Maria Holland

Why Chinese Is So Damn Easy and So Damn Hard

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2009 at 11:10 pm

After skipping a few days of school for my trip to Shanghai, today I returned to class.  After looking through my dictionary for the meaning of the word 行为 (action), I scrolled down through the next couple entries to see what they contained.  I like to do this because 1) it gives me a better idea of the meaning of the first character, and 2) sometimes I find really cool new words. 

This was a perfect example of #2: 行星 means ‘planet’, and the dictionary entry contained the names of the planets.  It turns out that the names of the planets belong on the short but oh-so-sweet list of things that are easy in Chinese.  Yes, I know I’ve extolled the trials of learning Chinese, but every now and then they get something right ;)  Prime examples are days of the week and months of the year which are, respectively Week-Number (like 星期一, Monday) and Number-Month (like 一月, January).  Instead of memorizing nearly 20 otherwise-meaningless (and by no means easy) words like February and Wednesday, the Chinese system takes a few minutes to master. 

Anyway, the planets are like this, too.  They don’t phonetically translate the English names of the planets, they go back to the original meanings of the names or physical descriptions and translate those.  Thus, we have:

  • Mercury – 水星, or Water Planet
  • Venus – 金星, or Gold Planet
  • Earth – 地球, or Earth Ball
  • Mars – 火星, or Fire Planet
  • Jupiter – 木星, or Wood Planet
  • Saturn – 土星, or Dirt Planet
  • Uranus – 天王星, or Heavenly King Planet
  • Neptune – 海王星, or Sea King Planet
  • Pluto – 冥王星, or Underworld King Planet.

Super cool.  I think one of my favorite things in the world is learning new Chinese words that consist of characters I already know and make sense.  After learning the planets, I went on to learn ‘centripetal force’ (向心力, or towards-center force) and ‘gravity’ (重力, or heaviness force). 

Listening class was really interesting today, too.  The texts that we listened to were about luck and unlucky things.  Apparently the Chinese people believe there are unlucky ages (if Confucius and Mencius didn’t live past 73 and 84, then what hope to average people have??) and don’t like to say certain words (like ‘no’) on holidays.  Also – this is one of the most-warned-of cultural taboos – you aren’t supposed to give clocks as gifts.  Good to know, but seriously . . . who just gives a clock as a present??

After such an interesting class period, I returned home and read an article titled “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”.  It was a good read and reminded me that, for all the easy parts of Chinese, there are hundreds of parts that I haven’t gotten to yet, haven’t mastered, or will never ever EVER attempt to learn.  An excerpt:

“Chinese is just not very phonetic when compared to English. (English, in turn, is less phonetic than a language like German or Spanish, but Chinese isn’t even in the same ballpark.) It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range from 25% . . . to around 66% . . . One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it.

. . . Contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact same difficulty you experience every day.  This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap", "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on. And when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"?

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether "abracadabra" is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on "rhinoceros", but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.”

Today was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics.  Happily, my new church friends called to remind me of the feast day and tell me what time Mass started.  Father Cai, Father Cai, and Father Zhao all concelebrated, and I got to see a lot of my travel companions from this weekend.  Then, after Mass, I found out that – if my Chinese language skills served me well – Father Cai (not the new priest; the other one) is going to be ordained a bishop early next year!?!  This is so crazy and exciting!  Needless to say, I plan on being there – whenever, wherever. 

  1. This makes me so much happier about my Chinese exam tomorrow =)

  2. Ah yes, the Wood Planet. Jupiter does have some lovely forests growing out of its compressed liquid hydrogen surface. I also love how Earth is lengthened into “Earth Ball” :D Cmm

    • Haha, so it’s not perfect . . . I was thinking of you when I learned this and was going to send you an email, but I forgot you were reading my journal.

      And the 地 in Earth might be better translated as ‘ground’, I guess.

  3. Hi, I’m just a passer-by because a friend forwarded your post to me. I’m a chinese who has studied english as 2nd language since childhood and recently started to learn german. I must say how hard a language is depends on how different it is from one’s mother tongue. To me, English is hard – although it has only 26 alphabets, the pronunciation is often illogical – e.g. Leicester is pronunced as Lester, colonel is pronunced as kernel. This poem shows how irregular English is:

    The pronunciation of German is comparatively easier, as it is much more consistent, except with a few English or French-borrowed words.

    Grammar of Chinese is actually simpler – we don’t have tense, and thus avoided irregular verbs; we just need to add yesterday, now, soon, etc. to signify the past, the present or the future. We don’t have singular or plural – I just need to write “one man” 一人, “two man” 二人, not two men. We don’t have gender like German or French. So to us, learning English or German could be just as hard as you are trying to learn Chinese.

    I agree that Chinese is easier when one learns it young. Because the way of learning is a kind of graphical memory; when one is young, his memory tends to be better too. I also agree that the shape of a chinese character and its sound could be quite irregular. So the hardest part of learning Chinese is vocabularies. But the hardest part of learning English for us is grammar. There’s not definite answer of which is more difficult. To me, Arabian seems the most difficult, because I couldn’t even recognise which is an alphabet.

    • I definitely agree that difficulty is related to one’s mother tongue. I also think that each language has easy and hard parts – for instance in Chinese there are characters and tones (relatively hard), but grammar (relatively easy). German has noun genders (relatively hard) and pronunciation and spelling (relatively easy).

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