Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world. Yet over 50 million foreigners learn it worldwide. They do this for the sake of business contacts, to learn about Chinese culture or to better communicate while travelling across China. Those who have already started, tend to say thast learning Chinese is very engaging.

The Chinese language is at present among the most popular exotic languages learned by Europeans. Some do it for professional others for private reasons. Nevertheless, a person who speaks Chinese is valued and in sought-after by employers.

In Chinese means in Mandarin?

There is no single spoken Chinese language. It is rather a group of related languages from the Sino-Tibetan language family. A few of them are found in China, although some sinologists distinguish more than a dozen. The Cantonese dialect alone is spoken by nearly 80 million people. Moreover, Chinese dialects differ from each other so much that a person from southern parts of China may have difficulties understanding a Chinese person from the northern parts. The language, traditionally referred to as Chinese and learned by foreigners is actually Mandarin. This is the official language of China since 1950s.

The writing that connects

What connects the Chinese is not the language but writing that is the Chinese characters. They were already used four thousand years ago. This is hence the oldest writing in the world still in use. This implies that provided one knows enough characters, one is able to read a text from a daily newspaper as well as a text dating back a few thousand years. Initially, the Chinese characters depicted certain objects: the sun, a human. Each character corresponded to a word and a syllable. Along with the development of the writing, the character also underwent a metamorphosis, became more sophisticated and less literal. Despite the multitude of Chinese dialects, the characters had remained the same in all parts of Imperial China. The main difficulty in learning the Chinese characters is that each is written in a certain manner, and even the order of each written line is important. The characters correspond to particular syllables, which is why Chinese writing is called a monosyllabic writing. Nowadays, most of the characters consist of two elements: the phonetic one - indicating the pronunciation - and the meaning component.

Difficult yet worthwhile

Chinese is among the most difficult to learn languages. Firstly, due to it being a tonal language, which means each syllable is assigned a particular tone implying a certain modulation of the voice. Thus the same syllable pronounced in different ways will have different meanings. In brief, the tone defines the meaning of a word. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese are: high level, rising, falling rising, falling.

The second challenge in learning Chinese is the number and the complex system of characters. There are as many as 50,000 of them in Chinese (although some sources claim the number is ’merely’ 20,000), plus the writing system is still open, new words are constantly being created. Supposedly, it is enough to learn ’only’ 3,000 Chinese characters to be able to read e.g. newspapers (This takes the Chinese eight school years), however for effortless reading and writing, it is necessary to learn twice as many characters. Well-educated Chinese people use about 6,000 characters.

Another difficulty of the Chinese language are… proverbs. There is a lot of them. They are used in conversation especially by the educated Chinese. However, it is not enough to learn the characters that are used to write them down. When conversing with the Chinese, reading Chinese literature, it is necessary to possess knowledge about the proverb’s history as only then it is possible to grasp the context, in which it was used. The Chinese believe it is difficult for foreigners to learn their language. Therefore, if a foreigner utters the casual ’Ni hao’ (hello), this will be met with enthusiasm by any Chinese person.

How long to study?

To learn Chinese at a communicative level can take up to 2.5 years. Nonetheless, according to those learning Chinese, in order to be able to travel around China, it is enough to learn Chinese for a year, albeit intensely - 5 times a week for at least an hour. Interestingly, the basics of the language are not hard, as the most difficult part of learning a language — the grammar, is almost non-existent in Chinese. It lacks declinations, conjugations, genders or plural forms.

Despite the unquestionable difficulties in mastering the language, there is no reason to feel discouraged, as those learning Chinese claim its study is very engaging, and that Chinese calligraphy teaches patience. One can learn Chinese on courses, from private lessons but also independently using e-learning, for example. As with any foreign language, it is best to have direct contact with the language one aspires to learn. Hence, it is advisable to travel to China or take advantage of language courses organised in the country. We also offer a Chinese mini-course. During the following lessons, we would like to explain the basic vocabulary and phrases useful in interactions with the Chinese.