“But my cousin/friend/colleague who has lived in China for X years has told me that learning Chinese is so hard/close to impossible/only doable if you have Einstein’s brain!”
Maybe you have even done some research and read “why Chinese is so damn hard” by David Moser. So today we are going to show you exactly how hard it is to learn Chinese. We are not going to play things down. We are simply going to be brutally honest about it. The “difficulty” of Chinese for most Westerners stems from the fact that Chinese includes quite some unique linguistic features:
1. The Chinese Alphabet or Hanzi
An online survey that we have conducted shows that unsurprisingly, most Chinese learners think that the characters are the hardest part of learning Chinese. If you have a Western language background, you will most probably never have had to deal with a similar system. There are generally two sources why Hanzi are thought to be difficult: First, the characters themselves seem to be abstract, complicated and there are tons of them. Second, it is very hard to connect neither the meaning nor the pronunciation just by seeing the character.
Luckily, this problem can be solved by using the Zizzle method!
First of all, it is indeed only necessary to study around 200 components that repeatedly appear in all of the 3000 characters. Think of it as a Lego system.
After you have mastered the components, all you have to do is to try and establish links between the components and the characters formed. You can find some more explanations in this article: Why you only need to learn 200 characters instead of 3000.
Second, there are also approaches where you can not only reduce the number of characters you have to learn, but those methods also give you the necessary bridges to connect character, meaning and pronunciation. In the example below, the technique of visualization is used to show the meaning for the characters
2. Tones in Mandarin Chinese
Coming from a Western background, tones are another thing that you probably have to familiarize yourself with. Chinese has four tones (actually five if you count the 'light' or 'zero' tone) and the meaning of words may change dramatically when pronounced with the wrong tone.
A funny example that I experienced while studying in China: 大便 (dàbiàn) which contains twice the fourth tone means "shit" while 答辩 (dábiàn) in which the first character has the second tone means to answer or defend a thesis. This difference explains my friend’s statement that she had to take a shit in 3 months.
The good thing about tones is this: although they are important, people will nevertheless understand you most of the time, even if you use the wrong tones – because of the context of the conversation.
3. Chinese Pronunciation
This one is not as hard as one might think when first listening to Chinese. In fact, many of the pronunciations are similar to English pronunciations. Again, I am not going to play things down: Difficulties exist especially when pronunciations are close to others, for example when you have “zhang”, “chang”, “qiang” or between “zi” and “ci”. To get these right, you will probably need the help of a native speaker who can give you some precise guidance.
4. Chinese Grammar
Now this is the best part about Chinese. The grammar is in fact really simple. For example Chinese verbs always stay the same and do not change with tenses. Same goes for nouns which in a lot of languages change depending in which case you are using them.
In Chinese, for example, to express past tense, generally you simply add a "了" to the sentence and if you want to say something in plural, simply add "们" to your pronoun. So while “我” means “I”, “我们” means “We”.
A Chinese particularity and probably one of the most difficult things about Chinese grammar are measure words. In Chinese, you cannot simply say three (三) books (书), but rather you have to say 三本书. The difficulty with measure words is now that different nouns go with different measure words. But as a beginner, you can generally substitute all of them with 个 (even I still do it sometimes).
5. Learning Chinese really isn't that hard!
Last but not least, learning Chinese means putting a lot of time to it. Even with the smartest method and the best learning environment, you still won’t be able to completely escape some repetitions. But, let’s be honest, learning which foreign language is different?
As with everything else, with the right strategy and determination, you can definitely succeed. Lukas from our team managed to reach HSK 6 (the highest level in Chinese proficiency for foreigners) after living for one year in Nanjing and using the Zizzle method. We believe that you can do the same with Zizzle App!
And let us know about your experience learning this wonderful language!
Kevin from Zizzle