Why learning Chinese is so hard

Photo by Maria Hochleitner

Photo by Maria Hochleitner

Chinese does definitely deserve its reputation for being one of the most difficult languages in the world. For Japanese or Korean people it might be reasonable to learn it, but for us Westerners it’s probably one of the hardest things you can choose to learn. When I say hard I mean hard in comparison with other languages such as French, Russian, German, etc. Whatever the reason you started learning chinese, sooner or later you will get to a point asking yourself “Why in the world am I doing this? Am I totally out of my mind?” My answer: ”Yes you are! But there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The study of Chinese characters is a lifelong project, and requires a lot of continuity, discipline and compassion. Chinese has more than 25,000 separate characters but a lot of people say that you will only need about 2,500 to be able to read a newspaper. Bullshit.
After two years of about 3 Chinese classes every week and having learnt about 3,000 characters I was still not able to read a newspaper. Most of the time I wasn’t even able to fully understand the captions. I had to look up every fifth character, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of an article. Even now that my Chinese has improved a lot, I am not able to comfortably read a newspaper while having breakfast. It takes me ages to read an article and after having looked up dozens of words in the dictionary I have to read it again to get the meaning.

Mastering a language is not only a matter of knowing a lot of words; you have to get a feeling for how words combine with other words in different contexts. The structure of the Chinese language is so different from the structure of a roman language, so that you have to get used to thinking about things in a completely different way when you are speaking.
In comparison to the German grammar structure, for example, Chinese language consists of little grammatical standards to keep in mind, therefore Chinese teachers tend to say that Chinese grammar is very easy, which I absolutely disagree with. Chinese verbs do not contain suffixes or prefixes displaying the tense, person, gender or number of subject and you can use nouns without thinking about how to display the quantity. This does not indicate that Chinese has no grammar; it’s just different from what we are used to and that in my opinion is exactly what makes it so hard for us to get to a level where using the correct grammar just feels natural. Chinese grammar is mostly about how words are structured in a sentence, and using little “Helper-words” to express the tense or the quantity, and it’s all about combining the right words.

Chinese is a tonal language and if you have ever tried to learn a tonal language you probably know that tones are something that can drive you crazy and make you feel totally desperate. It’s simply unbelievable for most of us that one syllable can have 5 totally different meanings just because of using different tones. I have made the experience that especially at the beginning when you say a sentence with the intonation that feels natural to you, the tones come out all wrong. Most of the time people will still be able to understand you even if you are not always using the right tones, but sometimes it can also lead to misunderstandings or people will simply ignore you because they don’t even realize that what is coming out of your mouth is Chinese. Besides it can be really frustrating if you have to repeat a word again and again trying to say it in all 4 different tones until people finally understand you.

Of course it’s not impossible to become fluent in Chinese, there are a lot of people who have achieved that, but you have to be aware of the difficulties you will have to face on your way there. There will be moments when you simply hate Chinese and everything having to do with it, but then you have to make yourself remember why you are doing this and how far you have already come. If you are really interested in Chinese and have a passion for learning languages, then go for it, and earn yourself the admiring look of an old lady at the market, when she hears you asking for the ripest bananas in perfect Chinese.

2 thoughts on “Why learning Chinese is so hard

  1. Enjoying your new blog! 🙂 I’ve for sure sometimes thought I’m crazy to choose Chinese, but then again it’s the most fascinating language I’ve ever studied. So interesting that it’s what I do full-time and teach Chinese as well.

    From my own personal experience I gotta say I find German more difficult as the grammar is very complex 😉 But perhaps I was just never motivated enough to learn it well.

    Looking forward to your new posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • thank you , I am glad you like it! yes I agree German is a very complex language too, but nevertheless I think that its grammar structure is closer to your mother tongues than to chinese.
      But in the end, I guess you are right there, it’s also about motivation and being interested in something.


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