Why is Chinese so hard to learn?

I more or less finished a one semester course on elementary spoken Chinese and another which taught me how to write about 50 characters, and build words with them. Now that the end of the course is about two months in the past, I realize that I’m back where I started: I can barely read and write Chinese. Last week I tried to say a few words to a couple of Chinese friends and failed miserably in communicating with them. Almost everything I memorized has disappeared.

So I was happy to read what I understand is a famous article: Why Chinese is so damn hard. If you are struggling with Chinese, it is good to read this article.

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.

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