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?