So, Just How Difficult is it to Learn a New Language? My First Five Weeks Studying Chinese

Unbelievably difficult. So damned hard.  Not easy. Challenging. Herculean. Trying. Frustrating. Easier said than done, though none of it is easier said! It’s a truly formidable undertaking. I take one step forward and then twenty steps backward. I am working hard at it but feel as if I have not yet begun to acquire the skill. At times learning Chinese has been emotionally trying and I wonder if I will ever get the hang of it. This is very disconcerting and my pride feels a tad bruised. Yet, I have been told that this is how it goes.

While languages do not come easily to me, I want to learn them. For instance, I love the melodic sounds of Arabic and Greek and would be in heaven if I could speak them. I would like to learn Spanish and Italian, too. I fancy the fact that a language can reveal so much about communities or nations. People are distinct and language is part of this diversity.

Class Outing

Class Outing. Here we are outside the Yunnan Nationalities Village. It is said: Among all places of interest in China, one that stands out immediately is the Yunnan Ethnic Village near Kunming. This is a special place which sprawls over a huge area and houses a number of ethnic minorities of the country. If one wants to witness the nuances in the cultures of different Chinese ethnicities, this is the place to be. Here people live according to their traditional lifestyle in small villages that have been created for them in the premises. It is a perfect exhibition of the diverse Chinese culture. I found it more like Disneyland. (Photograph courtesy of Nathalie Karlsson)

I speak and understand both French and Hebrew but cannot say that I have ever mastered either of these languages; I just get by. And yet here I am, in Kunming, trying my hand at Chinese – which is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. Nonetheless, after having visited China for ~7 weeks in 2012 I decided that I wanted to commit myself to acquiring the language – in China. As I mentioned in an earlier post, “By learning the language and living in the country for a period of time… I hope to start to have a deeper understanding of the country and people.” It really is as simple as this. I have no great plans, nor a practical reason (work, for instance) to study this language except to be able to actively communicate / have a dialogue with people in this region of Asia.

So, I am now attempting to immerse myself in the country and language. This, however, is not easy. I am at a private school with other foreigners (lao wei), and where English is the common language spoken outside of class. I go out onto the street and attempt to speak with people by ordering food, asking for directions, etc. Many just stare at me – not understanding a word I say. I clearly need more study and  practice so I have decided that I will ask my few Chinese friends in XIngping and Beijing to Skype with me for five minutes every few days so that we may speak in Chinese, together. Perhaps over time (I am hopeful) I will be able to have a simple conversation – but a conversation, nonetheless!

The only way I will be able to improve is to practice listening and speaking. This has to be done steadily and with persistence and determination. I also have to remind myself that it will take time to overcome the various challenges; there are no shortcuts.

But then there is the reality of stretching my brain in order to grasp the nuances of Chinese. I am discovering that the best way for me to learn is to listen first and then attempt to repeat/speak – over and over and over again. I constantly return to the very basic sounds of the initials, finals, and tones.  Little by little (and I do mean little) I am developing a vocabulary. At the moment though, my grammar is still practically non-existent. Perhaps one day I will be able to converse with someone on the street and not sound like an 18-month-old. For now, I am trying to have fun with this experience, to stay committed, and to applaud my very small achievements. It is in the end, all about personal satisfaction and opening up my opportunities.

I am memorizing vocabulary, I am listening to various online Chinese language resources, and I am trying to follow and understand Chinese films. I watch the movies and take note of the English AND Chinese subtitled words; it is unbelievably useful to a student of Chinese when there are subtitles in both English and Chinese. I listen, watch, read, and match words and characters as best as I can.

SO! Here I am studying at a Kiwi Cafe... how the hell can I immerse myself in Chinese? Fortunately, the workers here are Chinese and do not seem to speak English.

Here I am studying at the Kiwi-owned cafe, Slice of Heaven. How can I immerse myself in Chinese, this way?  Fortunately, the staff are Chinese and do not speak English so we have to talk in Chinese with them. This is a nice, little cafe/resto that two friends and I have discovered. We find it a nice place to go to to drink excellent coffee and eat Western dessert and to study.  (Photograph courtesy of Nathalie Karlsson)

At this point I have not yet started learning Chinese characters; this will begin in the next few weeks. I came to the Keats School expecting to learn through oral language, only, but I have been told by numerous teachers and students that Chinese characters represent words and that studying them will make learning the language easier, not more difficult; it will train my brain and help me visualize the words I learn, and also help me pay attention to detail. We shall see. In the meantime, learning to pronounce Chinese Initials, Finals, and Tones is a very difficult endeavour. With a lot of listening and repetition I am slowly becoming able to reproduce the sounds. Sometimes, it seems almost impossible to do this. I have to remind myself that fluency in Chinese is not about how fast I can speak, or how I put a sentence together, but rather about tones, pronunciation, and grammar. I have no choice at this point but to slow down, focus on the tones and get them right. Perhaps one day I will utter a sentence that is actually correct!

I have been told that it can take many years to become fluent in Chinese. Six months will certainly not quite do the trick but at least I am benefitting from one-on-one classes for four hours/day. If I am able to “get by” at the end of this sojourn in China, as well as I do in French and Hebrew, I will have the satisfaction of having accomplished something. And perhaps, in the process, I will have met and even conversed with some interesting people in this country and gained greater insight into their culture. There are some signs of hope, mind you.

The other day, I went to my favourite baozi (steamed, filled, dumplings) stall and was told by the woman who serves me, almost daily, that my Zhongwen (Chinese) is improving. Conceivably this is true; I had my first 4-sentence conversation with the school’s cook that same day and we understood each other! As I’ve mentioned, little by little…  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-Zi, Chinese philosopher and the father of Taoism (604 BC – 531 BC; The Way of Lao-tzu)

Addendum: Five months into learning the language with one month left and I barely get it. JUST!!! I have been told I try to make my sentences too complicated and I cannot easily communicate simply. This is a very tough habit to break because I want to express more complex thoughts….. all in all… not easy.

12 thoughts on “So, Just How Difficult is it to Learn a New Language? My First Five Weeks Studying Chinese

  1. Gaetan

    Good luck! You are studying in China, so at least you get the chance to practice everyday. Environment is crucial. I started studying Chinese twelve years ago; one of our teacher said : “The first 4 years are difficult, but after that, it becomes easy”. There is a Chinese saying that goes : “活到老,学到老“ which means “live until your old, study until your old”.
    And by the way, you’re lucky to live in Kunming, it’s one of my favorite city in China.

    1. sbandtg Post author

      i like that, gaetan: “The first 4 years are difficult, but after that, it becomes easy”. and : “活到老,学到老“ — “live until your old, study until your old”. i’ll have to remember both. thank you!

  2. Lori Weber

    Keep trying. Hey, your hand looks gigantic in that photo – odd angle. Interesting though. You know I love languages too, but I tend to learn the Romance and Germanic ones, for which I have connections. Can’t imagine learning Chinese.

    1. sbandtg Post author

      it’s fascinating learning this language that sounds so much the same to me as i listen to people speak. it is tough but slowly….

  3. Natalie

    HiTamar! Happy to hear that you can see progress from all of your hard work. Even little milestones are thrilling when you’re trying to communicate in a foreign language. Enjoy them all.

  4. france

    tamar, im proud of u…but most important be proud of every step u take! and do not be to hard on yourself.. like u said it is the hardiest language to learn.

    1. sbandtg Post author

      i’m not hard on myself. truly. i do wish i could learn more quickly but i am so busy with studying AND photographing various neighbourhoods, and working on my blog, and just plain hanging out so i can only accomplish so much. i hope you are well my dear francesky. —

    1. sbandtg Post author

      since i do not know my chinese characters yet, i just took a look for the word in:
      加油 [jiāyóu]

      1. 动词 refuel

      2. interjection come on!

      3. 动词 make effort

      4. verb cheer someone on

      thank you!! xie xie!


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