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How difficult is it to learn Chinese?

When other English speakers find out that I’m learning Chinese, they often admit that they are too daunted to even try. But just how difficult is it for the average English speaker to learn Chinese?

The answer is, surprisingly, that it’s not that difficult if you’re willing to commit to learning a new language. As an adult it’s not as easy to pick up a language just by hearing it: you have to study and memorize vocabulary and grammatical structures, as well as use them. This takes time and effort. Unless you’re a genius, you can’t learn a new language without time and effort; that’s just the way it is. Chinese is just like any other language in this respect.

Since I imagine you shaking your head in disagreement, I will say that Chinese can be difficult. Let’s look at some of the most difficult aspects of learning Chinese first.

Chinese characters, or hanzi

There are apparently over 80,000 Chinese characters, which can seem pretty intimidating! Luckily, you only need to know 3,500 in Standard Chinese. This might still seem like a lot, but you can actually get by with only 1,000 of the most frequent characters and still read almost 90% of publications. That makes it a lot less scary, doesn’t it? And once you start learning the characters, like any vocabulary, you have to practise, practise, and practise!

Tonal language? What’s that!?

Modern Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that words differ in meaning based on tone as well as pronunciation. Modern Mandarin Chinese has four tones (five if you count neutral tone) and depending on tone used can change the meaning of a sound, such as from the number eight bā to the term for dad bà.  See the chart below for more examples with the sound ba.

  tone Pinyin diacritic Chinese simplified character Pinyin Audio Meaning
first tone high ˉ Click to listen eight
second tone rising ˊ Click to listen to pull out
third tone falling and rising ˇ Click to listen to hold, a handle, counter
fourth tone falling ˋ Click to listen dad
neutral tone flat (none) ba Click to listen used at the end of an imperative to soften it

 

This can be confusing for English speakers because we often use tone over a sentence such as a rising intonation to signify a question. In Chinese, tones are linked to each syllable’s meaning, so changing the tone can change the meaning entirely!  That can be difficult to get a handle on. The good news is that if you’re a musical person, this probably will be easier for you, but even if you’re tone deaf, you can still get by. As one of my Chinese professors used to say, context matters. In fact, Chinese speakers might still understand you from context; it just might take a bit longer! Of course, I’m not recommending you don’t try to learn the correct tones, as you can say some funny things if your tone is off. Compare:

我要水饺 wǒ yāo shuǐjiǎo (I want/would like some dumplings) with

我要睡觉wǒ yāo shuìjiào (I want/would like to go to sleep)

The easy parts…

I’m not trying to convince you that Chinese is difficult, so let’s look at what makes it easy to learn.

There are a limited number of sounds in Chinese, approximately only 1,200 syllables (yes, that includes tones!). Does that sound like a lot? It’s far fewer than English, which has over 8,000 syllables. If you can handle 8,000 in English, surely 1,200 isn’t so bad for another language entirely…

The best part about learning Chinese is the grammar. Chinese grammar is pretty straightforward for English speakers. Most sentence structures are similar to English, and to help simplify things even more, Chinese has no verb conjugations, declinations (think Latin, German, or Russian), or hardly any inflections at all. More simply put – no irregular verbs, no verb tables, no noun plurals, no gendered parts of speech or worrying about agreement. For all you students of school Latin, French, German, or Spanish, I think you know what I’m saying here!

I may not have convinced you to learn Chinese, but I hope you’ll find the idea a little less scary.

If you’re already learning Chinese, or are tempted to, Oxford Language Dictionaries Online has now made it even easier for you by providing Pinyin for complete entries on both sides of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary online.  You can find out more here.