Today, I want to encourage more people to learn Chinese.
If you already speak Chinese and disagree with the premise of Chinese not being super-duper hard compared to every other language and are angry at me for daring to take it off this untouchable pedestal you’ve placed it on, then TOUGH LUCK. I’m not writing this post to you. I hardly ever write posts to experienced language learners – they don’t need encouragement, the rest of us do.
What I’ve read from those who write about Chinese, and especially the discouragement I’ve been given (only ever online) tells me how much the Internet needs some positivity for people considering learning this wonderful language, so they don’t get scared off. There’s nothing to be scared of when you compare it to learning other languages.
Today I want to write a retort to an article about how hard Chinese is, as well as the “shi shi” poem and so many other points that so many people sent me to prove Chinese’s difficulty, relative to European languages.
I’m but a social speaker of Mandarin. I can’t hold philosophical debates in the language, or write essays in classical Chinese. But this week I made a new friend on the train and we talked for two hours straight about many things without using any English, and just today I took her out for dinner for another 2 hour chat. I’m currently 2,000km deep inside China and got here by train, reading signs, buying tickets, ordering food and most importantly: genuinely socialising in Mandarin. I still have plenty of work to do to tidy it up, and you will continue to see me progress in the language as I upload more videos, but right now I have a useful enough amount of Chinese to have an opinion about its difficulty, and today I want to share that opinion.
I have a lot to say on the subject. This is only the first of several posts discussing learning Chinese (other posts will discuss specifics of how I’d recommend learning particular aspects), and it’s already the longest post I’ve ever written on the blog.
“Mastering” Chinese can indeed take a long time to do, but getting to a very useful intermediate level is well within the reach of most people, and from that point progressing further won’t be that bad. It is indeed hard work, but if you put it side by side with European languages, then saying it’s “damn hard”, or “orders of magnitude harder than European languages” is nothing but an exaggeration, usually made by people with no actual familiarity with the languages they are dismissing.
Comparing to “easier” languages
There’s something I want to be clear from the start: learning any language (except something like Esperanto) is hard work. It takes serious dedication, sacrifices, countless hours of hard work, feeling embarrassed, getting out of your comfort zone, studying dull grammar and seemingly endless amounts of vocab and much more.
Sadly there is no magic pill to get around this. I’ve found that with an efficient learning strategy it can certainly be a manageable task, even for us mere mortals who did poorly in languages in school, but (unless you have some natural knack for it) it’s definitely hard work, no matter what language you learn.
So the point of this post isn’t to tell you that learning Chinese is a walk in the park – hell, anyone who has read the blog over the last few months has seen that it’s been a draining experience for me. But here’s the thing; everything that has been “hard” about Chinese is something that I have found to be a challenge in every language I’ve learned (unless I speak one very close to it already). The struggles to understand the fast streams of noise, the challenge of trying to convey my thoughts in a coherent manner despite recently starting to learn the language, dealing with people speaking at normal speed, forcing yourself to remember words in a high-pressure situation, and every other issue that you have to deal with when learning any language.
The reason I want to write this post is very simple; too many people avoid Chinese and pick what they consider to be an “easier” language, because they are too intimidated. Even though their true passion may actually lie with Chinese. This is a very sad state of affairs.
Learn Spanish or French if you really want to learn them. And learn Chinese if you really want to learn it – ignore wasteful discouragement from people that it’s on some higher level of difficulty. This is pure and utter NONSENSE.
The fallacy of saying European languages are always easier
Too many people dismiss European languages as incredibly easy in comparison to Chinese, and in the vast majority of cases they are basing this on nothing but speculation, and can’t even converse in those other languages. They just “know” they are easier based on glances at formal text that they get the gist of. Well, I’m going to tell you something and I want you to pay close attention to it:
When it comes down to a direct comparison, then I can honestly tell you that Spanish was HARDER for me to learn than Chinese. My spoken Chinese level is superior to what my Spanish one was after about the same number of hours invested.
This is why you’ll never get me to budge on this. The reasons are quite complex (my learning approach with Spanish was terrible, I was ashamed of making any mistakes initially, it was the first foreign language I properly tried to learn etc.) but at the end of the day this European language was a greater challenge to me than Chinese has been. When you ignore essential factors of motivation and approach, then comparing languages is pointless.
You can try and interject with “all things being equal” but they never are. You simply can NOT put Chinese and French side by side and linguistically analyse them and be sure that one is harder than the other, because if someone is moving to China, has a Chinese exam to pass soon, wants to get in touch with their roots, is passionate about Chinese history etc. then they are a hell of a lot more motivated to learn Chinese quickly than they are French. Telling them that French (or whatever) is “easier” is simply WRONG. If they were to try to learn French they’d be frustrated and get nowhere because they don’t care about it like they do Chinese.
Take out the human factor when mechanically comparing languages and all you’ve got is academic puffs of air that hold no value at all in the real world.
Unlike so many Chinese learners who dismiss European languages as easy I do know a lot about these languages, I AM justified in making comparisons. I’ll stick to the usual ones that are pointed at (French & Spanish), but point out the obvious fact that European languages are incredibly varied, so the concept of the label in the first place is flawed. Some of the biggest branches of languages in Europe are the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages, and a language in one group is a world apart from a language in another group.
If you are learning Chinese, then perhaps these arguments might give you that boost you need that your counterparts learning European languages aren’t quite strolling through a rose filled garden themselves, but I want to mostly focus on pointing out that within Chinese itself, the gloom-and-doom points brought up by many aren’t as clear cut as many people make them out to be.
Why Chinese is damn hard – a critique
I have so many things I want to write about for Chinese, to help people try to take it on and see it as a manageable task based on my experience of learning it to at least a useful level, but today rather than offer my specific advice, I’m going to retort some of the biggest arguments that have come up when comparing it to European languages.
To do that, among other things, I’m going to critique a pretty well known piece online, called “Why Chinese is damn hard“. Believe it or not, I like this piece and recommend you read it – it’s well written, in a tongue-in-cheek style, (it reminds me a lot of Mark Twain’s piece on “The awful German language“, which is hilarious, albeit discouraging) by someone with plenty of experience with Chinese. I’ve also been told by those who know the author personally that he’s a cool guy, and I’m sure we’d get along!
The piece may be written in a not-so-serious tone, but the arguments themselves have been used many times to compare Chinese to other languages, so I think it’s a good place to start.
So go have a read, and when you are feeling a bit gloomy that Chinese will take forever to learn, then come back here to read me go through some of his pretty unconvincing points Anything I quote from his text will be in blue.
Treating Chinese like all languages
“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”
This hasn’t been my experience when comparing it with Spanish. And the author has (apparently) never learned any other language (other than English) to the same level that he has learned Chinese. This tells us from the start that most of the article will be based on speculation, rather than actual experience in comparing languages.
“…Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it’s also hard in absolute terms…If you don’t believe this, just ask a Chinese person.”
I’ve heard this broken record of “THIS is the hardest language” so many times over the last decade for almost every language I’ve taken on, that I consider it nothing more than background noise. Whenever I take on my next language that too will be “the hardest one”, and so will the next one and the next one. Each time the person who tells it to me will be absolutely sure… even though they usually have no basis of comparison. I’ve written more about this ridiculous hardest language concept here.
People’s opinion of their own language is clouded by ego, pride and lack of familiarity with other languages in most cases. If the opinion isn’t helpful in any way, discard it as irrelevant.
The writing system
I’ve got so much to say about the Chinese writing system! It is way more manageable than you would think! But for now, just a few retorts:
“The Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system”
I have to agree with him here, but I have a wonderful way around this problem!
You see, I simply don’t write. Like, ever. I don’t dip feathers in ink and I rarely scribble on a dead tree.
If you do, then good for you I suppose and you can ignore this point, but all the “written” communication I do is via technology. I send text messages, write emails, use online chat programs and the like, and have been doing all this in Chinese on a daily basis. To type all of this, you just need to use pinyin. Chinese people do it this way themselves (I’ve seen people try to write text messages in Hanzi characters on their phone and its cumbersome and incredibly slow in comparison).
Computers convert it to Hanzi for it to be sent in real Chinese. Most interfaces have contextual extrapolation included, so when you write the pinyin for various characters in many cases it knows what you mean.
When there is ambiguity, you need to point out the characters yourself, but rather than intimately knowing every single stroke, as long as you have a pretty good idea of what a character looks like then not only can you read it fine, you can write it very fast!
Because of this, writing Chinese (more specifically typing Chinese) has only been slightly harder than writing any other language, especially when you learn to work with your computer efficiently.
Since pinyin is just as easy to learn as any alphabetic writing system – the true difficulty mostly comes in recognising those Hanzi characters:
“What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters?”
If you prefer to use technology rather than tie your hand-written notes to pigeons’ legs to communicate with people, then all you really need to do with a Chinese character is recognise it, rather than write out every single stroke in precisely the right order. In this case, things simplify for you immensely.
With an effective association system, you can indeed learn to recognise these characters quite quickly! This lets you both read a text, and type it by selecting the appropriate character from your pinyin.
I’d highly recommend people check out Memrise.com for some fantastic inspiration for quickly remembering Chinese characters.
For example, the character 大 is pronounced “dà” and means big. If you imagine a person stretching out his arms indicating “I once caught a fish that was THIIIS big” then you will actually find it hard to think of anything but “big” for the meaning.
Now, when I see this character, I don’t even think about it. It’s pronounced dà (I used the same technique for any other language to associate the sound, more on incorporating the tone as well in another post later) and it means big, or it has that kind of “larger” sense to contribute to a word, e.g. 大学 (big learn) is “university”, compared to 小学 (small learn) for primary school, and 中学 (middle learn) for high school.
We do this all the time in the west. You see picture-based representations such as:
and you know immediately what they represent and how to pronounce that concept, even though no phonetic indication is given. Note that you can also recognise these among other similar looking icons, even though you may not be able to reproduce them from memory precisely and render an impressive artist’s impression of each. This is the same way I treat reading Chinese.
For more complex Chinese characters, you have to take a minute to think of a good way of associating it with something, but you get the hang of it and can quickly fly through them. Even in complex characters, it gets easier to do this with practice!
學: the character for “learn” (this time the traditional variant), used in school, student and many other learn-based words. The part underneath is 子 and can mean child, so I think of a young person wearing a battered up hat with stitches in it (sort of like the one I wear at the start of this video), because he’s a poor student. Stroke order is irrelevant because I see the entire pictograph as one concept and remember it immediately.
For way more examples, go to memrise.com, or read the first 100 character entries of Heisig’s book which is free online (I wouldn’t recommend you buy the whole thing though; I’ll write why another time). If you ignore stroke order (irrelevant for typing) and focus on visualising the entire character, or putting component parts together, it gets easy fast. To me 大學 (or simplified 大学) jumps out to be pronounced dàxué and just is “university”, the same way any of the images I’ve put above jump out to mean the brand or concept they represent.
And before you know it, you can read aloud while understand the underlying meaning of a character. You won’t be reading as quickly as European languages any time soon, but it’s certainly more manageable than people would have you think. I’ll come back to this in more detail later.
So many characters to learn!!
Let’s think of the sheer number for a moment. It’s hard to know how many to learn, but a few thousand is more than enough for the vast majority of people, as it’s said that around 2-3,000 will be all you’d need to read a newspaper, and what most educated Chinese people know anyway (if you want to aim higher than an educated Chinese person, then it’s your funeral, but some of us don’t go for overkill). There are other characters, but unless you study linguistics or literature professionally, I don’t see why you’d need to care about things you’d see once every few years.
OK, so 3,000 sounds like an immense number – even impossible! But hold on a second – sure, if you are trying to learn the entirety of Chinese in a few months, this figure could stump you unless you had an incredibly intensive project specifically about reading the language. But most people will be learning over a year or a couple of years. If you learn just ten characters a day (and with a good mnemonic system, you’d get through these in 2 minutes, and then perhaps another few minutes to review the right ones from the whole set using a good spaced repetition system), then you’d have everything you need in less than a year.
Less than a year seems pretty fair enough for this supposedly monstrous writing system that makes Chinese so famous as being that hard. I honestly think you could get them down in a much shorter time if you were really devoted.
But it’s actually much easier than dealing with 3,000 individual pictographs! Each character is not an island. Even though I haven’t been focusing on reading as much as others have, I am already starting to see so many patterns emerge that make learning a brand new character almost instantaneous. I’m sure books explain the concepts well (as it happens, I didn’t really come across any in Taiwan – any good resources online, let me know in the comments), but many learners are aware of the general concept of how some radicals help with pronunciation, and then quite a lot introduce the general meaning of a character.
For example, as a vegetarian one thing that helped me immensely is how many vegetables have the same radical above them that implies that it’s a vegetable or grass related. Spinach is 菠菜, green onion is 葱, tomato is 蕃茄, potato is 薯, aubergine (eggplant) is 茄子, lettuce is 莴苣, and so on. Can you see the same fence looking component on the top?
And the pronunciation component, while very far from consistent, can actually be a huge help! Since it’s the name of the language, one of the first things you will learn to read is 中文 (Zhōngwén). But that first component will come up a few times in “new” characters. You have 种, 钟，肿，all pronounced zhǒng, (actually there are WAY more, this is just a really quick sampling), and the other part of the character gives a hint as to what it might mean, such as 肿 having the 月 component, which tends to mean “flesh” in many cases – this character means to swell.
It’s not immediately obvious, but when someone scares you with the boogie monster of Chinese’s ten bazillion characters, then the way they say it, you’d swear each character is based on spaghetti that someone puked up, rather than being incredibly consistent and even limited. 3,000 seems like a big number, but that’s typically the number of steps many of us take in a single day.
“…over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones. 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”.)”
This is actually a vocabulary issue, which every language has – for example, “uptight” in Spanish (depending on the context) can be mojigato, which has nothing to do with cats This particular point has nothing to do with writing systems, or anything to unique to Chinese, and (like many points in this article) just confirms that “learning any foreign language is hard work, no matter what language”.
“(The existence of both traditional and simplified Chinese) … puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese”
Having dealt with both sets, I don’t see what the big deal is. Quite a lot of the characters are exactly the same, and only a handful are different enough to really require the extra work of learning a completely separate character. I see it as more along the lines of learning two words for two different cultures, like English’s high school versus secondary school, or Spanish’s coche versus carro.
Quoting from an article on HackingChinese about simplified vs traditional Chinese:
“(Very different characters) are very, very far from being typical. Let’s have a look at the following characters and see if you think they are easier:
- 銳 － 锐
- 銘 － 铭
- 釘 － 钉
- 鎮 － 鎮
- 釣 － 钓
Doesn’t look so scary, right? As we can clearly see, the only thing that has changed in these characters is the radical: 釒-> 钅. It takes about five seconds to learn the above characters, provided you know either the simplified or the traditional version first.”
In more complex versions, I simply learn two characters if I have to. (I use Pleco for learning my Chinese and it presents both at the same time, so I learn them both similtaneously as I’m travelling in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), and in most cases they really aren’t that different. When they are different they usually follow a very distinct pattern. You may see 車 within many traditional characters, and it’s just replaced with 车 in simplified ones. The work you put into distinguishing these two characters actually gives you dozens more “different” characters for free.
“In Taiwan I could pass a shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and… (not understand it)”
Here he uses the example, that in French you might come across the word amortisseur and just need to remember the pronunciation to find out what it means, while looking at Chinese characters leaves you helpless.
In fact, Chinese is so much easier than any other language I’ve come across to deduct the meaning of something. A much smaller subset of prefixes and suffixes (to use a European way of looking at it) pave the path to much more words.
So using the same example the author has created, let’s say that I come across the following in Chinese:
I see it advertised on a product or something and would like to know what it means.
Now, if I am a new learner of French, then there’s little chance I can figure out what “amortisseur” means, other than knowing that the -eur ending can sometimes mean “he/that which does” like English’s -er, which is quite vague – is it a person or a thing? OK, well the part before that is amortiss – what’s that then? With enough experience in French you learn that conjugation issues (which don’t exist at all in Chinese) add in an -iss component to many words.
OK, so we are left with a likely core word (after some serious grammatical extrapolation, which is tough until you get to intermediate stage) of “amortir”. Still, no idea though if you’ve never come across this word before.
Now, Chinese makes this so much simpler.
This comes up quite a lot – it is pronounced “Jiǎn” and usually means reduce. For example 减肥 means “to lose weight” (reduce fat) and 减价 means “sale” (reduce price), so if you have learned enough characters it’s very likely you’ll know this one. Next,
means to “shake” – let’s presume you don’t know this one yet. And
usually means “tool”/”device”, and you really can’t miss this in Chinese!!
So after this, you know it’s definitely some kind of a tool for reducing something. In French, trying to deduce it from the ground up, you just know the word is likely a person or a thing that does something, which is hardly as helpful.
With a little context it’s way easier to extrapolate that the Chinese word means what it could be, than the French version. I only took this example since he used it in his text, but there are WAY better ones!!
This overlooked aspect of Chinese is crucial! You get all these more complex words for free after you learn as many core components as you can. This goes for both spoken and written, since you will hear reduce-something-tool when listening to someone (see phoneme issues below), so when he follows up with:
“You can’t cheat using cognates”
Then I have to say that yes, you can cheat. You can “cheat” by having a much smaller subset of word-building components to deal with, and the meaning can be much more obvious and in many cases you can even guess it!
Let’s say you wanted to guess how to say “bottle opener” in French. Well, bottle is bouteille (Take that Chinese-without-similar-looking-words!) and open is ouvrir. Where do you go from here though? Add in an -eur again? bouteilleouvreur? Actually, it’s décapsuleur. Hmm, seems a little harder to guess something that looks more like decapitator, but I suppose it makes sense in a weird way, since it’s de-cap-ing the bottle. Still not something that jumps out at you.
In Chinese? open… bottle… tool: 开瓶器 Simple and effective, and quite hard to forget once you hear it once! I don’t know about you, but I find open-bottle-tool way easier to remember than de-cap-er. Any Chinese learner knows these syllables/characters (or at least their pronunciations), so will have no problem coming up with it. When you get to 3 characters, then you can be pretty confident that whatever your computer/smartphone suggests is pretty much the only right answer, even ignoring tone markers. This means that you can write this and only one possible set of 3 characters will come up that you can be confident to go ahead and use, even if you don’t know these ones yet.
And you actually find that when you look at pretty much any multiple-syllable word, it makes a whole lot of sense based on the components. There are plenty of exceptions, but it’s a lot easier to figure out what something is the first time you see it, or give a stab at what it might be if you know enough component characters. In European languages, this is possible in the likes of Czech and even German, which builds a lot of words quite logically, but much less possible in Latin languages in the same kind of simple consistency.
Apart from relying on cognates, it’s REALLY hard to guess what a word could be from scratch in Spanish or French, but you can give a pretty good attempt in Chinese and you may even be right!
When European languages do have this simple common components building upon one another to give overall meanings, in many cases there are complex rules for how they interact with one another (like the French -iss, or German vowel changes), but in Chinese you just plonk one after the other.
You can’t “cheat” using cognates, but if you learn enough core components of words, then you start to leave your European language learner counterparts behind in the dust.
In fact, Chinese is so much more consistent in how vocabulary is formed than European languages.
[ Let’s consider the word for a common ailment which occurs when the lungs become inflamed with congestion. In Chinese, this ailment is called 肺炎, or taken character by character, lung inflammation. In English, this condition is known as pneumonia, a combination of letters and syllables of Greek origin, which hold little in common with the conventions of modern English. In English we have hepatitis. In Chinese, we get liver inflammation. In English when we eat the meat of a pig it’s called pork. In Chinese, it’s pig meat. And in English when you have a problem with your toilet, you find a plumber. In Chinese you call the water pipe worker. ]
Learning new vocabulary in Chinese is incredibly intuitive. This more than makes up for the fact that you aren’t given a head start with a large list of cognates – it almost seems too easy at times when you hear a brand new word and instantly know what it means, whereas in many European languages you would be able to offer nothing but a blank expression back.
Now I should definitely add in here that there are cognates with English in Chinese. The way pretty much everyone says goodbye/see-you is 拜拜 (bàibài), which is a direct borrowing from English’s bye-bye. Technology, product, brand and country words and many others are actually exactly the same, albeit following strict rules of usage and tones (for example I have to pronounce Ireland like an American would, rather than how I would, and remove the ‘d': 爱尔兰 Ài’ěrlán). More on this later – but you are NOT starting from “absolute scratch” when you are learning Chinese, even if Europeans get more of a head start.
“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.”
Yes, they look the same. But if you say to a Spanish doctor: énslen (what he’ll hear), you better hope he has a pen and paper handy. In my experience Spaniards are not so imaginative in guessing things not pronounced correctly.
As it happens, I am allergic to peanuts. Inconveniently, I can’t just say “peanuto” in Spanish or “les peanuts” in French, and despite what the author says, no amount of guess work will get me anywhere without a dictionary handy. It requires learning an entirely new word: cacahuete / cacahuète. When you are selective about your examples, you can indeed make it seem like French is just English spoken through your nose and Spanish is just English spoken with an -o on all words. No such luck in the real world.
Remembering cacahuete, a four syllable word is much more work than remembering 花生 (hua-sheng) – two syllables, with component words meaning “flower-life”, both of which you are very likely to know even in the early stages of learning Chinese. I maintain that learning vocabulary in Chinese is much easier than in European languages, since they are much shorter, almost always more logical based on the component characters, and of course there are no declensions or genders to remember with it. If you rely only on cognates in European languages, you’ll run out of luck quite quickly…
Use of the language
“Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated”
We can forgive the author for this one, as apps like Pleco weren’t available back then. I haven’t had any trouble understanding things I see, since pointing my phone at the text, or writing it out if it’s more calligraphic, almost always gives me what I’m looking for.
The inefficiency of paper dictionaries isn’t something that should concern people in this century. Pleco is only the first of many tools that will open this up to many people.
When I hear something I don’t understand, I write it out based on the pinyin on my phone and show them a few examples that come up and they point to the right one (this example though would indeed work with a dead-tree dictionary too).
“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” .
Confucius died 479 BC. Voltaire died in 1778! That’s 1778 AD in case there is any confusion!!
This point really seems like it’s clutching at straws. Of course French from 200 or so years ago isn’t too hard to understand. Compare it to reading LATIN, not reading modern French!!
Perhaps it’s important to refer to some old Chinese once in a while, the same way we do with Latin. Fine: tempus fugit, a priori, Cave canem – I can learn these phrases off and sprinkle them into conversations to make me sound smart if I really want to, without learning how complicated Latin is.
Either you are complaining about Chinese in this century or you are complaining about Chinese from thousands of years ago. Pick one. Good god, who cares how hard a language from 2500 years ago is? If you think I do, “you’re sadly mistaken”.
“Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls”
Oh noes! Not character scrolls!
It’s not like you trip over them all the time here in China. I saw some of those character scrolls around the Chinese New Year. I didn’t understand what they meant and someone explained some to me. Interesting, but not quite so relevant to helping me the rest of the year.
The same way if you are in Rome and keep seeing Latin written in some places, you can ask. You’ll be enlightened, but it won’t help you do anything else in Rome but read the rocks.
“Tonal languages are weird”
Obviously a major point that people bring up about Chinese, but it in the end I can’t say it’s that bad. When I started learning, I put a lot of effort into distinguishing tones (both listening and speaking), so when I’m consciously focusing I can tell you what tones a spoken word is, or say a word with the right tones myself.
This just takes a bit of practice. We have tones in English too, (although they indicate mood rather than meaning) and when you realize this and make the right associations you start to distinguish the tones in Chinese much easier. I demonstrate this in this video (it’s about Thai, but a lot of it is quite relevant to Chinese).
I add in a tone in my association of learning any word and will expand on this later, so I have no trouble including tones in my vocabulary learning.
Although, when speaking quickly I still tend to mess up quite a few tones. This isn’t a big deal because rather than calling Chinese a “tonal” language, I’d prefer to call it a “contextual” language. Even when I say something with completely the wrong tones, someone will almost always understand me because the context makes it clear what I’m talking about; this includes people with little or no prior exposure to foreigners.
In other words; getting your tones right is not that big a deal for communication. It really isn’t. But it’s important for sounding eloquent. How I’m fixing my tone problems (as well as my hesitations) to have nicer sounding Chinese is something I’ll get back to, but to be honest tones have been the most minor of my problems over the last months.
When you get used to it, mā, má, mǎ and mà sound as completely different as rebel and rebel do in English. Work on it and it won’t be weird.
And here’s the thing – as much as people complain about tones, I find them incredibly helpful! They distinguish a syllable in a noticeable way so that it stands out. I gives Mandarin its distinctive “choppy” sound, so you will almost always hear every single syllable very clearly. Compare this to French!! Sure, French is not so bad to read, but where do all the consonants go when its spoken?
In Chinese, you have an individual syllable that falls in a very small range of possible sounds, and the tone gives you that extra information about it. When you sing it out, you start to hear the differences between how things sound.
Tones are very much different to what we are used to, but it’s just another thing to learn, and you can. If you keep telling yourself that it’s “weird”, then this attitude will always make it foreign to you. Just accept it and embrace it, and it will become second nature to you.
The Shi Shi poem: Chinese homophones
Those are the main points I had issue with in the “Why Chinese is so damn hard” article, but there are plenty of other arguments that he didn’t get to.
During my time learning Chinese, about twice a week someone would post a link to the shi shi poem on my Facebook wall. I got so sick of seeing it, but despite that I’m going to share it with you today:
Shī Shì shí shī shǐ
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
What on earth is this? Why, it’s further proof that Chinese is damn hard of course! Since the language has a much more limited way of forming sounds of word components than European languages, where many letter (and thus sound) combinations are possible for any given syllable, this means you have a much smaller subset to deal with, which are distinguished by their tones or context.
Sounds like a nightmare right? Especially when you see a poem like this crop up as if people actually speak like that all the time. In fact, the poem really looks like this:
It was specifically designed to demonstrate the need to use Chinese characters, since pinyin doesn’t convey the meaning as well. But the poem itself is a bit nonsensical. A few problems with it include:
- When spoken it’s absolutely and totally incomprehensible to every single native Chinese speaker that has ever existed. That includes Confucius, a Peking university graduate and any one of the billion people who speak Chinese or its dialects today, unless they read it. This isn’t like “she sells seashells on the sea shore”, this poem is absolutely meaningless without Chinese characters, and as such it is pointless to care about how it sounds.
- The poem uses some turns of phrase that simply can’t exist in modern Chinese, such as not adding a second syllable to “lion”. You can do this in classical Chinese, but there’s a catch…
- If the poem works better in classical Chinese, then you should read it as you would read classical Chinese! Scroll to the bottom of the Wikipedia article for how it would sound in classical Chinese, for example: “dʲi̯ěɡ dʲi̯ər dʲi̯ěɡ dʲi̯əp ʂi̯ər, dʲi̯əɡ ɕi̯ər ɕi̯ad, sli̯əɡ dʲi̯ěɡ dʲi̯əp ʂi̯ər dʲi̯ad ɕi̯ad.” I can’t quite say this, but it’s clear these words don’t sound the same (there are g’s, p’s and d’s at the end). So basically it’s a classical style of Chinese, pronounced in modern Chinese. This is like pronouncing a Latin poem using modern Portuguese phonetic rules.
It’s a great demonstration of the need to use Chinese characters, but is a poor demonstration of how hard the language is when you realize it literally sounds like gibberish.
But back to Chinese in the real world; as I said above, I’ve found that two syllables together give you a much smaller set of possible meanings. But going with an example in the “so damn hard” article:
“How is it possible that shùxué means “mathematics” while shūxuě means “blood transfusion””
Now, I would like to know exactly when you could possibly think someone is talking about one over the other. Seriously, give me a real world example where confusion will arise! If someone asks me what my favourite subject in school is and I accidently say 输血 rather than 数学 then are you really going to think that I’m taking a medical course?
You’re dealing with a human being, not a computer that will say “error, error: first tone, third tone does not compute!” People know what you mean. I’ve used my not-so-great Chinese with enough total strangers to know this.
However, with a little practice you will just know it that xue pronounced with a second tone must mean learn, and you can’t say it any other way.
Most examples (and I’m sure there are plenty) of embarrassing examples, are actually similar stories of embarrassment that you’d find in any language. But with enough context, it will always be clear what you actually mean, and such examples are given only to scare people.
In English we also have homophones. When I say “way”, do I mean a path, or do I mean “weigh”? Seems so easy when you see it written down. Well, if I’m on a hiking trek and I ask you if you know the way , then you can be pretty confident that I’m not interested in how much the mountain weighs. Confusion could arise, but it doesn’t. And it’s all thanks to CONTEXT.
Context tells you what character someone means, and makes the question of homophones irrelevant. Context tells you what something is if a tone wasn’t clear, and context helps you fill in the gaps when you don’t understand.
I didn’t see this complained about in some articles, but since some bring it up, I’ll mention that Chinese uses measure words and this can be annoying to some learners. Actually, I loved them!
You see, if you take a little time to learn this very small set of words that tell you what kind of noun is to follow (it’s a flat thing, it’s a long thing, it’s a room of some sort, it’s a liquid etc.) then what this means is that if you hear a word that you don’t know, the measure word is a clue to help you figure it out!
If I’m in a noisy bar and someone asks me if I “want a $/!·$()” and I don’t hear or understand that last word, I can’t really do much. In European languages the gender of a noun rarely gives you much of a clue as to what the noun is. They could be asking if I want a dance, if I want a cigarette, if I want a bathroom break, etc. but in Chinese you will hear the measure word, such as 杯 bēi, and know that the word that follows must be a drink of some kind, even if you are not so sure what that drink may be.
In engineering, adding redundancy to a system (including a communications system) increases its reliability in case any errors might come up. So when you make a phone call, the 0s and 1s being transmitted aren’t just your voice being coded, but there is extra information in case environmental factors lead to the signal being deteriorated in any way. This is how I see measure words in Chinese – they add that extra little bit of “redundancy” into a sentence that you can be extra confident of its meaning, and it can help you extrapolate any following words by providing you with more context.
Long live measure words!!
Before I wrap up, it’s important to note that arguments for how “damn hard” Chinese is, always focus on points it has that European languages don’t have, and brush off things like European grammar as an afterthought.
European grammar is where the vast majority of your work lies in learning to use those language correctly. Chinese doesn’t have a hint of definite/indefinite articles, verb tenses, verb conjugations, plural nouns, inflected cases, complex pronouns (and possessive is simply created by adding ‘de’), word genders, and a host of other things with annoying linguistic titles I’d rather not use. Word order isn’t that complicated – in most cases it’s the same as English, and adjectival phrases can take a wee bit of getting used to, but are very much logical.
When learning Spanish, I remember being so intimidated by this HUGE book I had of its conjugations. 14 different tenses, with vowel changes, way too many irregular verbs, and so much memorisation. Even if you know that the verb “to tell” is contar, when you start to hear it used in its many iterations it becomes unrecognisable. Present tense cuéntame, past tense contaste, conditional contaríamos – when you see these written down it looks pretty simple, but when you are in a conversation and all these new syllables come from out of nowhere and the ‘o’ suddenly changes to a ‘ue’, you get lost very quickly. In Chinese? All 14 of these tenses, all 6 of the conjugations within all of them – they all boil down to one word.
And it’s like that in many cases. Something incredibly complex in a European language boils down to being conveyed in the context in Chinese. Context is your friend, and you will know what someone means when you are genuinely using the language with them, even after learning for just a few months.
You can’t dismiss grammar as one point that European languages “win”, where Chinese wins everything else. It’s a HUGE load off your mind!
Many people will feel the need to retort this post saying that they found Chinese to be very hard, and I agree with you! Of course it was hard, but that’s because learning a language is hard.
I could write a post 17 times longer than this one about why I found learning Spanish to be so painful, but when it comes down to it what I have now that I didn’t have then was a positive attitude.
As I look at the Chinese learning journey that awaits me, what I need more than anything is plenty of practice, learning lots of new vocabulary, and above all, to hold my head up high and to keep going in high spirits, and let other people complain amongst themselves about how hard it is, while I focus on using the language in the real world and on sources that help and not hinder me. Outside of “interesting” theoretical discussions about hardest languages, such discussions have no practical applications for individual language learners.
Ignore the scare tactics. Chinese isn’t as hard to learn as you think. Take it easy – if something challenging comes up, take it in your stride and remember that many people before you mastered this particular point, and that for every aspect of Chinese that you could complain about, those learning every other language in the world have a completely different list of reasons why they should be complaining. So why bother? You aren’t going to get a medal if you beat someone into admitting that your task is harder than theirs – nobody wins in such pissing competitions.
If you are learning Chinese, then forget how “damn” hard it is compared to those “lazy” European language learners. You’re fooling yourself and you’re wasting time. Stop thinking about it, and focus on learning the language itself. It’s not that bad, and when you do conquer some of your biggest challenges on this adventure, then you are ready to use the language with a very large number of interesting people and a pretty huge chunk of this planet.
Reporting live from deep within China, I can confirm that ignoring how hard it is compared to languages that you are not even learning, and focusing on the task at hand instead can get you very far
Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below. Just know that I have no interest whatsoever in someone “proving” to me that Chinese is hard, as this helps nobody. Shoot someone else down, as I don’t have time for discouragement; I’m too busy speaking Chinese Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed the post, don’t forget to share it on Facebook etc.!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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