Why Chinese isn’t as hard as you think: Encouragement for Learners
Today, I want to encourage more people to learn Chinese. If you want way more detail than a blog post, make sure to check out my in-depth guide on “Why Chinese is Easy“.
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.
“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.
Why Chinese is damn hard – a critique
I want to focus this post on two sources that I was sent to “prove” how hard Chinese is, and the first one is 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.”
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
“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?“
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. There are patterns to them that help you learn them faster.
“…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”.
“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.
[ 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.
“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 during my time learning Mandarin.
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:
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.
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.
Having been 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 🙂