The Difficulties of Learning Chinese

Many people travel to China to teach English with different aspirations.  Some travel to experience a new culture, while others to have the chance to learn Chinese.  Whatever your motive, it is important to learn the language that you will be immersed in.  Learning Chinese is challenging, in my opinion these are the hardest aspects of learning Chinese.

Writing Characters

Chinese is a very difficult language to learn and is rated the most difficult, tied with Arabic and English.  The reason for this is because Chinese uses a completely different writing system than most other languages.  This is probably the most difficult aspect of learning the language that people find.  One of the biggest components of learning Chinese is learning how to write Chinese characters.  There are tens of thousands of Chinese words, and, although the number is debated, over 5,000 unique characters to learn.  The words are often a combination of unique characters.  Learning to hand write all these characters is a daunting task, but once you can write, you will be held in high esteem by your Chinese peers.  To really master Chinese writing, you should spend a large amount of time just writing, and you must practice otherwise you will forget!

Calligraphy? I Don’t Think So!

That famous Chinese calligraphy that is shown on large scrolls?  That is all written in traditional characters, and artists have their own styles that they put into writing the characters.  If calligraphy is your end goal, then you need to put in some real work.  Most Chinese cannot even write calligraphy, so don’t sweat it if you are having troubles.

Writing for Dummies!

There is also a way of writing the characters in the roman alphabet with tonal indicators called Pinyin.  This is a nice way to learn the tones of each character, but when written out in long sentences, it is very difficult to get your meaning across.

The Tones

While learning to speak Chinese you will encounter tones.  Tones are probably the most difficult part of the spoken language for non-native speakers.  Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that pronunciation of each syllable follows certain sound rules.  There are four basic tones in Mandarin, and they are enumerated as such (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th tone).  The nice thing about Pinyin is that the tones are literally written on the words: ā for 1st tone, á for 2nd tone, ă for 3rd tone, à for 4th tone.  Thinking of the tones like singing is a good way to practice the spoken language.

Not done yet! Dialects!

Even masters of the tones will find difficulty when traveling to provinces with dialects, or when speaking with non-college educated Chinese (which most of the older population are).  Nearly every province has their own dialect which has unique sounds, and even unique words.  So “learning Chinese” is a multifaceted task.  Once you master Mandarin, try and pick up a local dialect!

Life in China

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