Three Reasons Chinese is Hard and What to Do

Three main challenges stand between you and learning Chinese. If you do a few things right, you can not only make it easier but make it an adventure as well.
Chinese boyThe challenges are 1. Many people are intimidated by learning such a difficult language 2. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone you use changes the meaning of the word. 3. The writing system is complex and overwhelming.

Here are three reasons why learning Chinese can be difficult and what to do to make learning easier.

Reason # 1 – The mental challenge.

Intimidating. Scary. Impossible. Do those words run through your mind when you consider learning Chinese? There is no question that learning Chinese can be daunting. There’s no alphabet. You have to memorize thousands of characters. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word?! Any one of those might make a weaker person start looking for Spanish classes on Craigslist. The intimidation factor makes it even harder to learn Chinese. It’s there when you open the book or turn on your computer. It silently seeps in when you think about studying vocabulary. It slows you down.

You might have good reasons for learning Chinese. You may want to study for the business opportunity or to prepare for a trip China. You might like Chinese culture or be interested in Chinese history or medicine. Maybe you are adopting Chinese children. Those are great reasons to learn Chinese. But if you just have good reasons, you will fail. Many people do.

How to overcome the mental challenge.

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” – Theodore Roosevelt

The difficulty is exactly what makes it special and important. Anyone can learn an easy language, but how many of your friends speak Chinese? Don’t you have just a little extra respect for anyone who speaks reasonably well? It takes grit to stare down intimidation and take on a remarkable language like Chinese. Are you up to the challenge?
If you want to learn Chinese, you have to take on the intimidation first. 1.2 billion people speak Chinese and you can, too. But most of them learned as children. So what? Many people learn to speak Chinese as adults, and so can you. Start by making learning Chinese your next adventure. It should and can be fun. You will learn about a new culture that is very different and exotic.

Understand that while it is difficult, much of the language is easy to learn. Verbs don’t conjugate. There is no I am, you are. It is all I be, you be, he be etc. The verbs don’t change form for past or future tense. You simply add words or time to change the sentence. “I gave him the ball yesterday” directly translates to “I yesterday give he the ball.“ Notice that it is he and not him in the last example? That’s because you don’t need to change pronouns due to case. There are more examples of why Chinese is actually much easier than you think to learn. Now, let’s talk about two more challenges and what to do about them.

Reason # 2 – Chinese is a tonal language.

28683357_sI love talking about the 4 Chinese tones with someone unfamiliar with the Chinese language. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word. Mā means mother but mà means scold. Their eyes get big and they look impressed. The truth is you already use all of these tones to change the meaning of what you are saying in English. Chinese has four tones plus an unstressed tone. The first tone is flat like a note you might hear from a tuning fork. The second tone rises like asking a question. The third tone drops and rises. The fourth tone drops and sounds angry. There is a fifth tone is unstressed, much like an unstressed syllable in English.

Chinese children study the words mā má mǎ mà. That sounds like this:

How to master the Chinese tones.

Getting the tones right isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either. First, when you learn vocabulary, you must must must memorize the tone for each word. If you don’t have the tones memorized, learning how to hear and use the sounds won’t make a difference. Now, start listening. Carefully. Your next step is distinguishing between the tones when you hear them. Play the tones above over and over. Start mimicking the speaker. Don’t be bashful. Take on the accent just like you might mimic an English or German accent. Revel in the middle school thrill of mocking a teacher once more!

Once you can make the correct sounds for the same word, start practicing for different words. Download the Pleco app on your phone. Look up each vocabulary word and then play the tones. Back to mimicking and mocking you go. Do this until the sound of the word feels natural.

Your next challenge is using tones in a sentence. You can’t speak Chinese word by word. The words and tones must flow with one another. You have to learn to transition from a fourth tone to a first tone and from a first tone to a fourth tone. To do this, we need to memorize how to say sentences. Take recordings of sentences and start mimicking the speaker again. It might help to break the sentences down into shorter phrases. Keep practicing until you master the tones. If you find this difficult, don’t give up! You already use tones in English without thinking, you soon will be doing the same thing with Chinese tones. All it takes is familiarity and practice.

Reason # 3 – You need to learn 3,000 Chinese characters to read a newspaper.

Chinese Writing Art

Most Chinese people know about 8,000 characters on average. If you want to read the newspaper, you only need to know between two and three thousand. It isn’t as bad as it seems.

First, if you just want to master basic conversational Chinese, you probably don’t need to learn to read or write Chinese characters. You might want to learn to recognize a few that could be important for a trip, but that’s it. The reason for this is pinyin, which is a way to write out characters using a western alphabet. This is how Chinese language speakers type in computers and cell phones. You’ve already seen an example, mā,  in the section of this post on tones. Pinyin will serve you well for the first year, which may be all you need to study.

Second, if you want to get past the basics, you will need to at least learn how to read Chinese characters. Some people feel this is best done by writing them, but it certainly takes less effort to learn to read than to learn to write. Realize that while the number of characters is daunting, you don’t need to master all of them.

How to start learning to read and write

To master reading or writing Chinese, start by learning 11 basic strokes used to write Chinese characters and the rules about stroke order. Second, you need to start learning basic characters. There are apps like Skritter or this memory game that will help. Third, set a goal and a schedule. Practice for a few minutes every day. If you want to read the newspaper, you need to learn 2 to 3 thousand characters. Fourth, learn Chinese radicals, which are components that can be put together to write Chinese characters. There is a nice list of radicals on Keep at it and you will soon be reading the paper or writing short essays.Chiense boy learning


Chinese isn’t the easiest language to learn, but its reputation as a difficult language is a bit overdone. Don’t let this reputation deter you from getting started. Once you start, take the tones seriously. Memorize and practice each word until it comes naturally. You don’t have to learn to write, but if you do, create a plan and practice daily. Good luck!

Luck, Prosperity and a Monster – Happy Chinese New Year

Do you remember Christmas morning as a child? I remember bursting with excitement waiting for gifts, while my dad got a cup of coffee. Chinese children feel that same excitement waiting for red envelopes on New Years Eve. What we call Chinese New Year is known as Spring Festival or  春节 in China. It is the most important holiday in China. Families return home to celebrate and hope for a prosperous new year, but as with Christmas, Chinese New Year has a darker side.

In Chinese mythology, a creature called the 年兽 or nián shòu comes out to eat people. The word nián shòu is often shortened to nián or year. The nián is afraid of three things: the color red, fire and loud noises. In the past, some villagers put red scrolls on the gate and lit fireworks at midnight to scare the nián away. The nián has never been seen again, but people continue the practice today.

Spring is upside down

Chinese New Year starts with the tradition of cleaning and organizing the home, both inside and out. People are letting go of the old in order to welcome the new. Once the house is clean, families shop for food, firecrackers, pastries and maybe 酒 or jiǔ.

Chinese families hang red scrolls or pieces of paper on the gate and doors. One of the scrolls is an announcement of the coming new year. Chinese people write the Chinese character, spring, on a red scroll and hang it upside down on the front gate. In Chinese, similar sounding words can add new meaning to a phrase. In this case, upside down sounds similar to arrive. Thus, by hanging the word spring upside down, Chinese people are announcing the arrival of Spring Festival or 春节.

Fish and chicken for a lucky and prosperous new year

For their New Years Eve dinner, people often eat fish, chicken and dumplings. Each of these foods have special meaning. Again, how the word sounds adds new meaning to the words fish and chicken.  Fish or 鱼 sounds like the word for left over. People eat fish in hopes that they will have more than they need. Chicken or 鸡 sounds like the word for auspicious, and people eat chicken in hopes for luck in the new year. Families also eat dumplings or 饺子, which look like gold nuggets and represent wealth.

After dinner, parents give their children red envelopes or 红包 hong bao. There is a saying, 恭喜发财 or gōngxǐ fācái, which means Congratulations and get rich. The hope is for a prosperous new year. Chinese New Year or Spring Festival celebrations start this Wednesday. We wish you a happy and prosperous new year. How will you celebrate?

Why You Aren’t Mastering Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is simple. The verbs don’t conjugate; there’s no adding -ing for the present tense. In fact, there is no real tense. You just add words to indicate a time or perhaps a sense of completion. Ironically – this can make mastering the grammar more difficult.How to Study Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is deceptively easy.

Chinese is not like German. Just to understand German grammar, you’ve probably spent some time practicing and studying. If you look at an explanation of Chinese grammar, most of the time it will straight forward. For example, when you want to turn a statement into a question, just add 吗 (ma) to the end of the sentence. You might think, well that’s easy and stop there. Here’s the problem: you don’t need to understand Chinese grammar, you need to use it. Without thinking.

Where you are going wrong.

Many people go wrong here. It isn’t that you won’t be able to ask a question with 吗 (ma.) You will, but slowly. It will come out as stilted as you pause, think and then add the ma to the end of the sentence. Even worse, while you might remember to add ma for questions, there are literally hundreds of simple explanations. If you don’t practice until the grammar comes smoothly, you won’t remember them all. How you study Chinese matters.

Don’t read – use.

First, let’s go back to some basic learning. Reading over grammar is not the best way to study. Using the grammar is. When you practice using a pattern it develops pathways in your brain. At first, it’s a rough footpath with rocks. With practice, the footpath becomes smooth and easier to walk. You know this path. You don’t forget your way and stumble. You just walk the path naturally.

Here are three ways to drill yourself on grammar:

Translation drills

Take an English sentence and try to say it in Chinese. You can make flashcards with English on one side and the Chinese on the other. Then get to work. This approach is essential early on, but will also help you understand the language on a deeper level.

Sentence transformation

So work out some drills. For 吗 (ma) you might convert back and forth with the question choice type method of asking questions in Chinese.  “Nǐ hǎo ma” becomes “Nǐ hǎo bù hǎo?”

Practice saying sentences in different tenses. Make flashcards with a sentence on the front. Write the sentence in past or future tense on the back. Now practice with the flashcards when you get the chance.

Flashcard vocabulary drill

Make a series of flashcards with a vocabulary word one one sentence and a complete sentence on the other side. Look at the word, make a sentence and then check your work.

Daily practice

As you go about life every day, think about the questions you ask. Try to ask and answer these questions in Chinese (in your head!) When you go to a restaurant, think about how you would order the chicken or a drink. When you go to the post office, think about how to ask for stamps. When you go to the grocery store, name as many foods or other items as you can.

What drills do you use? Tell us in the comments!