Why is Learning Chinese so Hard?

Why Learning Chinese Is So Hard?

In a previous article, (Why is English so hard for Chinese people?), we went over the numerous depressing reasons why Chinese students have such profound difficulty learning English; too many new words and sounds, the concept of tenses, nonsensical rules, an education system stacked against them from the word go, and so on.

It was kind of a bummer. I’d fully understand if you were hoping for a slightly more uplifting part two.

Well… keep hoping.

Today, we’ll be discussing why Chinese is so difficult; not just for native English speakers, but for pretty much anyone who hasn’t been studying it since birth. This article obviously applies to an infinitely smaller demographic – you may recall that President Obama declared the goal of having 1,000,000 American students of Mandarin by 2020, while China births roughly ten times that number of soon-to-be English students every year.

That being said, decent Mandarin programs are growing rapidly in the West; so let me go ahead and ruin the hopes and dreams of every aspiring student.

Disclaimer: I’m just going to say “Chinese” from now on. Since at no point in this article will I be discussing Cantonese or Shanghainese or any other languages in China, I hope you will forgive this generalization.

Problem 1: You Can’t Handle The Tones

Chinese has something of a reputation for sounding – to put it charitably – a little goofy. I know we’re all trying our best to stop being racist jerks, but let’s not let stereotypes and ugly history get in the way of acknowledging facts; Chinese and other tonal languages sound objectively weird to native speakers of a non-tonal language, and vice-versa.

I’m not saying it can’t sound beautiful or that you can’t respect it – calm down, comments section – but if you’re telling me you didn’t chuckle the first time a Chinese teacher made you chant “mā, má, mǎ, mà,” then you are going to Hell, because you are a big fat liar.

There are four tones in Chinese and the best description of them I’ve ever heard is that they’re like an airplane: first tone is taxiing, second tone is taking off, third tone is turbulence, and fourth tone is landing.

The first and fourth tones are easy enough: the first is like singing the word on a single note and the fourth is a downward emphasis. Learning to distinguish between the second and the third tone is where the headache really starts; the second tone is purely an upward sound, like a confused “eh?” whereas the third is a scoop down and then back up. And of course, every tonal version of any given syllable has a different (sometimes radically different) meaning.

Even if you’ve never been to China or taken a Chinese class in your life, you’ve probably heard an anecdote or joke about someone accidentally saying something offensive in Chinese.

Just for example, the syllable for “grass” (cao) is just a single tone change away from meaning f@#k, and the word for “horse” (ma) is one tone away from meaning “mother.” I’ll just leave that there and let you contemplate how quickly a simple sentence about a horse eating grass could go very, very wrong.

Given that we can’t jump inside other people’s heads just yet, it’s pretty much impossible to fully understand how differently we and Chinese people hear these tones. Thankfully, science can jump inside other people’s heads, and research shows that our brains light up in entirely different ways when processing tonal languages.

In Western languages (again, I’m going to over-generalize), “tones” are just our way of emphasizing and adding emotion, but in Chinese, they have the power to determine meaning.

You may smirk – and let’s be honest, I certainly do – when a Chinese person earnestly explains that no, the “mǎ” that means “horse” is totally a different sound from the “má” that means “hemp”, which is in turn entirely different from the “mà” that means to curse or swear; but to that person’s ears, those words really do sound totally different without them needing any time to think about it. And unfortunately for your linguistic aspirations, nothing short of a childhood immersed in Chinese can program your brain like that.

Unfortunately, your problems are just beginning, because…

Problem 2: Not enough words and sounds means EVERYTHING is contextual (and you don’t have the context)

Ready for the headache to become a migraine? Sure, those all-important tones differentiate between different meanings… except when they don’t. The first tone version of the word “shan”, for example, means “mountain” (山); but it also means “fan” (煽) and the “smell of mutton” (膻), because why not?

The reality is, any given conversation in Chinese is going to be chock-full of identical or nearly-identical sounds that could mean a dozen other things but just mean one specific thing in this and only this context.

Concrete daily life example: go order a beer, and the waiter will likely ask if you want a chilled (凉) one. That word is pronounced liáng. Second tone. Remember how close second and third tones are? Well, you know what’s pronounced liǎng (third tone)? 两: the word for two of something.

So if you’re asking for three cold beers and the waiter says, oh, do you want liáng de (cold ones), you might quite justifiably interpret that as liǎng ge (two of them) and shake your head no. Now you’ve got warm beers, angry friends, and a very confused waiter.

Thanks a bunch, Chinese.

Here’s one of my personal favorites: the word for paper is 纸 and the word for point is 指, but they are pronounced exactly the same way: “zhǐ.” So if you want to tell a student to point at a piece of paper, things get real confusing real fast. If you also want to tell them to only (只/zhǐ) point (指/zhǐ) at the paper (纸/zhǐ) and touching the paper is forbidden (禁止/jìnzhǐ), things can move pretty quickly from *migraine* to *epic clusterf@#k* territory.

Still not convinced? Here, have some more:

  • kuài: 快 (fast), 块 (a classifier for lumps or pieces of something), and 筷 (chopsticks). Quickly use the chopsticks to grab a piece of meat: kuài use the kuàizi to get the kuài of meat.
  • dàn: 但(but), 蛋 (egg), and 淡 (bland, tasteless). But these eggs are too bland: dàn these dàn are too dàn.
  • bǎo: 保 (protect), 堡 (castle), and 饱 (full). The soldiers are too full to protect the castle: The soldiers are too bǎo, they can’t bǎo(hu) the bǎo.

Think I’m just cherry-picking the most extreme examples? Think again – that’s what Chinese’s (admittedly pretty awesome) tongue-twisters are for. Take a gander at this:


All together, it means: “4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40, 44 is 44, 44 lions died.” Here’s how you say it:

“sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí, sìshísì shì sìshísì, sìshísì zhǐ shīzi sǐle.”

For bonus migraine points, head to the south of China, where many people don’t really distinguish between “s” and “sh,” meaning that an already demonic sentence becomes – almost literally – just pure hissing.

So if your cab driver happens to be southern, you’d best hope there aren’t any 4’s in your fare.

Problem 3: Phoneticizations and “Chinglish”

I can fill up an entire article or two just ranting about this, and in fact I already have.

Problems 4-1000: The f@#king writing system

As usual, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: Chinese characters are amazing. They are works of art on their own – provided I’m not the one writing them – and it’s mind-blowing the way all of these pictograms come together to form a working language that over a billion and a half people can use to fluently exchange ideas and information.

The problem is, they kinda don’t.

Rather than go off on the kind of rant to which I so often subject my friends and family, let me break this down as coldly and rationally as possible (no promises).

First off, there’s a different character for every word, including every tonal variant of the same syllable. This means that there are easily over 10,000 characters all sharing the same 412 basic sounds – 1600ish counting different tones.

But, the characters have little to no phonetic connection to the words they represent, meaning that looking at one gives you next to no idea what it sounds like. A Chinese person (or insufferable abroad student) will emphatically tell you that no, the right-side portion of the character quite often tells you what it sounds like; these people are going to an even deeper rung of Hell than the “Chinese doesn’t sound funny” folks, because they are using a small truth to tell a big lie.

It is indeed true that certain portions of characters show up repeatedly in words sharing the same syllable: for example, 高 and 搞 and 稿 all use the syllable “gao”, and you’ll notice that they all have that same little tower-looking thing.

But they also use different tones – and since you no doubt recall from earlier that different tones convey entirely different meanings and in fact are entirely different words, this is not nearly (read: at all) as helpful as one might hope.

Furthermore, those “gao” words are more the exception than the rule; often, the right side of the character gives more of a general hint of pronunciation than an actual syllable, and sometimes it doesn’t give you a damn thing.

As for the meaning, that’s even more hopeless. The left side of the character (the radical) generally gives some small hint as to the meaning, but they’re so broadly applied that there’s little to no chance that you could ever guess what any given character actually means if it’s more complex than a basic elemental building block.

If you take a look at 把, 打, 找, 提, 拉, 报, and, you’ll notice they all have the same left-side radical portion that means “hand.” But, their respective meanings are “hold/take”, “hit”, “seek”, “hold/lift”, “pull”, and “report”.

Yes, all those words can definitely be linked to one’s hand – but that’s the kind of thing that’s interesting to someone who already knows the word, not someone trying to figure out what the word means.

Becoming competent – not a master, just fluent at a basic level – in the Chinese written language is, in essence, a full-time job that ends when you die. If you want to see how profound an impact the difficulty of written Chinese has on real life, look no further than the children:

An average 8-year old from a place that uses an alphabet can, in essence, write down his or her thoughts. They probably don’t have a huge vocabulary or advanced creative writing skills – but they can communicate with a pencil.

If little Timmy is depressed over the lack of sugary treats in the house, he can stick a note on the fridge that says: “Mom, pleez buy candee.” If he wants his teacher to know that his canine companion took a chunk out of his math assignment, he can scribble “sorry! dog tryed eat my homewurk” on the side of the page.

If he wants to ask his parents if he can stay a bit longer at a friend’s house, he can text “can I hav dinnr at johns hause?” All of those sentences are imperfect, yet perfectly understandable means of communicating ideas.

On the flip side, even an exceptionally bright and exceedingly privileged Chinese 8-year old can barely communicate a thing using characters. When teaching, I used to write the Chinese meaning next to difficult English words, thinking that would be a good way to simultaneously improve the kids’ notes and my terrible Chinese handwriting.

This practice came to a screeching halt when I realized that most of the kids couldn’t write most of the Chinese words and would spend the next 5 minutes ignoring me and trying to copy the character from the board.

Excepting the simplest of situations, you simply can’t *guess* and *misspell* a character in a way that would still be safely understandable the way you can with an alphabet-based language; so if someone doesn’t remember how to write a given character, it simply doesn’t get written. (note: the age of smartphones and good pinyin input keyboards is the only reason someone like me is capable of communicating in written Chinese).

We’re not talking crazy obscure words here, either; characters don’t accommodatingly scale up in difficulty as their meanings become more obscure. Candy looks like this: 糖. Mouse: 鼠. Cheat: 作弊. Eagle: 鹰. Win: 赢.

And before you misinterpret this as some kind of judgment of Chinese children or even the Chinese education system, be honest: could you write any of those from memory with a few days or even weeks of practice? How about hundreds of them? Thousands?

Could your 8-year-old? Now imagine trying to START learning this writing system as a (probably hungover) 18-year-old just trying to fulfill your language credit. Not surprisingly, Chinese classes don’t exactly have great retention rates between beginner and intermediate…

Now take your head out of the oven, cause we’re not done just yet.

Problem 1001: Racism and double standards

Before I dive in and start offending everyone (or continue to do so), here are a few basic facts that can be confirmed by any reliable source on Chinese demographics and/or common sense:

  • There are and historically have (almost) always been very few foreigners in China.
  • There are and historically have always been very few (especially black and white) Chinese-speaking foreigners.
  • The average Chinese person (at least until very recently) is exceedingly unlikely to meet foreigners who speak decent Chinese on any kind of regular basis.
  • The average Chinese student spends a huge percentage of their childhood being put through the unbelievably stressful and time-consuming process of memorizing enough Chinese characters to be functionally fluent and thus the average adult has a better-than-average appreciation of how difficult their language is.

Ok, let’s do this:

Hardly anyone in China will ever believe that you can speak Chinese, sometimes even after hearing you speak Chinese.

As anyone who’s ever studied a second language knows, taking your first steps in actual communication with native speakers can be terrifying for even the most outgoing of people, and – there’s really no way to sugarcoat this – China makes those baby steps about as awful as they have the potential to be.

I was lucky enough to study with kindly – well, understanding – teachers back in the States, but I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve watched try out their first words of Chinese here in Beijing to sad yet predictable results.

Here’s a typical example:

A: Nǐ shì nǎ guórén? Where are you from?

B: Wǒ shì méiguóré.n I’m American (makes the small mistake of 2nd instead of 3rd tone on the mei” syllable in “America,” but completely understandable if you think about it for even a second).

A: Shénme? Méi guó? Shénme guójiā? Shénme yìsi? Zhège lǎowài shuō shénme, wǒ tīng bù dǒng… What? meiguo? what country? what does that mean? what is the foreigner saying, I don’t understand…


This isn’t limited to terrified beginners, either. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had completely derailed because after five minutes of perfectly adequate communication, I screwed up one word and hit the factory reset level of “WHAT, WHAT IS THE FOREIGNER SAYING?”

If we in America tend to be too condescending about sloooowwwwwwwly and very loudly talking to someone with a heavy accent, the Chinese are at the far opposite end of the spectrum. Ironically, even though everyone assumes you’re incapable of using their language, absolutely no one will give you even the tiniest bit of slack.

It all comes down to your white/black/Un-Chinese face, really; a lifetime of almost never hearing your language come out of a different-looking person’s mouth is clearly a powerful primer.

It’s not like there’s some genetic Chinese disposition towards racism – an idea that would itself be pretty damn racist – there’s just a lifetime of (lack of) experience that needs be overcome when starting a conversation with a Chinese person you’ve never met.

But even once you have plenty of wonderful Chinese friends who are happy to practice with you, good luck with the folks back home…

Problem 1002: You’re a lone weirdo

If you read the previous article about why English is so hard for Chinese people – thanks, dedicated reader! – you already know that one of the biggest stumbling blocks they face is their education system basically setting them up to fail.

Everyone is forced to study English from a young age; yet no one is given an opportunity to practice real-life communication skills.

Our education system, on the other hand, doesn’t set up a damn thing one way or another. Practically every serious student of Chinese I’ve ever met started out the same way: they picked an interesting language credit in high school or college and got sucked in by some combination of genuine enthusiasm and the sunk cost fallacy (i.e. “I’ve already wasted 1000 hours of my life copying 中国中国中国中国, I can’t stop now”).

Even in top American schools, the kids who take and stick with Chinese classes just seem kinda weird. I can’t speak for non-English-speaking countries, but when your native language is already dominating the globe, pouring countless hours into learning one of the hardest languages on earth can definitely come across a bit kooky.

By the time I was a senior in college, I could count the number of friends who were serious about Chinese – not really including myself at that point – on one hand. If you think I’ve been too hard on China in this article (or all of my articles), let me end on a distinctly pro-China note: they’ve realized that learning the most important language on Earth is, you know, important.

We in the *West* never shut up about how China is on the rise, how China’s going to take over the world, how everything is made in China, how there are billions of Chinese people; despite all that, we still don’t seem to have any collective interest in producing serious numbers of fluent Chinese speakers.

I mean, we use “Chinese” as the stand-in word for something utterly incomprehensible, i.e “it’s like you’re speaking Chinese to me.” Even in our biggest-budget movies and TV shows, we can’t get halfway decent-sounding lines of Chinese dialogue coming out of characters who are supposed to be geniuses.

In our schools, a second language is rarely a serious requirement until high school, and you’ll have an easier time finding all-organic cafeterias/amazing water polo teams/a dedicated studio art building on your college hunt than you will a decent Chinese program. So if you are going to pursue Chinese seriously, be prepared to take the initiative and spend a whole lot of time feeling like a time-wasting moron (I still do, generally speaking).

If you’ve stuck with me through both parts of this, here’s the overly-generalized bottom line: English is really hard and makes no sense. Chinese is also really hard and makes no sense. The Chinese force everyone to try to learn English but have no idea how to get real results. We don’t even try to make anyone learn Chinese, and thus get no real results.

But we’re all improving.

…really, really, really slowly.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Flag by thepismire

8 thoughts on “Why is Learning Chinese so Hard?”

  1. I happen to be a student who attends a prestigious American school and has put “countless hours into learning one of the hardest languages on earth”, as you say. I take my Chinese studies very seriously indeed and have been studying for four years. I have practiced speaking at every opportunity I get, and have attained fluency in speaking, reading, and writing.

  2. I have lived in China for six years, and only started learning six months after I arrived in the country. I’m now at about HSK 5 (~2500 – 3500 characters) without any formal training. I don’t agree with this article at all.
    Learning Chinese is not difficult, and I’m no genius.
    I think what helped me most is living in a small city with few foreigners where few people speak English. In this situation you NEED to speak Chinese, or you can’t eat, take a bus, find a hospital, or do anything you need in life.
    I also think the books many people use to study Chinese hinder their learning. I used the free materials on the MIT website ocw.mit.edu , search Learning Chinese: A Foundation Course in Mandarin.
    First learn how to read pinyin accurately, including tones, then learn some sentences, then learn to read the characters. That’s it. Easy.

    1. Hi Paul I’ve been in China for 4 years, 3 of which were in a pretty westernized city and I didn’t bother to learn any Chinese, mainly because I didn’t need to. We’re now in a much less westernized place, and I’ve started to pick up some Chinese, mainly the numbers but a few other words as well related to asking for food! I’ll try the material you used and hopefully, with time, I’ll be able to learn some Chinese. Thanks!

    2. Hummm!! 6 years to approach HSK5 is long. And HSK5 is only a step above a good survival level. You probably know that native 3rd grade kids have much more vocabulary, speak, write and read in a much quicker and more proper way than HSK5 foreign students although they are still under 10 years old. So don’t misunderstand a good survival level with fluency. No offend but if you stick to it, you will realize there is a long way to go my friend before you can be independent, like able to read/understand and sign documents in the bank, call China Telecom to solve a problem, understand your dentist explaining you the different type of ceramic crowns he offers, even read a full menu in a restaurant…
      Compare to many western languages, learning Chinese obviously requires more years of daily practice, patience and dedication to reach a similar level. But of course this whole challenge is truly worth the effort…

  3. I learned Chinese because I was stuck in a boarding school with only two other foreigners around. They weren’t my cup of tea so I started drawing pictures with the security guard at my door. Then I met a guy who slowly taught me stuff. I was passionate and it was fun because there was no pressure. I learned it as a hobby besides the terrible teaching hours.
    I still enjoy learning Chinese but I have never had anyone pushing me. Maybe that’s the reason. If I get tired of learning new words, I take a break until I want to do it again.
    Anyways, after reading this post, I’m kind of proud of myself. Interesting read!

  4. Very true and quite amusing article which reminds me of so many situations I have been through.

    It’s not language related but you could have include the very common situation where Chinese tourists, so basically OUTSIDE China, qualify local people as “foreigner”.

    great article a pleasure to read it, even if a bit sarcastic :)

  5. I thought it was hard because it wasn’t fun, and that was because there is very little fun/entertaining/quality content to work with. Mainland content is very limited in range and depth because of (self) censorship, and the rest is in traditional characters. Cultural differences in the art of acting/storytelling were also a hurdle for me. A box set of Chinese language dubbed Spongebob DVDs purchased from a street vendor helped me out a lot in the intermediate level.

    1. You should find the correct motivation and the fun of studying, this is one of the most important points to master this language that requires a hard work

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