Why is the Chinese language so hard to master?
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. 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.
Chinese is a beautiful language but is considered to be one of the most complicated languages to master. In fact, FSI [Foreign Service Institute of languages] classifies Chinese in the 5th Category which is considered to be the toughest group of languages to master for any native English speaker. So, what makes this beautiful language intimidating?
- Pronunciation: Chinese has a very unique sound system. On top of that, neither of the Chinese characters are phonetic. If you happen to come across a new word, you’re going to have to search for it in a Pinyin pronunciation guide to understand how to pronounce it. Furthermore, the entire language is filled with similar sounding words which would make it rather difficult for non-native speakers to differentiate between a word and a combination of sounds. In fact, in most other languages, students take a guess regarding the pronunciation of a word basis the written word, but that doesn’t work with Chinese.
- Tones: The uniqueness of this language can also be attributed to the tones they use. Essentially, every word in Chinese has a specific tone. In simpler words, if you use the wrong tone, you might end up saying a wholly different word. There are a total of four tones excluding the neutral tone. The first tone is pretty musical, the second resembles an English question, the third is a deeper and calmer tone finally the fourth is an extremely sharp tone. Now the neutral tone is a simple unstressed tone.
- Grammar: Another unique aspect of this language is its measurement words. Basically, Chinese grammar follows a concept of numbering items, hence, when a noun is mentioned, it is essential that the right measure word is attached to it. Furthermore, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is also extremely complicated in this language. With multiple different words to use while trying to say either, you must internalize some rules and use the appropriate word in the right situation.
- Reading and Writing: Arguably the toughest part of learning Chinese is learning the Chinese characters to read and write. The entire Chinese character system is made up of ‘Radicals’. Now, these can’t even be considered complete characters, instead, they’re more appropriately referred to as ‘part of characters’. These Radicals range from one and go up to a total of seventeen strokes. These Radicals and strokes must be very meticulously written in a precise and same order, which is generally left to right and top to bottom. In total, the Chinese language has about 214 Radicals. Once mastered, you can easily write every character. Finally, in order for a person to simply read a newspaper, they must be able to decipher at least 3000 characters alone.
- Dialects: Finally, the Chinese language has multiple varying dialects of the same language. For example, Cantonese is primarily spoken in Southeastern China, Hong Kong, and many parts of Southeast Asia. These also have varying pronunciations and written characters. It takes a lot of effort, time, hard work and some serious commitment for years to truly achieve fluency or even native-like proficiency.
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. In addition to this, 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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