Ever Wondered Why Learning Chinese Is so Hard?

The difficulty of learning Chinese is twofold, but has nothing to do with any aspect of Chinese writing, speaking, listening, or reading. Furthermore, the two reasons why Chinese is hard have nothing to do with the intellect, or discipline of the learner. So why is Chinese hard? The two reasons are:

  1. Chinese language education is under-developed
  2. The motivation to learn Chinese is not as immediately evident as with other languages

There is no best tool to learn Chinese

The hardest thing about learning a language is that you have no idea where to start. Sure, you know the different things you should be studying like, words, grammar, pronunciation, but how exactly do you study them. What method should you use? Chinese uniquely struggles with this problem. The question of how to learn Chinese is not as easily answered as for other languages because there is no single, all-inclusive tool that is taken by the Chinese language learning community to be the best way to learn Chinese. It seems like the only thing we can agree on in Chinese learning is that Pleco is the best dictionary app.

Chinese wasn’t the first language I studied, that honor goes to Latin. which I studied for five years from the 8th to 12th grade. Studying a dead language is completely different from a living one, but Chineseisthe first language I studied for the purpose of actually using it. In many ways, Latin is the most methodical language to learn. There is basically a canonical curriculum for it. I learned the declensions, conjugations, and pronouns the same way my mother did 40 years ago. The curriculum for learning Latin has been developed for centuries to become the well-oiled process that we use today.

When I first started learning Chinese, I always had people in my ear telling me I’d never learn it to a “fluent” level because Chinese is the hardest language in the world, and it’s miles different from any Western language, like English. A little more than four years later and I’m what most people would consider “fluent”, I know both simplified and traditional characters, and I’ve worked in Taiwanese politics. I’ve surpassed everyone’s expectations, but they were so low to begin with. Why is that? It’s because the process of learning Chinese is nothing like it is for Latin.

The reason why nobody expects you to learn a language like Chinese is because most people have never seen someone like themselves learn Chinese. It’s really as simple as that. In fact, most Chinese learners in schools across America have never even seen someone in real life whose learned the language to a high level that isn’t a native speaker. Other languages, however, don’t have this problem. There is no shortage of high level Spanish, German, or even Japanese learners that you can sit down with, and have a conversation about how they did it at almost any American university. Most people probably know someone in their life who has learned those languages to a “fluent” level. Chinese learners, on the other hand, seriously lag behind in comparison to other languages. 

Why Chinese learners lag behind

The reason for this is generally reduced down to the assumption that Chinese is harder than other languages. The real reason why is because Chinese language education is, somewhat ironically when considering the population, nowhere near as developed as other languages, even other Asian languages. It is a fact that Japanese is easier to learn than Chinese simply because more high quality beginners’ learning material exists in Japanese than Chinese. At this point, even the Korean language is easier to teach yourself than Chinese. Because less people are interested in Chinese popular culture, less people want to learn the language, so information on how to learn the language is less developed. If you want to prove me wrong, then show me a guide to learning Chinese that’s on the same level of quality as Talk to Me in Korean.

This is why learning Chinese is hard. Less people are interested in interacting with the popular culture, so less people are inspired to learn the language to a high level, therefore there are less people to share how they learned the language. Because less people are sharing, learners don’t know what they should be doing, and some don’t even know it’s really possible.

So what is the solution? I know I just said Japanese is easier to learn than Chinese, but in reality this is only true in the beginning stages. The amount of material explicitly made for the purposes of education makes no difference after the intermediate stages. All you really need to learn any language is native material, grammar explanations, and a dictionary.

The motivation problem

Anything is hard without motivation. Chinese can be a hard language to develop the motivation to learn without culture on the same level of popularity as Korea or Japan. The way I developed the motivation to learn was by discovering the Youtube niche that is Taiwanese people living in Japan, and then progressing on to the larger Chinese speaking community on Youtube. It is very hard to discover these videos if you don’t know they exist because Youtube is really good at only showing you content in your native language. Nevertheless, after I found these videos I became hooked on learning Chinese.

Watching these videos, and realizing that I could understand bits and pieces I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, was like a drug to me. In the beginning it felt like I was making tangible progress every day. Because of this discovery, I essentially changed my approach to Chinese from learning the language to speak it, to learning the language to understand it. Because I found this motivation, I felt a desire to study more. The reason why speaking is not a good motivator is because it requires too much effort from the learner, and can’t be effective by yourself. Studying is a solitary activity, and listening can be done at any time by yourself. For this reason, forming motivation around a solitary activity like consuming content to understand it is important.

The motivation problem is actually a problem almost specific to Chinese learners because a lot of people view Chinese only as a tool for business or diplomacy, and not as something that can bring you entertainment and happiness. The phenomenon of “business Chinese” classes only contributes to this viewpoint. People aren’t generally motivated to learn Chinese because the want to understand Chinese content. They want to learn Chinese to say that they did it, and/or to possibly reap the monetary rewards Chinese might bring on a resume.

Why Chinese might actually be the easiest language

If native material is what really matters, then Chinese is actually one of the easiest languages to learn. When you consider the tendency to put Chinese subtitles on basically all native content, there’s basically infinite amounts of Chinese language learning material readymade for studying. The problem is most Chinese learners never actually consume native material because they aren’t motivated by Chinese popular culture. Out of all the classmates I had in Chinese classes, I would say only around 2% of them ever made the effort to study native material. Whenever I told my classmates that I watched Chinese videos on Youtube to study, they were immediately confused, not knowing Youtube even had Chinese content. I do sympathize with them, because I was once in their position until I stumbled across Taiwanese Youtube. Those videos were my motivation. If you can find yours, Chinese will cease to become a difficult task and you’ll enjoy it for life.

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