3 Major Challenges of Learning Chinese

by Melissa Burns

Chinese may be a rewarding language to study – and a difficult one. Nothing works the way you are used to, grammar is completely different from what we are used to in European languages, pronunciation rules are incomprehensible, and the writing system is complicated. If you have already learned a foreign language – Spanish or German, for example, it doesn’t in any way prepare you to what you will go through. All these obstacles are quite surmountable – if you know what to expect and what to do. Let’s see.

1. The Writing System Is Complicated

For an alphabet-based language studying it begins with memorizing letters – usually no more than two or three dozens. After that, you get your basic toolset for the rest of the job. In Chinese, there are more than 50,000 characters, of which an educated person is supposed to know about 8,000. The process of acquiring them is going to take years of regular, daily memorization even in immersive environments, and you won’t be able to read even the simplest texts for a long, long while.

Unfortunately, there are no easy workarounds – nobody has invented anything better than spaced repetition (we recommend Anki as the main tool), and it doesn’t speed up the process but rather makes the learned material stick. Read as much as you can, and preferably texts containing everyday speech – thus you will be quicker to acquire basic vocabulary necessary for day-to-day communication. Joining one of the Chinese social media may be a good idea – with any luck, you will find a couple of friends for pronunciation practice as well. It works especially well with Pinyin Romanization – it makes learning how to read and write much easier, and all texts found online can be easily converted into Pinyin. Thus you will be able to learn vocabulary in context and gradually learn to recognize characters.

2. It Is a Tonal Language

One of the difficulties you will encounter once you start to speak Chinese is that it is a tonal language. It means that every word has an additional component, besides vowels and consonants, that you have to memorize. It is complicated because intonation patterns are hard to shake off – what is used in English to emphasize parts of the sentence is used in Chinese to modify their meaning. This means that every time you use intonation in the way you are used to, your speech is going to become incomprehensible.

The only way to fight it is talk and listen, all the time. Join a mutual coaching community and have a native Chinese speaker talk to you, listen to you and correct your pronunciation. Find Chinese in your local community and talk to them. Go to China, if possible – complete cultural immersion still wins every time. Mastering tones is difficult but doable with enough practice.

3. The Writing System Is Mostly not Phonetic

When you read a word in English, even if you don’t know its pronunciation, you can make an educated guess based on your previous experience, and in difficult cases, you can use a dictionary. In Chinese, you can repeat a word as long as you want without getting any idea as to how it is written. There are certain rules and patterns, but they are much less obvious than in English. Again, even if you remember how a character looks, finding it in a dictionary requires a certain skill. Well, just be grateful you live in the 21st century and have electronic dictionaries that make the task much easier.

So yes, Chinese is a hard language to approach and harder to master, but with enough determination, it is a more than doable task. Westerners have been successfully learning it long before the age of electronic dictionaries and all the other tools you have at your disposal – so there is no reason why you should fail where they succeeded.

About the writer

Melissa is a passionate blogger and journalist. She's also a freelancer and runs her content marketing agency Luckyposting.com.

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