Insights | Why is it hard to learn Chinese?

Chinese is an ancient language, one that has a higher degree of difficulty than most Indo-European languages. There are several factors that make learning Chinese difficult, the first being its tones. In addition to its four tones, the “neutral” tone introduces a musical element to learning the language. For non-native learners who are not familiar with a tonal language, this is a significant challenge, and it can be even more difficult to associate the correct tone with a specific character. For some Chinese characters, we can decipher their meaning from their strokes, but for most characters we cannot. Second-language learners, then, need to memorise the strokes, pronunciations and meanings at the same time. Chinese grammar also does not follow the grammar conventions of Indo-European languages but is instead expressed through word order and function words. For example, the part of speech of a Chinese character does not necessarily correspond to its role in a sentence. Chinese language, moreover, is closely intertwined with its culture: knowing every word in a sentence does not guarantee understanding of its meaning without cultural context.

Regardless of whether Chinese is the pupil’s mother tongue or not, we teach by following the order of characters, phrases, and sentences before moving on to texts, all the while immersing our pupils in Chinese culture during class. In addition, we instill our values into our teaching process. We respect individual differences, endeavour to cultivate pupils’ independent learning habits and encourage pupils to think by themselves and courageously express their views.

In our classrooms, we start by dividing our pupils into two groups: those with Chinese as their mother tongue and those without. We then make further subdivisions according to the pupils’ length of Chinese-language learning, proficiency and languages spoken at home and select the appropriate teaching materials accordingly. Our detail-oriented teaching process focuses on the combination of lecture and practice. In our lectures, we simplify complex content into interesting stories to make them easier for pupils to understand, while also giving pupils opportunities to actively participate and learn for themselves through games and competitions. Characters and words are difficult in the early stages of learning, especially for non-native speakers, which is why our engaging classroom activities are so rewarding. In-class learning is complemented by after class exercises, the emphasis of which is not cramming, but giving pupils an opportunity to create their own works and demonstrate their ability.

Learning Chinese is not always easy, but it is not impossible. In school, teachers work together with pupils to develop their interests, and we encourage pupils to keep reading at home to deepen their understanding of Chinese culture.