Life in China

The Challenges of Learning Chinese    

Posted: March 27, 2011

Although there is a great deal of joy in learning Chinese* there are also a great many challenges a native English speaker must face when taking on this language. To put some semblance of organization onto my observations I am going to look at listening, speaking, reading and writing. There are also some resources listed at the end of the article.

* There is more than one Chinese language, but this article is dealing only with Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China


Listen to other European languages and you will be struck by how many words seem familiar, even if they do sound suspiciously foreign. Because English shares language ancestry with French, German, Italian, and any number of other European languages, there are similar roots to many words in these languages. English is also one of the more promiscuous languages around and has picked up a lot of words from other languages over the years. It only makes sense that most of this linguistic messing around was close to home with neighbours within easy reach.

For you, the modern English speaker, this means that learning another European language is helped by these close relationships and similar words.

In contrast, when you listen to Chinese you don’t encounter many of these ‘friend’ words. Chinese has imported, or borrowed, some words from English (such as ‘kafei’ for ‘coffee’) and has a few words that English has borrowed in return (the Chinese ‘doufu’ came into English as ‘tofu’), but these are mere islands in the ocean and can’t be relied on to keep you above water.

Another thing that you will notice is that Chinese has an inordinate fondness for ‘sh’ sounds. These come in several flavours that, you will be told by Chinese speakers, are quite distinct. Until your ear gets used to the subtleties though you may be tempted to think these Chinese speakers are playing a game of “dupe the foreigner” with you. This underlines one of the challenges in listening to Chinese, you have to learn to distinguish between sounds that you have never been asked to treat as different before. This can take time and patience (for both you and your Chinese teachers).

It is useful to get a good introduction to the initial and final sounds in Chinese. Any decent introductory text on learning Chinese should include these. If you practice both listening to and producing these sounds you will train your ear to hear them and your tongue to make them. One nice thing about Chinese is that once you have learned these initial and final sounds you know how to pronounce Chinese words. Unlike English, where it often feels like pronunciation is only tangentially related to spelling (you try figuring out how to pronounce ‘ough’ without a scorecard), Chinese is quite consistent. There are very few exceptions to these pronunciation guidelines. Taking the time to learn them upfront will help you a lot in the long run.

Unlike English, Chinese is a tonal language. This creates another big challenge in listening to Chinese -- being able to hear the tones, the change in the tonal inflection which means a change of word, and therefore a change of meaning. In one particularly dangerous example, a change of tone on a Chinese word transforms it from "food" to "poop". Learning tones can definitely improve your dining experience.

When you are learning a new Chinese word, listen for a combination of the pronunciation and the tone. This will speed your understanding.

So what are you listening for with tones? Chinese has four tones, five if you count the absence of a tone. These tones are numbered for convenience. The first tone is high and flat. The second is a rising tone – think of the rising inflection in English when you change a statement into a question. The third tone falls and then rises. It is often drawn out, long and lazy. And finally, the fourth tone is a short, sharp falling tone. It can almost sound angry. Hearing this fourth tone punctuating the speech of a pair of Chinese speakers has led more than one non-Chinese into thinking that they are yelling at each other. While this may be true on occasion, it is more likely that they are just talking about the weather or an NBA game.

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Reading about listening has probably already got you thinking about speaking. The challenges of one do indeed relate to the challenges of the other. Just as you have to train your ears to hear the sounds of Chinese, you also have to train you mouth to produce them.

If you have seen many Romanizations of Chinese you may have noticed that ‘x’ shows up rather a lot in Chinese. ‘x’ is one of the sources of the ‘sh’ sounds I mentioned in the listening section. Chinese also uses an ‘s’ and ‘h’ together, just like in English, to produce a different ‘sh’ sound. In Chinese, the ‘x’ sound is made at the front of the mouth and the ‘s’ and ‘h’ ‘sh’ sound is made closer to the middle of the mouth. When I first started learning Chinese I couldn’t hear the difference between these sounds. Learning how to produce them as two distinct sounds helped me tremendously in being able to hear each of them as well. Having a Chinese speaker (with good standard pronunciation) to listen to and copy the sounds of will help you a lot here.

Watch for other sounds in Chinese that seem quite similar to each other; things like ‘zhang’ and ‘jiang’ (pronounced sort of like ‘jung’ and ‘jeeung’ respectively), ‘cheng’ and ‘chang’ (like ‘chung’ and ‘chahng) and ‘jian’ and ‘dian’ (like ‘gee-en’ and ‘dee-en’). When you run into sounds that you have difficulty hearing the difference between find out how they are produced in the mouth and then practice saying them. This may feel next to impossible at first, but eventually it gets to be only difficult and then progresses from there along a path to being second nature. The trick is practice. Just like any other muscles, you have to train your mouth muscles to get them to do what you want when you want. Think of learning Chinese as acrobatics for your mouth and tongue.

Keep in mind that even sounds that are similar between Chinese and English are not identical. When you try to speak Chinese, if you sound like you are speaking English using nonsense syllables, then to a Chinese speaker you will probably sound like you are speaking nonsense too. Train your tongue and your mouth to form the Chinese versions of these similar sounds. Learn to speak Chinese with a Chinese accent. You will be more easily understood. Don’t be afraid of sounding ‘Chinese’, that is the goal after all.

Which brings me to tones, those pesky little tones. Many Chinese will not be able to understand much of what you say if you don’t pronounce your tones correctly (or at least get them in the ballpark). This can be intensely frustrating to an English speaker. Isn’t it enough that I remembered the word? Why do I have to remember (and be able to reproduce) the tone too?! Well, for the same reason that people learning English need to remember and reproduce emphasis, putting it on the correct syllable -- it helps others to understand what you are trying o say. And it’s a challenge.

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You may have heard or read somewhere that you need to know anywhere between 2000 and 3500 Chinese characters in order to read a newspaper.  While this may be correct it is also misleading. You have to do a lot more memorization than just 2000+ characters in order to read. What these accounts don’t often tell you, or at least don’t explain the implications of, is that the majority of Chinese words are two or more characters long.

Each Chinese character is approximately equivalent to a syllable in English. Just like in English, some Chinese words are only one syllable long. That means that these words are represented by a single character. But, just like in English, it is more common to have multi-syllable words. In Chinese these are composed of two or more characters.

Before we get into multiple syllables though, let’s look at a challenge that Chinese shares with English: many words have more than one meaning.

Let’s take lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3 – the 3 indicates that it is a third tone word, falling and rising) a one syllable Chinese word. When you first learn it you will be told that it means old (not young). What you find out in bits and pieces over time (sometimes after confusion or embarrassment) is that it also means: experienced; old (not new); overdone (food); overgrown (plants); dark (when referring to certain colours); for a long time; very; and all the time. It can be used to indicate seniority, intimacy (a close friendship) and an honoured state. And it is also a Chinese surname. All that and I don’t think this is a complete listing.

So that’s just lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3), on its own.

Knowing the meaning of the individual characters that make up a multi-syllable (multi-character) word can help you to discern the meaning of the word, but they are by no means guaranteed to do that. Let’s look at just a few of the words that lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3) is a part of:

laoshi - Chinese characters meaning "teacher" (lao3 shi1): teacher
laoren - Chinese characters meaning "old person" (lao3 ren2): old man/woman; the aged/old
laoban - Chinese word for boss (lao3 ban3): boss; shopkeeper
laohu - Chinese word for tiger (lao3 hu3): tiger
laoxiang - Chinese word for "fellow villager" (lao3 xiang1): fellow villager
laopo - Chinese word for "wife" (lao3 po): wife
laonian - Chinese word for "old age" (lao3 nian2): old age
laoshu - Chinese word for "mouse" (lao3 shu3): mouse

There are also words where lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3) is the second character:

gulao - Chinese word for "ancient" (gu3 lao3): ancient; old; hoary
shuailao - Chinese word for "senile" (shuai1 lao3): senile
bulao - Chinese word for "chose a place for retirement" (bu3 lao3): chose a place for retirement
canglao - Chinese word for "vigorous" (cang1 lao3): vigorous, forceful (regarding calligraphy/painting)

While you can see how the many meanings of lao - Chinese character for "old"(lao3) contribute to the meanings of these words that lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3) is in, you have no way of knowing, just by looking at the words, which shade of lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3) will colour this particular word. You have to learn and remember the meaning of each of these multi-syllable words.

Then there are the 3, 4 and even 4+ character words that have lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3) in them. Wenlin (the fabulous Chinese-English dictionary program I am using as a reference) lists over 900 Chinese words that contain lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3) !

Now , admittedly, many of those 900 will be uncommon, but a lot them would not be out of place in a newspaper article. And this is just one of the 2000+ characters that they say you need to know to read a newspaper.

It has been my experience that you need to do a tremendous amount of memorizing before you can read without the regular use of a Chinese English dictionary. And having to stop often to consult a dictionary makes reading incredibly slow and work-like.

Now, as if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, there is still one more major curve ball that Chinese throws at you. In Chinese writing there are no spaces between the words. There is nothing in a Chinese sentence to tell you when one word ends and the next one begins. You just have to know. This would be like if you took an English sentence and put a space between every syllable in every word in the sentence. Now imagine that spaces were put between every syllable in an English newspaper article. How easy would it be to read? This is Chinese – all the time.

So when you are reading in Chinese and you see lao - Chinese character for "old" (lao3), you don’t know if it is standing alone, if it is the first character of a word, or the second, or third…unless you know. The sentence structure gives you no clues. Even more memorization is required before you can actually begin to read a newspaper.

Because of this phenomena, there have been many times when I have recognized every character in a sign (I could tell you what each one means on its own), but I had no idea what the sign said. Be prepared for this kind of discouragement and don’t let it keep you down.

Once you do start to know common Chinese words that are made of multiple characters it is surprising how much they leap off the page at you. One of the first two-syllable Chinese words I learned was zhongguo - Chinese characters for "China" (zhong1 guo3) which means China. Once I learned to recognize it I began to see it everywhere and it became easy to pick out in sentences. It has been the same with many common multi-syllable Chinese words. So I want to assure you that reading Chinese is not an impossible task, just a challenging one.

You can think of reading Chinese as deciphering a code. It is incredibly rewarding when you can figure out the meaning.

My own Chinese reading has been given a boost by making use of a document reader in another very useful Chinese-English dictionary computer program. This one is called Pleco. When I open a Chinese document in the document reader if there is a character I don’t know I can just select it to get the definition right away. This alone speeds up the reading process. Even more useful in many ways is that I can ‘walk’ through the document using the “next” button and each ‘step’ highlights the group of characters (or single character) which form the next Chinese word. Often I don’t even need to look at the definition once I have the word highlighted. This grouping is an extremely useful feature.

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Using a computer, you can ‘write’ in Chinese without actually learning to draw Chinese Characters. This section is going to look at producing Chinese characters by hand though, rather than on a computer.

One of the big challenges to writing in Chinese is the sheer number of different characters. In English you just have to learn the alphabet (small letters and capitals), plus numbers and a few symbols, mostly for punctuation. Basically, well under a hundred forms. Chinese has thousands of different characters. That’s a lot of forms to have to know how to draw.

One very useful thing to know about writing Chinese though is that Chinese characters are NOT made up of whole bunch of random lines. It may look that way when you first see them, but in reality each character is made up of one or more components. These components are called ‘radicals’. There are over one hundred radicals, each with its own defined shape. Since characters are made up of radicals, once you have learned the radicals you are half way to learning Chinese characters.

Let’s take a look at one radical and how it might appear in different characters. Here is: mu - Chinese word for "wood" (mu4). It can form a character on its own and that character means ‘wood’. It is also a radical, and therefore a component within other characters. Here are some examples

In these it is the left radical:
     gen - Chinese word for "root" (gen1): root 
     shu - Chinese word for "tree" (shu4): tree
Here it is the right radical:
     xiu - Chinese word for "rest" (xiu1): rest
Top radical:
     li - Chinese word for "plum" (li3): plum 
     cha - Chinese word for "examine" (cha2): examine
Bottom radical:
     guo - Chinese word for "fruit" (guo3): fruit
     mou - Chinese word for "some, certain" (mou3): some, certain
Upper left:
     xiang - Chinese word for "think" (xiang3): think
Inner radical:
     chuang - Chinese word for "bed" (chuang2): bed
     kun - Chinese word for "surround" (kun4): surround
A radical can also be repeated in a character:
     senlin - Chinese word for "forest" (sen1 lin2): a two-character word (with 5 ‘wood’ radicals) meaning forest
     jin - Chinese word for "prohibit" (jin4): prohibit

Something you may have noticed as you looked at these words with the mu - Chinese word for "wood" (mu4) radical in them, in some you can see a relationship to wood (trees are made of wood, trees have roots, plums and fruit grow on trees, beds are made of wood, forests are made of trees). Radicals can be (but are not always) related to the meaning of the character. This can help you in reading characters, and it can also help you to remember how to write a character.

This might be more obvious if I introduce you to a few more radicals:

ren - Chinese word for "person" (ren2): person
zi - Chinese word for "child" (zi3): child
tian - Chinese word for "field" (tian2): field

Now if we look back at some of the mu - Chinese word for "wood" (mu4) words we can see them as a combination of two radicals.

xiu - Chinese word for "rest" (xiu1): rest.
This is the person radical and the wood radical. A person leaning against a tree is resting.
li - Chinese word for "plum" (li3): plum.
This is the wood radical and the child radical. A plum is a child of a plum tree.
guo - Chinese word for "fruit" (guo3): fruit.
This is the field radical and the wood radical. A field of trees gives us fruit.

Now perhaps you can see a bit more how learning the radicals and their meanings can help you in both reading and writing.

Another thing that helps you over the challenge of writing Chinese is learning the strokes that make up the Chinese characters. There are about 9 strokes that are used to produce Chinese characters. These include: horizontal, vertical, rising, falling to the right, falling to the left, a dot, hook, slant and bend. For more information on the specifics of these strokes you can go to the Wikipedia entry on strokes (; they demonstrate them nicely there. I’m not going to try and repeat the explanations here.

If you want to learn to write Chinese you have to learn what the strokes that are used to create the characters. You should also learn the stroke order rules, the guideline for the order that you should make the strokes when drawing a Chinese character. The stroke order gives you a set pattern to follow to make a stroke and this really helps in developing the muscle memory that helps you reproduce the characters at will. If you always draw a character in the same way it is much easier to remember the character and your writing can flow.

I have been surprised how a character that looks complicated visually often becomes much easier to remember once I have learned how to draw it. And learning to write characters will also help you to recognize and, therefore, read characters.


So these are some of the challenges you will face when learning Chinese. I hope that identifying these challenges will help you rise to the occasion and have some fun while on your Chinese learning journey.

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Here are some resources you might find useful:

Chinese-English dictionary programs
          Wenlin (for PCs)
                     (mobile appS for iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch,
                     Windows Mobile and Palm OS)

Chinese Strokes and Stroke Order
          Strokes on Wikipedia
          Stroke Order on Wikipedia

Stroke Order and Radicals
           themaninchina article
                       (This is the third in a 4-part series on
                       Learning to See Chinese Characters

                       that my partner wrote on his website.
                       The whole series is worth a read.)

           Zhang Pengpeng. The Most Common Chinese Radicals.
           (Sinolingua, 2001)
              A nice dead tree book introducing you to lots of radicals
              and showing how to draw them.

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Learning Chinese - Teacher at blackboard with Chinese Writing