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I guess you could say that I come from a ‘language-learning family.’  Indeed, both my parents, all four grandparents, and all my cousins can speak at least two – and often three or four.  Yet I don’t think that very many of them would have ever considered having a go at Chinese.Certainly in the UK, and throughout the West generally, Chinese is most definitely seen as something mind-blowingly-impossibly-absolutely-impossibly-difficult – the equivalent of a ‘no go’ area in the language world.

And for me too, I had that idea, and indeed whenever I met anyone who said they were learning Chinese, the first thought that would enter my mind was always ‘Are they a genius or are they insane?’ 

And then, a year ago, I got accepted into a job in China and started learning Chinese.  Then seven months ago, with my VISA sorted out, I arrived here in Nanjing.

So what do I think of learning Chinese so far?

Forget Half of What you Already Thought you Knew
I don’t want to shock you readers too suddenly when I say this – but Chinese grammar is actually way easier than that of French, German, Italian, or any European language.  No, seriously:

  • In most European Languages (apart from English) all nouns are either masculine or feminine, including inanimate words such as for chair and table, which means that you have to remember whether to use the word for ‘he’ or ‘she’ even when talking about inanimate objects.
  • In addition, most European Languages have different words for ‘the’ and ‘a’/’an’ depending on whether the word is a ‘he’ word or a ‘she’ word, or if the noun in question is the subject or the object of the sentence.
  • In addition, in pretty much every European language, including English, whenever you use a verb, you have to use the correct form of that verb which corresponds with the subject of the sentence (eg: ‘I go’ vs ‘he goes’) as well as with the tense – whether in the past, present or future.

Because, guess what?  None of these strictures exist in Chinese.  In short, in Mandarin, a word, be it a noun or a verb, just ‘is what it is.’  Once you’ve learned it, you’ve learned it.  No grammatical gender, no grammatical cases, no conjugation.  And as for articles such as ‘the’ and ‘a’/’an’, they don’t exist.To make something past tense, you just add ‘le’ on the end of it, or you can just add a time word, like the the word for yesterday, or tomorrow, to make the time clear.

But then I hear you ask ‘What about the tones?’  Well, sure enough, my fellow foreigners do freak out about them and many don’t even try with them but here’s my advice:  Don’t freak out.

Just as in English you know that the word laptop is pronounced with the stress on the ‘a’ not the ‘o’, in Chinese you eventually come to learn the tone with every new word and have them glued together in your mind by instinct.

On the other hand, when speaking, you shouldn’t slow yourself down to make sure that every tone is correct – that, strangely enough, will make you less understood than if you continue talking at a normal pace and just ‘merge’ words together, which is far more common.  Tones are not quite as important when the word is obvious by the contest.

But then, there’s the real hard part  – the characters!

Characters – Learning them by the Hundreds
Now this is what makes Chinese difficult – the characters.  Whereas in English and other western languages, each letter represents a sound, in Chinese, each character represents a one-syllable word (each syllable in Chinese is a word in it’s own right) and given that there are thousands of words in any language, you get the picture.

Indeed I am aiming for at least HSK Level three before I leave China, and for that, I am told, I will need to know 600 characters.

But here’s the thing about characters – they’re not completely random; there is in fact a pattern to them – which I am about to show you:

Here is the character for the word ‘female’ – pronounced ‘NÇš‘.

The general rule of thumb, is that any word character that has anything to do with female, such as the word for ‘mother’ or ‘she’ will have the female character inside its own character, like so:

The character for ‘she’ (pronounced ‘TÄ�‘):

The character for mother (pronounced ‘MÄ�‘):


A Phonetic Side to Characters too
Although characters in Chinese are generally phonetic, often characters are made to deliberately look like other characters that sound similar.  Above was the character for mother,’MÄ�’, and below is the character for horse, pronounced ‘MÇŽ’, both of which, tones aside, are pronounced the same:

So, as you can see, the character for mother was deliberately designed so that it was an amalgamation of the female radical and the horse radical, to reflect both the word’s meaning and its pronunciation .  This is just one example of how characters are what they are for a reason, making them easier to remember.

So yes, there are aspects of Chinese that are a challenge for any foreign learner, but it’s certainly not as impossibly difficult as we westerners instinctively think it is.  And indeed, the lack of all that western grammar has made it more fun to learn than learning Western languages (sorry, French), although that may also be due to the pure excitement of it all.