China Elevator Stories

The Hardest Part Of Learning Chinese

I reveal what I consider to be the biggest challenge when studying Chinese.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


What’s the hardest part of learning Chinese for someone with a mother tongue such as German?

Having graduated with a degree in Chinese studies and having lived in China for more than two years, I consider myself to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

The part of learning Chinese I consider the biggest challenge is oddly not something I hear other people complain about when they talk about mastering Chinese.

Many people believe the hardest part of learning Chinese are the characters. Chinese characters are beautiful and within each is contained a lot of meaning. They take a lot of effort and dedication to learn and practice, but they are not as hard to master as people who haven’t studied Chinese may assume.

The tones can be challenging, but they are also not the hardest part of learning Chinese. They are hard to remember sometimes, and I’m pretty sure that I don’t always get them right. The tones are a big challenge, but they are doable if you listen to the melody of this language as closely as possible (and try to memorize them right from the beginning of your studies).

Chinese grammar? People say it doesn’t exist. I would say it does exist, but it comes in a very different shape than German grammar and is thus sometimes not recognized as grammar.

So what do I consider to be the most difficult part of learning Chinese? I consider figuring out what people mean when they use abbreviations of words to be the hardest part of mastering this beautiful language.

I’ll explain what I mean by that.

Let’s take the word “mother tongue” as an example. In Chinese, you have the word mother (母亲) and language (语言), and taken together they will form the word “mother tongue” (literally “mother language”, equivalent to the German word for mother tongue, “Muttersprache”). In Chinese you wouldn’t say 母亲语言 though, instead an abbreviated form is used, where the first characters of each words are combined, thus 母亲+语言 become 母语. I compare it to saying mo-to instead of mother tongue in English. If you see the Chinese word in writing, it might not be as much of a problem, but if you know the word mother and know the word language, you might still not be able to understand that 母语 means mother tongue (or “mother language”). I used a simple example, but there others that are more difficult. 

It’s not necessarily only the first characters of two words that are being combined, it might also be the last two such as in 校服, school uniform (学校+衣服, literally school clothes). 

Or if a word consisting of 2 characters is combined with one consisting of 3, they might take the second character of the first word and the second character of the second word and combine those to form a word (such as in central television – 中央+电视台, which becomes 央视). They might also take the first character of the first word and the first and the third character of the second word, depending on which words are combined.

Chinese has only so many different syllables, making it harder to understand what an abbreviated word stands for. And Chinese has plenty of these abbreviated words, which can be a challenge for a student of Chinese. German is a language with long words and Chinese is the exact opposite. 

But there’s a positive aspect to this as well: Although these words are like abbreviations, they are fixed abbreviations and can’t simply be changed or mixed together to one’s liking. So once you know 母语 means “mother tongue”, you can memorise it and use it again in the future.

What did you struggle with most when you learned Chinese?