The hardest part of learning Chinese

What’s the toughest part of learning Chinese for someone with a mother tongue like German (it probably also applies to people with other mother tongues)? After having studied Mandarin Chinese at university for 4 years and after having lived in China for 2 years, I consider myself to be kind of fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I still can’t follow every conversation fully if people don’t talk to me directly, but to one another really fast and about topics I don’t know much about instead. But I’m improving at that too and if people talk to me directly I usually don’t have too many problems understanding what they say. The much feared phone calls where you don’t see your opposite’s lip moves aren’t as much of a problem anymore either.

So what do I consider the biggest challenge for studying Mandarin Chinese after all this time? Actually, the biggest challenge for me today is the same as it was quite at the beginning. Over all this time, it hasn’t changed, but it’s oddly also not something I hear other people complain about when they talk about studying Chinese.

It’s not the characters. They are beautiful and there’s a lot of meaning in them. I never had too much of a problem with reading or writing. Of course, it was hard at first and took a lot of dedication and time to learn all these different characters, but it gets easier with time and knowing the radicals’ meanings helps a lot too. I always had a vivid imagination, so the only thing I needed to do to memorise a character except for writing it over and over again was to get a picture of it in my head, and believe me, any picture would do, correct or not.

It’s also not the tones. They are hard to remember and I’m pretty sure that I don’t always get them right, but I only make big mistakes that won’t make it possible for my listeners to understand me from time to time. The tones are a big challenge, but they are doable if you listen to the melody of this language as closely as possible (and try to memorise them right from the beginning of your studies).

Chinese grammar? People say it’s non-existent. I would say there is something like Chinese grammar, it just comes in different forms than what we’re used to. German is a language with many inflections and in this respect it couldn’t be more different from Chinese which doesn’t have inflections. Sometimes you might wonder if you should put the particle le (了) right after the verb or at the end of the sentence, but there isn’t a lot to it. Once you got the knack of it, it really isn’t that hard.

So what the heck is the most difficult part of learning Chinese? In my opinion, the hardest part is figuring out what people mean when they use abbreviations of words. What does that mean?

Let’s take the word mother tongue for example. In Chinese, you have the word mother (母亲, mǔqīn) and language (语言, yǔyán), and taken together they will form the word mother tongue (it’s just like in German, where we also say mother language, Muttersprache, instead of mother tongue). But in Chinese you don’t just say 母亲语言, instead you use an abbreviated form, mainly the first character of both words, mother and language. 母亲+语言 becomes 母语. It would be similar to saying mo-to instead of mother tongue in English. If you see the Chinese word written down, it might not be as much of a problem, but if you know the word mother and know the word language, you might still not be able to understand that 母语 means mother tongue (or “mother language”). I used a simple example, but there are much more difficult ones, actually. And it’s not necessarily only the first characters of two words that are being combined, it might also be the last two such as in 校服 (xiàofú), school uniform (学校+衣服, xuéxiào + yīfú, literally school clothes). Or if a word consisting of 2 and one consisting of 3 characters are combined and abbreviated, they might take the second character of the first word and the second character of the second word and combine those to form a word (such as in central television – 中央+电视台, zhōngyāng + diànshìtái, which becomes 央视, yāngshì). They might also take the first character of the first word and the first and the third character of the second word, depending on which words are combined.

Chinese has only so many different syllables, making it even harder to understand what an abbreviated word stands for. And Chinese has plenty of these abbreviated words, which doesn’t make things easier. German is a language with long words and Chinese is the exact opposite. But at least there’s one positive aspect: Although these words are like abbreviations, they are fixed abbreviations and can’t just be changed or mixed together to one’s liking. So once you know 母语 means mother tongue, you can memorise it and use it again in the future.

What do you think is the most difficult part of learning Chinese? I’d love to read your opinions.

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18 thoughts on “The hardest part of learning Chinese

  1. I still find sentence order the hardest. I haven’t been able to train my brain to put time and place at the beginning of the sentence. Often I have all the words right but the order wrong. My husband loves to correct me!


  2. This is an interesting topic to discuss, I might do a post on this to my own blog too!

    In one point I also thought those abbreviated words were tricky and if I encounter a new one, it might take me a moment to figure out what it means.

    Right now the hardest thing for me is to continue studying. I believe that I can improve a lot if I just work hard, but it’s been hard to motivate my self to do some real studying. As I can manage my daily life in Chinese without big problems, it’s getting hard to hit the books again. It’s also a challange to get my passive vocabulary changed to my actice vocabulary, sometimes in speech I use such a simple language even though I know much more than that.


    • I have the same problem. I’m too busy (you might also call it lazy) to learn Chinese actively at the moment and writing characters by hand has definitely suffered a lot ever since I graduated. It’s quite normal that passive vocabulary is ahead of active vocabulary, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.


  3. I really admire that you can catch up with the tones, for me I hear no difference, only the one that goes down and up like a smile is ‘no problem tone’. Especially since I started learning Cantonese… that thing is crazy, Mandarin tones were enough! And I have problems with grammar – we have a sentence in Poland ‘Kali miec, Kali byc’ – ‘Kali to have, Kali to be’ which means someone can say enough to make a native understand but it’s totally not the form they should use… and when I look at Chinese ‘grammar’ actually for them it makes sense. My husband is so proud when he says ‘we don’t make it complicated by changing forms or adding useless things’ but I look at the signs and in my head it doesn’t make any sense 🙂


    • Yeah, tones in Cantonese are a different league altogether. I think I started paying attention to how sentences sound in a more general sense, rather than just concentrating on each and every single tone. I have been concentrating on tones a lot at first, but once I needed to memorize a few dozen new characters a day, it just didn’t work that way anymore. Not saying I don’t make any mistakes with the tones (I forgot many I’ve learned in the past), but my strategy of listening to the melody of sentences rather than just single words seems to work pretty well.


  4. Hi there, regarding the abbreviations, often it helps to know which character in the word has the primacy in determining meaning. Take 母语 (mother tongue), for example. As you have pointed out, this word is derived from 母亲 and 语言. First, 母 is chosen because it carries the essential meaning of “mother” in 母亲. Once you have 母, it’s just a matter of being consistent by choosing the first character of 语言, which is 语. It’s worth noting that in forming Chinese abbreviations the characters chosen are often consistent in terms of their positions in the parent words, especially if the parent words are made up of an equal number of characters such as 母亲 and 语言. So if you take the first character from the first word, you do the same with the second word.


  5. Interesting! I don’t speak any chinese, but it reminds me a little bit of other languages. Once at university the professor asked which one was the most difficult language in the world and lots of people said that it was chinese. But the professor said that it always depends on your mother tongue, for Coreans perhaps it’s easier to learn chinese than english or german.

    The thing with abbreviations: I noticed this in other languages too, but mostly in their written form. It reminds me of abbreviating words when writing, for example in English you use to write “u” instead of “you” or in Spanish “k” instead of “que”. I thinkt here are more difficult words too, that you don’t understand at the beginning. But it’s only a matter of knowing what those abbreviations mean, if you once understood it, you may adopt this knowledge and use it too. A looooong learning process maybe 🙂


  6. My Chinese was only ever rudimentary and is now almost forgotten so I won’t comment. The hardest part about learning it in Singapore is getting anyone to speak it to you!

    But it’s interesting what you say and I can see how that would be the case. There’s a fashion of portmanteaus in English these days and they’re always supposed to be a sort of inside joke/private language. Having a whole language like that does seem confusing, now you mention it.


    • I think saying that people have different personalities in different languages would be to simplify it. I can be a different person in German as well, depending on my mood and the people I interact with. I can be outgoing as well as introverted. Of course I will adapt to a different environment, but I wouldn’t say I’m a different personality altogether in another language, rather that those are different shapes of my personality.

      To be honest, I’m not sure if there’s an Austrian worldview you could sum up in this space here.

      German is often called the language of thinkers and philosophers, and one of its characteristics is that you can form nouns from verbs and put a few nouns together to form a long noun (change them into a single word). Sentences are often really long (there are some weird books that have single sentences that stretch over a few pages). Here’s some more very basic information:


  7. Reading your post a couple of playful examples from English came to mind. J-Lo for Jennifer Lopez and Brangelina for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They’re slang abbreviations that people have come to understand because they hear them so often.


  8. Hmm, yeah, you have a point! (ponders)

    To me, it’s still the tone. I am mostly deaf so I truly can’t hear a difference.
    Another foreigner: Well, I can’t hear tone, either.
    Me: I am not being cute. I am mostly deaf. I truly can’t hear tone.

    I find the Chinese characters to be fun.


    • You’re right, I sometimes had a great time just studying characters (I’d account that to my vivid imagination).

      Speaking must be hard without being able to hear tones. Understanding them must be hard too. I’m not deaf, but if there are more noises at the same time, I can’t understand anything and people always assume that I don’t speak Chinese well enough in situations like that because I just can’t hear what they say.


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  10. I agree abbreviations are hard. Not the most difficult area imho – characters, tones, literary usages seem much bigger and much more frequently a problem – but abbreviations are definitely an occasional pain.

    Btw, not sure if you meant to do it on purpose as a test if people really are reading, but for CCTV (Chinese central TV) your character doesn’t match the pinyin: 央视 is yāngshì, not zhōngshì. Altho there also is zhōngshì….

    My favorite confused-by-abbreviations word is: 意面, an abbreviation of 意大利面 = pasta (lit: Italian noodles). I went through so many thoughts of what 意 could be. I laughed so hard at my own ignorance when I found out: so obvious in hindsight, but so hard for me to guess at first.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the most difficult part of learning Chinese. I just changed zhongshi to yangshi, thanks for telling me about this mistake (didn’t do that on purpose).
      Never heard 意面 before, that one surely might be confusing even if you see the characters.


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