Thinking about studying Chinese, but wondering if it’s really that hard to learn? The answer might surprise you!
Chinese is a famously difficult language to learn, but how much truth is there to it? After all, Mandarin is the world's most spoken language, so it can’t be much more challenging to learn than other languages. Well, the answer is a little more complicated than that.
First of all, it’s important to note that Chinese is a very unique language. While many languages use the Latin alphabet, Chinese doesn’t. In fact, there is no such thing as the Chinese alphabet. Instead, Chinese uses thousands of logographic characters that have a meaning — rather than a sound — attached to them.
However, that also gives Chinese many advantages over Germanic languages like English. Namely, grammar is much simpler, and reading is much faster once you’ve mastered the characters.
So, just how hard is it to learn Chinese? That’s precisely what we’ll cover in great detail in this article. Let’s get started!
Table of contents
- Is Chinese hard to learn?
- Why learning Chinese is not as hard as you think
- How long does it take to learn Chinese?
- Hardest Chinese words
- How to easily learn Chinese
- Frequently asked questions
Is Chinese hard to learn?
Learning Chinese is generally harder than learning any other language. However, it’s not an impossibly difficult language to learn. If you’ve just started learning Mandarin or are thinking about signing up for some online Mandarin classes, you might be struggling to understand how you could possibly learn to speak, read, and write Chinese.
That’s because Chinese has a very steep initial learning curve. As it introduces English speakers to brand-new writing and speaking systems, it’s no surprise that many of us feel utterly intimidated by picking up something completely different from our native language. That’s why learning other languages that use the Latin alphabet feels easier because the differences aren’t as obvious.
However, many don’t know that learning Chinese gets progressively easier once you get past that initial steep learning curve. Learning Chinese becomes more straightforward once you get comfortable with characters and pronunciation. This is around the same time when other languages start getting more challenging, as you must keep learning more complex verb tenses with equally mind-boggling conjugations.
A great example of this is the use of two or more characters to create a word. When you first start learning Chinese, every new word comes with one or two new characters. However, once you’ve got a few hundred characters under your belt, you’ll learn new words that are made up of characters you already know.
For example, the word for lipstick in Chinese is 口红 (kǒu hóng), which is made up of 口 (kǒu), which means mouth, and 红 (hóng), which means red. Makes sense! Since you’ll probably learn some elementary body parts and colors in Chinese early on, you should have no problem understanding this advanced word. There are many similar examples, showing that Chinese can get progressively easier the more you learn.
What makes Chinese so hard to learn?
So, what exactly makes Chinese such a challenging language to learn? If you’re a native English speaker, then you might find the following areas of the language a bit difficult:
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Chinese being a difficult language is the Chinese characters. With over 50,000 unique characters, it can feel overwhelming to even think about learning so many characters just to acquire a new language. Each character represents a syllable and a meaning, and words can be made up of one, two, or more characters.
However, you have a few things on your side when it comes to radicals:
- You only need around 2,000 characters. Unless you’re planning to read all the ancient Chinese classics, you won’t need much more than 2,000 characters to be considered literate. In fact, knowing just 3,500 characters will allow you to recognize 99.5% of all characters in general circulation. This means you’ll be able to get through entire novels with just a couple hundred unknown characters, which you should be able to pick up on from context.
- Radicals are your friends. Many Chinese characters come with radicals that can be helpful ways to remember the meaning of a character. For example, the radical 女 (nǚ) means woman, so characters containing this radical will be related to women. For example, 妈妈 (mā ma) means mom. Check out our ultimate guide to Chinese radicals for more!
- Some characters resemble their meaning. You may have heard that Chinese characters are supposed to look like their meaning, which isn’t true. At least not anymore. However, Chinese characters originally were visual representations of objects, so they tended to resemble their meanings. For example, 火 (huǒ) means “fire,” and it looks like it too!
With that said, learning the characters will likely be the single thing that will take up most of your study time. Don’t want to spend countless hours memorizing characters? Then check out these 10 expert tips for learning Chinese characters.
Chinese is a tonal language, which means that words vary depending on the tone. This is different from English, where almost all words mean the same regardless of how they’re pronounced. Chinese has four tones plus a fifth neutral tone. Accent marks represent the first four tones, while the absence of an accent mark represents the last tone.
|3||Falling and rising||马||mǎ||Horse|
|No tone||None||吗||ma||Question particle|
This can be problematic because you can make some very easy mistakes if you use the wrong tone. For example, 我想问你 (wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ) 我想吻你 (wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ) are two completely different things: the first means I want to ask you while the second means I want to kiss you!
Although the words may all sound the same when you start learning the language, enough practice will help you easily distinguish between the tones.
Finally, even when you think you’ve mastered enough Chinese vocabulary to carry you through any conversation, you must deal with the world of chengyu. These are Chinese idioms that are generally made up of four characters that summarize a story or idea. While many of these are self-explanatory, most chengyu can be challenging to understand if you don’t know the background.
For example, a common chengyu is 爱屋及乌 (ài wū jí wū), whose literal translation is “The love for a person extends even to the crows of the roof of their house.” If you are not used to this, then you might be confused as to why crows were even brought up mid-conversation. However, it means that loving someone extends to everything related to them, similar to the English idiom “Love me, love my dog.”
Why learning Chinese is not as hard as you think
Think about it: Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. Of course, it’s not impossible to learn! Even if it seems impossible, learning Chinese is feasible with enough dedication and commitment. Here are some things about learning Chinese that might put you at ease, especially if you’re used to studying Romance languages like French and Spanish.
Yup, you heard that right! There are no conjugations at all in Chinese, so you won’t have to memorize more than one version of each verb in Chinese. Just add the correct pronoun and the verb in infinitive, and you’re good to go!
Grammar is relatively simple
Compared to languages like German and Italian, Chinese grammar is a piece of cake. On top of not having conjugations, Chinese also doesn’t have a complicated tense structure. Simple modal particles can express different tenses without altering the verb.
Pinyin will undoubtedly be your best friend on your Chinese learning journey. This romanization system will help you pronounce new characters and, perhaps most importantly, type them on your phone and computer. Since handwriting isn’t all that common these days, you can easily type Chinese characters without memorizing how to write them all from scratch.
To learn more about pinyin, check out our complete guide to pinyin for free!
How long does it take to learn Chinese?
According to the U.S. Foreign Language Institute, becoming proficient in Chinese takes 88 weeks of full-time study. This places Chinese squarely in the “super-hard” languages category, along with others like Arabic, Korean, and Japanese.
These calculations consider full-time study to include 25 class hours per week or 5 class hours per day, five days a week. That’s a total of 2,200 class hours to learn Chinese. Adding in time for homework, review, and self-study, the total number of hours required to learn Chinese can easily balloon to well over 3,500.
Hardest Chinese words
Looking at some of the most complex words in a language can be an excellent way to gauge its difficulty. The thing about Chinese is that, unlike languages like English or German, it doesn’t have any extremely long words that are more difficult to spell or pronounce than others. However, it does have some sounds that may be hard for non-native speakers to nail and some characters that may be extraordinarily difficult to write by hand. Let’s take a look.
Hardest Chinese words to pronounce
Chinese has a minimal phonetic range, with a total number of around 1,300 possible syllables. By comparison, English has a total of 15,831 syllables, so you won’t have to worry about learning too many different sounds. With that said, a few syllables will take some time to nail as a non-native speaker. Here are the ten hardest Chinese words to pronounce:
|44||四十四||sì shí sì||syh shyr syh|
|Taxi||出租车||chū zū chē||chu tzu che|
|Bicycle||自行车||zì xíng chē||tzyh shyng che|
|Skirt||裙子||qún zi||chyun tzy|
|To resign||辞职||cí zhí||tsyr jyr|
|Seven pairs of shoes||七双鞋子||qī shuāng xié zi||chi shuang shye tzy|
|Moon||月亮||yuè liàng||yueh lianq|
Hardest Chinese characters to write
Chinese characters used to be much more complicated in the past. However, after the adoption of simplified characters in 1949, simpler versions replaced most complex characters. For example, the traditional character 個 (gè) was replaced by 个, making writing this extremely common character much easier.
Because of that, you won’t run into any scary-looking characters in everyday conversations. However, if you’re curious to see what some of the hardest Chinese characters look like, take a look at the following extreme and uncommon characters:
|English||The Hard Characters||Pinyin||Pronunciation|
|The odor of sheep or goats||羴||shān||shan|
|Fine animal hair||毳||cuì||tsuey|
|Roar of thunder||䨻||bèng||benq|
|The appearance of a dragon flying||龘||dá||dar|
How to easily learn Chinese
By this point, you’ve either decided that Chinese is a hard language and you’re up for the challenge or realized that it isn’t as hard as you previously thought and are ready to dive head-first. Whatever the case, we want you to have all the tools you need to succeed on your path toward Chinese fluency. Here are some of our best tips to easily learn Chinese:
1. Start with pinyin
Chinese characters are an integral part of the language; you will eventually have to read them to attain working fluency. However, when starting out, it’s a good idea to entirely ignore the characters while getting used to this brand-new language. The last thing you want is to get discouraged while getting acquainted with a new language.
Instead, take advantage of pinyin and focus on getting used to the rhythm and logic of Chinese before you start paying serious attention to the characters. Once you’re more comfortable with a few basic phrases, you can start working on learning the characters.
2. Learn a handful of phrases
When you’re first getting started, picking up a handful of helpful phrases can be more useful than spending time learning countless new grammar patterns and rules. While you will eventually need to learn grammar and patterns, there’s nothing wrong with taking a shortcut at the very beginning to get a few helpful phrases under your belt.
For example, you could learn a few ways to say hello in Chinese or some romantic Chinese phrases that you can use with your partner. At this point, anything to get you started having conversations — as simple as they may be — will help propel you along your journey.
3. Increase your comprehensible input
The fastest way to increase your fluency in any language is to increase your comprehensible input. This means consuming media you can mostly understand, regardless of the content. The beauty of this is that you can spend your free time reading books, watching TV shows, or listening to podcasts, all while working on your Chinese fluency!
4. Use Spaced Repetition Software (SRS)
An SRS is the 21st-century version of flashcards. It works the same way as a flashcard, except that you tell the system how well you can recall a word (if at all). The system takes this information and keeps feeding you the same words until you’ve remembered them correctly enough times in a row. That way, you’ll keep studying the words you have a hard time remembering and not waste time reviewing words you already know pretty well.
In fact, studies show that this is the most effective way to learn vocabulary in a foreign language. So, as you work through all the new vocabulary, you’ll want to have a good SRS app on your side. Anki is a popular SRS app among language learners, and it’s available for free.
5. Focus on your interests
One of the biggest misconceptions about learning a new language is that you need to know everything to become fluent. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you don’t even know everything in your native language, and that doesn’t make you any less fluent. For example, you may not be familiar with all the medical or legal terms if you don’t use them regularly.
The same is true for Chinese. Think about why you want to learn Chinese and tailor your vocabulary around it. Perhaps you work for a multinational business and need to learn some marketing terms in Chinese. Or maybe you’re in the restaurant industry and need to use Chinese food names regularly. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing (and deprioritizing!) certain vocabulary sets.
Frequently asked questions
Is Chinese harder to learn than Japanese?
Both Chinese and Japanese are considered “super-hard” languages to learn for English speakers. However, Chinese is generally considered a bit harder to learn than Japanese because of the number of characters. While the Japanese writing system uses characters as well, they also use two additional sets of alphabets: Hiragana and Katakana. These alphabets work similarly to the alphabet we use in English, where one symbol, or “letter,” represents a sound and is strung together to form a word. This makes Japanese slightly easier to learn.
What is the biggest Chinese character?
By far, the biggest Chinese character is biáng from biáng biáng miàn, a type of noodle dish served in Xi’an. In fact, it’s so complicated that computer character input programs cannot handle it, which is why you’ll see the name of this dish written in pinyin on menus. With 58 strokes, this is the hardest Chinese character out there!
Is Chinese the hardest language in the world?
Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. We’ve ranked Chinese as the second-hardest language to learn for English speakers, only behind Arabic. Within Chinese, Cantonese is generally harder to learn than Mandarin because of the extra tones. Check out our guide for more info on the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.
Is Mandarin harder than Spanish?
Learning Chinese is significantly harder to learn than Spanish for native English speakers. According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, learning Chinese takes 88 weeks of full-time study. On the other hand, learning Spanish takes 24 weeks of full-time study. That’s just 600 class hours to attain fluency, compared to 2,200 class hours for Chinese.
However, you must also consider any personal circumstances that could make it easier or harder for you to learn either language. For example,
- Do you have any prior exposure to either language?
- Do you have any friends or family members who speak either language?
- Do you live in an area with a significant Spanish-speaking or Chinese-speaking population?
- Do you have the ability to spend some time abroad in a Spanish-speaking country or Chinese-speaking country?
The answers to these questions can help you determine if you have any personal advantages that could make learning one language easier.
Up for a challenge that will open up your world? Learn Chinese!
So, yes, according to all metrics, Chinese is a hard language to learn. However, that doesn’t mean you should shy away from giving it a shot. After all, it is one of the top languages to learn for international business, and with over a billion speakers, there are countless reasons to spend the time required to master this wonderful language.
Want some more hints as to what the language is like before getting started? Then, take a look at some of the fun and free articles on our Mandarin blog. You can get started with essential guides, like how to talk about months, days, and years in Chinese or drinks in Chinese.