How chinese language work?

Hi my friends, I hope you’re very good today.
Well, recently I visited a very cultural place here in Brazil and I saw a lot of people from Japan,China , Peru,Chile, but I feel in love for chinese language, it’s sound like a music for my ears.

I started to learn the same way that I started to learn the other languages but I realized that this language is more complex, I don’t know how this language work. When I decided to learn Russian I noticed that the alphabet was different and I just learned the alphabet and everything got easier, the language started make sense to me.
The chinese language has an specific alphabet ?cause I’m lost.
I’m learning simple dialogs but to me no make sense, I know what means after traslated but I keep asking me how these traits could form words?
If you can, please help me understand the language, and show me,tell me where to start.


I was learning Chinese on LingQ and I was getting somewhere. but I lost my motivation after about 2 months. I willl still use LingQ for Chinese but in the meantime I have found the “mandarin reading survival” course really nice on this site:

The difficult thing when starting to learn Chinese is that the characters are not like an alphabet and cannot be sounded out as you would try to pronounce a new English word. You have to learn the pronunciation. However, while there are thousands of characters there is actually a very limited number of possible sounds in the language, and each character is only one syllable. Most words are made up of two-character compounds. So you have no long difficult words to learn or pronounce.

At first, you should learn the phonetic spelling, Hanyu Pinyin. This will show you how to pronounce the characters. Years ago I began learning with the Colloquial Chinese course book, which gave me a good foundation in the language. It starts with Pinyin spelling, then slowly introduces characters and teaches how to recognize and write them. By the end of the course you will be able to read and write many characters without Pinyin. Any introductory course book for Chinese should help you get a foot in the language.

Once you have a foundation in the language, know Pinyin and some characters, then LingQ becomes very useful and you can continue with the language here up to Advanced 2 just with the material provided in the LingQ library. There really is a lot of great content for Chinese here.

Once you get into the language you will be pleased to find that the grammar and vocabulary is actually quite simple. Indeed it is very simple. There is no conjugation whatsoever, as in Russian and other languages, and vocabulary is mainly simple compound words. For example; “owl” is just “cat-head-eagle”, “giraffe” is “long-neck-deer”. So there aren’t new words for many things. Just compounds of more simple words.

The most difficult parts will be recognizing characters (gets easier) and mastering the tones (also gets easier). Other than that, it’s a pretty simple language.

Thanks for the explanation, now I know how to start to learn this language.
I’ll keep using the lingQ however I’ll focus on Teach yourself and Assimil.

Thanks for all.

“Other than that, it’s a pretty simple language.”

Even if it wern’t for the Chinese script I think the above statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. I find Chinese orders of magnitudes harder than any other Western language that I have learned so far.

Maybe just a few words regarding pronunciation in Chinese. Like any foreign language learning, it is always difficult to get used to the new sound at the early stage. Once you kind of internalize it, it is not so difficult to guess how the unknown words sound like. For instance, these 4 words, 估 姑 钴 沽, all sound the same, gu, and they all come from the sound of 古, gu3. If you are interested in, this is how Chinese speakers learned to pronounce words long long time ago, and it’s called Fanqie(反切). Actually, a Chinese word, most of the time, can also be composed by different other words as the example mentioned, and it is just like some kind of alphabet as used English, just implicitly IMHO. To extend this idea, it is how some people type Chinese characters without Pinyin system, for example the some people in Hong Kong. :slight_smile:

“Chinese orders of magnitudes”

Honestly, in over a decade of learning Chinese and using it throughout China, I’ve never once had to actually use such large numbers in conversation. It only starts getting different in the tens of thousands. I’ve maybe only had to deal with it in reading news articles or translating. But that makes it such an insignificant part of the language as to not factor into the overall difficultly of the language, which grammatically speaking is by far more simple than any Western language I can think of.

I also tend to think that once you get over the characters and the tones, Chinese is not much more difficult than other languages.

Thanks my friends for the help.
Now I’ll work hard to achieve my goals in this new challenge.

“I also tend to think that once you get over the characters and the tones, Chinese is not much more difficult than other languages.”

Well that is like saying: Once you get over the difficulties it is no longer difficult. Well, that is of course true but you don’t get over these difficulties that easily. And BTW, besides the script and tones, the richness, compactness and ambiguity of Chinese pose at least as formidable of a challenge.

I remember you saying that reading is more difficult for you in Russian because of the different alphabet. If that is the case how much more effort does it take to become a good reader of Chinese? I read much better now than I did two or three years ago, but I still read slowly and it is still a fight. I believe that is because I have not gone through the Chinese school system and have not learned how to hand write through many years of practice.

Regarding the spoken Chinese the main difficulties for me is the ambiguity in the language. The number of unique sounds in Chinese is rather limited and words contain mostly not more than two syllables. Often key verbs only use one syllable and then comprehension can become really difficult I find because the tones are not always that clear in normal speech so then it is all about context, familiarity with the language and anticipation. Even Chinese will sometimes explain words among themselves if they are not immediately clear because of the homophone issue etc. Words in English are much more unique than they are in Chinese.

I am embarrassed to admit this but every time I hear Westeners saying that Chinese is overrated in terms of how difficult it is it really annoys me. After five years of intensive study and more than three years immersion in China I doubt that any Westener would find Chinese not to be to formidable challenge.

It is difficult to compare two languages’ relative difficulties in quantitative terms but I can say after 6 months of learning Norwegian from scratch I had a far better comprehension level than I have in Chinese after four and a half years.

@ Friedemann :
“I read much better now than I did two or three years ago, but I still read slowly and it is still a fight. I believe that is because I have not gone through the Chinese school system and have not learned how to hand write through many years of practice.”

I agree with you : reading is for sure the most difficult part of the learning process with Chinese.
But I would like to ask something very specific : do you vocalize while reading ?
Usually, vocalizing while reading can slow you down enormously.

Yes, I do in fact vocalize while reading, like I do in all other languages as well. I need to ask Chinese friends how they do it.

I find Chinese characters totally weird. I’ve been learning some of them according to English meanings. The result is, if I see something like:

Friedemann 是德国人, 他是科学家。

I can “read” it - or at least, I kind of know what it means. But it seems oddly unconnected to the actual Chinese language…

I’ve really only found the homophone ambiguity to be a problem when hearing unknown chengyu or people and place names. In the majority of situations of conversational Chinese, we speak in clear context. You just need to have a large enough vocabulary to where possible homophones do not create such ambiguity in context for you anymore.

Since the grammar poses no real issue after a pretty basic level just learning several structures but no conjugations or anything, the bulk of learning Chinese is just in piling up your vocabulary. That’s what makes Chinese language learning fun and easy for me. Because I can relax with all other aspects of the language and just focus on getting more and more words.

That means enjoying movies, reading, etc… It doesn’t really feel like language learning, as it does with other languages where I have a lot of different aspects to focus on.


I agree that it is all about familiarity and knowledge of vocabulary. But there is lots of it, I find. And while I agree that many compound words have an inner logic (Helicopter etc…) I find it not so easy to recall Chinese vocabulary because they don’t sound as unique as do many words in other languages. Still, I find learning Chinese an exciting journey, albeit a long one.

That’s true. For me, that’s part of what makes it easy, and what makes it difficult. It’s a love-hate relationship.

How I go about learning characters now is the wide and deep method. The wide method is tagging words I don’t know from the internet on MDBG and Lingq so have a general idea that these words exist and by seeing them over and over again become familiar with them. The other method I use for a deeper understanding is spaced repetition – just recently Memrise, which imo is quite good. I just started using it based on some people on this forum recommending it. I create my own Mems as much as possible then use a software program, Wenlin, to get into the etymology of the character, stroke order, etc. I find using traditional methods along with mnemonics to be the best way to retain characters.

The wide method is more about gathering words I find interesting. I use Lingq mainly to help the wide method – for listening practice, adding new words to my vocabulary. Also to improve grammar and structure, I use FSI Mandarin, also free. I find FSI course good overall but also stale and outdated, and so thinking I might benefit from another intermediate level course if I could find such a thing free online. I try to do FSI 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week. However, doing a course is just my brain’s way of saying “you should have more structure to your learning” so I give it only some of that. As Steve said in one of his videos which I agree with: the biggest mistake people make is getting stuck in beginner mode and then progressing on like it’s a math course mastering this to get to that. Language learning seems more lateral – what are the different words for this or the ways of saying that – rather than some step by step process where you need to know the basics cold to move on. While a decent mastery of the basics is obviously important in language, it’s easy to get stuck there. I think the great majority of textbooks tend to keep people stuck and fixated on levels, hindering progress. A few months in a beginner course is always a good idea but to continue to move through in this sort of linear fashion is imo, counterproductive. Still, it is what most people do.

Chinese is daunting at first (and remains daunting), but it doesn’t really get more and more daunting once you can get around a bit – maybe once one delves into Chengyu that changes and it gets even steeper still. At my level, It’s just the sea of things I don’t know that’s daunting…this is the reason I like having a vague idea of a lot of words, not beat myself up for not remembering them…my hope is that after enough exposure the wide and deep converge but of course that’ll take time.