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Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

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irrationale
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China
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Speaks: English*, Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog
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 Message 41 of 57
13 April 2011 at 12:14am | IP Logged 
I enjoy talking about the difficulty of Chinese here because I see a surprising amount of posts around here saying how easy the language to speak because of the "simple grammar".

I have said it a few times on this forum, but it continues to amaze me and I really have no idea what they are talking about, or if they even have studied Chinese beyond a basic level. Let me also be clear that I know there are languages out there perhaps with more difficult grammar, but "easy"? Let me crack open my "Practicing HSK Grammar" book and select at random what I find;   

并 : Connecting disyllabic verbs which are ordered according to the time sequence of the actions.

   2) Connecting disyllabic words used as the adverbial.

    3) Being used before the second clause , whose subject is omitted.

并且

Showing tow actions existing at the same time or happening one after another.

1)Connecting juxtaposed verbs, verbal phrases, modal verbs, adjectives and clauses.

2)The following patterns are most commonly used;

   并且。。。。还

   并且。。。。也

   3) Connecting sentences. There can be a pause after 并且。

*并且 usually doesn't connect nouns or nominal phrases.

并且 usually doesn't connect monosyllabic adjectives.

Here is another page at random.

1) Disyllabic verbs can't be reduplicated by putting 一 in between.

2)Verbs can't be reduplicated when they indicate something is being done or two or more actions are being done at the same time, or if verbs are followed by 着, 了, 过。

3)Those verbs with the function of modifying and restricting can't be reduplicated

4)Verbs can't be reduplicated when they have complements.

Summery :

Monosyllabic verbs AA 或 A一A, A了A   ABAB , AB了AB

(indicated short time)
(It indicates trying)
(Can be used in the imperative sentence to soften the tone)
When used to raise examples, it conveys a sense of casualness)

These are two examples at random. I haven't even talked about "以" which can mean essentially anything (ok not really but it has at least 11 usages).

So yes, Chinese has no conjugation. How does that translate into "grammar isn't hard?" I have no idea really. It is like saying playing guitar isn't hard as piano because there aren't so many keys to hit. Spanish grammar was a walk in the park compared to Chinese because I knew exactly what was going on. Sure there were conjugations, but at least I knew how to use them and when intuitively. The only thing, as Ari mention, the subjunctive is the challenge, but at least there are rules that are pretty clear (at least in Spanish).

In Chinese nothing seems clear. The rules seem more at less at random. Contrary to what some beginners say, 了 does not equal "past tense". 会 or 将 does not equal "future tense". There is no tense in Chinese. Guitar has no piano keys, it makes sound in different ways. They mean different things in different situations and in my opinion that randomness is harder than if Chinese had tenses.

However it is true that (as long as you don't have a problem with the tones) to speak very basic subject matter, for example, how do you get to the bathroom, where is Beijing hotel, I want to buy some food, Chinese is not that hard is some other languages, for example, Tagalog. It gets harder as you go along.

One more thing. People say that the "spoken language" is easy but the written language is very difficult. Well guess what; the written language effects the spoken language. Vocabulary acquisition will continue to be confounded because of the characters. Suppose you see an unknown character, or a word with an unknown character. It is going to be objectively hard to retain that word and acquire it simply because of the characters. You are going to have to ask someone, or look it up in the dictionary. And over time, for the advanced learner, this takes a toll. Because the characters really never seem to end, at least they haven't for me (I know approximately 3500+ characters). Of course, it works the other way around; if you hear a new word, you aren't going to know how it is written unless you look it up or ask someone (or make a lucky guess). It slows down acquisition objectively speaking, no matter what, and the gap becomes wider and wider as learners of languages with somewhat phonetic writing systems are naturally acquiring much faster. Coupled with the fact that there are virtually no cognates, the gap between an advanced learner of Chinese with another language becomes huge, considering time spent.

I didn't mention writing the characters (according to what I see here very few learners seem to want to do this anyway), nor classical Chinese, which crops up in modern Chinese (mostly in formal situations and written). This would be akin to suddenly finding
Shakespearian English interspersed with modern day English in daily life. (I'm not an expert on the history of English but this is what I would imagine based on how the Chinese feels).

To sum up, I am saying that

1) Chinese is not easy.

2) Chinese is easier at first and steadily gets harder.

3) If you want to reach the advanced or near native level, my uneducated opinion is that Chinese must be the hardest language on the planet.

edit: spelling mistakes

Edited by irrationale on 13 April 2011 at 3:50am

9 persons have voted this message useful



Ari
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Norway
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Speaks: Swedish*, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese
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 Message 42 of 57
13 April 2011 at 8:00am | IP Logged 
irrationale wrote:
I enjoy talking about the difficulty of Chinese here because I see a surprising amount of posts around here saying how easy the language to speak because of the "simple grammar".

Yeah, many of those posts are mine. I may have admitted that Chinese is in fact hard, but I still consider the grammar to be significantly easier than for example French. But maybe that's just my brain for some reason having an easier time grasping it.

Your examples from the grammar book do look daunting and I don't understand half of it, but that would probably be the case for a grammar of English or Swedish, too.

Quote:
These are two examples at random. I haven't even talked about "以" which can mean essentially anything (ok not really but it has at least 11 usages).

But how is that any different from the English "put" or "go"? Look them up in a dictionary and they'll have well over 11 definitions. These sorts of words exist in all languages. Although in the case of "以", you'll only need to learn how to use it if you want to write formal Chinese. I very rarely hear it in the spoken colloquial without being part of a bigram like "所以", "可以", "以为" or in a set construction, like "以X为Y". And reading formal Chinese I usually find it easy to understand what it means in the context.

Quote:
So yes, Chinese has no conjugation. How does that translate into "grammar isn't hard?"

It doesn't. The "grammar isn't hard" stands on its own legs. But of course the fact that it has no conjugations, no tenses, no cases and very few and straightforward prepositions helps.

Quote:
Sure there were conjugations, but at least I knew how to use them and when intuitively. The only thing, as Ari mention, the subjunctive is the challenge, but at least there are rules that are pretty clear (at least in Spanish).

Don't really know about Spanish subjunctive, but I consider my French to be at basic fluency, I can watch movies and read books without problems and I can hold conversations (though I'm getting rusty from using it too little) but I still have problems with the subjunctive. I've had to memorize all the expressions that require the subjunctive and I keep forgetting which ones they are. Never found a "pretty clear" rule. And gendered nouns are a lot more difficult to keep track of, for me, than Mandarin classifiers, which are, with some exceptions, easy to figure out without memorization.

Quote:
In Chinese nothing seems clear. The rules seem more at less at random. Contrary to what some beginners say, 了 does not equal "past tense". 会 or 将 does not equal "future tense". There is no tense in Chinese. Guitar has no piano keys, it makes sound in different ways. They mean different things in different situations and in my opinion that randomness is harder than if Chinese had tenses.

To me it feels just the opposite. Mandarin grammar is easy because it just works. It's like using a Mac, it all works like you expect it to. Just put the parts together and they connect, whereas in a language like french you need to configure all the words separately to make sure they can connect with each other. In my experience, as long as you get the word order down, you can just throw a bunch of words together and they'll make sense. Most of the little extra things are added for flavor. Use the "了" or leave it out, both works fine (except in some specific situations, of course). This verb consists of one verb character and one noun character, can I just split them up and use them separately, as one would expect to treat a verb and a noun? Sure, go for it, no problem.

Quote:
One more thing. People say that the "spoken language" is easy but the written language is very difficult. Well guess what; the written language effects the spoken language. Vocabulary acquisition will continue to be confounded because of the characters. Suppose you see an unknown character, or a word with an unknown character. It is going to be objectively hard to retain that word and acquire it simply because of the characters. You are going to have to ask someone, or look it up in the dictionary. And over time, for the advanced learner, this takes a toll. Because the characters really never seem to end, at least they haven't for me (I know approximately 3500+ characters). Of course, it works the other way around; if you hear a new word, you aren't going to know how it is written unless you look it up or ask someone (or make a lucky guess). It slows down acquisition objectively speaking, no matter what, and the gap becomes wider and wider as learners of languages with somewhat phonetic writing systems are naturally acquiring much faster. Coupled with the fact that there are virtually no cognates, the gap between an advanced learner of Chinese with another language becomes huge, considering time spent.

This part I kind of agree with, but it has nothing to do with the grammar. And it needs to be said that characters get a lot easier to memorize as you go along, and your "lucky guesses" as to which characters are uned in a new word get progressively better. But it also needs to be said that Chinese simply has a helluvalot of words. So. Many. Words. It's like English in that regard.

Quote:
I didn't mention writing the characters (according to what I see here very few learners seem to want to do this anyway)

I'm actually doing this nowadays, since I started learning Cantonese. Writing Cantonese using pinyin isn't going to work, so when writing SMS messages to my girlfriend in HK I use the handwriting input on my iPhone to write traditional characters. I forget characters sometimes and need to look up how to write them. That's kind of annoying.

Quote:
1) Chinese is not easy.

True.

Quote:
2) Chinese is easier at first and steadily gets harder.

Well, while it's true that the finer points of the language get more difficult as you progress, the things that make it hard in the beginning, like memorizing characters, get easier. So I don't agree that much with this one.

EDIT: Very late tag fix

Edited by Ari on 13 April 2011 at 1:00pm

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ChristopherB
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 Message 43 of 57
13 April 2011 at 10:14am | IP Logged 
Very interesting post, Irrationale.

irrationale wrote:
3) If you want to reach the advanced or near native level, my uneducated opinion is that Chinese must be the hardest language on the planet.


Would you maintain this view even with regard to something like Japanese (which I see you are studying)? I fully concede that because my Chinese is still beginner level, I have not yet developed a deep understanding of its intricacies, but I can't help but shake the feeling that because Chinese grammar is analytic, and therefore more immediately intuitive to an English speaker, in the long run it will present less of a challenge than attempting to reach a near-native level in Japanese.

Given that Japanese also uses the characters, it would be interesting to get your personal comparison of the two with respect to long-term difficulties.
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irrationale
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China
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Speaks: English*, Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog
Studies: Ancient Greek, Japanese

 
 Message 44 of 57
14 April 2011 at 4:52am | IP Logged 
note; I use Mandarin and Chinese in this interchangeably. Deal with it :)

Quote:
To me it feels just the opposite. Mandarin grammar is easy because it just works. It's like using a Mac, it all works like you expect it to. Just put the parts together and they connect, whereas in a language like french you need to configure all the words separately to make sure they can connect with each other. In my experience, as long as you get the word order down, you can just throw a bunch of words together and they'll make sense. Most of the little extra things are added for flavor. Use the "了" or leave it out, both works fine (except in some specific situations, of course). This verb consists of one verb character and one noun character, can I just split them up and use them separately, as one would expect to treat a verb and a noun? Sure, go for it, no problem.



I don't want to split hairs with you, because we both agree that it's a hard language, have both studied it, etc. We both agree that there is a ton of stuff one needs to memorize in order to be proficient in Mandarin.

But are you saying here that the grammar of Mandarin amounts to some sort of style? Just throw some words together and call it good? Sure there are some rules, but it's more of just a style issue or perhaps for more formal writing?

I think that the big difference between Chinese and a lot of other languages is that in Mandarin, as long as you have the right tones, you CAN "throw words together" and basically be understood. With under more inflected languages, you can't. This definitely is a huge boon for the beginning to intermediate learner when you are just trying to be understood. However, when you want to be totally correct in usage, I would contend that while you may think you are speaking or writing correctly, you in fact are not, or are expressing a different meaning than what you intend. For example, you may think that you can throw in 并且, but in fact it is a wrong usage. You may think you can double the word, but in fact you can't just because you feel like it. For example, I rarely hear 大大. I think it is mainly used as an adverb. You can't just double 大 when you want to, and the list goes on and on.


As to whether these details are "fine points" of a language, well, isn't that what the advanced level is all about? Isn't that the difference between speaking pretty well and speaking native like or near native?

What I am contending here is that these "details" are, like you say, a mountain. A huge huge mountain or characters, words, word usage, chengyu, idioms, classic Chinese, idiomatic ways of combining words, and yes, grammar. And it is my uneducated opinion, that the sheer size of this mountain in Mandarin must make this language one of the most difficult on the planet, if not the most difficult, despite the fact that the grammar is relatively easy in the beginning.

So what I am saying is not too far off from you, but I, personally, would definitely not write Chinese grammar off, or call it easy. There are definitely harder grammars out there, but I don't think that Chinese grammar is a pushover, especially at the advanced level. Like you say, perhaps this is simply a personal difference, since I thought Spanish grammar was very easy and clear cut.



ChristopherB wrote:
Very interesting post, Irrationale.

irrationale wrote:
3) If you want to reach the advanced or near native level, my uneducated opinion is that Chinese must be the hardest language on the planet.


Would you maintain this view even with regard to something like Japanese (which I see you are studying)? I fully concede that because my Chinese is still beginner level, I have not yet developed a deep understanding of its intricacies, but I can't help but shake the feeling that because Chinese grammar is analytic, and therefore more immediately intuitive to an English speaker, in the long run it will present less of a challenge than attempting to reach a near-native level in Japanese.

Given that Japanese also uses the characters, it would be interesting to get your personal comparison of the two with respect to long-term difficulties.


Well first, I'll retract the statement "most difficult on the planet". There are a lot of languages out there, and besides I have only studied 5 thus far and have a vague familiarity with all the major languages. So I'll just say "one of the most difficult".

As far as Mandarin compared with Japanese, it is hard to know from the very beginning how difficult a language will be, which is exactly why I can't really say as I have only studied Japanese for a couple of weeks now. Thus far it seems very logical, whereas I remember Chinese being pretty ambiguous as to what was going on, and Tagalog was simply confusing. This is just a first impression. As to the long term difficulties, I am curious to find out!


edited for clarity and spelling

Edited by irrationale on 14 April 2011 at 6:03am

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wyndhamfan
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imaginarylands.wordpRegistered users can see my Skype Name
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 Message 45 of 57
13 July 2011 at 2:07pm | IP Logged 
I'm Chinese and I still find learning Mandarin hard! What gets me are the characters -
I
was educated in Bahasa Malaysia and English, so having to remember hundreds of
characters
... well at times I want to bash my head in. And the grammar! Agh ... it's funny how I
totally understand the language (about 60-80% of what's spoken to me), but I get all
tongue tied when speaking it.

But since I grew up speaking a tonal language at home (Hokkien) the tonal part of the
language I suppose is a piece of cake (most of the time). I always tell people to think
of it as a music score, and to sing the right notes.

PS: They have a word to describe Chinese folks like me who can't speak or write in
Chinese - banana. Yellow on the outside, white inside. Not politically correct, but hey
I didn't coin it. Fortunately, I no longer meet the banana criteria since I at least
speak the language :P But uhm, they would absolutely go ballistic when I can't write my
surname. It's like a RARE surname with no simplified version with a bazzilion strokes!
(Ok, I really need to learn how to write my surname soon...)

Edited by wyndhamfan on 13 July 2011 at 2:11pm

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Ari
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Senior Member
Norway
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Speaks: Swedish*, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese
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 Message 46 of 57
13 July 2011 at 2:52pm | IP Logged 
wyndhamfan wrote:
But since I grew up speaking a tonal language at home (Hokkien) the tonal part of the language I suppose is a piece of cake (most of the time). I always tell people to think of it as a music score, and to sing the right notes.

This advice sort of works with some tonal languages (like Cantonese), where tones are at least partly differentiated by pitch level (high vs. low). Mandarin tones are however mostly differentiated by contour and not level. So it's not at all like singing (which is evident in that Mandarin songs do not care about tone at all).

Quote:
PS: They have a word to describe Chinese folks like me who can't speak or write in Chinese - banana. Yellow on the outside, white inside. Not politically correct, but hey I didn't coin it. Fortunately, I no longer meet the banana criteria since I at least speak the language

This shows an interesting difference between the Chinese and Western (especially American) conception of nationality. For most Swedes, if you're born in Sweden and have a Swedish citizenship, you're a Swede. Not so to the Chinese. If you're ethnically Chinese, you may be born in a foreign country and hold a citizenship there, but you're still Chinese. This means you should learn your national language Mandarin (it's okay if you don't learn your native language, which might be Hokkien or Cantonese, as long as you learn Mandarin). Here's an exercise: compare the two expressions used in China and in the US for a person of Chinese ethnicity born and raised in the US. The American expression would be "Chinese American". The Chinese expression is "American-born Chinese", or "ABC".

I wouldn't accept the "banana" title if I were you. If the language of your roots is Hokkien, there is no reason to expect you to know Mandarin. Just because most Swedes know English it doesn't mean that a Swede who only speaks Swedish is somehow less Swedish.

Quote:
But uhm, they would absolutely go ballistic when I can't write my surname. It's like a RARE surname with no simplified version with a bazzilion strokes! (Ok, I really need to learn how to write my surname soon...)

I love rare characters with bazillion strokes! What is it?
1 person has voted this message useful



starrye
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United States
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 Message 47 of 57
13 July 2011 at 11:11pm | IP Logged 
Ari wrote:
Quote:
PS: They have a word to describe Chinese folks like me who can't speak or write in Chinese - banana. Yellow on the outside, white inside. Not politically correct, but hey I didn't coin it. Fortunately, I no longer meet the banana criteria since I at least speak the language


This shows an interesting difference between the Chinese and Western (especially American) conception of nationality. For most Swedes, if you're born in Sweden and have a Swedish citizenship, you're a Swede. Not so to the Chinese. If you're ethnically Chinese, you may be born in a foreign country and hold a citizenship there, but you're still Chinese. This means you should learn your national language Mandarin (it's okay if you don't learn your native language, which might be Hokkien or Cantonese, as long as you learn Mandarin). Here's an exercise: compare the two expressions used in China and in the US for a person of Chinese ethnicity born and raised in the US. The American expression would be "Chinese American". The Chinese expression is "American-born Chinese", or "ABC".


There is another nickname in America, for an Asian American-- a "Twinkie". Same concept, yellow on the outside, white inside. An African American who supposedly acts "too white" is similarly called an "Oreo" (as in the cookie: black on the outside, white in the middle). Interestingly enough, the slur "twinkie" was originally used by Native Americans to mean white people with some native ancestry, but who have little blood and no social ties to any tribe. But in the sense of an Asian American, it's specifically an Asian American who has become so completely integrated into white American culture.

But, I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the United States is a nation with a lot of immigrants. There are too many different races and people from various national origins, that it's just not practical to define ourselves by ethnicity. It makes much more sense to say that if you are a citizen, then you are American, and that's that. But most still use some kind of hyphen to describe themselves: African-American, Chinese-American, Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. However in the case of most European Americans, we have intermarried with each other so much that many white Americans have mixed heritage now from multiple European nationalities. So we have dropped the hyphen and have begun to think of ourselves collectively as just "American". But it's a complicated issue because it's not politically correct.
1 person has voted this message useful



wyndhamfan
Triglot
Newbie
Malaysia
imaginarylands.wordpRegistered users can see my Skype Name
Joined 3852 days ago

5 posts - 16 votes
Studies: Mandarin, English*, Malay, Hokkien

 
 Message 48 of 57
14 July 2011 at 2:00am | IP Logged 
Ari wrote:

I love rare characters with bazillion strokes! What is it?


It's this one: 戴 (http://dontai.com/wp/2010/11/11/chinese-surname-dai-tai)

Ok, it doesn't have a bazillion strokes - I've seen far more complicated characters -
but
I've always, for some reason, found it difficult to write! Well, time to take out my
workbook and practise it :P

Interestingly, the surname is described as "the name with 18 strokes". We're either
descendants of this general, of a royal family or a long-lost kingdom. Interesting!

Edited by wyndhamfan on 14 July 2011 at 2:09am



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