10.29.09

Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language

Posted in Linguistics at 12:13 am by Benjamin Ross

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.

48 Comments »

  1. Marc United States said,

    October 29, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Actually, look closer and you’ll see that English only has two verb tenses: present and past.

    eat/ate, walk/walked, am/was

    Just like Chinese, we use modals to convey extra meaning for all other “tenses” that are seen in other languages (will (要), am+verb+ing (正在+verb or verb+着), etc …

    Theoretically, English still has the subjunctive mood as well (if I WERE rich), but a vast majority of people just say “was” instead of “were” these days.

  2. Aaron Japan said,

    October 29, 2009 at 1:58 am

    Marc, you’re missing a conjugation: past participle. This is not trivial to derive on a per-word basis, and in general must be memorized. Your examples:

    eat/ate/eaten, walk/walked/walked, am/was/been

  3. YAG United Arab Emirates said,

    October 29, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Hi Ben,

    Funnily, I tend to agree with all your analysis… except your conclusion!

    Based on my significant experience in English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin), Arabic (MSA, Gulf and Tunisian dialect), and on a much lighter experience with Japanese, Korean, Dutch. Italian and Russian, no doubt Chinese scores as the most difficult of this list.
    (Obviously, I can’t say it’s the most difficult language in the world, as I can have a fair opinion only about the 11 in this list)

    In my view, what your describing as a “hump” happens in every (successfull) langage learning process. The question is merely how high and long the hump *compared to other languages*!

    Precisely because of the 2 reasons you describe (tones and sinograms), Chinese has the highest hump for any western, arabic or slavonic native speaker.
    Probably Arabic comes second, because of some difficult phonems and because a decent grammatical knowledge is required just to be able to read a text (yes, it may sound strange but grammar and vocabulary are intricately mixed in Arabic, so grammar is actually a prerequisite before reading).
    In the same line of thought, English is one of the easiest. The English hump is
    - small as regards the vocabulary (like every langage, you have to learn it, but if you already know a western langage you’ll find lots of cognates),
    - non-existent as regards pronunciation (all English sounds can be quite easily approximated),
    - quite low as regards grammar, compared to other European languages (actually, I view English and Chinese has having both relatively simple grammar)

    Anyway, thanks for your blog, as always pleaseant and thought-provoking.

  4. James United States said,

    October 29, 2009 at 4:53 am

    I think I will be linking this for other people who ask me similar questions. I think what you did with Chinese is pretty amazing and came from alot of hard work. Thanks for the kick of inspiration-back to work!

  5. Brenton United States said,

    October 29, 2009 at 8:51 am

    A really great book on this very subject is “Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy” by the late John DeFrancis. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing I highly recommend reading the introductory essay. It’s available through books.google.com if your local bookstore or library doesn’t carry it.

  6. Lisa in Toronto Canada said,

    October 29, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    If anyone has ideas to learn Cantonese, there are the words (examples – key verbs to have and to be) that have a formal written character with matching sound (the same character as used in Mandarin), but then there are the oral versions which one actually uses. The oral versions have characters, but only really low quality newspapers seem to print those. Everyone else sees the formal character in print, but pronounces it as the oral version. Wow that was a mind-blowing moment in class.

  7. Kai China said,

    November 2, 2009 at 2:11 am

    A very well written post. I’m sure some linguists, like those above, may have differing opinions on the details but I think most people can appreciate the main points you’re trying to convey and should, hopefully, help alleviate some frustrations for those learning the Chinese language.

  8. Ray United States said,

    November 2, 2009 at 2:56 am

    You said, “it would presumably be easier for a native Mandarin (also from the Sino-Tibetan family) speaker to learn Tibetan than it would be Spanish.”

    I am a native English speaker that speaks both Chinese and Tibetan. Actually learning Tibetan for a Chinese speaker it not any easier that it would be for English speaker. Tibetan is easier for a Korean or Japanese speaker because the word order (verb at the end) is the same as Tibetan. Tibetan has a very complex grammar, and complex system of honorifics that make it rather difficult.

    I would think that for a Chinese person to learn Spanish would actually be easier than learning Tibetan, because of the complex nature of the Tibetan language. Although Tibetan and Chinese are both in the Sino-Tibetan language family, there is very little similarity. On the other hand Tibetan and Burmese are fairly similar.

  9. maxiewawa Australia said,

    November 2, 2009 at 3:04 am

    Nice article! Did you just write it on a whim? Can we expect more?

  10. Jiang China said,

    November 2, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Ben,
    -There is no “agreement” between different words subject and object in Chinese, nor between nouns and their adjectives.
    What is “agreement”?

  11. Wonders for Oyarsa United States said,

    November 2, 2009 at 10:16 am

    I agree with your analysis, and might even go further. For me, the difficulty of learning Chinese characters is offset by the difficulty of English spelling. The correct analogy is not between a Chinese character and an English one, but between Chinese characters and English words. As a dreadful speller myself, I am more than a little relieved to be studying a language where there isn’t linear spelling. I am more artistic and visual, and the two dimensional composition of characters is far easier for me to memorize than the huge amount of inconcistancies, ambiguities, and exceptions in remembering how to spell English words.

  12. Brittany United States said,

    November 3, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Great post. Thanks for the insight. I just moved to China and have just begun my part-time studies (working full-time), and am finding myself incredibly frustrated with the language and worried I’ll never be able to learn. I have been thinking “If I can’t even get the basics, how will I ever learn the higher-level stuff?” so this post gives me a bit of encouragement, so thanks, from one Midwesterner to another. Now, back to practicing my tones…

  13. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 3, 2009 at 9:49 am

    @YAG
    Thanks for your thoughts. I would agree that there is a hump in every language, especially in the process of “compiling” all of your studying all together to put to practice and become “fluent.” I think, however, the kicker is that Chinese has an abnormally spiky learning curve. For example, when I was studying French, as soon as we would master one tense, there was always another one which would pop up. In addition to memorizing all of the conjugations, we would have to decipher which tense to use in what situations, and often with no English equivalent. The deeper we progressed into the language, the more exceptions to rules we would encounter. With a few very tiny exceptions however (把 and 被) come to mind, Chinese is never really any more difficult or complex than it is on the first day.

    @maxiewawa
    This article has been at the tip of my tongue for the last four years. I has become increasingly exhausting hearing how difficult Chinese is from people who’ve never actually studied the language in full course. So in essence, this post is a syntheses to my various rebuttals to that argument.

    @Jiang
    “Agreement” is a linguistic construct whereby different parts of speech, when used in the same sentence, must “agree,” in either number or gender. So for example if a noun is feminine and plural, and you are using an adjective to modify it, the adjective must be in a feminine and plural form as well. It’s a common characteristic of Romance languages.

    @Wonders of Oyarsa
    Yes, yes, yes! Exactly! I’ve pondered of this before and it should have been part of the original post. People who remark about the intensive labor required to memorize 3,000 characters are quick to forget the hours and hours we all spent as kids studying for spelling tests. Nope, the English language definitely does not spell itself (although Spanish does about 99% of the time).

  14. jiacheng United States said,

    November 3, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    I have to say that I don’t share your view that Chinese is only slightly harder for an English speaker to learn than Spanish, French, etc.

    First of all, 3000 characters is not just 3000 characters. In my estimation, that’s probably about 10,000 words. (this is based on using some computerized sorting on my 6000+ word vocab list) Granted, the more characters you know, the easier it gets to retain meanings of new character combinations, but it’s definitely not a cakewalk either. All of a sudden, your original 3000 character estimate has more than tripled to about 15 words per day.

    You cite that pronunciation might be a sticking point for some, but I would maintain that pure pronunciation is actually quite easy considering that there are only around 400 different syllables, (maybe 2000 when you differentiate by the 4 tones & neutral tone). The side effect of this is that there are a ridiculous number of homonyms in Chinese. For 2 character words, this is not quite as bad, but a quick check in the dictionary will often reveal 30+ characters for the same exact sound with the same tone. This makes it difficult to identify new words in speech without stopping the speaker to ask him which of the 38 ji1 sounds he actually meant in this new word that you’re unfamiliar with. After which, he attempts to explain the character by using other words you may also be unfamiliar with, or trying to write the character with his finger on his hand with no ink. This makes listening to news, TV, movies w/o subtitles, and group conversation very tricky.

    Now, outside of the technical reasons, I’d like to mention that I have known at least one guy that studied Chinese alongside Spanish. In his estimation,
    Chinese required about 3 times the amount of effort to attain an equivalent level of proficiency as in Spanish.

    Chinese is not a language that you can just “pick up” in passing by living in China. You have to actively study it, unless you are a truly gifted individual. While I haven’t lived in China for long periods, I have been exposed to Chinese to and plateaued for many years because I was not actively studying. I have encountered people whose Chinese level was well below my own and had actually lived in China as many as 6 years.

    I’d also like to point out that in your article, you maintain that your own 3.5 year quest to learn Chinese was a miracle, yet later on you state that a person of average intelligence could do it in 3. Seems like contradictory statements because you’re clearly not below average. Maybe you’re talking about different levels of proficiency here.

    In my estimation, here is what studying Chinese in a 5 unit course over 3 years will get you:

    2000-2200 characters (5000-5500) words

    Ability to converse with individuals and get most of your meaning across. You will have to stop them and ask them the meaning of many words. Technical topics, computers, psychology or any topic that you are not intimately familiar with will give you a lot of difficulty.

    In group conversation, you will be able to get the general gist of the conversation, but you will miss many many details.

    You’ll be able to get the general meaning of newspaper articles, but you will miss many details unless you’re using a dictionary to aid you.

    Is this fluency? not by a longshot. But after 3 years of 5 unit spanish courses, I would guess that you’ll have a college level vocabulary.

    In my estimation, most learners of Chinese who have gotten over the “great hump” tend to overestimate their own capacity, perhaps this is because Chinese folks are very gracious and tend to stroke our egos by constantly complementing our language ability. Looking back, I was probably guilty of that meself, but the thing that drives me now is that I’ve put so much effort into Chinese, it would be a waste to give up now. Most people would call me fluent, but I know i’m not there yet. Maybe I need 1 more year if I can dedicate that to studying. So folks who are learning Chinese, don’t get complacent, because beyond the great hump is the great plateau. You must maintain a consistent regimen if you hope to get past the plateau.

  15. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 3, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    @jiacheng

    Thanks for your comments. Always refreshing to hear some opposing viewpoints.

    As for pronunciation, you are certainly correct that Chinese has less possibly syllabic combinations than your typical run of the mill language. However, the reason why Chinese pronunciation presents so many problems for students is not the number of different sounds that they must master, but the degree of accuracy they must attain. The most common complaint I hear from Chinese novices is “I’m pronouncing it right, but nobody can understand what I’m saying.” Well, more often than not, they’re pronouncing it about 80% right, enough so that if they were speaking English or a Romance tongue, native speakers could figure out what they are saying. In Chinese the bar is somewhere around 95% (these are completely arbitrary percentages, I’m just using them as point of reference.)

    Also, I’d like to clarify. I was not intending to say that me learning Chinese in 3.5 years was a miracle. On the contrary, I was saying there was nothing miraculous about it whatsoever. I took another look over my wording, and can see how you (and other readers) might have gotten that impression. I’ve since edited that sentence for clarity.

  16. Tina Wichmann China said,

    November 4, 2009 at 3:56 am

    Personally speaking Chinese can be difficult especially travelling to rural areas as you quickly discover the locals speaking their own dialect.

    Living in Xiamen, many locals speak Min nan hua, so that always makes for a fun experience at the local market, but I don’t feel so bad when I hear native Chinese speaking to each other, and you hear, “ting bu dong”.

  17. gabriel United States said,

    November 4, 2009 at 6:13 am

    hi Benjamin, I have to disagree with your contention that a student of Chinese who can\’t pronounce the tones will never be understood by anyone, and that learning the language is useless without mastering the tones. How do I know?
    Simple, I am a foreigner living in China. I have been here one year, and I haven\’t studied Chinese full time in class, but mostly on my own and recently in a private course which is only twice a week. My Chinese is quite poor, and when I speak my tones are practically non-existent. However, Chinese people usually understand the words I am saying despite the lack of tones. Although it is obviously better to use the tones, it is a huge exageration to say that it is useless to speak Chinese without them. On the contrary, many foreigners speak fluently without really using the tones, and the Chinese understand them most of the time.

  18. Marie United States said,

    November 5, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for your analysis. As someone who is attempting to teach herself Cantonese (no classes in this area) and am in some lower ring of hell right now wrestling with all the suffixes and their varying meanings and uses in conversational Cantonese, it is somewhat comforting to know that at some point, it will get easier. I agree that tones are not easy, and Cantonese without tones is sometimes totally incomprehensible–witness Cantopop songs where native speakers must rely on written out lyrics to figure out what the song is actually about! In some ways, though, maybe Cantonese is easier than Mandarin because with more tones, there are actually fewer homophones. Small comfort, though, when I’m trying to distinguish 6, 7 or is it 8 tones (depends on who you talk to) and reproduce them accurately.

    Too bad I’ll have to wait to learn to read and write in Chinese until I begin learning Mandarin. But first there is much more Cantonese to learn. Although, I fully expect learning Mandarin will be akin to learning Spanish after I was already fluent in French–not a piece of cake, but definitely much, much faster because of all the cognates and grammar similarities.

  19. Duncan United States said,

    November 5, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    I think it’s hard to dispute that if you spend 3.5 years learning Chinese you won’t be as far advanced in the language of study as if you had spent the exact same amount of time learning French.

    I’m assuming your French study was not done in France, daily, interacting with French people?

    In addition, I’m sure nobody would claim total oral and written ‘fluency’ in Chinese in a period of 3.5 years. Most diplomatic services in western countries classify Chinese as among the hardest and most time consuming languages to learn, based on years of experience and innumerable diplomats/servicemen going through the learning process (don’t forget not everyone has years at hand to study the language in China, and many have to make do with some form of part time tuition in their native country).

    I would say that the understanding that Chinese is ‘hard’ is not a myth, and certainly not something that can be summarily debunked in the space of a blog post. I do however agree with a some of your points, Chinese grammar is relatively easy, but the characters are not. With 2,000-3,000 characters under your belt you will still struggle to read a newspaper without a dictionary. To read a newspaper without having to resort to some kind of aid, I estimate that you need around 5,000 characters. To read it back to back, recognising every character that may in every remote possibility pop up? I reckon you’d need 7,000-8,000 – you’d also need this number to be able to read something like Fortress Besieged without a dictionary. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever not need a dictionary when reading something classical like the 太平广记.

    Chinese is not ‘supremely difficult’, but it is relatively hard, and it doesn’t help learners to try and pretend that all things are equal.

  20. Tex China said,

    November 7, 2009 at 2:48 am

    @gabriel: I was where you were my first year. In fact it took until about 2.5 years to really make some sense of the tones that was basic. I’m finally hearing that pesky 2nd tone and can finally correctly hear certain tones in my studies lessons. Simple dialogue can usually be understood by most Chinese speakers no matter if the tones are butchered-if you’re anything like me many of the words you learn eventually reach a level of tone correctness, for example: I can say alot of words fairly correct but if you ask me which tone I usually narrow it down to between 2 tones. Still far far far from perfect but a marked improvement over before when there was zero tone recognition.

    good luck with your studies!

  21. Samantha China said,

    November 7, 2009 at 3:22 am

    Gabriel, I disagree. I live in China as well, I almost always use tones correctly, but when I use them incorrectly more often than not I am misunderstood. *I* can’t even understand half the things foreigners say when they speak Chinese without tones.

    I also don’t think you can say that a foreigner is speaking fluently if he or she is not even able to pronounce words correctly.

  22. Mark China said,

    November 7, 2009 at 5:11 am

    Yes, I’ll agree that the tones are the most important thing in speaking and understanding. I’ve been working here and haven’t studied much so my Chinese is poor and my tones are generally off. My wife on the other hand spent 2 semesters at university and can speak with proper tones. She is understood whilst I am not. The general poor level can be figured out, I can survive on my own in a restaurant or shopping, but once it steps up to something more complex or where what I may be saying is not as expected (such as asking for the nearest bank), I get blank looks and a “ting bu dong” response. I’m getting better, but it’s a slow process since I don’t have the time, or drive really, to devote to learning – right now I’m just learning by mimicking my wife which probably isn’t the best since she’s just learning too.

    We will be back in Chicago in two months and since once there we will have more free time after work we are planning to try and take some classes that will get us to that next level.

  23. Hao Hao Report United States said,

    November 7, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  24. PH United States said,

    November 7, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Depends on to which level you want to learn it.

    The intonation is the first major stumbling block. The pictogram a second stumbling block, because the pronunciation and meaning are kept separating. Once you conquer these two, no it is not bad.

    But a Chinese learner has a long way to go yet before he will start sounding more than an elementary student. The final stumbling block, which many Chinese also have trouble with, is learning ancient Chinese and all the idioms.

  25. Marie United States said,

    November 8, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Seeing the accumulation of comments, perhaps it is wisest to say that the study of any of the Chinese dialects and written Chinese can be as time-consuming and inexhaustible are the student wishes to make them. When basic communication has been mastered, there are virtually limitless opportunities to deepen and refine one\’s knowledge and understanding of the language. Just opening the door to classic Chinese poetry, for example, could occupy one for many decades. I am now 51 and expect that I will continue studying Chinese for the rest of my life. But perhaps such dedication may have its rewards. For a perpetual student such as myself, I could hardly have chosen a more suitable language.

  26. Peter Jeziorek United States said,

    November 8, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Ben,

    You are correct that Chinese tends to build permutations using simple character building blocks, but I think this actually makes it harder to remember the permutations. Because the word “plumber” is a unique word, you actually will spend a special effort trying to learn it — while in Chinese I can stumble through the meaning without actually paying special attention to remembering the word. So “the rapid expansion of vocabulary” doesn’t necessarily translate into rapid memorization and personal usability of the vocabulary — it may take the same amount of time if not longer.

  27. joni Philippines said,

    November 10, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Nice! I have been thinking most of the same points you’ve shared but have not had the time nor energy to map them out the way you did it. One other thing I’d like to add is that after you’ve gotten to the part when Chinese characters are already making sense and you’ve gotten over how amazing that feels, the learning curve will then hit a plateau unless maybe you push yourself more by reading magazine/newspaper articles, novels, etc. I’m on that stage, which I think is the second hump in Chinese-learning (slightly lower, maybe, depending on how you’re looking at it). And no, I have not gotten to overcoming that hump yet. *bawls

  28. Nick China said,

    November 11, 2009 at 4:16 am

    Right, ok, so, this debunking of Chinese as a language that’s “difficult-but-not-impossible” is one I’ve seen quite a few more times than I’d care to think about. But rarely, if ever, do I see anyone mention exactly what it means when you’ve learned Chinese.

    After 3.5 years, can you pick up a novel and read it in 3 days? Can you discuss geopolitics and ancient boatbuilding techniques? Can you write a passable corporate report? Can you do Da Shan’s stupid dictionary commercial pitch in a Shandong twang? Can you invent passable sexual euphemisms on the spot without reference to English (日语 is one of my favorites)?

    It’s definitely not a pissing contest, but man, at 3.5 years, I couldn’t do those things that are the defining marks of a fluent user of a language. I’m slowly, slowly learning to at 6 years of study. I still don’t feel completely unhobbled, like I can speak my mind in full, persuasively, and effectively in Chinese, but I feel like I’m nearing (not at) the place where further active improvements directly connected to the language on my part, like memorizing new vocabulary and rereading my grammar guides are diminishing returns.

    It’s important to define what being “fluent” in a language means when you’re explaining how to make progress, because the ability to simply have an inquisitive conversation is not the be all and end all of language. There are things like persuasion, tone, cultural literacy, performing, and crafting a message for different personalities that 3.5, 6, and even 10 years of study will leave you woefully unprepared for if you’re not aware of them.

    I really hate to be the wet blanket in these conversations, because I know how important progress is. It’s just that so often in these discussions of how easy or hard Chinese is, the ancillary functions of the language just get left out. But they’re by and large the real difference between someone who “can speak some Chinese” and someone who can just outright kick ass at it. And the attrition rate of students isn’t just at the tone level, it’s at the points that follow where no matter how hard you try to win an argument or make your point or get your girl/boyfriend to see things your way or tell that really funny joke even though you totally worked on tailoring a version of it in Mandarin in the car on the way to dinner, your efforts just. fall. flat. I’ve known a lot of people who give up there, too.

    I’d love to hear a breakdown of what you think you can and can’t accomplish with 3.5 years of Chinese study. It’s a subject that just plain old doesn’t get enough treatment in Chinese or English media. Fluency and success in studying a language is in no way a black and white issue…even Da Shan sounds like a dork most of the time!

  29. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 11, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    @Nick

    Thanks for your long comment. I’ll do my best to reply. First of all, I want to point out that nowhere in the post did I use the word “fluent.” I despise this term, and find it to be a grossly over simplified analysis of one’s language level, in no small part because of all the questions you posed in the second paragraph of your comment.

    The qualifier I often use to define “learning” the language is a point which I call “occupationally functional.” In other words, you could work a basic white collar job in your second language, and not be impeded to a significant degree by your linguistic abilities. The main characteristic of being occupationally functional is that by this point, mastering the language necessary to complete one’s job (or relationship for that matter) is merely a matter of adding the necessary jargon and phaseology. This, compared with learning the nuts and bolts of a language, is a significantly faster process.

    Take me for lack of a better example. I’ve been working now for about a year part time as a medical interpreter. After spending a year with Chinese people in hospitals, I could probably describe the ins-and-outs (pun not intended) of a colonoscopy or an electrocardiogram at about the same level as an educated Chinese. By the same token, I have Chinese friends here in Chicago who work in research labs who could explain the inner workings of mitochondrial DNA, in equal, if not more concise and intellectual English than I could.

    No individual is ever going to reach that point where you no everything. But that point where you have the *capacity* to learn just about anything is what I would maintain you could learn in three years.

    Now when you bring up “persuasion, tone, cultural literacy, performing, and crafting a message,” we are entering an entirely new realm of language learning, one that regardless of which language, very few individuals actually achieve. And on this, I will agree with you 100% that it takes much longer than 3 years to develop.

    The thing is, for many language learners, they find they can achieve their linguistic goals, without ever reaching this far into the upper echelons of language learning. (not to say that there is no value in it) Additionally, and this supports your point I believe, learning the subtle nuances of language takes a lot longer than learning the more concrete aspects. People often find they have neither the time nor the need nor the desire to take their language to such a level, mainly because the payoff just isn’t worth the time commitment (in practical terms).

    So I think in essence, we are in agreement. There certainly are higher levels of Chinese language learning which require more than three years. The real question is whether or not it is worth it to the individual to invest their time in taking their language skills to the next level.

  30. Jiefu Hong Kong said,

    November 14, 2009 at 8:41 am

    I’ve always liked to use the example of River Horse and it’s Greek equiv used in English. Nice essay and great conversation, Benjamin. I thank you for encouraging beginners, as I have, by pointing out the building block nature of the language while maintaining the imperative of correct tones and character learning.

    It’s been 35 years since my first ma, ma, ma, ma, and I’m still learning– which brings up the issue of effective fluency.

    The points Nick and Marie alluded to are important, I think. And it’s not as simple a matter as achieving the learner’s goals. Here’s why: true fluency means that one can communicate as effectively in Chinese as he/she would in their native tongue in situations where it matters– all in a cultural context very different for most foreigners. Let’s face it, many of us don’t even realize it when we’ve missed the mark among Chinese, but we’d get the proper feedback to correct if we were back home (jerks excepted).

    I am sure you’ve met foreigners in China who have the “kick ass” ability to articulate anything they want in Chinese. But I call them “loose cannons”. Sometimes in some places the last thing you want is to articulate what, say, a callow midwesterner with some itch (I’m from Chicago myself) would.

    The question I have to ask myself, regularly, is how would some of my smoother Chinese friends deal with this situation in order to get the response they’re after? After all, the meaning of your communication is the response you get, regardless of “what you meant to say”.

    In a Chinese context, this would be use of rhetorical tricks, allusions, idioms, reference to relative status and obscure obligations, etc, etc. Hell, sometimes it’s use of silence!

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    BTW, I was directed here by Hao Hao and you’ve got my vote!

  31. xge China said,

    November 24, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Classics like 太平广记 are hard to read. Most of the colleage educated native Chinese are not able to read it as well, unless he/she majors in Chinese literature or history. If fluency in Chinese is measured by how fast you can read Chinese classics, then most of the native Chinese speakers will not be fluent.
    So Chinese learners, please note: classic Chinese literatures are written in a different language than the Chinese used by everybody today.

  32. Andy Goldstein China said,

    February 17, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Duly noted all the above comments and conversations.

    Fluency as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary is just to “be able speak or write to be able to express oneself easily, articulately, and accurately.”

    Speak OR write.

    According to this definition, one can be illiterate and still be fluent, right? I speak, read, and write English, Spanish, and Mandarin and can perform social and business functions in each. I can read newspapers, basic novels, and magazines. Scientific journals take a while, but they take a while even in my native English. I consider myself fluent in all three, but only really educated in the two where I received formal instruction (English & Spanish).

    With that said, I know individuals who speak all three as native speakers yet are illiterate (really cannot read or write at all) due to a total lack of education or schooling. Does this make me (a native USA) more fluent than my indigenous friends in Mexico because I can read Pablo Neruda and they can’t? Or more fluent because I can read Three Kingdoms, but the countryside peasants in Anhui I met who never learned to read can’t?

    I don’t think so.

    In addition, there were (and still are) many languages that are only oral in tradition. Thai, for example, only got a writing system in the 13th c. I’m ignorant to the continent of Africa, but I assume that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of local languages without formal writing systems. The Native Americans of the USA as well. Did the Epic of Gilgamesh and the emergence of Cuneiform raise the bar on what defines true fluency? It’s hard to convince me of that.

    Therefore, let’s not confuse language sophistication or education with an individual being considered “fluent”.

  33. billy in beijing United States said,

    March 5, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Ben,

    Nice article. Thanks for writing it. It gives me some added motivation as I keep up my Mandarin studies. I’m convinced that half the internet population reads blogs solely to answer this question, “How can I disagree with this person?” These posts confirm my suspicion.

    William

  34. brian China said,

    March 15, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I’m not gonna pick the post apart, I 99% agree with everything you said.

    I finally have an easy way to respond to those “you went to Tsinghua after only studing for 2 years?!?!” comments. Thank you Ben. The fact that I could never express it as eloquently as you is testament to the fact that learning Chinese does not demonstrate any special intellectual prowess.

    Keep it real!

  35. brian China said,

    March 15, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Sorry to double post

    In response to Jiefu: the people who you refer to as “loose cannons” aren’t so because their Chinese is good enough to say what they want. They\’re like that because they have no tact, no cultural sensitivtity, or are arrogant/abrasive in other ways.

    It would certainly be silly to generalize that “foreigners just can’t keep their mouths shut, so they really shouldn’t learn Chinese well.”

  36. Street-Smart Language Learning Japan said,

    March 20, 2010 at 2:37 am

    Your description of Chinese is dead on. It’s not nearly as hard as everyone says.

  37. Henway United States said,

    March 26, 2010 at 8:01 am

    This post is good motivation.

    To those who comment about reaching true ‘fluency’. Please. Gimme a break. It’s already rare to find someone who has reached a solid, functional grasp of written and spoken Mandarin in 3 or so years. Let’s reach that level first (which is VERY commendable!) before we get into the nuances of fluency, shall we? Geez, it’s like you’re like giving a newbie weightlifter a 500 lb dumbbell in his week of training. Whether or not someone has really reached true fluency is NOT a major issue for the readers here. Learning how to reach the functional level first is the FOCUS.

    It all comes down to beliefs. If you believe Mandarin is extremely hard, and almost impossible, chances are u’ll give up easily. If you believe Mandarin is easy, even though objectively it may not be, guess what? You’ll probably make mistakes.. but you’ll have a higher chance of actually accomplishing your goals.

  38. mariana Canada said,

    May 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Hi Ben, nice to read your blog!

    However, I wonder..how long have you been studying chinese in China, intensely?
    Please let me know your capability in Chinese? How many characters you could recognize within 3.5 years? Based on your own experience, how many characters we should understand before we can make a real conversation (in a working environment, phone business conversation) without being frustrated and look up the dictionary to look for sheng ci before doing each of the conv?

    I happened to study Chinese in China for 1.5 years, and now I am in my home country. I could recognize around 1000 – 1500 characters still, after 3 years of leaving China. I believe this knowledge is the same as while I was in my last year in China.

    The main reason why I decided to go back for good is…I still remember, there was a time when I feel so sick of seeing the characters and decided to put it off. I was depressed!I mean it! For some characters, they are almost similar, but the tones are different, and different meanings. I watched news, but I could understand nothing but hearing mumbling grumbling different mono syllablic words intensely spoken.

    I salute all of you who can stand the ma ma ma ma and those bi shun that already make me tou teng and left me with no choice other than hui guo.

    Sorry for my bad english, I myself is not an english native speaker but I can say that learning English is much easier.

  39. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    May 14, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Mariana-

    I started studying Chinese when I moved to China in spring of 2004. If my memory serves me correctly, I was at about 1300 characters about a year and a half into it, at which point I lost one of my notebooks, and thus stopped keeping track. As of now, I would estimate I know somewhere between 2000 and 3000, but I truly have no idea.

    I think you are on the right pace though. 1000 characters per year (approx 3 per day) is a very reasonable rate to learn. However I want to stress that while there is some correlation, learning characters and learning how to speak are two very separate skill sets. Being good at one does not mean you are good at the other. As for the different meanings, Chinese is just like any other language in that there are lots of homonyms. English has a ton of them too. It’s just one of those hiccups that goes with the territory of learning a language. Don’t worry about the news. Comprehending newscaster Chinese is a very high level skill, and one that I would also argue doesn’t have a whole ton of practical value unless you are very, very advanced. Stick with television series. You will find them easier to understand, and the language you learn will be more applicable to daily life. Learning English is not easy either, and the fact you have explained your ideas so clearly in arguably the world’s most illogical languages makes me confident you can learn Chinese too. Whenever you get frustrated with Chinese, just sit back and think about all those tenses, irregular verbs, articles, and spelling conventions you labored over while studying English.

  40. Anonymous Canada said,

    May 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Hi Ben,
    I might assume that if you score 8 for the HSK, you can be a good teacher!

  41. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    May 18, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    @Anonymous
    In my opinion, being good at a language and being good at *teaching* a language are two different skills, so I don’t think any score on the HSK necessarily qualifies one to be a good teacher.

  42. Nathan China said,

    July 1, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    There was an interesting article i read comparing Japanese and Mandarin. Which one is more difficult.

    It had some underlining points, that most people argeed with. That if you study a week with Mandarin vs Japanese you will beable to use your Mandarin less in the real world than if you studied Japanese for a week.
    This is because the tones of mandarin combined with the bad pronounciation makes it really hard for locals to understand you.

    However learning Mandarin at the start is easier than japenese because of the grammar points as japanese grammar hits you like a huge right hook at the very start.However after that first bump of grammar(which will last for a few months) it actually gets easier where the difficult of the tones will last for years.

    I have had mandarin lessons in shanghai for about a year and my tones are terrible however most of the time if you put what you want to say in context then you get people to understand you.Also im one of those lazy mandarin studens who don’t study the characters :(

    What do you think ?

  43. Why Learning Chinese Is Hard | Sinosplice United States said,

    November 11, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    [...] Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Diffic… by Ben Ross [...]

  44. Leo Fu China said,

    February 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    My focus is on sharing Chinese character knowledge in a logical and evolutionary way which reduces every character into the one or several smallest meaningful unit, like building blocks. They are not strokes, not radicals, but roots as we call them.
    The roots are crystalized scenes of the moment that Chinese ancestors created characters. That is to say we could restore the very moment of Chinese ancient life by analysing roots therefore pinning down the core meaning of roots backed by logical reasoning and archaeological evidence against traditonal method which just repeated the explainations in the ancient books by sages like Confucius and Xu Shen (许慎).
    Since the roots are the ones with meaningful scenes which distinguished from the strokes ——formal sturctures components —— and from radicals —— the products of pragmatic compansation for compilation of dictionary, the course of characters can be entertaining and idea-provoking and interactive.
    According to the natures of different roots, we categorized roots into several groups, such as roots related to Human body, roots sex organ, roots animals, roots plants, roots natural environment, roots tools and so on.
    Becasue of the new starting point, I have totally confidence on this kind of method and on the belief that this will be a revolution in learning characters!
    I hope we can have a chance to talk deeply. :)
    I am looking forward to your response :)
    Best Regards
    Leo
    my email address is beyondcharacter@163.com

  45. Rupert Pupnick United States said,

    April 26, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Hi Ben,

    As an amateur linguist a bit short of two years learning Chinese (and,
    I sense, significantly behind where you were at that point in your studies), I wanted to offer what I found to be a more helpful way of
    thinking about what you refer to as “tenses”, particularly when you
    look back at English from the standpoint of a Chinese learner.

    I’ve heard the term tense-aspect-mood used to describe the idea you
    are writing about. Tense is the temporal state (past, present, or future), aspect its state (completed or imperfect), and mood being the speakers “feelings” about what is being said (indicative, subjunctive, imperative, interrogative, conditional).

    Once I wrapped my brain around these ideas, the concept of the subjunctive in Romance languages, or “le” (aspect particle) in Chinese all became part of a greater whole which I found much easier to understand.

    Rupe

  46. chinannah United States said,

    June 28, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for this great post! I\’m a native English speaker who fell in love with Chinese about eight years ago. I\’ve been studying and living in Chinese speaking areas off and on since then, and now I\’m an aspiring Mandarin teacher. It will soon be my task to convince students and administrators that Chinese is a worthwhile language to study and not THAT hard. Thanks for clearly and succinctly writing about all the reasons why!

    Anna H.

  47. Ariel Pao United States said,

    December 30, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Great analysis! Just to piggyback on the hard part– pronunciation. I think it is hard for non-Mandarin speakers to learn 破音字, words with different pronunciations depending on the context (The rule is more pronounced in Japanese). For example, pian2 yi2 便宜(cheap) versus fang1 bian4 方便 (convenient).
    Also, you have to change the tone of certain words because it is unnatural to speak two words at the 3rd tone one after another. For instance, jie3 jie 姊姊(sister) guan2 li3 管理 (manage; management).

  48. Ambrose Germany said,

    July 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    When I open up your RSS feed it gives me a bunch of garbled text,
    is that the malfunction on my side

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