Which is easier to learn, Chinese or Japanese?

People often compare Chinese to Japanese because they are both East Asian languages and both languages include Chinese characters. It is debatable which is easier or more difficult to learn. The big challenges with Chinese are pronunciation: Mandarin has four tones and Cantonese has six tone contours, and Chinese characters, you have to learn a lot of individual characters and their pronunciations are often not closely related to how they look. You just have to learn Continue Reading

How many tones are there in Mandarin / Cantonese?

One of the challenges for many people when they are learning Chinese is that it is a tonal language. This means that there are multiple ways of pronouncing each syllable that can change its meaning. The syllable can be pronounced in a high pitch, a low pitch or its pitch can go up or down. Mandarin Chinese has 4 different tones. The first tone is a high level tone, the second tone rises in pitch, the third tone falls in pitch and then rises again and the fourth tone falls in pitch. Continue Reading

Should you learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

The short answer is: if you are interested in mainland China or will be travelling anywhere in China or Taiwan, I would advise learning Mandarin Chinese. It is the official language, it is used in schools and on every TV and radio station, and practically everybody in China understands Mandarin. If you are interested in Hong Kong or will be travelling there, I would advise learning Cantonese, as a lot of people in Hong Kong struggle to speak Mandarin. There are many dialects of Chinese, Continue Reading

Does everybody in China speak Mandarin?

Standard Mandarin is taught in every school in China. Children have to speak Mandarin at school, wherever they are in the country, even if they speak a local dialect at home. Also, almost all the radio and TV in China is in standard Mandarin. What’s more, both teachers and radio/TV presenters have to pass special Mandarin tests and get a high qualification in them in order to do their job. Because Mandarin is now so commonplace in schools and the media, everybody you are likely to meet in Continue Reading

Which first? Simplified or traditional Chinese characters?

This is a question which I get asked a lot. Very strictly speaking, it is more logical to see how traditional Chinese characters have been simplified than to start with the simplified versions then go back to the original characters. If you have an academic interest in Chinese then this may be a good strategy. However, my advice is to stick with the type of characters that is more relevant to you and learn that set first. If your place of interest is Mainland China, focus on simplified Continue Reading

Effective foreign language study: Active learning – part 2

This guest post comes from a reader of this blog, Semaj Richardson, who contacted me to express his thoughts about effective foreign language study from his own experiences. Semaj also runs livefluently.com, a website about language learning strategies and personal development. The post below is fact a follow-up to an article I wrote some time ago called Making Your Foreign Language Study Effective: Active Not Passive Learning - you might want to check it out first for some background Continue Reading

How long does it take to learn to speak Chinese fluently?

I have been speaking Chinese for 7 years and this is one of the questions I get asked most. The simple answer is: it depends on how much effort you put into it. I’m not going to pretend that you can learn to speak Chinese fluently in a week, it does take time to get used to the sounds of the language and the grammar, just like any language. If you work at it for at least an hour a day, I think it would be very possible to start having simple conversations after 3 – 6 months. You Continue Reading

How many Chinese characters do you need to know?

A lot of people are put off learning Chinese because there are a large number of individual characters you have to get familiar with. The largest dictionaries in Chinese history contained almost 50,000 different single characters. The good news though, is that most of these characters are very rare, historical characters that are almost never used. Some of them may only have ever appeared a few times, so there is no need to be put off by this huge number. The number of characters in common use Continue Reading

Should you learn to speak Chinese before reading and writing?

This is another big question that I get asked. Often, when people start to learn Chinese it seems like a huge burden to learn to speak Chinese and to read and write characters at the same time. My advice is, if you are learning Mandarin, start your studies by learning Pinyin, which is the sounds of Mandarin written in the Roman alphabet. Practice making the sounds and pronouncing the tones. Then you can get hold of a Mandarin Chinese course to get you started. I recommend that you at least Continue Reading

Does Chinese have grammar?

It is a common perception from people who have never studied Chinese that because it uses individual characters instead of words that Chinese does not have grammar. Written Chinese is a standard language across all the dialects of Chinese. It has no singular and plural like English, it does not have tenses in the Western language sense, it has no genders (masculine, feminine or neuter) and nouns and verbs never change, there are no changing endings. You may be thinking, does this mean Continue Reading