It has been said many times that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for speakers of English to learn and master, but maybe that’s an answer to a question we shouldn’t be asking. Instead of focusing on the difficulties associated with learning Chinese, I think it is more productive to ask two very different questions.

1. Why do Chinese language learners fail?

The number one reason people fail is that they don’t plan. Most people begin studying a language using a particular program, and very often the language program they choose is a book and CD. They put absolute trust in the program and take no responsibility for their learning. They don’t set goals, test themselves, or create an overall plan because they trust the program to do that for them.

A seldom realized fact about book and CD language programs is that they are not designed to bring you to fluency. Even if you follow their instructions perfectly and finish all the lessons, you will not speak well. This is a revelation for most people.

No matter what program you choose, you need to take responsibility for your own language learning, and understand from the outset that you will have to go above and beyond the requirements of the program in order to achieve creative, spontaneous fluency. In practice, this means you have to make the time to speak with a native speaker of Chinese.

2. What do successful Chinese language learners have in common?

All successful Chinese language learners have at least one thing in common – they regularly practice speaking Chinese with a native speaker. This is the bottom line and the truth that you need to hear. It is impossible to attain fluency in Chinese without speaking regularly, making mistakes, and correcting them. Chinese language learners are especially vulnerable when they don’t speak, because Chinese is not only a tonal language, but contains a number of sounds that English doesn’t have.

If you are worried because you live somewhere where there aren’t many Chinese speakers, fear not. There are a number of services available on the internet now that pair people who are learning languages so that they can help each other. It’s called a “language exchange”. You can teach a short English lesson, and a native speaker of Chinese will help you with your pronunciation and grammar. Before long, you’ll discover that you’re chatting very comfortably – in Chinese!

Whether it’s over the internet, or in person somewhere in Asia, every successful Chinese language learner has gone through this process. Make sure you find the courage an the opportunity to start speaking, as soon as possible.

Many who begin to study Chinese will fail. It’s not because Chinese is an inherently difficult language to learn, and it’s not because those people are weak or unintelligent. Anyone can learn Chinese, but some people do not prepare themselves and take the right steps to guarantee that they will follow through. Make sure that you’re one of the Chinese language learners who will make it, by planning for your success and speaking as much as possible.


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