In this three-part series, we try to answer the question in the title by breaking it down into three components.
- ‘a bit’: objectively defining language proficiency and goals
- ‘know Chinese’: describing what it actually entails to learn Chinese
- ‘how long’: considering the first two points, investigating what resources would be required to learn Chinese
In the first article, we discussed different methods to determine language proficiency and set your desired language learning goal. These will help us to give an indication of the effort needed to learn Chinese in the third article. But first, in this second part, we will explain what you are up against when learning (Mandarin) Chinese.
There are several aspects of learning Chinese that you need to be aware of before even starting.
- Pinyin and syllables
- Pronunciation and tones
When learning Chinese you will have a lot on your plate …
Pinyin and syllables
First, there’s the pinyin system of romanization that is used to transcribe the Chinese spoken language into the Latin alphabet. It’s an essential tool for learning the language since it connects the written Chinese form to our system of writing and thereby shows us how Chinese characters are pronounced.
Compared to other languages Chinese has a relatively limited number of sounds/syllables, which can be fitted neatly into a so-called pinyin chart. So, there is a limited amount of pinyin you need to get yourself familiar with.
How limited the number of sounds in Chinese is becomes clear when the Chinese need to transcribe Western names into their language. Take my own first name, ‘Ed’. There is no such sound in Chinese, so I use something that sonically comes closest: 艾德, which is pronounced ‘ai de’ (with the ‘e’ sounding like ‘i’ in Kirk). ‘Chinafied’ names often make me chuckle and make for great material for party games. ‘Who do the Chinese refer to when they say ‘bù lā dé pítè’ (布拉德皮特)? Brad Pitt! Almost all the sounds of the syllables in that name do not exist in Chinese.
Pronunciation and tones
Beware, Mandarin is a tonal language that includes 4 different tones in the pronunciation for most syllables in the pinyin chart. In table 1 above you can see the example of ‘da’ having two different tones for the meaning ‘big’ and ‘hit’ (fourth and third tones to be specific).
This makes the spoken language a lot more challenging since many words sound alike but can have completely different meanings, even when pronounced in the same tone (just look at the two words in table 1 that are both pronounced as ‘jī’ (first tone). Given an isolated syllable without the tone I could easily give you 5 to 10 possible meanings for most. Often you have to be very sensitive to hearing and speaking the right tones and/or be able to deduce the meaning of a syllable from the context.
It’s easy to make mistakes here. When I lived in China and still smoked, I once walked into a store and asked for a dà huǒjī. The shopkeeper laughed and asked me if I meant a dǎ huǒ jī (note the differences in the tonal signs). I had asked for a big turkey (in Chinese literally a ‘fire chicken’) instead of a lighter (in Chinese literally ‘hit fire machine’)…
Another challenge. When you start using pinyin you will find that the pronunciation of pinyin vowels and consonants can differ substantially from the way they sound in your own language, especially if your mother tongue is not English. Just like the ‘j’ in English (‘joke’) sounds different from the one in Dutch (‘jas’), German (‘jawohl’) and French (‘jeune’) the pronounciation of pinyin can differ from your own language.
Getting the pronunciation right is absolutely essential. You might know thousands of words and characters, but when mispronounced no Chinese person will be able to understand you. An example. In the Dutch language the ‘x’ is pronounced like ‘ks’ (like the English ‘cus’ without the ‘u’), while in pinyin it is pronounced like the ‘sh’ in ‘shell’. I have seen way too many Dutch tourists using a travel dictionary and thanking confused Chinese sellers by saying ‘ksie, ksie’ (‘thank you’ in Chinese (谢谢) is ‘xièxiè’ in pinyin).
And yes, we have met people that know an enormous number of written Chinese characters, can read very advanced pieces of text but are incomprehensible to Chinese people when speaking. At the same time, there are people that have excellent pronunciation, and an enormous vocabulary but can read and write very limited Chinese.
As in any language, learning Chinese comes with a lot of vocabulary that you will have to master. But different from Western European languages, you will find very few familiar words. In Western European languages there are a lot of common or very similar words that are just pronounced (slightly) differently. When I was learning Spanish I was amazed how much the written language sometimes looked like English. In the same way, a lot of words in Dutch and German are alike and these languages even have some overlap with Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian.
The only time similarities happen in Chinese is when it concerns a borrowed word that has been ‘Chinafied’, just like ‘bù lā dé pítè’ (Brad Pitt, remember?). Examples are ‘kělè’ (可乐) for ‘cola’ or ‘qiǎokèlì’ (巧克力) for ‘chocolate’. Not counting these, learning Chinese vocabulary will be a lot of work. Having said that, it can be enormous fun because of their literal translations, like the ‘fire chicken’ already mentioned. You might be able to guess what literal translations of ‘fire vehicle’, ‘fire mountain’, ‘pine tree rat’, and ‘electric brain’ could be…
Again, don’t forget that a lot of Chinese words sound alike, especially when disregarding tones. ‘Dian’ can mean ‘electricity’, ‘shop’, ‘point’, and many other things. ‘Xiang’ can mean ‘to want’, ‘direction’, ‘elephant’, ‘resemble’, etc. There is even a Chinese poem called ‘Lion-eating poet in the Stone Den’ that is entirely made up of the sound ‘shi’. Of course, that’s not how Chinese people normally speak and they wouldn’t be able to comprehend the poem without actually seeing the characters. But this linguistic demonstration, even though it used a lot of classical Chinese characters, does illustrate how confusing the language can be without the right context to help you understand it.
Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) does not have a writing system comparable to the Western alphabet. As you’ve seen above, in Hanzi (written Chinese), every character is basically a different word (火 means fire, 车 means vehicle), while – as in other languages – combinations of characters form new words (火车 would mean ‘fire vehicle’ and is the Chinese word for ‘train’). Learning to read and write Chinese isn’t a matter of learning 26 symbols like in our language, it requires learning thousands of characters.
Do let this sink in. In the Roman alphabet, you can learn 26 symbols and that basically enables you to read every combination of these 26 symbols. In foreign Western languages, you might not pronounce such a combination, a word, 100% correctly and you might not know the meaning of a specific word but being able to read a word and thereby (sometimes) being able to guess its meaning is already half of the work.
Let’s assume that you don’t read Dutch and see this word: ‘slagroom’. If you’re a native English speaker, you will probably mispronounce it and misinterpret its meaning – it’s Dutch for ‘whipped cream’ and not some kind of space where you people are criticized – but at least you can read it, easily look it up in a dictionary or ask someone ‘What is slag room?’.
But what if you came across 掼奶油?
That’s written Chinese for whipped cream. But unless you know the characters it’s almost impossible to figure that out (without using tools or asking somebody by showing them the characters).
With Western European languages, it will often be easier to figure out, like with Dutch words like trein, deurbel, auto or moeder (train, doorbell, car and mother).
Now, compare that to seeing 火车, 门铃, 汽车 and 妈.
Something else … Since each character or set of characters is a word, written Chinese does not use spaces to separate words like other languages, making it difficult to tell where words start and end for the untrained eye.
Jīntiān wǒ mǎile yī liàng xīnchē.
Today I bought a new car.
Indeed, written Chinese is one of the most challenging, but also most fun parts of learning the language. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the things that attracts people to the language, especially among young students. It’s almost as if you and your childhood friends have created a secret code that nobody else understands, but one of the overachievers among your buddies has created thousands of codes!
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to learn how to write by hand anymore (but please don’t let that stop you if you are into calligraphy). While learning to write Chinese characters by hand through endless repetition does really help the brain to memorize the characters, there is a much easier way of writing as long as you don’t have to do it on a surface like paper or a whiteboard. When you know the spoken form of a word and thereby the pinyin, you can write on smartphones and computers by typing in the pinyin and choosing the right characters from the options the app or keyboard tool gives you. See the second method in the video below.
What do you want to learn?
When asking the question ‘How long before I know a bit of Chinese?’, besides specifying what ‘a bit’ means to you (as in, the proficiency level do you want to reach, as discussed in the first article), you also need to decide if ‘knowing Chinese’ refers to speaking/listening, reading/writing or all of the above.
How you want to use the language (think back to the goals you have set for yourself) will determine which of these elements are (most) important. If you only want to be able to read and write Hanzi, the exact pronunciation might be less important. Theoretically, you could learn the meaning of the characters without ever knowing how to pronounce them. Just memorize a Hanzi to English dictionary and totally ignore the pinyin. Just treat Chinese writing as a secret code.
We do think the scenarios in which this would be a sensible choice are extremely limited in real life. Maybe if you are a recluse that wants to read lots of Chinese literature…
Alternatively, if you only want to be able to communicate verbally, learning characters might be less important. If using spoken Chinese as an icebreaker or sign of respect when meeting Chinese counterparts, just speaking some A1-level Chinese might be enough.
But do ask yourself, how often is communication done only in spoken or only in written form? If you want to make your way around China you will have to be able to speak, listen, read, and sometimes even write. For example, besides some street names and common signs relevant to tourists (e.g. in an airport), you will rarely come across the Western alphabet in China.
In the rare occasions pinyin is used, as if the Chinese think they are doing foreigners a favor. But any student of Chinese will tell you that’s close to useless. People that have never learned Chinese won’t know what the pinyin text means, while those that have learned the language might be confused because, as mentioned, one pinyin syllable could refer to many different Chinese characters and thereby meanings.
Ask yourself, without the universal symbol, how useful would this sign be to non-Chinese?
Finally, there is one more reason why being able to write Chinese is helpful. In China, a lot of dialects are spoken. These can differ so much from the standard Mandarin (putonghua) that a student of Chinese learns that it is close to incomprehensible. And although putonghua is the standard that is being taught in schools and used in state media, many Chinese, especially among older generations and outside the larger cities, are not able to speak it. Even within one province, dialects can differ so much that people can’t fully comprehend each other. In such cases, Chinese often revert to written text and why you will find domestic movies subtitled in Chinese characters; it’s the only common denominator. So, being able to write some Chinese would also help you in these scenarios.
To summarize, if you want to use Chinese in practical situations, there is no escape from learning both the spoken and written form, although the emphasis might be different based on how you plan to use the language. At the end of the day, Chinese remains a challenging language to learn. There’s a reason why Mandarin, at least here in The Netherlands, is often only offered as a graduation course to the high school students with the best learning abilities and that need even more challenges.
Some good news
All of the above might discourage you, but there is some good news too.
First, Chinese grammar is relatively simple compared to most Western languages. For instance, there is no conjugation of verbs whatsoever. Whether you are speaking about the first, second, or third person singular or plural, the verb remains the same (I am, you are, she is = wǒ shì, nǐ shì, tā shì). When using future tense you simply add 会 (huì) in front of the verb. Or even simpler, if you just add the concerned time (tomorrow, next year, this afternoon) it is obliviously in the future and you don’t need to change anything about the verb. When something already took place, you put 了(le) or 过 (guò) behind the verb.
I’m oversimplifying a bit, but this was one of the things that was a relief for me when learning Mandarin because conjugations of verbs and tenses were always my biggest stumbling block when learning French and Spanish.
Second, when communicating with Chinese there are all kinds of tools you can use that will help you when your language proficiency isn’t very high (yet). Apps like Google Translate have become very advanced in translating Chinese text, even by simply pointing your smartphone camera at it (see some of the tips in the second part of the video below). Ten years ago, when I worked in China, using Google Translate on long Chinese text was close to useless. Nowadays, AI and machine learning have evolved so far that I read a lot of Chinese business text by hitting the Google Translate button on a webpage. It’s not perfect, but very understandable. Google Translate and other hard- and software can even do real-time translations of simple spoken conversations in walky-talky style. It’s one of the reasons that I have decided not to put enormous effort into improving my own proficiency level anymore.
We hope we have managed your expectations about the challenges of learning Chinese. Now that you have set your proficiency goals and know what to expect, we will look at the time it might take to reach your goal in the third and final article.