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Why Chinese isn’t as hard as you think: over 8000 words of encouragement for potential learners

| 145 comments | Category: particular languages

Today, I want to encourage more people to learn Chinese.

If you already speak Chinese and disagree with the premise of Chinese not being super-duper hard compared to every other language and are angry at me for daring to take it off this untouchable pedestal you’ve placed it on, then TOUGH LUCK. I’m not writing this post to you. I hardly ever write posts to experienced language learners – they don’t need encouragement, the rest of us do.

What I’ve read from those who write about Chinese, and especially the discouragement I’ve been given (only ever online) tells me how much the Internet needs some positivity for people considering learning this wonderful language, so they don’t get scared off. There’s nothing to be scared of when you compare it to learning other languages.

Today I want to write a retort to an article about how hard Chinese is, as well as the “shi shi” poem and so many other points that so many people sent me to prove Chinese’s difficulty, relative to European languages.

I’m but a social speaker of Mandarin. I can’t hold philosophical debates in the language, or write essays in classical Chinese. But this week I made a new friend on the train and we talked for two hours straight about many things without using any English, and just today I took her out for dinner for another 2 hour chat. I’m currently 2,000km deep inside China and got here by train, reading signs, buying tickets, ordering food and most importantly: genuinely socialising in Mandarin. I still have plenty of work to do to tidy it up, and you will continue to see me progress in the language as I upload more videos, but right now I have a useful enough amount of Chinese to have an opinion about its difficulty, and today I want to share that opinion.

I have a lot to say on the subject. This is only the first of several posts discussing learning Chinese (other posts will discuss specifics of how I’d recommend learning particular aspects), and it’s already the longest post I’ve ever written on the blog.

“Mastering” Chinese can indeed take a long time to do, but getting to a very useful intermediate level is well within the reach of most people, and from that point progressing further won’t be that bad. It is indeed hard work, but if you put it side by side with European languages, then saying it’s “damn hard”, or “orders of magnitude harder than European languages” is nothing but an exaggeration, usually made by people with no actual familiarity with the languages they are dismissing.

Comparing to “easier” languages

There’s something I want to be clear from the start: learning any language (except something like Esperanto) is hard work. It takes serious dedication, sacrifices, countless hours of hard work, feeling embarrassed, getting out of your comfort zone, studying dull grammar and seemingly endless amounts of vocab and much more.

Sadly there is no magic pill to get around this. I’ve found that with an efficient learning strategy it can certainly be a manageable task, even for us mere mortals who did poorly in languages in school, but (unless you have some natural knack for it) it’s definitely hard work, no matter what language you learn.

So the point of this post isn’t to tell you that learning Chinese is a walk in the park – hell, anyone who has read the blog over the last few months has seen that it’s been a draining experience for me. But here’s the thing; everything that has been “hard” about Chinese is something that I have found to be a challenge in every language I’ve learned (unless I speak one very close to it already). The struggles to understand the fast streams of noise, the challenge of trying to convey my thoughts in a coherent manner despite recently starting to learn the language, dealing with people speaking at normal speed, forcing yourself to remember words in a high-pressure situation, and every other issue that you have to deal with when learning any language.

The reason I want to write this post is very simple; too many people avoid Chinese and pick what they consider to be an “easier” language, because they are too intimidated. Even though their true passion may actually lie with Chinese. This is a very sad state of affairs.

Learn Spanish or French if you really want to learn them. And learn Chinese if you really want to learn it – ignore wasteful discouragement from people that it’s on some higher level of difficulty. This is pure and utter NONSENSE.

The fallacy of saying European languages are always easier

Too many people dismiss European languages as incredibly easy in comparison to Chinese, and in the vast majority of cases they are basing this on nothing but speculation, and can’t even converse in those other languages. They just “know” they are easier based on glances at formal text that they get the gist of. Well, I’m going to tell you something and I want you to pay close attention to it:

When it comes down to a direct comparison, then I can honestly tell you that Spanish was HARDER for me to learn than Chinese. My spoken Chinese level is superior to what my Spanish one was after about the same number of hours invested.

This is why you’ll never get me to budge on this. The reasons are quite complex (my learning approach with Spanish was terrible, I was ashamed of making any mistakes initially, it was the first foreign language I properly tried to learn etc.) but at the end of the day this European language was a greater challenge to me than Chinese has been. When you ignore essential factors of motivation and approach, then comparing languages is pointless.

You can try and interject with “all things being equal” but they never are. You simply can NOT put Chinese and French side by side and linguistically analyse them and be sure that one is harder than the other, because if someone is moving to China, has a Chinese exam to pass soon, wants to get in touch with their roots, is passionate about Chinese history etc. then they are a hell of a lot more motivated to learn Chinese quickly than they are French. Telling them that French (or whatever) is “easier” is simply WRONG. If they were to try to learn French they’d be frustrated and get nowhere because they don’t care about it like they do Chinese.

Take out the human factor when mechanically comparing languages and all you’ve got is academic puffs of air that hold no value at all in the real world.

Unlike so many Chinese learners who dismiss European languages as easy I do know a lot about these languages, I AM justified in making comparisons. I’ll stick to the usual ones that are pointed at (French & Spanish), but point out the obvious fact that European languages are incredibly varied, so the concept of the label in the first place is flawed. Some of the biggest branches of languages in Europe are the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages, and a language in one group is a world apart from a language in another group.

If you are learning Chinese, then perhaps these arguments might give you that boost you need that your counterparts learning European languages aren’t quite strolling through a rose filled garden themselves, but I want to mostly focus on pointing out that within Chinese itself, the gloom-and-doom points brought up by many aren’t as clear cut as many people make them out to be.

Why Chinese is damn hard – a critique

I have so many things I want to write about for Chinese, to help people try to take it on and see it as a manageable task based on my experience of learning it to at least a useful level, but today rather than offer my specific advice, I’m going to retort some of the biggest arguments that have come up when comparing it to European languages.

To do that, among other things, I’m going to critique a pretty well known piece online, called “Why Chinese is damn hard“. Believe it or not, I like this piece and recommend you read it – it’s well written, in a tongue-in-cheek style, (it reminds me a lot of Mark Twain’s piece on “The awful German language“, which is hilarious, albeit discouraging) by someone with plenty of experience with Chinese. I’ve also been told by those who know the author personally that he’s a cool guy, and I’m sure we’d get along!

The piece may be written in a not-so-serious tone, but the arguments themselves have been used many times to compare Chinese to other languages, so I think it’s a good place to start.

So go have a read, and when you are feeling a bit gloomy that Chinese will take forever to learn, then come back here to read me go through some of his pretty unconvincing points :) Anything I quote from his text will be in blue.

Treating Chinese like all languages

Part of what I’m contending is that Chinese is hard compared to … well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle”

This hasn’t been my experience when comparing it with Spanish. And the author has (apparently) never learned any other language (other than English) to the same level that he has learned Chinese. This tells us from the start that most of the article will be based on speculation, rather than actual experience in comparing languages.

…Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it’s also hard in absolute terms…If you don’t believe this, just ask a Chinese person.”

Uh huh. Ask a typical Parisian, a Czech, a Hungarian, a Pole, and many others, and I guarantee you they will tell you that their language is “the hardest one in absolute terms”.

I’ve heard this broken record of “THIS is the hardest language” so many times over the last decade for almost every language I’ve taken on, that I consider it nothing more than background noise. Whenever I take on my next language that too will be “the hardest one”, and so will the next one and the next one. Each time the person who tells it to me will be absolutely sure… even though they usually have no basis of comparison. I’ve written more about this ridiculous hardest language concept here.

People’s opinion of their own language is clouded by ego, pride and lack of familiarity with other languages in most cases. If the opinion isn’t helpful in any way, discard it as irrelevant.

The writing system

I’ve got so much to say about the Chinese writing system! It is way more manageable than you would think! But for now, just a few retorts:

The Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system

I have to agree with him here, but I have a wonderful way around this problem!

You see, I simply don’t write. Like, ever. I don’t dip feathers in ink and I rarely scribble on a dead tree.

If you do, then good for you I suppose and you can ignore this point, but all the “written” communication I do is via technology. I send text messages, write emails, use online chat programs and the like, and have been doing all this in Chinese on a daily basis. To type all of this, you just need to use pinyin. Chinese people do it this way themselves (I’ve seen people try to write text messages in Hanzi characters on their phone and its cumbersome and incredibly slow in comparison).

Computers convert it to Hanzi for it to be sent in real Chinese. Most interfaces have contextual extrapolation included, so when you write the pinyin for various characters in many cases it knows what you mean.

When there is ambiguity, you need to point out the characters yourself, but rather than intimately knowing every single stroke, as long as you have a pretty good idea of what a character looks like then not only can you read it fine, you can write it very fast!

Because of this, writing Chinese (more specifically typing Chinese) has only been slightly harder than writing any other language, especially when you learn to work with your computer efficiently.

Since pinyin is just as easy to learn as any alphabetic writing system – the true difficulty mostly comes in recognising those Hanzi characters:

What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters?

If you prefer to use technology rather than tie your hand-written notes to pigeons’ legs to communicate with people, then all you really need to do with a Chinese character is recognise it, rather than write out every single stroke in precisely the right order. In this case, things simplify for you immensely.

With an effective association system, you can indeed learn to recognise these characters quite quickly! This lets you both read a text, and type it by selecting the appropriate character from your pinyin.

I’d highly recommend people check out Memrise.com for some fantastic inspiration for quickly remembering Chinese characters.

For example, the character 大 is pronounced “dà” and means big. If you imagine a person stretching out his arms indicating “I once caught a fish that was THIIIS big” then you will actually find it hard to think of anything but “big” for the meaning.

Now, when I see this character, I don’t even think about it. It’s pronounced dà (I used the same technique for any other language to associate the sound, more on incorporating the tone as well in another post later) and it means big, or it has that kind of “larger” sense to contribute to a word, e.g. 大学 (big learn) is “university”, compared to 小学 (small learn) for primary school, and 中学 (middle learn) for high school.

We do this all the time in the west. You see picture-based representations such as:

 

 

and you know immediately what they represent and how to pronounce that concept, even though no phonetic indication is given. Note that you can also recognise these among other similar looking icons, even though you may not be able to reproduce them from memory precisely and render an impressive artist’s impression of each. This is the same way I treat reading Chinese.

For more complex Chinese characters, you have to take a minute to think of a good way of associating it with something, but you get the hang of it and can quickly fly through them. Even in complex characters, it gets easier to do this with practice!

For example:

學: the character for “learn” (this time the traditional variant), used in school, student and many other learn-based words. The part underneath is 子 and can mean child, so I think of a young person wearing a battered up hat with stitches in it (sort of like the one I wear at the start of this video), because he’s a poor student. Stroke order is irrelevant because I see the entire pictograph as one concept and remember it immediately.

For way more examples, go to memrise.com, or read the first 100 character entries of Heisig’s book which is free online (I wouldn’t recommend you buy the whole thing though; I’ll write why another time). If you ignore stroke order (irrelevant for typing) and focus on visualising the entire character, or putting component parts together, it gets easy fast. To me 大學  (or simplified 大学) jumps out to be pronounced dàxué and just is “university”, the same way any of the images I’ve put above jump out to mean the brand or concept they represent.

And before you know it, you can read aloud while understand the underlying meaning of a character. You won’t be reading as quickly as European languages any time soon, but it’s certainly more manageable than people would have you think. I’ll come back to this in more detail later.

So many characters to learn!!

Let’s think of the sheer number for a moment. It’s hard to know how many to learn, but a few thousand is more than enough for the vast majority of people, as it’s said that around 2-3,000 will be all you’d need to read a newspaper, and what most educated Chinese people know anyway (if you want to aim higher than an educated Chinese person, then it’s your funeral, but some of us don’t go for overkill). There are other characters, but unless you study linguistics or literature professionally, I don’t see why you’d need to care about things you’d see once every few years.

OK, so 3,000 sounds like an immense number – even impossible! But hold on a second – sure, if you are trying to learn the entirety of Chinese in a few months, this figure could stump you unless you had an incredibly intensive project specifically about reading the language. But most people will be learning over a year or a couple of years. If you learn just ten characters a day (and with a good mnemonic system, you’d get through these in 2 minutes, and then perhaps another few minutes to review the right ones from the whole set using a good spaced repetition system), then you’d have everything you need in less than a year.

Less than a year seems pretty fair enough for this supposedly monstrous writing system that makes Chinese so famous as being that hard. I honestly think you could get them down in a much shorter time if you were really devoted.

But it’s actually much easier than dealing with 3,000 individual pictographs! Each character is not an island. Even though I haven’t been focusing on reading as much as others have, I am already starting to see so many patterns emerge that make learning a brand new character almost instantaneous. I’m sure books explain the concepts well (as it happens, I didn’t really come across any in Taiwan – any good resources online, let me know in the comments), but many learners are aware of the general concept of how some radicals help with pronunciation, and then quite a lot introduce the general meaning of a character.

For example, as a vegetarian one thing that helped me immensely is how many vegetables have the same radical above them that implies that it’s a vegetable or grass related. Spinach is 菠菜, green onion is 葱, tomato is 蕃茄, potato is 薯, aubergine (eggplant) is 茄子, lettuce is 莴苣, and so on. Can you see the same fence looking component on the top?

And the pronunciation component, while very far from consistent, can actually be a huge help! Since it’s the name of the language, one of the first things you will learn to read is 中文 (Zhōngwén). But that first component will come up a few times in “new” characters. You have 种, 钟,肿,all pronounced zhǒng, (actually there are WAY more, this is just a really quick sampling), and the other part of the character gives a hint as to what it might mean, such as 肿 having the 月 component, which tends to mean “flesh” in many cases – this character means to swell.

It’s not immediately obvious, but when someone scares you with the boogie monster of Chinese’s ten bazillion characters, then the way they say it, you’d swear each character is based on spaghetti that someone puked up, rather than being incredibly consistent and even limited. 3,000 seems like a big number, but that’s typically the number of steps many of us take in a single day.

Vocabulary

…over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones. But what such accounts don’t tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words “up” and “tight” doesn’t mean you know the word “uptight”.)

This is actually a vocabulary issue, which every language has – for example, “uptight” in Spanish (depending on the context) can be mojigato, which has nothing to do with cats :) This particular point has nothing to do with writing systems, or anything to unique to Chinese, and (like many points in this article) just confirms that “learning any foreign language is hard work, no matter what language”.

(The existence of both traditional and simplified Chinese) … puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese

Having dealt with both sets, I don’t see what the big deal is. Quite a lot of the characters are exactly the same, and only a handful are different enough to really require the extra work of learning a completely separate character. I see it as more along the lines of learning two words for two different cultures, like English’s high school versus secondary school, or Spanish’s coche versus carro.

Quoting from an article on HackingChinese about simplified vs traditional Chinese:

(Very different characters) are very, very far from being typical. Let’s have a look at the following characters and see if you think they are easier:

  • 銳 - 锐
  • 銘 -  铭
  • 釘 - 钉
  • 鎮 - 鎮
  • 釣 - 钓

Doesn’t look so scary, right? As we can clearly see, the only thing that has changed in these characters is the radical: -> 钅. It takes about five seconds to learn the above characters, provided you know either the simplified or the traditional version first.

In more complex versions, I simply learn two characters if I have to. (I use Pleco for learning my Chinese and it presents both at the same time, so I learn them both similtaneously as I’m travelling in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), and in most cases they really aren’t that different. When they are different they usually follow a very distinct pattern. You may see 車 within many traditional characters, and it’s just replaced with 车 in simplified ones. The work you put into distinguishing these two characters actually gives you dozens more “different” characters for free.

In Taiwan I could pass a shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and… (not understand it)

Here he uses the example, that in French you might come across the word amortisseur and just need to remember the pronunciation to find out what it means, while looking at Chinese characters leaves you helpless.

In fact, Chinese is so much easier than any other language I’ve come across to deduct the meaning of something. A much smaller subset of prefixes and suffixes (to use a European way of looking at it) pave the path to much more words.

So using the same example the author has created, let’s say that I come across the following in Chinese:

减震器

I see it advertised on a product or something and would like to know what it means.

Now, if I am a new learner of French, then there’s little chance I can figure out what “amortisseur” means, other than knowing that the -eur ending can sometimes mean “he/that which does” like English’s -er, which is quite vague – is it a person or a thing? OK, well the part before that is amortiss – what’s that then? With enough experience in French you learn that conjugation issues (which don’t exist at all in Chinese) add in an -iss component to many words.

OK, so we are left with a likely core word (after some serious grammatical extrapolation, which is tough until you get to intermediate stage) of “amortir”. Still, no idea though if you’ve never come across this word before.

Now, Chinese makes this so much simpler.

This comes up quite a lot – it is pronounced “Jiǎn” and usually means reduce. For example 减肥 means “to lose weight” (reduce fat) and 减价 means “sale” (reduce price), so if you have learned enough characters it’s very likely you’ll know this one. Next,

means to “shake” – let’s presume you don’t know this one yet. And

usually means “tool”/”device”, and you really can’t miss this in Chinese!!

So after this, you know it’s definitely some kind of a tool for reducing something. In French, trying to deduce it from the ground up, you just know the word is likely a person or a thing that does something, which is hardly as helpful.

With a little context it’s way easier to extrapolate that the Chinese word means what it could be, than the French version. I only took this example since he used it in his text, but there are WAY better ones!!

This overlooked aspect of Chinese is crucial! You get all these more complex words for free after you learn as many core components as you can. This goes for both spoken and written, since you will hear reduce-something-tool when listening to someone (see phoneme issues below), so when he follows up with:

You can’t cheat using cognates

Then I have to say that yes, you can cheat. You can “cheat” by having a much smaller subset of word-building components to deal with, and the meaning can be much more obvious and in many cases you can even guess it!

Let’s say you wanted to guess how to say “bottle opener” in French. Well, bottle is bouteille (Take that Chinese-without-similar-looking-words!) and open is ouvrir. Where do you go from here though? Add in an -eur again? bouteilleouvreur? Actually, it’s décapsuleur. Hmm, seems a little harder to guess something that looks more like decapitator, but I suppose it makes sense in a weird way, since it’s de-cap-ing the bottle. Still not something that jumps out at you.

In Chinese? open… bottle… tool: 开瓶器 Simple and effective, and quite hard to forget once you hear it once! I don’t know about you, but I find open-bottle-tool way easier to remember than de-cap-er. Any Chinese learner knows these syllables/characters (or at least their pronunciations), so will have no problem coming up with it. When you get to 3 characters, then you can be pretty confident that whatever your computer/smartphone suggests is pretty much the only right answer, even ignoring tone markers. This means that you can write this and only one possible set of 3 characters will come up that you can be confident to go ahead and use, even if you don’t know these ones yet.

And you actually find that when you look at pretty much any multiple-syllable word, it makes a whole lot of sense based on the components. There are plenty of exceptions, but it’s a lot easier to figure out what something is the first time you see it, or give a stab at what it might be if you know enough component characters. In European languages, this is possible in the likes of Czech and even German, which builds a lot of words quite logically, but much less possible in Latin languages in the same kind of simple consistency.

Apart from relying on cognates, it’s REALLY hard to guess what a word could be from scratch in Spanish or French, but you can give a pretty good attempt in Chinese and you may even be right!

When European languages do have this simple common components building upon one another to give overall meanings, in many cases there are complex rules for how they interact with one another (like the French -iss, or German vowel changes), but in Chinese you just plonk one after the other.

You can’t “cheat” using cognates, but if you learn enough core components of words, then you start to leave your European language learner counterparts behind in the dust.

In fact, Chinese is so much more consistent in how vocabulary is formed than European languages.

Something someone else wrote on the subject of encouraging Chinese learners:

[  Let’s consider the word for a common ailment which occurs when the lungs become inflamed with congestion. In Chinese, this ailment is called 肺炎, or taken character by character, lung inflammation. In English, this condition is known as pneumonia, a combination of letters and syllables of Greek origin, which hold little in common with the conventions of modern English. In English we have hepatitis. In Chinese, we get liver inflammation. In English when we eat the meat of a pig it’s called pork. In Chinese, it’s pig meat. And in English when you have a problem with your toilet, you find a plumber. In Chinese you call the water pipe worker.   ]

Learning new vocabulary in Chinese is incredibly intuitive. This more than makes up for the fact that you aren’t given a head start with a large list of cognates – it almost seems too easy at times when you hear a brand new word and instantly know what it means, whereas in many European languages you would be able to offer nothing but a blank expression back.

Now I should definitely add in here that there are cognates with English in Chinese. The way pretty much everyone says goodbye/see-you is 拜拜 (bàibài), which is a direct borrowing from English’s bye-bye. Technology, product, brand and country words and many others are actually exactly the same, albeit following strict rules of usage and tones (for example I have to pronounce Ireland like an American would, rather than how I would, and remove the ‘d’: 爱尔兰 Ài’ěrlán). More on this later – but you are NOT starting from “absolute scratch” when you are learning Chinese, even if Europeans get more of a head start.

Imagine you are a diabetic, and you find yourself in Spain about to go into insulin shock. You can rush into a doctor’s office, and, with a minimum of Spanish and a couple of pieces of guesswork (“diabetes” is just “diabetes” and “insulin” is “insulina”, it turns out), you’re saved.

Yes, they look the same. But if you say to a Spanish doctor: énslen (what he’ll hear), you better hope he has a pen and paper handy. In my experience Spaniards are not so imaginative in guessing things not pronounced correctly.

As it happens, I am allergic to peanuts. Inconveniently, I can’t just say “peanuto” in Spanish or “les peanuts” in French, and despite what the author says, no amount of guess work will get me anywhere without a dictionary handy. It requires learning an entirely new word: cacahuete / cacahuète. When you are selective about your examples, you can indeed make it seem like French is just English spoken through your nose and Spanish is just English spoken with an -o on all words. No such luck in the real world.

Remembering cacahuete, a four syllable word is much more work than remembering 花生 (hua-sheng) – two syllables, with component words meaning “flower-life”, both of which you are very likely to know even in the early stages of learning Chinese. I maintain that learning vocabulary in Chinese is much easier than in European languages, since they are much shorter, almost always more logical based on the component characters, and of course there are no declensions or genders to remember with it. If you rely only on cognates in European languages, you’ll run out of luck quite quickly…

Use of the language

Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated

We can forgive the author for this one, as apps like Pleco weren’t available back then. I haven’t had any trouble understanding things I see, since pointing my phone at the text, or writing it out if it’s more calligraphic, almost always gives me what I’m looking for.

The inefficiency of paper dictionaries isn’t something that should concern people in this century. Pleco is only the first of many tools that will open this up to many people.

When I hear something I don’t understand, I write it out based on the pinyin on my phone and show them a few examples that come up and they point to the right one (this example though would indeed work with a dead-tree dictionary too).

If you think that after three or four years of study you’ll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you’re sadly mistaken” .

Confucius died 479 BC. Voltaire died in 1778! That’s 1778 AD in case there is any confusion!!

This point really seems like it’s clutching at straws. Of course French from 200 or so years ago isn’t too hard to understand. Compare it to reading LATIN, not reading modern French!!

Perhaps it’s important to refer to some old Chinese once in a while, the same way we do with Latin. Fine: tempus fugit, a priori, Cave canem – I can learn these phrases off and sprinkle them into conversations to make me sound smart if I really want to, without learning how complicated Latin is.

Either you are complaining about Chinese in this century or you are complaining about Chinese from thousands of years ago. Pick one. Good god, who cares how hard a language from 2500 years ago is? If you think I do, “you’re sadly mistaken”.

Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls

Oh noes! Not character scrolls!

It’s not like you trip over them all the time here in China. I saw some of those character scrolls around the Chinese New Year. I didn’t understand what they meant and someone explained some to me. Interesting, but not quite so relevant to helping me the rest of the year.

The same way if you are in Rome and keep seeing Latin written in some places, you can ask. You’ll be enlightened, but it won’t help you do anything else in Rome but read the rocks.

Tones

Tonal languages are weird

Obviously a major point that people bring up about Chinese, but it in the end I can’t say it’s that bad. When I started learning, I put a lot of effort into distinguishing tones (both listening and speaking), so when I’m consciously focusing I can tell you what tones a spoken word is, or say a word with the right tones myself.

This just takes a bit of practice. We have tones in English too, (although they indicate mood rather than meaning) and when you realize this and make the right associations you start to distinguish the tones in Chinese much easier. I demonstrate this in this video (it’s about Thai, but a lot of it is quite relevant to Chinese).

I add in a tone in my association of learning any word and will expand on this later, so I have no trouble including tones in my vocabulary learning.

Although, when speaking quickly I still tend to mess up quite a few tones. This isn’t a big deal because rather than calling Chinese a “tonal” language, I’d prefer to call it a “contextual” language. Even when I say something with completely the wrong tones, someone will almost always understand me because the context makes it clear what I’m talking about; this includes people with little or no prior exposure to foreigners.

In other words; getting your tones right is not that big a deal for communication. It really isn’t. But it’s important for sounding eloquent. How I’m fixing my tone problems (as well as my hesitations) to have nicer sounding Chinese is something I’ll get back to, but to be honest tones have been the most minor of my problems over the last months.

When you get used to it, mā, má, mǎ and mà sound as completely different as rebel and rebel do in English. Work on it and it won’t be weird.

And here’s the thing – as much as people complain about tones, I find them incredibly helpful! They distinguish a syllable in a noticeable way so that it stands out. I gives Mandarin its distinctive “choppy” sound, so you will almost always hear every single syllable very clearly. Compare this to French!! Sure, French is not so bad to read, but where do all the consonants go when its spoken?

In Chinese, you have an individual syllable that falls in a very small range of possible sounds, and the tone gives you that extra information about it. When you sing it out, you start to hear the differences between how things sound.

Tones are very much different to what we are used to, but it’s just another thing to learn, and you can. If you keep telling yourself that it’s “weird”, then this attitude will always make it foreign to you. Just accept it and embrace it, and it will become second nature to you.

The Shi Shi poem: Chinese homophones

Those are the main points I had issue with in the “Why Chinese is so damn hard” article, but there are plenty of other arguments that he didn’t get to.

During my time learning Chinese, about twice a week someone would post a link to the shi shi poem on my Facebook wall. I got so sick of seeing it, but despite that I’m going to share it with you today:

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

What on earth is this? Why, it’s further proof that Chinese is damn hard of course! Since the language has a much more limited way of forming sounds of word components than European languages, where many letter (and thus sound) combinations are possible for any given syllable, this means you have a much smaller subset to deal with, which are distinguished by their tones or context.

Sounds like a nightmare right? Especially when you see a poem like this crop up as if people actually speak like that all the time. In fact, the poem really looks like this:

石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。
氏時時適市視獅。
十時,適十獅適市。
是時,適施氏適市。
氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。
氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。
石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭,氏始試食是十獅。
食時,始識是十獅屍,實十石獅屍。
試釋是事。

(Full Wikipedia article here)

It was specifically designed to demonstrate the need to use Chinese characters, since pinyin doesn’t convey the meaning as well. But the poem itself is a bit nonsensical. A few problems with it include:

  • When spoken it’s absolutely and totally incomprehensible to every single native Chinese speaker that has ever existed. That includes Confucius, a Peking university graduate and any one of the billion people who speak Chinese or its dialects today, unless they read it. This isn’t like “she sells seashells on the sea shore”, this poem is absolutely meaningless without Chinese characters, and as such it is pointless to care about how it sounds.
  • The poem uses some turns of phrase that simply can’t exist in modern Chinese, such as not adding a second syllable to “lion”. You can do this in classical Chinese, but there’s a catch…
  • If the poem works better in classical Chinese, then you should read it as you would read classical Chinese! Scroll to the bottom of the Wikipedia article for how it would sound in classical Chinese, for example: “dʲi̯ěɡ dʲi̯ər dʲi̯ěɡ dʲi̯əp ʂi̯ər, dʲi̯əɡ ɕi̯ər ɕi̯ad, sli̯əɡ dʲi̯ěɡ dʲi̯əp ʂi̯ər dʲi̯ad ɕi̯ad.” I can’t quite say this, but it’s clear these words don’t sound the same (there are g’s, p’s and d’s at the end). So basically it’s a classical style of Chinese, pronounced in modern Chinese. This is like pronouncing a Latin poem using modern Portuguese phonetic rules.

It’s a great demonstration of the need to use Chinese characters, but is a poor demonstration of how hard the language is when you realize it literally sounds like gibberish.

But back to Chinese in the real world; as I said above, I’ve found that two syllables together give you a much smaller set of possible meanings. But going with an example in the “so damn hard” article:

How is it possible that shùxué means “mathematics” while shūxuě means “blood transfusion”

Now, I would like to know exactly when you could possibly think someone is talking about one over the other. Seriously, give me a real world example where confusion will arise! If someone asks me what my favourite subject in school is and I accidently say 输血 rather than 数学 then are you really going to think that I’m taking a medical course?

You’re dealing with a human being, not a computer that will say “error, error: first tone, third tone does not compute!” People know what you mean. I’ve used my not-so-great Chinese with enough total strangers to know this.

However, with a little practice you will just know it that xue pronounced with a second tone must mean learn, and you can’t say it any other way.

Most examples (and I’m sure there are plenty) of embarrassing examples, are actually similar stories of embarrassment that you’d find in any language. But with enough context, it will always be clear what you actually mean, and such examples are given only to scare people.

In English we also have homophones. When I say “way”, do I mean a path, or do I mean “weigh”? Seems so easy when you see it written down. Well, if I’m on a hiking trek and I ask you if you know the way , then you can be pretty confident that I’m not interested in how much the mountain weighs. Confusion could arise, but it doesn’t. And it’s all thanks to CONTEXT.

Context tells you what character someone means, and makes the question of homophones irrelevant. Context tells you what something is if a tone wasn’t clear, and context helps you fill in the gaps when you don’t understand.

Measure words

I didn’t see this complained about in some articles, but since some bring it up, I’ll mention that Chinese uses measure words and this can be annoying to some learners. Actually, I loved them!

You see, if you take a little time to learn this very small set of words that tell you what kind of noun is to follow (it’s a flat thing, it’s a long thing, it’s a room of some sort, it’s a liquid etc.) then what this means is that if you hear a word that you don’t know, the measure word is a clue to help you figure it out!

If I’m in a noisy bar and someone asks me if I “want a $/!·$()” and I don’t hear or understand that last word, I can’t really do much. In European languages the gender of a noun rarely gives you much of a clue as to what the noun is. They could be asking if I want a dance, if I want a cigarette, if I want a bathroom break, etc. but in Chinese you will hear the measure word, such as 杯 bēi, and know that the word that follows must be a drink of some kind, even if you are not so sure what that drink may be.

In engineering, adding redundancy to a system (including a communications system) increases its reliability in case any errors might come up. So when you make a phone call, the 0s and 1s being transmitted aren’t just your voice being coded, but there is extra information in case environmental factors lead to the signal being deteriorated in any way. This is how I see measure words in Chinese – they add that extra little bit of “redundancy” into a sentence that you can be extra confident of its meaning, and it can help you extrapolate any following words by providing you with more context.

Long live measure words!!

European Grammar

Before I wrap up, it’s important to note that arguments for how “damn hard” Chinese is, always focus on points it has that European languages don’t have, and brush off things like European grammar as an afterthought.

European grammar is where the vast majority of your work lies in learning to use those language correctly. Chinese doesn’t have a hint of definite/indefinite articles, verb tenses, verb conjugations, plural nouns, inflected cases, complex pronouns (and possessive is simply created by adding ‘de’), word genders, and a host of other things with annoying linguistic titles I’d rather not use. Word order isn’t that complicated – in most cases it’s the same as English, and adjectival phrases can take a wee bit of getting used to, but are very much logical.

When learning Spanish, I remember being so intimidated by this HUGE book I had of its conjugations. 14 different tenses, with vowel changes, way too many irregular verbs, and so much memorisation. Even if you know that the verb “to tell” is contar, when you start to hear it used in its many iterations it becomes unrecognisable. Present tense cuéntame, past tense contaste, conditional contaríamos – when you see these written down it looks pretty simple, but when you are in a conversation and all these new syllables come from out of nowhere and the ‘o’ suddenly changes to a ‘ue’, you get lost very quickly. In Chinese? All 14 of these tenses, all 6 of the conjugations within all of them – they all boil down to one word.

One… word.

And it’s like that in many cases. Something incredibly complex in a European language boils down to being conveyed in the context in Chinese. Context is your friend, and you will know what someone means when you are genuinely using the language with them, even after learning for just a few months.

You can’t dismiss grammar as one point that European languages “win”, where Chinese wins everything else. It’s a HUGE load off your mind!

Conclusion

Many people will feel the need to retort this post saying that they found Chinese to be very hard, and I agree with you! Of course it was hard, but that’s because learning a language is hard.

I could write a post 17 times longer than this one about why I found learning Spanish to be so painful, but when it comes down to it what I have now that I didn’t have then was a positive attitude.

As I look at the Chinese learning journey that awaits me, what I need more than anything is plenty of practice, learning lots of new vocabulary, and above all, to hold my head up high and to keep going in high spirits, and let other people complain amongst themselves about how hard it is, while I focus on using the language in the real world and on sources that help and not hinder me. Outside of “interesting” theoretical discussions about hardest languages, such discussions have no practical applications for individual language learners.

Ignore the scare tactics. Chinese isn’t as hard to learn as you think. Take it easy – if something challenging comes up, take it in your stride and remember that many people before you mastered this particular point, and that for every aspect of Chinese that you could complain about, those learning every other language in the world have a completely different list of reasons why they should be complaining. So why bother? You aren’t going to get a medal if you beat someone into admitting that your task is harder than theirs – nobody wins in such pissing competitions.

If you are learning Chinese, then forget how “damn” hard it is compared to those “lazy” European language learners. You’re fooling yourself and you’re wasting time. Stop thinking about it, and focus on learning the language itself. It’s not that bad, and when you do conquer some of your biggest challenges on this adventure, then you are ready to use the language with a very large number of interesting people and a pretty huge chunk of this planet.

Reporting live from deep within China, I can confirm that ignoring how hard it is compared to languages that you are not even learning, and focusing on the task at hand instead can get you very far :)

Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below. Just know that I have no interest whatsoever in someone “proving” to me that Chinese is hard, as this helps nobody. Shoot someone else down, as I don’t have time for discouragement; I’m too busy speaking Chinese ;) Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed the post, don’t forget to share it on Facebook etc.!

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  • Globaleye

    Chinese is mostly perceived as hard and difficult because we are not used to the language system. It works and looks completely different than what our (European) mind is used to. Once you are in it and you know how it works, it is like any other language to learn. Not more difficult or easier. Yet, very interesting and much worth it! I can only recommend it! :-)

    • youli

      “Once you are in it” ?

      Oh come on. That’s the problem of Chinese. It SEEMS you make progress, and you do, for about first year or two. Then you suddenly realize that it’s impossible. Even if you put all your life to master it.

  • http://amanofnonation.com/ Kevin Post

    I see this post going viral. Very nicely done Benny. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/zateya Svetlana Gracheva

    Can’t wait to get to Chinese later this year. =)

  • http://www.GQtrippin.com Kieu – GQ trippin

    G & I are in Shanghai right now and heading up to Xi’an and Beijing soon. We tend to say Chinese (whether Cantonese, Shanghainese or Mandarin) is a difficult language to learn. But your arguments definitely have some truth to them. We’ll try harder to learn the language and make our time here in China better. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’ll be in Xi’an next week. Send me an email!

      • http://www.GQtrippin.com Kieu – GQ trippin

        Sadly we’ll only be there for 2 days before heading to Beijing. :(

  • http://twitter.com/HackingChinese Olle Linge

    I think there are some aspects of learning Chinese that are genuinely harder for native speakers of English to learn compared to learning other European languages, so I don’t agree with everything you say. However, I agree with you that focusing on the negative and hard aspects is somewhat counter-productive. My recipe has always been to focus on attitude. I don’t think “Chinese is very easy” is a good attitude, but it’s a lot better than “Chinese is impossible”. In case you or anyone else is interested, I’ve written about some more reasons why Chinese isn’t that hard:

    Learning Chinese is easier than you might think
    (http://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=57)

    Therefore, I think it’s great that you point out all these encouraging things about learning Chinese. This is needed because some people seem to want to make Chinese look as hard as possible for some reason (similar to what Khatzumoto says about mystifying Japanese). However, I also think that the next step is much more important, i.e. trying to help people overcome those problems that are actually quite difficult to solve. I did that when you started your challenge and I think what I said then is still relevant:

    Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?
    (http://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=1028)

    Thus, I think articles such as this one (I mean your article, not mine) are needed to counter articles that go too far in the other direction. Some kind of balance would be preferable in my opinion, but alas, balance is not one of the cornerstones on which the internet is built.

    Anyway, thanks for the article and have fun in China! I look forward to upcoming articles, especially if you plan to write more about how to actually overcome those parts that people really think are difficult.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “I think there are some aspects of learning Chinese that are genuinely harder for native speakers of English to learn compared to learning other European languages”.

      I agree. But I can counter that by saying that I think there are some aspects of learning EUROPEAN LANGUAGES that are genuinely
      harder for native speakers of English to learn compared to learning Chinese. People always conveniently forget this when trying to beat some realism into enthusiastic Chinese learners.

      Glad you otherwise like the article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sean-L-Young/100002278152727 Sean L Young

    Excellent article. It takes time, but it can be learned.

  • Janus Bahs Jacquet

    Thank you for this post!

    Nice to see someone else for a change trying to spread the word that Chinese is *not* any more or less difficult to learn, overall, than any other language. People are always shocked when I tell them that it was much, much more of a challenge for me (as a native speaker of a Nordic language) to get my brain into the right mindset for almost-neighbouring Finnish than for wow-totally-out-there Mandarin.

    Unlike you, I did a year of Chinese in university here in Denmark before going off to China—which was fine with me, ’cause I’m a grammar freak and a linguist. I liked analysing my way through dependencies of potential complements, though naturally my spoken, colloquial Chinese wasn’t worth much when I got there. But I’ve never experienced such a rapid increase in vocabulary and ability to just *speak* in any other language as I did when I moved to Beijing. Three months in, and I was understanding more or less everything people said—not to mention that I could answer back!

    I’ve never seen that “Why Chinese is damn hard” piece before … and based on the excerpts you gave here, and despite your encouragements to the opposite, I don’t think I’ll bother reading it. Anyone who wants to argue that a language is difficult “in absolute terms” has lost me already. When will people realise that there is no such thing as “absolute terms” when it comes to languages? NOTHING in ANY language is absolute—everything is influenced by at least a dozen factors that will make a particular detail either more or less difficult for you specifically than a corresponding detail would have been in some other language.

    A few comments on the content of the article itself, though:

    1.
    The “Damn Hard” guy does have a bit of a point when he says that Classical Chinese pops up all the time. I’m not sure why he chose scrolls and paintings as examples, ’cause no student of Chinese will be able to identify even one third of the characters used on those without about a decade worth of calligraphy training—they’re usually illegible scribbles with twirly bits at the end.

    But Classical Chinese does pop up all the time in perfectly common, normal, everyday speech, as 四自成语. They don’t make up a big portion of the spoken language, of course, but they appear much more frequently than proverbs (their closest English equivalent) do in English. They’re usually easy to recognise, being always four characters (i.e., syllables) in length, but they share that rather unfortunate characteristic of the words you compared with in French and Spanish—they’re not recognisable, and you can’t extrapolate their meaning from their constituent parts. There’s nothing in the phrase 马马虎虎 (‘horse horse tiger tiger’) to tell you that it means ‘so-so’ or ‘mediocre’; nor is it easy to guess (though it does have a certain kind of logic) that 画蛇添足 (‘draw snake add feet’) means ‘ruin the effect by doing something unnecessary or superfluous’; nor that 莫名其妙 (‘none name its mystery’) means ‘baffling, without rhyme or reason, inexplicable’.

    Still, just as you have to learn a set of basic vocabulary, so you have to just learn these as units (unless you learn what each character meant in Classical Chines and remember that, of course).

    2.
    In reply to the comment about tones that they give Mandarin its “distinctive ‘choppy’ sound, so you will almost always hear every single syllable very clearly”, that tendency unfortunately tends to evaporate a bit once you get in a taxi in the north of the country. In Taiwan and the south in general, syllables are (mostly) fairly clearly enunciated; in the north, however, they’re often not. So this is more a dialectal thing than a tonal thing. Tones alone are not enough to hear a syllable clearly (as the lion-eating poet so clearly demonstrates).

    A taxi driver in Beijing once asked me something I can tentatively rendered as “Hr-rr rr-rrr ma?” (that’s an English h, not a Mandarin one), and I didn’t even know how many words he’d just said, or if he was just trying to imitate a drowning moped. Turned out, after about five retries and “Huh?”’s from my side, that he was saying 喜欢足球吗? (“Xǐhuan zúqiú ma?” – “Do you like football?”). When you get dialects like that, that tend to eat all consonants for breakfast and leave just the tones, there’s not much help left in having the tones intact.

    (This is one of the reasons so many foreign students are advised to go to Taiwan to study, rather than Beijing—they’re simply less likely to be stomped at endless streams of syllabic r’s there!)

    But anyway. A gigantic comment for a gigantic blog post. Good post! :-)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “Classical Chinese does pop up all the time in perfectly common, normal, everyday speech”
      Fine, then learn it. This is just a vocabulary / phrase issue. Like how Shakespearean quotes turn up all the time in English. Learn off the phrases, like you would any other expressions. The fact that they are very old is irrelevant. ;)

      There’s also nothing in the phrase “so-so” that tells you what “so-so” actually means. You just learn it. Once again, everything you’ve said applies to any language.

      OK, I’ll deal with lack of choppiness in certain dialects when I get to it. I’ve had no problem conversing with taxi drivers between Shanghai and Chengdu. Emphasizing the difficulty of one or a few dialects isn’t an argument for how hard a language is in general.

      Once again: dialect problems are universal. In Brazil they speak each syllable clearly, but in Portugal they eat their words. So you learn to deal with it.

      I imagine I’ll get a lot of retorts to this article – in each case I can almost always give a European example that shows that Chinese is not alone. Yes, learning “a language” is hard ;)

      • Janus Bahs Jacquet

        Note that I never claimed any of these issues were singular to Chinese—it’s just that the original statements (yours and the “Damn Hard” guy’s) were phrased in a way that seemed to make them about ‘Chinese’, which they’re obviously not: they’re about the specific forms of Mandarin you’ve/he’s experienced.

        Nor was my point about the 四自成语 that they are somehow more difficult than similar equivalents in European languages—just that they don’t fit the concept that defines a big part of the rest of the Chinese language, namely that longer words and phrases tend to be built from a simple core vocabulary and be more or less self-evident from that. (Incidentally, the peanut is another good exception to prove this ‘rule’: there’s nothing in Spanish ‘cacahuete’ to tell you it’s a peanut; but even though 花生 is made up of already familiar core vocabulary words, there’s nothing about ‘flower plant/raw/life’ to tell you that’s a peanut, either)But again, as you say, all this is common to every language I’ve ever familiarised myself with. As are all other difficulties and aspects of learning any other language. I would wager that you can *always*, for *any* attribute of *any* language on the planet, make a comparison with another (often even a European) language.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          “there’s nothing about flower plant/life that tell you that’s a peanut”
          It’s a hell of a lot more helpful, easier to recall, and logical than cacahuete.

          • Janus Bahs Jacquet

            Not to me … remembering that ‘flower plant’ is a peanut specifically (as opposed to a plant that I’d actually associate with flowers) takes as much, or more, effort for me as remembering that ‘cacahuete’ is from Náhuatl ‘cacahuatl’—but in Spanish refers to a peanut rather than a cocoa bean.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

             Are you kidding? Who knows that it comes from that language? It’s the first I’ve ever heard of it. “Flower life” is WAY easier to remember than a complicated etymology that almost nobody knows.

          • enantiomer2000

            Gotta go with Benny on this one. I already knew 花 and 生 before learning the word for peanut and memorized it as soon as i learned it because the symbols were in my mind already and it just stuck instantly.

          • Kwok Ying Cheng

            I too agree with Benny on this point. Otherwise, people with family name 花 (yes, it is a family name in China) will have a hell of a problem introducing themselves to Europeans.

        • han

          四自成语 should be “四字成语”。
          花生又名落花生。因其花落地后,扎入地下而生果,故得名“落花生”,意即落花而生。

          “这小小的豆不像那好看的苹果、桃子、石榴,把他们的果实悬在枝上,鲜红嫩绿的颜色,令人一望而发生羡慕之心。他只把果子埋在地底,等到成熟,才容人把他挖出来。”
          摘自许第山 《落花生》

      • Theodora

        This is because you are not speaking dialect. You are dealing with Chinese ACCENTS. Which is a different thing. I’m sorry to keep commenting, but I’m only intermediate in Chinese at best, and your ignorance is horrifying.

        • Theodora

          And, further, you need to go somewhere where they’re not used to foreigners. In Shanghai and Chengdu they hear bad foreigner Chinese all the time – these are tourist and expat cities. Get outside the tourist zone and you’ll find your Chinese rather less comprehensible than you think.

  • Allen Redding

    I appreciate your work on this post it really helped illustrate the ‘complexity’ of learning mandarin. The devil is in the details, but that does not mean they are any more complex than another set of ‘rules’ just different.

    I liked your explanation of the logical nature of mandarin, and am excited about the prospect of learning it based on this one aspect. I have actually tried to pick up a few hanzi characters in the past and found that learning radicals did make learning more complex characters easier. Of course this is based on very limited exposure, but I had the inkling that learning would not be as difficult as I had heard.

    After all, mandarin is just a language used to communicate, people learn it all the time, almost a billion people have learned it, I am sure its doable for me too.

  • Jeff

    Most natives say their language is the hardest, almost as if they don’t want anybody else to learn it. (The only exception I know of is the esperantists who usally brag about speaking the easiest language)

    Hope you’re having a great time with Mandarin!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’ll be going through my favourite Chinese learning resources later.

  • http://www.ikindalikelanguages.com/ Linas

    Well put! While European languages are generally easier to learn because of their relative similarity, Chinese does seem to have many advantages over it, i.e. the ones you have mentioned and many others. Moreover, Mandarin has been used as sort of a lingua franca in China and that means that it is relatively simple compared to other dialects of Chinese or other languages in the region.

  • http://studymorechinese.com/ Brandon

    Hey Benny – My favorite parts of the post were related to attitude & context, both of which are too frequently overlooked when discussing languages.

    Attitude: I can’t stand how some people behave on Chinese language forums & you certainly got more than your fair share of this negativity.  I continue to visit your site because of this combination of a positive attitude & a focus on communication first, linguistic issues a distant second.

    Attitude(2):  I completely agree with the point that it’s the interest, passion & excitement about a language or culture that will be the best predictor of success or failure.  I wish that it was given more weight when young people ‘choose’ languages to pursue as I think it is absolutely essential.

    Context: Spanish was my first foreign language & I’ve dabbled in French/Portuguese but I never realized just how much communication is embedded in context until I started with Chinese. I’m glad that you brought this point up and that it is part of the tone discussion.  

    At the early stages all the way through upper intermediate, I’ve been amazed at what I’ve been able to “get the gist of” as long as there was adequate context. It helps smooth out so many issues with new vocabulary & tones that I found myself “using Chinese” more often in the early stages than I did with French or Spanish.

    Good luck with the rest of your time in China.
    -Brandon

  • Aaron Chu

    Hi Benny,

    In the paragraph

    “And the pronunciation component, while very far from
    consistent, can actually be a huge help! Since it’s the name of the
    language, one of the first things you will learn to read is 中文
    (Zhōngwén). But that first component will come up a few times in “new”
    characters. You have 种, 钟,肿,all pronounced zhǒng, (actually there are
    WAY more, this is just a really quick sampling), and the other part of
    the character gives a hint as to what it might mean, such as 肿 having
    the 月 component, which tends to mean “flesh” in many cases – this
    character means to swell.”

    The ” 月 component”  should have been ” 肉(⺼)”     as in 肿,  in your example,  月 means moon or month, nothing relating to ‘meat’.

    Great blog post,  as a Chinese myself, it helps to understand how a non-Chinese perception on learning Chinese!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Hi Aaron. Please click the link to Heisig’s book and look at entry entry 13, where he says precisely what I wrote. You’ll have to take up the argument with him, so I won’t be editing that. As a PRIMITIVE 月 means flesh more than it does month, even if just 月 on its own means month

      Also 肉 doesn’t look like the primitive as much as 月 does, so for the purposes of writing a blog post and indicating something, the latter is way more appropriate.

      Glad you liked the post otherwise.

      • Aaron Chu

         Benny,  that’s wrong, ask any chinese around you,  they’ll explain to you, as Chinese, we know, it’a a major difference.  肉 means meat, when written on the side radical, it is ⺼, the writing is different, when we learned as a kid, we are reminded is major significant difference,  the horizontal bar inside 月 is different than ⺼ and we must write it so precisely different.  That’s my point.  To say 月 is meat is absolutely wrong.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          As I said, take it up with Mr. Heisig. I’ve never seen ⺼, only a squashed 月 in print-style characters. Perhaps when written it is indeed different, but in typeface the horizontal bars are horizontal.

          I don’t doubt that the etymology is that it comes from 肉 , but this doesn’t interest me because it doesn’t look like that.

          I never said 月 is meat. I said that as a radical within a character the squashed version implies “flesh”. Whether this squashed version is based on 月 or on 肉 is something I find totally irrelevant. I’m only interested in what its actual contributing meaning is.

        • http://twitter.com/criticalowl Jacob Gill (高健)

          Aaron, while you’re correct that there is a different between the two representations, it is very seldom seen these days, especially in the digital age.

          The problem here lies in typeface as opposed to actual meaning. Since  the radical for 肉 doesn’t appear on its own (ever) it is okay to represent it as 月 like Benny did, especially since most  Chinese fonts choose to do so. Using a traditional font that is considered national standard in Taiwan you will actually see the difference between 月 and 肉 when expressed as radicals, but China doesn’t do that. 

          However, I think it is a moot point. If I write the character 腫 using 月 (wrong in your opinion) as a radical there is no way that you will misinterpret the meaning, that is because the radical placement of 肉 and 月 are entirely different. 月 typically occurs on  the right hand side of a character (when serving as a a radical), while 肉 or flesh in radical form appears either on the left or on the bottom of a character. 

          I’m glad that you’ve learned how to write characters correctly, but from my experience it doesn’t matter to the average langage learner, especially when a large majority of them type and read Chinese online. 

          If you want to make the argument more relevant, convince web browsers, websites, software companies (not to mention every person who doesn’t use a handwriting-style font for anything they print) and there will be more merit to distinguish (or properly write ⺼).

          Until then, do like Benny did a tell students that 月 as a radical has two meanings and teach them how to differentiate (which might include an explanation of how the radical is correctly written).

          Below is an image I took from my computer, using traditional form and 4 different fonts. As you can see, only one actually use the “actual” radical.

  • Janus Bahs Jacquet

    ‘Traditional’ is a better term than ‘correct’, simply because the radicals ⺼ and 月 are not obligatorily distinguished in simplified characters (which is what Benny was using in his article when writing these characters).

    And most Chinese people learn lots of stuff about characters that’s not correct, too—relying on what the Chinese think will rarely give an authoritative idea. For example, I’ve never met any Chinese who didn’t refer to 章 as ‘立早章’, convinced the character is made up of 立 and 早. It’s not. It’s made up of 音 and 十.

    • YKH

      I know this is a whole year late, but I only came across this article recently and so never read the comments as they were posted. And I couldn’t let your comment pass.

      I understand your point that many people learn things about their own language (and culture) that they consider ‘common knowledge’, yet it turns out to be wrong. I also understand that when you’re teaching someone a language (especially a non-native speaker with no familiarity with Chinese characters), it’s counter-productive to bog them down with details. But you come across as pretty rude and condescending when you imply that Chinese people can’t be relied upon to talk reliably about their own language, and you do this directly to a Chinese person making a valid point about 2 commonly confused radicals. Sure, it’s not going to be relevant to the beginning student of Chinese characters, but it’s hardly an “opinion” that ⺼ and 月 are different and the use of the 月 radical in place of ⺼ is strictly incorrect (regardless of typeface – and yes, I’m aware that mainland China’s not strict about making this distinction anymore – that doesn’t mean mainland Chinese people don’t know about this distinction). And why was there a need to go on this long explanation about where the two radicals are typically found in characters, as if you assumed Aaron wouldn’t know?

      Finally, your example about 章: I don’t know, did you go into an extended conversation with every Chinese person you met, asking them exactly what they meant when they used the 立早章 rule? Because quite often these rules are used to remember how to write a particular character, not used to remember the correct break-down of a character. 立 and 早 are two of the first characters people tend to learn, so it’s quite natural to use them as an easy way to remember 章. Heck, these Chinese people are probably doing the same thing you are encouraging Aaron to do: ignore what is correct but irrelevant and focus on what is practical. Yet in this case, you’ve turned it into a “Don’t trust Chinese people about speaking Mandarin” argument.

      Essentially, unless you have actually met ‘most’ Chinese people and asked them about whether or not they say 立早章 to mean “this is how I should look up 章 in a dictionary” vs. “this is how I remember to write it”, you really have no right to make the claim you did.

      • Gus Mueller

        Your basic question is “why?” and the answer is because Aaron, having made his point, refuses to stop making it, over and over and over. Imagine a fist punching a human face for a million years. That’s what it’s like.

        • news reader

          I agree with Gus, that Aaron “refuses to stop making [his point]“. First of all, I, a native Chinese speaker, don’t recall ever learning about the difference between 肉 and 月, and that lack of knowledge has never prevented me from being an effective speaker/writer of Chinese, so why does Benny, a non-native, have to have that knowledge? Second, it’s okay for Aaron to make his point, but to repeatedly push it to the point of insisting on Benny finding Chinese speakers for “validation” is not only irrelevant but also clearly overboard…

        • David M

          I agree with Gus, that Aaron “refuses to stop making [his point]“. First of all, I’m a native Chinese speaker, and I don’t recall ever learning about the difference between 肉 and 月, and that lack of knowledge has never prevented me from being an effective speaker/writer of Chinese, so why does Benny, a non-native, have to have that knowledge? Second, it’s okay for Aaron to make his point, but to repeatedly push it to the point of insisting on Benny finding Chinese speakers for “validation” is not only irrelevant but also clearly overboard…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000704616791 Edmund Yong

    I’m a native Chinese. I think Chinese is not a difficult language but I don’t recommend people learn Classical Chinese before mastering Modern Chinese. I’m currently struggling with it. There’s one part for Classical Chinese in our exam paper and it’s the hardest part. Even natives can only understand 10 or 20 %  and less for poems. I think you don’t have to learn Classical Chinese (expect 成语 and 谚语) unless you’re interested in Ancient Chinese.

    People like to describe  Chinese like monster. Actually, we also have a difficult time trying not to put tones on English word.  

    Good luck, Chinese Learner! Ask if you need help
     

    • http://www.facebook.com/esmailalam Ismail Alam

      can you teach me?????i liked your suggestion…waiting for your response ismail_alams@yahoo.com

    • http://ekd123.org/ Mike Manilone

      I don’t really agree with you since I’m also a local. In fact, you will master Classical Chinese faster if you don’t mind modern Chinese at all. But I agree that fewer and fewer natives understand Classical Chinese. Well, that’s the problem in education but not Classical Chinese itself. If you try to study it, you can learn it quite well. What’s more, write your own articles in C.C.

      It has been a great benefit since Chinese characters are still here. You know, we can talk with our ancestors freely (and of course in Classical Chinese), while westerns need to study a completely different language i.e. Latin.

      • Gus Mueller

        You may be a local, but you missed the whole bit about classical Chinese being pronounced completely differently from modern Chinese.

        • http://ekd123.org/ Mike Manilone

          Chinese characters hardly change, though pronunciation changes over time. Chinese consists of a language and a written form. That’s quite different from western languages.

  • Kristen Beebe

    Great post! Since I have no personal experience with learning Chinese, I’m curious to know what your response is to the argument in the essay about even intelligent native speakers being sometimes unable to produce characters for simple words on-demand? Now with improved technology I guess they could just use pinyin in their smartphones if they have them; does this indicate a growing trend to treat Mandarin as a phonetic writing system rather than a character-based one? 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Interesting question, but better asked of someone else. I’m not here long enough to notice trends ;)

      However, they will always RECOGNISE those characters I believe. It’s only writing them that’s hard. In this article I don’t concern myself with physically writing.

    • Joseph Lemien

      I can help out a little with this question. David Moser (the same fellow who wrote the “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard”) also wrote this piece which addresses the tendency among native speakers to forget how to write uncommonly used characters, as well as the increase in this tendency due to pinyin input methods on cell phones and computers: 
      http://www.scribd.com/doc/38180465/Chinese-Characters-The-Invisible-Writing-on-the-Wall

      I am not sure what you mean by “to treat Mandarin as a phonetic writing system rather than a character-based one”, but people have been less dependent on characters ever since the introduction of pinyin back in the 1950s. That being said, people will (in my experience) rarely use pinyin instead of a character; if said character cannot be remembered or looked up, things often just go unwritten.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sean-L-Young/100002278152727 Sean L Young

     In my years of teaching Chinese, I have seen the 月 written like that as a “flesh” indicator when positioned as the bottom portion of a character; a good example is the character 背. When used to the side, yes I can see why the difference is arguable. And in some printed forms, it’s hard to distinguish the difference – especially n poorly printed publications.

    • Joe Chi

      Taiwan uses the meat radical version of ‘yue’. The PRC does not. Benny is having fun, which is great. I know a lot of people who think Heisig is super until they really try to read the language, genuinely read Chinese materials. That actually takes Chinese children longer in terms of getting up to speed with characters than Western children take. There is a trade off as Chinese can be easier once you climb that hill. Periodically one of these self-proclaimed poliglots ends up on a TV show and oops, their language skills aren’t what they promised.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Grammar homework assigned to you to get you thinking is supposed to be hard. Want to see what complex sentences I had to deal with on my C2 grammar component exam in German? Makes your sample look like child’s play. But most German isn’t that bad it turns out.

    Extreme examples of complex grammar do NOT mean that “only the most basic Hi how are you” is simple.

    If it’s so great that I’m encouraging more people, I don’t see this need to argue with me. Sorry your homework is hard, but I haven’t had as much trouble understanding the news recently as you claim. For me it’s a VOCABULARY issue, not a grammar one.

    • Joseph Lemien

      I think that Benny has a great point here: the level of grammatical competence that is needed in the vast majority of daily communication and the level of grammatical complexity that a language is capable of are two very different things. I’ve had similar experiences in English (my native language), as well both Spanish and Chinese (my only foreign languages… for now  :D  ). I have been stumped by grammatical questions on tests or by English-learners, despite a fairly comfortable ability converse with these languages.

      I think that a good part of it comes down to the goals of the language learner as well. If I want to be a scholar of *anything* in a particular language, I need to be able to understand and use that language at a VERY high level. But as a conversationalist, one can get by without understanding very high level texts. Just as there are many things that I read in English that many people without my specific background wouldn’t understand, I assume that there are many native-Chinese speakers who would fail to understand much of the advanced-level Chinese that I attempt to read. And I am okay with that for now. If I become a professional translator or interpreter I will want a much higher level of Chinese, but for now (as a generalist) I am okay with a “pretty damn good” level, rather than a “perfect” level.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Glad to see I’ve encouraged you to give it a try! :) You’ll have a blast!
    Yes, I had to write this over several days…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Best of luck!!

  • Stephen Frug

    “We can forgive the author for this one, as apps like Pleco weren’t available back then”

    In fairness, the same can be said for almost your entire section on “the writing system”, where you talk about not having to learn to write by hand, using pinyin for input, etc: Moser’s essay is from 1991, before such things were common.  Some of what you’re saying is that a lot of the difficulty Moser points to has been obviated by technology.

    “And the author has (apparently) never learned any other language (other than English) to the same level that he has learned Chinese.”

    I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think this is correct: from other sources (mainly Douglas Hofstadter’s references in Le ton beau de Marot), it seems as if he learned French fluently.  (It was involved in some of the early work of translating Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher Bach into French — as, later, he worked on its Chinese translation.)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      If he is fluent in French, and all European languages are “basically the same”, then why is the very tiny amount of Spanish he’s written so terrible?
      problema mechanico… situacion
      critica
      (there’s no such word as “mechanico”; it’s just proving his weak stereotype about adding an -o to everything, not written but implied.)

      Perhaps he is fluent in French, but I see little appreciation for its complexities where he loves Chinese’s.

      Anyway I can forgive him since the tone of the article is playful, but to me he comes across as not knowing French to the same level that he knows Chinese, and dismissing it as easy based on passive exposure, and only from newspapers and the like.

      • Stephen Frug

         Does he say that all European languages are basically the same?  I don’t think that’s in the article.  Presumably he’s terrible in Spanish because (as he says in the article) he’s never studied it at all.

        I can’t say whether or not he appreciates French’s subtleties.  But, as I said, if you read Hofstadter’s book I think there’s good reason to think that, yes, he’s fluent in French.  (Certainly he says that he’s read lots of novels in French.  Personally I’d love to have my French — or my Chinese — up to that level.)

        Anyway, I agree that the article is tongue in cheek.  But I still think it’s worth being as accurate about what we say about it as we can be.  Perhaps you and he simply disagree on the difficulty of learning French (which, it seems, both of you have done)?

      • Joseph Lemien

        Although the definition of “fluent” makes it harder to judge, I do believe that he is competent enough in French, and it seems that he had a higher level competency many years ago, but he let it fall by the wayside. I suspect that his Chinese is at a level FAR beyond his French. This is a man who is well-reputed by other scholars, linguists, and public figures in Beijing for his competency in the language, after all, and who clearly has a great passion for the Chinese language. (hard to get a PhD in anything if you lack passion) I have no doubt that his ability to use French has faded during the past decade (although I don’t actually know if he learned French before he started Chinese in the 1980s or afterwards, during the 1990s).

        *This isn’t just speculation from the depths of the internet. I know David Moser face-to-face. I am only using words like “suspect” and “believe” because I have not specifically interrogated him in detail about his French skills and his passion for Chinese.

      • http://users.skynet.be/antoine.mechelynck/ Tony Mechelynck

        The right spelling is “un problema mecánico… una situación crítica”. I’d call it a typo, possibly related to the facts that English “mechanical” is pronounced with [k] and that English has variable but unmarked stress. Still a bit strange since Spanish spelling is phonetic.

    • Joseph Lemien

      Yes, thank goodness for the ability that this technology has given us.

      When I started Chinese a few years ago I wasn’t aware of Pleco, and my student budget didn’t permit me a smartphone either (although had I known how useful one can be I certainly would have made it a priority). Without visual character recognition like the Pleco app or SOSO慧眼 many things are simply unreadable. I used an electronic writing system, ‘drawing’ the character into my electronic dictionary and choosing the most similar one, and I was on the cutting edge compared to most students of Chinese. Many of my classmates actually used paper dictionaries (in 2008)! I guess this is just kind of a good-natured “we have it so good now now”/”things were tougher back in my day” rant, and when I get back into Chinese I may have to make the investment in that Pleco add-on for the visual character recognition. 

  • http://users.skynet.be/antoine.mechelynck/ Tony Mechelynck

     I have found A.D.Nelson’s “The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary” to be invaluable for searching written Chinese characters, if only because of its “fuzzy” classification of characters, often listing a single character in several different places, and of the fact that it always mentions the “classical” Kangxi classification of characters (so I find it very useful as a front-end to Chinese dictionaries by radicals). Admittedly Japanese is not Chinese, but OTOH Japanese kanji, Chinese hanzi and South-Korean hanja are a single writing system. Nelson lists both the “moon” radical (月, No. 74) and the “flesh” radical (肉, No. 130) as distinct, but under Rad.74 it also says:
    «With the exception of the radical character itself, which character follows, this radical is herein treated as a variant of Rad. 130. Nickname: Moon.»
    Under Rad. 130 he says:
    «Niku flesh, meat. Variants: 肉 and 月 or ⺼ (4 strokes) nikuzuki (“flesh” written like character for tsuki “moon”). These variants may often belong to Rad. 74 but, except for “moon” itself, are treated herein as Rad. 130. Nickname: Meat.»
    I’ll take this as an acknowledgment by a star lexicographer of the fact that Rad. 74 and Rad. 130 are often undistinguishable in actual writing.

  • Goŝka

    wow, Benny! great work! thank you for all of this, it’s interesting despite I don’t plan to learn Chinese. but I like other writing systems and your examples. I knew you use mnemonics to remember characters, but still I couldn’t make up such associations like the one for a student :), so thank for the links also. I’ll try to have more creativity during my language learning. in fact I introduced the technics to my friend who is learning Polish and is complaining it’s hard! so no, I’m not the one who’s claiming it despite what you say in the post :))

    by the way, let me post a link to a blog where an American learning Polish has the same attitude as you: http://www.linguatrek.com/

    [tip: engineering link doesn't work]

    I’m sorry you you saw so many internet trolls during your mission, while they should have shut up, as it was obvious you would achieve your goal (though not 100%, but it doesn’t matter) :) and I believed in you, although I didn’t write here

  • http://zhixiang.in/ Michael Yin

    Right! Chinese is rather morphologic than phoenetic.

  • Joseph Lemien

    Hey Benny, I just wanted to let you know that I shared your article here with David Moser, and he said he really likes your positive attitude and that he generally agrees with what you have written. He also seemed to appreciate that you recognized the general good-natured, tongue in cheek style ranting that his article is.  :)

    I find it really interesting that you wrote “When it comes down to a direct comparison, then I can honestly tell you that Spanish was HARDER for me to learn than Chinese. My spoken Chinese level is superior to what my Spanish one was after about the same number of hours invested,” because I had the EXACT opposite experience! I guess it goes to show how much personal variables effect things, eh?

    The concept of the “Great Hump” in Ben Ross’s article below describes quite accurately what I felt with learning Chinese; after the initial stage, learning new vocabulary is quite easy, as many words are just recyclings or reapplications of already-known characters. I’m not sure if that quite offsets my ability to talk about thousands of near-cognates words (astronomy, rifle, Hitler, recycle) in Spanish without needing to consult a dictionary first, but it is certainly an important factor that ought to be considered before people give Chinese an “impossibly difficult” label.

    Just in case the readers of this blog are interested in other articles trying to give an honest analysis of the difficulty or ease of Mandarin, here are a few:
    -http://benross.net/wordpress/journey-across-the-great-hump-of-china-debunking-the-myth-that-chinese-is-the-world%E2%80%99s-most-difficult-language/2009/10/29/ 
    -http://laowaichinese.net/how-hard-is-chinese-to-learn-really.htm

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Ha, that’s really cool that David liked it. Thanks for sharing it with him! :)

  • Samie Luc

    I’m curious as to whether you have a recommended method of learning Chinese. I’m a native Cantonese speaker, but I haven’t had the chance to learn how to read or write (most) the language at all, and I’ve set myself the task of learning this summer. I would love to read about how you are learning Mandarin.

  • My Travelo

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    I like your article very much and I will put your blog .Thanks for sharing your brilliant work!………

    praveenmytravelodotcom

  • http://www.frontierlivin.com/ Taylor Pearson

    Awesome post Benny. I’ve been looking for my next language and waffling between Russian, French, and Chinese. I’m much more interested in Chinese than French or Russian, but have been discouraged. I feel really motivated now and I totally sympathize on the Spanish being hard thing. It took me 7 years to learn Spanish… Motivation and interest are HUGE.

    Keep it Coming!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Excellent! That was the main point of my article, to encourage people who are more passionate about Chinese to not drop it because of intimidation. Enjoy it, it’s a great and fun language to learn!

  • Translocal

    I always believe 吃得苦中苦,方为人上人. It is not easy to learn any language but you gotta have resolution and persist.

  • http://espanolactual.com/ Vanessa

    I speak 4 languages, i am a spanish teacher and i am currently learning mandarin. I find mandarin really difficult to learn. I totally agree with Globaleye, that the problem is that we, European, are not used to the language system. Another issue for those who do not study mandarin is China is the lack of contact. It’s easy to learn english, you hear it everywhere, songs, movies,tv etc. spanish or french too. But mandarin… In Europe we don’t listen to chinese music and we do not watch chinese movies. So i believe in order to learn the language is absolutely necessary to immerse yourself in the chinese culture.

    • Anthony ONeal

      Why not read Chinese books? Go get some Chinese songs? Go watch some Chinese movies? Because “we” don’t do it? Who is trying to learn the language, “we”, or you?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    What a worthless and discouraging article. I have little respect for the FSI from this and other similar things people have been sending me from them.

    As stated in the article; academic puffs of air with no human consideration.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    非常好!我同意!我一开始学中文很怕学不会,因为大家都说“中文难极了。”但是你说得对,其实不太难。

    你的blog很棒~

  • http://thestudyabroadblog.com/ Nate Nault

    Great post Benny. Coming to a definite conclusion when comparing character based languages and alphabetical/letter based languages is always going to be a little difficult. I will say that Chinese is not nearly as hard as many people think, and it makes so much more sense after you’ve started studying it. I think many people assume it’s hard because it’s a character based language, or because compared to European languages, it sounds so alien to the Western ear.

    In a lot of ways, it’s actually simple and common sense – even the chengyu 成语,once you know the full meaning of the 4 characters involved, are a great way to express a large complex thought in a smaller simpler phrase.

    As someone who has been studying Chinese for a few years now, I can say the biggest difficulty for me is differentiating common spoken language “口语” from formal written language “书面语”. The best way to understand how to separate the two is really just by listening in on and participating in conversations, which illustrates why if you truly want to learn a language, you really need to be immersed in it.

  • http://twitter.com/_FrenchLearn FrenchLearn

    Hello,
    I’m discovering this website.
    Learn chinese is one of my goal.
    Thank you to show that it could be done.
    Bye
    Fabrice

  • http://www.facebook.com/bjorn.hallberg.1 Bjorn Hallberg

    Great information – thanks for sharing.
    http://www.native-translator.de/

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’ll mention my favourite Chinese learning resources soon enough!

  • Marcelo

    Hi, great article. However, there is one thing I would like to add. Chinese people might not take math for blood transfusion. They would simply not understand at all. The context is relevant only for some people. Most people here in China are not used to lawais embarrassibg themselves, trying to learn the language. They simple do not make the effort to understand you. Make no mistake, tones are really important. If you live in a big city like me (Guangzhou), many people will refuse to speak mandarin with you. They will probably see you as an opportunity to speak their so hardly learned English. Even if English is not your motherlanguage (I am Brazilian).

  • http://twitter.com/balehman Ben Lehman

    I applaud this article. Tried for nearly a decade to learn spanish (starting from age 4). Couldn’t. Picked up Chinese in a year. Was it hard? Yes. But it was rewarding and Chinese people are very forgiving of mistakes.

  • Tyson

    You are a wonderful person and I am grateful for your writing. 非常感谢你的帮助。

  • http://www.facebook.com/suzanne.bowen3 Suzanne Bowen

    I have been learning Asian languages for 15 years now, and when I say I speak Mandarin, people always say “Wow, isn’t that the most difficult language in the world to learn!”. My answer is always that grammatically it is easy and logical. No plurals, no inflecting of verbs, no changing words according to tense. If someone says ‘I eat 3 orange yesterday’ – you can understand perfectly well what it means. My only piece of advice is, start learning with native speakers as soon as possible (there are plenty of free language exchange sites) because nothing can prepare you for the speed native Chinese people speak.

  • Bart_at_EB

    Great post, very encouraging. I like the way that you point out specifics and give suggestions to make things easier.

    I would say that the Indo-European languages are easier for me now, because I’m used to them — the verb systems and cases. If I try to learn Swedish, much of the grammar and vocabulary feels comfortable to me, because of the similarity to German. Latin and the Romance languages feels like one big language with dialects, perhaps like Chinese and the various dialects.

    For people of an older generation, the Romance and Germanic languages are more comfortable because they have been part of our cultural landscape for a few hundred years. It wasn’t to long ago that Chinese was considered wildly exotic.. During the heyday of communism, an interest in learning Chinese might be considered highly suspect.

    So, things change, and now Chinese is more approachable. Hooray!

    One thing that I do miss in Chinese is a lack dual-language editions. I learn to read with dual-language editions, and I’ve appreciated them in Latin, French, German, etc.

    I’m guessing that there will be a flood of Chinese-learning tools in the coming years, so the path to Chinese should get even easier.

  • han

    中国古代流传下来的文章是用文言写的。文言文和老百姓平时说的白话是完全不同的,而现代汉语是由白话演变而来。所以学习现代汉语之后,如果想阅读文言文,还必须在现代汉语的基础上再学习文言文。就算是中国人,学习文言文也必须要到13,14岁左右,有了6年左右现代汉语学习的基础,才开始接触文言文。文言文简练,优美,读起来朗朗上口。我上中学的时候,每天早晨都会有晨读课,朗读英语或文言文,流畅的朗读文言文是一件很享受的事情,读到妙处,不禁摇头晃脑,手舞足蹈。我觉得正是这种令人愉快的朗读,才使我有动力一直坚持学习文言文。
    文言文难吗?当然难!与现代汉语比,它有不同的语法,更多的生僻字,就算是常用字,很多也会有不同的意思,用法。可以说,学习文言文,其难度不下于再学一种语言。我一共学习了6年的文言文,仅能看懂一些比较简单的文言文,离用文言写作差了十万八千里。
    顺便提一句,很多中国古代小说是用文白相间的语言写成的,例如三国演义,其难度要比正宗的文言文要小的多。如果您想既感受古文的魅力,又不多死脑细胞,可以一试。

  • han

    The guy who make this sentence fail to provide enough information to make things clear. For example, what is ”
    这个地方 “? what is ”
    那个地方 “, and ”
    另外一个地方 “, what is ”
    一些预定的节目 “, and what is ”
    原来是规定了一个活动 “? It is not the Chinese grammar but the poor writing skill of the author that should be blamed.

    • Kwok Ying Cheng

      I agree that this magazine extract was poorly written, not the mention the missing of the context. However, I don’t agree the 6 points you mentioned are the origin of the confusion. After all, when interpreting, garbage in garbage out.

      I however like to discuss a few points in this paragraph, if I can be indulged:

      The sentence
      这样一种状态原来是规定了一个活动也没有办法进行
      has been very clumsy. I think it meant to be:
      这情况下,原来规定的一个活动也没有办法进行

      The sentence
      其中今天两次应该在那个地方谈的
      is particularly problematic. 其中 means “in which, among which”. From the context, to what it references is not clear. My guess is “the airport”. If so, this sounds like a Bing’s or Google’s translation of the sentence:
      …to the airport in which…
      If true, it is definitely grammatically wrong.
      I will suggest
      其中今天两次应该在那个地方谈的,被迫改到另外一个地方,还取消了一些预定的节目
      to be replaced by
      进而今天两次应该在机场举行的会谈,都被迫改到另外一个地方,最后还得取消了一些预定的节目

  • han

    “月”字旁也叫“月肉”旁或“肉月”旁,从“肉”不从“月”。
    在古文字中,小篆“肉”和“月”的写法极其相近,因此在用作偏旁的时候就都写成了“月”。
      “肉月旁”的字在以“月”作偏旁的字中占绝大多数,绝大部分都与人体或肉有关系,跟月亮有关系,数量寥寥无几。只有“朔、朗、朝、期朦胧朓朏”等几个。现在月字旁,在近300个字中,97%以上是肉字的意思。

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/TIm-Jordan/1327908587 TIm Jordan

    After spending 3 months learning Mandarin I can see what you mean with just how simple the syntax is, almost like cave man speech. Good Job Brother

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/TIm-Jordan/1327908587 TIm Jordan

    Benny awaiting your attempt at Korean :)

  • Annie F

    Hi Benny, I read your post to my Romanian bf and he has these objections, approximatly “it is very subjective for learning Spanish versus English with respect to what individuals are used to, but the tone of your article makes it sound like Chinese is very easy or easiest comparing to most European languages to learn. And I don’t think, from my objective point of view, that this is true. And saying that “all languages are hard to learn” reeks of some sort of “political correctness.” Some languages are easier to learn than others for individuals. Objectively, it is easier to learn a language from your own language family than from those of other language families. Let’s say I learn a new word “to tell (a tale)” in Spanish, I would immediately think there should be a form of the word in past tense instinctively, and different form of that word for each of the three persons and 2 numbers. That might not be something that an English-native speaker or Chinese-native speaker grew up with, but for me it is no effort at all and it is completely natural. I have a lattice in my mind that I just fill automatically with the properties I’ve learned since I was 3 or 4 that a word must have. For instance, my lattice contains gender for all nouns, yours, as a native-English speaker might not, therefore I am going to say that objectively it is easier for me to learn the language that follows the general lines of my already formed lattice, than in a language that I have to change to adapt my lattice.”

    The second objection he has to your statement that Chinese is just as easy or, in some cases simpler to learn than European languages is that there actually is a trade-off between relying on the context and increases the complexity of morphology. For example, you brought up “contar” in Spanish, for a Romanian-native speaker, in that ONE WORD one can distinguish who telling a story and when. I find it self-contradictory when you said in your post that you can use context to disambiguate Chinese and then you further say that you can use Measure words to disambiguate. So which is it? Is using context an extra effort or not? In other words, is it better to use new information to process disambiguation or not? I’m sorry but saying that it’s all in the context is not a good argument because it is still an effort–it’s not without a cost. There is cost in information theory–either you increase disambiguation/construct more vocabulary, or decrease disambiguation and rely on context, there is always a trade-off in natural language.

  • Annie F

    Saying European languages are “better” than Asian languages is probably too much of a low-level analysis. There are trade-off of the features of Asian languages versus European languages. European languages, since they can borrow words from other languages, are much easier at coming up with neologisms, whereas a language like Chinese would have to add combinations of characters infinitely if there are a infinite number (or approaching) of potential words. Further, European languages’ language complexity leaves little room for ambiguity whereas Chinese rely heavily on context (see my post below when I explain this). One word in Spanish, or Italian can tell you who is saying what, what number and when, whereas Chinese you don’t get these things so you have to heavily use context, which is an extra effort. However, as Benny pointed out, Chinese is much easier to learn for native-speakers of languages that don’t have certain language features like those of, e.g. Romance languages, and it’s probably easier to learn overall at a low level communication, such as gaining vocabulary of high frequency. But when you run into high level of communication or high-level vocabulary, it’s going to be a problem. The Japanese gets around this problem by adopting words from other languages using katagana, and Chinese probably does sort of the same thing but still very limited, and will continue to be so since people just use English words to substitute many of these high-level words

  • Joe

    I think it’s good to give encouragement to people who might
    really need it. But it seems to me that you really need to distinguish between
    spoken and written language. Written language is a skill that must be acquired
    through purposeful effort, like algebra, chess, or football—it doesn’t just
    happen, and some people never learn it at all. The ability to speak the
    language of one’s community is an innate ability—like walking, it emerges on a fairly
    predictable schedule in every normally developing human. There hasn’t been a
    single human in history who just never got around to learning to speak—the ones
    who can’t were either entirely deprived of human contact (which is a very
    unnatural condition for humans, and more damaging than many kinds of physical
    and psychological abuse) or they suffer some kind of specific neurological
    defect.

    I think it’s absolutely true that spoken Chinese seems more
    difficult only because it’s less familiar. Spoken language is a natural human
    ability, but written language is a cultural innovation; an invention; a
    technology. And technologies differ in their degrees of efficiency, utility for
    different purposes, and user-friendliness. I think it’s fair to say that an
    alphabetic writing system is a more advanced technology than a logogram-based writing system, by a number of objective criteria. The Koreans are rightfully proud of
    Hangul—their writing system, which uses an alphabet. I learned it in about 2
    days, and even though I don’t know very much Korean, I can read pretty much
    anything in Korean well enough for native speakers to know what I’m trying to
    say (even if my appalling pronunciation is painful for them to listen to).
    Trying doing that with Chinese characters.

    • Anthony ONeal

      “I think it’s fair to say that analphabetic writing system is a more advanced technology than a logogram-based writing system, by a number of objective criteria.”

      That is an incredibly chauvinistic and ignorant statement.

      “The Koreans are rightfully proud of
      Hangul—their writing system, which uses an alphabet.”

      Before Hangul, the Korean system of writing was literally to learn to write Classical Chinese. Obviously they preferred Hangul for writing.

  • Achmedino

    Interesting how chinese also has these measure words, as I´m learning japanese and that has those as well. Also it´s interesting that chinese has these characters to make it easier to read things, cause the japnese (partially) write in these characters as well, and the pronunciation is as easy as can be.

  • Nate

    Great advice Benny, this definitely encourages me to learn Chinese. I recently started learning the language as of a few days ago but had thought about it for a while now. I tried learning Spanish over 2 year ago and at first found it very easy to learn the vocabulary. Unfortunately, i lost interest with Spanish and discontinued learning it. I had the same experience with learning Swedish a year later.

    For the past year I have had a love for Chinese culture and wish to visit there one day. I also enjoy watching martial arts movies ;D Also interested in martial arts by the way. So I think Mandarin is definitely the language i want to learn as I believe its where my heart is. Thanks for your advice on learning Chinese.
    I also enjoyed watching your progress videos when you learnt Mandarin.

  • Nameless

    I actually do not most languages that are popular. They are very messy, irregular, non standard, what else. Language should be clean and simple but flexible.

  • Anthony ONeal

    “Good god, who cares how hard a language from 2500 years ago is?”

    I actually find ancient languages incredibly interesting, to hear their words without having some moderner interpose themselves. It’s not just about showing how clever you are. I mean, I suppose using this kind of cavalier attitude we could dismiss language learning entirely, since English is becoming a lingua franca anyway.

  • Anthony ONeal

    At the time, written Chinese was pretty much solely in Classical Chinese. So, people learned a new language to write. The poem was just pointing out the absurdity of written in Classical Chinese spoken aloud using modern pronunciations (at that time, the old pronunciations had long been lost, and have only recently been reconstructed), and was one of the catalysts behind the abandonment of Classical Chinese and moving towards a system that was more heavily based on vernacular Mandarin. One of the interesting things about the Chinese writing system, though, is that everyone of every dialect can pretty much understand it, even though these dialects may be mutually unintelligible when spoken aloud.

    • Kwok Ying Cheng

      I absolutely disagree that the poem was constructed to intimidate or manifesting absurdity. Classical poets liked to play with words for fun and laughs. They would roll in their graves if they learned that their poems were used to scare off foreign learners.
      When we talked about “Classical Chinese”, we need to realize what that means. Classical Chinese has over 2 thousand years of materials (if not because of First Emperor’s burning of books, there would have been more). Yet, it was not until the last dynasty (Qing) when scholars were mired in eight legged essays, designed by the Manchurian ruling class purposely to drain the energy of intellectuals, that Classical Chinese became absurd.
      Written Chinese was, just like any incipient written language, an elitist system. To ask ancient scholars to write in spoken form is like asking Beethoven to write a jingle. However, it doesn’t mean that their works didn’t have impacts on common people. The poems of Liu Yong (柳永) was acclaimed to be “anywhere with well. there are Liu’s poems (有井水處,即有柳詞). A lot of young women or girls would sing to his poems. The abandonment of the Classical style was simply because it was an elitist system and no elitist system can be popularized just like we cannot expect everybody to compose like Beethoven.
      The mentioning of the loss of pronunciation was a tad peculiar. One would imagine that the official dialect/pronunciation of a dynasty was heavily (if not deterministically) influenced by whence the royal house originated. Since Song (宋) dynasty, I don’t think there were drastic changes in the official language pronunciations. With a stretch of over a thousand years, one cannot seriously believe that there is no change in pronunciations at all? I think your “loss of pronunciations” must be referred to the pre-Song eras. For the dynasty prior to Song, the Tang (唐) dynasty, the loss may not be as serious as one imagines. It has long been contested that Cantonese is a much closer relative to Tang pronunciation than Mandarin. This of course is in accordance with the Linguistic theory that the fringe areas seem to preserve better the more ancient forms of a language. I have not heard of the reconstruction efforts. However, I’m not surprised if that’s been carried out on Tang pronunciations since the best materials for constructing pronunciations are poems (that rhyme). The book of Complete Tang poems is over 11,000 pages and TOC occupies 1,000 pages. That’s a lot of materials.

    • Gus Mueller

      People didn’t write in classical Chinese, they wrote in literary Chinese, which is based on classical Chinese.

  • 夢宣 呂

    真的,中文的文法是我學的語言中最簡單的。
    其實我們在讀小學的時候也是花好幾年學習念中文和認中文,
    我們不同的地方只在於我們所處的環境而已。
    所以大家別氣餒,加油!

    TRUE!! as a native Chinese, Chinese grammar is the easiest I’ve ever learn.
    In fact, we spent many years in reading, recognizing, knowing the Chinese characters in elementary school. So, in learning Chinese, it differs only the learning background from us.

    Keep on going, guys! 加油! :D

  • http://must-hear-60s-songs.blogspot.com/ Mike

    Chinese is good to learn since more people speak it than any other language in the world. I am trying to learn Japanese though for now, and I found it has some things in common with Chinese. For instance, ma is used to make a question in Chinese while in Japanese they use ka.

    Japanese does not have the four tones though like in Chinese. So this is a little easier for me.

    It takes intense studying every day. I try to do something each day to keep building on what I already learned.

  • Dejvo

    Well Benny. I don’t know what your level is in Chinese, but learning Chinese takes years. Even though you can read it, have great pronunciation and you’re grammar is spot on. There are situations you can encounter only through immersion in the Chinese speaking environment and you have to learn these certain rules. The mentality is different and therefore learning Chinese is not like learning and Indo-European language with just replacing words and adjusting grammar. There are many Westerners who have lived in China for years and can’t really construct certain sentences just by heart.

    About your 3 months approach. I have used it and it’s great. I have already become B1 in Spanish and still have one week left. I can understand the main idea from real time spoken context and can communicate to a lesser extent. But I’m still far from being fluent (at least basically).

    Have a good day

  • http://www.facebook.com/mengdan.hao Mengdan Hao

    我去。。你的中文真的太tm好了。。竟然没有读不通的地方。你很牛!

  • Chris

    Hey Benny you are so right! I’m a Chinese Singaporean and a heck load of my schoolmates (I’m 15) who are chinese don’t really speak their mother tongue simply because they’ve been raised with mainly just English and a little Chinese and quite a few dialect swear words.. But you’ve inspired me greatly to get my subpar chinese up to standard and I speak it almost every day now with teachers, friends and family! Even though i speak it with a bad english accent on it at times, I am getting better and I just have to say thank you for what you do! You set a great example in the field of languages for us laymen who aren’t multilinguists

  • Theodora

    I’m not sure what Chinese radical you mean by “the fence-looking type thing on top”, but 1) your rendition of tomato is wrong and 2) those are several different radicals. AKA, you’re not remotely literate in Chinese, even using pinyin input.

    My personal view on Chinese is that the tones are less hard than the various sibilant consonants – the x, q, j, zh, sh, c, s family — and the way that the vowels change according to the tones, plus coping with the various Chinese accents as you move around the country. I do mean accents, incidentally, not dialects, which is another kettle of fish altogether.

    Further, actual Chinese literacy is a very different thing from recognising placenames and words like “restaurant” or “beef” — you neglect to mention to your readers that most Chinese gov’t signs at stations &c are bilingual, for foreigners — and learning to type “nh” for “ni hao” into your mobile phone or email, which in any case has a translator, no? Sure, pinyin input is a godsend. But managing to send a text is not literacy.

    As, for that matter, is reading an entire, 40 page all-Chinese menu, rather than finding the beef noodles that you like because 肉 looks like grilling meat and 面 looks like a packet of pasta.

    It IS pretty easy to speak pidgin Chinese, once you’ve got the basics of the tones: we were functional in conversational Chinese in under a month, with study (hell, if having a conversation on a train is your idea of fluency, we were fluent!).

    This is still noticeably longer than the similar amount of study would have taken us to get to that point in any of the European languages I have any acquaintance with: French, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Greek and Russian. It’s also a badzillion times harder than Indonesian, which I can also bollock along in, and Arabic.

    Why? Because there’s no common roots to cue off. Nada, nisch. And there’s several thousand characters to master before you’re literate, most of which are used in many different ways.

    And, no, the ability to make up cognates – “hot-water-machine” (for boiler – correct) “slide-snow-road” (for ski piste – wrong but comprehensible) – does not make up for this lack of common roots.

    It is VERY hard to become fluent enough in spoken Chinese to sound like a Chinese person, and literacy is a whole new level of difficulty. Chinese lacks the verbal cues that most European languages – yes, even Slavic ones — have for English-speaking foreigners.

    Xing-ba-ke (Starbucks) for example, makes sense once you know some Chinese. It’s not something you’re ever gonna guess when you’re straight off the plane.

    I’ve only met one foreigner in all of China who sounded remotely like a Chinese person when speaking Chinese, including people who work here. And until you get to the point where you can have a phone conversation in Chinese and people believe you’re Chinese, or, for that matter, when you can read a simple newspaper, or leave a note on your door for the man who’s come to fix the washing machine, all of which most can do in languages such as Spanish within a few weeks, I think you should hold fire on talking about how easy it is.

    Sorry to vent. I’ve seen a bunch of these irritating posts, by people who mistake the ability to hold a conversation, or understand something said to them in Chinese, with speaking Chinese, and then apply MUCH higher standards to their literacy or functionality in a language closer to their own. It’s a form of cultural imperialism. Because you know the proper way to learn European languages, and you know what you need to know, you don’t even REALISE what you’re getting wrong in Chinese.

    And, actually, Chinese grammar IS quite difficult, just in a different way to more inflected languages. From the simple stuff, such as measure words — sure, you can use “ge”, like you can fuck up your tenses in Spanish, but it doesn’t make it right — through to more difficult stuff like sentence constructions and the deeper meanings of 了, this is not an easy language for Anglophones to learn

    Unless you’re Japanese or Korean. In which case, it’s like French or Spanish is to us.

    • Dennis

      I couldn’t agree more. People who say the biggest problem in Chinese is the writing system or the tones and the grammar is easy have never gotten past intermediate level.

    • Gerlinde

      “I’m not sure what Chinese radical you mean by “the fence-looking type thing on top” – nice illustration of that bully attitude. Of course you know which radical he means.

      I am reluctant to chime in with Benny, but when I think about how many people I have ever met who spoke remotedly decent German as a second language after yeas of studying (not even a handfull), or who sounded half way “German” even after years of living in Gemany and speaking German every single day (not a single person), I have to admit: he has got a point there.

    • YKH

      I can see why the posts you describe would be irritating, but I didn’t get the sense Benny was applying much higher standards to his literacy in a language closer to his mother tongue. In all cases and with all the languages he’s tackling, it seems to me pretty clear that Benny
      is talking about functional literacy, the ability to be mostly/kind of
      understood by most of the native speakers one might encounter. If you have an issue with the way he defines literacy, that’s fine, but it doesn’t sound to me like he’s defining them differently across the different languages he’s learning (i.e. he’s NOT saying pidgin Chinese is being literate in Mandarin but then you have to be able to read that entire 40 page menu before you can be literate in Spanish).

      Another point: certainly it is probably harder to learn languages that are more distantly related to the one you can speak. However, I think for the sake of your argument, you are underestimating the difficulty of learning Spanish for an English speaker (as an example). Sure, they can probably recognize many words that have similar roots, but *sounding* like a native speaker is a different beast altogether. Having those cognates can also lead one to make mistakes that they would never make learning a distantly related language (the spectre of false cognates). And there is no way many English speakers learning Spanish can convince someone that they are actually from a Spanish-speaking country on the phone in just a few weeks. Their atrocious pronunciation, in many cases, will take care of that. In all cases and no matter what the language though, the native speaker to whom we’re conversing will probably be too polite to tell us we sound atrocious (or at least, “passable but not native” or “surprisingly good! But still not native”).

    • Kwok Ying Cheng

      OMG, chill out, man! Baby steps, yes, but let him walk first. ‘Ve Never seen a parent tell a toddler “you call this walking?”. So, I would say, “Hoorah, Benny is walking! Yay!”

  • nikto.rakhil

    Reading this actually makes me want to learn Chinese. I was intimidated at first, but now I’m just intrigued! I’m sure it’s very different, but the way you explain the immediacy of characters reminds me of my studies in modal logic and how cool it was after a period of time to just express an idea in that medium or understand it immediately from looking at it — it actually became easier in the class to just show problems/questions/ideas by writing it out in the logical form and doing a bunch of “hand waving” than to try to explain it in English.

  • Kieran Maynard

    Great article!

    You tackle many persistent myths. It is not hard to get conversational in Chinese. Learning to read Classical Chinese takes time, but it’s not impossible, and it only gives me more respect for people who learn languages like Greek and Latin (which are all Greek to me). You can indeed breeze through Chinese texts from Voltaire’s time even without reading Classical, provided they are written in Mandarin! Just think of Classical as a separate but related literary language. Classical idioms will not stump you; they can be easily looked up in a dictionary.

    Basically, Pleco takes all the scare out of the “Chinese is so hard” arguments. With Pleco, it’s child’s play!

    NB: One correction. The “shi shi” poem by Chinese-American linguist Zhao Yuanren was NOT intended to show the necessity of using Chinese characters to write Chinese, but to show the impracticability of using Classical Chinese in modern life. The translation of that poem into Mandarin written in pinyin would be quite readable. In Zhao’s time, pinyin had not yet been invented (it was developed by Zhou Youguang in the 50s and 60s). He wanted to demonstrate that Mandarin should replace Classical Chinese in all areas of daily life, and was a proponent of the Romanization of Chinese script.

  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    Speaking Chinese is tough, but not that tough. The hard part is reading the Characters. Once you get to China and really bump into some grimy accents, you’ll get it. Congratulations on having the courage to take on an Asian language. Now you can talk to about 2 billion more people.

  • Cutest_Doris

    Some great article. Since there’s no such language as “Chinese”…. it just shows (repeatedly) the author’s totally lack of knowledge on the subject.

  • Dan French Poole

    Really interesting and thorough article, Benny! I have my own Chinese Language Learning blog, but I haven’t yet tackled anything so comprehensive.
    I think focusing on recognising characters rather than being able to write them perfectly is great advice – particularly since unless you are studying the language at University or in a language school, you are unlikely to need to write them. I hardly ever handwrite in English!

    However, writing characters out by hand, for me, at least (and I think studies have been done to support this), seems to make them ‘stick’ in my head. Even if I write them on a program, such as Skritter, which is supposed to mimic handwriting without the paper trail, sometimes they are forgotten immediately. Often, even. There’s definitely something to be said for handwriting characters. I’ve been told that stroke order, etc, is extremely important – however I’m yet to be truly convinced of this and so I make only a half-assed attempt to get that right. :)

  • Nataly Carbonell

    Well, this was very helpful, I am currently in Chinese 2 in Highschool and I’m still having some trouble learning Chinese characters.

  • loolo78

    I feel happy I can’t speak both language fluently. I can’t barely tell which one is my mother tongue.

  • loolo78

    Your learning traditional characters, In china 98.999999% of the time we use Simplified characters.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Note that I spent more time in Taiwan last year, which uses traditional characters the entire time.

  • Tomos Burton

    Chinese is on my list for one day. I’m not sure whether or not I should aspire to be a polyglot or whether to just stick to Japanese and Welsh because those are the ones in my long-term plan. At the moment I’m just sticking to those two, and occasionally throwing in Korean as an extra due to it’s links with Japan. I still occasionally sing songs in languages I don’t know though, just for fun. The thing is, I tend to generally like smaller countries but then I suppose bigger ones have their advantages too.

  • Max Frank

    You didn’t talk about Cheng-yu, which is the hardest part of the language.

  • savannahchimp

    Memrise changed my life. I’d been living in Shenzhen for a year, half-assing it with a part-time tutor, when I found that site. 18 months later I’ve learned about 2000 characters and an additional 2000 words (i.e. character combinations).

    Not quite the blistering pace some describe, just seven words a day. But as you noted, knowing even a thousand characters allows you to deduce the meaning of many more. At this point when I learn a new word it’s usually a combination of familiar characters, so that I’m both expanding my vocabulary and adding context to older learning.

    I’m just pulling my head up from vocabulary to start focusing on listening and pronunciation. Looking forward to finding more great Mandarin tips on this site, thanks for writing!

  • Matt Dela Peña

    Thanks Benny! I just read the article you were countering and needed to revive my interest in Chinese. Good thing I stumbled upon this post!

  • 221 plantations

    (shall i test you :D)
    您对国语的分析真有趣,没想到老外是这么想的。既然您的观察力挺强的,有一个问题想请教一下:作为一位非华族的外国人,您会用什么样的词来形容中国文化/人民或华族文化呢?

  • youli

    “When it comes down to a direct comparison, then I can honestly tell
    you that Spanish was HARDER for me to learn than Chinese. My spoken
    Chinese level is superior to what my Spanish one was after about the
    same number of hours invested.”

    I stopped reading the post after reading this part.

    P.S. I lived in China for about 5 years, took part in many Chinese TV shows, got a couple of HSK 6 degrees, etc, etc. I takes whole life to get your hands on Chinese and find out you actually can’t speak about different topics other than emotions, weather, simple actions. I suspect you learned Chinese for a short period of time, not more than 2 years.

  • Timothy Ransom

    take it from me, learning chinese is the hardest task you can undertake when it comes to learning languages. there is nothing easy about chinese, and the more you learn, the harder the language gets. fluency cant and wont be achieved in three months, and 99% of people will give up chinese because they will feel hopeless as the learning curve will increase the deeper they go. great marketing pitch that chinese isnt any harder than anything else, but that is far from the truth, even if you are coming from a japanese background. 5 tones, thousands of characters, case by case sentence patterns, conversational chinese and formal chinese (practically two separate languages), six to twelve ways to say almost every single word, i could go on. this guy who wrote this article was smart enough to get a basic level of spoken chinese, so i assume hes smart enough to know his 3 month plan is a scam.

  • Gus Mueller

    Aaron, in English we have an idiom, “like a dog with a bone.”

    The thing to do here is recognize the issue, resolve not to care about it, and move the heck on.

  • Gus Mueller

    Deaf people?

  • Gus Mueller

    Syria? Egypt? Sure about that?

  • mihao

    According to the statistics in my SRS programs, learning about 3000 characters took me some 600 hours, probably even more. I guess that’s the minimal amount of characters needed for fluency – before I learned them I had no hope of reading a newspaper. Now I can read most articles, but extremely slowly and with a lot of difficulty.

    I did just as you suggested – I used mnemonics and concentrated only on reading. I did learn to write about 1000 characters at some point, and it certainly improved my character recognition abilities. But then I decided that remembering how to write characters takes too much time and isn’t too useful, and now my writing skills are almost non-existent.

    My conclusion is that just the time to learn to read enough Chinese characters is more or less equal to the total amount of time to become fluent in an easy language, such as Spanish or Norwegian. So it’s fairly obvious that Chinese IS harder than these languages for most learners. Of course, the language difficulty is relative to one’s mother tongue. However, the problem with learning Chinese characters is faced by everyone who learns it as L2, except Japanese. So I can agree with your conclusion that Chinese is an easy language, but only if you add “if you are a Japanese”.

    • Phil Johnson

      …… or Korean.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      “…time to become fluent in an easy language, such as Spanish or Norwegian”
      Do you speak fluent Spanish and Norwegian? If not, then you’ve simply proven a point I specifically wrote about in this article, where everyone with a skewed perspective presumes their task is the hardest.

      • mihao

        Do you really think I would mention languages I have no idea about? Yes, I speak fluent Norwegian (say, at the C1 level), and I actually started learning Chinese and Norwegian roughly at the same time, so I think I’m in a position to compare how much work it requires.

        When it comes to Spanish, I’m not fluent, but I’ve learnt enough to get an idea how much time it would take to reach fluency. Last year I spent a few hours a day for a few months to get to an intermediate level (~B1), and haven’t touched it since. The total time spent on learning Spanish (which included memorising most inflection patterns, including subjuntivo) was definitely shorter than the time I spent learning Chinese characters (and there was of course much more to be done to learn Chinese apart from learning the characters). Still, I’ve just picked a random article from El Pais and can see that my Spanish reading comprehension is at least the same and probably better than my Chinese reading comprehension.

        And I definitely don’t think my task is the hardest. I don’t know much about Japanese, but I guess that with at least 2000 characters to learn, many more character readings and more complex grammar it is a harder language than Chinese for most people.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          “Do you really think I would mention languages I have no idea about?”

          I have no idea who you are, and lots of people have very consistently made extrapolations about languages they have no idea about, as I discussed in this article. In fact, the author I linked to is a very respected Chinese speaker who has minimal French experience and still made extrapolations.

          Your ability to read el país and recognize obviously similar words from English doesn’t mean anything in terms of how easy the language is. Please attend a Flamenco show and listen to one of the singers and translate it for me.

          Chinese learners are far too eager to oversimplify how easy European languages are and I’ve consistently heard that exact same argument you’ve given that they “picked up a newspaper and got the gist of it”. Newspapers use formal vocabulary which is more common across European languages. This tells me nothing about your every day ability to communicate with Spaniards.

          Since you don’t know much about Japanese, I can tell you that relatively speaking I’m finding it MUCH more manageable actually. Tones in Chinese slowed me down at the start, and I didn’t have that to worry about, and grammar is more complex than Chinese but about as complicated (or less so) than Germanic or Slavic languages.

          • mihao

            If your point is that getting to a level when it’s possible to communicate with people (an intermediate level) doesn’t require more work for Chinese than for other languages, such as Spanish, then I think I pretty much agree. I didn’t say anything about understanding spoken language, and I said that my Spanish was intermediate a year ago, so I don’t know what the Flamenco argument is supposed to prove.

            I’d say about 70% of the words in the article were in my flashcards, so it’s not the case that I just happened to guess their meanings, I did take time to learn them (during those few months).

            Perhaps we have different definitions what it means to be fluent. I think such definition should include (among others) something like “lack of difficulty with reading long texts (books, articles) that are written with native speakers in mind”. This is something that makes Chinese hard. I can imagine that it is possible to be fluent in Spanish without knowing much grammar or inflections, as long as you manage to find a way to be understood. So learning all these tenses and inflections isn’t strictly required for achieving fluency. But for reading articles and books in Chinese there is no way around – you have to learn enough characters first, and this is something that takes many hundreds of hours. These hours are not required for achieving fluency in other languages.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

            “I can imagine that it is possible to be fluent in Spanish without knowing much grammar or inflections”
            Then we DEFINITELY have different ideas of fluency. You seem to think fluency is all about being passive, with a huge emphasis on passive reading.

            if you can’t produce grammatically correct sentences (with as few errors as possible) then you are very far from fluent in my mind. Just knowing a bunch of words and piecing them together without appreciating the sentence structure isn’t fluency, that’s just being a master of flashcards.
            For me fluency is COMMUNICATION. This is a two-way street, and is not just about how well you can understand, especially when you are only considering text.

            And this brings us back to your original estimate – you have gauged everything by the amount of time you’ve spent flashcarding, when genuine exposure may have gotten you further quicker. I use flashcards too, but to help make the rest of my learning advance better, not to be the absolute core of my entire learning approach.

            Yes, I’ve seen the FSI charts, and I disagreed with them for many reasons, ESPECIALLY that absolutely bogus hours count they pulled out of their ass. It can only apply to traditional classroom learning – there are better ways to learn.

            We will not see eye to eye on this, so I’d appreciate it if you took what I wrote at the end of this article into consideration. People’s need to retort that they know for sure that they have THE hardest language in the world is a broken record to me. I read the same comments on my posts about Polish and Hungarian. You can argue that ANY language is the hardest in the world if you are picky enough about how you present it (like in your case focusing on reading characters as being the major criteria for fluency, everything else being less important), but the point of this post was to show people that the discouragement is poorly placed and that Chinese isn’t that bad after all.

            Please consider the content of my post, rather than simply arguing in general that you have spent lots of time studying flashcards, therefore Chinese is mega hard. I don’t appreciate it when people ignore my posts and skip straight to disagreeing.

          • mihao

            No, I definitely don’t think of fluency as something passive. What I wrote was a *necessary* condition, not a *sufficient* one.

            Since you say the fluency is communication, I don’t understand this: “if you can’t produce grammatically correct sentences (with as few errors as possible) then you are very far from fluent in my mind”. I can’t produce grammatically correct sentences in English. I would like to, but I simply can’t, I’m sure you can find many errors in the sentences I’ve written so far. Yet in my opinion I’m fluent in English. You seem to have ignored this part of my sentence: “as long as you manage to find a way to be understood”. If grammatical errors don’t hinder mutual understanding, why do you think that they would hinder fluency? Inflection are in many case just formal requirement that aren’t required for understanding what is being said (e.g. plural inflection in this sentence).

            “Please consider the content of my post”

            I have read your post and haven’t found any advice on learning characters that I haven’t tried myself. Despite that, it still took me 600 hours or so, which is the time that you don’t need to spend if you’re learning an alphabetic language. That’s why I wrote my comment.

            “simply arguing in general that you have spent lots of time studying flashcards, therefore Chinese is mega hard.”

            I’m arguing that what I did was very similar to the things you recommend here. For the first four years of learning I almost exclusively concentrated on listening and speaking (I went thought the FSI course that doesn’t teach characters at all), and learned a few hundred characters by writing text messages, chatting on Skype, etc. But I found out that I couldn’t learn many more characters that way, so I tried something more systematic, and I tried exactly what you recommend: I used mnemonics and spaced repetition. In the meantime I lived in China for over a year, travelled there and met people, had private tutors, listened to Chinesepod, made Chinese friends and so on. So if you’re suggesting that I used a horribly ineffective method, then you should say what I did wrong.

            I don’t want to take too much my and your time by this discussion, but I’m really curious: Did learning ~3k hanzi take you less than many hundreds of hours? If that’s the case, I think you’re exceptionally sharp, and therefore shouldn’t extrapolate your experiences on others. But of course it may happen that is is me who is exceptionally thick. :)

  • Joe Chi

    I know Chinese seems really easy if you just chat with nice people. The spoken language is not that bad, even the tones, though you are not familiar with its formal side.

    But the written language is difficult in absolute terms. Want proof? The US
    Department of State has been training people to learn a plethora of
    languages for decades. They know it takes them almost twice as long to
    get someone to a high level in Chinese as in the romance languages. You
    say Spanish took you a long time, but then admit your approach was
    wrong. You can’t compare learning something with a bad method to
    learning something else with a good method. Again, why do organizations
    which teach different languages find Chinese takes longer?

    Chatting on QQ or talking to a cute babe on a train are great fun, but that is
    not reading a newspaper. The average university educated Chinese or
    Taiwanese person knows about 5,000 characters. Can you read a newspaper
    or book with 3,000 characters? Sort of. Knowing about 5,000 characters
    myself, and lots of poli-syllabic words besides, I can tell you that you
    do not know what is ahead of you. Honestly, talk to me when you can
    read a proper non-fiction book in Chinese. Then tell me it is no harder
    than Spanish.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Just because reading a newspaper is easier in Europe due to the writing system and common vocab doesn’t mean other things are. Learning how to form grammatically correct sentences in European languages is something that perhaps you “do not know what is ahead of you”. Chinese learners or speakers so eager to discourage enthusiastic learners always overlook this, obsessing over characters.

      Good for you for learning 5,000 characters. That an amazing achievement. But never forget that knowing 5,000 characters is not the same goal everyone else has.

      If you have C2 Spanish, then you can make a fair comparison between the two languages. If not, talk to me when you do ;)

  • joe l

    nice. i wish i had found this years ago.

  • SigridEkman

    Thanks for a great post! I keep on telling people that Chinese is not dauntingly difficult (not more than other languages at least!).

    Although learning how to read the characters takes quite some time it is not exactly difficult. You just need patience and dedication, not a super-human mind. And as you say, these days you just need to learn how to read the characters, not to actually write them (who writes by hand these days anyways?).

    I think the best way to think about whether chinese is easy or difficult compared to european languages is not to compare how an english person would find learning french versus chinese, but rather ask whether it is more difficult for a chinese person to learn english/french than it is for a european to learn Chinese? I would guess it is much easier for us to learn Chinese than vice versa, when thinking of all the horrible grammar (and not to forget all the irregular verbs, the non-sensical attribution of feminine/masculinity to nouns etc!!!!) that exist in our european languages. This is why I am always in awe when I meet a Chinese person with great comprehension of european languages.

    Also I think the chinese language just makes sense on so many levels, like computer: electric brain, electricity = current, airplane = flying machine, washing machine = wash clothes machine, robot = person machine and so on. I have often been able to just make up a word and later realise that it was correct because chinese words are commonsensical.

    The tones, yes they are difficult in the beginning because we europeans are not used to hearing the difference, but it doesnt take too long to get a hang of it if you immerse yourself (stay in china for a semester or so). I decided not to try to remember every tone for each word and just immitate exactly what people were saying, which worked a lot better. And learning to hear the difference in tones is still way easier than learning how to conjugate irregular portuguese verbs in 19 different forms.

  • Onnie Wong

    Benny…your attitude of learning Chinese makes totally sense.
    As Chinese, I used to find the meaning of English words, especially when they come to the names of the people, brands or companies. It took me sometimes to realize, most of them have no particular meaning, just the names to be called. But Chinese words are different, our Chinese names always have meaning. It’s a clever language. Because of the structure of the language, it helps me to think more in depth in most things in life. I’ve been teaching Chinese to my seven yrs old son. It’s a joy explaining my own language. Hopefully, I would be able to teach a Chinese course in my community in the southwest of Washington DC…working on it.
    Benny, keep going with your spirit…master the language and take it to another level when it merges with the cultures, the doors are already opened for you…nice…!

  • maire93

    Recently I was REALLY low on cash and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills! I’m so glad, I did this.. – 7h02

  • John Zieczowazcso

    I know practically nothing of Chinese- I’ve heard though that Chinese grammar is very simple- even compared to English- but the daunting challenge of the writing system makes it a very tough experience for people who only speak Latin-based languages. Now I now that you can’t say ” this language is the hardest” because of a number of reasons but think about this. If a Polish person had to learn Portuguese and a Portuguese person had to learn Polish, I can guarantee you, Polish will be MUCH MUCH harder- why? Here’s just 1 reason- grammatical cases- In Portuguese you can say “Eu tenho 5 canecas” which means I have 5 mugs- and the singular is simply “caneca” that’s it. In Polish the ending changes according to what the noun is doing in the sentence and there’s SEVEN CASES meaning 7 different ways a noun can be used- So you want to say ” This is a mug” = To jest ten kubek. Want to say the mug isn’t there? = nie ma tego KUBKA. Want to say I look at this mug? = Przygladam sie temu KUBKOWI. And this goes on with 7 VARIATIONS and don’t forget 7 PLURAL equivalents like the plural of kubkowi is KUBKOM. All this just to say the simplest of sentences! This is just 1 tiny fraction of the unbelievable complexity of Polish- French, Spanish, Portuguese don’t have cases. So you either say mug or mugs and that’s it! And every different noun doesn’t end like the above..bottle= butelka= butelki, butelce etc.

    Then Polish has 5 GENDERS! english has 1! Portuguese has 2 feminine = mesa (table) and masculine = prato (plate) Polish =1personal masculine (referring to male humans), 2animate non-personal masculine, 3 inanimate masculine, 4 feminine, and 5 neuter- Now try to imagine memorizing which words are which.

    While the Polish guy trying to learn Portuguese is having a hard time putting sentences together the Portuguese guy learning Polish is just overwhelmed by the Polish grammar – it just a fact- and Polish has many more crazy things like the above- compared to French or Italian, it IS more difficult. The only way it won’t be is if someone who speaks a similar language like Russian – they already have cases etc and understand how they work more easily- either than that no.

  • http://www.adecadeinchina.com/ Gregory Dunn

    Chinese is really not that difficult. I think all these languages are about immersion and having some pressure to learn them. When I first arrived in China I couldn’t say a word, I didn’t even know how to say Ni Hao, or hello. everyday I was flipping though a dictionary trying to buy food, rent a place, buy tickets for the subway, buy clothes, negotiate my salary (the English school owner did not speak a word of English, that’s great) or generally do anything. It took me a few months before I was talking to everyone, from 0 to OK. and after a year I had a really good base that just keeps growing. I realized quick if you only speak English you can expect to get ripped off often, so Chinese is needed.

    I never sat down and studied, took classes or any of that. Just spoke and had to speak. I just walked around with a book, and now an app, and spoke like crazy making mistakes along the way and lots of laughing. Then it stuck. Luckily in Chinese there is little grammar, so that makes things very easy, I think it might be easier than other languages, say, German.

    Keys for this happening? I only hung out with Chinese people, not foreign crutches. I practiced all the time, all day long I would try to say things, mess up, listen to someone say it and go on. I was immersed in the language living here.

    I tell everyone Chinese is not that hard, seriously I think it’s easier than German or Hungarian, two languages I studied in the past, and Chinese was way easier to pick up.

  • Jan

    I can speak already in 5 languages, but all of them are European. However, one of my life-goals would be to speak at least one non-European language and use it further in the business I do.
    You provide us with solid info about Chinese and it sounds really motivational! Many thanks for that !

  • Daniel Brockert

    It’s about time someone write this. When I was in Korea and Turkey I was eaten alive by the languages and I struggled with Spanish at first as well, but Chinese came rather quickly. I found that the lack of agglutination and easy word order rules in Chinese meant I could focus on vocabulary and pronunciation.

  • Eman LLuf

    tldr

  • Lucrain

    3 months? 3 Years going into chinese, is Chinese by blood but not nationality, still just like the first month. :|
    Wish It used the pinyin system instead of character. Makes things 2^10 times easier.