Chris keeps telling me, “Chinese is easy!” and even rented a book for me with that title to prove his point. After reading 5 pages of the book and becoming horribly confused, I’m less than convinced.
So these are the top 6 reasons why Chinese is hard and therefore kind of sucks:
1. Chinese does not have an alphabet comprised of 26 letters that can be re-arranged to form words. Each individual syllable is identified by its own character, and almost all words are comprised of two characters. Although no one really knows how many characters there are for sure, there are estimated to be over 50,000. That is a lot of characters. If you learned one a day, you would be on pace to learn them all in 137 years. Fortunately a base of 1,750 characters is pretty standard for a native Chinese speaker, reducing learning the time to 4.5 years. Still a lot.
2. Not only does each syllable have its own character, but also a specific “stroke order” that the character must be written in. So in addition to memorizing the character itself, the meaning, and the tone (I’ll get to that), one also must remember in what order the tiny strokes that make up the character are written in. For reasons more complicated than I care to explain, stroke order is actually of importance and not just a finicky detail.
3. Recently, simplified version of the characters were developed to simplify things, but Taiwan uses traditional characters while China uses simplified characters, making it necessary to learn both.
4. Pinyin is a system developed to allow Chinese to be written using the Roman alphabet.
Example: The traditional character for “association” is: 聯想 and the pinyin for “association” is: liánxiǎng. Although I would have a heck of a lot more luck sounding out the pinyin than the character (in which case there is no sounding out—you either know a character or you don’t), I’m not able to pronounce the pinyin translation because I haven’t learned the sounds the different letters make. It would be a pretty feeble attempt.
5. There are 4 tones in Chinese. One is flat, one dips from high to low to high, one from high to low, and one from low to high. So… there are words in Chinese that have the same sound and the same pronunciation, but mean different things depending on the tone. The tones are distinguished in pinyin by marks above the letters (see example 4) and traditionally by different characters. What makes it even harder is that two words can share the same sounds and tones and mean two very different things.
Tones present an interesting challenge in music because the singer abandons the words’ tones for the song’s tune making it difficult to understand distinguish the lyrics.
6. Because there obviously isn’t a keyboard with 50,000 different characters on it, pinyin is used in combination with a regular keyboard to type characters. When Chris sits down to write a paper in Chinese, he types a word in pinyin and a little box pops up above the word with anywhere between 1 and 8 + different Chinese characters. One word may have multiple meanings/pronunciations that can only be specified by the character itself. He then reads through the characters provided and clicks on the one he wants. The selected character replaces the pinyin, and he is able to type the second word. It’s rather time consuming.
So, since we have adequately established that Chinese is in fact hard, I can confess without too much guilt that I only know a whopping two phrases: “I love you” and “I am his wife.” Not sure that’s going to do me a lot of good Taiwan.
“Where is the bathroom,” “I’ve been kidnapped,” and “I’m lost” may be more practical. According to Chris, I also need to learn how to say “No MSG please.” because the Taiwanese put it on EVERYTHING. Nothing to perk up your meal like a healthy dose of monosodium glutamate, and since I would like to come home cancer free, I’m going to bump this phrase up to the top of my “To Learn” list.