World Languages and Cultures

Chinese FAQs


  1. Is Chinese as hard as I’ve heard?

  2. Should I learn Traditional Characters or Simplified Characters?

  3. My major/sport is very demanding.  Can I handle Chinese?


Is Chinese as hard as I’ve heard?

Chinese is a difficult language for native speakers of English. However, it’s not nearly as difficult as you might think.  The aspects of Chinese that require the most time are pronunciation and characters. 

  • Pronunciation is sometimes a challenge for native English speakers because there are some sounds in Chinese that don’t occur in English. Also, Chinese is a tonal language, which means that a syllable has distinct sounds beyond what is shown in the Romanization.  For example, “ma,” can mean “horse,” “hemp,” “scold,” or “mother,” based on the tonal inflection.  This does take a while to master, but it’s certainly doable.  Some people might have told you that you can only learn the tones when you are a child.  That’s not true - Anyone can learn it! 
    • Click here for a nice article about how to approach tones.
  • Characters are one of the most interesting parts of learning Chinese. They might look very confusing as first, but with training, students learn how the characters are put together.  As students study characters systematically, the characters retain their beauty and also gain deeper meaning.  The more you learn, the more you understand how they work, and the easier they become to learn. 
  • 中文看起來很難,可是誰都能學會!
  • 中文看起来很难,可是谁都能学会!

However, in some ways, Chinese is much easier to learn than other languages.

  • Chinese verb tenses are handled without conjugation! No verb tables or irregular conjugations to memorize!
  • There are no gendered nouns! No need to try and figure out if the computer is feminine or if your cell phone is masculine.
  • Basic sentence structure is “Subject Verb Object,” just like English
  • Pronunciation is almost totally consistent.  Unlike English, once you learn how sounds are pronounced, they don’t shift much from word to word.  

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Should I learn Traditional Characters or Simplified Characters?

There are two main character sets used in Chinese.  Many characters are the same in both character sets, but there are many characters that are significantly different.  In our classes at Washington College, you will get to choose which set you would like to learn. 

In class, we use both character sets (on slideshows and the blackboard), but you will never be evaluated outside of your character set.  For example, all exams will have both character sets, so if you are a strictly traditional person, you will never be tested on your ability with simplified and vice versa.  

To try and help you in your decision, here is a brief overview of what the main characteristics of the two character sets are.  These are generalizations (and as such, there are exceptions to everything here), but, as generalizations go, these are generally true:



Traditional Example


Simplified Example

Used mostly in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and some places in SE Asia

You will also see them more in the older Chinatowns in the US because most people who set up the Chinatowns came before the major simplification efforts


Used in the PRC, the US government, the UN, and in almost all major international organizations.

Has rapidly become the default character set of most global business

In those areas mentioned to the left, using simplified can be a faux pas


Seen to be classier and erudite

If you want to eventually move on to studying classical Chinese, all of the primary sources are in traditional. Of course, there are reprints in simplified, but these can have errors and other problems.


Seen to be practical, business-like, and perhaps a bit political

If you want to work in government, journalism, international NGOs or the like, most writing will be in simplified.


Most people say traditional characters are harder to learn.

There are most pen-strokes to memorize, and some characters look very similar.

Once you understand the components, there are many hints within the characters that suggest the character’s meaning or how it should be pronounced


Most people say simplified characters are easier to learn.

Fewer pen-strokes means less time to memorize, and fewer pieces of the characters to confuse.


Absolutely more beautiful in almost all cases.


Sometimes the characters have been simplified to the point of being unattractive.


 If you would like more information, Wikipedia has a good page about the differences that is worth looking here:

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My major/sport is very demanding.  Can I handle Chinese?

Absolutely! All languages are time intensive. Taking Chinese might require a little more time studying and practicing characters, but it is absolutely doable.  

If you would like to study beyond the first year, talk to your advisor to make sure there is time in your schedule for Chinese.

Any major can study abroad.  If you are an athlete, you will need to consider the season of your sport.  Also, talk to your advisor about the non-language classes you will be able to take while abroad so they will fit into your graduation plan.  And don’t forget the possibility of taking a summer abroad!


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