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The difficulty of learning Chinese

November 12, 2010

Chinese is the third language that I have studied in the classroom, and it is definitely the most difficult. The progress comes much slower than that of other languages. The characters, after two and a half three years of studying, still seem like hieroglyphics. The regional dialects (languages) are confusing. There are an incredible amount of homynyms. I have seen estimates that it takes a native-English speaker 3 to 4 times as long to learn Chinese as it takes them to learn a romance language. So, in the time it will take me to become fluent in Chinese, I could have learned at least French Spanish and Italian.

I read this article today, written by a professor of China Studies describing his frustrations with learning the language. It’s nice to hear from others about how difficult it is. I have copied an interesting quotes below. As he explains how hard it is to learn characters, he describes a sick, obsessive activity of his, that verifies the difficulty of learning Chinese as a foreigner.

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”?

I too, have often experience Chinese people forgetting how to write certain characters. Often this occurs with a damnation of technology, which only requires knowledge of the pronunciation (not knowledge of how the character is written) and the ability to recognize the character. The recognition of a character and the writing of a character take very different amounts of familiarity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. alex permalink
    November 12, 2010 17:08

    I read that article a while ago. I thought it was funny/comforting and scary/depressing.

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