Many people come to China because they’re interested in learning the language. Chinese, to a foreigner, is a mysterious but fascinating thing. Are characters words, letters, or neither? How do you know what sound is associated with a given character? What’s the deal with ‘tones’?
Whilst detailed answers to these questions can be found on Chinese language learning websites, I will give my personal opinion on perhaps one of the most pressing issues: how difficult is it? The answer is simple: it depends.
In some ways, Chinese is an easy language to learn.
Whilst some of the sounds in Chinese are different to English, there are far fewer: it has roughly 1,300 different syllables, whilst English has 10-15,000! Of course, this runs both ways: it makes speaking easier (once you get used to tones), but listening more difficult, since many words can (or do) sound the same, with meaning determined by context.
Another interesting thing about Chinese is how ruthlessly logical some of its words are, which makes them much easier to remember. Consider the word ‘computer’ in English. How could you convey this idea using only two basic words? How about ‘electricity brain’? That’s how they say it in Chinese: 电脑. ‘Taxi’? Go out rent car: 出租车. ‘Lighter’? Hit fire machine: 打火机.
In other ways, however, it’s an extremely challenging language for the learner. Needless to say, learning to write characters is a time-consuming process. You need to be very consistent and organized and, in my experience, practice writing the characters by rote – every day.
But what if you don’t want to write by hand, but only read – or even write on a phone or computer? Then you’re in luck.
Reading characters is much easier than you think. In English, we don’t read words letter-by-letter, but view the word as a whole, and I believe something similar happens with characters: you can read and understand it without necessarily being able to write it.
Similarly, writing characters using technology is much easier than you think, because there are some very intelligent predictive keyboards available. When I wrote the word for ‘taxi’ above, I typed ‘chu zu che’ into my computer and it knew what I meant. I didn’t even need to remember the tones.
So, how difficult is Chinese? It depends on your objectives. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy – no language is easy to learn – but I certainly don’t believe it’s as impossible as you might be led to believe. With consistent study, a good attitude, and the right reasons for learning the language, you can succeed. Good luck!