1/10: The secret to finally overcoming the phenomena of difficulty in learning Chinese




Chinese is a very difficult language to learn.


Chinese will take you at least ten years to learn.


How many times have you heard these words?

How many times have you yourself spoken them?


When I decided to first learn Chinese over fifteen years ago, if I had got a dollar for every time somebody felt the need to tell me the above words, then I could probably have retired early!


In fact, just thinking about the number of times I was told Chinese is a difficult language or Chinese is the most difficult language to learn, one could easily assume that difficulty and Chinese were a match made in heaven.


Or 缘分 if you hold more to an Eastern belief system and the concept of yuanfen, or two beings being destined for each other.



But before I go into this in detail, let me open the door and take you back to the very very beginning.


How did I come to learn Chinese in the first place? Where did the whole adventure start? The adventure which now finds me sitting in a Chinese language library recording all of this for your interest and benefit.



Well once upon a time...


It was in fact the summer of 1999.


Since as long as I could remember I had always loved Africa. The art. The colours. The people. The light.


And I had always dreamt to go there.


I had worked. I had saved. I had spent a lot of time in the Château Rouge district of Paris right across from where I lived and made friends with people from across the African continent.


And one of them had promised to take me with her when she went back home that summer.


Then just two weeks before we were due to leave, everything fell through.



With two months vacation time ahead of me and now nowhere to go, a friend of a friend suggested I go to China. They had a spare room in the capital, it was mine if I wanted it. Having no idea what awaited me, or even a single thing about China, I decided to say yes.


Another friend got wind of the last minute plans and decided to come with me. She was learning Chinese in university so I figured why not.


And just seven days later, the two of us found ourselves flying into Beijing.



I had never before considered going to China and certainly never even thought about learning the language. But several things which happened to me during that trip along with the various strategies I employed to survive in a land where I didn't speak or understand a word of the language, quite literally changed my life course forever.


And it was all the micro techniques I used during those weeks to navigate the language and communication which markedly shaped my outlook on language learning, including this concept of difficulty which I had yet to be confronted with.


I will be sharing each of these with you, so pay close note because some of them will actually be useful to you in your learning journeys.


Come and see as I first arrived in China.



Discovering the Chinese language for the very first time

Going through customs I quickly asked my friend how to say hello in the Chinese language and also how to count to ten.


This, along with the soon acquired expressions 多少? (how much?) 不要 (no, I don’t want it), 太贵 (that’s too expensive) and 好吃吗?(does it taste good?) quickly had me negotiating my way around town.


Yes, quite literally from day 1, with a vocabulary as extensive as the number of fingers on my hand, I was able to bargain entirely in Chinese.



And this is the very first secret to becoming fluent in any language: Keep it simple.


Keep it very very simple.



Five secrets to start speaking Chinese when you hardly know any words

I mean obviously at this point learning how to say in Chinese that I didn't speak Chinese and all the rest would have blown what few brain cells were still functioning, and I needed them for useful things, such as getting food to eat, rather than wasting them on being able to tell people things which were already obvious I couldn't do.


So keep it simple AND keep it useful.


Keep the language you are learning pertinent.


You need to create a cycle where you can learn and use, learn and use, yes once again, learn and use.



The bare basics we learn in school when studying our first second language, aka how many brothers and sisters do you have, what colour are your eyes (I mean isn't that, hmm, obvious) and dare I even add, how old are you...


Yes... (slight cough to change the subject)



But really, those are the core elementary questions of nearly every language class, yet not one of them will even get you butter on your bread.


Actually, they wouldn't even get you bread.


Or rice.

(Depending on which part of the planet you are reading this from.)



So keep it simple. But please, please, PLEASE, also keep the language and vocabulary you are learning PERTINENT and usable.


Always learn the really really useful vocabulary. The stuff you can use straight away. Even without an ounce of grammar.



Armed with that, I bargained my way through Beijing.



The secret to transforming your sense of failure into delight and into success

I'll never forget that first morning in the capital.


Just downstairs from where we were staying was a market. My friend and I went downstairs to check it out.


We wanted to buy a watermelon.


Bargaining was completely new to me but having heard it was part of the local landscape, I wanted to try my hand at it.


Not having a clue what I was doing, I tried to negotiate a 10 yuan watermelon down to 2 yuan and was disappointed to end up pay 4 yuan.


I felt defeated. I thought I had failed.



But that sense of failure soon changed to delight when I got back and started sharing it with everyone. It turned out 10 yuan was in fact the usual price for a watermelon!


So yes, there will be times in a language you will feel you are losing. You will feel you are failing. When in fact just the opposite will be true.


The fact you are out there doing it already makes you a winner!



So secret number 2 in this story is don't worry about being perfect. Get out there and use what you are learning even if it is very minimal.



Cracking the nut of perfectionism in language learning

Perfectionism is a hard nut to crack and nobody wants to make themselves look stupid. This is especially true when we first start learning a second language.


The fact that Chinese is projected as such a difficult language only adds to this psychological outlook.


While I personally never subscribe to being a perfectionist, a topic worthy of an article in its own right, many people would put me right at the heart of such a description.


Truth be told, I like to get things right. I like to do a good job. And if I can learn from other people's mistakes, I most certainly will.


But when it comes to learning, and in particular starting out with learning a new language, know there are times to be near perfect and times when it plain doesn't matter.


This is one of them!


Most people I know will hold off speaking in another language for fear of making mistakes or not having enough vocabulary.


I see it happen over and over again.


But NO!


From day 1, yes, day number ONE you need to be finding ways to speak and practice, real-life context whenever possible.


I was talking and even haggling from day one.


So don't wait for perfect.


And never forget, if you choose the most useful words to learn, if you use them right, a few words can go a long, long way.



Now let's get back to that initial journey.



What is your ultimate motivation? What is your core desire?

I'll be clear in saying that at that point I had no intention of even learning Chinese.


I had only said yes to this person I didn't know who had a spare room in their apartment on the other side of the world in China, and now once in the country, speaking a few words of the language was pretty much survival instinct.


Honestly speaking, I just needed to put food in my belly!


But things didn't stay that way for too long.



You see, I've always been fascinated by people and if I am to travel to a country, what is important to me is not to see all the monuments - at some point I may see them - but what is really important to me is mixing with the people, sharing food, sharing stories.


That is how we grow as people, through exchange and sharing of language, food, culture, experience.


That is when you get to see the heart of a country.


And this is where being able to bargain started to have its limits. I could interact on a so-called business level, but not on a personal level.


The obvious solution, you may all be thinking, would be to speak to people in English. After all, so many people in Chinese study English in school.


But this really wasn't enough for me.



For those of you who already speak a second or third language you will know exactly what I mean. Unless you are truly bilingual, or know how to master a language with little, speaking in a second language will always have a tendency towards being 'slightly' mechanical whereas talking in your first language will always be the language of your heart.


Simply put, if I want to connect with people and understand them on their level, what drives them, what motivates them, what dreams they have... then I need to speak the language of their heart.



So here I was in a country where at the time I was one of few foreigners. Internet was still in its early days. In fact I actually opened my first email account in an internet café in Beijing. Give me a shout in the comments if you still remember hotmail! Yes! Even mobile phones were still a luxury item and everyone was running around with pagers!


Travel was at a fraction of what it was today and people were still running around with a trusted copy of the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide.


I had neither.


At that time, relatively little was known about China to the outside world, yet here I was, surrounded by this immensely rich culture and masses of people on a scale like I had never experienced before.


I will always remember going to one of the main train stations to catch a train north. First, the station was huge, unlike any I had seen in London, New York or Paris. Second, it was full of people. As far as I could see were people. A sea of people. And as busy as it was, everyone kept moving forward like one large gentle wave.


It was mesmerising.


The train was equally full. But from observation I could see no complaining. Everyone either squeezed onto a seat, sometimes two or three to a seat, or they simply pulled out a trusted piece of newspaper they always carried around in their back pocket, slowly unfolded it and carefully placed it on the ground before carefully sitting on it.


Then a second piece of newspaper would be unfolded and placed in front of them and a bag of sunflower seeds would appear and the majority of the train journey would be filled with cracking sunflower seeds and spitting the shell.


This was evidently a national pasttime as from what I could observe, the majority of people looked like a chip in their front two where they would place the seed, delicately crack the outer shell, extract the seed and spit out the shell onto that paper on the floor in front of them.


And they never once touched the seed. It was an art and I sat there watching it for hours.


The turning point came early morning of that train ride. It was a 24-hour journey and we were travelling on hard seats. The only food I remember taking on that journey was a watermelon (yes, another watermelon) used for most of the ride as a pillow.


So anyway, it was early morning and there was a lady sitting opposite me eating her breakfast. What looked like pickled garlic and various pieces of chicken.


But that wasn't important.


I was more taken by her face and her demeanor, her kindness, her gentleness. She kept smiling and talking to me, even wanting to share her food with me.


And all I could do was smile back and wish I wasn't no better than mute.



I had never felt so powerless as at that moment there.

Never wanted to talk to someone more.

Yet I was totally unable.


I could tell that each person had their story, hidden in the deep wrinkles, the hardened hands and even the lean muscular physiques. I wanted to discover more and I knew the only way I could really do that would be to learn their language. Because in speaking another person's language, you speak the language of their heart.


I determined that as soon as I returned to France I would start learning Chinese.



Because deep down, I wanted to be able to interact with the people around me. I wanted to be able to hear their stories in their languages, laugh with them at their jokes, share food together, even cook together.


I wanted to understand this wonderful world culture from the heart of the people themselves.


And I knew that the only way I could truly do that would be to learn their language.


And that in a nutshell was my core desire, my deep motivation to start learning the Chinese language.



The concept of difficult in language learning: is it a perception or is it a reality?

It was actually only once I got back to France and started telling people of my intention to learn Chinese that I realised how engrained it was in people's mentality that Chinese was a difficult language.


Every single person I spoke to told me it was difficult and every other person told me that it would take me at least ten years to learn Chinese.


It was eye-opening yet part of me couldn't get my head around this universal fixation on difficulty.


Call me naive or call me a simpleton, all I knew is that I wanted to learn Chinese. And all I kept asking myself Why? Why is everyone fixated on Chinese being such a difficult language to learn?


Perhaps there was a switch which just wasn't going off in my head like those rare people who physically don't feel pain, but I honestly couldn't understand why it had to be difficult.


Different? Yes, absolutely


Different writing system, different phonetics, different structures. It's all very different.



Perhaps reading this very detailed and highly entertaining explanation by David Moser could shed some light on this now, but obviously it hadn't been written back then!


And today the discourse is no longer all negative.


Olly Richards from I will teach you a language teamed up with Kyle Balmer from Sensible Chinese to show how while writing Chinese may be difficult, it is not impossible!


I could add to this list and so over the next few weeks you may see it grow! And if you have suggestions, please add them to the comments.



But when it comes to difficulty to learn Chinese, my question remains the same:


Why does different have to automatically equate difficult?


A challenge, most definitely, but as far as I was concerned, difficulty was first a state of mind. If you approach something thinking it is difficult, greater are the chances you will find it difficult.


I figured that the number one reason most people found Chinese difficult is because they approached it thinking it was difficult.



I decided to turn the notion of difficulty on it's head.



I didn't want it pushing it's ugly face into mine and distracting me from my objective.


I simply put the notion of difficulty to one side.


Yes, I knew learning Chinese would not be easy but I refused to approach the language thinking and believing it difficult.



I left the word difficult at the front door and entered the world of learning Chinese all alone ready to take whatever would come my way.



It may sound simple. It may even sound naive. But that was the major difference.


That difference between knowing, accepting and believing. And when it came to difficulty, I never let it past base one.



The concept of difficulty, be it actual or perceived is closely related to the concept of learned helplessness.


Learned helplessness, as I wrote in the article Learning and the perception of difficulty is that feeling of being totally (or almost totally) powerless in a given situation. It's the conviction that whatever effort is put in, the result will always be negative.


And this relates very closely to the idea that Chinese is a difficult language.


It is not the fact of it being difficult or not which carries the actual weight. Rather it is in our perception of that difficulty that bears the strongest factor in whether or not we feel we can succeed or choose to give up soon after starting.


It is not always about changing the difficulty factor, but rather how we choose to perceive it and the role we let it play in our learning journey.


In fact in my case, it pretty much played reverse psychology.


Instead of running from the challenge of learning Chinese amid endless cautions that it would take me at least ten years to get anywhere, I added to the challenge.



I challenged myself to learn Chinese in just one year.



I knew that if I could learn Chinese while still facing the busy demands of work and daily life, while living in a country where the national language not only wasn't Chinese but also wasn't my first language (yes, I was still learning French at the time), then anyone could use the same techniques to successfully learn any other language.



And that includes you.



Ready to discover what comes next?

Want to know the best place to start learning Chinese?


Now that you have mentally reconsidered your perception of Chinese being a difficult language, a first but incredibly important step, let's do just that!


In Parts 2 and 3 we will be looking at common questions related to learning Chinese, but essential as they will form the core, the backbone to your Chinese learning journey.


We'll be looking at everything related to phonetics, pronunciation, pinyin and the Chinese tones.


And then we'll be entering that ongoing debate: should I even try to learn the Chinese characters?


And I'll let you in on another secret now. Beyond parts 2&3 where we will be looking at classic learning questions related to reading writing and listening to Chinese, each of the other sections will be looking at a different essential factor behind learning success, be it learning motivation, learning engagement and many other factors behind the psychology of learning a second language successfully.


Subscribe now so you don't miss each new part coming out.



So what's your take on difficulty?

Are you a runner or are you an embracer?

Let's continue the conversation in the comments below.