A Look at the Chinese Language

From here.
This post will look at how hard it is to learn Chinese for an English speaker.
It’s fairly easy to learn to speak Mandarin at a basic level, though the tones can be tough. This is because the grammar is very simple – short words, no case, gender, verb inflections or tense. But with Japanese, you can keep learning, and with Chinese, you hit a wall, often because the isolating syntactic structure is so strangely different from English.
Actually, the grammar is harder than it seems. At first it seems simple, like a simplified English with no tense or articles. But the simplicity makes it difficult. No tense means there is no easy way to mark time in a sentence. Furthermore, tense is not as easy as it seems. Sure, there are no verb conjugations, but instead you must learn some particles and special word orders that are used to mark tense.
Once you start digging into Chinese, there is a complex layer under all the surface simplicity. There are serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange stuff. Verb complements can be baffling, especially potential and directional complements. The 了 character can have seemingly countless meanings. You also need to learn quite a bit of vocabulary just to speak simple sentences.
Chinese phonology is not as easy as some say. There are too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same. There is a distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants which does not exist in English.
Chinese orthography is probably the hardest orthography of any language. The alphabet uses symbols, so it’s not even a real alphabet. There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more (although this is controversial), but you only need to know about 4-6,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.
The Communists tried to simplify the system (simplified Mandarin), but they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol. The Communists’ spelling reform left much to be desired.
To make matters worse, there are different ways to write each symbol – different styles of Chinese calligraphy. For instance, Classical Chinese may be written in so called “grass-style” calligraphy or in another style altogether.
It’s a real problem when you encounter a symbol you don’t know because there is often no good way to sound out the word as the system simply is not very phonetic. The Chinese alphabet is probably only 25% phonetic, and many frequently-used characters give tell you nothing about how to pronounce them. Further, you need to learn at least 300 characters before you can start to use the meager phonetics of the writing system at all.
Furthermore, word boundaries are not obvious, as one character does not necessarily equal one word. Therefore it is hard to tell where one word starts and stops and another one begins.
Similarly, a dictionary is not necessarily helpful when trying to read Chinese. You can have a Chinese sentence in front of you along with a dictionary, and the sentence still might not make sense even after looking it up in the dictionary.
Furthermore, merely learning how to look up words in the dictionary in the first place takes new Chinese learners several months and learning how to use a dictionary well is typically not possible until a year of study. Even people who have studied for several years sometimes encounter characters that they simply cannot find in the dictionary. In China, dictionary look-up contests are often held, showing that the process is not transparent at all.
A good student of Chinese often has more than one dictionary, and some have up to 20 different dictionaries. There are separate dictionaries for simplified and traditional characters and dictionaries that have both. There are entire dictionaries just for Classical Chinese particles and others for four character idioms (chéngyǔ), a type of allegorical sayings with two parts (xiēhòuyǔ), and another for proverbs (yànyǔ). There are separate dictionaries for terms that entered Chinese during the Chinese era and others for specifically Buddhist terms. There is an easier way to use a Chinese dictionary called four-part look-up, but it takes a long time to learn it and most learners never master it for whatever reason.
To solve all of these problems with the ideographic writing system, numerous romanization schemes have been invented. At last count, there were a dozen or so of them, but a number of those are rarely used. Certainly, there are 2-3 heavily used ones and that is not counting the bomofu phonetic alphabet used in Taiwan. One of the main problems with these romanization systems is that none of them are very good and they all have serious limitations. Furthermore, the romanization system you studied as a Chinese learner tends to affect your accent in Chinese.
Writing the characters is even harder than reading them. One wrong dot or wrong line either completely changes the meaning or turns the symbol into nonsense. The writing system is often so opaque that even native speakers forget how to write the characters of eve commonly used words.
Even leaving the characters aside, the stylistic and literary constraints required to write Chinese in an eloquent or formal (literary) manner would make your head swim. And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese (wenyanwen) prose. It’s actually written in a different language, so to learn to read Chinese properly like an educated Chinese person does, you will have to learn not one language but two.
One rejoinder is that Classical Chinese to Chinese people is similar to Greek and Latin to an English speaker, but this is a bad analogy, as Classical Chinese is widely studied in Chinese secondary schools and some of the finest Chinese prose is written in this language (see the Confucius and Mencius examples below). Further, after studying French for a few years, you should be able to read French authors who wrote 300 years ago, but after a similar period of studying Chinese, you will not be able to read Confucius or Mencius.
Hence most educated Chinese would be expected to know something about Classical Chinese, and if you wanted to learn Chinese like an educated Chinese speaker, you would have to learn this other language also.
In addition, you need to learn Classical Chinese even if you do not aspire to be an educated Chinese speaker because  one encounters Classical Chinese often in modern Chinese society, often in paintings or character scrolls.
The tones are often quite difficult for a Westerner to pick up. If you mess up the tones, you have said a completely different word. Often foreigners who know their tones well nevertheless do not say them correctly, and hence, they say one word when they mean another.
One problem with the tone system is that when you want to change the meaning of a sentence in a subtle manner via changing intonation of a word, you are bound to change the tone of the word in Chinese. Merely by placing semantic emphasis on a single word, you may deliver a gibberish sentence. Chinese speakers have their own way of using tone as a way of generating subtle semantic meaning, but they do so in an entirely different way than speakers of non-tonal languages do.
However, compared to other tone systems around the world, the tonal system in Chinese is comparatively easy.
A major problem with Chinese is homonyms. To some extent, this is true in many tonal languages. Since Chinese uses short words and is disyllabic, there is a limited repertoire of sounds that can be used. At a certain point, all of the sounds are used up, and you are into the realm of homophones.
Tonal distinctions are one way that monosyllabic and disyllabic languages attempt to deal with the homophone problem, but it’s not good enough, since Chinese still has many homophones even with the tones, and in that case, meaning is often discerned by context, stress, rhythm and intonation.
Chinese, like French and English, is heavily idiomatic.
It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms to count different things, like Japanese.
There is zero common vocabulary between English and Chinese, so you need to learn a whole new set of lexical forms and have no cognates to fall back on.
In addition, nouns often show relatedness or hierarchy. For instance, in English, you can simply say my brother or my sister, but in Chinese, you cannot do this. You have to indicate whether you are speaking of an older or younger sibling.
mei meiyounger sister
jie jie
older sister
ge ge
older brother
di di
younger brother
Many agree that Chinese is the hardest to learn of all of the major languages. In a recent international survey of language professors worldwide, these teachers rated Chinese as the hardest language to learn among languages that are commonly studied.
Mandarin gets a 5 rating for extremely hard.
However, Cantonese is even harder to learn than Mandarin. Cantonese has nine tones to Mandarin’s four, and in addition, they continue to use a lot of the older traditional Chinese characters that were superseded when China moved to a simplified script in 1949. Furthermore, since non-Mandarin characters are not standardized, Cantonese cannot be written down as it is spoken.
In addition, Cantonese has verbal aspect, possibly up to 20 different varieties. Modal particles are difficult in Cantonese. Clusters of up to the 3 sentence final particles are very common. 我食咗飯 and 我食咗飯架啦喎 are both grammatical for I have had a meal, but the particles add the meaning of I have already had a meal or answering a question or even to imply I have had a meal, so I don’t need to eat anymore.
Cantonese gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.
Min Nan is also said to be harder to learn than Mandarin, as it has a more complex tone system, with five tones on three different levels. Even many Taiwanese natives don’t seem to get it right these days, as it is falling out of favor and many fewer children are being raised speaking it than before.
Min Nan gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.
A recent 15 year survey out of Fudan University utilizing both the departments of Linguistics and Anthropology looked at 579 different languages in order to try to find the most complicated language in the world. The result was that a Wu language dialect (or perhaps a separate language) in the Fengxian district of Shanghai (Fengxian Wu) was the most complex language of all, with 20 separate vowels. The nearest competitor was Norwegian with 16 vowels.
Fengxian Wu gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.
Classical Chinese is still read by many Chinese people and Chinese language learners. Unless you have a very good grasp on modern Chinese, classical Chinese will be completely wasted on you. Classical Chinese is much harder to read than reading modern Chinese.
Classical Chinese covers an era extending over 3,000 years, and to attain a reading fluency in this language, you need to be familiar with all of the characters used during this period along with all of the literature of the period so you can understand all the allusions. Even with a knowledge of Classical Chinese, you need to read it in context. If you are good at Classical Chinese and someone throws you a random section of it, it will take you a good amount of time to figure it out unless you know context.
The language is much more to the point than Modern Chinese, but this is not as good as it sounds. This simplicity leaves a room for ambiguity and context plays an important role. A joke about some obscure historical or literary anecdote will be lost you unless you know what it refers to. For reading modern Chinese, you will need at least 5,000 characters, but even then, you will still need a dictionary. With Classical Chinese, there are no lower limits on the number of characters you need to know. The sky is the limit.
Classical Chinese gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.

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4 thoughts on “A Look at the Chinese Language”

  1. Dear Robert
    My understandings is that the Chinese writing system is a syllabary. It has lost much of its phonetic character because it hasn’t been reformed in 3 millenia. Each character represents a syllable. In Chinese, you would write Ro bert is an A me ri can he te ro sek sual man who lives in Ca li for nia.
    I read once that Chinese has a total of only about 400 syllables, not counting tones, whereas English has more than 8000. Chinese syllables are either open or they end in n or ng.
    Regards. James

  2. The Chinese character is a logogram. Each character represent a meaning than a sound. A Chinese character can have many different sound. They are pronounce differently in all Sinitic lects, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. The Japanese even pronounce Chinese character in more than one syllable.
    A Chinese character can even take on multiple meaning. I think one Chinese character has one meaning initially, but since many of the characters are 3000 years old, it acquire different meaning along the way.
    The character will have more interpretation it is in combination of one other or more words to form a new lexicon. Generally, when the Chinese character is used standalone, it is interpreted as the basic meaning, but there are exceptions.

    For the above word, the most basic meaning is “to walk”, over the years, it acquire meanings and pronunciations in various lect such as, “conduct”, “shop”, “profession”.
    Mandarin – xing, hang
    Cantonese – hang
    Min Nan/Taiwanese (my mother tongue) – kia
    Japanese – i, u , ko, iki, yuki
    Korean – haeng
    I think Chinese character is a very good writing system. The character transmit information in very high density. I can read a lot faster in Chinese character than English.
    Chinese character do not preserve phonetic information very well. While one may know how to pronounce Latin, no one can be sure how ancient Chinese is pronounced.
    The good thing about Chinese character is, it preserve the meaning very well. Even if we do not know the sound, a Chinese can always recover the meaning of ancient writings. It is an overstatement to say Chinese know the meaning of 3000 years ago writings. But it is true that Chinese can learn ancient Chinese easier than the western people learn their ancient languages.
    Another good thing is East Asian can communicate with one another easily even if we are unintelligible. When I am in Japan, I have no problem in understanding the sign board. Similarly, Japanese has no problem in understanding Chinese sign boards. We just pronounce it differently.
    Chinese character is the most instrumental reason of China existing in unitary state. Before, all Chinese are different tribe. As we adopt Chinese character in the writing system, all the tribe converge into Chinese race. If China is able to rule Japan, Korea and Vietnam, 1000 years later, they will converge and identify themselves as Chinese.
    The huge amount of Chinese character is due to the convergence of different race into Chinese race. For example Mandarin, Cantonese, and Min Nan (Taiwanese), are very different languages using our own set of Chinese lexicons.
    I uses different character when I speak mandarin, Cantonese and Min Nan. So when different tribe converge, different characters from different tribe combined into “Chinese character”.
    In fact, if you are a mandarin speaker, you do not need too much Chinese characters. A lot of the other characters belongs to other tribe, and seldom exist in mandarin. However, mandarin being the standard Chinese official language “invent” its own pronunciation to pronounce Chinese characters of other Sinitic tribe. Also the word will be pronounced totally different in mandarin.
    Below shows cardinal numbers pronunciation in ancient Chinese, mandarin and Cantonese. While I do not understand ancient Chinese, I can understand what the person is reading by looking at the written characters.

  3. Difficulty of Mandarin 5, Cantonese 5.5 possibly but if this is true Hokkien can’t be 5.5 It should be 7 or more. I know all 3. People say that my Mandarin is better than any American at the U.S. embassy and my Hokkien-Taiwanese is close. Cantonese over the phone seems native Guangdong province but they never know where the accent comes from. I started at 16 with Mandarin 4 hours a day until about age 21 and from that time learned by living in Chinese speaking areas. Cantonese for me was just 100 hours of individual study at age than a few hours here and there for 35 years to present. Hokkien was acquired in individual classes at the Taipei Language Institute in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung with over 1000 hours of study between the ages or 26 and 28. As with Mandarin and Cantonese I am always on alert to learn new things and fill in the blanks, in Taiwan and Hokkien speaking areas I don’t go back and forth with Mandarin but just stick with Hokkien. Hokkien is especially difficult because of the tone Sandhi. If you don’t get this right your Hokkien will never be accepted. It’s why no one not born in a Hokkien speaking area speaks Hokkien, but people not born to a Cantonese speaking area can learn Cantonese to a fairly high level. When I was learning Hokkien after about 500 hours of Hokkien I was getting very frustrated as my Hokkien wasn’t being accepted. I went to TLI and asked them how many hours of individual class student take at most. They said about 4 hours. I asked whether 8 hours was possibly and that said maybe possible but nobody had ever done that. In an act of desperation I told them I wanted 12 hours of class a day Monday to Friday. I did this for several weeks and later went back down to 8 hours a day. This did the trick as this level of training enabled me to internalize the tone changes. Other smaller issues that make it more difficult to learn that Cantonese from a Mandarin background include 1. Less parallelity with Mandarin. Much less. There are so many examples where this is the case. In Hokkien class I would forever ask the teacher if you could use the Hokkien reading of a Mandarin phrase as the Hokkien translation and the answer was almost always “Hokkien doesn’t say it that way.” In Cantonese you can often get away with they, in Hokkien it’s a lot less likely. A couple of simple examples: rat in Mandarin is
    Lao45 Shu324 in Cantonese it Lo24 Shu both are written in Kanji as 老鼠。In Hokkien though it’s niao44 chhi42 or outside Taiwan just chhi42 (貓鼠。)A zipper in Mandarin is la55 lian52 or Cantonese lai55 lin24 (拉鍊)in Hokkien though the word is Jya44 Khu22 although la44 lian 44 would be understood。So in no one is Hokkien equally difficult than Cantonese it would be quite a bit more difficult to learn.

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