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Many people tell me that Chinese is really hard to learn.

So much so that in many languages, a common way to reject someone is to say, "Come and see me after you've learned Chinese!".

When people don't understand what someone is saying, they frequently reply, "What are you talking about? Sounds like Chinese".

There is  even a french phrase, expressing that "C 'est du chinois" (It's Chinese) said whenever something is difficult to grasp, and jazz singer Serge Gainsbourg has a song called "Woman, you're just like Chinese."​

There is also the French version of the "women's heart, underwater needle" comic strip using this phrase.


haha, although they are all jokes, they do prove that the difficulty of learning Chinese is absolutely real.

More accurately, it is the almost complete separation of writing (Chinese characters) and pronunciation (Chinese) that makes Chinese difficult to learn.

So why on earth is Chinese so hard to learn? I summarize the main reasons as follows:

1. it is difficult to write Chinese characters:

Chinese characters are first and foremost a headache for westerners accustomed to writing letters and words. For all the languages of the Latin family (English, German, French...), the most basic building block is the alphabet. How long does it take an Englishman to learn the twenty-six letters, the punctuation marks, and all the components of these sentences? About one or two days.

How about Chinese? In Chinese, there is no basic unit corresponding to the Latin alphabet. The most basic elements of the language are partial radicals. But the number of radicals is far greater than the number of Latin alphabets, and although dictionaries vary, this still isn't the hardest thing about Chinese characters;

Because even with all the radicals in mind, how to put them together is a problem. Writing in English is one-dimensional, with each letter written next to each other from left to right. But Chinese characters are two-dimensional images: radicals can go up and down, one left and one right, one inside and one outside, with three or four parts twisted together to form a character. What's more, in the process of composing Chinese characters, these components will be squeezed, stretched, and distorted, leading them all to finally fit into one square character as shown in the figure below:


So for a Native Latin speaker in the West, to learn English as compared to Chinese is a similar choice to climbing a hill as compared to a mountain.

2. one can write, but can't speak.

The Chinese writing system is much more difficult to learn than the alphabet system. After learning how to write, people who are learning Chinese will encounter a second major difficulty: not writing or not speaking. Because to learn to speak Chinese, the writing system alone is not enough, a large number of pronunciations for certain characters need to be memorized.

At present, most of the world's languages are pinyin characters, so by looking at the spelling of a word, you can roughly read out its pronunciation. But one cannot simply gauge how to write a character simply by hearing how it is pronounced, and the logic of learning words in Chinese is unbelievably twisted.​

First of all, although most Chinese call the Chinese language hieroglyphics, Chinese characters are not actually pictographs, but ideographs. Hieroglyphics appeared in ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations, but after thousands of years of evolution, hieroglyphics have almost become extinct in modern languages. The diagram below a small part of it;


Through evolution, modern Chinese has gradually developed from pictographs to characters, all fitting now into the same square format, each of which is composed of some "character elements" or radicals (as shown in the figure below). Among these elements, some have significant meaning (eg. the radical for the animal), some resemble shapes and sounds (the radical - grass & rice field), and some are purely for visual purposes.


A few of the characters can be guessed from the glyphs and radicals, but most cannot. So for native speakers of Han Yu Pin Yin, learning Chinese is equivalent to learning two languages -- one spoken and one written. Even a fluent Chinese speaker may not know certain words. (This is also the reason why illiteracy is so high in China where education is not widely available.)

3. complex grammar structures dependant on context 

It's all about the situation, the context.

At the beginning of learning a new language, foreigners often find themselves knowing every word that should go in a sentence but not knowing how to put them together.

Foreigners learning Chinese always encounter this problem. Because Chinese characters are so much more ambiguous than words in the Latin language, it is often impossible to tell what a word means by looking at it. For example: 

徐 (xú) is actually a Chinese surname, but when the character 徐 is combined with other characters into a new word or phrase, the meaning changes completely. For example, 徐徐而来(xú xú ér lái) means to take your time and move in a dignified manner.

吧 (bā) is a common suffix used at the end of a sentence, usually without any meaning. However, 好吧(hǎo bā) and 说吧(shuō bā) mean completely different things (all right and go ahead [respectively]) ... these words are one of the most important aspects of Chinese, but there are no such words in English.

The more commonly used words are, the more meanings they will have, and understanding what they refer to depends more and more on the context which they are in. For example, 样 When the word "like" is used in different combinations of words, it has different meanings. (see the picture below - )


another example, if the word "就 (jiù)" is taken out of context, the speaker's initial intentions will be lost. 


The sentence structure of Chinese is highly unique. A frequently used word like the one above are usually adverbs that refer to time, such as "就", that must be placed at the front of the sentence rather than at the end. This is another important aspect specific to the Chinese language.

What's more, this issue is even present when reading text. In spoken language, each pronunciation may refer to several different characters. For example, 花 (huā) means flower when it is used to talk about plants, it also can be understood as spent (money) when it's used in a sentence about money. "yuán", could refer to a park, people, or even an ape. It is impossible to guess without the context. 

4. the use of tones.

Each Chinese character corresponds to one syllable of Pinyin, and each syllable consists of three parts in total: an initial, a final and a tone.


All initials and finals are represented by English letters (and an extra letter that ü doesn't exist in English). Learn these and you'll have pinyin under your belt in no time!


There are four tones used in Chinese (plus an extra neutral tine). The four tones are the most incomprehensible part of Chinese to foreigners. The same sound paired with different tones can also indicate different meanings. (Cantonese even has nine tones!)​ It's extremely important to get the tones of each syllable right, as they can mean completely different things when pronounced with different tones.

Incorrect tones may cause a lot of misunderstanding in daily conversations.

I want to kiss you.jpg
I want to ask you.jpg

Of all the major languages in the world, Chinese is the only one that uses different tones dependant. This is another big barrier to cross for those who want to speak Chinese fluently.

5. Different grammar structures

Many people barely even notice grammar when speaking in their own mother tongue. But does Chinese offer the same feeling? Except for students majoring in linguistics, most Chinese people have never properly learned Chinese grammar. English speakers feel the same. The grammar structures have come about because people simply feel that this is the natural pecking order of the words.

However, foreigners studying Chinese will tell you that Chinese grammar is confusing.  The difficulty of Chinese grammar lies not in its complexity, but in its simplicity: verbs do not divide into categories of person and tense, transitional words during speech do not change, there are no irregular, singular or plural verbs, no difference in pronunciation depending on male or female connotations, no subject-verb agreements...

"I eat" and "you eat", "ate today" (today to eat) and "ate yesterday" (yesterday to eat), "I love" and "my love", the prefixes and suffixes of the words never change depending on these scenarios, nor will the morphological transformation. A word (eg. eat, love, I) can be used in all kinds of situations in the Chinese world.

Without these complicated grammar rules, Wouldn't Chinese be simple?


Because in English, tenses and semantics, which can be reflected in morpheme and verb rules, can only be conveyed through context and maybe some mood auxiliaries in Chinese. Take a look at the following dialogue —

“你吃吗?”            "Did you eat it?"
没吃。”            "I haven't eaten yet."
。”         "Then you can have some."
。”      "No, I can't."

The "了" in the first sentence means complete, the "还"(hái)in the second is an adverb, meaning "not yet"), the "吧"(bā)in the third sentence indicates the imperative mood, while the same "了" in the fourth sentence indicates the possibility.

So, after your reading, do you have a sense of the inscrutability of the Chinese language? O_O...

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