Is it possible to learn Chinese?

Budvar   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 15:58 GMT
Is there anyone in the forum who's learnt to speak Chinese? I am trying to decide which language will I acquire next and having to choose between Japanese, Russian and Chinese. I have the feeling that Chinese is near impossible (I am 35 years old). Please prove me wrong.
Ailian   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 20:13 GMT
I wrote this as a reply to a friend's livejournal post asking the same question not too long ago, so excuse the silliness.

Learn Chinese

Short reasoning:
Everything about Japanese, save the pronunciation, is more difficult.

Long reasoning:
Chinese (from here on, "Chinese" will refer to Mandarin) is actually the easier of the two from an English standpoint. Its syntax, aside from its question and relative clause construction, is very much akin to English and it doesn't have eighty five verbal conjugations. Written language is based only on hanzi (kanji) and each hanzi generally has one main pronunciation, with perhaps another alternative pronunciation (rare) that's only used in certain cases; even then, the pronunciation will often be related. When you compare this with Japanese, which, while it does have the syllabic ''alphabet'' of kana, uses about fifteen different pronunciations for each kanji, most of which are still written in the old, "traditional" method (mainland China uses "simplified" characters, which include less strokes and are based on the "running" script of calligraphy). Furthermore, Japanese's syntax is more or less the complete opposite of English's in every case, so you will have to forget everything that you know about syntax or grammar or whathaveyou and start from scratch.

But wait, you say!! What about TONES?! The death to all foreigners?! Wait, young child, and you shall learn! Did you know that Japanese also has a sort of tonal system? Japanese, much like Korean, is a pitch language, in that it uses difference in pitches to distinguish difference in language (much like how English's most difficult feature, stress, is used -- compare the verb and noun versions of ''reply''). So thus you have words like ''kami'' (hair) vs ''kami'' (god). To make this even more fun, *this isn't something normally taught in schools*! In fact, it's rarely mentioned. To this date, I've only come across two professors (and I've had a lot of Japanese professors) and one textbook to even say the slightest bit about it. Now, if you're good at picking up accents and inflections and the like, you'll likely be able to pick this up on our own. But you'll be even more likely to pick up the tones of Chinese in that case because they'll be drilled into your head from day one. and are more obvious. Furthermore, the tones of Mandarin ( are such that they exist in normal English speech, though we use them as intonation to express emotion or questions or whatnot. (To compare: Tones of Cantonese (, Pitch of Japanese [somewhat] ( This page shows how tones are written in pinyin (, the transliteration system of choice on the mainland.)

Perhaps more daunting than tones is the sounds (phonemes) ( of Chinese themselves. I'm sure that they sound so foreign! :O This is true: Chinese includes a lot of sounds (and seemingly more of them than Japanese) than English/Japanese. But at the same time, their consonant sounds are a lot similar to English than Japanese, especially in the case of voiced/unvoiced consonants. (Compare: English k/g and Mandarin k/g are surprisingly similar, but English k/g and Japanese k/g are vastly different. Why? Japanese, like European and Slavic languages, pronounces with more vocalization in the voiced consonants. They're "more open, longer", to quote what a professor once said.)

Mandarin Phonetics ( -- probably the most straight-forward page that I've found on the sounds of Chinese.
Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation ( -- has some helpful subsections, I guess. I don't agree with all of their film suggestions (except Raise the Red Lantern and Shower, as those are both spoken in pretty standard Chinese; and Farewell My Concubine, just because).
Random Chappie   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 23:10 GMT
Tag, Budvar,

No, Chinese is not impossible to learn but in my opinion, being with Chinese people several hours each day would help a lot.

If you can't or don't want to move to China, you could try the southern half of the San Francisco Bay Area, where you'll find a lot of Mandarin/Putonghua speakers. If you want to learn Cantonese, then you have a lot of first-world cities to choose from: London, Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco, New York, Sydney, etc.

Personally, I prefer Mandarin/Putonghua.
Justin   Monday, August 09, 2004, 05:16 GMT
A well educated Chinese person from Beijing is the most likely to speak very good Putonghua/Mandarin.
Steve K   Monday, August 09, 2004, 07:29 GMT
I speak Mandarin quite fluently and am not too bad at Cantonese. The former is easier. The pronunciation of Mandarin sounds is not difficult. The tones take more work. Is is important to realize that even English is tonal, except that tones are used for emphasis in the sentence rather than to indicate meaning in words. As long as you ignore any and all grammatical explanations of Chinese and just work on listening and reading and getting used to the structure of the language, it is not too difficult except for one obstacle, the amount of time required to learn characters. There you need a system (I had one) and you need to work at it every day..even one day off it and you slide back. It took me 8 months full time to learn the language, be able to read novels, and translate newspapers in both directions.
Steve K   Monday, August 09, 2004, 07:32 GMT
Japanese is not a tonal language and the few homonyms like kami and hashi are not of any great significance since the meaning is easily understood from context, not from any pitch issue. Lets not try to complicate life.
Piter   Monday, August 09, 2004, 07:38 GMT
Is it possible to learn Chinese? Yes, perhaps it is. But it depends on who you are...

Here's a joke:

"They asked an old and wise professor:
- How long does it take to learn Chinese?
The proffesor said: O! Chinese! You must learn it the whoooole life..

They asked a teacher in the school:
- How long does it take to learn Chinese?
The teacher answered: O! Chinese! You must learn it for 20 years at least.

They asked a student:
- How long does it take to learn Chinese?

And the student ...asked: Chinese!...OK, and when is an exam??
Budvar   Monday, August 09, 2004, 08:54 GMT
Thank you everyone for your kind responses. Especially to Ailian, I am impressed.

Guten Tag Herr Chappie, wie geht's? Moving to China is not longer an option, unfortunately. A couple years back I had a dream offer of a job in China but my then girlfriend plainly refused even hearing about it (and three months later she unceremoniously dumped me...but that's another story and I am digressing anyway). But where I live I have no shortage of Chinese people or Russian people to talk to. And the Chinese are Mandarin speakers.

Steve, 8 months does not sound too bad. I am somewhat relieved because the information I had is that it was simply not possible for a grown up to learn Chinese to a level other than "Hello I am Mr. Budvar and sorry but I do not speak your language"