Is it difficult to learn Chinese? Some polyglots will say they got to fluency within three months, while others have been learning the language for over ten years and still don’t consider them fluent. How difficult is the Mandarin Chinese language? It depends on who you ask. Here’s the experience of one of our students, Jaap.
I thought learning Chinese was too difficult
Before I started learning Chinese, I thought I could never do it. In high school, I wasn’t good with my mother tongue (Dutch), and neither with French or German. English though, was never that difficult for me, since a lot of the movies and music I watched and listened to were in the English language. But I didn’t have something like a 语感Yǔgǎn (sense of language).
Besides, I started learning when I was 28 years old. Hardly ideal. I’d envy way younger students, who started in their university time, 10 years younger than me, or even 20 years younger than me. Because apparently, studying a new language becomes harder as you age (not entirely true btw, more on that later).
Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to reach fluency in
Mandarin Chinese has a bad reputation. It’s not similar to English or Dutch at all: there are tones, and all the sounds seem packed into the ‘shi’, ‘qi’, ‘si’, ‘chi’, ‘ti’ spectrum. Then there are the Hanzi characters, and some are so annoyingly similar! So yeah, it’s relatively hard to reach fluency in Chinese.
But Chinese isn’t that difficult to learn, it just takes a lot of time
From the first lesson at GoEast Mandarin in Shanghai, I was surprised how much this huge learning process was broken into small steps. From Pinyin pronunciation to reading and speaking before writing. And this gave me first a sense of progress: I could see how much I improved week by week, and also a sense of possibility: the confidence that I could really learn this difficult language.
After that, I learned Chinese Hanzi characters, before HSK3. And HSK4 didn’t become more difficult than HSK3 or 2 and 1: It’s just a gradual learning curve. If you keep learning, it feels like a straight curve to fluency.
I have now finished HSK4 and I’m almost finished with the Spoken Chinese language courses from GoEast Mandarin. I’m confident in speaking Chinese on a conversational level, and I can read most street signs and menu cards (novels are still way too difficult). But it is something I could never imagine, originally thinking learning Chinese is way too difficult for something who’s not a genius.
So does learning Chinese become more difficult as you age?
Yes and no. I’m not the same person as I was before. It is probably harder to intuitively learn the sounds of Chinese, especially to make them with your mouth. The r as in 热Rè (Warm) is absent in my mother tongue, and sometimes now I say 晚上Wǎnshàng (evening) and I do the tone wrong and people don’t understand what I mean.
In my high school and university time, I was a pretty lazy student, but now 30-something I live in China and I’m highly motivated to learn the Chinese language. This is a huge benefit I have over the younger me. With enough motivation and patience, this language isn’t that difficult to learn. I always tell people: Chinese isn’t that difficult to learn, it just takes a lot of time.