中文非常难 chinese is really hard

Haven’t posted for a while so I thought I’d take sometime to tell you how my experience of learning Chinese is going so far (seeing as it is the main reason I actually came to China). So this summer in Hangzhou I signed a pledge saying that I will not speak anything but Chinese until my completion of the program. Other calls home (which are exempt) and the occasional accidental slip that’s exactly what I have been doing. I have studied for two years at Bowdoin but even that amount of study didn’t really prepare me for how difficult and occasionally frustrating learning Chinese in this environment can be.

Here are some reasons that Chinese is really hard:

1.) The characters- As you probably know Chinese does not uses anything that resembles the English alphabet. Instead, Chinese has tons and tons of individual characters that make up words. And while you may think it’s cute to look at those characters at a Chinese restaurant or even get one tattooed on your back I don’t and am going through a phase of character hatred right as I try to learn more and more. First, there are TONS of them (to be fully literate you really should know 3000+) and even there are some characters look very similar so it can be hard to tell which is which. Another problem, is that for a lot of characters it is impossible to know the pronunciation without previously studying it. In English you learn the alphabet and then can pretty much say most words as you combine the sounds that all the letters make each word. However, in Chinese you can’t do that, and most of the time I see characters out and about and think, “wow that character looks pretty interesting, too bad I have no idea how to say it or what its meaning is”. It can be really frustrating.

2.) Pronunciation- This summer (especially during my one-on-one sessions with my teachers) has turned into lots of fun, “you literally have no conception of Chinese pronunciation do you?’, time. It’s a pure half an hour of excitement to sit in my professor’s room saying the word 水 (water, shui, one of my problem words) over and over again. Schwaay, schwaaeey, shwwaaai, SCHWAAAYY, SCWAAYY, getting it completely wrong each time as the temperature on the inside of my brain reaches boiling temperatures. While I say most words correctly, its the occasional slip up or those few words that I consistently miss that can really difficult to deal with.

3.) Tones- Of course it isn’t enough to JUST pronounce the words correctly, you also have to speak with correct tone. Chinese has 4 different tones, sort of different levels and intonations that you need to speak with to be correct. So while in English the pitch of my voice doesn’t vary that much (it sort of stays in the middle, comfortable area of my vocal), when speaking Chinese I am forced to really use my entire voice range. There are also a ton of rules and situations that change how you use the tones. It sort of just adds another layer of complexity to learning Chinese. In America, I did not pay as much attention to my tones as I should have. I really had no conception of how essential they are to the language (I thought they were mere suggestions). However, if you are speaking with the correct tones, people will NOT understand you.

So for every word in Chinese, I need to learn how to write the character, the meaning of the character, the pronunciation of the character, and the associated tone. In addition to learning the different characters there are a TON of grammar rules and structures that are completely different that English. It can be a lot to learn at once, and even after studying for 2 years, I still make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of trouble reading sign, billboards, etc., making more than banal conversations, and understanding lots of people’s accents.

Right now learning Chinese is a really frustrating experience. However, i have been progressing really quickly and in the 2.5 weeks I have been here, I have already seen tons of progress. At least this frustration I am feeling can be turned into visible progress. This really is one of the most challenging experiences of my life; fun and worthwhile, but really difficult.


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