Why is learning Chinese so hard? Here are the basics.

learning chinese mandarin handwriting

In this post I will share my experience of learning Chinese (and with this I will be referring to Standard Mandarin Chinese) and give some insights into the language and structure. I am neither a language teacher nor a linguist, but I was fascinated by learning the language. As I like to analyze and structure information I will share what I have learned and what I think makes the language both interesting and difficult to learn for a non-Asian native language speakers.

Last year, I moved to Shanghai and started to study Chinese at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). I have recently finished my second semester. Coming to China and learning China was an unexpected opportunity due to personal circumstances. Admittedly, I did not know much about Asia and China in particular, nor had I been in touch with its culture or language. So, this whole experience has been a wild ride. It is said to be one of the more difficult languages to learn if your native language is a not an Asian one, and I can totally confirm this. Having said that, learning this language is also very rewarding and interesting as there is so much history and cultural understanding ingrained in it.

Learning Chinese means learning two “languages”

My native language is German and I have learned (and forgotten) a few other languages in my life: English, French, Spanish, Latin, some Swedish. It took a little bit of time for me to realize why learning Chinese is so different than learning those other languages: you are effectively learning two languages. 

Learning Chinese with Pinyin and Characters
Learning Chinese with Pinyin and Characters

Probably everyone has heard about Chinese Characters, called Hanzi 汉子. This is the written language of Chinese. In addition there is the phonetic language, which is expressed in Pinyin, a phonetic system based on Latin script (as the one you are reading right now). And here is the tricky part: there is no clear structure or unique link between the two. For each new word you have to learn both, the Chinese Character as well as the Pinyin, and they are mostly unrelated.* Therefore, it is not uncommon for foreigners living in China to mainly learn the spoken language for day-to-day interaction and not worry about the written language too much (as there are also apps to help with that).

This has a lot of implications and I will talk about some of them below. It is also very interesting to think about what this means for Chinese children and their language learning experience.

*Sometimes there are “hints” included in the character, which point to the corresponding sound, but it takes some experience to work with that and is not at all conclusive.

Chinese characters: what are they, really?

Evolution of a Chinese character
Evolution of a Chinese character

Unlike the alphabetic systems used by most languages, Chinese is made up of characters, the majority of which are “pictophonetic”. Most consist of a component indicating the sound of a character, the phonetic, combined with a semantic component, the significance of the radical, which shows the category of meaning to which the character belongs.

New Practical Chinese Reader

It is commonly said that there are more than 20,000 characters in the Chinese language. Some sources speak of as much as 40,000. (Wikipedia quotes sources with more than 100,000 characters and explains the historical growth behind that.) Luckily, only 5,000 – 8,000 are frequently used. When Chinese teenagers finish high school, they usually know around 4,000 characters. It is said that 3,000 – 4,000 characters are sufficient for everyday life (I have yet to confirm that). As per the official curriculum of the SJTU Chinese Language Program I am learning 600 characters per semester as a full-time language student. This is already a lot to keep up with, but even then I will need 3.5 year to reach fluency. The need to learn every single character individually is why it takes many years of learning to reach everyday literacy in Chinese.

Now, a character usually relates to one syllable and a single morpheme (“the smallest meaningful unit in a language”). It can be a single word, but in most cases two or more Chinese characters make up a word. Having said that, it can sometimes be tricky to define what a word actually is, when looking at a Chinese. More on that later.

Everything sounds the same… doesn’t it?

Sounds in the Chinese language

Even if you have never been to China and don’t have Chinese friends, you might have heard Chinese people speaking to each other on the streets in your own country, on TV or anywhere else. If you felt that the entire language sounds like a constant stream of similar sounds, then you were right.

This table here shows all “sounds” of the Chinese language (referring to syllables before tones, more on that later). To be precise: there are 404 items in this table. This is much less than in the languages I am familiar with, where you will probably have several thousands. One estimate for the English language stated around 15,000 syllables. For German someone came up with a number as high as 200,000. Even though those numbers might not be very accurate, they are sufficient to put things into perspective. 

In addition, many of the sounds are very similar. The initials x, z, c, s as well as zh, ch, sh can sound almost indistinguishable to the untrained ear (as they did for me). The same is true for b-p, d-t, g-k. Your capability to differentiate those sounds usually depends on the sounds you are familiar with from your native language. The same is true for pronouncing them. For German and French people, it is very natural to come out with the sound “ü”, as we have the same in our own language, while some classmates from Spanish-speaking countries have understandably struggled with this sound. At the same time, a rolling “r” sound is much easier for them and difficult for me.

One sound, many characters

As I explained above, there are more than 20,000 characters in the Chinese language. With roughly 400 sounds available, this makes about 50 characters for each sound. To be fair, most people will not hear most of those words in normal life. However, even if we limit this thought experiment to the 4,000 most common characters, each sound is still used about 10 times on average. In Chinese, the phrase “depends on the context” gets a whole new meaning and plays an important role in many aspects. Just from hearing a sound or even a word, it is often not possible to derive its meaning. Of course, this can also be the case in languages like German and English (think “park” to stroll vs. “park” your car), but in my experience it is far less frequent. The technical term for this phenomenon is “homophone“, which also includes words with different spelling (here are some interesting examples from the English language).

In practice sounds and characters are not as evenly distributed as in my estimate above. Some sounds are more common than others. The sound “shi” has 124 entries in my Pleco dictionary app, the sound “qi” has 154 entries (including names). This is the reason why I eventually started writing characters when studying, even though handwriting characters is so much slower. At one point I was not able to make sense of my Pinyin notes anymore. This is also nicely demonstrated by the famous Classical Chinese homophonic poem “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” or “Shī Shì shí shī shǐ” in Pinyin:

Tones: learning to speak clearly

Chinese The sound ma: different tones, different meaning
The sound ma: different tones, different meaning

When talking about phonetics in Chinese, there is one more thing to explain: the mysterious “tones”. When I said earlier, many words have the same sound, then this was only half of the truth. Chinese is a tonal language, thus the tones are an additional structure to differentiate the sounds and eventually the meaning. I don’t have the best track record of speaking very clearly, even in my native tongue. So this was a true challenge for me.

Basically all we did during the first week at university was practice speaking sounds and tones. And we kept practicing this throughout the entire first semester. It was a little annoying at first, but I believe it eventually paid off. After some time I did start to hear a difference and could suddenly understand how the sounds really are different. Luckily, once you know it, you cannot “un-know” it.

Tones in the Chinese language

There is a chart you will see everywhere, when reading about Chinese pronunciation and tones. It took me a long time to make sense of it. When I was first trying to learn tones, I was mostly focusing on how to end the tone (do you go upwards, downwards or keep your voice flat). Only after some time did I realize that there are much more profound ways to separate the tones: the initial “starting level” of the tone (speaking in a high pitched vs a low pitched voice) and the speed of making the sound (long or short). Eventually it all came together for me and my pronunciation and listening skills improved a lot. It is still difficult for me to hear a tone in a single word, but over time I started to recognize a specific flow in the language. More on that later.

If you have made it this far and want to know more, please have a look at the next post.

For references on this article and materials to use for learning Chinese, click here.