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What Makes Chinese Both Easier and Harder to Learn?

Learning a new language is fun when you succeed; more fun if you succeed at a greater challenge; and less fun if it turns out to be beyond you. But many students are satisfied learning just a little or setting any intermediate goal they wish. If you are a native English speaker, you will find that the official Chinese language, Mandarin, is in some ways simpler than your language and in some ways harder. Since the assumption for native English speakers is that Chinese is the Number One most-difficult language to learn, we’ll go the other way for now and begin with the many features of Mandarin Chinese that can make it easier to learn.

1. Avoidance of New Word Creation follows from:

   a. Numbering certain sets of information instead of naming each one! This category includes days of the week and months of the year, an area where English has a different word for each. In Chinese, starting with Monday, it’s Day of the Week One, Day of the Week Two, etc. Only Sunday gets its own name. Months are similarly number-named: just one through twelve.
   b. More Compound Words and Greater Consistency in Formation. Whereas we say Arctic Ocean, the Chinese say the words for North Ice Ocean. The most common way in Chinese to express “happy” is with the word gāoxìng, which is made of two words meaning tall mood. If you first learn the underlying words, you know the compound word and can often use its components in other applications. For example, tall hand, gāoshou, is an expert or master.
   c. Loan Words. Mandarin incorporates words from other languages such as the word mango. The only catch is that the word must be altered to conform to standard Chinese language sounds and adopt the corresponding characters. Therefore, mango becomes manguo. Even with the restrictions, loan words are some of the easiest to learn and retain.

2. Grammar Simplification.

   a. There is no difference between singular and plural forms. You just put a number and a measure word (more on that below) in front of the noun and singular or plural is obvious.
   b. The verb “To Be” is not irregular—it has only one form—and has limited use, being required only for a noun or noun phrase.
   c. No conjugation of tenses. If you say that you are going to do something tomorrow, we don’t need to conjugate a verb to know that this is a future action.

3. Features in Common with English:

   a. Homonyms. Two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation.
   b. Idioms. Expressions, some of which are remarkably like English language expressions.
   c. Double negatives. Just as in English, double negatives cancel each other out.
   d. Redundancies. Chinese can be rather emphatic with its commonly accepted redundancies within a sentence to make a point. Many other redundancies are charming single syllable, single-word repetitions intended to create a pleasing sound. The words for most family members fall into this category. For example, gē ge and dì di for older brother and younger brother. Still other redundancies are used to modify a meaning, such as saying the word for dog twice, to mean puppy.

But of course Chinese is famously challenging for good reason. Here are the main things that make Chinese harder to learn:

  1. Tones. There are four tones applied to vowels: high-level flat, rising, falling-rising, and high falling. The fifth tone is neutral. There can be multiple tones within a word that can sometimes form an exception that changes the previous tone. If all of these are not said properly, you are saying entirely different words or complete nonsense. If someone knows you personally, and gets used to the mistakes you are making, they will understand sometimes. Strangers will not understand at all. You must learn your tones and apply them to the correct words.
  2. Characters. There are thousands of characters that you must learn to recognize and draw properly. These are often complex, with a great number of strokes, even in “simplified” Chinese, which is the standard way you will learn outside of Taiwan. When you are in a learning phase, this is aided by the addition of pinyin (see below). The positive side of having characters is that distinctive shapes can help you learn words, especially when they resemble what they are supposed to be, such as shān 山, which means mountain.
  3. Grammar differences. There will be times in the early years of study when you know every word in the sentence and still have no idea what the sentence means due to complex grammar formed by stacking several grammar rules in a row that have no direct analogue in English language grammar (although you could often figure them out if they came one at a time).

And finally, here are two large categories that are not much harder or easier to deal with than the features of romance languages that native English speakers usually turn to first.

  1. Pinyin. This is the learning form that bridges the gap between the characters and how they are spoken. It is a guide. The letters in pinyin are all recognizable, but the sounds are sometimes different. For example, c is sometimes pronounced t; q is ch; z is ts; y is silent or barely heard; zh is actually jh; and a is sometimes pronounced as o. Most of the rest are as you would expect in English. You get used to it. Most people find picking this up easier than reading and speaking French, where the differences are greater. As mentioned above, the tones are essential and these are marked on the pinyin.
  2. Measure words. English has a few and they correspond to the way we package loose things in units such as cup, bottle, jug, or plate. Chinese has a choice for quantifying almost every noun, and almost every situation, even when the noun reference is to unit objects that are already clearly defined, such as “dog.” You have to memorize the measure words that go with categories of nouns just as you would memorize whether a word is masculine or feminine in Spanish, only instead of applying two options, there are over two dozen.

Now that you’ve had a tour of the Mandarin language features, you can decide for yourself whether tackling this challenging task is right for you. As you consider learning it at any particular level of fluency, keep in mind that people from China face an equal struggle with language differences in reverse when learning English (suddenly they need to learn singular and plural forms, tenses and irregular verbs), and many of them must continue to learn advanced Chinese even as they take on English and sometimes Spanish at the same time. It’s doable!

About the Author

Ben has been self-studying Mandarin Chinese for eight years beginning with exposure in Chinese-speaking households and Chinese-American schools, and building the skill with books, courses, apps, videos, and practical use as an educator. For the most part, he has applied the knowledge for the purpose of better serving Chinese students who need to improve their English vocabulary and grammar, showing them where English is the same or different from what they are accustomed to. He also helps native English speakers who are beginning to learn Chinese as a second or third language.
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