Learning Chinese is easy (old version)

There are lots of misconceptions about learning Chinese, spread to an equal extent by native speakers and foreigners. Most people’s reaction to my studying Chinese is that it must be extraordinarily difficult. This is wrong. I’ve thought about this a great deal, and I’m convinced that it’s much more difficult for Chinese people to learn proper English than it is for foreigners to learn proper Chinese. In this short article I’ll try to explain why Chinese isn’t as difficult as most people think.

Pronunciation might cause trouble…

Before I go on to explain why I think spoken Mandarin is fairly easy, I’ll discuss the two things that might actually cause trouble: pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation in Chinese is wildly different from Indo-European languages. Not only are there quite a lot of sounds which sound very similar to the untrained ear (and still are essential for communication), but there is also the problem of tones. I still haven’t formed an opinion as to what determines one’s ability to learn the tones and characteristic sounds of Mandarin, but I think ambition level and determination will solve most problems.

…and so might vocabulary…

Vocabulary is a bigger problem, but entirely related to time. Assuming one’s native language isn’t related to Chinese, the languages have few or no words in common. When learning French, I can guess at the meaning of many words, but in Chinese, this is completely impossible (one can of course guess the meaning of Chinese characters and words based on previous knowledge of Chinese, but that’s a different topic entirely). In short, all words have to be learnt from scratch.

…but learning Chinese still isn’t hard!

Up until now, I’ve only discussed difficulties, so what is it that makes Chinese easier than most people think? Grammar. I think I can safely say that after studying two years, I had already studied most of the grammar necessary to speak and read Chinese at a fairly advanced level (although of course I couldn’t use it all). If we compare this to French or German, Chinese grammar is extraordinarily simple. Please don’t get me wrong here, Chinese grammar is flexible and dynamic, and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s inferior or anything, but it’s a lot easier to learn than any other language I’ve tried.

Most importantly, there are no inflections. A verb in the present, past or future looks exactly the same, number (i.e. singular or plural) does not affect other words, and there’s no gender to take into consideration. In addition to this, the separation between different parts of speech isn’t very distinct; most words can function as verbs, nouns or adjectives without any transformation whatsoever. Thus, new vocabulary is flexible and can be used in a variety of situations. This especially useful for understanding written Chinese.

It’s probably easier for us to learn Chinese than it is for the Chinese to learn English

Now, please form a mental picture of the situation above: somebody with Chinese as their native language trying to learn English (or French or German). First, they need to construct a completely new way of thinking about time, it becomes important when something happens for how you are going to say it (and some of the tenses in Indo-European languages are far from easy), you have to inflect verbs depending on the person(s) performing the action, parts of speech are clearly delimited and sometimes a verb and its associated adjective/noun are completely different. And not only do you have to learn when to use these different inflections and variants of words, but you have to learn to use them instantly, in the flow of normal speech. This challenge seems far more daunting than anything I’ve encountered when learning Chinese

Conclusively, I don’t mean to imply that Chinese is easy to learn and that you’re stupid if you think it’s hard,but Chinese certainly isn’t difficult in the way that most people I talk with assume. It requires an awful lot of time to learn to read and write Chinese, but if I would have ignored the written language and only focused on speaking, I’m sure I could’ve reach a very good level in a year or two. Reading and writing cause problems that are unique to Chinese and make the language take a lot longer to learn if you want to learn all aspects of it, but I still think the difficulties are overrated.