I'm dabbling in Chinese lately and of course most of the vocabulary is new and the phonology is difficult, including tones, tone sandhi, unstressed syllables, and even some aspects of the vowels and consonants, especially in the way they map to Pinyin.

But I keep wondering about when learners overcome these initial challenges, what are the other most significant aspects which present barriers to adults acquiring the language.

I know Chinese has similar word order to English and they are both analytic but it can't all be plain sailing. Are there some difficult aspects of syntax, morphology, etc?

  • 1
    Wish I knew the answer, because I'm sure that the answer would help illuminate the kinds of differences that can exist between isolating languages. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 23:08

2 Answers 2


What can be difficult is highly personal and mother-tongue-dependent, so let me mention just two features of Chinese that seem hard to master, as for me.

  1. Classifiers can pose a difficulty, since they are not used in European languages, they are an areal feature of East Asian languages, and there are many and many dozens of them in Chinese. Now there is a tendency to substitute most of them with a universal classifier 个 [個] gè, still for understanding and reading the texts one has to know them. Numerals and (sometimes) demonstratives must agree with the following NP with a suitable classifier. In this respect it looks similar to European genders, but 2 or 3 genders cannot compare with a hundred of classifiers.

  2. Sentence-final particles can also be difficult, since one has to study the peculiarities of their meaning in detail, for they can change the meaning of a sentence completely, and they are not typically used in European languages either.


As someone with a knowledge of Japanese, when I was studying Mandarin I found I had a distinct advantage over my English-only-speaking peers on several fronts:

  1. The use of classifiers (mentioned by @Yellow Sky)

  2. The use of sentence-final particles (also mentioned by @Yellow Sky)

  3. Constructions using the -de (的) particle, which result in a word order that is ostensibly non-English. Often the particle behaves like a genitive -'s, but when the particle follows a larger noun phrase it's more natural to translate into English with of, which requires a different word order. Sometimes it behaves like a complementizer and, again, since it appears at the end of the relative clause, it results in a word order that is flipped from what English speakers are used to. Coming from Japanese, these heavy phrases preceding the head noun felt quite natural to me.

There was one other thing that constantly tripped English speakers up--in this case my knowledge of Japanese didn't really help me other than to keep me less biased towards one particular language's (see what I did there?) way of doing things:

  1. The use of shì (是) as a copula only for linking nouns to nouns. Over and over I would hear students trying to use the construction N + shì+ Adj (e.g., I am hungry).
  • I've been teaching myself Chinese for a year and a half, and I used to think that that was all there was to 是, but almost every time I hear/read it used it baffles me... they do use it before adjectives (outside of 是...的 cleft-sentences), and I think I've noticed that at least in adverbial phrases with 地, people tend to say 不是 instead of just 不- for instance "我國語說地不是太好", "I don't speak Chinese too well." Please correct me if I'm wrong, that's just a pattern I noticed through my own limited exposure.
    – Kaninchen
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 9:46
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    @Kaninchen it's true--it can be used before verbs, adverbs, and adjectives as a means of emphasis or affirmation in response to an earlier part of the discourse (almost like do in English: 'I thought you said you bought milk today.' 'I did buy milk!'). But I've just confirmed with a native speaker friend of mine that utterances of this type are strange out of the blue (or at least only interpretable as making reference to prior unheard discourse) and thus ungrammatical in the types of contexts in which I observed students trying to use them. Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 19:06

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