The first thing about Chinese is that it’s not as difficult as people say. It has certain difficulties. I would say difficulty number one is the characters. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a matter of staying with it and doing it every day; finding a system that works for you.
I think Chinese characters is one area where deliberate vocabulary study is helpful, especially I’ve found for the first 1000 characters. After that, you come across them in reading. You’re more familiar with the components. It’s a little bit easier to pick up the characters on the fly.
As you know, I believe in input-based learning. Input-based learning means reading. Chinese is a language where it’s really helpful to read, to read a lot, to work on your characters from day one and spend a lot of time reading. So that’s difficulty number one.
Difficulty number two of course is the tones. Here again, remember that everything that seems so strange at first in any language gradually there’s a snowball effect. It becomes more and more familiar and easier to learn. I wouldn’t put a lot of effort in trying to nail the pronunciation at the beginning. I would put a lot of effort into listening and getting used the hearing the tones. So the second difficulty then is the tones, but it’s something that you will gradually get better at. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t inhibit or shouldn’t inhibit your ability to enjoy the language through reading and listening.
The third thing is vocabulary where there are basically no common vocabulary items with other languages, except for some other Asian languages. So if we go through the parts of speech, the good news in is that Chinese grammar is quite simple.
Nouns, there’s no plural. Well, there are a few plurals, but essentially no plural. They do have these counters. [一本书、一架车] — one car, there’s a frame of a car or a stick of a book for whatever reason. There’s no plural. There’s no feminine. There’s no gender. There’s no changing of endings. Nothing. It’s that easy. You just have to learn the nouns, what they mean. Verbs, again, no change. I go — [我去、我明天去、昨天去]. That’s yesterday, tomorrow. [昨天] They add a little ‘la’ at the end to indicate the past tense, but there is very little change in the verbs. Adjectives, again, basically quite simple. The car is very big. [车] — car — [很大] — very big. Car very big. Very often adverbs and adjectives can be used interchangeably. [车很快]. The car is very fast. [我跑得很快]. I run fast — Same[快]. There are a lot of situations like that.
I think the genius of Chinese is that they have simplified a lot of stuff. I don’t think it’s a sign of the language being less developed. I think it’s very helpful in fact to have simplified these things. You ask questions, they just put a [吗] at the end. [你去。] — you go. [你去吗？] — are you going? So the [吗] is like a question mark which appears in speech. Pretty straightforward. You can also ask questions like are you going? [你去不去？] — you go, not go?
So there’s a lot of very basic putting words together in a very practical way to produce meaning, which is kind of refreshing at times compared to some of the more complicated, structured grammatically difficult languages. Basically, that’s it. You have to tackle the characters upfront. Start early and keep going at it every single day.
The other thing about Chinese grammar, don’t get caught up in any explanations, terms or whatever. It’s all a matter of patterns. There might be 50 or 100 different patterns. If you do something then I will [要是你去我也去。] Save phrases, save patterns and, if you can, get a Chinese grammar book that focuses on patterns. That’s how to learn Chinese.
Enjoyed this post? Check out polyglot and LingQ cofounder Steve Kaufmann’s blog post to learn about the similarities and differences between learning Korean vs Japanese vs Chinese!