Saturday, December 24, 2011

Why is Chinese so hard? Or, do you know how to spell the word 'sneeze'?

David Moser from the University of Michigan has an excellent write-up that humourously but forcefully relieved me of my notion that Chinese was at all an easy language, particularly when we're discussing high-level or written proficiency. If you have even the slighest interest in China, languages or even learning anything, I promise that you'll enjoy reading what Moser wrote.

Whenever we discuss the complexities of English or Korean in the staff room, I always bring up Chinese as an easy language to learn for what, I suppose, are superficial reasons: verbs have no tenses, words are shorter, there is no honourific speech that Korean has, none of the weird superfluous words that English has, and it's easier to build simple sentences than it is with Korean or even English. Consider that if you can say "how are you?" in Chinese (ni hao ma), you've learned three important words (you, good, question indicator).

I wouldn't even consider myself a Chinese speaker, though I can have basic conversations, and manage to shop, eat and travel with some of the basic vocabulary you might pick up from introductory Chinese lessons in a variety of media. I also have an uncanny ability to read place names and signs with rules on them. Considering that I've studied Chinese using phrasebooks, subway announcements and the odd website, I think I'm doing alright. My strongest asset might not be the fact that I can say 我是加拿大人 ("I am Canadian"), but that I've never failed to be understood when I say it (that I might say it in response to "do you want fries with that?" is another story).

I think I've considered Chinese to be easy because I've managed, through more of a desire to speak basic Chinese than I ever had for Korean, to speak a few dozen well-rehearsed sentences. It might also be true that I've been enjoying the benefits afforded by low expectations (any Chinese I learn while traveling is really a bonus) and high practicality (you will never find an English-speaking hotel clerk in, say, rural Qinghai province). As well, it seems to be easier to learn a lot of Chinese in a short period of time, whereas I can't even explain how to say "how are you?" in Korean without giving a short speech about the culture and the language.

However, Moser makes it clear that beyond this basic proficiency, the road is absurdly hard. Coincidentally, the day I found this (about a month or two ago), I was explaining to a co-worker that you only need to know about 2,000 Chinese characters to be able to read a newspaper, adding that many characters are made by combining other characters, so that while 永 (forever) and 水 (water) are different characters, as are 王 (king), 玉 (jade), and 国 (country), learning the latter three is about as hard as learning the words hysteric, hysterical, and hysterically.

To this, the response is:

This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 But what such accounts don't tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words "up" and "tight" doesn't mean you know the word "uptight".)


A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline "JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS" is not going to get very far if they don't know the words "jacuzzi" or "phlebitis".

The bottom falls out when you move on to writing Chinese, which is something I never do and likely never will, with the possible exception of writing addresses, as I did when traveling to Xining in China's Qinghai province. It hadn't struck me that I had no way of writing the address of the hostel where I was going, but I was lucky because I: 1) was sitting next to a Norwegian in a town of 50,000 people located at 12,000 feet and 800 km from the nearest city 2) found out that this Norwegian had come to China to study Chinese and had become reasonable at copying characters from a screen.

I regularly bother Korean friends to explain some ordinary Korean word that winds up written in Chinese in a newspaper, which probably has the effect of transporting them to their high school days, hardly a pleasant experience. If it's hard enough for them to remember the meaning of the character, it'd be impossible for them to write it, and they're hardly alone.

Considering that nothing about a word you know tells you how to write it, Moser says that "I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on."

Whatever you might think of English's shortcomings, the situation we have is not so bad that "a well-educated native English speaker [is] totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"". To elaborate:

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"??

Whenever the topic of learning Korean emerges on the Internet among Westerners, an opinion often expressed is that Korean is a useless language, and that if there is an East Asian language worth learning, it is Chinese, or possibly Japanese. We rate the utility of learning Chinese to be quite high due to China's increasing geopolitical and economic significance, plain evidence of which is that cell phone stores in my neighbourhood frequently employ Chinese students to sell phones to other Chinese students.

This sort of viewpoint looks at language-learning as something that can only pay off with money, preferably lots of it and in exchange for employment. With the exception of people who have formally studied a language over a number of years, typically as a major at a university, very few people will ever make money from a language they learned. Nobody who spends their time half-heartedly studying Chinese on their own while living in Korea and not studying Korean is ever going to make a dime from their Chinese ability.

Learning another language does offer immense benefits that are probably greater than those of learning just anything, partly because of its portability and its interconnectivity. You could probably do more with, say, intermediate-level Chinese language ability than you could with a knowledge of Chinese history, not to mention the fact learning the former entails a great deal of the latter, while the latter typically does not entail the former.

In my case, I've tried to pick up Chinese words and phrases wherever I could all because I thought Chinese sounded impossibly hard with a large number of harsh consonant sounds that sound almost exactly the same. I don't imagine ever getting to the point where the difficulties of Chinese that Moser describes would ever really affect me. I would still tell anyone reading this that learning basic Chinese, at least, is far, far easier than imagined and being able to do nothing but distinguish small, medium and large as a Westerner (小, 中, 大)will give you a disproportionately high degree of satisfaction.


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting, especially in contrast to the romantic claim made by Ezra Pound/Ernest Fenollosa in the early 20th Century that Chinese was an easy language to learn because it was visually intuitive (ie: characters portray what they are to some extent, there are progressions between characters). They claimed to know a sculptor who learned the language quickly, and with virtually no training, because of his visual acuity.

Both were actually fairly well-respected Chinese scholars, so it's weird that they would make that argument, except that maybe they were trying to make a larger claim about writing poetry with concrete as opposed to abstract words and didn't think their audience would catch them.

Anonymous said...

Damn, wrote that comment before I got to the end of the post. Which is it, Adeel, easy or hard???

Adeel said...

I have, at most, basic proficiency in the language, but my impression is that Chinese is easier at the start and very difficult at the higher stages. Every language is hard at the higher stages, but some have smoother curves than others.

The point they have been trying to make is that Chinese, at least for beginners, is somewhere near as hard as many Westerners imagine. If you took somebody who had no knowledge whatsoever of English or Chinese, you would have an easier time teaching them simple words in spoken and written Chinese.