Three main challenges stand between you and learning Chinese. If you do a few things right, you can not only make it easier but make it an adventure as well.
The challenges are 1. Many people are intimidated by learning such a difficult language 2. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone you use changes the meaning of the word. 3. The writing system is complex and overwhelming.
Here are three reasons why learning Chinese can be difficult and what to do to make learning easier.
Reason # 1 – The mental challenge.
Intimidating. Scary. Impossible. Do those words run through your mind when you consider learning Chinese? There is no question that learning Chinese can be daunting. There’s no alphabet. You have to memorize thousands of characters. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word?! Any one of those might make a weaker person start looking for Spanish classes on Craigslist. The intimidation factor makes it even harder to learn Chinese. It’s there when you open the book or turn on your computer. It silently seeps in when you think about studying vocabulary. It slows you down.
You might have good reasons for learning Chinese. You may want to study for the business opportunity or to prepare for a trip China. You might like Chinese culture or be interested in Chinese history or medicine. Maybe you are adopting Chinese children. Those are great reasons to learn Chinese. But if you just have good reasons, you will fail. Many people do.
How to overcome the mental challenge.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” – Theodore Roosevelt
The difficulty is exactly what makes it special and important. Anyone can learn an easy language, but how many of your friends speak Chinese? Don’t you have just a little extra respect for anyone who speaks reasonably well? It takes grit to stare down intimidation and take on a remarkable language like Chinese. Are you up to the challenge?
If you want to learn Chinese, you have to take on the intimidation first. 1.2 billion people speak Chinese and you can, too. But most of them learned as children. So what? Many people learn to speak Chinese as adults, and so can you. Start by making learning Chinese your next adventure. It should and can be fun. You will learn about a new culture that is very different and exotic.
Understand that while it is difficult, much of the language is easy to learn. Verbs don’t conjugate. There is no I am, you are. It is all I be, you be, he be etc. The verbs don’t change form for past or future tense. You simply add words or time to change the sentence. “I gave him the ball yesterday” directly translates to “I yesterday give he the ball.“ Notice that it is he and not him in the last example? That’s because you don’t need to change pronouns due to case. There are more examples of why Chinese is actually much easier than you think to learn. Now, let’s talk about two more challenges and what to do about them.
Reason # 2 – Chinese is a tonal language.
I love talking about the 4 Chinese tones with someone unfamiliar with the Chinese language. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word. Mā means mother but mà means scold. Their eyes get big and they look impressed. The truth is you already use all of these tones to change the meaning of what you are saying in English. Chinese has four tones plus an unstressed tone. The first tone is flat like a note you might hear from a tuning fork. The second tone rises like asking a question. The third tone drops and rises. The fourth tone drops and sounds angry. There is a fifth tone is unstressed, much like an unstressed syllable in English.
Chinese children study the words mā má mǎ mà. That sounds like this:
How to master the Chinese tones.
Getting the tones right isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either. First, when you learn vocabulary, you must must must memorize the tone for each word. If you don’t have the tones memorized, learning how to hear and use the sounds won’t make a difference. Now, start listening. Carefully. Your next step is distinguishing between the tones when you hear them. Play the tones above over and over. Start mimicking the speaker. Don’t be bashful. Take on the accent just like you might mimic an English or German accent. Revel in the middle school thrill of mocking a teacher once more!
Once you can make the correct sounds for the same word, start practicing for different words. Download the Pleco app on your phone. Look up each vocabulary word and then play the tones. Back to mimicking and mocking you go. Do this until the sound of the word feels natural.
Your next challenge is using tones in a sentence. You can’t speak Chinese word by word. The words and tones must flow with one another. You have to learn to transition from a fourth tone to a first tone and from a first tone to a fourth tone. To do this, we need to memorize how to say sentences. Take recordings of sentences and start mimicking the speaker again. It might help to break the sentences down into shorter phrases. Keep practicing until you master the tones. If you find this difficult, don’t give up! You already use tones in English without thinking, you soon will be doing the same thing with Chinese tones. All it takes is familiarity and practice.
Reason # 3 – You need to learn 3,000 Chinese characters to read a newspaper.
Most Chinese people know about 8,000 characters on average. If you want to read the newspaper, you only need to know between two and three thousand. It isn’t as bad as it seems.
First, if you just want to master basic conversational Chinese, you probably don’t need to learn to read or write Chinese characters. You might want to learn to recognize a few that could be important for a trip, but that’s it. The reason for this is pinyin, which is a way to write out characters using a western alphabet. This is how Chinese language speakers type in computers and cell phones. You’ve already seen an example, mā, in the section of this post on tones. Pinyin will serve you well for the first year, which may be all you need to study.
Second, if you want to get past the basics, you will need to at least learn how to read Chinese characters. Some people feel this is best done by writing them, but it certainly takes less effort to learn to read than to learn to write. Realize that while the number of characters is daunting, you don’t need to master all of them.
How to start learning to read and write
To master reading or writing Chinese, start by learning 11 basic strokes used to write Chinese characters and the rules about stroke order. Second, you need to start learning basic characters. There are apps like Skritter or this memory game that will help. Third, set a goal and a schedule. Practice for a few minutes every day. If you want to read the newspaper, you need to learn 2 to 3 thousand characters. Fourth, learn Chinese radicals, which are components that can be put together to write Chinese characters. There is a nice list of radicals on Yellowbrige.com. Keep at it and you will soon be reading the paper or writing short essays.
Chinese isn’t the easiest language to learn, but its reputation as a difficult language is a bit overdone. Don’t let this reputation deter you from getting started. Once you start, take the tones seriously. Memorize and practice each word until it comes naturally. You don’t have to learn to write, but if you do, create a plan and practice daily. Good luck!