How hard is Chinese?

November 23, 2018 § 16 Comments

No bicycles or leaky prostate doping revelations to follow … no pictures or graphs or entertaining cat videos … only many words on a personally global subject, so, forewarned.

Anyone who has taken even the first step to learn Mandarin as a foreign language, indeed anyone who has even considered attempting it, has asked this question of the language’s difficulty, to say nothing of those for whom, mired in the muddy trenches that stretch along for years with no end in sight, a seemingly simple interrogatory reveals everything about the interlocutor and little or nothing about the inscrutable subject. Indeed, the question can only first be answered with a question: “Difficult for whom?”

The happy fraudsters

We were promised that the Internet would change our lives and it has, changed it by turning us into mindless Maxi-Pads capable only of absorbing the emissions of marketers, salesbots, hucksters, and the iron purchasing logic of the algorithm. Nowhere has the pop-up box of overpriced and ultimately undeliverable lies mutated, then metastasized, with such impressive virulence as the world of online Chinese study.

The Internet and its toothy maw can answer your questions about the difficulty of Chinese with precision and irrefutable, overwhelming logic, logic that is fluffed, then primped with testimonials and “One-time only” discounts promising that any fool with $8.99 to spare will soon be reading cursive scrolls in the shops of antiquaries, and doing it with the off-hand nonchalance you’d see from a parent taking his 2-year-old on his 500th stroll through Dr. Seuss’s A-B-C.

Here, then, is the ease of this supposedly complex and hard-to-master lexicon, brought to you by Sir John Algorithm, Ph.D. in Linguistics Sales and Marketing:

Irish polyglot makes it E-Z for you!

Or, within six months, you can do FUGGIN ANYTHING IN CHINESE and even bunnyhop, piggypack, or tongue-surf onto “related” languages like Japanese, Korean, and heck, why not Martian?

Oxford Dictionaries fucks around even less. Which part of “Chinese is not that hard” don’t you understand?

And then this self-promoting hack breaks down the whole mystery of Chinese into four awesome mythbusters. Boom. You are now fluent. Ni fuckin’ hao.

If it’s that easy, why do I still suck?

Unhappily for people who have tackled Mandarin as a foreign language, and even more unhappily, those who have tackled it in mid-life after their brains have hardened, and most unhappily of all, those who have tackled it without being able to live in China, there are voices in the wilderness crying out that the attempt is futile–couched in delicate terms, but futile nonetheless.

For example, these fine folks have provided a reality check: 2,200 hours. What they don’t emphasize is yeah, 2,200 hours if that’s all you do. No cycling. No working. No fighting with your S/O. No tee-vee. No fantasy football or binge drinking. Just you, Mandarin, and hell. If you take your eye off the ball, rest assured that 2,200 won’t cut it, nay, it won’t even slice the peel.

To put it in context, a junior associate in a meatgrinder law firm will bill 2,200 hours a year, a workload that no normal person will endure absent extreme need and compulsion. And if you really put in 2,200 hours for an entire year, that’s six hours a day, which, unless you are a full-time student, ain’t gonna happen.

Another voice, typed out long ago in 1992, makes the point that “hard” is a poor description for learning Chinese; better would be damn hard. Rest assured that people and web sites seeking to fleece you of your ill-gotten gains won’t be citing to the article by Dr. Moser and instead will be battering you with what I call the Chinese Imperatives:

  1. China will soon own the world! (You’ll be left with table scraps!)
  2. Chinese is spoken by a billion+ people! (How hard can it be?)
  3. Chinese is exotically cool! (Order off the Chinese menu, yo.)
  4. Chinese can help you get a job! (Purpose of college is to make $$$, dummy!)
  5. Chinese isn’t difficult, it’s different! (Be diverse, whitey!)

None of these imperatives, like a faithless lover, will be there for you in your time of need, however, because all of China’s economic power, all of its coolness and ubiquitousness, and all of its dangling job potential won’t help you memorize a single stupid character, won’t help you get a single tone right, and won’t help you read any part of the cursive scroll hanging in the restaurant as your friends say, mercilessly and riddled with mirth, “I thought you said you spoke Chinese!” And it won’t help you that none of the waiters can read it, either.

But what if you don’t have 2,200 hours a year?

Yeah, what if? What if instead of having six hours a day to bore into the side of the granite mountain with a toothpick, you only have, say, an hour a day or, dog forbid, half an hour? And what if that’s only four or five days a week? And what if you take vacations? In other words, what if, despite your abnormal interest in Chinese, you have an otherwise normal life?

In that case, you are what is colloquially known as “fucked.” Why? Because language is not cumulative in the way that, say, loading a wheelbarrow with sand is cumulative. You dump a shovelful of sand into the barrow, then come back in a couple of days, dump in some more, and then you forget about it for a week and come back and dump in a couple of shovelsful. Eventually it’s full.

No, language is not like that at all, not even a little bit. Learning a language, and especially learning something that is as rote-memory intensive as Chinese, is more like loading sand into a wheelbarrow where the wheelbarrow dissolves at midnight if you don’t keep loading sand into it. Especially for “mature” learners, a flattering phrase that means “old and slow and stupid,” (triple redundancy) you can’t let it alone for any time at all or every one of your hard-earned new synapses will immediately be filled in with chocolate, and after a few weeks’ rest you will stare, mystified, at the thing you spent hours trying to learn, as unfamiliar and beyond your ken as what you had for dinner two weeks ago.

So the horrible estimate of six hours a day works only for the young and carefree, all others are consigned to 10,000 hours, or ten million, because the thing will be as hard to pin down as the meanings of words that so eluded Socrates.

Who’s learning all that Chinese, then?

This, of course, is the first question, and the best one: Not “Is Chinese difficult?” but “For whom is Chinese difficult?”

Because China currently has close to 500,000 foreign exchange students, and although “only” 40% go there to study the language, Chinese universities are required to include language instruction to all foreign students, and in practical terms if you are in China to get a degree you will be taking courses in Chinese, as it’s the default language of instruction. And since most exchange students don’t show up already versed in the language, they are looking at a 1-2 year preparatory commitment before they can enroll in degree programs. So much for the fraudsters who claim that you can download the app, pay the fee, and cruise on to fluency in a couple of months.

Half a million exchange students may not sound like much compared to the U.S., where foreign students number over 1M, but it ranks third globally, and if the past is any example, China won’t be slowing down any time soon. In the exact reverse of American cultural imperialism, where the government lets English language dominance spread through media, science, and higher education, China has to knuckle down and aggressively promote its language. Why might that be?

The first reason (and second, and third) is that Mandarin is real fucking hard to learn even if you start young. The fourth is that linguistic imperialism is the sine qua non for being the dominant world power, and China knows it because at the end of the day if you want a consumption-based economy it means you want your nation to be customers, and the seller has to speak the language of the buyer … not the other way around. The first part of the equation, being the world’s manufactory, China has mastered; this only required its sales force to speak English. Moving to the second, more complex, and by far more powerful position of being culturally dominant, requires people to adopt your culture, which means your language.

Let’s start with a mis-translation

In 2013, Premier Xi Jinping announced what is most often translated as the Belt and Road Initiative, which sounds vaguely like what my dad used to do when we were on long car trips and started fighting in the back seat, that is, he’d pull over on the side of the road and initiate disciplinary proceedings with his belt.

In fact, the Chinese name of the plan is “One Belt, One Road,” which although still a bit unclear carries the unmistakable suggestion of unity, of coordination, of grand design, and that’s exactly what it is: A land-and-sea network designed to bind China to more than half the world’s population through soft power. Some might not find the economic reality of having half their national debt owed to China especially soft, but it’s unquestionably softer than the armies, assassinations, embargoes, and arms sales that the U.S. has traditionally used to get its way in, say, South and Central America.

Be all that as it may, China’s soft power in the long term cannot and will not be effected by trade, finance, and dual-use infrastructure projects that allow any port to instantly serve as a naval base if the moment requires it. No, China’s soft power in the long term will come from linguistic ascension, from a global familiarity with the deepest roots of its culture, which is to say its language.

No matter that Mandarin is a relatively new interloper even for the linguistic buffet historically spoken by the Han peoples. No matter that even today, hundreds of millions of Chinese can’t speak proper Mandarin. And no matter that the difficulties experienced by foreigners learning to read and write Chinese are also experienced by the Chinese themselves. What matters is that the highest levels of a command economy and an authoritarian political system have realized that however hard Chinese is, the world is gonna have to learn it. At the tail end of that realization is that Chinese, at least for foreigners, has to be inculcated with the carrot rather than the stick.

Let’s talk decades, okay?

As absurd as it may sound, this notion that the rest of the world is going to willingly learn one of the world’s hardest languages, consider that China is not especially deterred by big jobs and long time frames. Consider also that the country has an active hand in promoting Mandarin in the public sphere through scholarships, cultural centers, laws requiring language instruction, and state-subsidized language schools abroad.

China’s least best-known cultural program, the Confucius Institute, embeds on university campuses and offers language instruction as well as the official government line on all politically sensitive topics. Whereas those interested in academic freedom eye this type of state-sponsored propaganda as inimical to a university’s mission, the real value in such cultural institutes is that they reach young people at a critical time of curiosity and, perhaps even more importantly, cognitive adaptability to quick language acquisition. Whether their receptiveness is a function of brain plasticity, youthful motivation, or the huge blocks of time that young people can devote to studies, these institutes are but one of countless efforts that China is making to groom the world in its cultural image.

If it takes a couple of generations, so what? Rome wasn’t built in a day, either.

So, uh, how hard is it, really?

Ostensibly, it’s so hard that the government has to dole out billions in order to get people to learn it. It’s so hard that learning Mandarin is a full-time job. It’s so hard that even if you study it assiduously for ten years, you will probably never skim through a newspaper or novel without developing at least one big knot in your forehead as you read.

Why is this? What explains the difficulty? I’m no linguistics expert, and certainly no cognitive scientist, but my own experience points out some general areas where the problem lies, and it seems to do with the language mapping of your adult brain. Once you speak a language or languages, your brain has a kind of map burned into it, and that map is the network of grammar, vocabulary, sounds, and symbols that make up whatever languages you speak.

Learning languages is always a function of overlaying the new language onto the existing map and forcing your brain to first find analogs to the language you already speak even as it builds new neural pathways to understand, reproduce, and “think” in the new language. Those mapped pathways, or structures, are either very similar or very dissimilar to the new language, and I have a great example of what happens when you take a related, or similar language and lay it onto the existing map (or maps), versus taking a wholly dissimilar language and trying to overlay it.

In January of 2018 I began studying Slovak, a completely new language family for me, and I began it quite half-heartedly as my time was consumed with work, life, and, you know, Chinese. Although I started off with two hours of live Internet lessons a week, it eventually tailed off to one a week. The lessons were not especially structured and they followed the curriculum of Krizom-Krazom, the standard Slovak for foreign learners textbook. At the time I began Slovak I already had 2.5 years of Chinese study, study which was backed by about 4 hours of live lessons per week, and which, in the distant past, i.e. college, was backed by two years of intensive Chinese study. Another key part of my Chinese self-study has been listening to the Taiwanese RFI radio broadcast for fifteen minutes every morning as soon as I awake. Suffice it to say that after all this time I can only vaguely make out the topic of each news item.

As a comparison, after only a few months I could listen to a comparable Slovak radio broadcast and absolutely make out the topic and even understand some of the details, a level of comprehension that was absolutely comparable with Chinese, in which I’d invested years and several thousand hours. To make it even more stark, I noticed that when learning Slovak an interesting thing would happen when I asked my teacher how to say a word or phrase.

Basically, regardless of what it was I was trying to say, when the teacher would give me the new phrase or word, it “dropped in” to a structure that was already in my mind, like plugging a light into a socket. There was no feeling of cognitive stretch or mental effort other than pronouncing and then then trying to remember the words. But in Chinese, when I’m told a new phrase or word, it drops into … nothing. There is no existing structure, other than the feeble Chinese one I’m building, into which the new material integrates. And although it very loosely connects with existing languages I know, for example Japanese, it doesn’t “click” like new things I learn in Slovak.

There is something about the existing map of language that dissimilar languages like Chinese simply don’t want to play well with, no matter how much you hammer them. And this issue isn’t limited to Chinese; there are countless languages equally remote and therefore as hard or even harder to learn if your basic linguistic map is Indo-European.

If you are an average schmo with limited time, bound to your home country for 50 weeks out of the year, Chinese is not that hard compared to speaking Tuyuca or !Xóõ. Yet among the world’s more commonly found languages, it is beastly beyond compare. It will defeat your best efforts,  suck away your time, your money, your self-confidence, and it will leave a residue of failure and dissatisfaction to smear, like greasy fingerprints, on every other aspect of your life.

Why do it, then? Why pursue something as hopeless as this?

The answer of course is because you are pigheaded. You don’t pursue things because they will help you, because you will excel at them, or because they somehow, vaguely, make you a better or even a more interesting person. What is interesting about mediocrity? What is interesting about unimpressive, pedestrian skills after years of study?

No, Chinese is a cul-de-sac for all but those who are lucky and young, and yes, I know that’s redundant. But you realize when you reach the dead end that you’re hardly lonely or alone, populated as it is with countless quirky, oddball, mindlessly persevering people who are apparently just as pigheaded as you.



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§ 16 Responses to How hard is Chinese?

  • Vlad Luskin says:

    Which reminds me of the last line of Portnoy’s Complaint: “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

  • My daughter was one of those foreign exchange students, and according to her, incoming students were given a choice, if it was available. You could choose to have your degree studies in English, and then your Mandarin classes would be limited to what is necessary to function in Chinese society. If you chose your studies be taught in Mandarin, then you were in full immersion for almost a full year to learn Mandarin. Day in and day out. At the end of the year I think you needed to pass something like HSK Level 5 in order to continue your studies.

    What wasn’t taught in full immersion was any language/characters related to your field of study, so although daughter #2 felt quite proficient in Mandarin in general, she struggle when her course study classes began.

    While the Mandarin classes were by definition a participatory exercise, course study classes, are practiced one way and one way only. Professor to student, don’t interrupt with things like questions. Everything is in the lecture, take good notes. No I won’t make a copy of my slides for you, you will just copy them and give them out, and then nobody will come to my lectures.

  • gcziko says:

    ​I dabbled a very little bit in Mandarin about 10 years ago, motivated by a series of trips to China. I consider myself pretty good in languages, fluent in French and able to get along in Spanish and German. But Chinese made it appear that those languages I’d learned were all variations on the same language and nothing there had anything to do with Chinese. So (trying) to learn Mandarin vocabulary was unlike anything language learning I had done before. And I didn’t even try characters.

    But you make no mention of the relatively simplicity of Chinese grammar. No genders. No cases. No marked singular vs. plural. No articles. No tenses. All the stuff that makes most western language difficult. So I was led to believe by those who should know that once you got learned a decent amount of vocabulary, putting the words together to form sentences was relatively easy. But perhaps that’s really the case?

    • fsethd says:


    • fsethd says:

      It’s not really the case. The difficulty with any foreign language isn’t its inherent structure and vocabulary, it’s its proximity to your native language(s). The more remote the language, the less of a roadmap there is onto which you can overlay the new language. For modern languages, you must be able to read them if you’re also seeking some comparable level of fluency with other foreign languages you speak, so being unable to read Chinese is like being unable to read French or German or Spanish. Yes, you may be able to muddle along, or if you live there and have a local girl/boyfriend, you may become quite fluent up to a point.

      But past that point is the wall of literacy, and literacy is what regulates entry into the next levels of all modern languages. I good friend of mine who speaks native English/French/Spanish, and bilingual Russian, Yiddish, and Alsatian, went to China 12 years ago to work. He is the prototypical high-achieving polyglot and was not intimidated at all by Chinese. He returned a few months ago, is reasonably literate, and rates his Chinese as “intermediate.” That’s 12 years of immersion by a brilliant polyglot.

      Which isn’t to say that Chinese doesn’t have some factors that make it less memory intensive, for example the absence of cases and genders. But you will wait a long time before you find Chinese to be plug-and-play, i.e., once you can read you simply drop in words with no concern for grammar, cf. the use of “le,” the use of “ba,” and countless other confounding grammatical issues that will not play well with the grammar already wired in your head. Of course Chinese does have tenses; all languages do, but they aren’t expressed through verbs, which makes it quite hard and nuanced.

      Here is another thing to consider: Japanese students, who already read kanji, pick up Chinese with amazing speed and facility relative to native-English speaking Americans. I met a young woman in Taiwan who, after a year of study, spoke Mandarin flawlessly. The devil isn’t in the details, it’s in the written language. On the other hand, ten or twenty Mandarin phrases, whether you can read anything or not, will increase the enjoyment of your trip by a factor of ten, as you obviously know. The difficulty of fluency is no bar to pleasures of trying to communicate with whatever’s at hand.

  • nealhe says:

    Hello Seth,

    Is that a long winded way of saying ‘I quit’?

    Good decision …. even if long in coming ….. You could probably put the time to better use.

    I think quitting is under rated …… ‘We never quit’ can be stupid and counterproductive as a survival strategy.

    Military operations allow for retreat and regrouping ….

    While learning Chinese (as an American) or learnng concert piano skills will garner you some respect ….. as a practical matter learning the skills that improve your well being and give you pleasure are probably more important than skills of little use that impress others.

    Another example is a track stand …… (sour grapes as I have some difficulty doing it)

    Just unclip and put your foot down.

    Remember technology is your friend ….. listen to concert piano music on the radio … and

    “Instant character recognition and translation is still a developing translation niche. This being said, Waygo, an app available for Android and iOS smartphones, is truly a feat of software engineering. … The app is able to translate Chinese text in real time, using a smartphone camera, into readable English.”

    Soon there will be a chip you can implant and it will instantly translate spoken Chinese …. and your years of time spent struggling with Chinese will be wasted …. time you will not get back.

    That said ….. learning Chinese is easy …. I have seen Chinese children speaking it.

    • fsethd says:

      I will quit when I’m dead.

    • fsethd says:

      Hi, Neal. I’ve been cogitating on your comment for several days. The military is probably the worst example to use of organizations that can change or adapt. The U.S. has lost every significant war it has fought after WWII, unless you consider the total annihilation of Iraq as a functioning state a victory. There are already endless ways to get around not speaking or understanding Chinese, and the main one is called English. No matter where you are, you can always find the person who can help you along in your native language.

      Technology has also quickly overtaken any practical “need” to speak or read Chinese. Google Translate, which I use to read the Chinese edition of the New York Times, replaces the time-consuming work of a paper dictionary with short copy-pastes that include the pinyin pronunciation with tones. And speak-to-translate apps allow anyone to say something in English and have it display on a screen so that you can show it to the person who can’t understand English, and again, muddle your way through or even get precisely what you want.

      And that is actually the question. What do you want? More crutches? More shortcuts? More direct-to-brain tricks that remove the cognitive obstacles of hard thought and rote memorization? If so, time has been on a constant upward trajectory to help you achieve that as the confluence of English, technology, finance, travel, and the rest of the world’s English-learning imperative bring other languages to their knees, or in the case of hundreds (thousands) of languages, render than completely extinct. There is a society that actually works to preserve these dying and dead languages even as they roll over and expire, and with them, the infinite universes of variety, culture, and thought that reside in our words and grammatical structures.

      “Good riddance!” you might say, because there is no app for Tuyucan, the world’s most “difficult” language, spoken by 300 or so people. I’m not sure I can counter those who revel at the death of language and culture any more than I can dispute a person’s decision to ride an e-bike. It is valid, but not my choice. That is all.

      With regard to devoting time to other, more pleasurable things with a bigger payoff, this is the heart of the matter. What is your pleasure? Convenience and ease? What is your pleasure? Dominance with the language you were born with? What is your pleasure? Making others understand you, and you not having to understand them?

      My pleasure is struggle for things that do not have a payoff, at least not one in dollars and cents and efficiency. My pleasure is watching my decrepit mind rot and harden, and then pushing against the decay as hard as I can, not to stop it, but to slow it, and in the process to gain insight and experience that is available to me no other way. Chinese is baffling and hard and I love it. It admits of no victor and throws up infinite walls, yet each incremental step yields so much. People can find themselves in this linguistic maze for a variety of reasons; some to garner respect, some to make money, some to expand their mind, some to argue better with their wives (won’t happen, she’s still going to win.) But no person who has persevered and force-fed herself on the nails and broken glass that constitute Chinese has–in my limited experience–ever said, “It wasn’t worth it.”

      Not so with Vietnam.

      The older you get the dumber, slower, weaker, lazier, and less tolerant you become. It can’t be helped. But it needn’t be given into without a struggle. In the same way that I don’t judge people who choose to live on the couch and battle obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, and heart disease, I don’t judge people who are comfortable in their monochrome world of English-only fluency, English-only literacy, English-only worldview. But their complacency doesn’t affect my motivation to do these mental intervals; their choice isn’t my choice; their pleasure isn’t my pleasure. And if they asked me for advice, which they never, ever do, I’d tell them that the enlightening confusion that arises from learning a new language might be the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done.

  • I know a little Japanese, and your post makes me curious. How much different is Mandarin?

    • fsethd says:

      It’s totally different but native Japanese speakers pick up Chinese quickly. compared to people whose native languages are Indo-European. Japanese speakers already read kanji, and Japanese, although gramatically distinct from Mandarin, has borrowed heavily from it over the centuries. Japanese has helped me immeasurably in my quest for mediocrity.

  • dangerstu says:

    This appears to be a parable about how easy it is to expect clean masters racing.

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