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Meesa gonna kill you!

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

"You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play." - Warren Beatty

***

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard
David Moser
University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies

"Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.

If you don't believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America)...

Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?"

1. Because the writing system is ridiculous

... The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet -- some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren't too practical for daily use...

Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself...

The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task -- never mind reading the book in question...

2. Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet

... Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues' gallery of hard-to-learn languages...

3. Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic

... One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it...

You're sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact same difficulty you experience every day.

This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on. And when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"? I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character , as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember... By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character...

4. Because you can't cheat by using cognates...

5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile...

6. Then there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen)

... Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway...

7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck

Well, perhaps that's too harsh. But it is true that there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or -- even worse -- by a committee of linguists... There is a standing joke among sinologists that one of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.

8. Because tonal languages are weird...

9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met

... I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn't know who Santa Claus was...

Incidentally, I'm aware that much of what I've said above applies to Japanese as well, but it seems clear that the burden placed on a learner of Japanese is much lighter because (a) the number of Chinese characters used in Japanese is "only" about 2,000 -- fewer by a factor of two or three compared to the number needed by the average literate Chinese reader; and (b) the Japanese have phonetic syllabaries (the hiragana and katakana characters), which are nearly 100% phonetically reliable and are in many ways easier to master than chaotic English orthography is"
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