08 September 2006

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

Ever wonder why Chinese is one of the hardest languages for westerners to pick up? Because it's hard for anyone, even native Chinese speakers! David Moser's essay "Why Chinese is so damn hard" explains why. Some excerpts:


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.... 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.


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.


Anonymous said...

Hello Pinhead,

Your blog has generated some buzz on MITbbs.com, a bulletin board for Chinese students in the States. See the following link:


David Moser's pick of 'sneeze' (Chinese) to illustrate how hard it is to learn Chinese is inappropriate. Very very few cases people would need to write down those two words.

Cheer up Pinhead, Chinese isn't that hard!

Anonymous said...

While perhaps the choice of vocabulary is inappropriate, the fact of the matter remains that no (or very, very few) literate English-speakers would ever simply forget how to write "sneeze." Perhaps they would misspell it (sneaze?) but it's nearly incomprehensible that they wouldn't be able to put pen to paper and put something, whether it be sneaze or sneze or sneese, that isn't close. Whereas with the Chinese, if you forget how to write it, absent some fortunate phonetic clues, you're stuck.

(I'm an American-born Chinese currently studying Chinese in college, and I've grown up in heritage classes, so I don't think learning characters is impossible and I quibble with some of Moser's arguments. But I do think he has a point there. There are few other writing systems in the world where you just start forgetting parts of it when you don't use it and can forget common words like that.)

Stewart said...

In the end, the issue of Chinese characters is that it is another language to learn in parallel with the spoken language. All that Moser says about the lack of connection between word spoken and word written is true enough, but ultimately language is not about words but about meaning. For example, the "sneeze" word, though it may have an element of the sound made when sneezing it has nothing about it that intrinsically conveys the action of sneezing. Still less is their some innate quality in the word "tissue" that suggests what to draw hastily from your pocket when you do sneeze. Try and guess the word for "writing" in any language you are not already familiar with.
Not that any of this stops Chinese being "so damn hard" of course, but given that you are learning two languages at once, you have to expect some problems!