Learning a new language is always a challenge. It takes dedication, time, and the right Chinese study tools. But for most languages, if you apply yourself, you can eventually get to the level of fluency you're after—especially if you follow all the best rules and tips for learning Chinese.
For many students, though, learning Chinese can seem to be an exception. Many people struggle with Chinese for years only to hit a wall and stall short of fluency. Chinese is easily one of the most difficult languages out there for English speakers, and learning it can be disheartening—especially if you go about it in the wrong way.
What is it about Chinese that makes it so friggin’ difficult to learn? We'll answer that question, along with a solution to make it easier: Brainscape's learn Chinese curriculum designed by Mandarin X.
Top 5 reasons why Chinese is hard to learn
1. The complex writing system
When you are learning Romance languages like Italian, French, or Spanish, learning to read and write is pretty straightforward. Sure, there are a few new sounds and symbols to add to your repertoire, but generally, it’s quite similar to English. Plus, once you learn to pronounce the sounds, you’re done. Reading text is a cinch (even if you still have no idea what the words mean), and writing out a word that you know is fairly easy to figure out.
In Chinese, it’s a bit more complicated.
- First of all, functional literacy in Chinese would require you to recognize at least three to four thousand characters out of the tens of thousands that exist.
- Second, it’s a matter of pure memorization. In Chinese, symbols aren’t phonetic. When you learn a new word, there’s no way to sound out what its character may look like. You simply have to find the character and try to memorize it.
- Third, it's not just one set of characters. While Mandarin users typically use simplified characters, many Cantonese speakers use traditional characters.
[Check out our full analysis of the main differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, and which you should learn.]
For this reason, tons of people quickly forget characters for new words. There is often nothing to tie it to the word itself. Even native Chinese speakers can occasionally be seen drawing a blank on the character for a relatively common word.
Even drawing the characters is hard; you could practice writing Chinese for years without ever mastering it. While almost any Chinese person could figure out how to draw the 26 letters of our alphabet (capital and lowercase!) in less than a few weeks, perfecting the strokes for a Chinese character can take much longer.
Even other challenging scripts like Arabic and Hindi fall short of the difficulty of Chinese characters, since Chinese characters are so unique. After all, there are still a limited number of characters that form alphabets; it just requires training your eyes to better recognize where they begin and end. Even Japanese and Korean have alphabets.
2. It’s a tonal language
In English and many similar languages, we only use the intonation and stress of words to convey emphasis. Sure, “That’s my glass of water” and “That’s my glass of water” convey slightly different meanings, but the basic definitions of the words don’t change. In Chinese, intonation and stress completely change the actual definition of words. For example, shùxué means “math,” while shūxuě means “blood transfusion.” Simply changing the vowel that is stressed carries a completely unrelated meaning.
This means that even when you know the word, poor pronunciation can lead to your sentence sounding like gibberish. Although not rolling your r’s in Spanish may make you sound less natural, it isn’t going to stop someone from understanding your meaning. In Chinese, getting the tone wrong can actually make your meaning indecipherable. Plus, many students of Chinese feel constrained by this manner of speaking. Expressing the tone in a tonal language is that much more subtle—and more complex.
3. Looking up words is a constant challenge
Say you’re listening to the news in French and you hear the word baisser. It doesn’t matter if you see it written out or if you have no idea what it means, you can pretty easily look it up in a dictionary. In fact, even if you mishear it, a few tries will usually get you on track.
In Chinese, using a dictionary is much more of a challenge. First of all, you have to figure out how it may be represented in the type of romanization employed by your dictionary and then figure out how it is likely to sound. You also have to interpret the tone, which may not be as easy as it sounds, depending on the context.
If you are looking at the character and want to look it up, it’s even harder. First, you need to figure out the radicals and their variants, and then you must find the correct reference in the dictionary. If it’s a particularly challenging character with no obvious radical, the process will be even more time consuming (and sometimes ultimately impossible).
Sure, there are some apps out there that will do the work for you, but when they are a bit off, it’s even more confusing, especially when characters are used together to create the meaning. Chinese dictionaries are such a challenge to use with some characters that even bored Chinese kids in school have contests to see who can look up words the fastest.
4. Potentially little culture in common
Globalization has made some references universal. Show a picture of the McDonald’s logo to almost anyone in the world, and they can usually identify it. Still, most languages draw from culture to make communication possible.
When we learn a European language, there are many common archetypes and cultural assumptions that are shared. A reference to a Napoleonic complex in German, French, English, and Spanish is going to mean the same thing, but the reference may fall flat when you try to convey it in Chinese.
Similarly, Chinese tropes and idioms are less familiar than the Western ones you would find in a Romantic or Germanic language. Do you know who Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or Mozi are? If you don’t, those incredibly common Chinese references will go right over your head. No matter what language you are learning, it’s going to require some cultural investigation, but Chinese requires even heavier lifting.
5. No cognates
One thing that makes learning Romance and Germanic languages simpler for us English speakers is the vast number of cognates. Even if you speak no Spanish, you probably can figure out that the gist of una emergencia en la estación del tren causa problemas is “an emergency in the train station causes problems.” Even if you don’t know word for word what you’re reading or hearing, the similarities ease your transition into the second language.
Chinese, on the other hand, has almost no cognates with English, and those that do exist are often words simply borrowed from one language or another. Even these won’t be recognizable when looking at the character written in Mandarin. While the lack of cognates doesn’t make it impossible to learn Chinese by any stretch, it does take away another potential source of comfort while learning.
Is Chinese hard to learn?
Of course, Chinese is difficult to learn. But it's also very doable. It may take more time and a bit more effort to learn than some of the European languages, but you can achieve your Chinese learning goals. The key is focusing on learning in the right way.
Here's the key to making Chinese a little easier to learn:
- Make sure to realize that fluency in Chinese takes time. Don’t give up. It’s easy to get discouraged when you make mistakes or don’t progress as quickly as you would like, but that only hurts your performance.
- Be an effective learner. Be honest about your progress and getting the repetition you need. Use an effective Chinese curriculum like Brainscape's Learn Chinese curriculum to help you.
- Speak, right from the beginning, with a native speaker. Consider even getting a tutor (we of course prefer Mandarin X).
At Brainscape, we believe that intelligent cumulative exposure is the best way to achieve that, but take advantage of every tool at your disposal. The more efficient time and effort you devote towards learning Chinese, the quicker you will be fluent. For more tips, check out our huge, complete guide on how to learn Chinese more efficiently.