How hard is Chinese, really?

When I tell people in the US that I can speak Chinese the usual response is shock and amazement that someone could learn such a difficult language. Of course I must always disabuse them of any fantasies that my Chinese is somehow excellent, what with my garbled word order and faulty tones, but even then the compliments flow.

Chinese, like many of the languages which are currently in vogue (Arabic, Korean, Farsi, etc) has a reputation of being very difficult to learn. When compared with German or the Romance languages that Americans usually study, there is certainly something to be said for this. Afterall, English and German are related languages (English grew out of an early Germanic dialect) and English has a substantial Latin-based vocabulary we received via French. Hence a page of written French or Spanish will contain many many cognates.

Chinese, Arabic, Korea, Farsi….not so much. While there are some English-Chinese cognates like typhoon, tofu, gung ho, taipan, and a few in the other direction like Shāfā (sofa), Fútèjiā (vodka), Shālóng (salon), and Díshì (taxi), as a general rule learners must start from scratch.

(There is also the still debated question of whether or not the English expression “Long time no see” was actually transferred from Chinese – 好久不见 – via the Pidgin English spoken by the 19th century China traders and their Chinese comdradors)

So how hard is Chinese to learn? The great Jesuit missionary to the Ming court, Matteo Ricci said learning Chinese was semi-martyrdom. Although he was speaking of learning Classical Confucian Chinese, any student of the language will freely admit they have felt that way at least on occasion.

I typically give this warning to anyone interested in taking up the language.

1. If you study in the US, your classmates will mostly be heritage speakers, some already fluent and just looking for an easy”A.”

2. If you study in China, don’t do it in Beijing or Shanghai. There are too many other foreigners to hang out and speak English with as well as English speaking Chinese. You will get far less practice or immersion than you would otherwise think.

3. For the first three or four semesters (or first year of intensive study) you will feel as though you are making no progress and that you are just as incapable as you were when you started. It is only then that you mount a VERY steep learning curve and in the space of a few months go from beginner to highly conversant.

4. DO NOT SLACK OFF ON THE TONES!!! I followed my lazy inclination and focused on sounding fluent and just trying to talk. It worked but my tones are more or less irreparably screwed up. Do not do this to yourself. No matter how hard it seems in the beginning, emphasize getting the tones right!

5. Practice writing every day. The written language takes enormous amounts of practice in order to master it. Grasp every chance to practice reading and writing your characters. Make flashcards, tape post-its around your apartment, keep a character notebook and practice any time you get a spare minute. It will pay off.

That all being said, Chinese is actually a lot of fun to learn. Moreover, your efforts will be greatly appreciated in China. Knowing even a little of the language unlocks so much more of the culture, history, and society than can ever be conveyed through English language signs and guidebooks.

That and it is nice to be able to get hotel rooms in the budget hotels where no one speaks English….



About redguide2010

While living in China's Guizhou Province I fell in love with the China, and travel more generally. I became especially enamored with the batik art of the Miao/Hmong and Buyi minorities. This love affair filled me with the desire to share this art form and the history, and travel foibles of China, with the world. For Batiks, check this out: I lived in China for more than 3 years doing work as an English teacher, translator, and political economist. In the course of these jobs I had the opportunity to see not only the Southwest (Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan) I called home but also to spend time on business in the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. In my experience, even the most modern, industrial and seemingly bland concrete jungle contains a wealth of history and cultural experience - for those willing to scratch the surface. Let's take a peek together!
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