Ms ZiYou Chinese Dragons

Why chose to learn such a difficult language as Chinese?

Despite studying the obligatory modern European languages at school, I never really found my feet. Rote repetition I could do, but truth be told, I just did not get it. The grammar confused me and I had no interest in pursuing my studies.

However, as someone who travels, I feel very ignorant only speaking English. So I thought it was time to start broadening my horizons. And so I decided to try and learn Chinese.


Why Chinese?

Truth be told, this is a very good question. I found the grammar and cases of European languages difficult, and frankly boring. Therefore I knew I would never be committed enough to put the time and effort in to learn.

But I wanted to challenge myself and learn to communicate with others in a foreign tongue. There are more speakers of Chinese than any other language in the world. And that’s where I got the idea of learning Chinese from. Chinese is low on grammar, tenses and genders. All the things I hated about learning languages it did not have.

I love symbols

And luckily the exact thing that makes Chinese complicated, the complex script, is something I quite like. I find the symbols, or 汉字, fascinating. Some of them are pictographic, i.e. drawings of what they mean, but many of them are not.

I am the geeky person who {holds head in shame} loved The Da Vinci Code for all the symbols and deeper meaning. Yes, I know it was a Dan Brown thriller, but I’m not that embarrassed to say I liked it.

Coincidently I stumbled ShaoLan’s Symbolism talk

And I found this TED talk. ShaoLan captivated me and made Chinese characters seem so fun. And so meaningful with the reused and combined character units making immediate sense to me. Her drawings are awesome visual aids to help you understand the characters.

I immediately reserved her book at the library and decided to start learning Chinese.

I found so many internet resources

As with all new joys, I dug in with gusto. I loved learning more and spending time learning bits and pieces. I checked out each and all, yes every single book, on learning Chinese from the library. All the free online courses I consumed, seeing if I could find something that would really work for me.

Choices to make

When you start to look into the Chinese language, you clearly realise the following:

  • There are 2 (related) scripts – Simplified and Traditional
  • There are many languages that use these scripts – Mandarin, Cantonese and many more

And so I had to make a decision. As it has many more speakers, I opted for Mandarin. And as they are much easier, again I chose the simplified characters. As why make life hard for myself?

Studying Chinese for fun

All throughout I have kept learning Chinese fun. Learning is a hobby for me, not something I need to do. And that means I have much more freedom. I don’t need to learn the official way. My learning schedule can be flexible and when I am in the mood. It is casual and light and an enjoyable way to while away an evening.

My original aim was to go to China and not be fed meat

Which to be honest is the exact same level of my French proficiency, despite studying for 6 years!

And then I got the phase I needed. And the character for meat and fish. I was delighted to find out meat is usually denoted by the same character added to the respective animal. Which makes it much easier for my veggie self.


Although I am told in real life things aren’t that simple. As menus use more flowery language and colloquialisms to describe the dishes. But small steps first.

Yet took tests

Although I’m learning for fun, I wanted to be able to measure the level I had reached. Hence I learned about the Chinese as a foreign language tests the HSK. These are split into levels from 1 to 6. And the growth from one level to the next feels exponential.

The first two HSK 1 and HSK 2 are both at a simple level. You’d be able to say hello, ask where the station is but not able to understand the reply if it wasn’t on the left or right! Getting progressively harder is the HSK 3, which adds in much more vocabulary and grammar. At this level, you are able to have simple conversations and read simple texts.

Then the difficulty really ramps up. HSK 4 is a big leap, doubling the vocab needed from HSK 3. At the moment, I’ve passed HSK 3 and slowly learning the HSK 4 words. I am aiming to get to the HSK 4 level at some point in 2020, I’m not rushing myself as it really is such a steep step. And to put things in perspective – if you want to go to uni in China, most universities want you to at least pass HSK 4.

The final two HSK levels take your studies up to a scholarly level. HSK 5 is again double the effort of HSK 4, and achievable for dedicated students who’ve studied the language at the undergraduate level. And then HSK 6 is the final hurdle. Described by many as very scholarly and hard – this is for people who really like tests and formal study. Not to mention rote learning of words you would struggle to use in day to day conversation.

Now I’m doing more studying

So although I made my original aim of ordering veggie food, I am still learning more. Last year I signed up for a university course and have passed my first years studies in Chinese. Now I’m dropping to part-time as the course gets harder. As someone who likes the idea of collecting another degree, I am tempted to see if I can finish it – only 4 more years part-time, or 2 full-time.

Visiting China

I’d love to visit China. And it’s getting nearer and nearer. If only the visa was not so expensive and so much effort I’d have visited by now. But, truth be told, the hassle puts me off.

My university course offers the option of an exchange semester in China, and I really want to be able to do that. And realistically I’ll need to tie it in with the end of working when I hit FIRE. And you know what, the timelines might actually work for me. Or I could just go and travel.

In conclusion, either way, one day I really look forward to getting to China and trying out my Mandarin in real life. Being able to read and understand what’s going on around me will be epic and make the experience all the more enjoyable.

Over to you

  • What are your thoughts?
  • What languages do you speak?
  • Would you consider learning a new language?

Thank you for reading – please leave a comment below and join in the conversation. You can also connect on Twitter or contact me privately.

12 comments on “Why chose to learn such a difficult language as Chinese?

  1. I am currently learning Welsh via Duolingo as I live in Wales. It’s a struggle, but I’m slowly getting to grips with it. Perhaps I should try Chinese!

    No need to be ashamed of the Da Vinci Code. I can remember a point in the mid 2000s when it seemed like every bookish friend was breathlessly recommending it to me (including those who regarded themselves as well read). I raced through it myself and found it a lot of fun with its mix of puzzles, mythology and conspiracy.

    1. That is so cool you are learning Welsh – are there many people around you that speak the language?

      I agree, there was a reason the Da Vinci code worked so well!

    2. Bore da! 🙂 I studied Welsh for 7 years at school – I didn’t find it too difficult back then but of course, can only remember a few words now! It always makes me smile when I hear people speak it.

  2. Sounds like you’re making some really good progress. And you’re right, language learning makes your free time fly over. Duolingo works well for Spanish for me as I had some prior knowledge, but when I tried to learn German that way I just wasn’t getting it. Duolingo has some good stories to help improve your skills, along with some really interesting podcasts from South America. I also watch Peppa Pig in Spanish, which is surprisingly useful!

    1. I did love duolingo and finished the Chinese in it, but found it didn’t help with grammar and sentence construction.

      And it’s probably time to dig out some childrens shows in Chinese…or at least watch movies with subtitles.

  3. Just watched that Ted Talk and it’s a great one! This was a really great introduction to how characters join to create new meanings. Your drive to learn that much is impressive! I’m learning Japanese and it’s been somewhat slow going – mostly because I’m only putting in a little bit of time on Duolingo each day. I like the idea of having some pre-set tests, both to measure and push myself forward. I might borrow that idea. 🙂

    One book that really helped me was the “Kanji Pict-O-Graphic” book ( ). It’s pretty similar to the ideas mentioned in ShaoLan’s Ted talk for putting real-world images into characters and then combining them for stories. Not something that you’d want to read straight through, but whenever I come across a new character I’ll always check out the book and see if there’s a good mnemonic to remember it.

    Even taking a week or two trip to China would be amazing I bet. That’s on our shortlist to go to as well, even though we’d be far less prepared than you.

  4. Hi Ms ZiYou, foreign languages is one thing I used to slack on as I figured I could get by most places with my French and English… which I really deserve NO credit for, as French is my native tongue and I was lucky enough to move to the US young (i.e. at a time when it’s easy to learn another language) thanks to my dad’s work. But now that I’m older, and I want to travel more, I want to make a more concerted effort. My issue is I can’t decide between Spanish (which would be really useful in the US), Portuguese or Italian (I love both countries and am considering moving there at some point), or Mandarin (since it’s the most spoken language in the world, as you stated, and I think China will only continue to grow in importance in the future). So, I’ve still not started! 🥺

    And count me in as another Dan Brown fan 😁 His books may not be highbrow literature, but they’re so much fun to read!!!

  5. I lived in Japan for three years right out of university. I was dreading having to learn the language, but right on the first day of class, our teacher said, ‘And now we are going to learn the most beautiful language in the world…’, and it was like a switch flipped- I became completely absorbed by it! I think it is easier than Chinese because there is also a phonetic component. Recently I taught myself to read old German script so I could translate centuries-old handwritten documents into regular German, then English. It was so much fun, though a time suck…I can spend twenty minutes puzzling out a single word. You have to also take into account misspellings and maybe the correspondents leaving out words and punctuation in the flow of writing.
    In short, I totallt get your fascination with Chinese!

  6. As someone who does speak Chinese, I agree that you did choose a bloody difficult language! 🙂

    I only spent a couple of years during my early teens learning how to read or write in traditional Chinese, so my knowledge of script is extremely limited. But I’d like to learn to read/write to at least a basic level and to learn to speak Mandarin (my nephew can speak it proficiently having learned it at school from an early age).

    In my early twenties, I had a good command of French, having studied at A Level plus 2 years of Business French at uni. So rusty now though as I haven’t used it in so long!

    1. That is very impressive your nephew can speak Mandarin already – he must be trilingual then?

      Learning the traditional characters seems really hard – and I think you have to learn so many of them so you can accurately distinguish the difference – so you know you need to differentiate between 找 and 我 etc. I find simplified hard enough, traditional is another level of accuracy.

What do you think?