I have the misfortune of being both very interested in languages and very bad at learning them.

In preparation for trips to various countries, I have attempted to learn many, but have seldom got beyond politeness and survival basics like “please”, “thank you”, “hello”, “I would like that”, and “two beers please”. Such rudimentary smatterings were useful in traveling around those countries and possibly showed some respect to the locals, even if they were insufficient for carrying on a proper conversation.

Now I am preparing for my first trip to China and so attempting to learn at least a few words of Chinese because of all the countries I have been, China is probably the place where knowledge of the local language will be most useful. Unfortunately, Chinese is also the language that I am finding most difficult to learn, even at a rudimentary level.

Of course Chinese is not inherently more difficult than English. According to linguists, all widely spoken languages are equally complicated. However, that complexity can manifest itself differently in different languages. European languages have all kinds of ways in which the spelling and sound of words change according to their use in sentences. For example German has so much information encoded in word endings that you can switch around the order of words in sentences without effecting the meaning much. Chinese words however generally always sound the same no matter what their context or what their role in a sentence, but the exact sequence that the words appear in the sentence determines their role.

English is somewhere between Chinese and German in that both word ordering and word modifications encode role information. English has a fixed basic pattern of subject-verb-object for declarative sentences but has some flexibility in placement of some words such as adverbs, which in contrast have a fixed position in Chinese sentences. English verbs do change their endings depending on tense and person (“I walk”, “he walks”, “he walked”) and its nouns and adjectives change endings when used in plural or possessive contexts (“dog, dogs, dog’s”). However, it is missing many of the other word ending complexities of gender and case that appear in many other European languages.

It was a welcome relief in looking at Chinese to discover that I only have to learn one form of every word. For someone who has previously tackled the grammar of European languages, it almost seems like Chinese has no grammar. For example, all the forms of the verb “to be” such as “am” “is”, “are” are all translated by the single word 是. However, as you can see from this example there are some particular challenges for an English speaker. The first and most obvious one is that written Chinese does not use a phonetic alphabet. It turns out that this word 是 in the Mandarin dialect has a sound something like “shi!” said with a falling tone.

And that tone is important, which raises the second challenge for English speakers. In European languages, we use tone to indicate that a sentence is a question (rising tone) or an exclamation (falling tone). In Chinese, these tones are part of the meaning of each individual word itself. So for example if I say the same sound “shi?” but with a rising tone then it means “ten” and has a different character 十.

You might wonder why the Chinese do not just switch to a phonetic alphabet. Well, there is one such phonetic alphabet used in mainland China called pinyin in which 是 is rendered as shì and 十 as shí (note the different tone marks on the vowel). However this brings up a third challenge of Chinese, which is that, even considering the variations due to tones, there actually is quite a limited range of sound combination that are allowed in the language. This means that many words that sound the same, even with the same tone, have different meanings. For example, an online dictionary shows 112 meanings for falling-tone shì – each of these different meanings having a different character. Of course, just as in English when you have homophones like this you can usually figure out the meaning by context. However because there are so many more homophones in Chinese a lot more information is lost when transcribing into phonetic pinyin, possibly rendering some texts unclear and ambiguous, especially those written in a formal terse style. This is probably why pinyin has not replaced Chinese characters but plays a minor role as a teaching aid and as a way to express Chinese words in foreign languages.

Of course, spoken Chinese has all the ambiguities of pinyin because of these homophones. However, in practice, people add extra words when they speak to remove the ambiguities – for example using a combination of two different words for the same concept. In theory, this more verbose speaking style could be used in written Chinese so that it would be clear when written in phonetic pinyin, but it seems the Chinese people like the more terse conventional style of writing.

Written Chinese also has another advantage, in that all the Chinese dialects have same written form even though their spoken forms are sometimes different enough to be like different languages, and in fact non-Chinese languages like Japanese and Korean also use Chinese characters as part of their writing systems. This mutual comprehensibility in writing despite mutual incomprehensibility in speaking is only possible because of the non-phonetic nature of the writing system. It also helps bridge the gap to historical writings, where modern Chinese readers can understand texts even when the spoken language has changed a lot.

So, there are a lot of challenges in learning Chinese for an English speaker. As well as the tones, and the homophones, and the non-phonetic writing system there is an almost complete lack of cognates – the similar-sounding words that mean the same in related languages – that are such a help for English speakers learning another European language. There is also the difficulty that some of the basic consonant and vowel sounds in Chinese are different to, or sometimes have no equivalent to, the sounds in English.

I did discover one small advantage I have as someone who learned the Irish language in school when growing up in Ireland. It turns out that Chinese shares a grammatical feature with Irish in not, strictly speaking, having words for “yes” and “no”. In both Irish and Chinese when responding to a question you answer with the verb in the question or its negation, rather than with “yes” or “no”.

Well, let’s see how it goes when I visit China. Luckily, all my business colleagues there speak excellent English. But outside the office will I be able to use the few score of Chinese words I have learned to effect some basic communication? Will anyone understand my mangled pronunciation? Will I be able to understand any of the replies?