Don’t Think Chinese is as Difficult as You Imagine!

Since the ’80s of the last century, the number of foreigners learning Chinese has been increasingly rapidly with the development of communication and cooperation between China and other countries the world over. At present, there are more than 300 universities and colleges admitting foreign learners of Chinese; the enrolments in 1999 alone, according to incomplete statistics, are 40,000, with the majority being in Beijing.

When the news about China’s admission to WTO is spread out, a conspicuous reaction is that the appeal to study Chinese becomes more popular in other countries. Some years ago, an influential French entrepreneur wrote: “if we hope our future generations suit the situation of the 21st century, then we should enable them to obtain ability of reaction… to some people, it is something very pressing to learn the Chinese language, the carrier of Oriental culture. Therefore, it’s essential to those children and youth today who will become teachers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs or businessmen to grasp this language.” His wish is being fulfilled.

Some people have the desire to learn Chinese, but they are afraid that the language is too difficult, and some even assert that the most difficult thing to do in the world is to learn Chinese. As a matter of fact, this is a misunderstanding – it’s true that the learning of any unrelated language will be comparatively difficult than that of a related language. The Chinese language is not related to European languages, therefore to English-speaking people, it is not as easy to study as French or Spanish, for example. However, the learning of Chinese is in no way as difficult as some people imagine.

The most prominent characteristic is that every one of the 1,200 syllables (a very limited number) stands for some meaning. The syllable is the combination of three constituents, namely the initial, the final and the tone. There are 21 initials, 35 finals and four basic tones, with a few sandhis. Most of the initials and finals are not difficult, and only the tones with their sandhis and very few initials and finals constitute some difficulty. In my opinion, the difficulty in learning Chinese pronunciation is relative in nature; that is to say, this difficulty can be surmounted by constant practice, and your pronunciation can then be like Chinese.

To learn the written form of Chinese, one must learn Chinese characters, the written symbols and unique script with a long history. Chinese learners are not used to studying Chinese characters. Now some linguists and language teachers have started to focus their studies on how to enable learners to learn Chinese characters faster. They have discovered that there are aspects that make Chinese characters easy to learn. Firstly, the number of commonly-used characters is limited. According to statistics, one can read non-technical publications without much difficulty, if s/he has a command of about 3,000 characters. Secondly, characters are made of components which, in their part, are composed of strokes. Out of the 400-600 characters, only 100 are commonly used, and a considerable part of those are characters by themselves.

As to strokes, the total number is about 30, among which there are only 8 basic ones. That means the quantity of characters and their components and strokes will not make a heavy burden to learners, so long as they have some understanding of the strokes, components and construction of characters. Thirdly, the rules of character construction are a guide to understanding and memorizing characters. Some characters are known as the pictographic characters, and it’s easy to learn them if one associates them with the things that they stand for. The great majority of characters are pictophonetic characters, which are made up of two components, with one usually indicating the meaning, and the other the pronunciation. Most of these components give us hints as to the meaning and pronunciation of characters, although they don’t give them accurately, due to the evolution of Chinese. The other two kinds are associative and self-explanatory characters, which are also quite easy to realize and memorize in their meanings.

Chinese, as with any other developed language in the world, has a large vocabulary. However, one will be able to read non-technical publications with a mastery of around 8,000 words. Actually, some words can be readily understood without special study. The reason is that the meanings of many words consisting of two or more characters can be inferred from the meanings of the characters or context, so one’s vocabulary can be rapidly expanded when they have grasped a certain number of characters.

What about Chinese grammar? It’s not so difficult – you can come to this conclusion when you know one fact. A zero-level foreign learner of Chinese can conduct everyday conversation after two or three months of intensive training. The most important characteristic of Chinese grammar is that the sentence is normally composed of two sections, with the first being ‘what’ and the second ‘how; that is to say, the first section of a sentence refers to a person or thing in question, and the second section is a description of the person or thing. The ‘what’ section may be an action or activity, referred to by a verb that is considered as a thing. Modifiers of the noun, the verb or the adjective always precede the word they modify. This basic sentence formula is easy to understand. As it is comparatively difficult to those of European languages, including English and French, it calls for practice before getting used to it. Of course, what we are talking about here is the basic formula. There are more complicated rules that need conscientious study.

Chinese is a developed language with a long history, and one spoken by a population which is larger than those speaking any other languages. With the rapid development of China’s economy, sciences and technology, and the ever-expanding international exchange and cooperation, the need of personnel with knowledge of Chinese becomes more and more urgent in many countries throughout the world. To meet this need, increasing numbers of people will choose to study Chinese. At the time when the world is past the gate of the 21st century, people have seen China’s great potential in politics, economy, sciences, technology and trade, potentials that will have their full play in the coming century. By that time, one will feel it’s a pity if he or she doesn’t know Chinese.

Prof. Lu Bisong
President, Beijing New Asia University
President, International Society for Chinese Teaching in the World
Ex-President, Beijing Language Institute