Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard
by David Moser, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies
The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the
title of this essay is, "Hard for whom?" A reasonable question. After
all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids
go through the "terrible twos", it's Chinese they use to drive their
parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those
impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and
shopping lists. So what do I mean by "hard"? Since I know at the outset
that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of
whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly
what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to
learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the
textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole
torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me -- and, of course, for the many
other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads
against the Great Wall of Chinese.
If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one.
Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is
hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages
are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language
you're coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster
than an American, and an average American could probably master German a
lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I'm
contending is that Chinese is hard compared to ... well, compared to
almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that
Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard
in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for
Chinese people. (Note 1)
If you don't believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese
people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe
the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some
New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in
America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born
Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the
Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their
privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners
huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.
Everyone's heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom
"It's Greek to me" and search for equivalent idioms in all the world's
languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest,
the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as
the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have
the expression "C'est du chinois", "It's Chinese", i.e., "It's
incomprehensible". Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the
question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an
impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in
Chinese, and you find
meaning "It's like heavenly script."
There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its
reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study
the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always
be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are
actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting
complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the
reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study
Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing
this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely
abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all
that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far -- I
can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the
kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective
that it takes.
Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?
- Because the writing system is ridiculous.
Beautiful, complex, mysterious -- but ridiculous. I, like many students
of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing
system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the
world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing
and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a
lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task
of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a
vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.
The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people
began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear
that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet -- some fetishists may
have liked the way they looked, but they weren't too practical for
For one thing, it is simply unreasonably hard to learn enough characters
to become functionally literate. Again, someone may ask "Hard in
comparison to what?" And the answer is easy: Hard in comparison to
Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hindi, or any other sane, "normal" language
that requires at most a few dozen symbols to write anything in the
language. John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and
Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to
eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three
thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate
that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in
half that time. (note 2) Naturally, this estimate is rather crude and
impressionistic (it's unclear what "comparable levels" means here), but
the overall implications are obvious: the Chinese writing system is
harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system.
(note 3) Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive
power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little
counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just
imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish
post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself.
Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of
characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a
lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying
things like "Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000,
take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to
read a newspaper". Poppycock. I couldn't comfortably read a newspaper
when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up
several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling
the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant
by "read" in this context is "read and basically comprehend the text
without having to look up dozens of characters"; otherwise the claim 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. (note 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".) Plus, as anyone
who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every
single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning.
Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of knowing a lot of words;
one has to get a feeling for how those words combine with other words in
a multitude of different contexts. (note 5) In addition, there is the
obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a
given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are
crucial for understanding the main point of the text. 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 problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China
field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of
colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet
inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and
students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of
silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the
diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to
Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency
character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of
course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my
fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten
years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact
that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through
two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an
astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French
literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at
least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many
Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is
A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would
sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the
shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who
could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has
spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can
indeed be a difficult enough task -- never mind reading the book in
question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student
who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese
literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts,
textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few
The comparison with learning the usual western languages is striking.
After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went
through the usual kinds of novels -- La naus�e by Sartre, Voltaire's
Candide, L'�tranger by Camus -- plus countless newspapers, magazines,
comic books, etc. It was a lot of work but fairly painless; all I really
needed was a good dictionary and a battered French grammar book I got
at a garage sale.
This kind of "sink or swim" approach just doesn't work in Chinese. At
the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn't yet read a single
complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and
unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn't read
an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was
not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People's Daily and not
be able to completely decipher a single headline. Someone at that time
suggested I read The Dream of the Red Chamber and gave me a nice
three-volume edition. I just have to laugh. It still sits on my shelf
like a fat, smug Buddha, only the first twenty or so pages filled with
scribbled definitions and question marks, the rest crisp and virgin.
After six years of studying Chinese, I'm still not at a level where I
can actually read it without an English translation to consult. (By
"read it", I mean, of course, "read it for pleasure". I suppose if
someone put a gun to my head and a dictionary in my hand, I could get
through it.) Simply diving into the vast pool of Chinese in the
beginning is not only foolhardy, it can even be counterproductive. As
George Kennedy writes, "The difficulty of memorizing a Chinese ideograph
as compared with the difficulty of learning a new word in a European
language, is such that a rigid economy of mental effort is imperative."
(note 6) This is, if anything, an understatement. With the risk of
drowning so great, the student is better advised to spend more time in
the shallow end treading water before heading toward the deep end.
As if all this weren't bad enough, another ridiculous aspect of the
Chinese writing system is that there are two (mercifully overlapping)
sets of characters: the traditional characters still used in Taiwan and
Hong Kong, and the simplified characters adopted by the People's
Republic of China in the late 1950's and early 60's. Any foreign student
of Chinese is more or less forced to become familiar with both sets,
since they are routinely exposed to textbooks and materials from both
Chinas. This linguistic camel's-back-breaking straw puts an absurd
burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese, who at this
point would gladly trade places with Sisyphus. But since Chinese people
themselves are never equally proficient in both simplified and complex
characters, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in eventually
concentrating on one set to the partial exclusion the other. In fact,
there is absolutely no shame in giving up Chinese altogether, when you
come right down to it.
- Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet.
To further explain why the Chinese writing system is so hard in this
respect, it might be a good idea to spell out (no pun intended) why that
of English is so easy. Imagine the kind of task faced by the average
Chinese adult who decides to study English. What skills are needed to
master the writing system? That's easy: 26 letters. (In upper and lower
case, of course, plus script and a few variant forms. And throw in some
quote marks, apostrophes, dashes, parentheses, etc. -- all things the
Chinese use in their own writing system.) And how are these letters
written? From left to right, horizontally, across the page, with spaces
to indicate word boundaries. Forgetting for a moment the problem of
spelling and actually making words out of these letters, how long does
it take this Chinese learner of English to master the various components
of the English writing system? Maybe a day or two.
Now consider the American undergraduate who decides to study Chinese.
What does it take for this person to master the Chinese writing system?
There is nothing that corresponds to an alphabet, though there are
recurring components that make up the characters. How many such
components are there? Don't ask. As with all such questions about
Chinese, the answer is very messy and unsatisfying. It depends on how
you define "component" (strokes? radicals?), plus a lot of other tedious
details. Suffice it to say, the number is quite large, vastly more than
the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. And how are these components
combined to form characters? Well, you name it -- components to the left
of other components, to the right of other components, on top of other
components, surrounding other components, inside of other components --
almost anything is possible. And in the process of making these spatial
accommodations, these components get flattened, stretched, squashed,
shortened, and distorted in order to fit in the uniform square space
that all characters are supposed to fit into. In other words, the
components of Chinese characters are arrayed in two dimensions, rather
than in the neat one-dimensional rows of alphabetic writing.
Okay, so ignoring for the moment the question of elegance, how long does
it take a Westerner to learn the Chinese writing system so that when
confronted with any new character they at least know how to move the pen
around in order to produce a reasonable facsimile of that character?
Again, hard to say, but I would estimate that it takes the average
learner several months of hard work to get the basics down. Maybe a year
or more if they're a klutz who was never very good in art class.
Meanwhile, their Chinese counterpart learning English has zoomed ahead
to learn cursive script, with time left over to read Moby Dick, or at
least Strunk & White.
This is not exactly big news, I know; the alphabet really is a breeze to
learn. Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years
can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost
indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans,
on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in
Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese
third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of
learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues' gallery
of hard-to-learn languages.
- Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic.
So much for the physical process of writing the characters themselves.
What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters? Again, a
comparison of English and Chinese is instructive. Suppose a Chinese
person has just the previous day learned the English word "president",
and now wants to write it from memory. How to start? Anyone with a year
or two of English experience is going to have a host of clues and
spelling rules-of-thumb, albeit imperfect ones, to help them along. The
word really couldn't start with anything but "pr", and after that a
little guesswork aided by visual memory ("Could a 'z' be in there?
That's an unusual letter, I would have noticed it, I think. Must be an
's'...") should produce something close to the target. Not every
foreigner (or native speaker for that matter) has noted or internalized
the various flawed spelling heuristics of English, of course, but they
are at least there to be utilized.
Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for "president" (总统 zǒngtǒng
) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving
the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting
that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are.
You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won't give you a
clue as to how the character is to be written. After you learn a few
more characters and get hip to a few more phonetic components, you can
do a bit better. ("Zǒng 总 is a phonetic component in some other character, right?...Song? Zeng? Oh yeah, cong 总
as in cōngmíng
聪明.") Of course, the phonetic aspect of some characters
is more obvious than that of others, but many characters, including some
of the most high-frequency ones, give no clue at all as to their
All of this is to say that Chinese is just not very phonetic when
compared to English. (English, in turn, is less phonetic than a language
like German or Spanish, but Chinese isn't even in the same ballpark.)
It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that
Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning
student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how
phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range
from 25% (Zhao Yuanren) (note 7) to around 66% (DeFrancis), (note 8)
though the latter estimate assumes more knowledge of phonetic components
than most learners are likely to have. One could say that Chinese is
phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in
practical use not the most salient thing about it. Furthermore, this
phonetic aspect of the language doesn't really become very useful until
you've learned a few hundred characters, and even when you've learned
two thousand, the feeble phoneticity of Chinese will never provide you
with the constant memory prod that the phonetic quality of English does.
Which means that often you just completely forget how to write a
character. Period. If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical,
and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you're
just sunk. And you're sunk whether your native language is Chinese or
not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the
ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most
gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a
native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the
characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense
of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact
same difficulty you experience every day.
This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, 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. And
when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first
stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English
speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin
can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"? 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"?? Yet this state of affairs is by no
means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to
write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how
unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with
something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between
sound and spelling. One might forget whether "abracadabra" is hyphenated
or not, or get the last few letters wrong on "rhinoceros", but even the
poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By
contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but
to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write
some particularly elusive character.
As one mundane example of the advantages of a phonetic writing system,
here is one kind of linguistic situation I encountered constantly while I
was in France. (Again I use French as my canonical example of an "easy"
foreign language.) I wake up one morning in Paris and turn on the
radio. An ad comes on, and I hear the word "amortisseur" several times.
"What's an amortisseur?" I think to myself, but as I am in a hurry to
make an appointment, I forget to look the word up in my haste to leave
the apartment. A few hours later I'm walking down the street, and I
read, on a sign, the word "AMORTISSEUR" -- the word I heard earlier this
morning. Beneath the word on the sign is a picture of a shock absorber.
Aha! So "amortisseur" means "shock absorber". And voila! I've learned a
new word, quickly and painlessly, all because the sound I construct
when reading the word is the same as the sound in my head from the radio
this morning -- one reinforces the other. Throughout the next week I
see the word again several times, and each time I can reconstruct the
sound by simply reading the word phonetically -- "a-mor-tis-seur".
Before long I can retrieve the word easily, use it in conversation, or
write it in a letter to a friend. And the process of learning a foreign
language begins to seem less daunting.
When I first went to Taiwan for a few months, the situation was quite
different. I was awash in a sea of characters that were all visually
interesting but phonetically mute. I carried around a little dictionary
to look up unfamiliar characters in, but it's almost impossible to look
up a character in a Chinese dictionary while walking along a crowded
street (more on dictionary look-up later), and so I didn't get nearly as
much phonetic reinforcement as I got in France. In Taiwan I could pass a
shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and never know how to
pronounce any of the characters unless I first look them up. And even
then, the next time I pass the shop I might have to look the characters
up again. And again, and again. The reinforcement does not come
naturally and easily.
- Because you can't cheat by using cognates.
I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three
years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a
Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up
out of curiosity. "Hmm," I thought to myself. "I've never studied
Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand." At
random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to
read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the
information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186
people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one
minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to
indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any
emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no
mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the
article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a
day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I
could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying
What was going on here? Why was this "foreign" language so transparent?
The reason was obvious: cognates -- those helpful words that are just
English words with a little foreign make-up. (note 9) I could read the
article because most of the operative words were basically English:
aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica,
emergencia, etc. Recognizing these words as just English words in
disguise is about as difficult as noticing that Superman is really Clark
Kent without his glasses. That these quasi-English words are easier to
learn than Chinese characters (which might as well be quasi-Martian)
goes without saying.
Imagine you are a diabetic, and you find yourself in Spain about to go
into insulin shock. You can rush into a doctor's office, and, with a
minimum of Spanish and a couple of pieces of guesswork ("diabetes" is
just "diabetes" and "insulin" is "insulina", it turns out), you're
saved. In China you'd be a goner for sure, unless you happen to have a
dictionary with you, and even then you would probably pass out while
frantically looking for the first character in the word for insulin.
Which brings me to the next reason why Chinese is so hard.
- Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.
One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is
that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about
the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was
in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests
in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a
word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or
volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly
language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.
Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the
ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid,
time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of
ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the
equivalent. I'd say it took me a good year before I could reliably find
in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I
will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can't find
at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my
hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.
Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on
earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various
kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There
are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland,
dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong
Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the
Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries
that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are
dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing
dialect, dictionaries of ch�ngyu? (four-character idioms), dictionaries
of xie�ho`uyu? (special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of
ya`nyu? (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms,
dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries... on and on. An
exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave
one's desk "strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a
battlefield." (note 10)
For looking up unfamiliar characters there is another method called the
four-corner system. This method is very fast -- rumored to be, in
principle, about as fast as alphabetic look-up (though I haven't met
anyone yet who can hit the winning number each time on the first try).
Unfortunately, learning this method takes about as much time and
practice as learning the Dewey decimal system. Plus you are then at the
mercy of the few dictionaries that are arranged according to the
numbering scheme of the four-corner system. Those who have mastered this
system usually swear by it. The rest of us just swear.
Another problem with looking up words in the dictionary has to do with
the nature of written Chinese. In most languages it's pretty obvious
where the word boundaries lie -- there are spaces between the words. If
you don't know the word in question, it's usually fairly clear what you
should look up. (What actually constitutes a word is a very subtle
issue, of course, but for my purposes here, what I'm saying is basically
correct.) In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes
quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth
work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it's often trial and error
to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:
FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD
ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE
BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR 'S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF
HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY, A ONE MAN SHOW
CASE THAT WAS HIS FIRST RUN A WAY BROAD WAY BOX OFFICE SMASH HIT. "THE
FIRST A MEND MENT IS AT IS SUE" HE PRO CLAIM ED. "FOR A CENS OR OR AN
EDIT OR TO EDIT OR OTHER WISE BLUE PENCIL QUESTION ABLE DIA LOG JUST TO
KOW TOW TO RIGHT WING BORN AGAIN BIBLE THUMP ING FRUIT CAKE S IS A DOWN
RIGHT DIS GRACE."
Imagine how this difference would compound the dictionary look-up
difficulties of a non-native speaker of English. The passage is pretty
trivial for us to understand, but then we already know English. For them
it would often be hard to tell where the word boundaries were supposed
to be. So it is, too, with someone trying to learn Chinese.
- Then there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen).
Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four
years of study you'll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the
way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot
and Voltaire, you're sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can
comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray
hair or at least tenure.
Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in
Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume
anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It's truly embarrassing to be
out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some
characters on a wall hanging.
"Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?" You look up and see
that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible
"grass-style" calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of
a dying heart patient.
"Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn't tell
you what it says," you stammer. "I think it's about a phoenix or
"Oh, I thought you knew Chinese," says your friend, returning to their
menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also
just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.
Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is
deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell
you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you
already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because
classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric
anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for
dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred
bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards,
anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand
such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present,
could understand the entries in the "personal" section of the classified
ads that say things like: "Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for
gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own
equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please."
In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the
more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming
the English channel in a straitjacket.
- Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.
Well, perhaps that's too harsh. But it is true that there are too many
of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by
linguists, or -- even worse -- by a committee of linguists. It is, of
course, a very tricky task to devise a romanization method; some are
better than others, but all involve plenty of counterintuitive
spellings. (note 11) And if you're serious about a career in Chinese,
you'll have to grapple with at least four or five of them, not including
the bopomofu phonetic symbols used in Taiwan. There are probably a
dozen or more romanization schemes out there somewhere, most of them
mercifully obscure and rightfully ignored. There is a standing joke
among sinologists that one of the first signs of senility in a China
scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.
- Because tonal languages are weird.
Okay, that's very Anglo-centric, I know it. But I have to mention this
problem because it's one of the most common complaints about learning
Chinese, and it's one of the aspects of the language that westerners are
notoriously bad at. Every person who tackles Chinese at first has a
little trouble believing this aspect of the language. How is it possible
that shu`xu� means "mathematics" while shu�xue? means "blood
transfusion", or that guo`jia?ng means "you flatter me" while guo?jia`ng
means "fruit paste"?
By itself, this property of Chinese would be hard enough; it means that,
for us non-native speakers, there is this extra, seemingly irrelevant
aspect of the sound of a word that you must memorize along with the
vowels and consonants. But where the real difficulty comes in is when
you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find
yourself straitjacketed -- when you say the sentence with the intonation
that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you
wish say something like "Hey, that's my water glass you're drinking out
of!", and you follow your intonational instincts -- that is, to put a
distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for "my" -- you
will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood.
Intonation and stress habits are incredibly ingrained and second-nature.
With non-tonal languages you can basically import, mutatis mutandis,
your habitual ways of emphasizing, negating, stressing, and questioning.
The results may be somewhat non-native but usually understandable. Not
so with Chinese, where your intonational contours must always obey the
tonal constraints of the specific words you've chosen. Chinese speakers,
of course, can express all of the intonational subtleties available in
non-tonal languages -- it's just that they do it in a way that is
somewhat alien to us speakers of non-tonal languages. When you first
begin using your Chinese to talk about subjects that actually matter to
you, you find that it feels somewhat like trying to have a passionate
argument with your hands tied behind your back -- you are suddenly
robbed of some vital expressive tools you hadn't even been aware of
- Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.
Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main
reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures
have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like
"Le pr�sident Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement
am�ricain va continuer � d�fendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne,"
is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the
deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core
concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same
source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same
history history -- which means that in the head of a French person there
is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of
characters that's in an American's head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud
as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between
China and the U.S., American culture and and French culture seem about
as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.
Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just
can't drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into
a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese
friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet
didn't know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with
the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of
knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.
Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough
idea of the chronology of China's dynasties? Has the average history
major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese
culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of
Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How
many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even
What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there
is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as
well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so
interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.
I could go on and on, but I figure if the reader has bothered to read
this far, I'm preaching to the converted, anyway. Those who have tackled
other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I'm
sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an
average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of
the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied
formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes
close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to
consider if you've decided to better yourself by learning a foreign
language, and you're thinking "Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat."
It's pretty hard to quantify a process as complex and multi-faceted as
language-learning, but one simple metric is to simply estimate the time
it takes to master the requisite language-learning skills. When you
consider all the above-mentioned things a learner of Chinese has to
acquire -- ability to use a dictionary, familiarity with two or three
romanization methods, a grasp of principles involved in writing
characters (both simplified and traditional) -- it adds up to an awful
lot of down time while one is "learning to learn" Chinese.
How much harder is Chinese? Again, I'll use French as my canonical "easy
language". This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say
that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable
fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a
comparable level in French. An average American could probably become
reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take
them to reach the same level in Chinese.
One could perhaps view learning languages as being similar to learning
musical instruments. Despite the esoteric glories of the harmonica
literature, it's probably safe to say that the piano is a lot harder and
more time-consuming to learn. To extend the analogy, there is also the
fact that we are all virtuosos on at least one "instrument" (namely, our
native language), and learning instruments from the same family is
easier than embarking on a completely different instrument. A Spanish
person learning Portuguese is comparable to a violinist taking up the
viola, whereas an American learning Chinese is more like a rock
guitarist trying to learn to play an elaborate 30-stop three-manual pipe
Someone once said that learning Chinese is "a five-year lesson in
humility". I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you
will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However,
now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that
actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still
be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.
There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to
learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the
gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach
cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing
such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach's uncompromisingly
difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, "But how are they able
to perform such difficult music?"
"Shh -- not so loud!" says the director, "If you don't tell them it's difficult, they never know."
1. David Moser said, "For most people, the first title to acquire is probably The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis. This book has done more than any other to dispel misunderstandings about Chinese, especially those concerning Chinese characters, including the Ideographic Myth, the Universality Myth, the Emulatability Myth, the Monosyllabic Myth, the Indispensability Myth, and the Successfulness Myth. I very much hope many of this site's visitors will seek out and read this work." The chapter "The Ideographic Myth" of that book is available at http://www.chinese-word-roots.org/oschool2.htm
2. Dr. J. Marshall Unger (Ohio State University) goes much beyond John DeFrancis with his book "Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning," and the introduction of that book is available at http://www.chinese-word-roots.org/oschool3.htm
(A longer version of this paper is available through CRCC, Indiana University, 510 N. Fess, Bloomington, IN, 47408.)
Chen, Heqin, (1928)"Yutiwen yingyong zihui" [Characters used in vernacular literature], Shanghai.
DeFrancis, John (1966) "Why Johnny Can't Read Chinese", Journal of the
Chinese Language Teachers Association, Vol. 1, No. 1, Feb. 1966, pp.
DeFrancis, John (1984) The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
DeFrancis, John (1989) Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Kennedy, George (1964) "A Minimum Vocabulary in Modern Chinese", in
Selected Works of George Kennedy, Tien-yi Li (ed.), New Haven: Far
Mair, Victor (1986) "The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General
Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent
Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects", Sino-Platonic
Papers, No. 1, February, 1986 (Dept. of Oriental Studies, University of
Zhao, Yuanren, (1972) Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics, Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- I am speaking of the writing system here, but the difficulty
of the writing system has such a pervasive effect on literacy and
general language mastery that I think the statement as a whole is still
- John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy,
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984, p.153. Most of the issues in
this paper are dealt with at length and with great clarity in both this
book and in his Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems,
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.
- Incidentally, I'm aware that much of what I've said above
applies to Japanese as well, but it seems clear that the burden placed
on a learner of Japanese is much lighter because (a) the number of
Chinese characters used in Japanese is "only" about 2,000 -- fewer by a
factor of two or three compared to the number needed by the average
literate Chinese reader; and (b) the Japanese have phonetic syllabaries
(the hiragana and katakana characters), which are nearly 100%
phonetically reliable and are in many ways easier to master than chaotic
English orthography is.
- See, for ex., Chen Heqin, "Yutiwen yingyong zihui" [Characters used in vernacular literature], Shanghai, 1928.
- John DeFrancis deals with this issue, among other places,
in "Why Johnny Can't Read Chinese", Journal of the Chinese Language
Teachers Association, Vol. 1, No. 1, Feb. 1966, pp. 1-20.
- George Kennedy, "A Minimum Vocabulary in Modern Chinese",
in Selected Works of George Kennedy, Tien-yi Li (ed.), New Haven, 1964,
- Zhao Yuanren, Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics, Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976, p. 92.
- John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, p. 109.
- Charles Hockett reminds me that many of my examples are
really instances of loan words, not cognates, but rather than take up
space dealing with the issue, I will blur the distinction a bit here.
There are phonetic loan words from English into Chinese, of course, but
they are scarce curiosities rather than plentiful semantic moorings.
- A phrase taken from an article by Victor Mair with the
deceptively boring title " The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged
General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some
Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects" (Sino-Platonic
Papers, No. 1, February, 1986, Dept. of Oriental Studies, University of
Pennsylvania). Mair includes a rather hilarious but realistic account
of the tortuous steeplechase of looking up a low-frequency lexical item
in his arsenal of Chinese dictionaries.
- I have noticed from time to time that the romanization method
first used tends to influence one's accent in Chinese. It seems to me a
Chinese person with a very keen ear could distinguish Americans
speaking, say, Wade-Giles-accented Chinese from pinyin-accented Chinese.
This article is downloaded from the following url,