Is Learning Chinese Hard?

There are two possible answers to this question, both of which I read all the time.

1) Anyone can do it. All the Chinese people can, so can you.

2) It is incredibly difficult and takes years. Characters + tones make the whole thing an incredible amount of trouble.

Well, both are true. Based on my adult experiences of learning both Spanish and Chinese, I’d agree with David Moser’s assessment that it takes twice as long for a speaker of a Latin-based language (let’s say, English) to learn Chinese as it takes them to learn another Latin-based, alphabetical language (say, French, Spanish or Italian).

So if you’re deciding whether to learn French or Chinese, well, just think about that for a second. You can acquire French twice as fast.

But, if you’re willing to put in those extra years of effort, yes, anyone can learn Chinese. That means you and your friends, and everyone you meet. You could all be speaking Chinese in a few years, if (and that’s a big if) you decided it was worth the effort and were willing to move to China.   

The basics (character writing, hearing/saying tones, pinyin pronounciation) take maybe about three times as long to master – I’d say it took me about two years before I was comfortable with all those things – but once you have those down, the rest is much like any other language – vocabulary, grammar.

And while you’re putting in all that extra time, Chinese has lots of little rewards to keep you interested. You find that the word for “family,”

visually represents a pig under a roof. You find that the word “cow,”

means not only “cow” but “awesome”.  “That’s really cow!” you find yourself saying to your friends.

There’s a lot of little joys in studying Chinese for those who are dedicated, which takes the edge off how damn long it takes you to master.


One thought on “Is Learning Chinese Hard?

  1. I don’t agree that English falls into the category of a Latin based language. It is a Germanic based language with elements of French (which itself is on the periphery of the Latin family of languages). Following on from that, I don’t believe it would take twice as long to learn Chinese than Italian for example.

    I would also discount the Chinese characters element, as you don’t need to learn Chinese characters to hold a conversation in China. Pinyin alone will get you a very long way, especially as a traveler.

    Also don’t forget the sticky parts of other European languages! The conjugation of verbs for different persons and tenses. Learning the gender of inanimate objects, and rules for how words change depending on the gender. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, you’ll find out about the irregular verbs and the multitude of exceptions 🙂

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