…so, you want to learn Chinese?

First, a disclaimer: this is not intended to be authoritative, or anything even near authoritative. These are merely my own opinions and observations, culled from about 5 years of studying Chinese. Take them with as large a grain of salt as you should everything else on the internet.

So, you want to learn Chinese? Great – but first some notes:

First off, “Chinese,” as such, doesn’t exist. It’s a myth, an idealised standard to which nobody really adheres. “Chinese” would better be defined as a family of languages and dialects than as a language unto itself. However, for purposes of this essay, let’s use “Chinese” as a shorthand for “Modern Standard Mandarin.”

Chinese is hard. Of course, any foreign language is hard to a degree which varies based upon how close your own language is to the language you want to study, but in the case of Chinese, which is related to nothing except its subdialects and (if we are to believe the linguists) Tibetan, it’s a pretty safe bet that your language has little to nothing in common with it. *

There’s no alphabet. You knew this, of course; who hasn’t seen Chinese characters on a sign, t-shirt, or hipster tattoo and wondered at a language that’d use those?

Not only is there no alphabet, there’s not even a single way of writing it: there are two (overlapping) character systems, fanti and jianti, usually translated as “traditional” and “simplified.” On top of that, there are variant forms of characters, and then the nightmare that is cursive Chinese, and then the various forms of calligraphy. Anyone wishing to study Chinese will have to learn to write at least one of the three, and read at least two.
That doesn’t sound like much at first – of course you’ll need to know how to write it; isn’t that the whole point of learning another language? – but in fact, learning to write is substantially harder than learning merely to read, by virtue of what I wrote above: that there is no alphabet. You will not be able to reproduce a character by the phonetic clues that you’d get with other languages; that is, knowing how “paralegal” sounds will not necessarily give you any clue as to how to write it. And there’s a substantial chance that there are two, or more, ways to write the characters in question: see above, variant, traditional, and simplified characters.

Even if you choose to be illiterate in Chinese – which is a mistake, but many have done it – you’ve still got to worry about speaking.

On the face of things, this isn’t so bad; Chinese has much fewer possible phonemes than most other languages, and so your chances of being able to pronounce a given syllable correctly are actually pretty good – or would be, except for one small problem.
Make that four small problems: the tones. (Actually, there are five in Mandarin, if you include the neutral tone,and when you get into other Chinese languages like Cantonese or Shanghainese – “dialects,” in Chinese linguistic terms, although this is only true inasmuch as French and Spanish are related dialects – there can be eight or more.) The pitch of a syllable changes its meaning; the example you’ll usually see given is that the word ‘ma,’ depending on tone, can mean ‘mother, hemp, horse, or curse.’ If you say it with no tone then it becomes a sentence particle used to indicate a yes-or-no question. Or something else entirely.
This is a concept that it just not present in English, or in any other nontonal language. Saying something with the tone that feels natural from your native language – e.g.: “Huh!” “Huh?” “Huh…” – will change the meaning of what you’re saying. The tonal nature of Chinese means that until the tones become internalised – which takes a long time – you will have to be on your guard, lest ‘math’ accidentally come out as ‘blood transfusion,’ or ‘accent’ come out as ‘oral sex.’

Allow me to say this again, in case you missed it: EVERY SYLLABLE IN MANDARIN CHINESE CAN BE SAID IN ONE OF FIVE POSSIBLE WAYS.

This is where literacy helps out, as if you don’t know how a character should be read, you can at least consult a dictionary, or – if none is handy – write the character down to ask someone how to say it.

So literacy sounds good, huh? Sure.
There is a common myth that 2000 or so characters are all you need to read a newspaper. This is a lie, a foul, vile, devilish untruth, but it’s spread for a reason, and that reason is this: the nature of Chinese words (ci, in the Pinyin romanisation of the character for ‘word’) is such that most of them are comprised of two or more zi – characters. This doesn’t sound like a big deal – after all, if you know the characters that comprise a word, you must know the word itself – until you realise that for a hypothetical foreign speaker of English, knowing the words “size” and “down” doesn’t necessarily mean that they will know the meaning, or appreciate the connotations of, “downsizing.” (Or, to paraphrase David Moser, from whom I’m kind of stealing this point anyway, knowing “up” and “right” isn’t the same as knowing “upright.”)

Thus, while a native speaker of Chinese may only need to learn 2000 zi – “characters,” or “written-word-elements” as I’d prefer to think of them in this context – to read a newspaper, that’s because they already speak the language. You, as an outsider to the language, without the spoken lexicon that would give you the necessary background, will need to learn both the word-elements and the words themselves, which requires much more work and time.

Still reading?
Good. We’ve scared off the lightweights.

The truth is that Chinese is hard, for the reasons I’ve set forth above and many more that aren’t coming to mind right now. That being said, it’s not quite so bad: the word-elements I mentioned often work together in logical or at least understandable ways, so that xiao ( “small”), da (“big”), and xue (“study, learn”) react to form xiaoxue (“primary school”) and daxue (“university”). A good chunk of the time, if you’re dealing with modern Chinese, you’ll have at least a decent shot at guessing the meaning.

The characters? Hard, yes, but once you’ve gotten a couple hundred under your belt, you’ll be able to remember and reproduce them much more easily by dismantling them into their component parts and remembering that, for example, zui (“most, -est”) is ri over er over you.
Other characters give you clues as to their pronunciation. Xiang (“think”) is another character pronounced ‘xiang’ over an element meaning “heart.” Chao (“copy [e.g. notes]”) is an element meaning “hand” added to another character pronounced ‘shao.’

(Astute readers will have noted that of all of the romanised characters I’ve included above, none has been accompanied by any indication as to what tone it should be read in. There is a reason for this: while the PRC’s official Pinyin system of romanisation – which is what I’m using – does indicate tones via diacritical marks, most of what you’ll see on store signs in China or on the internet doesn’t bother with indicating tone. When tone is given online, it’s usually in the form of numbers, e.g. wo3 shi4 ou1 bo2 en1. I find this ugly, and anyway this isn’t a lesson for people studying Chinese, who will have probably learnt the characters I’m mentioning within their first couple weeks of class anyway.)

The tones are one of the hardest parts of learning Chinese, because while you can guess at characters (“Gee, gou [hook]…probably just the ‘metal’ element plus the ‘gou‘ phonetic…”), you really can’t fake the funk with tones. After you’ve managed to learn how to remember the correct tone per character, which is hard enough as is (un…less… you… speak… ve…ry… slow…ly), you’ll have to get the hang of producing them in connected speech, where they mutate promiscuously based on context.
There are also characters that can change tone based on meaning (read with the third tone, one of the characters pronounced hao means “good;” with the fourth tone, the same character means “to be fond of”) or flat-out change pronunciation. Screwing up will render you laughable, if not unintelligible. With time and work, though, the tones will become second nature; the more you practise, the luckier you get.

So what it all boils down to is this: Chinese is hard. Learning it takes a lot of work over a long period of time.

I am not saying this lightly, or exaggerating, as I have done earlier in this essay. If you want to learn Chinese, you will have to invest years, and really work at it.

This may be a good time to ask yourself why, exactly, you want to learn Chinese.
“Because I’ve heard the CIA/Armed Forces/whatever is looking for people fluent in Mandarin” is not a good answer.
Neither is anything beginning “In tomorrow’s economy…”
Neither are “I like kung-foo movies” or “I like Chinese food,” in case you were wondering.
When you get right down to it, the best reason to learn Chinese – the best reason to learn anything – is that you want to. It doesn’t have to be any more specific than that; all that matters is that you want to do it, and (afterwards) that you keep wanting to do it. If you don’t love something, you can never be good at it.

There comes a point (or many points) in everyone’s study of Chinese – usually around three in the morning, while they are sitting at their desk writing and rewriting and re-rewriting characters – where they look back at what they’ve accomplished and wonder why they ever got into such a thing. Even if they have been warned beforehand – which is my purpose in writing this – they still can’t help but feel that they didn’t really know, going in, exactly how difficult it would be. They may wonder why they didn’t just study something nice and easy, like, say, neuroscience.

But most of these people then take a second look at what they’ve learnt and decide that it’s been well worth it, that every scrap of effort they’ve put in has been rewarded a hundredfold.
And then they go back to studying.

I’ve been one of these people many times throughout my study of Chinese, and I hope that you will be too. Good luck.

Comments (41)

  1. TC wrote::

    you know what?
    you’ll make it as a writer… you write, i read – transaction complete

    props to you

    i gotta second the part about learning how to read/write/speak cocurrently you won’t get anywhere otherwise

    Thursday, October 23, 2003 at 11:34 am #
  2. Phil wrote::

    I can’t understand THE Chinese, let alone their language. Or languages. Only been here a few weeks though.

    Keep up the good work. Thought I was oh-so-clever calling my blog ‘disorientated’ but you’ve kinda beaten me to it. Oh well. I’m adding your page to my link list anyway.


    Saturday, October 25, 2003 at 5:29 am #
  3. heather wrote::

    I got here through alaric.
    I love the color in ur site, especially the picture on the top right:)

    so many ppl are learning chinese.
    I am learning English and French, compared with English, French seems more difficult.
    I am still wondering why so many ppl say French is beautiful~~~weird.

    nice site:)

    Saturday, October 25, 2003 at 11:45 am #
  4. david wrote::

    Nice entry. I personally think the hardest thing about Chinese is just the learning curve. It’s tremendously difficult to learn any skill when none of the necessary parts (speaking, reading, writing, listening) complement each other until you’re already quite good.

    English may not be easier to master, but the slope of the learning curve is almost certainly lower for beginners, if perhaps higher for advanced speakers forced to internalize all of the irregularities.

    Sunday, October 26, 2003 at 1:20 am #
  5. Brendan wrote::

    I think the learning curve for English is in many ways the opposite of the learning curve for Chinese; the initial investment in literacy is obviously much less, and while the basics of pronunciation in English are harder to get down, connected speech is easier. Compare that to Chinese, where the basics of pronunciation take a few months just for isolated syllables, and god-only-knows how long for connected speech, tone sandhi, etc.

    Vlad – it’s weird; the only time I’ve ever thought that French sounded beautiful was when I heard Haitian French. The continental dialect doesn’t do much for me, but perhaps I’m missing something.
    In terms of sounds – Chinese does interesting things with loan words; the initial borrowing usually sounds more or less like the word in the source language, and is gradually sinicised. Examples: ‘laser’ – originally leishe guang (an obvious transliteration using the words ‘thunder-ray light’), and through various refinements, it’s now become jiguang (‘stimulated light’). ‘Coca Cola’ is transliterated as kekou kele, which literally means something like “tasty happy” and also happens to sound both like the original and a Chinese word; most people just say kele – ‘cola’ – which literally translated is something like “conducive to happiness.” It’s fun when you ask for yi ge kele, ting zhuang de – “happiness in a can,” if one wanted to translate it that way.
    Other loanwords come in through Cantonese, which reads the characters differently. ‘Ice cream’ is a kind of hybrid borrowing; in Mandarin it’s bing qilin, where ‘bing’ means “ice” and ‘qilin’ is a meaningless transliteration. It’d seem to be a pretty crappy transliteration, too – ‘qilin’ is read something like “tchee-leen’ – except that in Cantonese, where it originated, it’s read as ‘keihlahm,’ which sounds a little more like “cream.” Still, most direct transliterations into Chinese are similarly disappointing, so that most transliterated loanwords eventually become worn down to more Chinese-sounding ones.

    Unrelated to anything else, my new favourite loanword has to be tuokouxiu: “talkshow.”

    Sunday, October 26, 2003 at 3:26 am #
  6. Vladimir wrote::

    Part of why people percieve French as being beautiful probably has something to do with the fact that there are rules in French that exist for no other purpose than to make it sound more mellifluous. For instance, French will go to great lengths to avoid a vowel clash, even ruling out some gramatically correct constructions simply because they would cause one. Also, assonance was a key component of Old French poetry, much more prevalent than it was in Old English, and this seems to have had some influence on the day-to-day language use as well.

    But I’m sure it has something to do with cultural stereotypes as well. French is “beautiful”, Asian languages are “exotic”, German “sounds like you want to kill someone”, and so on.

    Sunday, October 26, 2003 at 7:14 am #
  7. scott wrote::

    Hi Brendan,
    Nice article (esp. about that semi-annually “why am I doing this” question ;) ).

    One minor correction — Cantonese has several similar word to vietnamese (phonetically), and Mandarin also has several similar words to Korean. Although the grammar is entirely different, there are lots of words in Korean that my Korean friend tells me feel Chinese, and when she tells me what they are, I’m often able to guess what they mean because they are closely linked to the Mandarin pronunciation..

    As for Japanese, who among us hasn’t taken a look at some kanji-rich Japanese and thought “I get that, it can’t be that hard”. There are lots of faux-amis and the pronounciation is miles away, but the kanji aren’t THAT different… (I used to get upset at my Chinese friends studying Japanese and complaining about Kanji, while the Chinese students suffered through characters).


    Monday, October 27, 2003 at 5:53 am #
  8. xiaomin wrote::

    Good luck with your chinese learning! I’ve seen people excel or give up. You know the only thing that makes the difference is how much effort you put in :-).

    Wednesday, October 29, 2003 at 10:26 am #
  9. Alaric wrote::

    My take on the “Is Chinese hard?” question is that Chinese is easy. I certainly agree with the facts about the language in your post. So why do I believe Chinese is easy?

    1. Every Chinese person learns it without too much of a problem.

    2. If we (non-Chinese people) put in time on it everyday, we learn it without much of a problem as well.

    Now, I won’t deny that I don’t sometimes get frustrated along the way. But I find it helpful to think of those feelings as my own “distress” and as misperceptions. Not as something inherent in the language, or in my abilities. The reality is that Chinese is easy, and we all have the ability to learn it well. Any feeling to the contrary is just emotional “noise”. Those feelings have no more basis in reality than the feelings of the man who, once bitten by a snake, now jumps at the sight of a stick.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2003 at 12:59 pm #
  10. Alai wrote::

    For an Anglophones, I have maintained, maintain, and intend to continue maintaining that (Mandarin) Chinese is the easiest language for them to learn. The tones of Chinese exist within normal English discourse. The syntax is rather easy, especially when one considers that it also is an SVO language. The phonemes might not perhaps (it is easier, physically and subconsciously, for a francophone to speak Mandarin Chinese), but they are rather simple to produce. Even characters, when taught by a good teacher, are easy to learn. (Traditional should be learned first, however.) Compared with the Cantonese and Fujianese/Taiwanese I’m studying right now for phonetics, Mandarin is a breeze. Such a shame that people seem to make it sound so difficult. ; )

    Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 3:58 am #
  11. John wrote::


    Don’t give into these crazy people! Mandarin IS hard.

    You judge a language’s difficulty in relation to other languages. In my own experience, learning Chinese has been harder than Spanish or Japanese, and I got the other two up to a pretty high level too.

    Chinese is hard.

    Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 3:58 am #
  12. Alai wrote::

    I apparently cannot speak English (and make an error that would be one in my native French, even!). “For Anglophones”.

    Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 3:59 am #
  13. Alaric wrote::

    I understand, but disagree with calling something “hard” just because it takes longer to do than something else. Besides, learning Chinese is fun, challenging, and even exciting. It is a beautiful language. Prolonged sex with the woman of your desires (if you are a hetero man), for example, isn’t “harder” than a quickie, is it? Haha.

    Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 9:03 am #
  14. Brendan wrote::

    OK, OK, OK. Chinese is easy.

    No, actually – I guess I didn’t really stress enough in the second half of the post – the one where I wasn’t trying to scare people off – that the difficulties involved in learning it (because there are difficulties, and they are, I think, quantifiably greater – for someone coming from an English background – than, say, those involved in learning Spanish) are very far from insurmountable.

    The tones, as far as I’m concerned, are the hardest part. Yes, they do exist in English, as in my example of “Huh!” “Huh?” “Huh…,” but actually reproducing them consciously, in connected speech at a decent speed, is pretty hard. Even when you’ve got the basic rules of tone sandhi down, there are still surprises, and the very existence of tones is something so alien to English that saying a word with the intonation that feels right in English will screw it up, as often as not. And that’s leaving out the regional readings of characters; I spent a good chunk of last year saying ‘blood’ with the third tone, because that’s how they say it up ’round Harbin way.

    Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 10:38 am #
  15. Brendan wrote::

    Oh, and yeah, dialects are harder than Mandarin. Southern Min breaks my head, and the Wu dialects seem to involve more buzzing than is strictly necessary.

    Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 10:40 am #
  16. rabi wrote::

    I’ve spent enough time helping my roommate practice her chinese vocabulary that I can rattle off the different tones pretty well. but I never remember which one goes with which word, and we’ve been working on the same box of vocabulary cards for several months now.

    Friday, October 31, 2003 at 1:19 am #
  17. Eric wrote::

    John, thank you for that statement. I keep hearing from many people how much harder Japanese is to learn than Chinese is and I was really beginning think that something must be wrong with me. I also studied Japanese and mostly found it much easier than Chinese. The only exception is that I find learning characters easier now I think though that is because I already developed the character learning part of the brain while studying Japanese.

    I think Chinese is incredibly difficult to learn but I am also enjoying it. I also highly encourage anyone who really wants to study a foriegn language to go where it is spoken. It is so satisfying to learn something new and then get to use it. I always enjoy my taxi rides to town and realizing how many more of the signs I can read than on the last trip. Or the very rare times when one of my friends says ‘hey you sounded Chinese there instead of like someone just learning mandarin.” The one draw back to studying here is the dialects. It can be maddening sometimes to study so much Mandarin and be surrounded by so many people who speak what many times sounds like what might as well be another language. Luckily for me I didn’t start studying Chinese until I arrived in China. A teacher back in the states likes to recount her horror when she moved to Beijing in the early 80s after three years of studying Chinese in the states and realizing she couldn’t understand a thing people were saying all she heard was ‘re re re re re.’ I was allowed to get this stumbling block out of the way before studying for two years.

    Saturday, November 1, 2003 at 12:58 pm #
  18. Alainna wrote::

    I found learning Japanese to be easier, but that’s because I was working non-stop with Japanese-speakers and in a primarily Japanese environment (whereas I only had relatives whom I did not see on a daily basis for Mandarin Chinese — Cantonese is king here). The basic syntax, the pitches, the basic verb forms — those were all extremely easy to pick up (especially with the additional loan words) and and you don’t *really* need to write kanji to be undestood… Simple, right?

    However, Japanese has keigo. What in hell?! Many Japanese cannot even properly use keigo anymore — my boss used to tell us (and by “us” I mean “my coworkers [all Japanese, save one, who is half] and me”) at least one a month that we were not being “polite enough” and would tell us that we should be saying XX instead of XX (or using XX conjugation instead of XX conjugation). It is, however, a viable part of the language as it is used often (which is why Japanese airline announcements take some five hours longer than their English or Chinese equilivents) and is well-set into the socio-linguistic “mind frame” (if you will). This alone, I believe, makes it the more difficult to learn — while one can easily learn some aspects of the language, there are others which make it so much more of a pain in the ass than one as straight forward as Chinese. :p

    Sunday, November 2, 2003 at 12:37 pm #
  19. Brendan wrote::

    I remember finding Japanese harder than Chinese when I studied, but that was years ago and maybe I’d see things differently now.

    Alaric, I do agree – saying that something’s hard isn’t ths same as saying it’s not enjoyable. Think of it not as sex (although yeah, OK, it’s a more pleasing analogy) but as a game of chess, or weiqi – it’s fun in part because it’s challenging. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that I find my study of Chinese anything but pleasurable: I love the language, and as I said, every ounce of work I’ve put into learning it has been repaid tenfold. I can’t think of anything else in my life that I’ve worked as hard at, or that I’ve derived so much enjoyment from.

    That being said: it’s hard.

    Monday, November 3, 2003 at 2:55 am #
  20. Cordo wrote::

    I’ve always thought Japanese was more difficult myself, but that may have a lot to do with the fact that Japanese was the first I studied.

    Speaking of difficulty, I’ve always thought the statistics at the bottom of this page was interesting, as something used in the real word:

    Monday, November 3, 2003 at 5:48 am #
  21. Cedric wrote::

    This was great! Thank you for writing this.

    Sunday, November 30, 2003 at 5:02 am #
  22. NieJing wrote::

    Hello , I am a Chinese graduate student. Now I am researching pharmacology. I want to do some medicine translation . I can translate english to chinese and chinese into english .
    Anyone who want to study Chinese can using MSN to talk with me . MY hotmail code is nie_jing2000@hotmail.com

    OR you can contact me using yahoo messenger .
    My yahoo code is nie_jing2000@yahoo.com.cn

    Monday, January 5, 2004 at 8:06 am #
  23. steve wrote::

    This is to Brendan on his Oct 2003 post.
    I actually think that Korean sounds closer to Cantonese. Yes, there are elements in cant. that sounds like viet., and there are sounds in korean that is like mandarin but for the majority of the language, it sounds more like cant:
    examples: the word for student is Hak-seng in Korean and Hok-sang in cant. whereas it is xue-sheng in mandarin. school: Hak-gyo(Kor.), Hok-Hau(cant.), Xue-Xiao(mand.). world: saek-kye(kor.), sai-kai(cant.), shi-jie(mand.). ginseng tea: yin-sam-cha(kor.), yan-sam-cha(cant.), ren-sen-cha(mand.), etc. I’m learning kor. and I find it very similar to southern chinese languages like cant. and fujianese. I think the main reason why some kor. words sounds mand. is that obscure “x”(pinyin) sound, which cant. lack but is shared by kor.

    Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 3:04 am #
  24. Lyle wrote::

    Just stumpled onto this site after looking at expats in China….good stuff. As to the China difficulty question, anyone who says Chinese is easy is full of shit, sorry. It doesn’t matter how you look at, linguistially or otherwise, when compared to other languages, it is one of the more difficult languages to master. I was reading an article written by a Linguistics professor that talked about how just the tones alone add another element to Chinese that makes it verifiably more difficult than the romance languages to learn, i.e. using your brain to process tones and sounds as well as the words themselves. To a native English speaker, it simply is more difficult to grasp. Anway, we all know this anyway, but if it were easy, what would be the fun in that?

    My question to you Brandon is about Beida….how is the instruction there??? I am in the process of applying to colleges in Beijing for a year-long Chinese program, and I hear Beida and Tsinghua are the best (for Chinese instruction). Do you know anything about Tsinghua’s program?

    Best of luck to you, keep up the good work!

    Friday, January 30, 2004 at 3:46 am #
  25. Steve wrote::

    Tones are fun. Chinese is hard.

    And for the record, Brendan, Anthony stopped spitting the next day. It only took me 30 minutes of saying it repeatedly when I got home:)

    Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 5:05 am #
  26. frank wrote::

    wo shi meiguo ren. wo bu ai xue putonghua. wo hun bu gaoxing :-(

    Tuesday, February 10, 2004 at 1:52 am #
  27. Dave wrote::

    A few things:

    1) This site, blog, or whatever it is kicks ass. I really agree with the authors attitude about learning Chinese and why one should do it. I have been told so many times that Chinese is such a valuable language, that I have a vital and unique skill, etc. etc… but does that mean I have a good job? Hell no! Do I want to work for the CIA or the NSA (who constantly post jobs where I live) No no thanks. I learned to read Chinese because I wanted to read Chinese literature, and now that I am able to do so, I am amazed with myself… ok, maybe I need to calm down.

    2) About the tones: stop thinking of the tones as an “extra element”. When I hear a1 a2 a3 a4, I don’t hear a syllable with four different tones, I hear four different syllables. I think that’s the trick to dealing with the tone problem. When the tone changes, you get a completely different syllable. Since that arent that many possible combinations of consonate/vowells in Mandarin, you really don’t have to be familiar with a lot of different sounds.

    3) Chinese, east or hard? Both. The trick is, during your first year or so of study, WORK YOUR ASS OFF, do your best to perfect your pronounciation and grasp of sentence structure. After that, it gets really easy. The “learning curve” here was more like a hump for me, once I drilled in the really basic stuff the hard way (intensive study, repetitive drills, etc.) I was able to start learning vocabulary and sentence patterns without having to obsess of all of the new material so much.

    4) On that note, two more important things about learning Chinese: A) Don’t be afraid to move from your textbook on to some “real world” materials… even if you have only been studying for less than a year. Get a middle-school history book, or a joke book, or some comics… or read the Chinese version of “news of the wierd” in the newspaper. I used to go around to supermarkets and read the labels on food products… that proved very helpful later on, because it helped me learn how to order practically anything in a restaurant. Slog through it… it might take you an hour to get through a short paragraph, but it will be worth it!! B) Don’t obssess over remembering every single litle word. Sure, you’ll want to bust out the flash cards until you get a few hundred important characters under your belt. But after that, don’t worry if you find yourself forgetting what a character means. You’ll eventually remember it when you come across it in a new context two or three times. All those characters you “forgot” will suddenly be familiar, and you’ll start to learn stuff without having to write it down. That’s when you will feel that a real breakthrough has been made.

    Wow, that was long. Maybe I should have my own blog.


    Tuesday, February 17, 2004 at 4:21 am #
  28. Benjamin wrote::

    I very much agree. In the past seven months that I’ve been in China and been trying to learn the language on my own without any books or any teacher, I’ve noticed one painstaking absolute…

    This is not easy!!

    My friends here keep telling me I only need to learn maybe 1000, 2000 characters to speak, but after learning 200, I’ve noticed nothing is getting easier, but rather harder. Add to that, but when I speak to people, they rarely understand me. I keep harking back to the days when all I knew was “hao” and “bu hao,” and think I probably should just stick with those two.


    Sunday, March 14, 2004 at 9:42 am #
  29. J Dangu wrote::

    Dear all,

    As a student, I am fascinated by the Chinese culture. When trying to explore the basics of the language, i got stuck. In my effort, i have developed a software to learn sinograms (chinese characters) in a smarter way. You can create your custom character lists and then you can evaluate your progresses through quizzes and statistics.
    I would be glad to see that this software is of any interest for some of you. Here is the address of the site:

    LearnChinese 2003

    Kind Regards,

    Friday, March 19, 2004 at 9:36 am #
  30. eggers wrote::

    Chinese might have its easy points early on, but for advanced learners and translators, Chinese becomes increasingly difficult because of syntaxt. Chinese words do not correlate with their so-called English “equivalents”

    i.e. the sentence – “AP News released the information on Saturday” in Chinese might read “AP NEWS XINGQILIU GONGKAI XIE XIAOXI.” Here, the word “released” alone means “released to the press”, not release as in “let him go” release, and not as in “release from your grip” release.

    its one thing to say “WO YAO DIANCAI” (I want to order). its another thing to say “TAI GAOYUAN JINJI CAIDING – XUANPIAO HUNFANG YILV GAIJI WEI WUXIAO PIAO”. (Newspaper Headline for “Taiwanese High Court Rules Miscast Votes to Be Invalid”).

    The Chinese learning curve is steep. And it gets steeper the farther you go.

    Thursday, May 13, 2004 at 2:44 am #
  31. Fu Yang wrote::

    Putonghua is not only beautiful, but useful. Though i do agree w/ the conunudrum presented by the majority of jobs using the language being in one State Dep’t or other… That said, i find Chinese to be quite easy to study. It is very different than English, but grammatically simpler. Tones must be internalized as meaning-bearing, that’s it. Soon tai1 wan3 sounds nothing like tai2 wan1. The way words are structured and synthesised in Putonghua continually delights me. And Putonghua is one of the world’s loveliest languages, along with Portuguese and Japanese (spoken by a woman, that is). Polish too is exquisite.
    Being a polyglot in training, the one modicum of advice i can offer to all is: When met by seemingly insurmounatble crazy difficulties (like where the hell do I put le?), just accept that it’ll make sense later and move on (being a Christian helps this sort of cogitation, heh heh…;)

    Tuesday, May 25, 2004 at 5:15 am #
  32. J Dangu wrote::

    Dear All,

    Some months ago I presented my Chinese learning software, Learn Chinese 2003.
    Thanks to the support of many enthusiastic users I’m glad to announce the second version in this forum.

    Features Summary
    – Your personal wordlists
    – A selection of 400 characters representing 70% of commonly used characters.
    – A 16,000 characters dictionary
    – Pinyin pronunciation for all characters

    New features
    – A comfortable user interface
    – A new Toolbar
    – Configurable list boxes
    – Right click on your list to add / remove and more
    – Change fonts : If you have installed Office, you can use SimHei for example, instead of MingLiu
    – Resizable window, your custom size is automatically saved
    – “Open list” / “Save list” more comfortable (date follow-up, support for long descriptions)
    – A comprehensive help
    – New quizzes !
    – Character from pronunciation
    – Pinyin tone from pronunciation
    – Added a registration wizard

    Fixed problems
    – The word list is now hidden during quizzes
    – When the current list is empty, quizzes and stats are warning you.
    – Quiz engine recoded for more reliability
    – Lots of Minor bug fixes

    Check http://www.lchinese.com for the list of features !

    Kind Regards,
    Jerome Dangu.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2004 at 8:08 am #
  33. Chinese Tools wrote::

    For beginners who want to get some basic knowledge about chinese, I can also advice you to try this online audio lessons:


    It’s free and available with audio files for the pronunciation.
    Hope you like it!

    Monday, November 13, 2006 at 2:31 pm #
  34. Singa wrote::

    Hello everyone,

    I am from a Chinese from Singapore, hence, both English and Chinese Languges are very commonly used in my daily life.

    However, I would like to say that studying of Chinese should not be totally for the sake of China’s economic growth. Rather one should study for the interest in Chinese Culture and Art.

    Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:03 am #
  35. don wrote::

    I spoke English all my life I met a girl on internet from Nanning China,she quit a bit of English now yet still has to translate a lot of what I write her,I have some words,like a poem in English I wish to write in Chinese as a surprize and send to her,or is their somehow I can write in English myself and push a button and have it translated into Chinese so I can it my self,I want to write in my own hand writghting and mail in a letter to her in China,can you write for me if I email you what I want to have translated.thankyou Don P.

    Saturday, April 21, 2007 at 12:04 am #
  36. Will wrote::


    You’d be better off finding a Chinese poem… Poetry never translates that well between any languages, let alone English and Chinese! My girlfriend and I use the poems about the cowherd and the weaver a lot, very appropriate for lovers separated by distance.


    Saturday, April 21, 2007 at 8:13 am #
  37. ArtOfWar wrote::


    Be careful now on how you translate, if you dont have the tone or a basic feel of the Chinese Language.
    The complexity of the Chinese Language comes from 6000 years of Stewing and is still stewing, like the ChongQing Hotpot.
    Eg if you write to your Girl in Naning
    Nin Kan Shen me5?
    ( What are you doing ? )
    Nin KUNT Shen me5?
    (What are you Fucking ! )
    You will be in HOT soup.
    :-) :-) Better to study in Beida First, for a better chance.


    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 3:55 pm #
  38. alina wrote::

    who wants to learn chinese

    Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 4:01 pm #
  39. zahli liddicoat wrote::

    im doing a poject on china and it wood be very nice of you to help me.

    ps thank you

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 11:30 am #
  40. Tina wrote::

    What I find interesting in this language, is that speaking to a local in our province, Fugian you often get a response of “ting bu dong”.

    Shi si..is spoken si si, so it’s either 14 or 14

    In the English language if someone from another country is attempting English you get the drift, most times, in Chinese not so, but I still love learning the language and am happy when I can have a conversation and they understand what I’m saying. There is a sense of accomplishment.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 12:05 am #
  41. Hey there are using WordPress for your site platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own. Do you require any coding knowledge to make your own blog? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

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  1. Fried Man on Monday, February 9, 2004 at 10:22 am

    Learning Chinese

    Bokane.org has an awesome post about learning Chinese. If you are considering learning Chinese or are currently learning Chinese I suggest you read it and also the comments. Unlike Brendan, I’m not interested in getting my Chinese perfect or reading gr…