Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learning Chinese is easier than you think

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

Whether you think something is difficult or not depends on what you already know, so saying that Chinese is harder than French is not a meaningful statement in general. 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? and Is Chinese difficult to learn? This article will focus on aspects that make Chinese easier than you think.

Learning Chinese is easier than you think

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 or, even worse, impossible. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy right there.

9 things that makes Chinese easier than you think

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

  • 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 of learning English is 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 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 is a collection 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.
  • No tenses – Chinese doesn’t distinguish between yesterday, today and tomorrow in the same way as we do in English. Most of the time, it’s simply indicated by a word describing when something happens, rather than changing the structure of the sentence. Verbs do not change their form based on when they took place.
  • 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!
  • 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.

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. If you look at the English written by native Chinese speakers, you can see what I mean.

Before it’s time to end this article, I should point out that learning any language 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 much more difficult when you go from trying to be understood to being idiomatically correct). 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.

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 (Scott Young came pretty far in 100 days). Mastering the language takes a very long time, but conversational fluency is another matter. For a continued discussion of the difficult of learning Chinese, see this article linked to above!

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  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.

    1. 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. Yeah says:

      This is 100% true. The language itself quite simple. It’s time-consuming more than anything.

      If you have a realistic outlook on the amount of time you will have to put in when learning Chinese, you will have a better chance at not quitting!

  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!

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  4. Erik says:

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

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure what you mean. Swedish has two grammatical genders (neutrum and utrum). We’ve had more than that earlier in history, but they have (largely) been lost/merged.

      I guess from the way you spell your name that you’re also Swedish, so perhaps this might be helpful: http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svensk_grammatik#Genus

  5. Mark says:

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

    1. 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.

      1. Peter Lund says:

        Hey! What’s wrong with “nine hundred half away from three times twenty”? I completely fail to see the problem!

    2. 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.

  6. 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.”

  7. 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.

  8. Marco says:

    I live in China since 2008, i have a Chinese girlfriend living with me since 2011 but my Chinese is almost zero… I also tried 3 different mandarin school without any result.

    I wonder how could people learn this language 🙁

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