Friday, February 20, 2009

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

Sherman Oaks, California

Professor and actor David Moser has posted his 1991 essay on why learning the Chinese language is so difficult for English speakers.

Take heart, it's difficult for Chinese speakers, too.

Two characteristic excerpts:

5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile . . . .

6. Then there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you'll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you're sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure . . . .

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you
already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of 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. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the "personal" section of the classified ads that say things like: "Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please."

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Blogger daninbusiness said...

Great post! Had to click through & read the whole article.

Although I have not studied Chinese as thoroughly as the author, I speak & read some and can relate to all the points there.

I guess, however, with the language one should keep the presence of mind when to draw the line at "good enough"...while reading/writing entirely by memory can be a lifetime achievement, at least one can get by and accomplish much in Chinese (in terms of international trade) even if your spoken proficiency is fairly low.

Also, the article was written back in 1991 (or so) and does not reflect the advances in touchscreen-based PDAs and chinese input methods for computers...they do not fix the core issues outlined in the article but dictionary look up & writing emails is less painful compared with paper-based dictionaries.

2:30 AM  

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