What You Need to Know When Starting to Learn Chinese

Several decades ago, people wanting to learn a foreign language tended to pay more attention to European languages: Spanish (probably because it is spoken by a large number of people all over the world), French, and sometimes German; more exotic options included Arabic or Russian. However, in 2016, it has become obvious that the most prospective foreign languages to learn is Chinese. This is not just because of the enormous quantity of Chinese people living around the world, but also due to the fact that China is one of the most rapidly developing countries, and definitely the most influential economic, cultural, industrial, and political country in Asia. Considering the pace in which China is developing, it looks like its language can become—in a not-too-distant future—as important for international relationships as English. Therefore, learning it now is one of the best investments a person can make.

There are, however, several things a Chinese language learner should consider. One of the most important ones (and the one not all people take into consideration or even know of) is that there is no single Chinese language; China is huge, and every ethnic group inhabiting it has its own dialect. So, if a person from Southern China, for example, talks to a person from Northern China, both of them will not understand each other, or understand little. This happens due to severe phonetic differences between dialects, although grammar and writing are mostly the same—this is why we can speak of Chinese language as one. So, before starting to study this language, a person should first decide on the dialect he or she is going to focus on; the best choice might be Mandarin, or Putonghua—the “official Chinese,” so to say. Recently, it has started to be taught in schools all over China, so the aforementioned communication difficulties will eventually disappear or become less obstructing.

The second thing one must know is that Chinese grammar is much easier than English grammar. Nouns have no number or gender, sentence structure is straightforward, and basically, you can make up new words if you forgot a specific one—a Chinese person will most likely understand you (for example, if you forgot the word “airplane” you can use the words “flying” and “machine”). However, the devil is in details, as they say. Chinese pronunciation is extremely difficult for a beginner due to a complicated system of tones: ways of pronouncing vowels. Every Chinese word is simultaneously a syllable, and many words consist of two syllables at least. Depending on the way you pronounce a vowel in each of these syllables, the meaning of the whole word or phrase can change drastically. There are four tones, and their combinations—sometimes seemingly impossible to use together in a regular two-syllable word—are what gives newbie Chinese language students regular headaches.

This is not to mention Chinese writing. Before 1949, there was no way to write down Chinese phonetics, which was one of the reasons why about 80% of Chinese people remained illiterate (Academic.edu). After the government started a language reform, the Pinyin alphabet was implemented; Pinyin consists of Latin letters allowing to write down characters’ transcriptions, which has made learning characters supposedly easier. The difficulty that still prevails, though, is the enormous amount of characters used in Chinese language on a daily basis. A graduate of a Chinese university or college knows about 6,000 characters, which is sufficient to read, write, and work. However, for a foreigner not immersed in the language environment, understanding characters remain one of the main difficulties for years.

Besides, the Chinese language extensively utilizes all kinds of phraseology and sayings, often revolving around famous (in China) historical figures, events, mythological motifs, and so on. For a person not proficient in Chinese culture, such phraseology can become an obstacle.

The Chinese language is extremely diverse, complicated, and unusual—but this is also what makes it so attractive and interesting for a foreigner to learn. Compared to European languages, the Chinese language will take at least three times as much time to become more or less fluent, but the reward for mastering it is immense: becoming a participant in one of the richest and the most ancient cultures in the world, as well as being able to work and study in China (because English is almost useless in China—almost no one speaks it there), is definitely worth spending years studying one of the most difficult languages in the world.

Works Cited

  • Goldstick, William. “One State, One People, One Language” The Language Reform Movement in China.” Academia.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016. .
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