A Common Myth About Chinese

Usually I write blog posts about how I teach Mandarin Chinese classes. It is important to me to show parents and students how my classes might be different than what they are used to. Today, I am writing about how Mandarin Chinese is stereotyped in journalism or “journalism.” It is really important to question how non-speakers of Chinese negatively portray the language.  Students talk to me all the time on the first day of Chinese class about how hard they think the language is. And yet, after only 10-12 hours of instruction we are able to have a Mandarin class that is 90% conducted in the target language. We would not be able to do that if Mandarin Chinese were so much harder to learn than most other languages. It is a myth that Mandarin is “one of the hardest languages to learn.”

How Long Does it Take Chinese Children to Learn How to Read?

I tweeted last week about a line that I found in an article about teaching creativity in China. The author wrote: “Chinese schools place heavy emphasis on memori[z]ing, not least because mastering Mandarin is so hard; it takes children six years to learn the 3,000 or so characters that it takes to read a newspaper.” This statement rubbed me the wrong way for a couple reasons. Firstly, this kind of argument neglects to compare learning to read Mandarin Chinese as a native speaker to learn any other language as a native speaker.

Lots of people are native speakers of English, how long does them to learn how to read an English-language newspaper? Most US newspapers are written at a 7th-9th grade level. So, assuming that children don’t learn to read until first grade, they need at least seven years of education in order to comfortably read a newspaper! By this comparison, learning to read Chinese does not seem so bad, it is even comparable to learning to read in English.

photo pf page from Chinese dictionary
Is it Really That Bad?

Literacy Rates in China, Taiwan and Japan

What I really disagree with, however, is this idea that “Chinese is so hard even Chinese people can’t learn it.” It is wrong to suggest that memorizing is the only way to learn how to read Chinese. This both discourages people from trying to learn and also manages to insult the native speakers. Sinologists have been debunking the myth that learning to read in Chinese is unreasonably difficult for a long time. William McNaughton and Li Ying write in Reading and Writing Chinese (Revised Edition), “…while it does take some months longer for a Chinese child to master the writing system than it does an American or French child, say, to master their own writing systems, in the long run there is little difference. In Japan, where the writing system is based on the Chinese system, has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.”

If learning Chinese was so hard, then people in Mainland China would have higher literacy rates than people in Taiwan. This is because the Taiwanese use the more complicated traditional characters. But the opposite is true. Taiwan has a higher literacy rate than the Mainland. In Japan, students must learn kanji (based on Chinese characters) in addition to hiragana and katakana. That is three different writing systems! They also have higher literacy rates than Mainland China. There are clearly other factors at play in learning to read than the relative complexity of the writing system.

Myth Busting

I also think that perpetuating this myth that it is “hard” for Chinese people to learn their own writing system is a bit insulting to them. If it really were so objectively difficult to use characters, wouldn’t they have changed by now? Couldn’t the country have switched to an alphabet? Wouldn’t a rational society have switched to an alphabet as soon as one was available? If you think that the answers to these questions is yes, then that also implies that Chinese people are too irrational or too dumb to have thought of this themselves. I’ve seen Chinese characters described as exotic, opaque, inscrutable, irrational, only learnable by very hard workers… Does this sound like anything else? I think that this list also sounds like a list of stereotypes about Chinese people, and people from Asia in general.

Often, our received ideas about a language are really about the people who speak it. How often have you heard Spanish described as “easy” or a good language for the “dumb kids” to study? Aren’t there a lot of negative stereotypes about Spanish-speaking people hidden in those assumptions too?

When we say or write that Chinese (or anything else) is very difficult, we are also giving ourselves a pass for not trying. Likewise, when we say that something is easy like learning Spanish, we are also implying that anyone who speaks it has accomplished something easy.  Or that the accomplishment is inherently less worthy. Do not learn a language because you think it is easier or harder than another. Learn a language because you want to! Ignore the uninformed journalists along the way, too.

Further reading:

FAQs (mostly) on learning Mandarin Chinese

Beginning Chinese Reading (AKA Reading Chinese might not be what you think it is)

More on Language Myths 

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