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Is Chinese really so hard to learn as a second language?


Q: It seems to me that a great many people are complaining that Chinese is so hard to learn as a second language: the ridiculously difficult writing system, the confusing four tones, the extensive system of measure words, so a lot of things to memorize… It seems that I should thank God just for being born Chinese. Is Chinese really that hard to learn as a foreign language?

A: Actually, I don't think so. Chinese grammar is much simpler if compared to that of the European languages. English speakers sometimes complain that languages like Spanish have a complicated grammar (masculine and feminine genders, verb conjugations, etc), whereas the Chinese language has little or no bound morphology and there are no grammatical paradigms to memorize. Each word has a fixed and single form: verbs do not take prefixes or suffixes showing the tense or the person, number, or gender of the subject. Nouns do not take prefixes or suffixes showing their number or their case. I'm not trying to tell you that Chinese has no grammar; what I means is that due to the lack of inflectional morphology, Chinese grammar is mainly concerned with how words are arranged to form meaningful sentences. Plus each Chinese character pronounced in one syllable, that's why when watching Chinese movies, you find that a few words can be translated into a syllable mapping in the English subtitle.

Probably, you would say that the above is far from enough to convince you; okay, I've got one more encouraging and authoritative evidence for you. A couple of days ago I fortunately came across one piece of inspiring news when reading Beijing Times: Less than 1,000 Chinese characters allow you to read 90% of the current Chinese publication, according to a survey conducted by the Education Ministry and Language Commission of China. The findings of this survey is claimed to be based on 900 million characters used in more than 8.9 million files chosen from newspapers, magazines, the Internet and television. Nowadays, the Chinese media is using fewer characters, and to understand 90 percent of the content in publications, you need only to know about 900 of around 50,000 individual characters that are made up of Written Chinese. On the other hand, how many words are there in English? Almost 100,000 and it's still on the rise. One important reason for this is that Chinese characters, unlike English words, are mainly to represent meaning, not pronunciation, and what's more, many characters are archaic and some found only once in the whole history of the written language, such as the names of people or places. An average Chinese university graduate may know only about 6,000. 
 
Now, would those all above relieve you a little bit in your Chinese language study? Hope so, but do not misinterpret this: I am not in any intention to convince you that Chinese is very easy to learn or other languages like English are much harder; what I mean is that Chinese is really not that difficult as you imagined or heard about, it's just very different from your mother tongue, but difference does not necessarily mean difficulty, right? And that hard Chinese idea won't be of any help in your study. Trust yourself, once that fear factor is overcome, the language is actually not that hard to learn. Good luck with your Chinese language study.

Other's review
Reviewer: Logan  Rating:: 5
this has inspired me to learn chinese

Reviewer: Brooks  Rating:: 2
I am english speaking though I want to learn chinese writing but more importantly,speaking. Though I have learned there are SO MANY different dialects.The written language may be the same but different dialects make it so hard and as I think I have read, for one area of China to another. I am in the U.S.A.. I realize there is the Mandarin,the Cantonese, and many others(pinyin?).I DO wish to learn to converse in Chinese(someday).

Reviewer: Ali  Rating:: 3
Every language has it own characteristics. so its not easy to learn one and its not difficult to learn one. All you need is willingness to learn.

Reviewer: Alexa  Rating:: 5
That was so helpful. Thankyou! I was worrying about how hard it was going to be when i went to uni.

Reviewer: kevin westwood  Rating:: 2
I remember when I only knew 2000 characters and still couldn't read the newspaper or novels. what is stated about 1000 characters is simply not true, you need at least 4000

Reviewer: KEvinnn  Rating:: 3
You can't read newspapers with knowledge of 900 characters. You may know how to say the chracters, but when put next to another, you will not know the meaning.

Yes, Chinese has few grammar rules. What is difficult however, is the rigid vocab words. You canonly use a few adjectives/verbs to describe a particular noun, which can be both an advantage and disadvantage.

For example the word "teach" can be used in "teach one a lesson", "teach one grammar", and "teach ones kids". But in Chinese, you have to use "教導", "教訓", "請教". THey all mean teach in English, but you cannot use them in the same way in Chinese. I tried learning chinese, but it was too difficult?

Reviewer: Ray  Rating:: 2
As a second language for western learners, mandarin and cantonese are ranked individually among the hardest by linguists, along with japanese, korean and arabic ect...

and no u cannot read chinese newspapers by learning 1000 characters, heck u could learn all 50000+ characters and still have no idea what the newspaper says, u have to learn at least 3000 characters and their combinations.

Reviewer: Rice  Rating:: 3
Since I was young, I could learn any language.
So far I know how to read, write, and speak:
Mandarin (come natural)
Japanese
Korean (took 15 minutes to read, 5 minutes to speak)(Teachers note)
Tagalog
French
English
Spanish

Reviewer: still lost   Rating:: 2
Nope, still hard....

Reviewer: DENNIS  Rating:: 3
不会难学。

Reviewer: stupid chinese language  Rating:: 2
"thank God just for being born Chinese".who says that chinese is easy to born chinese? i was born a chinese(singaporean chinese),but i've hated learning it all my life.is so super hard

Reviewer: my god  Rating:: 3
learn chinese? never mind! no grammar does not mean no logic, its more esasier to see the logic in any other language except chinese. Of cause the gramma is simple, but sense its simple, when you read it, you will come up with enormous possible meaning of the texts, and at the same time, the characters are ambiguous enough to make you cry.

Reviewer: Denise  Rating:: 4
I'm taking Chinese, and found your post very encouraging. I disagree, though, that you only need about 1,000 characters to read a newspaper. It's like saying you only need 850 words to say just about anything in a language (the Speedtalk philosophy). Those 1,000 characters or 850 words are the pronouns, conjunctions, etc. - stuff that you need to know, but knowing them won't enable you understand the meaning of the newspaper. For that you need one (or two, or three, I own four) user-hostile Chinese-English dictionaries.

Reviewer: Bugerbut  Rating:: 5
Easy

Reviewer: izzy  Rating:: 1
i wanted to learn chinese but a friend of mine who is from china advised me not to . i have to say that he probably saved my life because in uni i had the option to do a two month program in chinese language and I SUCKED SO BAD at it. thanks buddy

Reviewer: riaz  Rating:: 2
Guys why to talk of defiiculties ,lets take it easy.i honestly tell u 4 month are really enough to speak chines but offcourse cant be master,even a chines cant be master .lets take it as a fun then see how easy it is to learn chines.Guys trust me its really easy ..........

Reviewer: mini  Rating:: 5
thanks! i was debating learning it, i really want to, but all iv heard is that its v. hard. I think ill give it a shot though!

Reviewer: Guest  Rating:: 5
I'm inspired with you guys and gals. I just want to learn Chinese so that I can communicate to people when I have the chance to visit other countries, read magazines, and watch movies without subtitles ^_^ .

Reviewer: Corin  Rating:: 3
I disagree, I think Chinese learn it for easier out of necessity, easy or not, if they fail to speak Chinese then they can't communicate- from there writing/reading is just a matter of study.

There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach's uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, "But how are they able to perform such difficult music?"

"Shh -- not so loud!" says the director, "If you don't tell them it's difficult, they never know."

Its definitely a hard language, this article seems to be trying to tell people its not. I believe the problem a lot of people have with reading Mandarin is that they don't spend enough time doing it. When you first start reading it, you are REALLY slow and have trouble in English that is. Just like in Chinese when someone reads ancient chinese they have difficulty, because the writing style is different. Similarly, english-speakers have trouble reading SHakespeare or the king james bible because of the time period it was written.

Reviewer: 光光  Rating:: 3
………我到觉得英语难学…………你们英语怎么学的啊??

Reviewer: 光光  Rating:: 3
I'm a boy. lived the city of DALIAN in china..i think english is hard..if you want to try get friend. can sent e-mail. jichuanliang@126.com

Reviewer: mike o   Rating:: 3
well with hard work now I can speak chinse better
it's really cool

Reviewer: D  Rating:: 3
to 光光:You should use "倒" instead of "到"

Reviewer: zacko  Rating:: 3
All that mumbo jumbo about how simple Chinese is is misleading. Westerners used to having conjugations and matching subjects/verbs really struggle to communicate -especially listen- the endlessly homonymed, few syllabled words of Chinese sentences. If I had to classify the difficulty of learning Chinese, I would put it in the "wicked ripped" category. I'm one year into it and don't expect to get comfortable for atleast two more.

Reviewer: John  Rating:: 5
Thank you so much!!!

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