Why Learning Chinese is 3x Harder than English


Photo from our neighborhood.

Think about how long it took you to learn English.  Or, think about how long it typically takes an adult to learn English as a second language.  Now, triple that amount of time and you’ll have a good idea of how long it takes to learn Chinese…minimum.  Why so long?!

1. Vocabulary  and Grammar – and all the various rules, exceptions, measure words, and other language usage guidelines require a significant level of effort, no matter what language you’re learning.  Overall, let’s just say English and Chinese are similar in terms of their vocabulary and grammar.  In that regard, each one should take a similar level of effort to learn.  That’s 1X.

2. Toneseach Chinese syllable has one of (at least) four specific tones (in addition to the four standard tones, there is also a “neutral” tone, but for simplicity we’ll ignore that detail for now).  That means that in addition to learning how to produce/hear the sound and know the definition of each new word, you must also know that word’s tone.  For a mono-syllabic word, that means you need to know one tone.  A multi-syllabic word requires that you know the exact tone of each syllable.  If don’t know the tone(s), you don’t know the word…period.  That’s 2X.

3. Chinese Characters – the English alphabet contains 26 letters.  Those fundamental building blocks allow most of the 170,000+ words (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/how-many-words-are-there-in-the-english-language) to be read somewhat “phonetically” by even an elementary language learner.  The Chinese language contains more than 200 “radicals”.  These are the building blocks used to create unique “characters” for each syllable of each Chinese word.  The majority of these characters are not phonetically based, and require predominantly rote memory learning techniques to acquire the roughly 1,700 characters used to write the basic 2,500 words (from a total of 370,000 words) needed for someone to read Chinese newspapers and magazines and watch Chinese films (http://www.lingholic.com/how-many-words-do-i-need-to-know-the-955-rule-in-language-learning-part-2/).  Oh, and did I mention that some characters have as many as 40 strokes…and the order in which each stroke is written is actually very important?!  That’s easily 3X!

Key Take-Aways:  Yes, there are a few Six Sigma people out there who learn even a difficult new language like Chinese in a relatively short period of time.  But if you’re like the rest of us, forget about the myth of finding a short cut!  If you’re considering learning Chinese, prepare yourself for the reality of a long, steady climb.  Setting realistic expectations should improve your ability to continue the journey.  Otherwise, you’re likely to join the ranks of those who began with great enthusiasm and gusto, then lost steam and eventually gave up.  Although I began this journey closer to the “enthusiastic” camp (and looking for any and every possible technique to reduce the learning curve), I’m thankful to have finally migrated toward a more realistic view without (yet) losing the drive or motivation to make this an enjoyable and sustainable life-long learning adventure.  This is not a test of IQ, it is a test of endurance!

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2016.  All rights reserved.

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