Why is Chinese so hard to learn?

It is late in the night of a day I’ve spent on Chinese and I’m frustrated. It is so very hard! I’ve been learning Mandarin (which I wrongly call Chinese in the rest of this post) and the Chinese script for sixteen class hours now, followed by about thirty follow-up hours outside of the class. I’m finding it hard to keep up with the teacher’s (jiao shi de, 教师) expectations. I really enjoy the classes, but the words and characters disappear from my mind like water through a sieve (shai, 筛子). I’ve spent the last four hours thinking about what it is that is difficult about Chinese and I put down my thoughts here.

It is not the grammar. The rules of grammar are trivial for those who speak two or more Indo-European languages, especially if one of them is Indian and the other European. A sentence is subject-verb-object (eg, I love you, wo ai ni, 我爱你). There are little twists like particles, for example, a word which converts a statement into a question (eg, you are Chinese, ni shi zhong guo ren, 你是中国人 becomes the question are you Chinese, ni shi zhong guo ren ma?, 你是中国人吗?). But there are functional equivalents in Indian languages (in Hindi, you are Chinese, आप चीनी हैं, becomes a question by adding क्या, as in आप चीनी हैं क्या?). It is not the grammar which makes Chinese difficult.

It is partly the tones. I once asked a taxi driver in Beijing to take me to the Tian’anmen square and he did not understand what I mean because I did not have the right tones (Tiān’ānmén). I had to write out 天安门 to communicate. Mandarin has four tones, Shanghainese with its tonal regularities might be easier; I’m glad I’m not learning Cantonese or Hakka which have six tones, or Taiwanese, which has seven. When you speak Mandarin you have to get used to using the right tone for each word in order to make sense. This means a lot of practice. So it is partly the tones which make it difficult to learn Chinese.

It is largely the sheer strangeness of having to learn characters (han xi). I’m used to learning an alphabet. Every time you learn a new word you already almost know how to write it (we are not talking about English, obviously). Traveling inside India, The Family and I play this game of learning the alphabet by comparing signs in English and the local language. These skills are not transferable to Chinese. Each word that you learn has to be learnt twice: once as the sound, again as the shape. This is what I find to be the hardest part of learning Chinese.

It is also partly our (my?) wrong assumption that learning basic characters would mean that I could read the language. An example of where this goes spectacularly wrong is the word for Mumbai (Mèngmǎi, 孟买). By characters, the translation is first month + buy. In fact, the Chinese have different words for characters (xi, 字) and words (ci, 词). The fact that combinations of characters can often mean something totally different from the meanings of the characters is also what makes Chinese difficult.

This need not be surprising for anyone conversant with an Indo-European language. In these languages, the script is always alphabetic, and you spend a bit of time learning the alphabet. But then, combinations of letters mean so much more than the letters themselves. The difference is that in Chinese the number of basic characters is much larger. I’m told that knowing 2000 characters is enough to read a newspaper. I’ve spend 4 weeks learning about 80 character, and will know perhaps 1000 characters by the time the course ends. Will this be enough to read newspapers, and increase one’s own ability to learn more? I don’t know.

Finally it is the fact that the characters (han xi) are so difficult to remember. I was so confused about the difference between me (wo, 我) and clothes (yi, 衣) that one night I dreamt of writing these two characters over and over again with a pen in a notebook, and then with a brush on a scroll, while wondering what the difference in meanings of these characters is. When I woke up in a cold sweat I rushed to a dictionary to find out. It was 4 in the morning, and this incident completely ruined my day. So, yes, partly it is the sheer number of characters which makes the language difficult.

There seems to be no way to get over these factors. I guess one has to just practise until one is perfect.

Reading or writing?

“I’m coming as the president of a friend,
and I’m coming as a sportsman.”
–George W. Bush,
on his trip to the Olympics in China,
Washington, D.C., July 30, 2008

A few minutes with Google translate convinced me that I could speak Pǔtōnghuà (Mandarin), but others might not understand it. The world needs more than the few weeks remaining before I leave for China to come to grips with my Mandarin. Pinyin, which is Chinese written out in Roman characters, is apparently not going to help in China.

Could writing hànzi (Chinese characters) be easier? Having once learnt how to tell exit from entry and the men’s from the ladies’, I know that this is about what I could learn. I’m not interested in reading newspapers, just figuring out signboards. I need to know just enough to write the basic numbers and some important stuff like “Do you know English?”

There’s a great page on the Forbes’ website which gives me a basic eight character vocabulary. Look at it, it is definitely a confidence booster. Until you realize that you need to learn a few thousand characters to read newspapers.

Chinese numerals

Numbers don’t seem hard. The above table comes from this page, which also tells you how to combine these symbols into composite numbers. The Chinese system for writing numbers is simple and intuitive. I should be able to recognize a printed number. This website shows how to write these characters.

It turns out that you specify a month by writing a number between 1 and 12 and following it with the symbol for month: 月 (meaning moon, pronounced yuè). The first month is January. Days of the week are written by first writing 星期 (pronounced xīngqí) followed by the numbers 1 to 6 (Monday to Saturday). I rest on Sunday.

A tool called Skritter teaches you how to write various characters, and the rules for writing hanxi in general. It’s a great tool actually.