Learning Mandarin Chinese Is Hard

Have I mentioned Chinese is hard to learn? Tens of thousands of words made up from thousands of characters. Once you know how to say the characters, now form complete thoughts with them. Otherwise, Chinese sounds like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

I formally began last year and did it, formally, for two months at National Taiwan Normal University. I’ve been self-learning, since then. Why? My uni has free classes for foreigners. But I’m a dual national, so I can’t enroll. Bogus, since anyone knows my country-music-listening-self understands I’m American > Asian.

Learning Chinese is hard, but it pays off. Here's me, surviving an hour-long radio interview in Chinese, about sustainability trends amongst corporates. Thankfully, it was pre-recorded.

Survived an hour-long interview in Chinese about corporate sustainability trends. Learning Chinese is hard, but speaking is easier if the program is pre-recorded.

Anyway, nine months in, I’ve come to realize a few things about how people learn Chinese. I have, to varying degrees, personal experience with all of the below.

1. Many foreign guys studying Chinese in Taiwan develop a quasi-feminine accent. A) Taiwan Chinese is softer and lighter on tones than mainland Chinese, and B) Most teachers are women, so you pick up feminine speech patterns — just another reason learning Chinese is hard.

2. If you learn Chinese in China, you’ll pick up the feminine speech patterns, anyway, from your female Chinese teacher. And if you have a Chinese girlfriend, you might inadvertently double down on these ladyboy habits. You need to learn Chinese outside the classroom.

3. Learning Chinese outside Asia might be toughest. There are great advantages to being here. Even if you earn a masters degree in the U.S. and learn 3,000 characters, you might not know the correct pronunciation or use case. Vocabulary is only the beginning! Comprehension is the goal.

3,000 Pictograms, I Mean, Characters

Why 3,000 characters? There’s actually many more. “An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters,” says the BBC.  Just a subset of the 80,000+ that are out there, if you ask Stanford University. Hang on while I delete some files from my brain to make room for more Chinese.

3,000 just puts you at the middle school level. So after you learn 3,000 Chinese wingdings, congratulate yourself for finishing 8th grade. Here’s the first 100.

100 Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

100 Simplified Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

Then, you smash them together to form terms and learn how that changes context. Each character is just a building block for a word you want to say. So the combinations are, well… According to research by Ashwin Purohit, there are 41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters. Skeptical or need a data project for a statistics class? Here are Ashwin’s data files.


41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters.


These evaluations are just for simplified Chinese, the kind that mainland China uses. Some of the people I’ve spoken to, and myself, believe 6,000 words should be the target for traditional Chinese speakers.

What’s the difference? Well, the Chinese speaking world outside mainland China, including Hong Kong, uses traditional Chinese. The Simplified creation was a Chinese government initiative to improve literacy rates, because well, Chinese is hard. Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes to write characters, merging many that sound similar. Traditional Chinese forms are more numerous, require more strokes, and easier to recognize.

Rote Memorization

Growing up, I wondered why the emphasis on rote memorization in all forms of learning. Then I realized, this is exactly how people learn Chinese. One. Character. At. A. Time. And since language is one of the first high functioning tasks you learn how to do — it just catches on.

Sadly, I didn’t learn enough Chinese as a kid to pick up the magic ability of memorizing facts just so I can repeat them on tests. Which, by the way, isn’t really magic at all. Just habits. Because it’s the same way everyone else learns. Chinese, and tests, is difficult for everybody.

Placing memorization in perspective, many Western adults know somewhere between “20,000 and 35,000 words,” according to The Economist. Memorizing 3,000 characters doesn’t so sound bad. Still…

System Learning

Is there a better way to learn Chinese? Yes, and all of them suck. David Moser at the Beijing Capital Normal University tells a joke: “One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.”

Bopomofo (also known as Zhuyin). Local school children use bopomofo, a phonetic system, to learn words, but you still have to learn the 37 symbols and 4 tones. Also, you won’t see these symbols in public. Courtesy of Omniglot:

Chinese Bopomofo Pronunciation Chart

Radicals. Most systems incorporate learning a few of the 214 radicals. These are parts of characters that give you a clue what the word is about. These diagrams do a good job of explaining the concept. On top, you see how these radicals form characters.

Chinese Radicals Construction

The downside of radicals is that they won’t help you remember how to pronounce characters, but they help you recognize them. That’s a good start. Below, the radical for fire at the left, 火, is used to indicate fry (8), blast (9), grill (10), roast (16), and I haven’t learned 19 yet.

Chinese Radicals Example

Phonetics Are Hard

When you start to recognize characters, you need to learn how to pronounce them correctly. It’s what to say, vs. how to say it.

Pinyin. Most Westerners use pinyin to learn Chinese (the alternative is The Wade-Giles Romanization Atrocity), because it uses the Western alphabet. A fantastic learning tool. But again, you won’t see learning aides in public – just Chinese characters.

Also, learners tend to read off pinyin like they’re English words. Even after learning the four different accent sounds, or tones, people naturally go back to what they usually do. So, it kind of lulls you into a false sense of learning the language, because you end up remembering everything except the tones. You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out. The Hutong School explains.

Four Tones, Four Words — Mother, Marijuana, Horse, Insult

1.”mā”  usually means “mother”, but in spoken language the Chinese will usually say “māma” or “wŏ mā” (My mother) or “nĭ mā” (your mother)

2. “má”  could mean “hemp” (plant), but the only common usage in spoken language would be  “dàmá”, literally “big-hemp” referring to marihuana

3. “mă”  usually means horse

4. “mà”  usually means “to scold, to insult” and is a verb, meaning it will be preceded by a subject and followed by an object.

You probably get the point. Here’s where it gets tricky. Because Chinese joins characters to form words, if you screw up the pronunciations of one character, you quickly end up saying something you didn’t intend to. Exhibit A assumes you pronounced the first character correctly, but not the second:

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard.

Lord help you if you manage to screw up the pronunciations of both characters. The pronunciations can also change, depending on what characters are put next to each other. The reason Why, most of the time, is because it sounds more pleasing.

As if it weren’t difficult enough for most Westerners to think about what they say before they speak. How you speak is even more important when you’re in Greater China. In English, grammar matters. In Chinese, tones count.


You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out.


Cognates Are Hard

Cognates, in Chinese, are words that mean and sound like the English translation. Typhoon, for instance, is 颱風 – tái fēng. You mostly encounter these with brand names, like McDonald’s (麥當勞). Mài dāng láo. Exactly how it sounds.

McDonald's in Taiwan

麥當勞 in 臺灣 (Courtesy: Pinterest)

Cognates are exceptions, but many made their way into modern Chinese. Some fully, some in part. For example, England is 英國 – yīng guó.

  • The first character, 英, is chosen because it sounds like the Eng in England, ˈiNG(g).
  • 國, the second character, means nation.

Chinese is hard, for me, because of this. During my one-hour radio interview, I was trying to figure out what the interviewer was asking us. One half of my brain is trying to recall the Chinese terms being used. The other half is listening to the sounds to see if they resemble an English word.

Moser has a better example which you’ve already seen. Imagine if English was written like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

What’s going on in my mind when I hear next-level Chinese (apparently, there’s a look on my face that makes it very clear when this is going on)

Chinese is Hard

In defense of foreigners, locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form. But, visitors can definitely be more structured about learning. Work on writing — not just speaking. Oh, and tones.

Learning Chinese means having reasonable expectations, and treating it both as a process and a journey. I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility.

Coming up with a personal system, I’ve found, is helpful. But there are limits.


One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.


The learning environment you create for yourself is probably more important. So much of that depends. Do you already know some Chinese? Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? The physical location is ideal, if not forgiving. What you surround yourself with makes it a plus or a negative.

If you’re Caucasian, people are most likely to compliment you on the Chinese you’ve learned so far, and then practice their own English with you. It’s the kind of compliment that isn’t kind, because your own Chinese isn’t going anywhere. You’re going to have to work harder at creating opportunities to practice.

If you’re an American-Born Chinese like me, locals generally won’t simplify or slow down their speech. If you look like you speak Chinese, locals will speak Chinese to you. Even though to them, you’re practically another species. The advantage I have is this isn’t the first time I’ve heard many phrases. But, I’m forced to learn Chinese more quickly.

National Taiwan Normal University

If you want to learn Chinese in Taiwan, I highly recommend National Taiwan Normal University’s (NTNU) Mandarin Training Center.

Learning Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center

NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center is the site of its old library. They kept the entrance, but put up a new building in the 1980s. (Courtesy: NTNU)

Yes, there are outstanding teachers at other language academies and universities. Many of them are like free agents — they actually work at several schools, and I’ve met some who freelance as translators for businesses.

There’s also National Taiwan University (my uni), which is internationally recognized for scholarly Chinese. But classical Chinese probably isn’t your goal, and NTNU has the local reputation for practical Chinese. It’s a trust mark.

National Taiwan Normal is also known for training primary and secondary school language teachers in its College of Education, and it’s considered a top 5 university in Taiwan. They know how to teach. I personally think there are more quality opportunities for language exchange and tutoring at NTNU.

Also, without getting into so many details, my personal experience (and of others I know) is that NTNU is way better equipped to help foreigners. This is important when it comes to legal paperwork like the forms you need in order to stay in Taiwan, who you need to talk to, and where you need to go. I’ve met the friendliest people in Taiwan at NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center.

And as a stranger in a strange land, having people who will help you is everything. Learning Chinese is hard enough.

I’m very lucky to have gotten to study at several of the top universities in Taiwan. Don’t hesitate to Contact Me if there are any questions I can answer for you.

 

One thought on “Learning Mandarin Chinese Is Hard

  1. After a Year in Taiwan, It's Great to be Home in Indiana - PhilipChang.org

Leave a Reply