Learning Chinese

May 25, 2011 at 10:33 am (Arts and languages)

There is in recent years a growing trend of native English speakers attempting to learn Chinese in North America and in Western Europe. It is often seen by students and parents as a marketable skill given the rising economic status of mainland China as well as the growing Chinese population in the U.S. and Canada. Quite frankly, however, I find it a silly endeavor. Here are several reasons NOT to learn Chinese:

1. It is (almost) impossible. Written Chinese is one of the most difficult written languages in the world today. There exists more than 120,000 characters, about 30,000 of them commonly used, and about 5,000 of them necessary for daily communication. A typical Chinese course teaches you about 100 characters, which is about the amount that a Chinese toddler needs to maintain his daily necessities: ask for food, water, and toys. In addition, many words in Chinese consist of more than one character. Finally, characters and words have different meanings depending on context. That gives rise to, by my rough estimate, a few trillion possible combinations of characters that may or may not have a valid meaning.

…Now you add onto all this the fact that there is a pronunciation associated to each character depending on its context of usage as well as location in the sentence.

Probably the best evidence of the difficulty of Chinese is the existence of a unique form of television show in China, in which foreigners (many of whom having lived in China for decades) make their best attempt to speak Chinese. It was a highly successful and popular television show. Critics called it cruel and humiliating.

2. You are not really learning “Chinese”. Contrary to popular belief (and nationalistic propaganda from the CPC), Chinese is most certainly not a language; the best classification I can think of is to regard Chinese as a language family consisting of a written language with two different scripts (Traditional/Simplified), and numerous spoken languages. For example, if you go to the East Guangdong region, you may encounter six major spoken languages all in one city: Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien (Taiwanese), Hakka, Mandarin and English. The Chinese languages share the same character set (with two different scripts as mentioned above), but with completely different pronunciation and largely different vocabulary and grammatical structure.

In the U.S., one usually only learns how to write simplified Chinese and to speak Mandarin. Such students often realize this deficiency only when they wander into a Chinatown and find out that they cannot read nor understand anything. If you’re going to any of the major Chinese cities besides Beijing (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Singapore), forget about Mandarin. The natives will probably understand English better than that. Also, you won’t be able to read anything that was written over 100 years ago either. They’re in an entirely different language called Classical Chinese.

3. They all speak English anyway. A typical Chinese student spends years in secondary school learning English. Since English is a easy language to learn, most of the younger generation of Chinese speak English at an advanced level. It makes much more sense for Americans and Chinese to communicate in English rather than Mandarin or some other Chinese language, if that is the goal.

(If your goal is not communication but rather appreciation of the natural beauty of the Chinese languages…just understand that all the Chinese characters you are learning were designed by some barely literate communist officials a few decades ago.)


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