kitchen table math, the sequel: 'Why Chinese is hard'

Friday, June 15, 2012

'Why Chinese is hard'

Bostonian directs us to this article by David Moser:
[Chinese is] beautiful, complex, mysterious -- but ridiculous. I, like many students of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.


Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like "Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper". Poppycock. I couldn't comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by "read" in this context is "read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters"; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)


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).


[C]ontrary 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 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"??
Then there's this:
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!

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


TerriW said...

This is what boggles my mind about trying to teach children to read English words as if they were pictograms. Why on Earth would you choose to do it that way if you have the option not to?

Also -- re: the dictionary look-up contests -- it's like the equivalent of the English spelling bee. (I've never heard of serious spelling bees in other languages.)

SteveH said...

I remember dictionary look-up contests in 6th grade. I also remember logarithm and trig function interpolation contests in B.C. (Before Calculators).

TerriW said...

I would imagine that a dictionary lookup contest in English would be like a school spelling bee in Italian -- you are testing the speed of the child's algorithm, in a manner, rather than their craft.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I think that most Italians would find the very concept of a spelling bee completely hilarious and totally absurd. If you ask Italians how to spell a word, they'll usually just say it for you really slowly. Since everything is totally phonetic, spelling something out is simply seen as unnecessary. And if you want to tell an Italian person how to spell something in English, the easiest way to do it is usually to just pronounce the word as if it were Italian -- it saves loads of time, and it's really funny. I know, though, that if I do it too often, I'll start to look at English words and automatically think them in Italian!

The French, on the other hand, have made dictations into a national pastime. The language is totally phonetic, but it's phonetic in terms of groups of letters rather than individual letters, and lots and lots of words sounds identical but are spelled completely differently. French kids get *tortured* in school learning when to do agreements. If you don't know grammar, there's literally no way you can learn to spell.