Mastering Chinese is difficult. Achieving fluency in any new language takes dedication and hundreds of learning hours. But every language has it’s own unique simplicity that goes with the many challenges. Plenty of articles exist for why Chinese is particularly challenging, best of all this humorous and thought provoking bilingual essay by David Moser entitled “Why Chinese is so damn hard;” however, this article will focus on the aspects of studying Chinese that make it easier than other languages. Hopefully this can provide you with some new ways to look at studying Chinese, as well as encourage you to take the plunge.
Reason #1: Grammar.
Of course the Chinese language has grammatical structures that you need to learn. The human brain is hard-wired to learn and manipulate grammar, a fact which connects all human-beings physiologically. But with Chinese, many of the grammatical rules for constructing sentences correctly in English simply don’t exist. Which initially makes progressing in Chinese a lot more straightforward: focus on building your vocabulary.
Within the framework of Chinese grammar, you will not have to worry about the following things:
- Verb conjugations: because written Chinese characters are complex, they don’t bother changing words to illustrate time like with English verb tenses. You simply say, “tomorrow I play basketball.” This means that once you learn the word go [去], you don’t have to relearn how to use it and what it looks like in different contexts. Portuguese doesn’t have this luxury. Now throw in a bunch of irregular verbs just for added fun and you’ll be begging for the elegance of Chinese grammar.
- Articles (a/an/the): Chinese has measure words, but lacks definite or indefinite articles.
- Complicated sentence patterns: Chinese has largely fixed sentence patterns. When I first began learning I had an instructor who taught me STPVO (subject – time – place – verb – object). This little trick helped me a lot when forming sentences and isn’t hard to remember.
Reason #2: Vocabulary.
One of my theories is that the complexity of character recognition and stroke order in Chinese reduces the absolute number of need-to-know words. In a fascinating computer science study [PDF] from 1985, Ching Y. Suen concluded that the 6,321 most commonly used Chinese words accounted for 90% of the 879,300 word sample he selected from popular newspapers, novels, newspapers, school materials, and magazines. Upon deciding to come to China, I got serious about expanding my vocabulary and used memrise obsessively to learn over 3,000 words in a matter of months. After a year in China, I remember reading the entire series of Harry Potter in Chinese. It was a great way to occupy my time while taking long train rides around China. Obviously I didn’t know every word, but I was capable of reading it smoothly, finishing all seven books in a reasonable amount of time. This stepping stone helped me expand to other books, including non-fiction tales of Chinese history that have not been translated to English. I even picked up some classical Chinese by reading and translating the Dao De Jing [道德经].
Reason #3: Chinese subtitles. Chinese subtitles everywhere.
Whether you are watching Chinese movies online or getting invested in a great new Chinese TV show, Chinese subtitles will be automatically included most of the time. They never automatically include Portuguese language subtitles in Brazil, and I realized how much they helped after downloading Portuguese subtitles to a few Brazilian movies. It is great listening practice if you’ve been reading a lot like I mentioned above. The subtitles can be a major aid if people are talking super fast or you need some more context. Looking at the subtitles and listening to what was said was immensely useful when I was learning to interpret what all the people around me in China were saying. It also instructed me on how certain words were used and when. Or simply how a certain word was said verbally.
Reason #4: Endless amounts of consumable media online.
Within China, copyright appears to be pretty lax. Almost every popular song, show, movie, or book is available through a quick Baidu search. Many of the world’s greatest poets, writers, and thinkers are just a click away. There are entire online repositories for free books. Not to mention all the different news and social media sites. There are 700 MILLION internet users in China. People are constantly uploading content, writing, sharing, liking, chatting etc.
Reason #5: People in China will mostly be eager to engage you in conversation, no matter which phase of the learning process you find yourself.
In China, almost everyone you meet (especially in smaller cities) will be interested to find out who you are and what you’re doing in China. Simply because you are a foreigner. In the beginning stages this is especially helpful with listening and speaking practice because people generally ask you the same questions over and over again. People here can be very patient with you as you struggle to express yourself in the beginning, and with bountiful practice opportunities you can make serious progress quickly. It won’t be long before you can say your many practiced phrases fluently without thinking and are able to interpret a lot of what is being said to you.