If you search “which language is the most difficult to learn?” on Google, then it’s very likely that most of the results will rank Chinese as one of the top 5 most difficult languages to learn, but is learning Chinese really that hard?
We can’t deny the fact that learning a language requires a huge amount of time and effort, but we think the stereotypes regarding the Chinese language are a bit unfair. We’ve put together a list of some of the most common questions regarding learning Chinese, and we hope that by the end of this article we’ve convinced you that it’s really not that bad.
How Difficult Are the Chinese Characters?
It’s not as complicated as it seems. If you’ve never been in touch with Chinese characters, then it might just look like a combination of 10 random lines and dots. If you already know a bit of Chinese, then you might recognize a couple of shapes, or radicals. These radicals appear over and over again in different combinations in many characters. And the good news is that there are a limited number of radicals.
Let’s look at the image below:
If I showed you the “character” on the left, and then removed it, you still might be able to replicate it from memory even though you’ve never seen it before. This is because each shape look very familiar to you.
In the same way, the Chinese character on the right is made up of 3 shapes, or radicals, and they are commonly used in other characters as well. When you learn a new character, you don’t need to memorize all the strokes, you only need to recognize which combination of radicals are used.
Do I Have To Memorize Every Chinese Character?
Apart from those occasional situations in which you have to write down your Chinese name on a piece of paper, it seldom happens in real-life in which you need to write Chinese characters from memory. When Chinese people communicate via WeChat or Email, they aren’t drawing the characters on their screen. They type using pinyin and select from an input system the characters that they want to use. This relies more on reading ability than writing ability.
Learning to write is still important in terms of learning strokes and stroke order, though. There are 37 different strokes used in writing characters, and general rules for which order to write them in. Once you’ve learned these, you’ll be able to look at any Chinese character and copy it down by hand. Memorizing how to write each individual character really isn’t necessary in everyday life.
How many Chinese characters do I need to learn?
A lot, but fewer than you might think. The highest level standardized Mandarin exam requires you to know 5,000 words but only 2,663 characters. Most Chinese words are made up of 2 different characters. These characters are reused in many different words, and often make logical sense. Sometimes you’ll be able to guess the meaning of unlearned word simply by looking at the characters.
For example, the character 医 means “medical science.”
医学 = the study of medical science
医生 = doctor
医院 = hospital
医治 = to cure, treat
If you were studying English, you wouldn’t have any inclination that these words were related until you looked them up in a dictionary. You’d also need to memorize the spellings of each one. In Chinese, you might already know the meaning of 医, which would make memorizing these words much easier. This is the case with many Chinese words. By the time you’ve learned 100 characters, you’ve probably already learned 200-300 words.
Is Chinese pronunciation difficult?
No! Let’s look at the two factors that make up Chinese pronunciation.
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. The 4 tones do take some time to get used to, but don’t let them scare you. After all, there’s only 4 of them. The tone will be clearly indicated in your dictionary or textbook.
Chinese uses a phonetic system called pinyin (Chinese: 拼音; lit. ‘spell sound’) to dictate the pronunciation of a Chinese word. It shares the same 26 letters as English.
Granted, some of the letters in the pinyin system make a different sound than they do in English, e.g. C, X, Q, R, Z. But it’s a phonetic system that is simple for English speakers to adjust to.
In the English language, the 26 letters of the alphabet can be arranged in over 170,000 combinations to create words. An English learner must learn the correct pronunciation for all of these words. In the pinyin system, however, there are only 412 combinations of these letters. Once you’ve learned how to pronounce these combinations, you’ll never need to learn a new pronunciation again. The same phonetics are recycled throughout the language.
Is Chinese grammar different than English grammar?
Well, yes and no.
For example, Chinese and English both follow a “Subject + Verb” order. But they don’t always agree on where to place a preposition in a sentence.
However, there is one amazing, blissful, miraculous difference about Chinese grammar:
NO VERB CONJUGATIONS! Verbs stay the same no matter the tense. All you need to do is add a verb modifier. The verb modifiers will stay the same no matter which verb you use.
Go = 去
Going = 在去
Went = 去了
Been/Gone = 去过
Take = 带
Taking = 在带
Took = 带了
Taken = 带过
If that doesn’t make sense right now, believe us. It’s an absolute dream.
How can I practice Chinese?
Chinese people are EVERYWHERE and are generally very friendly. No matter where you are, you can easily find someone near you or online to practice with. Chinese learners usually have no trouble making Chinese friends.
In China, the majority of the young population is learning English and very eager make friends with an English speaker. Our Chinese language school in China is an extension of an English school for Chinese natives. We pair up English learners and Chinese learners as language partners, and we always have a surplus of Chinese natives who want a partner. You’ll likely even have people on the street walk up to you and ask if you’d like to practice languages.
How do you look up a Chinese character in a dictionary?
If you know the pinyin of a Chinese word, just type it in your dictionary app and select the character. If you don’t know the pinyin, many dictionary apps now let you scan a character or write it with your finger.
That’s it. Did we manage to convince you that it’s not that difficult after all? Learning languages in general can sometimes make you want to rip your hair out. But we can make sure that you’ll still have plenty of hair left when you’re writing on your resume “Fluent in Mandarin Chinese.”
Looking for somewhere in China to learn Mandarin? Check out our guide on choosing the right Chinese language school for you.
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