Thursday, November 5, 2009

As "easy" for foreigners to learn Chinese as it is for Chinese people to learn English?

Some of my German classmates + spoken teacher from "back in the days" at Shanghai University 2006. (I know what the Germans would answer to my question...)

My friend C is currently studying Mandarin level 1 at Suzhou University. She just finished her first midterms a la the Chinese way (meaning: all written test with a short, 2 minute speaking test in order to grade your “spoken Chinese”) and described it as a rather “interesting” experience. Although one thing surprised her:

-Once we got our results the teachers started telling who did the best and who did the worse in front of everyone! In some classes they even wrote everyone’s name and score on the black board! Do they always do that? Why?

Yeah, if only I knew?

I guess it has something to do with the fact that the “best” student should inspire the “not so good ones,” although I wonder if it really happens in reality?

In another class the teacher had chosen to focus on everyone’s mistakes rather than success. There was one question in the written exam that 90% of the students had gotten wrong:

-Why did you all get this wrong? The teacher kept asking. Why, why? It is so easy! So easy!

-Well we got most of the other questions right!
One student said.

-Yeah but that doesn’t matter when you got this one wrong! And I don’t understand why!

-Well because we think Chinese is a hard language to learn!
One student (who apparently felt he’d had enough of the scolding) said.

-Chinese is not hard! Chinese is easy!

The whole class protested (they have been learning for 2 months and a lot of them find everything rather overwhelming).

-Come on, it is easy! If Chinese people can learn English quite easily, it should be just as easy for you foreigners to learn Chinese.

-It’s not easy!
The students chanted.

-It is, it is! It is easy! It is easy for us to learn English, it should be easy for you to learn Chinese. Right?

Now, I think he posed a rather interesting statement. What do you guys reckon? Since Swedish is my first language and I have learned both English and Chinese I can speak for myself about what I found the easiest. But can those two languages even be compared? (In my case, I don’t think so, let's not focus on my personal experience). But generally speaking, can learning an alphabet consisting of 26 letters be compared to learning how to write the "most common" 6000 Chinese characters? 

But what about all you Chinese who’ve learned English/ foreigner who’ve learned Chinese, what do you guys reckon? Is it as “easy” (?) for westerner to learn Chinese as it is for a Chinese to learn English? Why? Why not?


Myra said...

Its so not easy to learn Chinese! But its just easy enough that on a good Chinese speaking day, you feel so awesome, but at the same time its so hard when you have a bad speaking day where no one understands you...Chinese is a harsh Mistress. Love your blog! I will add it to mine as soon as its unblocked and can have access to add it. Hope you'll do the same for me. Cheers! From Beijing

flyingfish said...

Come on! Sure, lots of Chinese people learn English well, but hardly anyone learns to use it without making mistakes. Not even after years of instruction. This isn't a comment on the limitations of the Chinese people, of course. English is just hard. Maybe all languages are, at least for most people.

But if we really want to get into a "which is harder?" competition, perhaps we should start with the question, harder for whom? I mean, don't different people approach language acquisition with different strengths and weaknesses?

I have seen English ranked in some world language classification systems as belonging to the second-hardest-to-acquire category, with Chinese belonging to the second-easiest. I don't know how the linguists who put these charts together made their decisions, but, since Russian and Japanese were placed in the hardest category, it looks as though the complexity of the a language's grammar and syntax must have been one of the main criteria.

The thing is, not everyone finds grammar hard to learn, right? (I'm an ex-Classicist myself and loved learning Greek and Latin grammar. And though I found Japanese hard to learn -- let's face it, I never really DID learn it properly -- that wasn't because of the grammar.)

It seems to me that lots of people have trouble with Chinese characters, but that's usually just in the beginning. Once you know a few, they start fitting into a comprehensible framework. At least, that seems to be what most people find.

Later on, it seems as though people tend to have trouble (ok, well, *I* have trouble) feeling confident about using certain particles, such as 了。 I think this is partly because the rules don't seem terribly precise, so a lot of it comes down to feel.

I bet my various ESL students over the years would say the same thing about the definite article. WHEN do you use it? WHEN do you leave it out?

I guess I'm just trying to say that I think no language is easy if you are trying to learn it really well. If 90% of the class had problems with a particular question then, yeah, maybe the safest conclusion is that that question is hard? Or maybe the teacher didn't do a good job explaining the concept? (Gee, what a revolutionary thought!)

Anonymous said...

I think every person's experience is different. The US Govt rates languages according to difficulty, and Chinese and Arabic are apparently some of the hardest langauges to learn. I spent a semester in China learning Chinese and now I'm getting my Master's in Chinese langauge here in the US. My professor's father had two Ph.Ds and could not learn Arabic after 3 years of studying, so he gave up and learned Italian and German instead. He speaks both languages fluently. My mother on the other hand, who did not finish high school, learned Spanish and Arabic quite easily.

I have met far more "lao wai" who can speak some Chinese after a short time, than I do Chinese people who can speak English in the same time period. I'm shocked at how many Chinese students come to the US to study who can't speak any English even though they have been studying it since they were 5 years old.

Learning to write Chinese is a different story.

Shanghai MiFeng said...

Jonna , it's funny you would ask that . I myself wondered about that myself ? Why is it , I was married to a Spanish / Mexican Woman for about 30 year's and I have not picked up much of Spanish at all . When , now that I'm married again to a Chinese Lady from Shanghai , I find it easier to learn Shanghainese and Mandarin . I can write over 200 + character's and quick too , speak many sentences that my new Wife taught me , in a little over a year's period . I'm German born , so English was not too bad for me .
My Wife will finally come to the States and I'm sure I will learn from a very good Teacher ... chinese very well . Maybe even as good as you Jonna .. some day ? hahaha

Anonymous said...

I am also a student at Suzhou Daxue, level one, and I agree! Chinese is very difficult, more difficult than learning English! Maybe I am in a different class, but I didn't experience the thing yoy were talking about: the saying who is the best and stuff... In our class we reviewed the exam question by question and learned from our mistakes. Maybe I am very lucky being in this class. said...

Since English is my native tongue it's difficult for me to compare. I think you're a better measure as someone who had to study both languages.

But I think there is something worth pointing out. Many Chinese people can get up to speed very quickly in terms of being able to put sentences together and speak. But when you look below the surface there are lots of mistakes. I was chatting with a Korean friend recently, and he speaks English so fluently that it took me aback. I'm used to Chinese people saying "friend" when they means "friends" or something other small problem. Yes, we can understand but it doesn't mean that it is right. I think most English speakers are just happy to find someone who speaks English. But as foreigners who live in China we quickly forget that the English level of most Chinese people is actually not that great.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Myra -yeah I know what u mean with good and bad days. Funny how it can differ!

Flyingfish - Yeah I know, it is a tricky question and I guess there is no correct answer. In this case I was mainly wondering if Chinese people find it as hard to learn English as a lot of foreigner find it to learn Chinese. A lot of Chinese people have told me that they find English kind of "easy" to learn, although I rarely bump into foreigners saying the same about Chinese. Obviously it is different from person to person, depending on if you have a talent for languages or not... I was just asking in general.

Anonymous -yeah u r right. Some languages are just easier for some than others. I guess interest and motivation has a lot to do with it too.

Shanghai Mifeng -well, I've been with my Finnish bf for 4 years and I can barely say good morning and goodnight in Finnish. I am ashamed to admit it, especially since his Swedish has improved. I just don't feel motivated learning a language that is spoken by only 5 million people! But then again, I know I have to. And I will. (Eventually).

Anonymous -yeah I heard they have quite a bunch of different level 1 classes at Su Da this semester. I am with you 100%. I have always though, and will probably also always think, that Chinese is a hard language. Jia you! :)

Glenderful -well... my native language is Swedish. I can speak English and Chinese. I have also studied Spanish and French. Chinese has been the hardest, by far! I have actually been thinking lately that I should start learning Spanish again. What a piece of cake it will be now... especially the pronunciation! I feel that with Chinese I will always have an accent. It's easier to sound "good" in the other languages.

Hopfrog said...

My impression is that the learning curve is much steeper for Mandarin, but once you pass a certain stage, it becomes easier. English on the other hand has a shallow but higher rising learning curve.

Over at he makes a good case for Chinese not being as difficult to learn as is reputed. The highlights of the points he makes in his argument:

1) The characters are daunting at first, but once you have the most commonly used ones, the more advanced ones are easy to pick up because the parts that compose them now make sense. Sure English has 26 letters but all our words are basically pictographs of these 26 letters used in different combinations and lengths.

2) Chinese vocabulary is more logical and not as convoluted. For instance we say plumber and the Chinese say waterpipe worker. English vocabulary is a hodgepodge of Latin, Greek, and Germanic terminology whereas Chinese only has Chinese as a root. So when learning English your learning the vocabulary of many different languages.

3) There are no masculine/feminine forms of nouns, no singular/plural and most importantly only one tense as opposed to the 12 in English.

He basically states there is a certain 'hump' that a person will pass over when learning Mandarin and then it all becomes much easier, whereas, even native English speakers are still learning vocabulary for years after they have become fluent. I would imagine if you haven't passed that hump yet Jonna that you are probably pretty close.

MKL said...

I'm currently learning Chinese, too and it's not easy. The hardest part is the pronounciation. I can easily remember words in pinyin, but I always pronounce wrongly. The differences are sometimes so tiny for my ear, it's really frustrating. I think the characters can be learnt slowly, but it takes a lot of time unlike the English alphabet. English is also a language I have learnt, since my native language is Slovenian. European languages have much more in common, be it the writing system, no tones and grammar is somewhat easier. Maybe in English, the tenses are the hardest part for me.

I have no idea, how hard it is for Chinese to learn English, hope some of your chinese friends give you some feedback.

Annika said...

Själv läste jag kinesiska på gymnasiet, men tyckte att just det där med att minnas alla tecken var otroligt svårt! Fast det är väl inte så lätt att jämföra med lärandet av engelska, eftersom det har varit en längre och tidigare process.
Men du vet väl vad dom säger om finska? Att det är omöjligt för vuxna att lära sig det, eftersom det är ungefär lika många regler som undantag i deras grammatik.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Hopfrog -to be honest, I don't know where I am with my Chinese at the moment. I don't think it is hard to speak anymore, but the characters... gaaah, the characters. I guess I don't put enough time into studying/writing/reading them more. I think I have managed to lose some of my motivation too. Don't think I'll continue to study after this semester.

MKL -yeah the tones are quite tricky. Still get them wrong all the time. People still understand me though, as they read into the context. Phew!

Annika -neeeeej, så får man väl inte säga om finska?! Hjälp, nu är jag om möjligt ännu mindre motiverad att lära mig det där språket... Men jo, jag vet att det e ett svårt språk. Min pojkvän säger att det är lättare för honom att skriva på kinesiska än på finska.. :) Jag tror jag kommer att hålla mig till muntlig finska när jag väl ger mig in på det där... uhhh, jaja.. den tiden den sorgen :)

Mountaincat said...

I had hard time to learn English, because there have to remember both word and pronunciation. Still it’s not that difficult to learn.

Finnish is another hard to learn language, because of grammar and very few Latin words in language. Most easy language in the world could be Estonian.

Japanese and Chinese are easy to speak, but hard to write and read. Korean is a bit difficult to speak in my opinion, but easy to write and read.


马麟 said...

My experience to learn English is: use it as often as possible. I guess you learn Chinese should follow the same rule.
I have some students here follow me to learn Chinese. It's hard to them compare to Europe languages. But the most difficult part is nowhere to find a practice environment.

Anneliis said...

Sorry about the off topic comment, but Mountaincat, if you think Estonian is the easiest language in the world, I suggest you think again or ask someone who has actually had to learn Estonian (and who is not Finnish). The nouns have fourteen cases (as opposed to 4 in German and one in Chinese) with several variants of declension for each case; the roots of the nouns often change completely when used in a sentence; proper names (people's names etc) and adjectives also follow the fourteen cases; there's an uncountable number of verb groups. I could go on with that list but you get the point;) Out of the 7 European languages I can speak (all not fluently though), Estonian is definitely the toughest one.

That said, I would place Chinese and Japanese (at least in early stages of learning) in a completely separate category, one called "a European's nightmare".

Pete In Syracuse said...

Your Chinese teacher said english was easier to learn than her own native lauguage? I hope as a person who is Chinese she would have mastered the

Pete In Syracuse said...

I agree with Flyingfish .... Maybe it wasn't taught well!! Oh my! did I say that!...

Anonymous said...

One question Jonna. Is Swedish very different from Finnish?? I thought that Scandanivian languages are all very similar. I could be wrong.

Jiang. :)

Min Min (Learn Chinese Every Day) said...

Chinese people learning English vs English native speakers learning Chinese!
Chinese is not a really difficult language to learn. Chinese grammar is not as complicated as English. It is more straight forward.

Chinese characters are not difficult to write also. If you can draw, you should be able to write in the "square box".

According to the survey on the current situation of Chinese language, you have to learn only about 900 Chinese characters and 11,000 phrases in order to understand 90% of the content in Chinese publications.

However, I do agree that the hardest part is the pronunciation and reading. One way of learning the Chinese pronunciation is to master Hanyu Pinyin.
Good luck.

Jonna Wibelius said...

I don't have time to answer everyone now, just one thing: Jiang:

Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family meanwhile Swedish is a North Germanic language. So there are no similarities between those 2 languages.

Mountaincat said...

I heard that its easy, but I did not know about 14 cases. Now I have to agree with you thats its probably difficult. Well, then I say that Malay is easy.

Tamara said...

i found, after studying japanese for about six years, chinese was extremely easy. it even helped me in places where i was struggling with japanese reading comprehension (don't know how that happened...). i've also studied spanish, latin, french, german and korean. chinese is probably the easiest i've learned. also, so many people seem to have trouble with reading/writing! yikes! for me, i grasped reading and writing very quickly, but still hesitated to speak.

Igor Prawn said...

Most Chinese speak atrocious English - if they think otherwise they're kidding themselves. English is a little "easier" than other European languages because it's actually closer to Chinese in some respects - no gender, no noun cases, no mood. But it has its own complications, such as the unpredictable use of prepositions (which take the place of case - in a sense English has shifted case endings from the end of nouns to the front). Chinese also find the European approach to tone (across whole phrases instead of on single words) and stress (invalid or invalid? - two different words depending on stress) difficult to comprehend. If they come this particular raw prawn, tell them where to get off, have no mercy. (See if you can get Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct).

Linguistics Professor said...

Chinese is much easier to learn than English for non native speakers. For starters, Chinese doesn't have conjugations where English does. Grammar of Chinese is not nearly as complex as grammar of English. You can train your ears to get used to the tones in Chinese, which is the hardest part for a foreigner. While English has 26 letters, the vocabulary in English is in the hundreds of thousands. Chinese? Maybe 50,000 words the most. I know you can put different Chinese words together to make different meanings.

George said...

I'm a native English speaker that learned German and Chinese. I've also dabble in Spanish and Russian. I think Chinese is easier IF you just learn pinyin. The characters are difficult, but you only really need 500 if you don't plan on writing literature. The simple grammar and lack of conjugation and gender are pretty awesome from the perspective of someone that toiled learning German.

Little Tiger said...

I had a similar experience to Tamara.

Anonymous said...

I see. I also heard that Polish is a language completely different from German. Polish is close to Russian and same goes with Finnish.

Well. Japanese and Chinese share a lot of similiarites in terms of written text but totally different in the verbal section. Korean sounds similar to Japanese though.

Anyway thank you for clarify that Jonna.

Jiang :)

Jonna Wibelius said...

Mountaincat -yeah, I think it depends where u come from.

马麟 -Yeah of course u r right. I left Sweden when I was 18, having the same level of English as all of my friends. Nowadays when I return and we sometimes end up in a situation where foreigners are around I realize that meanwhile my English has developed a lot, their have not, simply because they have not used it.

Anneliis -uhhh, well in that case Estonian is a language I will never try to master!

Pete -you would hope so yeah :) hehe.

Min min -Chinese characters are not hard to draw. It is remembering every single stroke of every single character that is hard! The tones are also quite hard to learn for someone who's used to speaking a tone-death language, if you know what I mean.

Tamara -I'm so impressed by you. 6 years of Japanese and then Chinese as well. Way to go. I applaud you.

Igor Prawn -from what I understand most Chinese find languages like English and German quite easy to learn. I have a Chinese friend in Finland though. She said learning Finnish was one of the hardest things she'd ever done. But like Flyingfish pointed out, it is obviously different for different people. Some are simply more language talented than others.

George -I've studied Eng, Spanish, French and Chinese. Easiest: English. Then Spanish. Then French. Chinese has been the hardest one by far for me. Maybe because I've really put an effort into learning the characters. I've heard Russian is pretty tricky too. Finnish is the next language coming up for me. Not looking forward to it...

Jiang -when I was 13 I went to Poland as an exchange student. Back then I remember thinking that "gosh, this is a language I'll never learn".

Greg said...

In addition to English & Mandarin, I speak two other languages. So let's be clear - Mandarin is without doubt *much* harder.

In theory the "Engish is easy for Chinese" makes sense, but in practice it clearly doesn't apply.

In addition to learning characters you have to learn multi-character words (like: ming tian), and then you have learn phrases which have meaning beyond a direct translation, and which are very common in general Chinese.

Every time I think I'm getting somewhere, I hit yet another layer of complexity! (But don't get me wrong - I love it :-)

xhg said...

:) I don't think we should learn Chinese character by character. The best way seems to learn a groups of multi-char words together. It helps to understand the meaning of "ming" through ming bai, ming liang, ming an. However, you still have to memorize them individually. That is true for every language.

delpino said...

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