Friday, February 10, 2012

Is Chinese unlearnable?

There seems to be a school of thought among Sinologists and foreigners who know Chinese, according to which the Chinese language is particularly difficult and fundamentally unlearnable, or so difficult to learn that it's basically not worth the trouble to do so. There are a number of serious articles on the internet written from such a perspective, and their aim is often to discourage foreigners from embarking on the learning of the Chinese language before they realize what they are getting into.

A good examples is this article by David Moser, from the Center for Chinese studies of the University of Michigan, entitled "Why is Chinese so damn hard?". Other examples are this post on "the Lingua Franca" blog, or this rather shorter and less serious post on "the China Expat" site.

The basic argument is that Chinese is too difficult to learn as an adult for it to be worthwhile, and true fluency is beyond reach for most people. It will take you years of full time study, probably while living in China, to get anywhere, in the which time you could have learnt three different european languages or an entirely new profession. You will always sound like a foreigner and never master the tones correctly, except perhaps for a few who have a natural talent for it, and being able to reach a point where you can express yourself fluently and naturally and are able to read a book either takes years or is out of reach.

Chinese is Hard

That Chinese is hard to learn for someone whose own language is unrelated to it is beyond doubt. I myself have lived in China for three and a half years, studied Chinese full time for one of those years (as in 20 hours of class a week in university), and learnt Chinese on my own or in part time private classes for the rest of my time here. I have numerous Chinese friends, and I do my best to communicate with most of them in Chinese. I also chat in Chinese on the internet regularly using QQ, the Chinese instant messaging software.

The results? Well, I can get around in China, and even go through the process of renting a flat in Chinese (including phoning landlords, negotiating with housing agencies and so on). I can chat about general topics in Chinese, but I often have trouble understanding what the other person is saying, and often can't think of the word I need. If the person I am chatting to doesn't make an effort to speak a bit slower than usual and use realtively simple language, it becomes much harder. Someone who speaks with a strong regional pronunciation can completely throw me. I have to settle for expressing myself far less fully than I could in my own language, and I normally sound stilted and unnatural. Speaking about specialist topics is almost impossible, except politics or history because I have an interest in them, and thus have learnt some of the vocabulary. My pronuncation is also not good: I can pronounce almost all sounds correctly, but I usually only know and use the tones for the most common words, and when I speak fast even those get lost. I sound very markedly foreign, and although most Chinese people can understand me, they sometimes have to make an effort to do so. When Chinese people speak to each other I can only understand some of it, how much depending on the topic. And that is provided they speak clearly and in a standard fashion.

When it comes to reading, I think my skills are actually unusually high when compared to my speaking, mainly because of the effort I put into it. If I can follow Chinese films at all, it is mostly thanks to the Chinese subtitles they almost always have underneath. I can read a newpaper article and usually understand the general point, but there will be lots of words and even phrases which I don't understand. With books it very much depends on the topic. Even if I can understand enough to make it worth reading, it takes me such a long time to read a Chinese book that it's almost pointless. As for writing, I can write pretty fast with a computer or a mobile, but writing by hand is of course slow and painful, and I routinely forget how to write even elementary characters (although my Chinese handwriting apparently looks very nice and neat for a foreigner. It's odd, because my english handwriting looks horrible.)

I am not a genius at learning languages, one of those people who can go to a foreign country and starts chattering away in the local argot after a few weeks. Still, I suspect my abilities in this area are higher than average, and Chinese is not the first foreign language I attempt. Needless to say, if I had spent as much time and effort learning any European (or I suspect, Indo-European) language, by now I would be far more comfortable in it, and able to function almost fully.

But are other languages really easier?

The question I want to focus on is this: is Chinese objectively harder to learn than other languages, or is it just that any language with no relation to your own is going to be tough? In the article I quoted earlier, David Moser takes the first view: "(...) part of what I'm conteding is that Chinese is hard compared to..well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people".

Some of the points made in the article seem definitely weak to me. I mean, complaining about not being able to read classical Chinese after learning modern Chinese is a bit like complaining about not being able to read Latin after learning Italian. The point about the difficulty of using dictionaries has been made irrelevant by electronic dictionaries, and at least in the PRC there are no longer different Romanization systems to contend with. However, the basic point that Chinese is especially difficult, in a different category from "normal" languages, will strike many foreigners learning the language as credible.
But is this true? The Foreign Service Institute of the US State Department once classified all the world's major national languages (88 of them) into three categories according to their difficulty for an English speaker. Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Arabic and the various forms of Chinese were the only languages to fall into Category III, the one for the hardest languages which necessitate on average 2200 class hours to be learnt (I haven't even reached 1000 in Chinese). Even many other non-Indo European languages (thus entirely unrelated to English) such as Tamil, Armenian, Thai and Vietnamese fall into Category II ( languages necessitating 1100 class hours).

According to this well-known classification, it would seem like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and Mongolian, are indeed particularly difficult. But is Chinese the hardest of all? My impression is that the Chinese writing system is objectively harder and more impractical than other writing systems. There is no other language in which you have to learn a few thousand characters by heart in order to read fluently (except Japanese, but it is the same system). The Chinese take more years than anyone else to learn to read and write, and writing by hand remains difficult even for Chinese adults at times. There is also a big gap between the written and spoken languages, with many characters which are only ever used in writing, even for the most basic concepts (for instance 此,meaning "this", which is not normally used in speech).

When it comes to speaking the issue is more debatable. As it is often pointed out, Chinese grammar is relatively simple, not possessing any cases, declentions, or gender and singular/plural variations, which is a big advantage in comparison to European languages. The tonal system is indeed a big hurdle, but it is shared by some other languages (notably Vietnamese and Thai). A few people at least do seem to be able to pick up the tones naturally just by speaking to the Chinese, something which cuts down a lot of the learning work.

The combination of the tones and the characters is pretty daunting for most foreign learners, but other languages have their complications too. Japanese and Korean have difficult grammars and a complicated system of different levels of speech according to the status of the person you are speaking to, which foreigners do need to master in order to function in Japan and Korea. Japanese also uses a combination of Chinese characters and two different phonetic alphabets. Foreigners who learn Japanese also like to claim that it is the hardest language in the world to learn.

Arabic doesn't often get compared with the East Asian languages, since it is unusual for someone to learn both, but it is also recognized as extremely hard to learn. Personally I did give it a shot in the past, without getting terribly far. The alphabet is relatively simple, but the grammar is extremely complex, and the language is full of commonly used sounds which most non-Arabs can neither hear nor reproduce. A further huge complication is that "modern standard Arabic" or fusha, the official language of the Arab world, is literally not spoken anywhere at all, and it is a necessity to learn the local dialect to live in an Arab country. Looking back, I don't feel Arabic was any easier than Chinese for me to get my head round.

The truth is that while some languages may be objectively harder than others (on the other end of the scale, Malay and Swahili are known for being objectively easy), I would assume that most of the difference simply depends on the distance of the language learnt from your own one. The less closely related it is, the harder it is to learn. European languages, with their super-long words and their strange grammas in which every word is either masculine or feminine, are basically just as hard for the Chinese to learn as Chinese is for a European (at least when it comes to speaking. The characters might make Chinese objectively harder to read and write).
Chinese is hard, but not impossibly so, and the fact that Chinese minorities whose mother tongue is not Chinese still manage to learn it reasonably well through school proves the point.

Chinese as an international language
On a related note, it has by now become commonplace to hear the prediction that "Chinese will be the international language of the future", especially coming from foreigners learning Chinese.
The reasoning is that since China will one day be the world's foremost superpower, it's language will also rise to a comparable status. Setting aside the issue of whether China really is on track for superpower status, is it really possible to imagine a language like Chinese rise to become an international lingua franca?

On the one hand it is true that when a language has the prestige of having a great power behind it, you find that people suddenly can learn it no matter how difficult it may be. The myth that English is easy to learn is in fact just that, a myth. Unsurprisingly, this myth is not very widespread in China, where people find the language incredibly hard to achieve fluency in. English does have some easy sides for sure. In particular, it's grammar is far easier than most other European languages' ones, although the Chinese would take that for granted. On the other hand, English spelling is a nightmare of un-phonetic, illogical spellings which give little clue to pronunciation (think "four" and "forty"), and in fact British children take longer to learn to read and write than any other European children. Even well educated English speaking adults sometimes make spelling mistakes, something almost unthinkable in Spanish or Italian, which reminds me of how Chinese people sometimes forget how to write characters.

English pronunciation is also quite hard in comparison to most languages, with a wealth of unclear, barely differentiated vowel sounds and words which sound almost the same, but not quite. English also has a huge vocabulary, far wider than most languages, and often uses words with different Latin or Germanic roots for similar concepts (think "tooth" and "dentist" rather than the more logical "toothist"). All this is of course barely acknowledged in English speaking countries and in the few North European countries where, because of cultural and linguistic similarities, most people have aquired good English.

In spite of these shortcomings, English has reached the status of international working language because of the power of the British Empire and more crucially, the United States. In so doing it has displaced French, another language with tricky pronunciation and spelling. And somehow, even in China or Japan people who really need English do somehow manage to learn it, at a huge expenditure of time and money. If a language like that can make it, surely there is a chance even for Chinese? Or does the Chinese writing system make it unthinkable that Chinese could reach such a status, in spite of the presumed power China will enjoy in the future?

My feeling is that it is unlikely that Chinese will ever be able to displace English, partly because English is much easier for anyone who speaks a European language (a large chunk of the world outside of Asia), partly because English is already so entrenched in so many countries, and partly because I doubt China will ever enjoy the sort of power which the US enjoyed from the Second World War until recently.
Having said that, it is really hard to say with these things. In the coming years, it will certainly become more common for members of the elite in other countries to have learnt Chinese, and especially in other Asian countries this might start trickling down to the masses too. We will just have to wait and see.

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