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Is Chinese really so hard to learn as a second language?

by Lily Chao

Q: Many foreign friends of mine are complaining to me that Chinese is so hard to learn: the ridiculously difficult writing system, the confusing four tones, the extensive system of measure words, so a lot of things to memorize… It seems that I should thank God just for being born Chinese. Is Chinese really that hard to learn as a foreign language?

A: Actually, I don't think so. Chinese grammar is much simpler if compared to that of the European languages. English speakers sometimes complain that languages like Spanish have a complicated grammar (masculine and feminine genders, verb conjugations, etc), whereas the Chinese language has little or no bound morphology and there are no grammatical paradigms to memorize. Each word has a fixed and single form: verbs do not take prefixes or suffixes showing the tense or the person, number, or gender of the subject. Nouns do not take prefixes or suffixes showing their number or their case. I'm not trying to tell you that Chinese has no grammar; what I means is that due to the lack of inflectional morphology, Chinese grammar is mainly concerned with how words are arranged to form meaningful sentences. Plus each Chinese character pronounced in one syllable, that's why when watching Chinese movies, you find that a few words can be translated into a syllable mapping in the English subtitle.

Probably, you would say that the above is far from enough to convince you; okay, I've got one more encouraging and authoritative evidence for you. A couple of days ago I fortunately came across one piece of inspiring news when reading Beijing Times: Less than 1,000 Chinese characters allow you to read 90% of the current Chinese publication, according to a survey conducted by the Education Ministry and Language Commission of China. The findings of this survey is claimed to be based on 900 million characters used in more than 8.9 million files chosen from newspapers, magazines, the Internet and television. Nowadays, the Chinese media is using fewer characters, and to understand 90 percent of the content in publications, you need only to know about 900 of around 50,000 individual characters that are made up of Written Chinese. On the other hand, how many words are there in English? Almost 100,000 and it's still on the rise. One important reason for this is that Chinese characters, unlike English words, are mainly to represent meaning, not pronunciation, and what's more, many characters are archaic and some found only once in the whole history of the written language, such as the names of people or places. An average Chinese university graduate may know only about 6,000.

Now, would those all above relieve you a little bit in your Chinese language study? Hope so, but do not misinterpret this: I am not in any intention to convince you that Chinese is very easy to learn or other languages like English are much harder; what I mean is that Chinese is really not that difficult as you imagined or heard about, it's just very different from your mother tongue, but difference does not necessarily mean difficulty, right? And that hard Chinese idea won't be of any help in your study. Trust yourself, once that fear factor is overcome, the language is actually not that hard to learn. Good luck with your Chinese language study.

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Status: 18. Januar 2008