The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Why Learing an Asian Language is Hard

A friend sent me a link to an interesting article on how hard it is to learn Chinese. While I'm trying to learn Japanese, most of the points certainly applies. Reading this makes me feel a little better about my progress. if you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

by David Moser
University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, "Hard for whom?" A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the "terrible twos", it's Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by "hard"? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me -- and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.

If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you're coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I'm contending 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.1

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.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.

Everyone's heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom "It's Greek to me" and search for equivalent idioms in all the world's languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression "C'est du chinois", "It's Chinese", i.e., "It's incomprehensible". Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng 跟天书一样 meaning "It's like heavenly script."

There is truth in this linguistic yarn; 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?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far -- I can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?


taijiquestion said...

Linguistics is fascinating. And the Chinese have such an ancient culture. I will probably never know more than a handful of words in Chinese. But this post makes me realize it might be fun to look into the ancient origins of this language... one of the oldest on earth?

Also I just remembered a book on my shelf that I never read all the way through, called Empires of the Word. I'd better take another look. Thanks Rick!

Rick said...

I've been studying Japanese for about three years now. This article makes me feel a lot better about my progress.

Zen said...

Dewi, wei shama?!