A big question I had in my mind before starting this trip was how much harder is learning an Asian language like Chinese than a European one like Spanish? Obviously Chinese is harder, but how much? Is it just a little harder than Spanish or is it several times more difficult?
My experience with both Chinese and Spanish is limited: I spent three months in Spain and am entering my third month in China. However, I would say both have been a success. There’s still a lot to learn, but I feel I can have conversations about most topics in both languages and, in the case of Spanish, I can also watch television and movies.
Being an intermediate learner means I can’t discuss the long road towards full fluency. But I believe I have a unique perspective: having learned both these languages, under the same conditions, similar timescales and only several months apart, the two experiences can be compared more easily.
Should We Even Compare Languages?
My good friend and avid language learner Benny Lewis would disagree with my premise for this post. His argument, as I understand it, is that comparing language difficulties is a waste of time. Why does it matter what’s more difficult? Why not focus on the positive attributes of every language you learn, instead of dwelling in pessimism or letting comparative difficulty justify you holding back from using the language?
From this perspective, I completely agree. Too many people whine about some feature of language X being hard, and use that to justify a sloppy, inefficient learning method. If you want to learn Chinese, you can definitely do it. It just might take a little longer than with Spanish.
However, my experience has been that learning Chinese isn’t simply harder than learning Spanish, it is different. The progression of the language differs from when I learned Spanish, French or Portuguese, enough that I think examining these differences can be very useful. If you have European language expectations for Chinese you might become frustrated at what is actually a very natural progression.
For those curious on an entirely unscientific attempt at quantifying the difference in difficulty between the two, my current feeling is that learning Chinese to spoken fluency is probably 2-3x as much work as it is for Spanish. If you include reading and writing, then 3-4x isn’t an exaggeration.
What Makes Learning Chinese Different than Learning Spanish?
I don’t want to dwell on the overall difficulty of Chinese. Aside from budgeting your learning time and expectations, knowing Chinese is harder than Spanish isn’t particularly helpful. After all, it all has to be learned regardless, so why focus on the negative?
Instead, I’d like to break down which aspects of Chinese require more work and how I feel that changes the best strategy to use when learning it.
Every language has dozens of difficult points, but the ones that are particularly Chinese, (i.e. they trip up the most Western speakers) are:
Chinese isn’t all bad news, it’s near complete lack of tense, mood, gender, grammatical number and inflections means it is grammatically much simpler than Spanish for all but the more advanced nuances.
Side note: Spanish and English grammar, while distinct, share many sentence patterns which are completely different in Chinese. While I never had to go through elaborate conjugation exercises to memorize Chinese grammar, I was well over a hundred hours of studying before I confidently could express the concept “more” in Chinese. Many Chinese concepts have one-to-one translations with English, but relatively fewer than Spanish, which somewhat dampens the common, “Chinese grammar is easy”, claim.
How Tones Changes Learning Strategy
With all of the previous languages I’ve learned, pronunciation was mostly a learn-it-once and then apply-it rule. French was harder than Spanish and Portuguese, but as long as you handle their r’s and get good approximations of the vowel sounds, you shouldn’t have too many problems and your accent will naturally soften with more practice.
The non-tonal parts of Chinese pronunciation evolved in a similar way for me. Study phonetic diagrams to make sure I’m getting good approximations of the phonemes English lacks (j/x/q are often tricky for English speakers, and I also found correctly separating -eng and -ang tricky) but after that it’s simply practice and asking for corrections. Chinese phonology was harder than any language I had learned before, but not excessively so. It just takes practice.
Tones, on the other hand, are something that require continued study well beyond a beginner stage. I agree with John Pasden’s critique of Chinese language education as assuming tones are a basic language feature, rather than something which can stymie even fairly advanced learners.
The other reason tones change learning strategy isn’t just their weirdness for non-tonal language speakers, but something Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese told me in a conversation: Most new Chinese learners neglect tones because, for simple speech, they’re rarely that important—natives can correctly deduce which tones should be there because your sentences are simple. However, as you get to more advanced levels of dialog and conversation, mixing up a tone can change the meaning of a sentence completely or be confusing to the listener.
It’s not possible to get pronunciation perfect from the first day, but I do think their long-term importance, their short-term difficulty and the ease of fossilizing bad habits of speech means that some amount of blind tone drills (both listening and production) should be a regular part of the learning schedule until well into Chinese.
How Vocabulary Changes Learning Strategy
European languages tend to share common root vocabulary from Greek or Latin. Even when the languages are not even related, such as English and Hungarian, there is overlap in technical vocabulary (guess what the Hungarian word politika means?).
Chinese is an interesting case because it has very few easily recognizable loanwords from English. Not only does its completely separate linguistic roots preclude the connections you can make between European languages, but even the words that have come directly from English are often barely recognizable. Winston Churchill’s surname is pronounced Qiūjí’ěr in Chinese (if you’re not familiar with pinyin, click here and use Google Translate to pronounce it for you).
My feeling is that the dissimilarity between English loanwords and their English pronunciation is in part because of the fact that Chinese uses a non-phonetic script (imagine if every word from another language had to be described using English syllables), and because tones need to be added where they don’t exist in English.
These two features, linguistic dissimilarity and few recognizable loanwords, means that learning Chinese is about as close as learning a language from scratch as you can get.
Side note: This isn’t all bad news. Chinese culture, and in particular their writing system, was once the standard in much of East Asia. As a result, learning Chinese words can make learning other languages easier. Some linguists suggest as much as 30-60% of Korean’s vocabulary may be Chinese in origin, which means learning Chinese can serve as an investment in other Asian languages the way learning French or Greek would help you learn other European ones.
From my experience these differences change how learning Chinese progresses compared to Spanish. With Spanish, after mastering basic vocabulary, it wasn’t usually considerably more difficult to start talking about complex subjects (politics, science, art) since many of these technical words are similar in English.
Chinese doesn’t have that advantage, so while I can talk about everyday things and common topics fairly easily, the more esoteric the topic, the more I rely on a dictionary to make my point.
My feeling is that this also shifts the emphasis on Chinese in a more input-based direction. In learning Chinese, I’ve found two tools useful:
- Anki’s MCC (Mastering Chinese Characters) decks. These are great because they have thousands of example sentences with crisp audio. Although they aren’t ideal if your only goal was spoken Chinese (the sentences are somewhat more formal and written vernacular) I’ve found it an incredible resource for expanding my vocabulary when I was content to approach that more passively with Spanish.
- ChinesePod. In particular, subscribe to their mid-level subscription and download dialog-only files. The real podcasts can get kind of lengthy and I find my attention wandering. Instead I prefer to take their dialogs, listen once or twice and then meticulously go through and parse out every word or grammatical construction I missed. I can usually do 8-10 per hour using this approach, so it’s great for building vocabulary while practicing listening skills.
Are these kinds of drills necessary for learning Chinese? I can’t say for sure, but I feel that without them, it would take a lot longer to break into the upper-intermediate level where you can start learning directly from books, television or music.
How Characters Change Learning Strategy
Writing and reading has been a secondary priority for me here in China. While I was originally not going to invest any time at all into learning the characters until I reached conversational fluency, a few things made me change my mind:
- Anki’s MCC decks are good for both character recognition and vocabulary/grammar/listening practice. Although one could redesign a better deck if only spoken comprehension was the goal, using this resource as-is has been pretty effective.
- Characters are a good way of linking vocabulary. In the beginning, I struggled a lot with the extreme homophony of Chinese. Knowing the characters in isolation and then using those building blocks to think about words means that I can keep concepts separate that only differ by a tone.
- Reading and writing, while not a short-term goal, is definitely a long-term goal. Therefore, even if characters slows down my progress somewhat in speaking Chinese, I don’t think it hurts my long-term chances of becoming fully fluent.
To that end, using almost exclusively Anki’s MCCs, I’ve learned roughly 1300 characters. By the time the three months are done, I’m expecting that to be around 2000. I also tried out Skritter briefly to get a sense for handwriting and to learn radicals. Thus far, I have learned to handwrite around 450 or so (although half of these are the Kangxi radicals rather than independent characters).
Estimates on the number of characters needed to be functionally literate vary from as little as 2000 to as much as 5000. By these estimates, I’m likely only a third of the way there in terms of character recognition (which is only part of reading Chinese, since most words are polysyllabic and whose meaning only vaguely corresponds to their component characters).
The biggest impact of characters on learning Chinese is short-term. For a long time in China you’ll be illiterate. You might be able to have conversations without issue, but anything more complicated than text messages or emails is often out of reach. Learning Spanish (or even Korean) one takes for granted that literacy is only a small extra cost on top of learning to speak, whereas with Chinese it is nearly the amount of work of learning the spoken language itself.
To handle the characters in Chinese I’ve seen two strategies advocated for:
Strategy One: Ignore All Characters Until You’re Conversationally Fluent
This is the strategy that Vat is using while we’re in China. It’s the strategy advocated by respected linguist and Sinologist Victor Mair. It’s also the one Benny used while learning Chinese, and what he suggested to me when I asked him for advice before attempting my own version of an intense Chinese-learning burst.
In learning Chinese, I can definitely see advantages to this approach. It simplifies the task of learning considerably and avoids students getting bogged down memorizing characters when they should really be practicing conversations. Most natives I’ve spoken with tend to balk at this approach, until you remind them that no Chinese person has ever learned characters before he could already speak Chinese.
If you’re not particularly interested in learning to read and write, or you find the idea of learning characters mildly terrifying, this is the strategy I’d suggest. There are some weaknesses, but I think it’s probably the best fit for most learners.
Strategy Two: Emphasize Character Learning from the Beginning
The other strategy, used heavily by textbook authors, is to make you learn a bunch of characters from the first day. This pedagogical style is even more prevalent in China where I’ve even seen beginner textbooks that have students reading over full dialogs in characters without pinyin.
This latter strategy often suggests practicing handwriting characters until the students can write full sentences in characters with a pencil and paper.
My verdict is that the second strategy is almost certainly a mistake (unless you just really like characters and have no interest in conversing in Mandarin). However, I’ve personally found I don’t lean as far as other advocates of the no-characters approach to learning.
Instead, I think characters are something worth learning if they’re used as a backup to the spoken language. Putting some light amount of character recognition has helped me remember vocabulary more easily, separate homophones and near-homophones mentally and has been useful in the inevitable situations where recognizing characters is required (even if full literacy is still a ways off). Learning characters does make more work, but it has been useful in combating those short-term problems with the spoken language and will, of course, be useful when I eventually want to read books in Chinese.
I also sense that characters shouldn’t be learned in isolation. Seeing characters when reading ChinesePod transcripts or MCC deck example sentences is great since you’re forming a link between character and spoken language.
Expectations for Learning Chinese
In comparison to the difficulties I foresaw learning Chinese, I feel that learning Chinese mostly met my expectations. It’s harder, but if you’re interested in learning about the largest, oldest and one of the most powerful languages and cultures in the world, I think it is definitely worth the extra effort.
Aside from the points noted above, Chinese does largely conform to my experience learning languages: as close to full immersion as possible is the best way to go, start using the language as soon as possible, don’t speak English. The difference is that compared to Spanish, I’d probably budget more time to reach the same level of speaking ability.
Interestingly, I believe Chinese is actually somewhat more exploitable than Spanish for rapid-learning methods. With Spanish, everything aside from the no-English rule, minor tutoring and a grammar book seemed unnecessary; what mattered was immersion. With Chinese, there’s a lot more room for improvement to be made through listening and pronunciation drills, visual mnemonics and active practice.
My Chinese and Future Progress
In terms of my own Chinese, based on my original goal of wanting to be able to have conversations in Chinese without considerable difficulty, I’ve already passed the lower-bound of that benchmark some time ago. I’ve now had more than a few multi-hour length conversations without needing to check for a translation more than a handful of times.
My next step is increasing my vocabulary and recognition to smooth my conversations and hopefully graduate to being able to watch television shows and movies and understand most of the dialog. I’ve also signed up to write the HSK 4 (China’s supposed equivalent of the B2 language proficiency exam) in Shanghai in one month.
Unlike my other languages, Chinese will probably require continued study (as opposed to simply continued use) to reach a truly proficient, long-term level. However, I think making the adjustments to the learning approach I’ve noted above, and a good work ethic, a strong foundation for the language can be achieved in only a few months.