Is Chinese Really So Damn Hard?

Over the years I have come to believe that much of the conventional wisdom on language learning is misguided. My experiences have convinced me this is especially the case for Mandarin Chinese, often considered one of the hardest languages in the world for English speakers to learn. 

Recently I reread an old but still widely shared article titled ‘Why Chinese is so damn hard’ about the unique difficulties of learning Mandarin. I originally encountered this piece as a beginner level learner and found it extremely demotivating to read the author – who had been learning Mandarin for several years – appear to suggest the task was virtually impossible for a number of reasons. Reviewing the piece it strikes me that while some of the points made are valid, many of them are quite unhelpful and possibly the result of frustrations due to ineffective and outdated learning methods. Reaching a milestone of 10,000 words on Lingq inspired me to reflect on my own experiences and how they differ from those of the author. 

Studying Mandarin has been my first proper experience of acquiring a new language in adulthood. I grew up bilingual in English and Spanish and at school I studied French until the age of 18. I have not used French in many years and although I do not think it would take me long to regain some level of conversational fluency, its proximity to Spanish means I did not learn it from scratch. For this reason I am not particularly well placed to make comparisons between the difficulty of learning Mandarin and other languages. My aim here is instead to address specific, widely held misconceptions about what learning Mandarin entails and the degree of difficulty involved. 

In my view, most of the major misconceptions about learning Mandarin relate to the degree of memorisation it entails. First, some facts. Mandarin has no alphabet and relies on a bank of thousands of characters to create words. In order to achieve basic literacy (to be able to read a standard newspaper article) it is estimated that the learner must be able to recognise around 3000 characters. Typically a word is made up of two or three characters so the learner must also be able to decipher each character’s meaning in multiple different combinations with other characters. Then, there is the problem that each character has a complex stroke order which must be remembered in order to write out the characters by hand. Moreover the Mandarin scholar must accurately pronounce each word, including the appropriate use of tones. Mandarin Chinese has four tones and if a character is pronounced with the wrong one, misunderstandings can occur. 

The scale of the challenge outlined above does indeed seem insurmountable, and if success relied largely or primarily on memorisation I have little doubt it would be. The ability to memorise each individual character’s form, stroke order, tone and pronunciation is probably beyond the capacity of most people. And yet it remains true that learning Mandarin Chinese is perfectly within anyone’s grasp. This is because the use of deliberate memorisation techniques is an extremely ineffective way of acquiring Chinese. It isn’t merely unnecessary; it will actually slow your progress down significantly if you attempt to do it. 

Let me take each point in turn. First, there is no doubt that learning to read Chinese characters does initially require some degree of memorisation, though not as much as you might think. In my experience once I was able to recognise between 1000-1500 characters (up to HSK4) by using flash cards I could progress with virtually no memorisation at all. This is because knowing the 1000 most common characters exposed me to radicals which repeat themselves and made acquiring new characters much easier. Once at this level I had acquired a sufficient number of the most common characters to begin reading longer texts using graded readers and online learning tools. If I was able to recognise 85-95% of the words in a given text, I would look up the remaining 5-15%. I would then repeatedly encounter many of these unknown words in subsequent texts and after a while they would start to stick. This process was facilitated by online language reading tools, such as LingQ, which enable the reader to click on unknown words in an article and instantly discover their meaning rather than waste time looking up a dictionary. 

At the start of lockdown in March I was ready to take my HSK4 exam (which was cancelled due to the Coronavirus epidemic.) That exam required mastery of a little over 1000 words. 3 months later I am able to recognise almost all of the vocabulary in HSK 5 (around 2500 words) and can read many newspaper articles with a high degree of comprehension. I did this without the use of any flashcards or memorisation techniques. Instead, during lockdown I spent several hours every day reading Chinese. I read anything I could get hold of – from articles about international politics to transcripts of Chinese radio phone-in shows. By immersing myself in this content I was constantly bombarded with new characters and vocabulary, all of which were useful for engaging with topics I was interested in. My vocabulary and character recognition increased rapidly from 3000 words in March to 10,000 in June, according to my LingQ stats.  In addition to being far more effective, this process was infinitely more enjoyable and interesting than trying to memorise individual characters and their meanings, devoid of any context. I should note that far from being unconventional, my chosen method of reading and listening immersion is completely in line with mainstream academic theories on adult language acquisition (see more below). 

When it comes to character stroke orders, memorising these – whilst gratifying to some – is completely unnecessary for most learners’ purposes and will slow down progress significantly since this is undeniably an extremely laborious process. It is true that in order to write Chinese by hand you will need to memorise each individual character’s stroke order. However in order to write using a mobile phone or a computer keyboard, spelling out each character using the phonetic Pinyin romanisation system will suffice. I am able to text friends and send emails in Chinese just as effectively as if I were typing in English. Imagine you suddenly lost the ability to write by hand in English but retained the ability to type, how much of a difference would this make to your life and ability to function in English? The answer for me is that it would make almost no difference at all and the same is true for Chinese. This point is further enhanced by the fact that HSK proficiency exams can now be taken using a computer keyboard.  

As for tones, they are certainly a challenge. Many people I know have attempted to memorise every single tone for every single character which I am convinced is an entirely fruitless task. Firstly, anyone who attempts to speak based on a precise estimation of how each individual tone for each character in a sentence should be pronounced will end up sounding like a robot. Furthermore, the pronunciation of individual characters actually varies depending on which other characters they are combined with and where they are placed in a sentence. Instead of memorising this, learners must develop a strong ear. As Steve Kaufmann has pointed out, through extensive listening to native Chinese content you will start to get a sense of the natural flow of phrases and sentences and in time begin to replicate them yourself in a way that sounds natural. Inevitably plenty of mistakes will be made but as your ear becomes increasingly refined to the nuances of Chinese pronunciation you will improve. 

Since I have never been immersed in a Chinese speaking environment and have only been learning for on and off for three years while working full time, I continue to make some mistakes with tones. Despite the hysteria that surrounds this issue, it doesn’t bother me because I know that I am improving over time and the more I listen the better my pronunciation becomes. Moreover, whilst they are certainly important I suspect the barrier that tonal errors present to comprehension is often exaggerated. Despite my far from perfect tones I have no difficulty making myself understood to native Chinese speakers on a range of topics. Nor do I feel that tones have presented much of a barrier to my comprehension of native speakers. In fact I suspect there are far bigger barriers to understanding and being understood in Chinese – including vowel and consonant sounds – yet because the concept of tones is quite alien to those of us without a background in east asian languages it tends to disproportionately dominate our fears. 

One final myth which I’d like to address is that studying Chinese must involve pain. I think this notion is extremely off-putting and completely mistaken, though entirely logical to a learner who has internalised the misconceptions outlined above. Nobody wants to spend their life memorising lists, tables, tones and stroke orders and, if we listen to what the most experienced language learners have to say, nobody needs to. Although they disagree on many things there is a growing consensus within the independent polyglot community that the academic linguist Stephen Krashen’s theories of adult language acquisition are broadly correct. Traditional forms of language teaching involved large amounts of rote memorisation of rules and structures. These were based on the theory that a learner must first memorise rules before consciously applying them to their use of a second language. Krashen has shown this is not how we learn. 

Language acquisition, including accurate use of grammar and pronunciation, is mainly a  subconscious process achieved through huge amounts of exposure, preferably involving reading and listening to interesting and comprehensible content. Although characters may present a unique challenge, still Krashen’s principles apply to Chinese as much as any other language. Yet outdated ideas on language acquisition based on memorisation widely persist among new learners. These are often promoted by education establishments who stand to lose out from the idea that you can independently read and listen your way to fluency. 

At 10,000 words I remain toward the beginning of this lifelong marathon and nothing I have written here should be interpreted as playing down the level of commitment, time, effort and sacrifice which is required to learn Mandarin to a high level. The difficulties involved – the characters, the presence of phonemes, the absence of cognates – all of these are real and shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, there have been many moments of genuine frustration and plenty of doubts, mostly due to the unrealistic expectations of a new language learner. And there is no escaping the fact that becoming proficient in Mandarin does take time. 

Despite all this it has been a hugely enjoyable process for me, one which I would like to encourage, rather than dissuade, others from pursuing.

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