Consummate dilettantism!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chinese Is Stupidly Hard

There's a really sharp essay here. It's mandatory reading for anyone considering the study of Chinese or undertaking it currently. Read the whole thing. For your consideration, a few choice paragraphs:
Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like "Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper". Poppycock. I couldn't comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by "read" in this context is "read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters"; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)


The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task -- never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.


Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.
I really could not agree more. The Chinese writing system (and consequently, as Moser points out, the entire language) is by far the most difficult in the entire world. Studying Chinese takes an extreme amount of effort. I am taking four classes this quarter, one of which is Chinese. The work I have to do for that class exceeds the work I have to do for all of the other three combined.

There was an Economist article a while back (you can read the full text here) that generated a lot of controversy. It calls learning Chinese a fad (which it is) that it is not worth the effort. Indeed, Chinese is the Japanese of the 2000s; the language has been tremendously hyped. There's a Chinese bubble going on right now that will pop in ten years or so when people realize that Chinese businessmen are much better at learning English than American businessmen are at learning Chinese. See, as soon as China's economic boom subsides (and it will -- the only question is when), people will start learning some other language that's completely overlooked now (my bet's on Portuguese, Hindustani, or Indonesian). Chinese will never overtake English as the world's new global language -- it is simply too difficult. If your goal is just to get a job, don't waste your time on Chinese. Seriously. Study economics, math, or computer science; those are far more profitable fields. Simply put, the costs of studying the language are just not worth the monetary benefits.

But Chinese is valuable for other reasons. The language opens up an entire world of literature and culture to its students -- if your goal is to enter this world, then by all means, study Chinese.

1 comment:

  1. If Chinese is stupidly hard, then I would suggest the Esperanto alternative!

    It's unforunate that that most people do not know that this new global language is also a living language.

    Esperanto is in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros,World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Further information can be seen at A glimpse of the language can be seen at