Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language
For those of you who have never met me in person, nor seen my personal pictures on this blog or on Facebook, I am six feet half an inch tall, have a brown complexion, and often sport a full beard or goatee. In China, people tell me I look like I’m from Pakistan or Turkey. My Indian friends tell me I could blend in with a crowd in Delhi. When I dine in Mexican restaurants on Chicago’s West side, the servers open conversation in Spanish, listen to one painful of sentence of Spanish out of my mouth, and then revert to English with the denigrating tone reserved for Americanized Mexicans who never properly learned their native tongue. Although ethnically speaking I am an Ashkenazik Jew, by all outward appearances I am rather…well…racially ambiguous. Yet rarely if ever does anyone guess that I am Chinese. Thus, whenever the undulating phonemes and tones of Mandarin emerge from my mouth, it elicits a reaction, from Chinese and non-Chinese alike. The comments usually go something like this:
“Wow, you learned Chinese! That is sooooo hard to do! You must be really smart!”
“Chinese is the most difficult language in the world, much more difficult than English.”
“You learned Chinese in only three and a half years? Such a short time!”
I categorically disagree with all three of these statements. Determining the actual difficulty of a language is not an exact science, and to a significant degree a language’s “difficulty” is relative to the native language of the learner. Thus, just as it would be easier for a Frenchman to learn Spanish (a fellow Romance tongue) than it would be to learn Tibetan (a Sino-Tibetan language), it would presumably be easier for a native Mandarin (also from the Sino-Tibetan family) speaker to learn Tibetan than it would be Spanish.
With that caveat in mind, my purpose in this piece is not to argue that Chinese is easier than or even equal in difficulty to English or any other language, nor that it necessarily requires less of a time commitment. Rather, the first part of this piece is going to examine what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese, and then the second part will reveal several aspects of the language which are easier, more simplistic, and far less time consuming than they would be studying English, or Spanish or French, two of the most commonly studied foreign languages by English speakers. Finally, in the third section I provide my explanation for the persistence of the myth that Chinese is exceedingly more difficult to learn than English.
Part 1: The Hard Part
“Mā má m? mà.”
In any halfway decent Chinese instructional program, this will be the very first lesson (the symbols above the letters represent the four tones of spoken Mandarin).
“Mā má m? mà.”
On the first day of study, all four invariably sound exactly the same. However, according to the instructor, ma can mean either mother, sesame, horse, or scold, depending upon the tonality with which it is pronounced.
“This is ridiculous.” “How can that be?” “I can’t even tell the difference between the first two.”
These are the typical reactions after day one of Chinese study. And despite the acrimony from his students, any instructor worth his salt will not let them proceed to the next lesson until mā má m? mà is absolutely mastered. Chances are, even with astute practice, two weeks later they all still sound basically the same, especially when not isolated in a practice exercise.
Yes, learning Chinese tones is difficult, or mind I say, excruciatingly difficult. By my count there are exactly two major areas of Chinese which are significantly more difficult than English, and pronunciation (especially tones) is number one. Not only is mastering the four tones of spoken Mandarin strenuous, but it is absolutely imperative in order for a student’s Chinese to have any chance at being comprehensible to a native speaker. Speak English with poor pronunciation, and we can generally figure out what is being said. Speak Chinese with bad tones, and you might as well be speaking Tagalog. Yup, Chinese pronunciation is extremely difficult, and I haven’t even begun to speak of the various consonant and vowel sounds which are foreign to native English speakers, but we don’t need to get into that. Let’s just accept that learning Chinese pronunciation is arduous, much more so than the pronunciation of English or a Romance tongue. Seeing as Chinese with inaccurate tones is about as comprehensible as English without consonants, any additional study without complete mastery of pronunciation is of little benefit whatsoever. And to make matters even worse, pronunciation accosts eager learners on the very first day. Bear this in mind as you read Part 3.
The second area in which I would argue Chinese is more difficult than English is in the written language, the most frequent source of consternation for Chinese language learners. However unlike pronunciation, which requires a great deal of oral contortionism and fine tuned listening skills, Chinese characters are more time consuming than they are difficult per se, and thus I list them as a distant number two in the totem of Chinese difficulty.
English has 26 letters. Chinese has anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 different characters depending upon whom you ask, however the majority of them are archaic and would only be recognized by scholars of ancient Chinese. For more practical numbers, it is commonly believed that a college educated Chinese can recognize roughly five to six thousand characters and that general literacy can be achieved with two or three thousand. Now before I go any further, I will concede that achieving literacy in Chinese requires a greater time commitment than becoming literate in English or a Romance language. Historically, this was a major impetus for the movement from traditional to simplified characters, as well as several unsuccessful attempts to replace Chinese characters with Latin letters. However, comparing English (or French or Spanish) to Chinese in terms of 2,000 characters vs. 26 letters disregards several inherent efficiencies of the Chinese language which serve to accelerate the learning curve, as will be examined in the following section.
Part 2: The Easy Part
From a purely quantitative standpoint, 3,000 characters may sound like a lot, and it is if you’re planning to master Chinese over the course of a single semester or a three month backpacking trip. But if you’re like most people, your path towards mastering Chinese will require somewhere in the neighborhood of two solid years of studying. At this rate, mastering 3,000 characters amounts to learning 5 characters a day, every day, for roughly a year and a half; hardly an excruciating task, so long as a consistent study plan is maintained.
But learning Chinese characters isn’t always as easy as it sounds, even if you are only learning 5 a day. As in tone learning, the first few character lessons for any student of Chinese can be agonizing. For me personally, I’d liken my first 300 or so characters to memorizing arbitrary strokes of chicken scratch. Sure, 口looks like a mouth, and 山 appears vaguely to resemble a mountain, but ideograms as blatantly obvious as these are few and far between, and rarely as common as characters such as 我 (I) or 是 (“to be”) which bear little overt resemblance to the concepts they represent.
Thus, Chinese character learning must begin by rote. Each character is meticulously copied into a notebook, over and over ad nauseum. In the early stages, characters are often learned one day, then forgotten the next, as the practice hours mount with little to show for their efforts. Much like learning the tones, the early stages of Chinese character learning are marred with feelings of frustration and stagnation.
However, at around the 300-500 character mark, a point of epiphany occurs and all of the chicken scratch and rote memorization begins to coalesce into an increasingly logical order. To give an example, let’s look at a character, 证, which I encountered last week while I was interpreting at an arbitration hearing. 证 means prove or demonstrate and is used in the Chinese words for testimony and deposition. 证 is composed of two parts: 讠and 正. The former means speech or words while the latter denotes the concept of straight or upright. This hints to me that 证 will likely have a meaning similar to straight words. Furthermore, the pronunciation of 正 is identical to that of 证. Thus, even had I never before seen the character 证, I would probably have a pretty solid idea of both what it means and how to pronounce it.
Before anybody gets the wrong idea, most characters do not work out as seamlessly as证. Also, the hints are rarely dead giveaways. However, the system of Chinese characters is littered with clues of meaning and pronunciation, which expedite the learning curve once a student has a grasp of the system.
Skeptics are going to read the above argument and bring forth an objection which will transition right into my next point: English vocabulary, just like Chinese characters, is also constructed of logical bits and pieces, these being root words.
English as we use it today, consists of primarily old Germanic words for much of its every days speech mixed with bits and pieces of Latin and Greek (just to name a few) which compose much of its higher and more sophisticated vocabulary. Chinese on the other hand, constructs the majority of its vocabulary out fragments of Chinese, combined together in different permutations. Simply put, Chinese is bound by a self-contained system of logic, Whereas in English, centuries of wars and invasions have rendered the language into linguistic miscegeny of highest order. Interpreting in a medical setting, I encounter examples of this on a daily basis. 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.
In effect, when one studies English, they are actually studying the vocabulary of several languages. On the contrary, once one has gained a working knowledge of Chinese, vocabulary building occurs by repeatedly using the same set of linguistic constructs, only parsing them together in different combinations.
Another result of this is that Chinese has a far less extensive vocabulary than English. To illustrate this point, consider the following conversation I had over QQ with my Chinese friend “Jeremy,” a college educated insurance salesman in Fuzhou, regarding my recent GRE studying.
Jeremy: How’s your studying going?
Ben: Good, just a lot of work. I’ve been spending a lot of time on vocabulary words.
Jeremy: Vocabulary? What do you mean?…Chinese Vocabulary?
Ben: No, English vocabulary.
Jeremy: Why are you studying English vocabulary? You’re American.
This conversation might sound ridiculous when taken out of context. Among English speakers, it is virtually impossible to reach a saturation point where one can read widely and still fail to encounter new vocabulary words. But the vocabulary of the Chinese language on the other hand, is far more constrained. Constrained to the point that other than specialized nouns and jargon, an educated Chinese will rarely if ever encounter new vocabulary words. With this understanding, it makes sense why Jeremy was surprised that as a native English-speaking, college educated American, I was still expanding my vocabulary.
Chinese vocabulary building is highly intuitive, and once students achieve basic grasp of the language, vocabulary expansion occurs at a rapid pace. Because of the systematic nature of the language, Chinese characters, which at first present a major stumbling block for students, in the long run actually serve to accelerate the learning curve. Furthermore, due to the smaller girth of its vocabulary, students of Chinese simply do not need to devote as much time and effort on vocabulary building as students of European languages such as English and French which are littered with synonymous terms of varying geographic origin.
The intuitiveness of Chinese character and vocabulary building is further complimented by another linguistic shortcut, and this would be grammar. Chinese grammar is simple, extremely simple, mainly because there isn’t much of it. Consider the following.
-Chinese nouns, verbs, and adjectives contain no masculine and feminine differentiation.
-Singular and plural are the same in China, and there are no stem changes or varying endings based on number. In English we have “two deer, three wolves, four mice, and five dogs” In Chinese, we have “two deer, three wolf, four mouse, and five dog.”
-There is no differentiation between subject and object pronouns (i.e. I/me, he/him, who/whom) in Chinese.
-There is no “agreement” between different words subject and object in Chinese, nor between nouns and their adjectives.
-But by far and away, the greatest shortcut with learning Chinese is that Chinese verbs do not conjugate. English has 12 distinct tenses. Spanish has 14. Chinese has just one. Instead of conjugating verbs, tense in Chinese is implied through the addition of an adverbial phrase or an additional verb or particle.
Furthermore, students of Chinese are often pleasantly surprised that due to its simplistic nature, Chinese grammatical irregularities, especially as they pertain to verbs, are few and far between. Consider the English verb to be, which is expressed as either is, am, are, was, were, been, or being, depending on the subject and tense. In Spanish, to be can be expressed as estar, estoy, estás, está , estamos, estáis, están, ser, soy, eres, es, somoms, sois, or son, and this is assuming we are confining our speech only to the present tense. In Chinese, we accomplish this idea of to be with a single, mono-syllabic character 是 (shì). Thus, the significant demands of time and effort presented by pronunciation and character acquisition, can be to a significant degree, offset by a simplified and highly intuitive system of grammar.
Part 3: Debunking the Myth
In the sections above, I have outlined the two “hard parts” of the Chinese language, pronunciation and the early stages of character study. I have also explained several characteristics of the Chinese language which render it more efficient and intuitive than English. It is my contention that even if these simplifying properties of the language do not completely cancel out the pain and suffering of pronunciation and characters, they do make Chinese language acquisition considerably easier than often perceived by outsiders. It is my contention that Chinese may inherently be more slightly difficult to learn than English, Spanish, or French. However it is by no means an insurmountable challenge nor is it “the hardest language in the world,” as people often speculate.
This brings us back to my original question of why common perception is that learning Chinese is excruciatingly difficult. If you’ll recall my discussion of Chinese pronunciation and Chinese characters, a commonality between these two facets of Chinese language acquisition is that the bulk of their difficulty arises at the beginning of the language learning process. As stated above, I firmly believe that the most difficult aspect of Chinese is the pronunciation. And as Chinese rookies quickly discover, without an absolute mastery of Chinese pronunciation (especially tones), spoken Chinese can be virtually incomprehensible to native speakers. Because of this, the mastery of Chinese pronunciation must occur at the very beginning of Chinese study, not gradually acquired over the course of time. Students who attempt the latter approach usually end up frustrated at their inability to communicate, give up before pronunciation is mastered, and thus continue to perpetuate the myth that Chinese is simply too difficult.
Likewise, character learning, which unlike pronunciation continues throughout the duration of the language acquisition process, is by far and away more difficult at the beginning than it is when a student has several hundred characters under their belt. When we figure that Chinese grammar and vocabulary building is pretty straightforward throughout, we are left with a model where the most arduous period of Chinese learning is at the very beginning. Once pronunciation is mastered and becomes a non-factor, the threshold of 300-500 characters is reached, and command of grammar and basic sentence patterns is internalized (by far the easiest of the three), the learning curve begins to accelerate at a rapid pace. For convenience sake, I refer to this point as the “Great Hump of China.” This runs counter to the study of most other foreign languages, and furthermore counter to the majority of life’s protracted undertakings at large. As humans, we tend to assume (and rightly so in most cases) that whether we are learning gymnastics, studying physics, or even battling computerized boxers in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, the undertakings of life begin easy and simplistic, and gradually increase in difficulty as we progress. Most students who prematurely quit their Chinese studies (and the attrition rate is high) tend to do so because of Chinese’s immediate difficulty from the onset. Using the logic that has guided them through life thus far, they deduce “if it’s this hard already, it’s only going to get harder down the line.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The initial stages of Chinese learning are extremely difficult, but once the Great Hump is crossed, the language rapidly becomes easier and easier.
The existence of the Great Hump I will also maintain, accounts for the false perceptions that mastering Chinese requires many years of studying (it shouldn’t take more than 2 or 3) and that my own ability to learn it living in China for only 3.5 years is in a word, miraculous (It isn’t. It’s typical). Students who are attempting to learn Chinese over the course of a protracted period in an immersed environment (i.e. in China) tend to quickly deviate into one of two camps: those who learn the language and those who don’t. The first group consists of those individuals who take their language studies seriously, follow a prudent study plan, and most importantly have the patience to deal with the excruciating first months. This group tends to obtain a firm grasp of the language in the span of about two years. The typical pattern begins with roughly three months of frustration, focusing heavily on pronunciation, in which little tangible improvement to communication capacity is achieved. Somewhere between the six month and one year mark, the great hump is crossed. And then for the remaining time, improvement accelerates at an exponential rate, as the student has already covered the most difficult aspects of the language.
The other group are those who remain perpetually behind the hump, and continue to exist in a constant state of novice and frustration which can last indefinitely. The most common reason for this is a failure to master pronunciation, which as mentioned before, renders any further studying for all intents and purposes, useless. Thus, students in the second group can often “study” for several years while plateauing at a level which members of the first group eclipsed in a matter of months. Put succinctly, students of Chinese either “get it” in about 2-3 years, or they never get it at all regardless of the duration of their studies. Like the early quitters, those who continue their studies but never cross the Great Hump go on to perpetuate the myth of the supreme difficulty of the Chinese language and the divine intellect of those who learn it in only a few years.
Chinese is not the most difficult language in the world. Nor is it significantly more difficult than English, Spanish, or French. And learning Chinese is not a perilous undertaking which requires years of intense study and superior mental abilities. It is a skill which can be acquired in a period of under three years, by any individual of average intelligence, provided they have access to a sufficient learning environment, the necessary amount of patience, and most importantly, are cognizant of the fact that the most critical and difficult period of their studies will be the very beginning. Was learning Chinese time consuming? Yes, it took me about two years of living in China during which I was studying and practicing every day. Was it difficult? Yes, but only in the beginning. After I passed the Great Hump, it was far easier than the French I labored over for five years in college and high school. And finally does my mastery of Chinese, as a six foot white guy with not a single drop of Chinese blood, put me on some intellectual plane above and beyond normal human intellectual capacity? Absolutely not. I still rank it up there with my second round TKO of Mike Tyson on Nintendo.