Studying Chinese

The hardest part of learning Chinese

train in chinaLearning Chinese is a journey

There is a word going around that Chinese is the most difficult language in the world. I don’t really agree with it, just go and take a look at Finnish grammar and then decide which one you think is more difficult to master. But of course learning a language that is very different to your native language isn’t easy either. So what actually makes Chinese a hard language for a Westerner?

Last Monday I read China elevator stories blog post about the topic and besides leaving my comment, I also wanted to share my opinion on my blog too. I think it’s really interesting to share our experiences in learning Chinese and share some advice to beginners at the same time.

As an elementary level learner I thought the hardest part in learning Chinese was listening. It was hard to differentiate the tones and Chinese people seem to speak so fast. Even I could have understood the sentence in writing, it took me time to understand it in spoken form. Mandarin spoken in different parts of China also sound totally different from the textbooks, so getting used to the different accents takes time.

Besides listening, I also thought speaking was really hard, much harder than writing or reading. I always had to translate a sentence in my head before saying it out loud. I still remember the first time I said a spontaneous sentence in Chinese. I was buying bread at a bakery and the cashier noticed a ring in my finger and asked if I was married. I effortlessly told her that the ring was given me by my mother and I wasn’t married. I was like “Wow, I just said that without thinking!”

Then I got to the intermediate level and our textbook at Sun Yat-Sen University started to have longer and longer vocabulary lists. Fifty or sixty words per lesson that were needed to memorize for the coming exams. I tackled the challenge with Skritter, but it was hard to keep up. I was always the most productive during the beginning of the semester and then right before exams.

Right now at an advanced level there are a few different kind of challenges I’m facing.

  • Writing formal language, in Chinese called as 书面语 shūmiànyǔ. Taking the step from informal writing to formal writing haven’t been too easy. I have learned a lot by writing my thesis in Chinese, but there are still many formal words and sentence patterns to be learned.
  • Synonyms (近义词 jìnyìcí) are also something that trouble intermediate and advanced learners. The difference could be in meaning, usage or both. I bought a Synonyms Dictionary made by my teacher to help me learn more synonyms one pair or group at the time.
  • Improving pronunciation has always been a big challenge from me, right from the beginning to today. Locals can usually understand me just fine and my pronunciation problems doesn’t usually hinder communication. But in my own opinion my pronunciation isn’t good enough yet and I’m thinking of finding a tutor to help me with it.

On thing I need to accept at this point of my Chinese studies is that progress isn’t as fast as in the beginning. When you start from zero you learn so much everyday, but later on it will gradually slow down. The higher you climb, the harder it’s to see your improvement.

The most important advice I can give to others learning Chinese is to not give up! If you go forward you will learn new things and you will improve even if you don’t see it yourself.

What do you think? What is the hardest part in learning Chinese for you?


  • Linda D.

    to me, the hardest part is to study and learn continuously… every day a little bit, like you said in the beginning, it’s a journey!

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I’m totally in the same boat with you Linda! I absolutely love that I’m being able to learn Chinese as my major, but still long are gone those days when everything about learning Chinese was so much fun :D

  • Nommoc

    Yes, I was afraid to move to China too.

    Thank you for being brave enough to tell us how you really felt.


    The emotional highs and lows accompanied with living away from loved ones.

    Feeling like I have something to say buy cant say it.

    Using a general term instead of the exact term.

    Not being able to pick up a pen and write.

    Feeling like I might miss something.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Oh if I just could count those times I’ve wanted to say something but didn’t find the right words!

  • anonyymi vs. nimetön

    What about your journey to learn English? Was it your first foreign language? If so, was it harder to learn English (or your first foreign language) than Chinese?

    Usually the first foreign language is overwhelmingly the hardest. How many years have you learned English compared to Chinese? How would you evaluate your level in those languages?

    Mastering Finnish at the highest possible academic level in my opinion is MUCH easier than for example English. Finnish vocabulary is light-years ahead in efficiency, if one really masters (and develops) the language.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Yes, English was my first foreign language and I started learning it on the 3rd year of primary school. It was hard at first because I had transferred from another school and my new classmates had started learning the language in 1st grade already. But with extra lessons I soon catched them up.

    Chinese is absolutely harder for me to learn than English. Finnish and English doesn’t have much to do with each other, but Chinese is even more foreign. Especially because of the tones and characters.

    So I started studying English when I was 8 years old and started learning Chinese in 2008 when I was 20 years old. My English is much better than Chinese in listening, reading and writing. My spoken English has gotten a bit worse since I moved to China but is still better than my Mandarin.

  • Kaiser

    依我看西方人学好中文是很艰难的事情因为这样的原因:记得怎么用手写汉字很不容易,理解你没学过的成语的意思很不容易,听懂中国人说不标准的普通话很不容易,中文语法包括很多例外,还有区分不同的很同样的字像弊和憋很难, 什么的。更何况因为中国的文化和习惯风俗和西方国家的文化和风俗习惯没有关系,所以西方人常常学习中文的时候,他们没有任何文化的线索帮组他们理解语言,比如说几年前当我开始学习德语的时候,由于德国的文化包括很多从基督教,罗马帝国和古希腊的影响,因此我很快有能力用德文明白比较复杂的话题,但是开始学汉语前我一点儿也不知道佛教,道教和别的那样的很东方文化方面,其实学汉语前我连秦始皇帝也 没听说过了!当时我却听说过凯撒大帝因为我是西方人,用德文马上就认识了凯撒大帝。 就这些。顺便说一下我来自美国(英国后裔)。

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:


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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    我还在学怎么看懂粤语的短信 :)

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  • Sarah Parker

    Any new language is difficult to grasp and learn. The important and the difficult part is not giving up. Its the crucial time, when one has possibility to lose confidence. Chinese is an unique language, and in order to
    learn to speak Chinese
    language adopting the right methodology and approach to start learning the language has its advantages in the long run. This makes the learning process easier and faster.