Note: Published for University editorial.
How difficult is learning Chinese for foreigners/non-locals?
Chinese branches out into two main languages, Mandarin and Cantonese. Foreigners, who are curious with Asian culture, are usually intrigued with learning either one of these languages. Yet we all wonder, why is it so difficult for us foreigners to learn Chinese?
As we are familiar with, English consists of an alphabetical system. The individual letters in the alphabetical system corresponds to how they are phonetically pronounced. When it comes to foreign languages, such as, Spanish or French, it is easier for English natives to learn, since the pronunciation and writing system is roughly similar. On the other hand, Chinese consists of a logographic system, which is not phonetically helpful for foreigners. These characters are created as a symbolic visual aid for each word, making it quite difficult for us to recognize or make instinctive guesses.
In addition to the unrecognizable characters, the tonal system does very little to help foreigners learn.
“Cantonese is much harder to learn than Mandarin, since it has nine tones, whereas Mandarin has only 4.” -says a foreign student from Kent, UK.
As English speakers, we use tones to bring exaggeration to a word; a rising intonation, or an inflection to signify a question, yet it would not change the meaning of the word. Chinese on the other hand, is linked to each syllable’s meaning. Each tone represent a different meaning in either Mandarin or Cantonese, and by pronouncing a word with the incorrect tone, it will change the meaning entirely. Chinese and English do consist of similar vocalic sounds, but letters such as, 0, do not exist in the English phonetic memory. This means that the uneasy pronunciations we have would make it harder for Chinese natives to understand us.
Other than the language structure, English natives find it difficult to learn Chinese, or languages in general, if the other party is not as enthusiastic with their teaching. Motivation is a good way to give students some confidence in their ability to learn a new language, whether it is encouragement from a teacher, practicing with friends, or communicating with a significant partner. As well as motivation, individuals need to genuinely have an interest in learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Learning a new language is definitely easy to come by if the individual is keen on doing so.
– Charlotte T.