It’s Easy to Learn Chinese – Really

One of the first thing people ask me when I tell them I live in China is whether or not it’s a difficult language. The short answer is: yes. Like any language it is tricky, but I promise it’s not as bad as it seems. So for the next couple days I’m going to try to explain the basics of how Chinese works, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I promise, it's not actually this confusing

Fear #1 – Tones:The first day of Chinese class I was shown something like the picture above showing the 4 tones of Mandarin. The teacher then explained the importance of tones, and how the slightest inflection could completely change the meaning.

Ex. 1 妈妈骂马 (mother scolds the horse) or 马骂妈妈 (The horse scolds mother)

However I  have never bothered to learn tones, but I can chat without any problems. Why? In context the tones don’t really matter. After all, when was the last time you talked about your mother berating a horse or any other pack animal?

Another way to think about it is that, in English, we have piles of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings), but we rarely are confused by them.

Ex. Do you usually walk your dog, or wok your dog?

Fear #2 – Pronunciation:Most people think that Chinese sounds so different that it’s hard to even say a single word, but the reason Chinese has tones is because it is “sound poor,” (meaning that it a limited number of sounds). That is why they needed tones to break things up. After one or two hours you could pronounce every Chinese word. Compared to English with words like laryngopharynx (what did you expect, I work in a hospital).

Pronunciation for every Chinese word, try doing that with English

Chinese phonetics (called Pinyin) is also a consistent system. No exceptions, ever.

Fear #3 – Grammar: The next idea I want to bring up is that even though reading is difficult (since there are so many characters), grammar is simple. Chinese sentences can always be formed with Time+Subject+Verb+Object.

Ex.  今天我买水果 (Jintian wo mai shuiguo) literally: Today+I+buy+fruit

It gets even better though, Chinese has no irregular verbs, no verb conjugation, and no tense beyond a time marker. So all I do is change the time to make something past-tense or future-tense

Ex. 昨天我买水果 (Zuotian wo mai shuiguo) Yesterday+I+buy+fruit

Ex. 明天我买水果(Mingtian wo mai shuiguo) Tomorrow+I+buy+fruit

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at how Chinese characters are formed, and why learning 10,000 of them isn’t as impossible as it sounds.

33 responses to “It’s Easy to Learn Chinese – Really”

  1. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

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  2. todorovicmare says:

    Great article Tom! I enjoy reading it. In my opinion most people are scared because of Chinese characters. At first glance they all seem so hard and complicate to learn and they give up learning even if they haven’t yet started. That was my problem in the beginning… I’m looking forward to your next articles.

    • Tom says:

      Reading and writing are still the most difficult part for me. Even at that though, I think it’s still easier than what people think when they first begin. Thanks for sharing.

    • peter jiang says:

      Everything has a hard beginning, for learning chinese ,english or any other language, if you think it’s hard, it will be hard; you think it’s simple, it will be simple. learning language should be with fun.

  3. Sara says:

    I have noticed that if I say a single word then the tones are important, but if I say a whole sentence then they doesn’t. When I’m speaking I don’t think about the tones but still Chinese people usually understand what I’m saying. Even I can’t say the z/zh correctly! But sure sometimes the tone is important like when you want to say buy mai3 or sell mai4.

    I’ll be looking for tomorrow to hear about learning the 10 000 characters!

    • Tom says:

      Absolutely, tones only matter when it is out of context. Even buying or selling is usually understandable from context, except maybe in a stock exchange. For my daily life though, I don’t sell to many things, so it hasn’t been an issue for me.
      The Z/Zh thing isn’t such a big deal, that’s a common pronunciation problem for Cantonese speakers.

      • Sara says:

        I should have added that I live in Guangzhou so sometimes my putonghua is better than the locals’. I’m already having quite a nice southern accent in my Chinese.

  4. […] Seeing Red in China My life in their world Skip to content HomeAbout MeMap of China ← It’s Easy to Learn Chinese – Really […]

  5. Tracy says:

    I noticed that vocabulary and grammer isn’t even the hardest part it’s all the different ways that you can pronounce words and sentences that make it really tricky.

    • Tom says:

      It’s true that there are lots of different way to make sentences with the same meaning, but from my personal experience, that’s only a problem for listening, for speaking just pick one pattern and stick with it.

  6. […] of a puzzle than a problem Posted on January 14, 2011 by Tom So far we’ve looked at speaking Chinese, and the basics of forming characters (which are complete words themselves), so today we’re […]

  7. Marcus says:

    The thing that irritates me about Chinese is the words vary greatly depending on where in China the person is from. Not just the local dialects and the like (which are bad enough as is), but things like xin will sound like shin or sin, or maybe even sing.

    I remember thinking our principal’s name was Mr Sen all year until realising it was just the way our babysitter teacher said his name. His name actually being Mr Shen.

    I don’t live in China anymore, but in a town which has more Chinese than Australian’s, and whilst I recognise a lot of what I hear spoken around me, most of the time it’s just too difficult to catch.

    • Tom says:

      There are a lot of different accents, which was really confusing for me at first. Now I can understand enough that I can figure out an accent fairly quickly. Just another bit to get used to.

    • Sara says:

      This is absolutely the problem/case in Guangzhou. Sometimes I’m really lost did the shop assistant say si, qi or shi (4, 7 or 10). But in the other hand it’s comforting that I don’t have to be perfect because the Cantonese aren’t either.

      • bailan says:

        that’s why i love the hand signals or calculator clarification techniques 🙂

        i found when traveling around china, people laugh and my whitegirl/southern china accent. but i love to be a good source of amusement… so … no worries 🙂

  8. […] long ago, I read Tom’s post over at Seeing Red in China titled “It’s Easy to Learn Chinese – Really.” He said (in a comment to the main post) that for him reading and writing are more difficult […]

  9. […] in Chinese are made incredibly easily since it is a sound poor language (more on that here), virtually any name or issue is easily punned. Government spokespeople are regularly given […]

  10. Jiong says:

    Hi Tom,

    Nice blog btw, it’s nice to see an expat blog that is properly written and coherent.

    However, I felt I had to comment in defense of tones. I have met quite a few people like you who say they speak Chinese without bothering with tones (incl. some western professors of Sinology!) I’m sorry, but you need tones to speak proper Chinese.

    There is no nice way of saying this, but if you speak Chinese with no regard for tones then you just sound all wrong. Maybe living in the south is different, but here in Beijing people tend to be very critical of foreigners. Many taxi drivers and the odd shop assistant, for example, will greet foreigners in an annoying ‘laowai speaking Chinese voice’ (ie with all wrong tones). The majority of foreigners can’t hear the difference and thing maybe they are just speaking a dialect…they are in fact taking the piss.

    I really don’t mean to sound all holier than thou, but tones are worth paying attention to. However, you lived in Guangxi, Sichuan and now Jiangsu where most people speak Mandarin with a heavy local accent, so it’s understandable.

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for your comment Jiong. In my post I didn’t mean to imply that tones should be completely disregarded, just that they aren’t as important as the text books claim. I think for those who are new to the language, it’s far more important to get other aspects of the language correct first. I mentioned that I don’t pay much attention to tones, but over time I have internalized them (like Chinese people do when they learn the language), and so I am simply encouraging a more natural approach to tones.
      I should have mentioned that when trying to tell someone where you are going, tones suddenly become much more important that when you are having a full conversation.
      Also don’t ever worry about voicing your opinion on this blog, I accept that I am not right about everything, and I’m always grateful for the corrections.

  11. Jiong says:

    Ha, ok, that is far more sensible. I suppose the way I learned tones (I still naturally make mistakes!) was partly from textbook rote learning at first and then from living in China for several years by internalizing them, as you said.

    I do agree that overall Chinese is a pretty easy language to learn. Not that there is such a thing as a truly ‘easy language’, as they all require learning reams and reams of vocab and grammar points, however, once one has got used to tones and worked out that Chinese characters are not random pictures then compared with Korean and Japanese with all their honorifics and complex grammar Chinese seems quite straight forward.

    This opinion nevertheless does not always go down well with everyone, especially some foreigners who are struggling with Chinese due to having to learn loads of vocab and characters and mistakenly think I mean that part is also easy – it isn’t – but we all have to do it.

  12. I’ll be honest learning Chinese is a nightmare for me – while I picked up a reasonable amount of Arabic during my expat stint in the Gulf, I’m not learning much Chinese at all – and my wife’s Chinese!

  13. According to Lingüistics, the discipline, there is not such a thing like difficult, or easy languages, all are the same. Of course to certain language-speaker (spanish for example) learning close languages is easy (for example italian) but regarding Mandarin a lot of people thing its impossible to learn, and that is not true! You just have to be constant and willing to!

    Thanks for the post.

  14. […] It’s easy to learn Chinese, really […]

  15. Thanks, that was a helpful article. I’ve been struggling to motivate myself to learn Chinese – most tutors teach via oral/aural communication, while I learn by rules and visually. So, that was useful!

  16. daqron says:

    Hi Tom. I’ve been enjoying your posts since I found your blog last week. I am still a beginner at Mandarin, but I totally agree with your points about pronunciation and grammar. I was pleasantly surprised by how simple those aspects of the language are.

    Regarding tones, I had about the same reaction as Jiong did, which is I think tones matter. This seems particularly true for beginners because our conversations typically consist of shorter sentences, like “the menu, please” or “where is the bathroom?” in which context messing up even one tone can result in great confusion. I also get the impression that while, on average, tones matter far less in fluid conversations, there are some tones that will matter, and one needs to know what they are. I could be way off, but that’s my impression.

    Cheers for the prolific blogging and insights,


    • Tom says:

      I agree that tones are important for the over all use of the language, I just think that in beginner classes they are often over emphasized, but yes, in single word conversations with little context, they can be hugely important.

  17. […] you are learning Chinese you may also want to read my posts on the topic: It’s Easy to learn Chinese – Really, Why 10,000 characters is easier than it seems, and Compound words, more of a puzzle than a […]

  18. nawa says:

    its not learning Chinese, its learning mandarin. learning Chinese is like american saying learning Indian for Hindi

  19. David Dunn says:

    I often see articles like this, that portray Mandarin as easy, but rarely hear foreigners that are very good. When I was 19 and had studied Mandarin for 4 years a ran into a woman who gave me very frank advice. At the time everyone was telling me how good and/or fluent my Mandarin was for someone that looks like Tom Hanks. She however said I had much to learn. She held me to a higher standard, that of an educated Mandarin speaking person that has to do thoughtful work.

    In my present capacity I travel around China and visit power plants to discuss engineering issues. They often ask a lot of question, some quite critical. I have to be able to answer those questions, based on what I’ve learned from the States. There is no one else among the Chinese staff that can answer some of those question. To get your Chinese to this level, i.e. the level where you can effectively do professional and technical work DOES require a lot of work.

    One other thing people should know is that trying to spread one language around such a large country presents real problems. Most of my co-workers are from Changde, Hunan. Having spent years around them I can understand Changde, one of the most Mandarin like languages in Hunan. I can understand, but when they make phone calls sometimes customers complain about comprehension difficulties. When you travel to
    Shandong, Henan and particularly you will have a lot of conversations with people that either think they are speaking Mandarin well enough or think you can understand their speech without further modification, when in fact you will be very lost.

    The converse of all of this is that if can acquire a true fluency in Mandarin you really have a remarkable skill.

  20. Sam Dean says:

    Fantastic. Very good article. Thank you for taking time out and writing such a good post. Keep posting such goo content.

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