More and more people are developing an interest in learning the Chinese language, and this is not surprising. Never has interest in China been more widespread. If you can speak English, and you learn Chinese, the result of all that effort is that you will be able to communicate with approximately one out of every two people in the world, because they will speak either Chinese or English. Of course, no other two languages share such a large slice of the pie.
As a consequence of this fresh interest in Chinese and its dialects , schools, universities and colleges around the world are gearing up for serious over-subscription of Chinese courses. But before taking the plunge, a lot of people want an answer to the question, how hard is Chinese?
Learning Chinese is, quite simply, a major headache. But it all depends on whether you tackle the written form or just concentrate on the spoken form of Chinese. The spoken form can be tackled reasonably quickly, and depends on personal aptitude for spoken language and other variables such as confidence and sociability, but the written form is just a case of sitting down and slogging it out with a dictionary and vast amount of patience.
The student of French or German, or any language that uses an alphabet, can quite quickly fall into step with similar written forms, because as a child, years of work have already been invested in speed-reading the very same alphabet. Just a glance at a French or German newspaper will reveal recognizable words and patterns of meaning that require little effort. Learning Chinese , however, introduces the learner to a novel system of writing that takes roughly as long to learn as it takes the Chinese child to learn.
The Chinese written language uses pictures, rather than sounds, to represent ideas. Unfortunately, we are dealing with an archaic script and most of the characters only obliquely suggest the image in question. Each character has to be learned, not only with its meaning, but with its pronunciation because the pronunciation is at best only suggested by the character. Learning is a very slow process and decent fluency only comes with a knowledge in excess of 5000 characters; an ability to read a newspaper fluently will come after at least six years full time exposure to the language. Writing the language is another matter entirely, as memorizing the script for the purposes of writing is much harder than reading, and learning how to write harmonious Chinese characters is harder still.
Sticking with the spoken language is easier and, of course, more useful. Reasonable fluency can be achieved much more quickly; however, Chinese is linguistically and culturally very different from English, and again, perseverance and patience are essential for success. The main challenge are the tones, which must be learned if you want people to understand, rather than guess what you are saying. Tones are very hard to learn, but they differentiate the meaning of words, so they are an essential part of the language. Once you have learned one dialect of Chinese, you have broken the back of the language and learning other dialects is not hard.
For those who take to it, learning Chinese is a joy that surprises and fascinates. The language has a wonderful balance that gives it an attractive symmetry and logic. And for those who struggle with the written form, they learn to unravel a mysterious and beautiful script that is both intriguing and unique. These rewards can only be obtained through hard work and patience, which makes the goal even more rewarding. Those who succeed will also be part of a small community of foreigners who speak the language. For quite a few years now, a Canadian by the name of Dashan (literally ‘big mountain’) has been known to all Chinese in China because he speaks flawless Mandarin, so find your place on the bandwagon and start learning!