Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

6 things in Chinese that are harder to learn than they seem

It is often difficult to gauge the difficulty of tasks before you have already mastered them. Some things seem hard, but are actually quite easy; others appear easy, but are in fact very difficult.

My favourite example is juggling, which spans the whole spectrum. Learning to juggle with three balls is much easier than most people think, but juggling with more balls (five and up) is much harder than people think. The first takes an hour to learn, but mastering five balls can take a thousand times longer.

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The same is true for learning Chinese. Some things are like juggling three balls: it looks hard if you don’t know anything about it, but once you try, it’s not that bad.

Other things are like learning to juggle five balls: they look deceptively manageable, but only if you haven’t actually tried to mastered them.

Misjudging the difficult of a learning task has different consequences depending on the direction of your error:

  1. If you think something is easier than it really is you will feel discouraged when you struggle and fail. It will drain your motivation and make you question your learning method. In the worst case, you might quit learning because you think that if you can’t manage something this easy, you surely can’t deal with areas that are truly difficult.
  2. If you think something is harder than it really is, it’s less serious since it’s unlikely to make you quit. Instead, you’ll miss out on learning opportunities or fail to engage in interesting and useful activities that would have taken you closer to achieving your goal with learning Chinese. Sooner or later, you’ll realise that it isn’t that hard after all and wonder why you didn’t try it earlier.

In this article, I will focus on aspects of learning Chinese that are harder than they seem. I will probably write a follow-up article later about the reverse case when things are not as hard as they seem.

6 things in Chinese that are harder to learn than they seem

These six things in Chinese that people seem to think are easier than they truly are. Naturally, not everybody will agree, but I have limited my selection to things that I’ve heard people misjudge often or things I have misjudged myself. If you have additional examples, please leave a comment below!

1. Reading children’s book

This is perhaps the most wide-spread misconception about learning Chinese. I regularly see beginners ask for reading recommendations and specify children’s books in the mistaken belief that they will be easy.

I fell into this trap myself as a beginner. I thought that large, friendly characters and colourful pictures meant that the book would be easy to read.

No, books for kids are not easy for second language learners.

The fundamental mistake here is to forget that children already speak their language fluently when they learn to read. They are learning to read what they already know how to say. Books for very young children usually have lots of characters for animals, animal sounds and so on, none of which are either useful or easy for an adult foreign language learner.

That’s not all, though, because there certainly are cultural differences as well. While I haven’t tried to study this systematically, it seems to me that children’s books in Chinese are primarily meant to educate the child, whereas children’s books in the west are meant to entertain and make the child like reading.

Here’s a page from a book I tried to read as a beginner called 小故事大道理:民間故事.

Doesn’t it look friendly? However, there are many, many words that a beginner would struggle with here, and most of them would be completely useless to learn before you reach a much higher level. The book is in traditional Chinese because I studied in Taiwan at the time, but I’ll provide simplified below as well:

On this randomly selected page, we have the following words that few beginners would understand and none should spend time learning:

  • 於是 (于是) – thereupon
  • 濺落 (溅落) – to splash down
  • 近處 (近处) – nearby place
  • 遠處 (远处) – faraway place
  • 平原 (平原) – plain
  • 泥點 (泥点) – splash of mud
  • 居然 (居然) – unexpectedly
  • 省事 (省事) – to save trouble; to simplify matters
  • 角落 (角落) – corner
  • 充滿 (充满) – to be full of; to be brimming with
  • 歡歌笑語 (欢歌笑语) – song and laughter

So roughly half the characters on this page are in words that you don’t need as a beginner. In the whole book, I looked up and learnt almost 800 words, but looking through the list in retrospect, very few of them were actually useful. My effort was mostly wasted.

I could go on, but since John Pasden already covered exactly this topic over at Sinosplice, I’ll point to his article instead: Chinese Picture Books as Learning Material.

Conclusion: Don’t use children’s books to learn Chinese, because they aren’t easy and won’t teach you words you actually need to know.

2. Deciphering restaurant menus

Ordering food in Chinese is surprisingly hard. The reason is that there are many, many characters that are only used to describe food. This included both different ways of cooking the ingredients and the ingredients themselves.

Sure, figuring out what animal is involved is fairly easy as a beginner, but beyond that, you’re probably out of luck. When living in Taiwan, I think restaurant menus were the area of everyday life where I kept encountering characters I didn’t know, even after learning thousands of them. Now, this is partly because I’m not terribly interested in cuisine, but menus in Chinese really are quite hard.

A laughable version of this can be found in the (in)famous TED talk about Chineasy (which I covered in this article), where it’s claimed that menus can be understood with only 200 characters. This is so far from the truth that it can only be interpreted as a joke. She actually also includes basic web pages and newspaper headlines, which puts this even further into imaginary fairly land.

Don’t feel bad about not being able to read menus in Chinese, because it really can be very hard! To be honest, though, this is true in English as well, where there are many words that are only used in this context (venison, mutton, various types of fish and so on).

3. Understanding song lyrics

While there is broad variation in the difficult of song lyrics in any languages, it seems that Chinese people in general care more about the text than the melody, and that the opposite is true in the west (yes, there are of course many exceptions).

Chinese music, especially older music, is more like poetry accompanied by music, whereas popular music in the west seems to contain more everyday language.

In addition to that, song lyrics are of course creatively written, which is true in any language. Thus, if you find a song you like in Chinese and read the lyrics, only to figure out that it doesn’t make much sense to you, don’t feel too disappointed!

Please note that I don’t claim that this is universally true for all listeners and all artists, I just mean that based on what I have listened to and studied, Chinese pop music contains much more literary and therefore more difficult language.

I remember when I decided to learn 再见萤火虫 by 王菲 and found it pretty hard (lyrics on screen, but also here in plain text):

For more about using music to learn Mandarin, check the series of articles that begin with this article: Why learning Chinese through music is underrated

Why learning Chinese through music is underrated

4. Reading news articles

Reading news in Chinese is harder than most students think. The reason is mostly that written Chinese is more different from spoken Chinese than written English is from spoken English.

Someone who can hold a conversation about a topic in English will probably be able to read a news article about that topic, provided they know how to read the words.

The same is not as true in Chinese, where there’s a whole set of words that are mostly used in formal, written Chinese, which is of course normal in newspapers.

Another factor that contributes to the difficulty of reading news is lack of context. Most intermediate learners of Chinese don’t know enough about Chinese culture and society to make sense of newspaper articles. Naturally, this becomes easier the more you read, I just want to point out that there are other factors than language limiting comprehension the first time you open a Chinese newspaper.

5. Making sense of short stories and novels

No one thinks that short stories and novels are easy to read in any language, but the reason I include fiction here is that it tends to be harder than many students think. Just like with the song lyrics above, this is rather hard to prove quantitatively, but is based on my own reading experience, along with most people I’ve talked to about it (I’ve so far never met someone who doesn’t agree, so if you do, please leave a comment below).

In English, it’s perfectly okay to write using fairly simple words, some authors are even famous for it, such as Ernest Hemingway or Graham Greene. Their stories are fairly accessible for intermediate learners of English.

In Chinese, however, there’s a much stronger tendency to want to show one’s erudition by throwing around fancy words. Again, there are of course exceptions, I’m trying to get at a general tendency here, not a natural law.

An example of this would be translations of the above-mentioned authors. For example, I have read The Old Man and the Sea in Chinese (老人与海/老人與海), English and Swedish, and in the latter two, the vocabulary is fairly easy, except for a few words related to fish and fishing. In Chinese, however, the simplicity of the language in the original is lost.

One way to put it would be to say that the amount of reading practice a student would need to have under their belt to tackle this book in Chinese is considerably higher than in English, even if we ignore the difficulty of learning Chinese characters.

I’ve written more about reading novels here: Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

6. Comprehending social media posts and messages

Posts on social media can be very, very difficult to understand. I have studied Chinese for more than a decade and of course read what many Chinese-speaking friends write on social media. It’s surprisingly common that I read posts I have no idea what they mean.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. Lack of context – Social media is a context-heavy medium. People seldom bother to include enough information in each to enable an outsider to make sense of what they are saying. Maybe the message refers to something they wrote yesterday that I missed, or something that happened where they live that I have no idea about, or maybe it’s related to what a famous celebrity that I care little about said or did.
  2. Internet slang – Like in any language, Chinese people make use of a plethora of internet-specific words and phrases that even other native speakers who spend less time online would struggle to understand. These can be abbreviations, puns or other types of playful ways of using Chinese characters, numbers or other symbols. For example, I recently stumbled on the expression 种草,张草,拔草, which is easy enough on the word level (plant grass, grow grass, pluck grass). Apparently, it is used to refer to seeding the idea of buying something, letting the idea grow in your mind and then finally deciding to buy it. I wrote more about slang here: Learning (or not learning) Chinese slang.

I think chatting is a great way to learn Chinese, but mostly when you are chatting with people who target you rather than their native-speaking friends. I’ve written more about using social media to learn Chinese here: Learning Chinese through social media

Learning Chinese through social media

Conclusion

Some things appear easier than they are. If you think learning to juggle three balls is difficult, have you really tried? I think most people can learn that in a few hours without too much trouble (find a basic tutorial if you’re going to try it, as you won’t get very far if you try to learn the wrong pattern).

This article is obviously not about juggling, but learning Chinese. What things have you encountered that you other people around you thought were easier than they turned out to be? Do you agree with my selection in this article? I’m curious to hear what you think, so please leave a comment below!



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4 comments

  1. This is so true when it comes to children’s books. I can read academic philosophy okay because philosophers use limited, technical vocabulary (bless them) and repeat themselves endlessly. Children’s books, though, can be so much tougher…

  2. Harmony says:

    I generally agree, but I did want to chime in that reading content designed for kids is actually super helpful if you are in the situation of having a kid that you’re trying to speak Chinese with. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out a lot of vocabulary used in children’s literature is exactly what you need for talking with kids. I’ve been learning Chinese off and on for over a decade so while I’m not a beginner, I have been repeatedly stumped by my adult vocabulary’s insufficiencies when it comes to conversation with a toddler. I agree that the premise of the article, that it’s not easy to start with kids’ stuff is true, but interestingly there’s actually a whole community of people who aren’t necessarily fluent in Chinese but trying to get their kids exposed who are struggling their way through kids’ books to keep their young ones engaged.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good idea! I think it depends on target age of the books, though. Like you say, books for very young children will be suitable for very young children. Those are not harder than people think, it’s more that they use vocabulary that adults normally don’t need, even though you bring up an excellent counter example! However, that doesn’t work for the type of book I showed in the article, though, because that’s just unnecessarily hard for non-advanced students.

  3. 武文山 says:

    One of the issues with children’s books at the lower ages is that they are often designed for the parent to read alongside the child, which means it’s not as important to keep them simple. I’ve found that books aimed at a slightly higher age, when kids are starting to read by themselves, are easier. Even so, you still need reasonably good vocabulary to manage. Sometimes non-fiction books aimed at kids are also worth a look if you pick the topic carefully.

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