Does Chinese Suck?

If you are a learner of Chinese and have “hit” the proverbial “wall”, you may have wondered: “Does Chinese suck or am I the one who sucks?” Few things are more humbling than trying to learn Mandarin. Maybe you even have studied for a year or two, but when you open your mouth native speakers look at you as if you were speaking gobbly-gook. So what’s up with Chinese? Am I just stupid or is this language stupidly difficult? (One hilarious rant I read online about “Why Chinese is So Darn Hard” made me think of this topic. ).

First of all, let’s not pretend: Chinese is not easy, nor is there some fast method that will make you fluent. However, Chinese is also not impossible to learn, and really anyone can do it. You have to have patience and perseverance, but you WILL learn. You should pace yourself and organize your learning well. Expect to learn in stages (check out Sinosplice’s definition of the 5 stages of learning Mandarin “The Five Stages to Learning Chinese” ).

Learning Chinese is a bit of a good-news, bad-news affair. First the bad news:

• Tones: There are 4 main tones (one neutral), a pretty trippy concept to get used to.
• No Cognates: Other than kāfēi for “coffee”, or shāfā for “sofa”, you are on your own. No freebies here.
• Non-alphabetical language: Need I say more?
• Unusual Sounds: Mandarin contains some sounds difficult for learners to pronounce such as the reflexive zh-, ch-, sh-, or the ü umlaut sound, and many more.
• “Out There”: Chinese is “out there”; it is generally just really, really different from English.

Now for the good news:

• No Verb Tenses: Once you learn a verb you’ve learned all its forms: that being only one. No conjugation here.
• No Articles: No complicated articles as you might find in a European language.
• Simple grammar: Compared to Arabic, Japanese and even some European languages, the grammar is pretty bare bones.
• Logical: Chinese has always been Chinese, so the language fits together in a logical fashion with few exceptions. Once you are past the beginner stage, you will see how the morpheme pairs and the grammar all fit together beautifully.

Tell me the good and bad news from your learning. Stay tuned for tips on learning Mandarin.

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15 Responses

  1. Well… the simple grammar is a plus, Japanese grammar is definitely difficult with very complex conjugations, but four Chinese tones are no picnic. How about formality, do Chinese learners get a break in that department?

  2. Total break! The only formal change, which is not used very often, is changing nǐ (you) to nǐn (you) – kind of like “tu” and “usted” in Spanish: the former being casual and the latter more formal. However, unlike Spanish, the nǐn is not that common outside of business situations. I studied some Japanese, so I know what you mean…

  3. I lived in China for a year… and I gave up! The writing was too frustrating, non-alphabetical is just not for me! Nice not to have tenses though, Spanish is past tense and imperfect is tougher than Chinese in that sense.

  4. I am hoping to teach ESL in Guangzhou in January 2009 for six months or so. Do you think there is any point in trying to learn the language before I go, or is it just too difficult? I was never a language buff…

  5. Yes, Chinese does suck! I gave up, I tried it for three months and just could not pick up on the tones!! Maybe some people just can’t “hear” them, ya know? Argh, English only for me!

  6. Don’t give up. Just approach it in the right way. You should try a good audio-visual program like http://www.activechinese.com, or if you prefer MP3 downloads try http://www.chinesepod.com. The former is best as a textbook, with a logical progression.

  7. Yea, definitely learn some Chinese before you go (and I recommend Mandarin first, not Cantonese… you can get to that later). Look at my other post for online learning resources. Every little bit counts, and the best part is Chinese people really appreciate it and give such great encouragement.

  8. Personally, Chinese being a mystery was at first a great benefit in a household where my mother ruled over all European languages! When studying Chinese no one in my family questioned whether or not I knew what I was doing which left me the freedom to experiment with something totally new. The simple grammer allowed me to construct whole sentences rather quickly which lent support when I felt frustrated with tones or vocabulary. I look forward to getting tips on taking my Chinese skills to the next level of chit-chat!

  9. I don’t think that Chinese sucks… but then again, I live in western Oregon, an area with a LOT of Chinese immigrants, so I have lots of oppertunities to make Chinese friends, practice speaking with them, and get their opinions on things like pronunciation, etc. And I started learning with the FSI “Pronunciation and Romanization” section which definitely helped with tones, etc. (I didn’t do too much else with FSI though, the main lessons use out-dated vocabulary and are veeeeery dry and boring…).

  10. I’ve never heard of FSI, could you send me a link? What other materials have you used? I am interested in students who are learning Chinese outside of China and successfully doing so. Most blogs focus on learning in China. Sounds like you’re doing a good job!

  11. No learning chinese is very simple and fun..I have learnt from studiochinese.com, one of the leading online chinese language tutors with experienced tutors.I could really learn faster for an affordable price..

    Give a try …

  12. No, Chinese doesn’t suck. Actually I think I suck sometimes. Or HSK sucks. But Chinese is definitely a very nice language.
    (In love with it for many years now)

  13. Alphabet is better way to go…. world is going alphabet

    Hanzi characters is dead dead dead in Information age.

    Computer code code code will future of the Information age.

    No civilized nation uses such ugly, barbric, primative Beast writiing.

    Bury Hanzi in a big big big Hole. No civilized Nation uses such ugly, primative, barbaric writing

    NO HANZI. NO MORE HANZI… BURY HANZI FOREVER….

  14. The Chinese are one of the worst most insidious long term infections a country can have. First is their ghetto nature to only live where they live and only speak their horrible language. They generally worship money and are poly-theistic and have deities which they pray to for money and success. They also raise their kids in a way where if their kid tramples over or browbeats or cheats another kid that is taught as OK. They also value “training” as in molding and modeling behavior to get a robot person not a self actualized person. The Chinese will steal, deliver sub-standard quality and put lives in danger just to make money. They have a long history of being subjects of brutal empires and regimes and they by nature hoard, steal deceive and play constant defense. Second generation Chinese (twinkies) are ok, and by the third most of this horrible behavior is gone. The Chinese have a special ability of being the third world with them. They make wherever they are more and more like the horrible, third world, unfair no human rights dump China is and they can transform a place where they all live into that hell-hole like no other group.

  15. If you are male and/or like mathematics, then Chinese language is not for you. There is barely reasoning and critical-thinking but mostly memorizing that is required. If you are just attracted to characters, then go learn Japanese instead, its grammar is unique and challenging and the language itself sounds better and clearer than Chinese. Therefore when you learn foreign languages, then you will more or less live with the local commoners.
    Personally I’d prefer rude, open-minded Russian insulting me for no good reason instead of silent, arrogant Chinese who’s trying his hardest to look humble and funny.

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