If you’re at the beginning of your journey to learn the Chinese language or are considering starting, you probably have some questions you’d like answered, and you aren’t alone. There’s a lot to know about Chinese, and many times, facts about the language aren’t common knowledge for English speakers.
By collecting some of the most common questions beginners ask about Chinese, we’ve put together an FAQ that covers topics like traditional and simplified Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, and more.
When you’re ready, read on below to see our answers to commonly asked questions!
Yes, Chinese is hard to learn for English speakers.
Along with Arabic, Japanese, and Korean, both Mandarin and Cantonese are listed as “Category IV, super-hard languages” (the hardest level) by the Foreign Service Institute. This means that, according to their estimates, it would take an English speaker 88 weeks (or 2,200 class hours) to reach professional working proficiency in speaking and reading Chinese.
Compare this to their estimated 24 weeks (or 600–750 class hours) it would take an English speaker to reach the same level in Spanish or French, and you can get a sense of how much more effort is required to learn Chinese.
Five countries/regions list Chinese as an official language.
The official language of both China and Taiwan is Mandarin. In Singapore, Mandarin is one of four official languages. In Hong Kong, Cantonese and English are official languages. In Macau, Cantonese and Portuguese are official languages.
There are also sizable populations of overseas Chinese in countries where Chinese is not an official language, like in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the US, and Canada. Many in these communities continue to speak some form of Chinese, even if the Chinese language is not an official state language.
The largest Chinese character dictionary—the Zhonghua Zihai (中华字海; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Zìhǎi), compiled in 1994—lists 85,568 characters.
That being said, the vast majority of those characters are not used in everyday life. Many of those characters are considered archaic and come from old literary texts and historical documents. Not even educated Chinese native speakers will know the vast majority of these characters.
To be proficient in the Chinese language, you need to know far fewer characters. To pass HSK level 6—at which point you should be able to express yourself effortlessly in Chinese—you’re expected to have learned 2,663 characters to be able to form 5,000 different words. This considerable amount is still only about 3.11% of the characters present in the Zhonghua Zihai.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, an English speaker should reach professional working proficiency in speaking and reading Chinese in 88 weeks or 2,200 class hours.
This is going at a fast pace, too. Assuming you have Chinese class five days a week, to get 2,200 class hours to fit into 88 weeks, you would have to be in class for five hours a day, five days a week, for 88 weeks.
Of course, students of Chinese with different circumstances will learn at different rates. Some factors that influence acquisition rates include the student’s personal abilities, the student’s past language experiences, the environment in which the student learns (through language immersion, in a classroom, online, through self-study, etc.), and how much extra personal time the student devotes to interacting with Chinese (through TV shows, music, books, movies, newspapers, etc.).
“Chinese” refers to a language that groups together many different dialects, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka. “Mandarin” and “Mandarin Chinese” refer to the same thing, a specific dialect of Chinese.
Nevertheless, if you say that you “speak Chinese,” most people will assume you mean you speak Mandarin, even though you could have actually meant that you speak Cantonese or another dialect. If you say that you “speak Mandarin” or “speak Mandarin Chinese” there will be no confusion as to what dialect of Chinese you speak.
To complicate matters a bit, some linguists consider Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese to be their own languages rather than dialects of Chinese since many varieties of Chinese are not mutually intelligible.
In this schema, “Chinese” would be more like a language family (like the Romance languages) rather than a single language (like English). In other words, the differences among varieties of Chinese would be more like the differences among Spanish, French, and Italian rather than the differences among American English, Australian English, and British English.
Learn simplified Chinese if you want to engage with mainland China or Singapore. Learn traditional Chinese if you want to engage with Hong Kong or Taiwan.
This just has to do with the practical consideration of where traditional and simplified Chinese characters are used.
If you have no preference, you will probably want to learn simplified Chinese to study in, work in, or visit mainland China. There are also more study materials available for learning simplified Chinese than there are for learning traditional Chinese.
In any case, no matter which set of Chinese characters you start off learning, once you get comfortable with them, you can also begin to learn the other form of characters, at least for reading proficiency. For intermediate and advanced learners who reach this level, this isn’t as difficult a task as it might sound to a beginner, so you probably won’t regret starting with one or the other.
Most people who want to learn “Chinese” should learn Mandarin.
Mandarin will simply be more useful to most people. If you want to work in, study in, or visit mainland China, then you should definitely learn Mandarin. Mandarin is the main language in China and is used as a lingua franca throughout the country, even in regions where other dialects and languages are dominant.
You should nevertheless learn Cantonese if you have personal reasons for doing so, like Cantonese-speaking family, friends or loved ones. Also, If you have business or other interests in Cantonese-speaking regions like Hong Kong, Macau, or Guangdong Province, then by all means, learn Cantonese!
Pinyin is the official system for romanizing Mandarin Chinese in China, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Its full name, Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音; pinyin: Hànyǔ Pīnyīn) literally means “spelled sounds” (拼音) of “the language of the Han people” (汉语). Basically, pinyin allows you to write out the sounds of Mandarin using the Latin alphabet.
For example, pinyin allows you to write out the sound of “你好” as “nǐ hǎo” since the pinyin for “你” is “nĭ,” and the pinyin for “好” is “hăo.” If you come across characters that you don’t recognize, pinyin can tell you how to pronounce them.
Though convenient, pinyin is not a replacement for or alternative to Chinese characters. It simply tells you what the characters sound like in Mandarin.
The HSK, or the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试; pinyin: Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì), is a standardized Chinese language proficiency exam for non-native speakers.
The HSK is divided into six levels that get progressively harder from level 1 to level 6. Level 1 tests for very basic knowledge of Mandarin, while level 6 tests for your ability to converse fluently in Chinese about complex topics. Each level tests listening, reading, and oral skills, though the oral exam is administered separately. Writing skills are tested beginning in HSK level 3.
Both students and professionals take the HSK to demonstrate their levels of Chinese proficiency. Students take the HSK to gain entry into Chinese universities, while professionals take the HSK to show employers that they can work in Chinese. Generally, both students and professionals try to show that they have passed either HSK level 5 or 6.
For future considerations, though this six-level system is still in place, the HSK is undergoing reform to make it more difficult with nine levels. This will take effect at a future date that remains unannounced.
The best way to learn Chinese words is to study them every day and concentrate on retaining your memories of the words you’ve already learned.
Even if you learn a bunch of new words, it will be wasted time if you don’t review them and end up forgetting them. Try to make a habit of spending some time every day reviewing your Chinese vocabulary, even if it’s only for 15–20 minutes. Do your best to make this habit sustainable over a long period of time.
Thankfully, an app like Hack Chinese makes reviewing vocabulary a breeze. With its spaced repetition algorithm and tools for tracking your vocabulary growth and maintenance, you don’t have to devise your own study system from the ground up—everything here is already taken care of for you. All you have to do is study.
Whether you’re already studying Chinese or are now feeling ready to take the plunge, hopefully, this FAQ was able to answer some of your questions and help you understand the Chinese language a bit better.
If you’re now ready to delve in deeper, check out the rest of the Hack Chinese blog. There you can find more tips on how to make the most of your Chinese language learning, from articles on how to learn Chinese online to tips for those wanting to learn Chinese for business.