You’ve probably heard that it is easier to swim to China than it is to learn Chinese. A tonal language? With no alphabet?? And mutually unintelligible dialects??? Relax. What seem like enormous obstacles are actually simple to overcome with a bit of practice.
As the Chinese New Year kicks off this Friday on February 12 – ushering in the year of the ox – we’re taking the occasion to dive into the myths and misconceptions about how difficult it is to learn Chinese.
(And before you send us angry comments about how Chinese isn’t a language and that we should be writing specifically about Mandarin, Min, Wu, Gan, Yue (to which Cantonese belongs), and the other dialects, let us be clear: we use the term “Chinese” to refer to the group of language varieties that share the common Chinese writing system.)
First, you can still make yourself understood without mastering the tones. Mandarin – far and away the most popular variant, with nearly a billion native speakers – has four main tones and one neutral tone that determine whether the single syllable “ma” means mother, horse, marijuana, or “to scold”. But the good news is that most words are made up of two syllables or more, so as long as you put the right two syllables together, people will understand what you mean. Context helps, too, as no one expects the subject of a conversation to suddenly switch from riding horses to smoking reefer. Plus, the position of the word in the sentence will clarify whether it’s a noun or verb.
Which brings us to point two: Chinese grammar is delightfully simple. While people learning English might struggle with correct use of “go,” “going,” “gone,” and “went” (not to mention "would have gone" or the dreadful "will have been going"), Chinese sticks with one word – qù – and adds a word like “tomorrow” or “yesterday” for clarification. We cannot emphasize enough how much easier this makes learning the language. If you’re sick of having to memorize wall-size charts of verb conjugations, and if terms like “subjunctive” and “first conditional” make your brain hurt, it’s time to try learning Chinese. But Chinese goes even further in sweeping up grammatical messes: it has done away with gender (goodbye “der-die-das”), plural (octopus octopus = octopuses? Or octopi?), and articles (a, an, the, etc.).
The writing system, too, is not quite as frightening as you think. About five percent of Chinese characters are pictographic, meaning they look like the thing or idea they represent. For example, counting to three is as simple as 一 二 三 (yī', èr, sān, respectively)*. The character for “mountain” (shan) looks like a miniature mountain range: 山. And when you look at 木 (mù), don’t you see the trunk, branches, and rising peak of a tree?
Finally, you are already more familiar with Chinese vocabulary than you realize. Besides the obvious menu items such as “tofu,” “lo mein” and “oolong,” the word “tea” itself comes from Chinese. “Ketchup” does, too, though the original condiment was a mix of pickled fish and spices, and “typhoon” is the Chinese word meaning “big wind.”
See? We told you it’s not so scary. Maybe now you even want to try learning it. In the meantime, if you have anything to translate into any of its 300 dialects, email us or book an in-person meeting or phone call online. We hope to hear from you soon, and until then, happy Chinese New Year!
*To the best of our knowledge, the characters used in the article are from the simplified writing system rather than the traditional one.