Is Learning Chinese Hard?
Is Chinese a hard language to learn?
Learning Chinese is hard and ranks as one of the hardest languages in the world, if not the hardest.
In fact. often cited as the hardest language in the world to learn for native English speakers, Chinese Mandarin is widely considered a challenging language for anyone to learn.
Babbel.com puts Chinese Mandarin as the most difficult language, ahead of even Arabic or Japanese. See article here.
This article will not only answer the question “is learning Chinese hard”? but also describe why is learning Chinese hard? It contains a definition both quantitatively and qualitatively, along with some resources to help you get started and make it easier for all learners.
How Hard is it to Learn Chinese?
Is learning Chinese hard? Yes, but how hard?
According to the US Department of State, Chinese Mandarin falls into Category IV: Languages which are exceptionally difficult for English native speakers.
To achieve basic conversational fluency (around CEFR A2) it will take approximately 1,500 hours.
To achieve intermediate fluency (around CEFR B1) it will take approximately 2000 hours.
To achieve advanced proficiency (around CEFR C1) it will take approximately 3000 hours.
The comparable languages by difficulty according to the US Department of State Arabic, Japanese and Korean.
Is learning Chinese hard? Even the US Department of State agrees that it is.
#1 Chinese Characters
Why is learning Chinese hard? The characters make a good case for being the top reason.
With over 10,000 unique characters, the base of the Chinese language’s alphabet is a huge challenge for anyone who wants to learn Chinese. The characters are defined as logograms.
“Logogram, written or pictorial symbol intend to represent a whole word”Britannica.com
This means that each word in the Chinese language is defined by one or more “pictures” which represents the meaning of the word. This throws up some challenging hurdles to the learner.
Firstly the meaning of the character is often not obvious to the untrained eye, and is sometimes not linked to the meaning at all.
Secondly the pronunciation of the word is generally not obvious to a learner, more on this topic in the next section.
Thirdly, the tone of the word is not displayed as part of the character.
Learning to write these characters can be a big challenge, but the good news is that with the age of the computer and phone, hand writing is not as useful as it once was.
For the most part, studying of Chinese characters does require a lot of “brute force” memorisation. In fact, to answer the question “is learning Chinese hard”, the characters will be the most common factor raised in the defence of the answer “yes”.
That being said, the good news is that there are ways to learn them more effectively. Check out the paragraph below to learn more.
Why Chinese Characters Might Not Be As Hard As You Think
Whilst it is impossible to say that learning the Chinese characters is an easy thing to do, there are certainly ways to make it easier on yourself.
The first key tip is to learn what the key elements of the characters are. Often you can find a hint to the meaning or the sound of the character by identifying the radicals
“For example, the radical 心 (xīn) means “heart” and is found in characters related to emotions or feelings, such as 意 (yì, meaning “meaning” or “idea”).“Hubpages
The second part is the introduction of Pinyin. Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters to make learning them easier. It identifies both the sound and the tone to help you learn the word. The tone is show usually above the first vowel in the word. In the above example that character 心 has the pinyin xīn.
Both of these things make learning Chinese Characters far easier and removes the bulk of the forced memorisation. You can find more hints and tips and ways to study Chinese characters in the link below:
#2 Chinese Tones
The Chinese tones are #2 on the list on why is learning Chinese hard. For most Western speakers, language tones are a mystery, with most (but not all) tonal languages based in Asia.
In Chinese Mandarin, there are 4 main tones and a “no tone”. These tones describe the way in which your should pronounce the word.
First Tone (High Level): The first tone is a high, flat pitch, often represented with a diacritic mark (ā) in Pinyin.
Second Tone (Rising): The second tone is a rising pitch, marked with an acute accent (á) in Pinyin.
Third Tone (Low or Low Rising): The third tone is a falling then rising pitch, marked as (ǎ) in Pinyin.
Fourth Tone (Falling): The fourth tone is a sharp, falling pitch, marked with a falling diacritic (à) in Pinyin.
Neutral Tone: The neutral tone is sometimes referred to as the fifth tone. It is not assigned a specific pitch of its own. It isn’t marked with an accent in Pinyin.
The tone of the word in Chinese Mandarin can drastically change the meaning of the word, so it is important to be accurate with your pronunciation if you want to be understood.
The is the definitely in the top 2 problems that Chinese learners will face, alongside with characters, and define the difficulty of learning Chinese in my opinion. In answering the question of “is learning Chinese hard”, it is certainly hard not to bring the Chinese tones into the equation, particularly for Western learners.
The Good News – Chinese Tones
The good news is that tones can seem very foreign and confusing at first. It is important to learn them accurate otherwise you simply won’t be understood, but there are a couple of redeeming features of the Chinese language that can help you.
Firstly, Chinese Mandarin is largely a contextual language. Meaning that if you get a tone wrong in a sentence, it’s likely Chinese people will still be able to understand your general meaning.
This sentence above comes with a huge caveat. Tones are extremely important and you shouldn’t rely on context alone to get you through, but it gives you a safety net if a word or two in a sentence are a little out.
Secondly, it pays to listen and copy how native speakers speak, rather than focusing entirely on the tones from the text book. As with any language learning, the natively spoken language isn’t exactly how it is described in your text book, so focusing on listening and repeating native speakers can go a long way to developing your tones.
Further more, listening and repeating is how children learn to speak any language. Is learning Chinese hard? Certainly so, but there are billions of native people who have learned from an early age.
#3 Native Resources
The next point on the question of “is learning Chinese hard” is the availability of native level resources. I am defining resources here as films, tv shows or books. I am based in the UK, and for me to access native content in French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese etc is not a big problem. However due to China’s privacy at a national level it can be a challenge to get authentic, native content.
China has a highly regulated censorship policy, meaning the majority of foreign websites and services are blocked to people living in China. This means it is difficult for people in China to create and share content on foreign websites.
Similarly the TV and film streaming services are usually restricted to people inside China, contributing to one of the reasons of is learning Chinese hard.
Language variations, accents and dialects is another barrier, in that the content you find might not be in Chinese Mandarin, but a dialect like Cantonese or Shanghainese.
All of these reasons can make it a challenge to find content that is good for your level to learn, study and practise.
…But It’s Not All Bad
All of the above being said, there is content out there that you can find find you’re willing to search.
This is certainly not the top answer to the question “is learning Chinese hard?” as you can find native content. For examples, you can find books on Amazon, for example graded readers are a great place to start. These are books written by native authors for varying levels of Chinese, I have put a link below for a good place to start.
There are also lots of good channels on Youtube and streaming services such as iQiYi. This can help the answer to “is learning Chinese hard” change to, not so much.
I would also recommend platforms such as Ninchanese as a great way to practise if you are self-studying. Their platform overs a lot of great learning content to help you in starting to consume Chinese content that caters to your level. Check out their platform here: https://ninchanese.com/
#4 Cultural Context
Within any foreign language there is a certain amount of cultural context which will be important, and for Chinese this is especially true. In my opinion China doesn’t go a long way in trying to export its culture in the same way that other Asian countries do, for example Korean and Japan.
Understanding the way that Chinese people natively speak and write can be difficult unless there is a certain amount of cultural understanding. Chinese Mandarin has a lot of words and phrases that are derives from stories and often used as idioms in communication.
When studying Chinese, you will inevitably encounter these kind of idioms.
Secondly, the way in which people will communicate with each other will often change depending on relationships and background.
It is therefore important that while studying the language, you also study the culture to understand from where the language has come from. This is lesson know reason on the topic of is learning Chinese hard.
For me personally, this section isn’t so much of a challenge but a hobby. Chinese culture, boiling down to areas such as history, food, literature etc is extremely deep.
China’s history goes back more than 3000 years, so it is fascinating to delve into this subject. My recommendation is to have fun with it and find areas you enjoy. The answer to “is learning Chinese hard?” won’t feel so relevant if you’re enjoying the journey.
#5 Accents and Dialects
When answering the question “is learning Chinese hard?” we have to consider the accents and numerous dialects. Whilst Chinese Mandarin is the official standard language, there are numerous other dialects.
You can find more information on the history of the Chinese Language and the different dialects here: The Language of China: Chinese Mandarin
This lack of mutual intelligibility can be a challenge for new learners, but the reality is that if your Mandarin is good, most Chinese people will be able to communicate with you.
Just be aware that you may encounter things you don’t understand because they are in another dialect, or simple have a very strong accent.
The question in of itself, is learning Chinese hard, is a little misleading. Learning Chinese Mandarin is hard, learning all Chinese dialects is a monumental task.
Is Learning Chinese Hard? A Summary
Despite all of the challenges, you can learn Chinese, it is not impossible. Some relish the challenge, like myself in particular.
Is learning Chinese hard? Sure, but is learning Chinese hard enough to be impossible? Certainly not.
There is a wide array of materials and teachers available in the modern world that make learning Chinese more accessible than ever. Furthermore, there are a ton of benefits to learning this language. For example the huge amount of native speakers and the impact that China is having on the world in general, might make it beneficial for your job some day.
You can read more about different learning motivations here : Chinese Language Motivation: 6 Powerful Passions
Is Chinese a Hard Language to Learn? Where To Start
If you’ve decided that learn to speak Chinese is something you’re interested in and if you’re looking for somewhere to start, I would recommend checking out this article: How To Speak Chinese – 8 Critical Starting Points
The HSK exams are a great place to start, you can pick up a copy in most book stores.
Learn more about the Chinese Language testing structure here: Why the HSK exams are Critical