Is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners?
“It’s all Chinese to me”, we will say in a lot of places around the world when something is far beyond our comprehension. But, is Chinese really THAT hard to learn for foreigners?
When you start learning Chinese, you will most probably feel like nothing makes sense.
The Chinese characters look like a five years old kid’s drawings, speeches sounds very fast and some sounds are never heard before in your language.
Even if it may sound very intimidating at first, I’m going to tell you my journey learning Chinese for 2 years and tell you exactly how you should tackle down your path towards understanding Chinese.
At the end of this article, you will be able to answer by yourself the question ” Is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners? “
三人行，必有我師。 – Sānrén xíng, bìyǒu wǒ shī. – In a group of three people, there will always be one person I can learn from.Chinese idiom
Listen to native speakers
The first thing you should do when you start to learn Chinese( and other languages ) is to listen to native speakers. You don’t necessarily have to walk on the street all day and directly interact with people, although it is also a good way to listen.
What I suggest you is to impregnate your brain with the Chinese language. There are many different ways to achieve this goal:
- Listening to Chinese music.
- Watching Chinese movies and series.
- Watching Chinese videos on Youtube with English subtitles( this channel for example ).
Listening to native Chinese speakers should be the first step for foreigners to get used to the sound of Chinese.
Imitate what you hear
Soon after listening, you should start to imitate everything you hear and associate what you hear with what you see. The goal is basically to learn as a toddler would by watching, listening, and then mimicking. This way your brain is going to associate actions with sounds and you will effortlessly memorize words in your target language.
Is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners? Not really, it just takes more time to understand it. More work will be necessary to imitate words correctly. To learn how to pronounce every sound in Chinese, continue to read further!
Ask questions about everything
When you start to learn a new language, you should again, like a toddler, ask a lot of questions. For example:
- What is this thing?
- What does X mean?
- How to say Y in Chinese?
You can ask yourself the question or ask the shopkeeper. You just have to learn the key sentences in Chinese to ask questions.
|What is this?||Zhè shì shénme ?|
|What does this mean?||Zhè shì shénme yìsi ?|
|How to say X in Chinese||X yòng hànyǔ zěnme shuō|
Is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners? Even if you are not able yet to speak and understand everything, remembering and using those 3 little sentences will enable you to ask questions and learn more.
Learn pronunciation and pinyin
Pinyin is the romanization of the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation. This way, Chinese characters are spelt out with English letters based on their pronunciation.
So, is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners? Maybe not too much for the pronunciation.
As you can see on the following table, it is possible to compare to compare the pronunciation of Chinese characters with English word. It is not perfect but it will enable you to pronounce everything in Chinese.
Pronunciation of initials
|b||spark||unaspirated p, as in spark|
|p||spit||the same p, as in spit|
|m||mama||as in English mama|
|f||fit||as in English fit|
|d||stop||unaspirated t, as in stop|
|t||take||strongly aspirated t, as in take|
|n||nay||as in English nit|
|l||lay||as in English life|
|g||skill||as in English game|
|k||kay||strongly aspirated k, as in kill|
|h||ham||as in English ham.|
|j||Gin||Sounds like the G in Gin|
|q||punch yourself||Alveo-palatal. No equivalent in English. Like punch yourself, with the lips spread wide as when one says ee. Curl the tip of the tongue downwards to stick it at the back of the teeth and strongly aspirate.|
|x||push yourself||Alveo-palatal. No equivalent in English. Like -sh y-, with the lips spread as when one says ee and with the tip of the tongue curled downwards and stuck to the back of the teeth.|
|zh||nurture||Unaspirated ch. Similar to hatching but retroflex, or marching in American English. Voiced in a toneless syllable.|
|ch||church||Similar to chin, but retroflex.|
|sh||shirt||Similar to shoe but retroflex, or marsh in American English.|
|r||ray||No equivalent in English, but similar to the r in reduce, but with the tongue curled upward against the top of the mouth (i.e. retroflex).|
|z||pizza||unaspirated c, similar to something between suds but voiceless, unless in a toneless syllable.|
|c||hats||like the English ts in cats, but strongly aspirated, very similar to the Czech, Polish, and Slovak c.|
|s||say||as in sun|
|w||way||as in water. Before an e or a it is sometimes pronounced like v as in violin.*|
as in yes. Before a u, pronounced with rounded lips.*
Find more information about pronunciation of Chinese characters here
Start to read characters
The most important tool you absolutely need to efficiently memorize Chinese characters is Anki. Anki is a free and open-source flashcards program using spaced repetition to effectively memorize anything you can imagine.
You can just sign-up on their website and use your account on desktop, Android and IOS devices for free. ( Only the IOS app is paid)
I am currently using a deck containing the 6000 most used characters ordered by frequency. You can find this deck by following this link.
You can then test your ability to read by choosing graded texts. Those are text using only a subset of simple characters so that you can consolidate your memorized characters by seeing them together in sentences. You can find graded Chinese books on Amazon and some short graded stories on the du Chinese application.
If you often find yourself copy and pasting Chinese characters on your web browser to a dictionary or Google translate to find what they mean, you really need to check out the browser extension “zhongwen Chinese-English”. It is free and available on Chrome( link ) and Firefox ( link ).
Is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners? Well, learning to read Chinese characters can be quite intimidating but you should at least try to learn the most important characters.
Conclusion: is Chinese hard to learn for foreigners ?
Chinese is undeniably not the easiest language to learn for foreigners but it should not stop you to learn some basics and discuss with native Chinese speakers.
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