Why is learning Chinese so hard?

So HardI recently received a PM in the Learning Center asking me, “Why is learning Chinese so hard?” This isn’t a unique question by any means but it does deserve some review.

Recently I have been seeing messages in the Learning Center from a few members who have been studying Chinese for years and feel that they are making very little, if any, improvement. Although I’m glad to see  interest in learning Chinese I can’t stop but at least try to put some light on why some people feel that learning Chinese as a monumental challenge.  What I have been doing is asking where the people who made these comments are located and how they learn.


The problem is how the teaching of Chinese is done and how correct acquisition of at least Mandarin Chinese is understood. What I’ve found is that much of the teaching methods currently used in many language centers are the same for all the languages they teach. Shocking if you ask me. I say this because each language carries different obstacles for non-native speakers or heritage language learners. So the way you teach someone from France how to speak English can’t be the same way you would teach someone from Spain to speak German. In some cases teachers of different root languages may need to employ very different teaching methodologies when teaching a second language.  


Staying on the general topic I feel that a unique system or theory of teaching Chinese needs to be established without dwelling on confusing grammar terms. The more a target language looks or sounds unlike a student’s mother language the more the student may perceive the targeted language to be difficult. This may not be the case for everyone studying Chinese but it is for many. One example is how a native English speaker can look at a new word and correctly read the word. When this same native English speaker sees a Chinese character this person has very little to rely on to reproduce the pronunciation for that character. So this native English speaker may perceive Chinese to be difficult to the extent of being almost alien.


Relying purely on memorization doesn’t work for most learners and doesn’t convey connotations well. So I see the need to shift Chinese language training to what is applicable to the learner in his or her environment without heavy reliance on detailed grammar or theory. In this way, students will become inquisitive and naturally become more acquainted with the grammar and connotations. This more “active learning” approach to teaching will activate students so; as a result, students will retain more of what is taught. Building a relationship between students with what is taught is the key. I feel by doing so, students will not easily become discouraged when facing the difficulties of learning, for example, Chinese characters. This creates a less taxing situation as interest is created towards learning Chinese. Students will have more of an incentive to form and obtain their language learning goals.


OK, let’s step back a bit and look at the environment where a student is learning Chinese. Now learning a language where very few people around speak isn’t all that fun. Where can someone in the Central Sahara find a native Chinese speaker? Where can the Chinese language student get practical experience using Chinese in Chihuahua, Mexico? Sounds funny but this is an issue for some Chinese language learners who don’t live in an environment where Chinese is spoken everyday. Where someone lives has an effect on how much of a second language that person can learn. Sure, some people can learn how to speak and write Chinese by only listening to tapes in a cave. However, the end result will be that this person will sound like a tape in a cave. If someone’s goal is to learn enough Chinese to order food in a Chinese restaurant why not learn it? If someone’s goal is to learn enough Chinese to integrate into a place where Chinese is the main language this will take more work. Of course living in a Chinese speaking environment is the best way to become familiar with the vast connotations of the Chinese language. However, just getting up and moving to China or Taiwan"Taiwan" is also commonly used to refer to the area under the jurisdiction of the Republic of China (ROC) government, not to be confused with the People's Republic of China government. Following World War II, the ROC gained control of Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945, but lost control of mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party four years later in 1949 as a result of the Chinese Civil War. The Kuomintang (KMT) government then retreated to the island and moved the capital to Taipei. While the People's Republic of China (PRC) claims Taiwan as its province, the PRC has never controlled Taiwan. The main island of Taiwan, also known as Formosa (from Portuguese (Ilha) Formosa, meaning "beautiful (island)"), is located in East Asia off the coast of China, southwest of the main islands of Japan but directly west of the end of Japan's Ryukyu Islands, and north-northwest of the Philippines. It is bound to the east by the Pacific Ocean, to the south by the South China Sea and the Luzon Strait, to the west by the Taiwan Strait and to the north by the East China Sea. The island is 394 kilometers (245 miles) long and 144 kilometers (89 miles) wide and consists of steep mountains covered by tropical and subtropical vegetation. Though for decades following the Chinese Civil War, the ROC was politically a single-party authoritarian state, the ROC has since evolved into a democracy in Asia. Its rapid economic growth in the decades after World War II and the government's relocation to Taiwan has brought it to an advanced economy status as one of the Four Asian Tigers. This economic rise is known as the Taiwan Miracle. It is categorized as an advanced economy by the IMF and high-income economy by the world bank. Its technology industry plays a key role in the global economy. Taiwanese companies manufacture a giant portion of the world's consumer electronics. isn’t in everyone’s grasp. Knowing this is why WLC offers online Chinese language training via P2P tools such as MSN and Skype. Using these tools allows us to give our students the best chance to speak and interact with native Chinese speakers. Students taking part in this one-to-one learning environment can also obtain insights to cross-cultural differences which develops more interest and motivation.


We, at WLC, are aware that there isn’t an ultimate solution or system for teaching or learning any language. However, we keep the above in mind when creating course materials for our students. If you were or are in a situation were trying to learn Chinese is an uphill battle I would like to hear how you advance in your Chinese language learning.