We have heard innumerable times how difficult Chinese is to learn. Chinese has achieved the mythical status of the “hardest language.” Some even claim that Chinese is “objectively” a difficult language, disregarding native language and learning styles as factors. Many Chinese language programs feel the need to clarify that Chinese isn’t as hard as its made out to be.
All foreign languages are difficult in different ways, but here are three reasons why learning Chinese might not be as daunting as the “hardest language” reputation makes it out to be:
1. Chinese grammar is simple and flexible
In secondary school, many native English speakers are required to study a European second language, usually Spanish or French. Some of the earliest lessons in these languages involve filling out verb conjugation charts, memorizing genders for different words, and learning definite articles. None of which appear in Chinese!
Sure, there are ways to mark if an action is finished or if it’s repeating, but you’ll find no verb conjugation or tenses in Chinese. Simply state when an action has happened – “Yesterday I go to store. Next year, I visit Sichuan.”
While there’s a logic to Chinese word order, spoken Chinese is more flexible. Even if you don’t say words in exactly the proper order, your sentence can still be understood.
2. Pinyin lets you pronounce everything
Pinyin revolutionized written Chinese. All of the sounds of Chinese were codified into one system, and unlike the spelling of most European languages, pinyin is 100 percent phonetic. Once someone has studied pinyin, they have the tools to pronounce literally every word in Chinese. No struggling with sounding out spelling, phonics, or memorizing silent letters.
Chinese also has very few sounds, especially compared to a language like English. With all possible combinations of initials and finals in pinyin, Chinese has only about 400 sounds. Add in the five tones, and you still only get 2,000 possible combinations. Conservative estimates for English conclude that we use over 10,000 different sounds in everyday usage.
Furthermore, pinyin allows people to type and text in Chinese without having to perfectly memorize every character. Few other languages can boast the ease of recognizing symbols, instead of having to struggle with spelling. And for those of you who think memorizing characters is too daunting – remember that even native speakers only use a few hundred on a daily basis.
3. Context clues let you “cheat”
“But there are so many characters!” Chinese learners frequently complain. It’s true that native speakers can’t always write simple characters, but the reason for that should be obvious – they don’t have to write them! Quick, English speakers – how do you spell the word for the beat of music, starts with the letter “r” ? “Rhythm” isn’t an uncommon word, but few people could instinctively spell it correctly.
As for rhythm, if you’d never seen the word before, could you guess its meaning from looking at the word? How about 韵律 (yùnlǜ) which means musical sound + law or structure. Even knowing only one of those characters gives you some idea as to the meaning of the word. Language learners can hazard guesses about characters and be right a good percentage of the time. An oft-quoted example: the word for bottle-opener is simply 开瓶器 (kāi píng qì) is bottle + open + tool. When words like bottle-opener are used, many Chinese learners find themselves able to understand a new word the first time they hear it.
While European languages certainly have more cognates, Chinese is actually full of English cognates! 咖啡 (kāfēi) is coffee, 派对 (pàiduì) is party, and 沙拉 (shālā) is salad. The patterns for cognates take some getting used to, but once you’ve learned to pick them out, you’ll find that they crop up frequently.
尽管欧洲的语言肯定有更多的同源词，中文实际上也有很多跟英文同源的词，比如，“咖啡 (kāfēi)” 是“ coffee”；“ 派对 (pàiduì) ”是“ party”，“沙拉 (shālā)”是 “salad”。你需要花一些时间来适应这些同源词的形式，一旦你学会分辨后，你就会发现它们经常出现。