With the increasingly global economy and the reemergence of China as an international business and cultural hub, there has never been a better time to learn Chinese. Most people who are interested in learning have two questions: "Is it hard to learn Chinese?" and "How long does it take to learn Chinese?" Based on government sources and anecdotes, Three to five years is a good estimate of how long it takes to learn Chinese fluently, but there are so many factors involved.
In this article, we will take a look at the Chinese language, different variables that affect language learning time, and ways to learn Chinese in China more quickly.
Is Chinese Hard to Learn?
For most people, it is hard to learn Chinese. It's very different from many of the world's spoken languages, and many view it as particularly complex.
Chinese Is Harder Than Most Languages for English Speakers to Learn
The U.S. Foreign Institute (the "FSI") has categorized the world's languages according to how similar they are to English. All things equal, the closer a language is to English, the easier it would be for an English speaker to learn. Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese are in the very last category.
- Group 1 - Closely related to English. These include Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish
- Group 2 - Similar to English. German is the only language in this category.
- Group 3 - Linguistic and cultural differences from English. This category consists of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Swahili
- Group 4 - Significant linguistic and cultural differences from English. These include Bengali, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Nepali, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese
- Group 5 - Exceptionally difficult for English speakers.Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese are in this category, along with Arabic, Japanese, and Korean.
What Makes Chinese a Harder Language to Learn?
As you can tell immediately from looking at written Chinese, this is a system that is extremely different from the English language. Unlike English, there is no "alphabet," and there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, each of them a unit of meaning. There is a lot of straight memorization. In 1950, China developed a system of "simplified" Chinese characters to combat illiteracy. Even though they are less complicated -- thus, easier to pick up -- than the traditional characters, the way they are put together to form words is different from how we make words in English.
What tends to be even more challenging for English speakers is picking up Chinese verbally. In English, tones and inflections may tell you the purpose or sentiment of a phrase or sentence, but don't tend to affect the meaning of the words. When you speak Chinese, a phonetic syllable or word can have several meanings depending on the inflection given to it.
When they are first learning Chinese, many people are unable to hear the tonal differences, so it is easy to confuse one word with a similar sounding word. When they try to communicate in Chinese, they may not be able to assign the right tones to their words, which makes it difficult for the other person to understand what they are trying to say. It means that both people in the conversation have to use context to figure out what is being said.
Are You Thinking of Learning Mandarin or Cantonese?
Roughly one in every seven people on this planet speak Chinese. There are different "types" of Chinese, grouped into seven kinds of dialects. Mandarin and Cantonese, though they technically share written characters, are very different. Sometimes it's possible for a Mandarin speaker to pick out and understand Cantonese words and phrases, and vice versa, but it is difficult for someone who only speaks Mandarin to properly converse with someone who only speaks Cantonese.
Mandarin is the official language of China, one of the few official languages of the United Nations, and the most spoken language all over the world. Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in China, Macau, and parts of Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. You will also hear Cantonese in many Chinatowns in the States and Canada.
Of the two, Mandarin is the easier one to pick up. Not only is the grammatical structure simpler, but there are four tones; in Cantonese, there are nine. As an example, "ma" can mean both "mother" or "horse" depending on which tone is used. In Cantonese, "bao" can be "bun" (bread), "wrap" (verb), "explode" (verb), and even "full" (as in, after eating).
But Chinese Isn't As Hard to Learn As You Might Think
Learning Chinese may seem daunting, but there are actually some ways in which Chinese is easierthan English! English has more than 8,000 syllables, whereas Chinese has around 1,200 syllables, including tonal variations. English speakers can learn how to pronounce Chinese words via Pinyin, which uses our "Roman" letters. Pronunciation might seem difficult at first, but once you realize that there are equivalent sounds you already use in English, it goes a lot more quickly. For example:
- "j" is like the "jee" in the word "jeep"
- "x" sounds the same as the "sh" at the beginning of "sheet"
- "zh" is pronounced the same as the "ge" at the end of the word "strange"
These sounds are always the same -- not like English. In English, you have soft and hard versions of consonants that usually require context to identify which one is used. You have rules like "ibefore e except after c" -- and then you have all sorts of exceptions to the rules.
Grammar is often the trickiest part of learning any language. Take English, as an example. You have inflections that distinguish questions from statements. You have verb conjugations and a variety of tenses. There are "regular" verbs and "irregular" verbs. When you want to pluralize a noun, it's not always done the same way with different words.
People who speak languages like French and Spanish also have to have gender agreement with their words. There is no such concept in Chinese.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Chinese?
According to the FSI, Group 1 languages (closely related to English) would take a minimum of 575 to 600 study hours to develop a professional level proficiency - as in, you can perform your job duties - in those languages. German (the sole language in Group 2) would require a minimum of 750 hours. Group 3 languages would take 900 hours; Group 4, 1100 hours. As Group 5 languages, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese need a good 2200 hours of study to properly learn.
For most people, however, the goal is to learn enough Chinese to carry on conversations and read Chinese menus, magazines, and other publications -- which takes a lot less time. You can learn simple Chinese phrases in a matter of weeks, especially if you can find ways to supplement your learning -- like in the ways we suggest in the next section. You could very well be on your way to conducting basic discussions in Chinese with confidence within months.
How Can I Learn Chinese Faster?
Outside of formal classes, there are many things you can do to make the learning curve less steep. The key is how much work you are willing to put into learning Chinese, and of course, your level of determination. The general rule of thumb is that the more you practice, the easier it will be to learn Chinese -- as with learning any new language.
Thankfully, in this age of the Internet, there are many resources and learning materials available online. You have online courses, guides, podcasts, even apps that are designed to optimize language learning. Of course, you can also find and purchase textbooks and other reading materials in Chinese on online bookstores and platforms like Amazon and eBay. You can even find and print out flashcards and exercises to help you broaden your vocabulary.
A professional language tutor can be a valuable resource when you are trying to pick up a new language. A professional tutor will be aware of your main concern, "Is Chinese hard to learn?" and will do his or her best to make it easier for you.
Because you are getting one-on-one instruction, the learning program is tailored to your needs and preferences. You will also get practice face-to-face, which will help a lot with proper pronunciation -- especially if you find it difficult discerning the different tones and inflections -- and familiarizing yourself with the nuances of the language.
Practice, Practice, Practice
If you have friends who speak Chinese, try to speak with them only in Chinese. Most friends are happy to help, and it can be a lot of fun. If you are close to or have easy access to a Chinese community or a Chinatown, visit the various stores and restaurants and practice your Chinese with the locals. Watch videos, movies, and TV shows in Chinese. China has some world-renowned filmmakers who make fantastic movies. There's something for everyone, whether you like action-packed martial arts or breathtaking historical dramas.
Listen to and learn to sing Chinese songs. Download menus from local Chinese restaurants. Look up Chinese language meet-up groups -- there are always people who want to practice (or help others practice). The more you hear and speak Chinese, the easier it will be for you to speak it well.
Learn Chinese in China
The best possible way -- and the quickest way -- to learn a language and its culture is to live in a particular country for an extended period. Not only will you be constantly exposed to the language, but it will force you to use the language every day. China is an exceptionally interesting country to explore, with many world-class metropolitan cities and a lot of old world history and delicious food. If you can find a way to study Chinese in China, by all means, take the opportunity!
You will find yourself picking up common phrases really quickly. As you become accustomed to hearing different people speak, you will have a better "ear" for the tones and pronunciation. Even better, as you get to know the neighborhood you're staying in and become more comfortable with the locals (and they get to know you), you will become more comfortable initiating conversations and carrying on longer ones. You'll be surprised how much you pick up -- you probably won't even realize it until you get home!
Some people are better at learning new languages than others, but there seems to be a common thread when it comes to learning Chinese. Many people have credited learning Chinese in China with jumpstarting their understanding of the language. Once they needed to rely on Chinese to get necessaries -- such as food and supplies -- and were surrounded by people speaking the language, they could pick it up quickly.
What better opportunity to live in China and get to know the culture, people, and language than to find an internship in China -- or finding a Chinese language class in a Chinese university. You'll find yourself picking up the language in a much shorter time with such a program -- and spending a gap year in China will be an unforgettable experience you will bring with you the rest of your life.