I have spent around 2,700 hours over the past three years studying Chinese, about the time it would have taken to complete an undergraduate degree. I am still far from fluent in speaking Chinese, but I can read it reasonably well and can also express myself in writing. There is still a long way to go before I will know Chinese as well as I wish to do.
For me the chief difficulty in learning Chinese has been to become sufficiently familiar with enough characters (and the words they form) to be able to read reasonably advanced texts smoothly. It is not enough to see a character once or twice, you (or at least I) need to see them in context 15 or 20 times over a period of time before you can recognise them easily in a new context. I would say that to read Chinese really well it is necessary to recognise around 8,000 characters. By contrast, it is possible at least to make a start with English once you know the 26 letters of the alphabet and roughly how they are pronounced. The main difficulty with English is learning the meaning of enough words properly to understand advanced texts, and that is a serious challenge. To become a competent reader of English takes a lot of application and time. Compared with Chinese, English grammar is also more complex.
For a long time after I started to study Chinese, I could not help but think the Chinese were saddled with a remarkably difficult language. However, I have discovered one significant advantage that Chinese has over English and other European languages. This is that Chinese is a ‘pure’ language that has not been derived to a greater or lesser extent from other languages. English by contrast contains a vast number of words derived from Latin and Greek, the meaning of which is not immediately apparent and that English speakers generally have to memorise. I had not fully appreciated this until I started to learn scientific terms in Chinese. Chinese generally uses common Chinese characters to express concepts for which we English speakers use words derived from Greek and Latin. A few examples:
- the Chinese for ‘esophagus’ is ‘食道／shi dao’, i.e., ‘food tube’
- the Chinese for ‘aphelion’ [the point in the earth’s orbit at which the earth is furthest from the sun] is ‘远日点／yuan ri dian’, i.e., ‘far sun point’
- the Chinese for ‘perihelion’ [the point in the earth’s orbit at which the earth is nearest the sun] is ‘近日点／jin ri dian’, i.e., ‘near sun point’
- the Chinese for ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is ‘北回归线／bei hui gui xian’, i.e., ‘north go back line’
- the Chinese for ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ is ‘南回归线／nan hui gui xian’, i.e., ‘south go back line’
- the Chinese for ‘meta-‘ is ‘形上／xing shang’, i.e., ‘form above’
How many English speakers (apart from scientists) know the meaning of the words ‘aphelion’ and ‘perihelion’, or can remember that the Tropic of Cancer is in the northern hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn is in the southern hemisphere? The corresponding Chinese terms, however, are made up of very common Chinese characters that an elementary school child in China would know and understand. There are many Chinese expressions of this kind that are far easier to understand in Chinese than in English; the ones I have set out above are by no means exceptional. This is not just a dry point about etymology; the ease of comprehension of scientific terms in Chinese is a genuine advantage of the language.
It is true that Chinese has adopted some expressions from English in the form of ‘loan words’, using Chinese characters that have a similar sound to the corresponding English word but the underlying meaning of which is completely different. One example is ‘logic’, for which the Chinese word is ‘逻辑／luo ji’. The characters 逻/luo and 辑/ji respectively mean ‘patrol’ and ‘edit/compile’. The meaning of these characters has absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of the word in Chinese, but the sound of the combined characters corresponds to the sound of the English word ‘logic’. There are relatively few such ‘loan words’, however, compared with Latin and Greek words in English. A similar technique is used to transliterate English proper names and place names. London, for example, is ‘伦敦／lun dun’ and New York ‘纽约／niu yue’ in Chinese.
Hopefully I will find some more advantages to Chinese as I go on, but it is good for the time being to have identified at least one feature of the language that is superior to English.