like, “If I were you, I wouldn’t have said that.”
Whereas in Mandarin, the verbs “were” and “have said” would remain uninflected. Having to remember to conjugate verbs all the time is an enormous cognitive drain for those not used to it, especially since English is chock full of irregular verbs (e.g. “to wake” and “woke”, “to be” and “is, were, are, will be”…it’s maddening). It is, in my opinion, far more difficult than the tonality, which is tricky, sure, but not earth-shatteringly difficult. If you’re not tone-deaf, you’ll be fine. Like I said, my native dialect has only two tones, but even now, when I speak a bit of Mandarin, I produce the four correct tones automatically.
I don’t think the written language is as bad as that article makes it sound. It’s true that Chinese ideographs are not phonetic, but there are multiple little radicals that make up each ideograph that recur frequently throughout the written language. You can use them to figure out what the word means the same way you would use prefixes, suffixes, and word roots in an Indo-European language, even if you don’t know how to pronounce it.
As for the crap about needing to know the classical language–jeez, my mom doesn’t know any of that and I’m preeeeetty sure her Mandarin is better than that guy’s. I asked her once what the meaning of this poem I’d been forced to memorize was. It had been written sometime during the Tang Dynasty. She didn’t know. Your knowledge of classical Chinese needs to encompass common proverbs and stories–but that’s not any different than Americans having to know that George Washington was too honest to ever lie, or what it means for the cat to get out of the bag. The author’s spiel about the classical language handicap is like telling a Mexican that if they wanna be real Americans, they’re gonna have to be able to read The Canterbury Tales, untranslated. BS BS BS.
The article is dumb mostly because the author forgets one really important point–languages come in families. He makes it sound like there’s a problem with Chinese itself, and there really isn’t. From the perspective of a Chinese speaker, English looks about as bad as Chinese does to English speakers. English speakers just don’t think of other Romance or Germanic languages as being unusually difficult because these languages are all related. He, or she, is also likely forgetting that when learning other European languages, a lot of word roots are shared in common with English. Building your vocabulary in Spanish is very easy for an English speaker. I just took a look at the Spanish BBC page, and I see this sentence:
I never studied Spanish, but I can guess that “misteriosa” means “mystery,” “muerte” means “death” (thanks to knowing the root “mort-” means “death” from words like “mortician,” “post-mortem”), “disputa” means “disputes”, and “presidencia” is “president.” English speakers attacking Chinese lose that vocabulary advantage. This is why Swahili is very difficult for English speakers, incidentally—Swahili has very logical, simple grammar that is a real joy to study, and hardly any irregular verb conjugations and the written language never diverges from the spoken language the way you do with dumb English words like “though” and “cough,” but English speakers cannot rely on having any shared word roots at all.
Chinese isn’t inherently hard, as the millions and millions of little Chinese-speaking babies ought to prove to anyone with the least bit of sense. It’s just rather far removed from a Westerner’s normal linguistic experience. If the author had been born and raised speaking some other tonal language with ideographs, he’d have written a bitchy and histrionic article about English and its impossible spellings, and how dumb it is you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway.
So yeah, a lot of things about Chinese suck, mostly with the written language, but getting up to speed at a useable level isn’t too bad. I’m not trying to claim you can learn it in six months; I’m just saying that it’s not inherently difficult, and acting like it is is very Anglo-centric.
Edit: so there’s dictionary lookup contests in China. So what? If that’s masochistic, so are spelling contests in America and verb conjugation contests (!) in France. All human languages suck in their own special, wonderful diverse ways.
The main reason Chinese is perceived as a “hard” language is that the most difficult parts of Chinese hit you on day one.
Think about the first word you learn: 你好. To be able to get decent “hello” out you’ll have to:
- Learn about a new English-looking but not-really-English alphabet called Pinyin.
- Get a grip on Chinese pronunciation.
- Understand what tones are and that 你好 has two third tones.
- Further understand that these two third tones have a tone change, rendering them as 2-3 in speech but not in the pinyin
- Come to terms with these squiggly seemingly-random looking lines that are the characters.
Boom. That’s Day 1. Surprise!
Compare this with, say, French. By the end of day 1 of French you’ve probably picked up a couple of words, can faltering pronounce them and be understood and maybe even understand a little of what is being said to you in return.
European languages has (relatively) similar pronunciations, similar alphabets and similar vocabularies (ie. “hotel”) that we can grab as frames of reference.
In the case of a European language the difficulty really starts to kick in a little later. Depending on the language it may be case endings, verb conjugation, word construction, tenses, plurals, gender or, if you are learning Finnish, all of the above (I say only half in jest…).
With a European language the hard parts hit you a little later. By this point you are maybe reaching pre-intermediate or intermediate level and you are invested. You’ve put in a year of work or so and resign yourself to just grinding through verb endings until they become automatic.
With Chinese, because the difficulty is so front loaded, you aren’t invested. Thus, when hit by a wall of difficulty in the first couple of weeks, you have a decision to make.
- Stick it out. Hope that Chinese gets a little more comprehensible after a month or so.
- Give up. Throw your hands in the air and declare (All together now!) that Chinese is “too damn hard” and that no non-native could ever be expected to learn Chinese.
Sadly, without a proper reason for learning Chinese, without a goal that to stubbornly head towards, most people simply give up.
They take the Blue Pill.
To save face after giving up these people join the ranks of other failed Chinese students and start telling people that Chinese is “too hard”. Nonsense.
Once you get past the difficulty hump at the beginning of learning Chinese the language becomes much simpler. There is a logic to Chinese that does not exist in European languages. Once you start to see this logic everything snaps into place very quickly.
The problem is that in the first few weeks it’s impossible to see the woods from the trees. There’s too much information to assimilate and no way to start to grasp the logic and patterns that Chinese is full of. Instead you tread water just trying to survive.
Get past this though and you realize that most parts of Chinese are easy. Gendered nouns? Pft. Plurals. Easy. Changes verb tenses. No problem. Case endings. What? Creating new words. Beautifully logical.
As a language Chinese is beautifully constructed. It’s parsimonious and simple, in a fantastic way. But you need to get through the difficulty hump at the beginning to start to see the beauty.
- Get a grip on pronunciation and pinyin.
- Then overlay with tones
- Start speaking ASAP via a free language exchange app like HelloTalk
- Integrate some listening via Pimsleur/Michel Thomas or one of the many free audio courses at
Once you have basic communication down THEN AND ONLY THEN worry about the characters.
Dealing with the Chinese characters at the same time as a foreign pronunciation system and a tonal system is too much. Instead learn each sub-skill one at a time and start to overlay them gradually. Otherwise you’ll burn out.
The characters are the next “hard” part of Chinese. However, once you understand their logic and stop using old fashioned techniques to learn them they cease to be difficult. Instead they are merely time consuming!
The logic of characters is vitally important and is rarely if ever taught. Did you know that 90% of characters actually have some form of clue not only to their meaning but also about how to pronounce them?
When I realized this my mind was blown. Knowing this allows you to look at a bunch of new characters and guess how to say them out loud. If there’s maybe one or two characters in a sentence that you don’t know then you can guess using this knowledge and generally you’ll be understood. Magic!
These characters are the sound-meaning characters and they make up 90%+ of the language. Unfortunately they aren’t visually interesting like the pictograph/ideographs which make for graphically pleasing books like Chineasy. The problem with these “looks-like-a” characters is that they only make up 50-10% of the language. The rest is the un-sexy but super useful sound-meaning characters.
Here’s about 30 minutes of me ranting on about how amazing the sound-meaning characters are.
The sound-meaning characters are one example of how knowing about the language helps you speed up character acquisition.
The other way to speed up character (and word) acquisition is to use more modern learning techniques. Traditionally (ie. at Chinese schools) the way to learn characters is to damn well write them out so many times that they will eventually stick.
That method is fine if you are a Chinese kid growing up in China. You have decades of schooling ahead and lots more homework time. A time-intensive method is fine for kids.
For adults though these methods are mind-killers. Sitting down to write out 你好 50 times after lesson 1 is nobody’s idea of fun. Again, having students do this in their first week of learning Chinese is going to cause more people to quit. And for good reason!
Nowadays we have much better methods for learning the characters. Once again I go into this in WAY more detail on the blog (and in this ~7 hour Chinese character video course, my magnum opus!) but here’s an outline:
- Break down the character into its constituent components. (Pleco dictionary has a built-in decomposition function).
- Use the components to create a memory-aid; tell a story using the pieces. Hook the meaning and pronunciation of the character into this story. I personally use colours to signify the tones but there are lots of ways to use memory-aids to learn meaning, pronunciation and tones.
- Add your new character + mnemonic to a flashcard or (preferably) into a Spaced Repetition System like Anki or, my preference, Pleco.
- Review the new content using Spaced Repetition. If you get something wrong don’t just tap Wrong but re-learn the character (break it down and create a new mnemonic if necessary).
- Each week remove a certain amount of material from the SRS and write Sentences of the Week. Make short sentences from the characters/words you now recognize on sight. Use Lang-8 to get the sentences corrected. Add the sentences into you flashcards/SRS as “grammar cards” to help you understand the structure of the language.
- Use your Sentences of the Week in conversation using iTalki or HelloTalk or face-to-face. I prefer HelloTalk because it is so low-friction. You need to remove any barriers that would stop you from communicating regularly.
- During Usage make note of new content you want to learn. This could be corrections to your existing sentences or completely random language nuggets you want to capture.
- Loop the new material from Usage back to Step 1 above. Run through a similar process of breaking down, creating memory-aids, using SRS, writing sentences and then communicating.
Using a method like this (or indeed any method except rote-learning grinding out of vocabulary lists by writing out characters hundreds of times) can help you learn the characters and words you need fast.
When I was learning Chinese I hit 75-100 characters a day using this system, with 90% recall a week later. That was 2 hours of study a day which is likely more than most people will have to dedicate. That said, if you don’t have much time to study it is even more important to have a decent character learning system in place. Otherwise it will take years and years to become literate – and chances are you’ll give up during the process!
So, in answer to your question:
- For a native English speaker the first few weeks/months of Chinese are more difficult than other foreign languages BUT once you cross that difficulty hump Chinese in many ways becomes easier.
- Learning the characters is time consuming rather than difficulty per se BUT even then there are ways to make the process much more efficient and, dare I say it, fun.
At the end of the day though the difficulty of a language is never a good reason to start or not start learning a language.
If you have a really good reason for wanting to learn a language then you’ll blow through the difficult parts no problem – they’ll be small bumps that you’ll drive straight over in your rush to get to your goal.
If you don’t have a good reason for learning Chinese though then these small bumps will take on Grand Canyon sized proportions. “I want to learn Chinese for economic reasons” or some similarly weak reason just won’t hack it when you hit rough patches.
This is the same for anything that is worthwhile doing. Worthwhile stuff takes time, effort, passion and willpower.
PS. Don’t worry about the dictionary lookup competitions. Chinese people, like everyone else sensible, use electronic dictionaries nowadays.
It require some sort of extra knowledge, how to start learning Chinese. For example: it’s not easy to start with the charaters at all… To make sure you are studying Chinese effectively and efficiently, you firstly have to ask yourself the question: what study method in general works best for me:
- private class/teacher
- learning by doing,
Below you will find some ways, which you can use to study Chinese, in order to improve your Listening, Reading and Writing skills. Take firstly in consideratoin what works best for you.
If you are good in memorizing text, you might have a good chance starting with Flashcards and Chinese characters
If you like to learn via video, it’s good to start with more visual learning video’s online on youtube, or even wacht simple Chinese childeren learning tools or watching video clips.
And if audio or chinese podcasts work well for you, than and repeating the sentences, you might go looking for some good audio teaching materials.
If a traditional school class is your thing! Go for an online or offline program!
Depending on how serious you are, I would recommend the following if you are just beginner and not that serious:
AUDIO TRACKS OR PODCASTS
This is for sure the best way to start learning Chinese! It’s doable, and you will find this complicated language is not that complicated as you thought it was.
is a good one! You will see result very fast within the same week
(as long as you practice at least 30 mins a day)
Easy to print and start practicing immediately.
HSK flashcards onlineGreat for online Flashcards, also for HSK. You can make them by yourself. Or you download the below mentioned Flashcard packs.
ONLINE LEARNING TOOLS
Online tutoring service, suitable for additional classes online.
HANYU SHUIPING KAOSHI (HSK)
If you are serious, it’s often a good idea to create your own deadline, by applying for a Chinese exam and working towards this. Every month you have the opportunity to follow it. They will examine your writing, reading and listening skills.
They include large set of Chinese characters (Chinese vocabulary according HSK level), example HSK exams, example practicing sentences, pinyin pronunciation, etc.
you can find them online. Make sure you will download those who are including audio tracks and answers!
HanbanHanban is also providing tests online and a free self-evaluation software for HSK 1–6.
HSK official vocabulary books
HSK vocabulary ,you may buy some book on synonyms for example
HSK Academy online
So many options available to learn the Chinese language nowadays! We recommend experimenting with several kinds of learning materials. Flashcards work well, also practicing audio tracks which you can find online!
Good luck with preparations!
It think this is really subjective, but generally tough but possible for anyone. I’ve met some polyglots who struggled with Chinese (mostly because they didn’t put the work in) and people with severe mental disabilities who’ve excelled at it (because they put the work in). It depends on how closely your target language resembles the tones, sounds and grammar of Mandarin. It also depends on the learner’s aptitude tones, memorization of words, listening, memorization of characters, ability to focus and work, and grammar. The individual’s aptitude for each of these factors is different and make for a different experience. In general it takes a lot of work, but doesn’t require a quantum leap conceptually and is totally possible for non Chinese people.
“Surmountable” but easier for some than others. Are you a singer or musician? Are you good at imitation and detecting subtle differences in speach? Then this will be easier. Some people are “tone deaf” and have a really hard time with this part, even after extensive training. In general though learning the tones is not as bad as people thing but takes some practice.
Chinese grammar is easy for English speakers, more difficult for Japanese speakers. In general it’s much easier than European languages. Sentences are usually Subject–> Verb–>Object (“I go store”). No verb conjugations, no gender, no particles. There are some structures that have to be memorized and a couple of unique grammar items unique to Chinese, but these have clear rules and just take practice. Grammar is an area I struggled with in Spanish, and I’m sure I’d find Japanese agonizing with it’s different grammar and respect classes for each word.
The Words (in Pinyin)
Not too bad, a couple of tricky sounds depending on your native language, but definitely doable. Lots of homonyms which can be confusing, even for native Mandarin speakers. Chinese sentences often don’t have a lot of context, and with the homonyms can require additional information (so for example the characters for “he,” “she,” and “it” are distinct, but when spoken sound exactly the same). Nothing too tricky here though, but it makes it difficult to just “pick up.”
This is not so much tricky as it is a memorization game. However memorizing the characters gets easier over time as one gets used to the shapes. It also depends on the approach, starting with the radicals or the building blocks of the characters (how to write them, their meaning) can make learning the characters much easier. A character might first look like a ornate collection of 20 lines, but if one knows the radicals, that same character becomes three radicals put together to form one character.
However this still take a lot of time, and finding a new character gives very little indication of how it is pronounced (the radicals contain hints however as Jane explains in the above answer). But memorizing them is a memorization game and mostly comes down to the capacity of the learner to work and practice.
I feel Chinese was really tough for the first 300 words and the corresponding grammar. Learning the tones and becoming accustomed to the characters took some time. After that steep first step though, it becomes easier, still tough though, but not as tough as the article makes it out. Depends on the time and effort of the student more than mental capabilities.
The foreigners I know who are fluent in Mandarin–all of them–worked at it, but gained definite fluency.
This is just my perspective based on my own experience studying the language for ten years.
It’s useful to keep in mind thatis a web site dedicated to promoting the cause of phonetic writing of Chinese instead of its current writing system. So of course it will make a case that Chinese is an unimaginably difficult language to learn—and furthermore that it would become so much easier to learn, if the Chinese would only make the supreme sacrifice and transition to phonetic writing like (most of) the rest of the world.
There’s some value in that viewpoint (though not, I think, to the extent that they make it), but it means that everything they say about the difficulty of learning Chinese has to be taken with a grain of salt, because they have that axe to grind.
All that being said, I do think Chinese is difficult for native English speakers to learn, more than other European languages at other rate, which is what most English-speaking students have on hand to compare Chinese to. I wouldn’t necessarily trustat face value, but its general observations about the challenges of learning different languages ring true. By their estimation, it takes about four times as long to learn Mandarin (say) as it does to learn something like Spanish or French.
The reason behind this isn’t complicated: Chinese is just much more different from English than any of those languages are:
- First, and most noticeable, are those characters. Many foreign students are drawn to Chinese in large part because of those characters. They seem so mystical! Even if one knows better, there’s a thought in the back of the mind that the strangeness of the characters conceals some deeper connection they have to meaning. After a week or two of struggling with them, though, most students are just focused on memorizing them.
- Second in importance are the tones. Chinese, in any of its dialects*, has a fairly limited inventory of syllables if you neglect its tones. One of the drawbacks of pinyin is that it treats tones as second-class citizens; they are written as diacriticals on the main vowel, rather than as a direct feature of the spelling. For instance, in pinyin, the character 馬, meaning “horse,” is written mǎ. The character 罵, meaning “scold,” is written mà. Worse yet, in many contexts, the tones are left off the spelling altogether! The former Taiwanese President, 馬英九, often had his name represented as Ma Yingjiu (pinyin) or its variant Ma Ying-jeou. Of course, in context, it is obvious who it is, but still, the tones have been ignored completely.
One could be forgiven for thinking that to first order, these two characters are interchangeably pronounced. Nevertheless, it is untrue; except in puns, tones are essential. The former character is pronounced with a long gradually declining pitch, followed by a very quick, barely noticeable uptick at the end. The latter character is pronounced with a very short and sharp downward pitch contour, almost like an exclamation. If the difference between these is ignored, the sense of the character is totally lost. Because it is something English lacks, it is very difficult for English speakers to pick up.
This distinction, by the way, is something that the older romanization scheme known as 國語羅馬字 Gwoyeu Romatzyh attempted to make clear: Those two characters would have been written as maa and mah. (Unfortunately, this scheme, though accurate in its representation of spoken Mandarin, was judged to be too complex to be effective.)
- Beyond the characters and the tones, Chinese grammar works on different principles than those of Western European languages. Even English, which mostly has lost its conjugations, still retains number (plural versus singular), tense, voice, etc. Chinese, for the most part, does not have these properties. In fact, for a long time, Chinese was thought by some to have no grammar at all! What it doesn’t have, really, is morphology, in the form of an inflection system to represent things like number and tense.
Furthermore, word order is rather dramatically different between Chinese and English. For instance, relative clauses are typically placed after the thing they modify in English, but typically before the thing they modify in Chinese. So if we were to say, in English,
I like the car he picked out.
the phrase “he picked out” modifies (specifies) “the car,” and comes after it. In Chinese, that would be expressed as
[literally, “I like he chose that car.”]
with the phrase 他選的 “he picked out” modifying (specifying) 那部車子 “that car,” and coming before it. Ignoring constructions like this produces ungrammatical sentences that take effort for a native speaker to decipher. It means that one cannot speak Chinese by thinking of the corresponding English sentence and progressing along phrase by phrase and translating as one goes. One has to conceive of the sentence differently from the start.
These differences conspire to make Chinese more than “just another foreign language.” It’s very appealing to think that way in a kind of theoretical, “” way, but in practice, it’s just harder.
*“Dialects” is a somewhat misleading term, but it is the most common one. The main issue is that it connotes variation in phonetics in otherwise mutually intelligible tongues. In fact, Chinese has something like seven major dialects (of which Mandarin is by far the dominant one in terms of geographical coverage and number of speakers), most of which are mutually unintelligible. For that matter, some of them comprise sub-dialects, as it were, that are themselves mutually unintelligible. Nonetheless, the Chinese themselves tend to view the language as a somewhat loosely unified whole. The question of the status of Chinese as a language is a complicated one.
Chinese is deceptively easy and hard depending on your viewpoint. For basic communication probably not so hard. For true fluency really quite possibly the hardest language in the world.
- Chinese isn’t hard to speak, especially Mandarin. Grammar is easy. Pinyin is helpful. Pronunciation and tones surmountable.
- Computers and smartphones have really helped things sooooo much. I used to have to look up characters by strokes in a paper dictionary just 7 years ago.
- Problems come up when you meet real people who don’t speak standard Mandarin, which is more than you would think. A lot of people over 40 don’t really speak comprehensible Mandarin. I’ve met the parents of many of my friends and students and couldn’t understand much of what they said even though they were located in Mandarin based areas like Shandong and Sichuan. You get inverted tones and mangled consonants.
- True Chinese dialects are basically different languages, and much much harder to boot . I dare someone to find me a foreign born native level speaker in any of the main Wu, Min, Yue dialects.
- The writing system is ridiculous with two versions depending on whether you’re on the Mainland or not. I learned the simplified and now back in the States everyone uses Traditional. Argh.
- Being literate in Chinese is long and difficult. The written language is very different than the everyday spoken language. A lot of it requires cultural and historical reference learning.
Generally, how hard a specific target language for any particular person depends on a number of factors, including sociocultural and individual factors.
Coming from a Western background however, Chinese might seem especially difficult. Here are a number of reasons that I think are critical.
1. The writing system or Hanzi
An online that we have conducted shows that unsurprisingly, Chinese characters are the hardest part of learning Chinese. If you have a western language background, you will most probably never have had to deal with a similar system. The difficulty stems from two different sources: First, the characters themselves seem to be abstract, complicated and there are tons of them. Second, it is very hard to connect either the meaning or the pronunciation just by looking at the character.
Luckily, there might be an answer to just this problem.
First of all, it is indeed only necessary to study around 200 components that repeatedly appear in all of the 3000 characters used in everyday life. Think of it as a Lego system.
After you have mastered the components, all you have to do is to try and establish links between the components and the characters formed. You can find some more explanation and additional information in this article:
Second, there are also approaches where you can not only reduce the number of characters you have to learn, but those methods also give you the necessary bridges to connect character, meaning and pronunciation. In the example below, the technique of visualization is used to show the meaning for the characters
In fact, with the right method, learning Hanzi can become really intuitive as most character are built with really logical systems. Learn more about the right method.
Coming from a Western background, tones are another thing you probably have to familiarize yourself with. Chinese has five tones and the meaning of words may change dramatically when pronounced with the wrong tone.
A funny example that I experienced while studying in China: 大便 (dàbiàn ) which contains twice the fourth tone means “shit” while 答辩 (dábiàn) in which the first character has the second tone means to answer or defend a thesis. This difference explains my friend’s statement that she had to take a shit in 3 month.
The good thing about tones is, although they are important, people will nevertheless understand you even if you use the wrong tones because of the context of the conversation.
This one is not as hard as one might think when first listening to Chinese. In fact, many of the pronunciations are similar to for example the German pronunciations. Difficulties exist especially in pronouncing “Zhang“, “Chang“, “Qiang” or between “zi” and “ci“. To get these right, you will probably need the help of a native speaker who can give you some precise guidance.
Now this is the best part about Chinese. The grammar is in fact really simple: For example Chinese verbs always stay the same and do not change with tenses. Same goes for nouns which in a lot of languages change depending in which case you are using them.
In Chinese for example, to express past tense, generally you simply add a “了” to the sentence and if you want to say something in plural, simply add “们” to your pronoun. So while “我” means “I”, “我们” means “We”.
A Chinese specialty and probably one of the most difficult things about Chinese grammar are measure words. In Chinese, you cannot simply say three (三) books (书), but rather you have to say 三本书. The difficulty with measure words is that different nouns go with different measure words. But as a beginner, you can generally substitute all of them with 个 (even I do it).
As with everything else, with the right strategy and determination, you can definitely succeed. My co-founder managed to reached HSK 6 (the highest level in Chinese proficiency for foreigners) after living for one year in Shanghai and using a certain learning strategy.
We have managed to implement this strategy into a new kind of Chinese learning app. If you would like to find out more, you can check out our homepage atand have a look at our blog!
A little context- when I was at high school I studied Japanese. I was at the bottom of the class for 5 years straight. I showed little to no talent for language learning, and actually flunked a few years completely (but they let you keep going in NZ, yay).
Then university, and time for a change. After 0.5 years of studying Mandarin at university, I could barely say anything, I struggled with even the most basic sentences and got very, very nervous. If a native speaker spoke to me, I totally froze and couldn’t understand a word unless it was a teacher speaking slowly and clearly with vocab I knew well.
After 1.5 years it was so easy for me to speak Mandarin that I didn’t even have to show up to class get all A’s. This was in my university in China during exchange, with a class full of people who had been learning for years and many were already familiar with a character-based writing system.
So what happened in between?
I won’t go through the technical reasons why/why not Chinese (I’m assuming you mean Mandarin) might be difficult to learn, but let me tell you to what point I got by when, and what I did to get there.
During those first 6 months of studying at uni I learnt a lot, although most of what I learnt had nothing to do with Mandarin vocab, grammar, characters etc.
Instead, I learnt how to learn.
There are so many great resources out there that will teach you how to pick things up quickly and easily. I’ll list a few of them below, but first, the philosophy that triggered all of this- Tim Ferris. I can’t remember where I read it (4-Hour Work Week maybe?), but pretty much it teaches you how to break down big challenges into component tasks.
So, to go over a few of the lessons I learnt that allowed me to accelerate my learning.
Listening- ChinesePod. A baby spends 99% of it’s life listening, and only then does it try to speak. It’s important to have something to listen to that is similar to your learning level, that is accurate, and challenging. I found repeating the sentences after the hosts very helpful. ChinesePod ticks all the boxes. Also, they’re fun and have a good community.
Speaking- Speaking is essential for adult language learning as it’ll give you immediate pay off for what you’ve learnt. Seeing native speakers understand what you’re saying, even if it’s asking where the toilet is with good tones, is immensely rewarding. Btw, going to China is the best way to do this.
Tones and Pinyin-
Although part of Listening and Speaking, I cannot stress enough how important it is to get the basics down. If you spend a lot of time getting these two things down, you’re Mandarin learning experience will be magnitudes easier than those around you trying to learn. Good tones and pinyin and hard to find in non-native speakers- be the exception and reap the benefits.
Reading and writing are hard slogs to begin with going from English, but once you have a foundation it’s a lot of fun. The satisfaction of catching yourself reading what was previously alien scribble is not something I’d experienced before. Use Memrise and other tools (see Writing below) to fast track your learning.
Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try to learn a character by rote. It’s near impossible. I know so many people who try the “tried and true” method of rote learning with nothing to show for it. My guiding philosophy was always to make things easier by getting the foundations down, so with writing learn the component parts of the characters (there’s only ~240 radicals, not 1000s like there are of individual characters).
Rejoice, Chinese grammar is pretty basic. Learning Chinese makes me happy that I already know English. Still very important though, but this is more to do with vocab and it’d proper usage than “grammar”.
Getting your phone kitted out with all the right gear for the above points is really important too. Pleco is your best friend when learning Mandarin, for example, but also get a good Mandarin input keyboard to practise on.
Nothing is inherently difficult if you have the right tools and base knowledge, and Mandarin is no exception (although the Chinese love to think that their language is unlearnable, so don’t ever tell them you think it’s easy!)
Motivation also plays a huge part, which is why going to China to learn is so important. Nothing will motivate you more than having no friends or connections in a foreign country, to learn their language!
The answer is that for most learners, it is practically impossible, and for a few people it’s relatively easy. Some people take five years living in China and studying every day before they can have conversations. But some gifted students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at the Middlebury summer intensive program – considered the best 1st level Chinese program in the world – reach conversational fluency in little over a month. There are students out there who can talk politics after five months, read newspapers after six, and I know Sinologists who studied for a year and a half and had the skills needed to do sophisticated PhD research in History. I know a Sinology student who mastered modern Mandarin and Classical Chinese in five years and is pursuing a PhD in classical Chinese studies from one of the world’s top schools.
What did they have in common? Good teachers, good pedagogy, immersion, motivation, and prior records of academic excellence. This enabled them to “crack the code” of learning Chinese and master the language quickly.
Once you reach the advanced level of Chinese, it becomes much easier. If you are reading a medicine journal, the word “Cirrhosis” explains itself as “liver-hardening-disease” and “diabetes” as “sugar-urination-disease”. Characters are the roots of Chinese words, and there are just about 3,500 characters to learn to cover 99% of Chinese (and 4,700 for everything). Most words are similarly self-explanatory. In English a learner is still fighting to learn new word roots and fix their numerous grammatical errors at this level. In Chinese, words explain themselves and the grammar and pronunciation system is limited enough that fossilization doesn’t become an issue.
Most who do approach Mandarin fail. I believe there’s a few reasons for this. First, the initial learning curve is almost vertical. You need to learn lots of very difficult pronunciation and tons of characters all at once. This is overwhelming to learners. A native Mandarin speaker will know 5,000 characters and 50,000 – 100,000 lemmas (words), a ratio of 10:1 to 20:1. But in your first four years of Mandarin, you’ll need to learn 3,000 characters to go with maybe 5,000 words. And a character takes much longer to learn than a word. The end result is that after 4 years of college Mandarin, your vocabulary size compares with that of a 5 year-old. This is the average learner.
That is not to say English is much easier. The University of Hong Kong did a study on Hong Kong students at age 18 – the best educated in English anywhere in China – and after around 10 years of instruction, the average student had a vocabulary of just 3,000 words.
So the end result is that the Mandarin learning curve starts very flat and then should turn into something like a rocket.
The next section addresses why people stumble with Mandarin, and gives some pointers to students on how to address these issues.
You will not learn enough vocabulary from your classes relative to the characters you know. A third-year Mandarin student, if he really wants to learn, should start tuning into those cheesy romance shows they show in Chinese with subtitles. Follow those subtitles closely and look at each of the characters and how they form words. You’ll pick up a ton of words doing that, very quickly. Mandarin requires a ton of additional exposure and immersion, but if you have it, vocabulary will grow exponentially. The textbook won’t be enough.
The second big reason Mandarin learners fail is that they get to China in their 3rd or 4th year of Chinese for a year abroad… And everyone speaks to them in English. The Chinese students want to learn English, and outnumber you 100,000 to one. A few people do language exchanges. A really small minority of them actually achieve 100% immersion. To some natives, the idea that someone would want to speak Mandarin all the time in China seems ludicrous. Some other people feel you are a resource, and as a friend, you should make this resource available.
There was a study of a prestigious Chinese Master’s program in Nanjing that said students, after 2 years, moved up only one level in proficiency, from ILR 3 to 3+. The study suggested a probable reason was the Master’s students said they almost never spoke Chinese with the locals. So many students spent big bucks learning Chinese for two years and went home empty handed after vast opportunity and tuition costs.
Here is point two of advice for Chinese students going to China. You will arrive in China, outnumbered by Chinese students 100,000 to 1. Your mission is to learn the hardest language on earth, according to many. To succeed you should plan on using Chinese all day, every day, for the entire day. You will find many people just want to speak English with you, many people will refuse to speak English, responding every time in Chinese. Many people will pressure you into exchanging English for Chinese, as if speaking Mandarin with you were a commodity not to be given away for free. You might even feel like you are having a battle with some people to speak Chinese.
Don’t give up. There are 100,000 students for every one of you and statistically many of them will not care whether they learn English from you. They will want to be your friend just like any other friend. Many of these people will be unaware that people will try to get you to be their English learning resource. Once I made one such friend and he invited me to a welcome party event at the University. I told him almost everyone I’d meet would try to speak English with me, even stubbornly. He didn’t believe it – if someone’s speaking Chinese with you, then how hard is it to speak Chinese, he said? When we got there, not only did it happen, but so many people stopped by to practice English with me that it obstructed the hallways and the ushers had to tell people to move inside. My friend spent the whole time laughing hysterically, rolling on the floor.
There’s a silver lining here. Older people will treat you normally, speaking Chinese with you just like anyone else. But for now
The Peace Corps. sends people to China to teach English. There are many people who feel that they are in need of this kind of humanitarian aid. Joining the Peace Corps to donate your time to teaching English in China is a great experience. If you are going to China to study abroad, you should realize you are not in the peace corps, it’s not what you’re there for. Before Africa’s economy took off, USAID Engineers would go to Africa and be accosted by crowds of people begging for food. But they have one job: build bridges. Their job is not to go around buying bags of food to hand out to people on the street. Likewise, in the above situation I was accosted by a huge crowd of people trying to practice English with me.
If you are attending a Chinese program, your one job is to learn Chinese. Assume you’re a scholarship student studying directly with the university. The Chinese government pays a lot of money for you to learn Chinese.According to the MOE financial data, the raw disbursement to you as a scholarship student is higher than the average ANNUAL wage in Shanghai or Beijing. There are teachers devoting their whole lives to get people like you to learn Chinese. Many programs tell their students to never speak English and study 14 hours a day. These people were dead serious about the hard work expected. Like the USAID engineer, other people are investing in you.
Is Mandarin easy or hard to learn? It depends on how you approach it and the kind of immersion you get. Some people work hard for a decade and get to the same place others get after just a year. If you’re interested, I recommend learning some to see if it works out for you, and if so, you can decide to continue.