Why people think Mandarin Chinese is hard to learn
A reasonable question would be: “hard for whom?” because Chinese people seem just fine with learning it. Little Chinese kids start learning Mandarin early, and in just a few years they can use those “impossible” Chinese characters to write down shopping lists and leave notes. So why do people who start learning Chinese find it so hard and complain about it?
1. Because of the writing system
The Chinese language has an entirely different writing system than a Western one. For some, it is beautiful, mysterious and complex while others find it ridiculous. But as soon as you start learning this system and find out more about Chinese characters, you will be more addicted and intrigued. For some, The Chinese writing has become a lifelong obsession, spending their day accumulating Chinese characters.
It is almost impossible to learn enough characters to be functionally literate. In comparison to Greek, Russian, Romanian, Spanish and other languages which require only a few symbols to write it, the Chinese language has more than 80,000 characters. This may seem intimidating, but luckily you only have to know around 3,500 in Standard Chinese. For some, this may seem a lot, but you can get by with only 1,000 (the most frequent characters) depending on what you are reading. Now Chinese seems less scary, doesn’t it?
2. Because the language does not have an alphabet like other languages
This is also why the Chinese language is much harder. Let us compare Chinese with the English language.
A Chinese, who wants to learn and study English, has to learn only 26 letters, which are written horizontally, from left to right. Now they know everything there is to know to write the words in English language. Now how long do you think a typical Chinese would need to learn various components of the westerner writing system? Probably a day or two.
Now we take an Englishman, who wants to learn Chinese. He is used to the typical alphabet, but this is not good for Chinese because there is nothing to correspond to the characters. As previously mentioned, there are 80,000 characters (3500 standard Chinese). And let’s not talk about the components of the Chinese language (strokes, radicals, tones and others). In addition, the elements of the Chinese characters are bi-dimensional, where alphabetical writing is one dimensional.
3. The writing scheme is not entirely phonetic
Because the writing system is not phonetic, the chances are that you will forget how to write some characters, especially if you don’t use them. When there is no apparent semantic sign and no practical phonetic constituent anywhere in the character, it will be difficult to learn. But you have to remember that Chinese people are not born with a chip implanted in their brain that has the capability of remembering random scribbles. Even they learn it in time, with patience. This means that in time you can master Chinese as well. Find tricks and memory games that will help you learn faster and understand Chinese better.
There are a lot of people who find difficult to learn Chinese, but they probably will find any new language impossible. You don’t have to lie to yourself and say Chinese is easy. You will have some difficult time from time to time while learning it, especially if you are not Asian or accustomed to Asian linguistics. But learning Chinese is a big plus, especially if you are visiting areas where people do not speak English and a lot of Chinese have migrated all over the world. Any language is hard at first, but with perseverance and patience, you will get the hang of it.
4. Because even looking for words in the dictionary is complicated
Aside from all the new things that come with the Chinese language, one of the most difficult is learning how to look up a new word in the dictionary. Some people compare it with an entire semester of secretarial university. In China, they even hold dictionary look-up contests for junior high schools. You can imagine that a language where looking up words in the dictionary is a skill is clearly not easy. The Chinese language is not user-friendly, especially if you are talking about the Chinese dictionary.
But in the end, the Chinese language represents the future, and nobody says the future is easy to learn. With patience and dedication, you will master Chinese, and you will see that is not as hard as you thought it would be (or what people told you).
Photo credit: Tim Gouw
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