Why Is Chinese Hard to Learn? 2 Main Reasons

aerial photography of great wall of china

You could start by asking ‘Is Chinese hard to learn?’, but many already assume that it is. This assumption is respectfully deserved. The differences between Chinese and languages from western Europe are quite vast. At its core, this is what makes Chinese difficult for Westerners.

I started learning Mandarin Chinese in December of 2020. The first year studying it was plagued with frustration. Certain elements of the language forced me to reevaluate the way I learn languages. At the time I had successfully learned German and Portuguese.

In my mind, the winning formula for learning a new language was reading with complimentary listening practice on LingQ, plus weekly conversations with a tutor from italki. I’m hesitant to say that it didn’t work for Chinese. Some progress did come with time. However, this formula just didn’t seem like enough.

Note: I’m going to refer to Mandarin as Chinese as it relates to my experiences. Regardless, the reasons explained in this article as to why “Chinese” is difficult relates to all dialects or Chinese languages unless noted otherwise.

Reason 1: Characters – No Alphabet

The biggest reason that my formula for language learning lacked success was because of Chinese’s use of characters or 子 (zì). Simply reading text didn’t necessarily benefit me when I went to speak the language. On LingQ, Chinese characters have pinyin written above them. Therefore, it was possible to pick up the syllables behind each character. While you’re reading, however, you’re essential reading two different things at the same time. My brain for whatever reason felt inclined to focus more on the characters and only vaguely on the pinyin. The pinyin was quite small but other than that I can only speculate as to why my brain chose to attach little meaning to it. Regardless, this was the source of my frustration.

The characters themselves don’t tell you how a given word should be pronounced. When I went to practice with a tutor, I found myself mostly visualizing characters but not much more.

Basic pronouns and a few of the most common verbs and nouns in Chinese, I knew. This amounted to maybe 20 words. I was certainly learning Chinese. Several hundred characters had become familiar to me. This was true of much of their respective pinyin, but I wasn’t internalizing most of it.

Is Chinese Hard to Learn Regardless of Technique?

After acknowledging that reading on LingQ wasn’t going to be enough, I decided to change my strategy. My focus over the past few weeks has been memorizing pinyin. I’ve been studying HSK 1, 2, and 3 study decks that I found on Quizlet. The flashcards solely consist of a word’s pinyin and its English counterpart. To put it plainly, I’m already seeing promising results from this.

I’ve been speaking more and more little by little with a Mandarin tutor from italki. Many of the pinyin from the 2 study decks are already familiar to me. The pinyin of less familiar words are also coming to me much quicker. For the first time since I started, I feel very excited about studying Mandarin. It has, for the most part, been a frustrating learning experience until now.

Reason 2: Lack of Cognates

Why else is Chinese hard to learn? One aspect of Chinese that makes it difficult was obvious to me from the beginning. Chinese shares very few cognates with English or any Western European languages for that matter.

咖啡 (kāfēi) and 茶 (chá) are the only two cognates that come to mind now – meaning coffee and tea, respectively. Neither of these words are cognates with their English counterparts. They are, however, cognates with words in other languages. In Portuguese and Spanish the word for coffee is café. The word for tea in Portuguese is chá. These words are likely cognate as a result of global trade.

The word 妈妈 (māma) would be familiar to English speakers – meaning mom. Based on linguistic research that I’ve read about, this is could be a pure coincidence. The m sound is one of the first that babies can make when they learn to speak. It could be that parents have simply mistaken the sound to mean mom, momma, or mommy and that meaning has been attached to these sounds more than once.

Regardless of the origin, the word for mom in Mandarin will likely stick with English speakers quickly. The rarity of these examples is what makes learning Chinese a challenge of patience. Learning new words takes several times longer on average in Mandarin for English speakers as compared to a romance language. You’re essentially learning the vocabulary from scratch. Not to mention you’ll need to more or less learn each word twice, its pinyin as well as its character or characters.

Is Chinese Hard to Learn Simply Because It Takes More Time?

One thought often crossed my mind during that first arduous year of studying Chinese. Perhaps it took me as long as it did to absorb new vocabulary because of Chinese’s distance in both language and culture from those that I know. Maybe it wasn’t my technique but rather elements out of my control. In all likelihood, this is a half-truth.

My time spent reading Chinese on LingQ does not feel wasted. At worst I learned several hundred characters and some pinyin here and there. The lack of cognates between Chinese and languages that I know means that I had to build very basic vocabulary from scratch. This is difficult because without basic building blocks you don’t get hints at the meaning of other words. For example, the word 学 (xué) to study – can be an asset when learning other words regarding education. The words 同学 (tóngxué) classmate – and 学校 (xuéxiào) school – both contain the word for study.

In cases where you’re studying a language very similar to one that you already know, often you already know these basic building blocks or even the words themselves, depending on the nature of the vocabulary.

Is Chinese hard to learn? Out the five languages that I’ve diligently studied, it’s been the most difficult by far. However, as a result it’s also been the most rewarding.

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