Zhao Hong: ‘Is Chinese a Difficult Language to Learn?’

Zhao Hong is a professor in the Foreign Language Institute of the East China University of Science and Technology, based in Shanghai.  One of the chapters in her book ‘Exploring Language Culture/语言文化探索’, published in 2015, is entitled ‘Is Chinese a Difficult Language to Learn?’.  Most non-Chinese people have an answer to this, whether or not they have actually studied Chinese, and that is ‘yes’.  Zhao Hong sets out to show that Chinese may not be so difficult to learn after all, when compared with other languages.

Zhao Hong begins by quoting David Moser, an American academic based in Beijing, who wrote a famous essay about the difficulty of learning Chinese: ‘Why Chinese is so Damn Hard’.  This can easily be found on the internet and is unlikely to encourage people to take up the study of Chinese.  He says, for example: “Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed.”

Why Chinese may not actually be so difficult…

Undeterred, Zhao Hong sets out to explain why she believes Chinese is actually not as difficult to learn as most people think.  She points out that children the world over are generally able to develop a reasonable command of their spoken language by the age of three, whatever that language may be.  She then goes on to compare English and Chinese in terms of the number of words an English speaker must learn, as opposed to the number of characters a Chinese speaker must learn.

Comparing the number of words one needs to know in English with characters in Chinese

Zhao Hong refers to research showing that a person with an English vocabulary of 14,000 words will be able to recognise 95% of the words they come across; a knowledge of 1,500 Chinese characters will provide a similar level of coverage for a Chinese speaker.  A university graduate whose mother tongue is English will normally have acquired a vocabulary of 20,000 English words, whereas a Chinese graduate will know 3,500 characters.  The graduate levels would be sufficient for most types of reading.  The lower levels (14,000 words and 1,500 characters) would not really be adequate for normal reading, as you would need to look up around 20 words in a typical page of English and 30 characters in a typical page of Chinese.

I do not know how long it would take a person whose mother tongue is not English to acquire a vocabulary of 14,000 or 20,000 English words.  However, I do know that it takes a number of years for a novice Chinese learner to acquire a knowledge of 1,500 characters, let alone 3,500.  I am up to around the 3,000 character level, but it has taken me almost four years to achieve this.

The systematic nature of Chinese 

Zhao Hong also discusses the relative difficulty of learning English words and Chinese characters.  She points out that a high proportion of English words are unique and must be learned one by one, whereas Chinese characters can be systematic.  For example, an English speaker must learn the names of all 12 months of the year individually, whereas the Chinese simply refer to them by number: month one, month two, month three (一月,二月,三月) etc.  Whereas in English the parts of the body all have unique names and have to be learned individually, in Chinese the relevant characters all contain a common element: lung (肺), liver (肝), stomach (胃).  She also states that many Chinese words consist of two characters; if you know the individual characters you can normally infer the meaning of the word.

The need to consider words and chengyu (fixed phrases) in Chinese, as well as characters

While Zhao Hong makes it very clear that she is simply comparing the numbers of words one needs to know in English with the number of characters one needs for Chinese, I do wonder if she realises that a knowledge of characters alone is not enough in terms of vocabulary for most people learning Chinese as a foreign language.  While many important Chinese ‘words’ consist of a single character (e.g., I, you, big, small etc.), most Chinese words consist of two characters.  It is often possible to guess the meaning of a two character Chinese word when you are familiar with both of the characters, but that is by no means always the case.  For example:

配置/pei zhi/fit install/deploy, dispose, allocate (e.g., troops, investments)

浮雕/fu diao/float carve/relief sculpture

牌照/pai zhao/card picture/licence certificate

牵强/qian qiang/pull strong/forced interpretation

In each of the above cases, I have set out the two Chinese characters comprising a single Chinese word, the pinyin that represents their sound, the rough meanings of the characters and the rough English translation.  The meaning of these Chinese words in English was by no means clear to me from the meanings of the characters that make them up.

In addition, Chinese makes substantial use of fixed phrases or ‘chengyu’, often consisting of four characters.  We have many fixed phrases in English as well, like ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ and ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’.  However, I do think they are much more common in Chinese.  If you are familiar with the characters that make up the fixed phrase, you can often guess the overall meaning.  However, that is by no means always the case.  For example:

省油的灯/sheng you de deng/a lamp that saves oil/somebody who is easy to deal with

一马平川/yi ma ping chuan/one horse flat river/wide expanse of flat land

脍炙人口/kuai zhi ren kou/chopped meat roast population/universally appreciated

舌战群儒/she zhan qun ru/tongue war group scholars/have a heated dispute with a group of scholars

Again, I have set out the Chinese characters, the pinyin that represents their sound, the rough meanings of the characters and their generally accepted English translation (based on the Pleco Chinese learning app).

I have done quite a lot of reading in Chinese, of many different types of written material. I can sometimes read whole pages of academic text without looking up a single character, but I almost always have to check the meaning of one or two words, and sometimes several ‘chengyu’.  The structure of Chinese sentences can sometimes be tortuous as well, in a way wholly different from English, but that is another subject altogether.

Potential areas of further research

After a lifetime of reading English, I very likely underestimate the number of difficult word combinations and fixed phrases we often use, that can be difficult for English learners to grasp.  However, I do hope that Zhao Hong will continue to develop this line of comparative research, focussing on some of the following issues:

  • Is it valid just to compare the number of words one needs to know in English and the number of characters in Chinese, or is it also necessary to take account of Chinese words and chengyu?
  • Are chengyu more common in Chinese than fixed phrases in English?
  • Is it possible to compare how language comprehension develops in English and Chinese respectively?  How is a person’s knowledge of words/characters linked to their level of comprehension?
  • Is it possible to compare the number of words/characters one needs to carry out different functions in the two languages, e.g., to work in Chinese in a Chinese office as opposed to getting around China on one’s own as a tourist?







Categories: Books, China, Chinese linguistics

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