On Learning Chinese

By Barry Hilton

Some western missionaries felt that Chinese was invented by Satan “to keep the gospel out of China.” Is it the most difficult language in the world?

If you ask professional linguists that question, most will probably say that every language is complex in some ways and simple in others, and that they average out to around the same level of complexity. But that’s probably not the kind of answer you’re looking for. If we ask, though, which language is hardest for native English speakers to learn, a pretty good case can be made for the group of closely related languages we call “Chinese”. Letís look at some of the reasons.

One difficulty is that Chinese is unrelated to English. When you study one of English’s cousins in the Indo-European language family, like Spanish, Russian or Hindi, you find plenty of cognatesówords similar in sound and meaning to use as stepping-stones. Learning Chinese means acquiring a vocabulary totally new except for a few borrowings like “typhoon” and “gung ho”.

As a second obstacle, Chinese has a phonetic feature that’s hard for English-speaking learners to hear and reproduce. Like English words, Chinese words are made up of consonant and vowel sounds, but each word also has an intonation pattern, or “tone,” that’s not optional. The Chinese word liu4 六 means “six”; liu2 留(same consonant and vowels but different tone pattern) means “remain”. Ying2mu4 應募 means “screen”; ying1mu3 英畝 means “acre”. Jia4zhi2 價值means “value”; jia3zhi1 假肢 means “artificial limb”.

Many other languages — like Hungarian or Arabic or Indonesian — lack cognates for English-speaking students to rely on. And some, like Vietnamese, are also tonal. But there’s another obstacle that puts Chinese on a whole different level: its writing system.

If you’ve ever volunteered as a literacy teacher, you know what a frustrating handicap illiteracy is, and how empowered an adult learner feels, as he or she masters the “code” that links familiar sounds with the few dozen squiggles that represent them on paper. People learning Chinese have a far more complicated “code” to master. It impedes not just their ability to read but their ability to broaden their vocabulary and develop other linguistic skills.

The squiggles the Chinese writing system uses usually called “characters”don’t represent simple consonant and vowel sounds the way English letters do. Each one stands for a whole one-syllable word or word element, combining sound and meaning. For example, if a Chinese-like system were used to write English, the word “unbearable” might be written with three squiggles, one for “un”, one for “bear”, and one for “able”. And that “bear” squiggle would be different from the squiggles used in “grizzly bear”, “childbearing”, and “the right to bear arms”– to say nothing of “barefoot”, “Bering Strait”, and “baritone”. That adds up to a lot of squiggles for learners to memorize several thousand characters instead of a couple of dozen alphabet letters. Not surprisingly, illiteracy is a major problem in China. (Japanese writing, based on Chinese, uses fewer characters and includes phonetic aids.)

And when you meet a new character (or one whose sound and meaning you’ve learned and forgotten), how do you look it up? There are hundreds of Chinese dictionaries, and almost as many different systems for arranging characters. Without alphabetical order, tracking down an unknown character is much more labor-intensive than flipping pages while silently mouthing the ABC song. Even when you find the character, you won’t necessarily know without still more searching whether it’s a standalone word or part of a compound like “unbearable”.

I hope these comments serve less to discourage than to challenge people interested in learning Chinese. On the upside, the sound system of Chinese is pretty simple except for the tones, and its grammar poses no real difficulties for English speakers. Even the writing system, devilish as it may seem, has fascinated foreigners for centuries, and offers a key to understanding the classical literature and modern economic vitality of one of the great civilizations of the world.

Barry Hilton is a free-lance writer. This article is adapted from a radio program “Talkin About Talk” on South Carolina Public Radio. For more, visit http://www.cofc.edu/linguist/archives/.

[From the September 2005 CAFAM Newsletter]

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The Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine provides forums and outreach to promote awareness of and appreciation for Chinese culture. We promote friendship between non-Chinese Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Chinese people, whether from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, or elsewhere.

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