The Chinese language
The Chinese spoken language consists of numerous dialects which differ from each other so much that Chinese from Beijing can hardly communicate with an inhabitant of Guangzhou in south China. The unifying element of the Chinese cultural area is not the Chinese language but the Chinese script.
Therefore it is no wonder that e.g. on Chinese television (besides live broadcasts) every telecast is transmitted with Chinese character subtitles. In 1955 the so-called Mandarin "Putonghua" (common speech) was declared official language. It is based on the "Beijinghua" the dialect of Beijing.
Young Chinese learn Mandarin at school but when talking to elder Chinese or people in the country even an experienced learner of Mandarin might have problems to make himself understood. The Chinese language at least the basics aren't particularly difficult to learn. The grammar is fairly simple. There is no declension or conjugation, no gender and no plurals.
The real problems of mastering Chinese lie in the 4 tones, the Chinese characters and the vast number of proverbs which are preferably used by educated people. The Chinese proverbs usually consist of only a few characters but their background is a whole story which has to been known in order to understand the meaning of the sentence.
The four tones
One of the main difficulties of the modern Chinese language are the four tones. It requires a lot of practise to pronounce them correctly and to distinguish them while listening. One example that most language school teach in the very first lesson is the following sentence:
The sentence means: does the mother revile a horse?
The pronunciation of the four tones can be made clear as follows:
Mother: first tone is being pronounced with a high pitch
Revile: fourth tone, falling tone e.g. like an order
Horse: third tone, falling- rising tone e.g. like "really" expressing astonishment.
Particle: no tone unaccented pronounced.
The only tone missing is the second tone but of course there is a character for this one, too.
It is pronounced "ma" with a rising tone meaning "hemp".
It is notable that the characters look similar. This is due to the structure of the Chinese characters, which consist of a part indicating the pronunciation and one part expressing the meaning. If you want to know more about Chinese characters please consult the articles on Chinese characters.
Chinese language and foreigners
It often is unthinkable for a Chinese that foreigners understand or speak their language. A tourist once asked a salesman in Chengdu the price of some items- in fluent Chinese. The salesman who obviously understood him got out his calculator, typed in the price and showed the display to the peeved foreigner. He also used gestures with his hand to make him understand.
In the eyes of the Chinese Chinese is far too difficult to be mastered by foreigners. If a foreigner says "Ni hao" (Hello) he will be praised to the skies- out of politeness or real enthusiasm.