Learning Chinese

learn chinese

Chinese is hard to learn especially for English speakers . According to the United States Defense Language Institute, Chinese proficiency requires about 2200 hours of study for an English speaker. Contrast this with French, which requires about 600 hours. Arabic and Japanese are also considered approximately as difficult as Chinese.

1. Chinese Tones

Every Chinese syllable has a tone that helps determine its meaning. English doesn’t have anything like this, and neither do any of the European languages most familiar to English speakers. Japanese and Arabic are not tonal languages either. English speakers are therefore completely unaccustomed to tones, and it takes a lot of practice to get them right.

2. Chinese Writing System

To be literate in Chinese, you need to know thousands of unique characters. This is a huge barrier to literacy that is not present in any European language or Arabic. It’s hard for native Chinese speakers too; they continue learning new characters throughout secondary school and beyond, and spend hours copying and re-copying characters to achieve basic literacy. Of course it’s even harder for foreign learners, who typically start much later in life.

3. Difference between Chinese and English

That brings us to the third factor: how different Chinese is from English. We’ve already partially covered this by talking about tones. But Chinese grammar and especially phonology are largely alien to English speakers. It’s hard to master the pronunciation of any new language, but English speakers have a particularly hard time with Chinese. This dissimilarity extends to vocabulary too. English includes many borrowings from French, German, Dutch, Greek, and Spanish, and shares a close genetic relationship with other European languages. In fact, English and Dutch are about as similar as Mandarin and Cantonese. In contrast, English has borrowed very few words from any Chinese language and shares zero genetic relationship.

4. Less Chinese environment

Finally, English speakers have much less exposure to Chinese than they do to other languages. By the time they have reached adulthood, English speakers have been exposed to German films, Spanish music, and French literature-and that’s just from daily life. Let’s not forget about school language courses. Chinese is rarely taught in schools (though this is changing rapidly), and there are few opportunities to see Chinese films or listen to Chinese music.

Chinese is hard to learn. But the rewards are also great: Chinese has a deep and rich body of literature, traveling around China is much easier if you know some of the language, and the relevance of Chinese for business is well known. Keep studying!