Why Learning Chinese ISN’T so Damn Hard

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.

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).

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, like 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 in order to read 燃料.

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. 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).

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.

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

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

It is all About the Content

Content is King (or Queen)

We have exciting news for 2020! We are finalizing plans to open a Mandarin Chinese immersion preschool and kindergarten program. (If you are interested, fill out this form here.) For this new program, I have been doing a lot of research on what makes a quality preschool curriculum. It turns out that the same elements that make a quality language program, are the same ones that make a quality regular curriculum. It is the content! I’ll get to the details, but in short, the problem with most language classes is the same one that afflicts the general curriculum: the kids are not learning anything.

An average (read: mediocre) language class is based on teaching students grammar rules, and a list of vocabulary words. Then, the students will have to demonstrate that they can use both of these things by making sentences or acting out some kind of dialogue. The major reason that classes like these don’t really teach languages effectively is because students do not get enough comprehensible input. Students need to hear (and later read) language that they can understand in order to learn a new language. It is important for students to be able to understand everything. This usually means shorter sentences, lots of repetition, slow speech, and lots of visual clues. I have written about that here and here.

Students need that slow, repetitious speech with lots of visual clues, but there also needs to be content. With little kids, we can talk about the colors on their clothes, and the numbers of chairs in the classroom, but we also need content to keep them learning new words. We can teach kids about lots of different things, from classic stories to facts about animals, but we need to teach them something in the desired language. They will learn the language as a byproduct of learning the content. This is how good language immersion programs work. They teach kids math, science, social studies and from these lessons, children learn Spanish, Chinese or French.

Having good content for kids to learn from is vital for language classes. For my classes that typically meet for one hour per week, we talk about animals, Chinese geography, classic Chinese stories, Western stories, food, and lots of other topics. The need for good content does not end there.

Perhaps you have read a headline recently about how terrible American public school children do on accountability tests. In case you haven’t, here is one article about reading scores to dampen your spirits. One explanation for why American kids don’t score well on reading tests is that they lack the background knowledge in order to comprehend a wide variety of texts.

American educator E. D. Hirsch has been talking about this problem in American education since the 1980s. His book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know was criticized for being elitist at best and discriminatory at worst. The evidence that students need more than just empty skills in order to be able to read is mounting. And of course reading is the key to advanced study in any field.

Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap (2019) takes up the case again. She demonstrates that American kids are doing so poorly in school because they are stuck learning “how to find the main idea” instead of actual knowledge. E.D. Hirsch may have seemed like an elitist by suggesting that all Americans know about Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, and Herman Melville, but he wasn’t wrong. We need good content for the kids to actually learn something. If we do it in a second language, they will learn that too.

 

How to Bargain in Shanghai

What You Need to Know if You Go to the Fake Market in Shanghai (or Beijing)

Any person who has been to the tourist magnets of Beijing and Shanghai is familiar with the fake markets. There have been changes to the various markets over the years, but the most famous one that I know about are Xiushui Jie (aka Silk Street*) in Beijing and the market at the Science and Technology Museum metro stop in Shanghai. At these markets, you can buy anything from fake Ferragamo to fake Fendi, but you have to bargain in order to walk away with both a knockoff and you dignity. Of course, many students have no idea how to bargain in Shanghai!

photo of sunglasses
Get yourself some Bay Rans at one of the fake markets in Shanghai or Beijing

So how do you bargain in Chinese? To be honest, you don’t really need to know how to speak a word of Chinese in order to bargain at the fake markets. All vendors will have a calculator handy, and you can use that to go back and forth. Many vendors will also be able to speak a bit of English. I wouldn’t rely on their English though. It tends to be mostly memorized phrases and the pronunciation is often poor. If you are reading this post, I assume that you do actually want to be able to say a few words in Chinese on your own, so onwards!

A Task for Learning About Bargaining

I developed a task for my adult students that teaches both what to expect when trying to bargain in China. If students want to visit the fake markets in China and haggle on their own, they need both a knowledge of numbers in Chinese and also an idea of how much they need to bargain.

To make this task, I surveyed about a dozen people who had recently gone to the fake market in Shanghai. I asked them what they bought, what the original asking price was, and how much they ended up paying. If I was really a super star teacher, I would have found some pictures online to illustrate each item. But I want to do things like eat a home cooked meal and read books, so I did not bother to prepare any visuals.

What is the Typical Asking Price?

We spent about 45 minutes on this task in class. First I introduced each item that one of my survey respondents bought. They were all things like handbags, sunglasses, and watches. Then, I asked the students how much they thought the original asking price was. Sometimes, a student would guess correctly, or close enough. Other times, I had to tell them what the original asking price was. Then I asked them what they thought the person eventually ended up paying. Again, sometimes they guessed correctly and sometimes I had to tell them.

How Much “Should” You Pay?

From this task, the students got a sense of how much they should expect to pay at the fake market vs. the asking price. They also got a lot of input on the numbers in Chinese. If I had more time, I would also include an explicit discussion of the discounts that each person got. In Chinese, we don’t say “70% off” we say something more like “30% of the original price.”

photo of police confiscating fake purses
Be careful where you take that Channel bag or Prado. I hear that in some countries the police will confiscate counterfeit goods.

More on Chinese learning tasks for adult students:

Chinese Currency

Chinese Food

Preparing for a trip to China? Check out our China Boot Camp classes here.

* I have Chinese friends who remember when Silk Street was an actual street, but now it is more like a shopping mall.

What have YOU bought at the fake markets? Did you bargain in Shanghai or Beijing)? Share in the comments!

Why Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers Can’t Learn Chinese

Who Can’t Learn Chinese?

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can’t learn Chinese? Am I out of my mind for saying this? Nope, I’m just trying to get attention :). Of course doctors, lawyers and engineers can learn Chinese just like everyone else. BUT, in several years of teaching, I have noticed a pattern in my adult students worth talking about. For many professional students, Chinese is an unexpected challenge.

Professional students can learn Chinese. But first, they need to understand one important thing…

Language Learning is Different

Doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals are often good at school. That is how they became doctors and lawyers. Those professions require lots of schooling! The people who get through all that schooling, well, they tend to be pretty good at school.

And therein lies the problem. Learning a language is not like learning other things!

In math, science, history, etc., people take notes. They make flashcards. They study. These are all great things. But they are not what is takes to learn a language. Students need input for that. All the study skills in the world won’t help a student learn a language if they don’t get enough input.

lawyer-28838_640
Can this nice professional learn Chinese? Of course he can! He just needs to get rid of the flashcards!

How Professional Students Get Frustrated

I have had a lot of adult students over the years who are used to being at the top of the class. They are often (you guessed it!) lawyers, doctors, engineers, or they are retired doctors, lawyers and engineers :). Many of these students are suddenly frustrated by Chinese class. They are not at the top of the class anymore!

It is also especially frustrating because the way to learn at the beginning stages, is really just to listen. That is it. That is all you have to do. As long, as your teacher is providing comprehensible input, you will learn the language. Looking for patterns is great and all. Many folks who are traditional good students tend to be quite good at that. With language, however, finding the patterns is actually not that useful in the beginning stages. They don’t know enough language yet to detect a pattern. They see a face when they are really just looking at burnt toast.

The Good News

This is the struggle and beauty of language learning. It is tough, because a lot of people who thought that they would have any easy time actually don’t. It is also really cool, because it levels the playing field. Many people who never though of themselves as particularly good students, can suddenly find themselves doing quite well! All people have the potential to learn a second or third language, even doctors and lawyers and such :).

Interested in classes for professional students? Get in touch here.

More on how language learning actually works.

One Thing You Must Know About Language Learning

Or, Why You Took 3 Years of Spanish and Still Can’t Say a Word

Or maybe it was French or German or Chinese (get in touch if you want to fix that) or Japanese. Whatever the language was, most people you will run into at Target will say the same thing. That thing is “I took x number of years of language y and and still can’t say a word.” I will use my completely non-psychic abilities to explain exactly why. Why is language learning in American high schools so difficult?

cartoon of dragon holding sign that says "hola"
We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming about Chinese to talk about Spanish. Particularly, learning Spanish as part of an American high school education

It’s All About Time on Task

First thing we need to look is exactly how long you have really been “learning.” You’re probably measuring the wrong thing. X number of years of study is just not that useful a metric. In a typical high school, you get 4-5 hours a week of class. For elementary school students, a language class might be 45 minutes a week. One of my former students was in the military and he attended the Defense Language Institute. He told me all they did for 8+ hours a day or more was study Arabic. See how X number of years can actually be wildly different amounts of time?

graphic of main post office in Madrid and soft serve ice cream
Which image best describes your summers as a teenager? If you’re like most people, it is probably the one on the right.

We haven’t even gotten to summers. Were you terrorizing the streets of Madrid as a teenager or working in the Dairy Queen like I did? One of those scenarios implies Spanish immersion all the waking hours of the day. The other only includes immersion in the soft serve refrigerator (soft serve comes in bags! They are very unwieldy).

Let’s Do Some Math

Back to the typical high school experience… If you get one hour per day of language class (more likely less) for 180 school days a year, that is 540 hours TOTAL in exposure to Spanish (or language y). If you were worried about getting into college and took four years of Spanish, that is still only 720 hours.

These Days, Who Has the Time?

Let’s look at someone who has learned a language really well. That person is a typical five year old. Five year olds are terrible at many things. They are often bad at eating food that is not beige. They dress like Tinkerbell in rehab. They have done one thing really well, though: learning a language. It also helps that five year olds don’t have jobs.

A five year old has been alive for 1,825 days, at least. Plus add in a leap year or two. They have been hearing their native language (and maybe another one or two) for all their waking hours. So that is at least 14 x 1,825= 25,550 hours! Wow! That is loads of time!

One More Thing…

Compare your measly 540 high school hours with that hypothetical five year old! It is starting to make sense why you are still watching Gran Hotel with the subtitles. They keyword here is input. A young child gets a lot of it (those 25,000+ hours of hearing language). A high school student gets very little (less than 1,000 hours.)

There is more to the story, however. This is just the beginning of exploring why you still don’t speak Spanish. Now you know, those three whole years, were not that much time for learning a language after all. It is little wonder that you are not proficient in another language.

drawing of angry bull
Don’t be angry like this bull! Now you know why spending three years in high school Spanish really was not enough to learn the language

Check out more information on language learning in the FAQ

Much research on second language learning is available (for free!) from Stephen Krashen, phD via his website.