An Essay from 1991 Makes Bold Claims

When I first started teaching Chinese, I suggested to a group of adult students that they check out an essay from 1991 by David Moser called “Why Chinese is so Damn Hard.” That was dumb, very dumb. I thought that the students would learn about the Chinese language and get some perspective about how long it actually takes to learn a language. They just ended up feeling discouraged. Several years later, re-reading that essay, I have come to disagree with most of what it says. So not only was it just discouraging, it perpetuates misunderstandings about how language learning actually works! I recommend reading the essay before reading the rest of this post. Please don’t forget to come back!

David Moser has a p.h.D and a book. By many measures, he is more successful than I am so I feel okay about picking apart his essay. I don’t think he will ever read this or get his feelings hurt :). More importantly, the essay is pretty tongue in cheek.

The Writing System Isn’t Ridiculous

Moser lays out nine points for why learning Chinese is allegedly more difficult than other languages, but I won’t go over each and every one of them. Let’s start at the beginning. Moser claims that “the writing system is ridiculous.” Lots of students, like Moser, are initially attracted to the writing system. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too. There are a lot of assertions about learning Chinese characters in this paragraph. It is worth going over the claim about how much longer it takes Chinese children to become literate in Chinese than it does other children to become literate in their native languages.

Literacy in Children

So how long does it take Chinese kids to learn and write in Chinese? Interestingly enough, Chinese preschools and kindergartens (幼儿园) are not allowed to directly teach reading and writing.* Teachers still read books to the kids of course. Direct instruction in reading however, does not start until first grade. Why does this matter? Well, if you measure how much an American seven year old knows how to read and write, they may already have 3 years of literacy instruction under their belt. Lots of preschools in America teach reading quite early. It also only takes 4 seconds of Googling to find a book that promises to help you teach your toddler to read. In contrast, a Chinese seven year old has only had one year of literacy instruction. It is certainly possible that parents teach their kids many characters, but it is hard to tell who gets what.

So for comparison purposes, the age of a child is not particularly helpful. It might not tell us how many years it took for that child to actually learn to read and write. Okay, by you still want to know how long does it take to become literate in Chinese? Well, it does take longer than it does in English, but possibly only by a few months.** Out of curiosity, I asked a Chinese friend how long it took him to learn how to read and write in Chinese. He said, “It was pretty hard, it took me a few weeks.”

Misconceptions About Language Learning

Moser has several sections about why Chinese literacy is allegedly so hard to acquire are split into several sections. I am going to talk about most of them all together because I think that there are really only a couple issues that matter. First, let’s start with the easiest: writing Chinese by hand. Did I just say that writing Chinese is easy? Nope, not even close. Moser points out that even Chinese people forget how to write low frequency characters. I, too, remember the childish delight I felt when I saw Chinese people put pen to paper and not be able to write a word like 骰子 (dice).

Different Types of Literacy

Here is the thing, being able to read but not write is nothing new and not even unique Chinese. Less than a year ago, I was listening to a podcast about the Salem Witch Trials. From it, I learned that many of the women of Salem back in 1692 could read but not write. They had a low level of sign literacy. The things you learn, right? So while we often think of reading and writing as an inseparable pair, they are really two different things. It is 2019, I think that not being able to handwrite a character in Chinese is not a big deal. You can still be literate in Chinese. Most of of rarely write by hand in our day to day lives.

Moser talks about encountering the word for president: 总统 and then trying to retrieve it the next day and write it down. The process of acquiring a language is very different from what he is describing here. First, we need to hear a word in a meaningful context, several times over, WAY more times than once or twice. Then, when must map the sounds of that word to its written representation, i.e. reading. We can also use this word in speech appropriately after getting enough input. The very last thing that we should expect ourselves to do with a new word is write it down. Hearing a word and trying to write it down the next day just isn’t how language acquisition works. What about making flashcards you say? This video explains why they are not that helpful.

The Importance of Sound

The biggest misconception at the heart of this essay is about what reading Chinese actually is. Chinese is not the poorer because it does not use an alphabet. Writing systems have their visual representations, whether they be the Roman alphabet, Cyrillic, or Chinese characters. They are “inherently also about phonology and semantics because that is what writing systems represent.”***

About 80% of Chinese characters have some sort of phonetic component. The vast majority of Chinese characters have a semantic component. When we encounter an unfamiliar character while reading, we use both our phonological knowledge and our semantic knowledge of Chinese. This goes for both words we know and words that we don’t know.

Say you’re reading an article in Chinese about climate change and you come across a character you don’t recognize: 燃. The next character is 料 (liao). So the reader sees 燃料 and has to figure out what it means. The radical of the character is the fire radical. The right-hand side, which often suggests the meaning, looks like 然 (ran). Okay so, hmmmm, something with fire, the sound ran, followed by liao, hmmmmm, ah yes, ránliào is fuel! But here is the key, a student would already need to know the word ránliào (the spoken word) in order to read 燃料.

Back to Input

This is the real problem with reading in Chinese, and I think it is at the root of Moser’s problems. You need a really good aural knowledge of Chinese words before you can read them. Think about it, kids have been exposed to their native languages for thousands of hours before they ever start to read. Sure, we learn some words from reading, but the vast majority of words we read are words that we already know. Moser writes about having 20 Chinese dictionaries and talking to tweedy professors, but not really any communication with ya know, Chinese people. It is those thousands of hours of meaningful input that is what helps us learn the language and how to read it.

Cognates Won’t Save You

Yes, Chinese does not really have cognates. Moser mentions being able to comprehend a great deal of a Spanish-language newspaper because of cognates. I have been seriously working on acquiring Spanish for about a year. I spend about 10 hours a week on task. The more Spanish I know, the less convinced I am that they are helpful.

There are of course, the false cognates. Many students have a story about erroneously being “embarazada.” (For the uninitiated, that means pregnant, not embarrassed). But really, there is more to it than that. Are you looking for a sensible man who won’t gamble away your house or bring home five stray pit bulls? Be careful with your Spanish-language dating sites, because “un hombre sensible” is a sensitive man. Even something as simple as “contento/a” is complicated. It means happy, not content. I for one, would never say I am happy when I am merely content. The Spanish language provides a lot of clues to help a learner figure things out (presidente, acusar, económicos) but that is not the same as knowing the language. There is a lot of nuance that relying on cognates won’t get you.

Flipping through a newspaper and making educated guessing about the content is not reading. Cognates and false cognates have that dangerous other side to the coin, which is making learners think they know more than they really do. That happens less often with Chinese :).

Technology Solved the Dictionary Problem, Mostly

When I started learning Chinese, I had a paper dictionary. Moser calls these dictionaries “user-hostile.” I don’t think that is correct. If I have my math correct, Moser was learning Chinese in the 1980s. He mentions looking up characters by radical, which is the method that I will talk about, although there are others. Before you could just scan a character with an app, to look up a character in a paper dictionary, you had to figure out the radical and then look up the individual character by the number of strokes. This is how I still do it, just with my iPhone. I could also scan with Google, but I never do because looking it up the old-fashioned way just is not that hard. So with technology, Moser’s point about looking up characters because it takes too long it is moot.

In any case, the radical + stroke number method does not take as long as he claims. Furthermore, it forces students to consider the components of characters which helps learners recognize them when they see that character again. Lastly, we also lost something when we replaced the paper dictionary with the app. We lost the new things that we learned when we were trying to find out something else. The iPhone killed serendipity. I was dismayed to learn that the first character in my Chinese name is the same character in the Chinese word for syphilis. I learned that looking up that character in a paper dictionary. You better believe I never forgot it!

That Pesky Classical Chinese

Classical Chinese is a bit of a pickle. Moser does a good job of summarizing classical Chinese as “several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway.” The problem he really talks about is an emotional one: feeling embarrassed when someone asks you what something means and you don’t know. That is an ego problem, not a language problem. This is an imperfect analogy, but I wouldn’t expect English learners to understand Shakespeare. Plenty of natives don’t either.

Moaning About Tones

Moser also complains about the tones of Mandarin Chinese. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere. Moser forgets about the same thing that everyone else does: context. He brings up the example of guòjiǎng (“you flatter me”) vs guǒjiàng (“fruit paste/jelly/jam). Sure, if you get the tones wrong, you’ll be saying the wrong word. But really, how often could you confuse flattery for a sandwich spread? I have a student who says “qǐng wěn” (please kiss) instead of “qǐngwèn” (may I ask a question.) I don’t think that he is constantly trying to kiss me because I am not a ding dong. He is a student in class with his hand raised. He wants to ask a question. Context people! Moser also tries to make a point about how the intonation we use in English interferes with correct tone pronunciation. All I can say is, huh? I’ve shouted “Shǎguā wázi!” at people who cut me off without changing all the words to the 4th (so-called “angry tone). I’m sure they understood me. They probably ignored me, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t understand what I was saying.

Bridging the Cultural Divide

I’ve saved the best for last. Moser makes one really good point, and it is the last one too. He suggests that one of the reasons that learning Chinese is do damn hard is because our cultures are so different. Bingo. Comprehension, whether it is listening comprehension or reading comprehension, depends so much on background knowledge. I wrote about that issue here. It matters for reading comprehension in our native languages too.

The Five Great Mountains, Guanyin (the goddess of mercy), and the monkey king are just a few examples of things that I have taught my students in the past seven days along that are part of Chinese cultural literacy. Just recognizing the characters in the words 五岳,观音,猴王 (Five Great Mountains, Guanyin, and the Monkey King, respectively) is not enough to understand what they signify. You need background knowledge for that. If you are an average American college student in a Chinese 1 class, you’re just not gonna know these things. That is why I teach western stories that are already familiar to my students. Once they are a bit further along, they will need a lot of information about China, its history, and culture in order to understand the language. They will get that later, or in English, if needed. Lots of foreign students feel self-conscious about their limited vocabulary, tone pronunciation, or whatever, but it is really not knowing where Xi’an that makes them look silly.

* To be fair, this law was enacted many years after “Why Learning Chinese is So Damn Hard” was written. I do not know as much about early education in China prior to the 21st century.

** McNaughton and Ying, Reading and Writing Chinese (Revised edition)

*** Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight (2017)

One thought on “Why Learning Chinese ISN’T so Damn Hard

  1. Nice article. I’ll just comment on one small point.

    I strongly disagree with your point about cognates. The fact is, when learning a language, cognates are an immense asset rather than a liability. Yes, cognates are not a substitute for actually learning the language, and false cognates are annoying, but false cognates are vastly outnumbered by the “true” cognates. The exception does not make the rule.

    Every time one learns a new word in a new language, it is vastly easier to remember if it is similar to a word one already knows. Moreover, it becomes much easier to retrieve from one’s memory, and also allows one to guess at new words.

    As someone who speaks both English and Chinese and who has studied Japanese and Spanish, here is an example:

    At some point, I forgot the Japanese word for “correct”, but I know that it’s 正确 in Chinese, and that in Japanese 正 is pronounced “sei”, while 确 is probably pronounced “kai”. I would then make out “seikai” and recognize that as the Japanese word for “correct”.

    Similarly, a standard English speaker’s guess for the Spanish word for correct would be “correcto”, which turns out to be right!

    Cognates are useful even if they don’t work in the simplest way, for example for practical street communication. Let’s say you were struggling to communicate with a Spanish speaker, and wanted to say that something is “interesting”. The correct word is “interesante” of course, but even if you said “interestingo” (with the accent on the second to last syllable), they would probably understand what you mean. A Spanish learner who speaks no European languages would not have that advantage.

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