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When I tell people that I study Chinese, the reactions usually involve equal amounts of awe and curiosity.

“I’ve heard Chinese is the hardest language in the world!”
“Can you really pronounce all those weird sounds?”
“There are tones you can’t learn as an adult!”
“Do you really have to learn one character for every word?”
“Chinese is definitely too hard for me!”

Learning Chinese, a walk in the park?

Most of the above ideas are misconceptions, spread by native speakers and foreigners alike. Native speakers like to think that their own language is particularly hard and foreigners who have learnt the language are also interested in boosting their own accomplishments. The result is that most people I meet think that it’s almost impossible to learn Chinese and that only language prodigies can do it. This is nonsense. It all depends on perspective and attitude, which is what I’m going to talk about in this post.

Why the question of difficulty is bunk

As I’ve said, whether you think something is difficult or not depends on what you already know, so saying that Chinese is harder than French is just stupid. Saying that Chinese is harder to learn for an English-speaking person than French is more meaningful. For a more detailed discussion about the difficulty of learning Chinese, check this article: Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?

Every language has its own unique features that might be regarded as difficult or troublesome in some way, but I believe that focusing on these problems is counterproductive for language learning. If you want to learn something, you want to become friends with it, you don’t want to regard it as an unbeatable enemy! I won’t deny that Chinese has unique challenges that are difficult to overcome, but try to look at them as being fascinating and exciting, rather than difficult. In this article, however, I focus on what makes Chinese easy.

9 things that makes Chinese easier than you think

Here are a few things that make Chinese easier to learn:

  • Straightforward word order – Sentence structure is easy to learn, and even though there are exceptions, a simple formula can be followed most of the time and the result will be, if not entirely correct, then at least comprehensible. Compare this with languages where word order changes depending on the type of sentence.
  • No grammatical cases – Chinese words don’t change according to function. Police is written the same way regardless if it’s the subject of the clause or it’s the object. Whatever function a word has in a sentence, it generally looks the same.
  • Flexible parts of speech – For non-natives, a difficult part in English might be to figure out how to make a noun out of a verb or an adjective out of a verb. In Chinese, it’s not obvious what’s an adjective and what’s a verb, they merge and float into each other, which generally means it’s a lot easier to understand and also easier to guess how to use.
  • Particles instead of inflections – Although it’s not true that Chinese is entirely free from inflections (such as “rain-ed” or “fox-es”), particles are used to represent such things. A particle might indicate that an action is completed or that there are many of something, but these particles are always the same and not dependent on the word preceding it!
  • No gender - Most people who learn languages where gender is important whine about it. German has three genders you have to learn, Swedish and French have two, and there are few rules to help you here! In Chinese, you don’t need to bother, because there is no such thing as grammatical gender.
  • Limited use of tenses – Chinese doesn’t distinguish between yesterday, today and tomorrow as much as English does. Most of the time, it’s simply indicated by a word describing when something happens, rather than changing the structure of the sentence. However, tense can often be entirely left out if it’s obvious given the context.
  • Neat use of numbers - Chinese is sometimes ridiculously logical. Monday is “week one”, Tuesday is “week two”, Wednesday “week three” and so on. Same for the months! The number 1 is simply “one”, 11 is “ten, one”, 99 is “nine ten, nine”, 945 is “nine hundred, four ten, five”.
  • Logical character creation - Chinese characters aren’t random brush strokes, there is reason behind these mysterious and beautiful symbols. It’s usually not enough to let you guess what it means, but it is a powerful tool to help you remember.
  • Logical word creation - Words, i.e. characters put together, contain a lot more meaning than characters. They are created in a way which is often obvious or at least understandable for a student. Train is “fire vehicle”, train station is “fire vehicle station”. Few words are completely arbitrary, even on the surface!

A question of perspective

Now imagine trying to learn English if your native language has the above characteristics. This means you suddenly have to deal with a wide variety of problems you didn’t even know existed! I’ve helped many Chinese speakers learn English and I feel that their quest is at least as challenging as ours, coming from the other direction.

Before it’s time to end this article, I should point out that learning any language completely unrelated to your own will take a lot of time, especially if you plan to learn it to an advanced level (and to be honest, Chinese becomes really nasty at an advanced level). Learning to read and write Chinese takes a lot longer than learning to speak, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Part of the reason I run Hacking Chinese is so that I can share my own thoughts on how to best learn the language!

Learning Chinese is not impossible

If you think that it’s almost impossible to learn Chinese to a level where you can chat freely with Chinese people, you are mistaken. If you don’t spend all your time writing characters, I know for a fact that you can be conversant in Chinese fairly quickly. Mastering the language takes many years, but conversational fluency can be reached within a year without being either a prodigy or a maniac. For a continued discussion of the difficult of learning Chinese, see the article linked to above!


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12 Responses to Learning Chinese is easy

  1. Sara K. says:

    I have had similar thoughts myself. The way I put it is that learning Chinese is time-consuming, not hard.

    And, while I can attest from personal experience that native English speakers can learn French much faster than Chinese, there are certain problems which arise from learning a more closely related language (faux amis, for example) which do not exist (at least not to the same extent) for languages which are further apart.

    • Olle Linge says:

      I have had similar thoughts myself. The way I put it is that learning Chinese is time-consuming, not hard.

      Great! I’ll use this phrasing next time some asks me if Chinese is hard to learn. :)

      I’m not sure faux amis is really a problem in comparison to learning a completely foreign language such as Chinese. I mean, faux amis are just cases where transfer from one’s first language renders incorrect usage in the target language. These can be learnt as any words can be learnt in a wildly different language. Learning French, we get many things for free, but not everything. Sure, we need to keep track of these problems, but I’d say they are more “cases where we don’t get things for free” rather than true problems.

  2. Erik says:

    Agreed! Although I have only scratched the surface when it comes to Chinese, I can see aspects of the language which are very easy to understand compared to languages such as English or Swedish. And in line with what Sara K says, it’s more a matter of taking the time to learn than getting past insurmountable difficulties.

    Good post!

  3. [...] to learn the language and that’s excellent, because Chinese is an awesome language to study. Chinese needn’t be extremely hard to learn either, but it does take [...]

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  5. Erik says:

    I’d just like make the correction that Swedish only has one “gender”, perhaps you meant Spanish.

  6. Mark says:

    Numbers are a little harder than that. 905 is “nine hundred, zero, five”. 950 is “nine hundred, five”

    • Olle Linge says:

      The argument still stands. Compare this with Danish and you’ll see why. :) Also, saying nine hundred five ten is also correct.

    • JIAKE says:

      Formally, 950 is “nine hundred, five, ten”. 1200 is “one Qian (equal to ten hundread), two hundred”, but also you can omit the lase “hundred”. This way you mentioned is partially used in spoken.

  7. Hahaha, the gender part tricks even natives sometimes. For example: in Portuguese, “dó” (pity) is masculine, but most people think it’s feminine and they say “uma dó” (it’s a pity) instead of “um dó.”

  8. Livonor says:

    Chinese is not easy, japanese is easy, Chinese is a breeze.

    Comparisons are irrelevant, if all the other languages were super complex or simple Chinese would still be the same, it isn’t “simpler” than other languages, it just is. Gerderlessly(?) and other stuff are great but if it had five genders people would be learning it and becoming fluent anyway.

    I don’t even see it in terms of “putting the time” the time will pass anyway, so why not to pass it learning Chinese? Right now there are people in the whole world doing that, some of them are playing Assasin’s Creed, other are painting, other are playing solitaire in the company’s PC because they don’t have any other game, and you, today you are going to learn a hanzi, a sound, a word. You’re not climbing a ultra badass mountain while the rest of the humanity watch in awe, you are no different from the others, you just picked up something different do to.

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