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.