What makes the Chinese language a hard one to learn?
Standard Chinese is the most widely spoken language in China. China is one of the world’s most linguistically rich nations. In China, more than 70 million people from 55 distinct national minorities live, and although each minority has its own spoken language, many minority groups lack a distinguishable written medium for their languages. Despite the fact that many officials and commoners spoke different Chinese dialects, Nanjing Mandarin became prevalent at least during the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Until the mid-twentieth century, the majority of Chinese in southern China did not speak Mandarin. Since the 17th century, several efforts and attempts have been made to make pronunciation adhere to the Beijing style. To accomplish this, the Empire established Orthoepy Academies. These efforts, however, were largely unsuccessful. The Nanjing Mandarin standard was eventually replaced in the imperial court during the last 50 years of the Qing Dynasty in the late nineteenth century.
What is hard about Chinese?
Reading and writing Chinese characters. Learners must be able to decipher about 3,000 characters in order to read a Chinese newspaper. And there is only one way to learn so many characters: study, practise and study. However, it is not as bad as you may believe. It’s not as if there are thousands of entirely unique Chinese characters with no similarity. Instead, Chinese characters are composed of building blocks known as radicals (which aren’t really characters but can be thought of as the base part of each character that contains details about the character’s meaning and/or sound). Radicals have one to seventeen strokes. Radicals and strokes must be written in the same order, which is normally left to right and top to bottom. It normally applies to the character’s left side). In the Chinese language, there are approximately 214 radicals. And once you’ve mastered all of the progressives, you’ll be able to write every character. Different forms of radicals and their placement in a character help a learner remember and recognise a character. Although it is not easy, it is still preferable to memorising each character as a fully unique collection of lines! And Chinese natives, who make spelling errors like us students, struggle with characters. Characteristics of the Chinese language that make it one of the most difficult languages to master are also one of the most fascinating and appealing features of the Chinese language. With over 67 per cent of words consisting of two or more letters, it’s easy to understand why it’s considered one of the most difficult languages to learn.
Different Calligraphy Styles. There are five traditional forms of Chinese calligraphy: Seal Character, Official Script, Formal Script, Running Script, Formal Script, Running Script, and Cursive Hand. These are considered classical arts and representative of Chinese art styles. The most popular calligraphy style is the Seal Character style developed by the Han people. It first appeared during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 221 BC) and is still popular among calligraphy artists today.
Pronunciation of characters Chinese characters is not phonetic. So, when you see a new word, you have to look it up in the dictionary to find the Pinyin pronunciation guide. Often, you can make a guess about the pronunciation of a Chinese character based on how it looks but it does not always work. This makes learning tougher by having to memorize the pronunciation for every character you learn! Thanks to its unique sound system, Chinese is filled with similar sounding words. This makes it quite difficult for non-native speakers to differentiate between words and sound combinations.
Chinese dialects. There are several Chinese dialects, including Cantonese — spoken primarily in southeastern China, as well as in Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia — which have different written characters and pronunciations and are also very difficult to learn. People who wish to study Chinese must put in years of work to reach fluency and even then it is rare to achieve native-like proficiency.
Parts of Chinese grammar. Chinese grammar has a concept of using different measurement words when numbering items, and one needs to use the right measure word for the right noun. Another thing that can be difficult to say in Chinese is a simple “yes” and “no.” There are a few different words that mean “no,” and you need to learn the rules for when to use them. But saying “yes” in Chinese is a little complicated! While there are several words in Chinese that mean a yes, but often to say “yes” in Chinese, one needs to repeat the main verb of the question! For example, if someone asks in Chinese, “Did you eat?”, then your answer would not be a “yes” but “ate”! Now the complicated part; In Chinese, if you didn’t hear the verb clearly, then you can’t answer the question! You just can’t pretend that you understood the question, and say yes.
Speaking Chinese with tones In Chinese all words have tones. The tone is an essential part of the word that gives each word its unique meaning. So if you say the tone wrong, you might end up meaning a whole lot of different word. The Chinese language uses 4 tones along with a neutral tone. The first tone is high like singing, the second up like an English question, a third that goes slightly down and backs up a little, the fourth going down sharply (like you’re cussing). Finally, the neutral tone is a little bit like an English unstressed syllable. Take, for example, the words 妈 (mā) — mom, 麻 (má) — hemp or flax, 马 (mǎ) — horse, 骂 (mà) — to scold or verbally abuse and 吗 (ma) — a question particle.
To a learner’s dismay, a character’s tones change wrt the context of a word or sentence. If you are a native English speaker, tones will keep you occupied with practice. In fact, “foreigners” are famous in China for having bad tones.
Totally different set of vocabulary from English The reason the vocabulary is difficult is that Chinese and English have few cognates.
Large numbers Chinese language poses a challenge to learners who learn numbers bigger than 9,999. As an example, English uses the word “thousand” to refer to numbers that have from four to six digits (1,000-999,999), but Chinese uses the word “千” (qian) only for numbers that have four digits (1,000-9,999), “万” (wan for numbers with five to eight digits (10,000-99,999,999) etc. Here’s a table showing the Chinese numbering system.
The difficulty arises not only from this difference between the languages that make it complicated to translate from one language to another but also because Chinese doesn’t use the commas in the numerals like English. So it takes quite some time for a learner to say a large number in Chinese, as they have to stop and think about it.
Chinese, the world’s most widely spoken language, is still a mystery to the West. When one learns a little more than “Nihao!” one starts to notice the peculiarities that this ancient language contains: what makes it realistic, poetic, and fascinating.
Most linguists identify all of the varieties of spoken Chinese that comprise the Sinitic branch as the Sino-Tibetan language family (spoken by the ethnic Han Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in Greater China) and claim that there was an initial language, Proto-Sino-Tibetan, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended, close to Proto-Indo-European. The connection between Chinese and the other Sino-Tibetan languages is still unknown and under investigation, as is the effort to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan.
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