Is Chinese difficult to learn?

Some Oxford-educated English man claims in his blog that China should use an alphabetical writing system, and China’s failing to do so in history partly resulted in the high level of illiteracy. He goes like this

[China failed to invent stuff] Like an alphabet. Really, how hard is that? The Koreans managed to transform their character-based system into a very serviceable syllabic alphabet nearly 600 years ago. Amongst the reasons why China still hasn’t achieved a high level of literacy….

It is not the first time westerners point a finger at Chinese culture and claiming it backward, outdated or lacking creativity. Well, China has to ‘disappoint’ them for yet another time, because China will never use an alphabetical writing system. Koreans designed their square-shaped writing system, Vietnamese reverted from Chinese characters to French alphabets after being colonized and Japanese are using half-Chinese and half-syllables. But these examples do not mean that China, the inventor of its unique writing system, will follow suit just because an Oxford man can’t learn it.

The reason is very simple: Chinese writing system is part of Chinese culture, and it has been a very stable and mature writing system over the past 2,000 years. Its earliest appearances date back to 1,000 B.C. A remarkable treasure of cultural heritage has been preserved by this consistent writing system, and this is part of the reason that Chinese conquered the barbaric conquerors from the North. To claim that China should discard its unique writing system is tantamount to a cultural genocide, something western colonists excelled at. Just look at the whole American continent!

The writing system of Chinese, in all its uniqueness, perpetuated and preserved our culture. It is China itself in one sense.

The value of Chinese writing system aside, I am going to explain in simple words why Chinese are actually easier to learn than English and other major European languages:

  • Chinese grammar is an ideational grammar. It is very straightforward with an intense focus on ideas rather than grammatical forms which are commonplace in European languages. Translated literally, Chinese goes like this: I EAT-le THREE APPLE. No conjugation and no plural form. To express a past tense just add the universal “le” at the end of the verb. The plural form of APPLES is semantically redundant because the word THREE said it all. The economy of grammatical forms and the focus on ideas make Chinese simple to learn yet powerfully expressive, a hallmark best exemplified by Chinese poems.
  • Chinese uses symbols very efficiently, and knowing about 3,000 Chinese characters is more than enough to read extensively in modern China. Ideas rarely exhaust the combination of a few thousand everyday Chinese characters, and a learned person in China is not judged by how many characters he knows. To read extensively in English, one would learn about 20,000 words to say the least. A simple example is suffice to show the difference : In English you say January, February, March etc, but in Chinese you simply say Month 1, Month 2 … I have been learning English for over ten years and I still come across new words more often than not. While Americans have to take the GRE test to enter graduate schools, Chinese students are poring over English glossaries in order to pass the qualifying English test for a master’s program in Chinese Literature. What an irony.
  • Contrary to the widespread superstition that Chinese characters are difficult to write, writing a Chinese character is not difficult at all. Even a Gecko caveman can do it. Sounds too good to be true? Just install Microsoft Pinyin on your computer, change into Chinese language input method, and type “woaizhongwen” without the quotation marks. Do you see it? You have just written 我爱中文 which means I love Chinese language. Admittedly, it takes some training to write Chinese characters by hand, but it is not difficult for Chinese kids at all. It is in their blood, remember? Besides, fewer and fewer Chinese write by hand today because typing characters into a computer screen is so easy and fast.

Ignorance of a foreign culture is always pardonable, but passing judgment about a country’s writing system with quarter-knowledge passes for stupidity.

48 Replies to “Is Chinese difficult to learn?”

  1. It is the worst tragedy when a culture does NOT have their own, unique, language system and has to barrow from others. Japan, Korea, and other countries without their own language system, my heart goes out to you guys.

    1. Using traditional characters might be easier in this computer age. Since simplified Chinese has been widely accepted, it is a hard thing to do. The needs of other ethnic groups have to be considered too.

      1. How do the needs of other ethnic groups come in to play? As far as I know there haven’t been any studies showing any significant difference in literacy rates between simplified and traditional character systems, once factors like economics and educational investment have been adjusted for.

  2. Hi Thinkweird,

    An alphabetic system makes it relatively easy to learn an almost unlimited number of new words. Many English speakers have a vocabulary of 100,000+ words, and do not find it at all difficult to learn more new ones. With a character-based system, each new word requires a major effort to memorise not just its meaning but its appearance. And, as you admit, it’s very easy to forget a character that you don’t use regularly. I seldom or never forget either the spelling or meaning of an English word, even if I haven’t used it for years. The huge advantages of an alphabetic system are witnessed by evolution, by the fact that almost every other language in the world developed one hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

    Most of the Chinese students I have worked with at high school and university level complain that classical Chinese is extremely difficult for them to understand, and say they did not enjoy having to study the old literature. I agree it would be great if the “consistency” of your writing system made these old works more accessible to the modern generation, but from what I’ve heard, it isn’t true: classical Chinese uses too many characters that are uncommon or obsolete in modern Chinese, and many that have changed radically in their meaning. And it is possible – a little difficult, but not overwhelmingly so – for modern English speakers to read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, etc.

    I take issue with your comment that it is “natural” for Chinese to learn this writing system, or as you said in the original post “in their blood”. The fact that they are surrounded by this writing system in their cultural environment will make it easier for them to learn, but there is no genetic predisposition (many overseas Chinese I know, who’ve grown up with little or no Chinese in the home, complain about how hard they find it to learn Chinese when they begin study in their teens or twenties or later; in fact, I think they complain more than most other foreigners; I hope you’re not going to tell me they must have “mixed blood”). One of the arguments that has been made against the character system (by Chinese critics, not by me) is that it undermines the rest of the schooling system because of the disproportionate amount of the timetable it consumes. I have been told that Chinese takes up around 40% of the timetable, at least in junior and middle school – is that right?? In the UK, we probably only spend about 10% on English.

    I was also objecting to the tone of the passage in the middle of your original post, with its angry defiance of foreign “criticism” and its accusation of “cultural genocide”. Making such extreme and inappropriate comparisons to attack your opponents – that’s classic fenqing hyperbole.

    I think the rise of the ‘keyboard culture’ and the use of pinyin input systems is the death-knell of the Chinese writing system. (Most Chinese I know older than about 30 claim that they prefer alternate input systems based on categorizing characters by their radicals, stroke number, and so on – as in a Chinese dictionary, I guess. But younger people all seem to be using pinyin.) If people are “thinking” in pinyin all the time, and forgetting how to write the characters, there really won’t be any point in continuing to try to read them; people will just start reading pinyin too (or, hopefully, a more elaborate Roman alphabet system that allows more subtle and accurate representation of the pronunciation and tones). When this happens, the Chinese language will not only become easier for everyone to learn, but it will acquire much more freedom and flexibility, it will be able to grow and develop as a modern language much more quickly. I think that is an exciting and very positive prospect.

    It is natural to feel sentimental about the past, about long-standing aspects of one’s culture; but one can’t cling on to the past forever. In a thousand years, quite possibly the Roman alphabet will have been replaced by some other writing system. I think it is absolutely certain that the Chinese character system will be replaced, and in much less than 1,00o years.

    1. @froog,
      Our debate is going nowhere because you don’t know Chinese, and you are pretending you know about it very well. If I pass for fenqing, then you are no less a fenwai.

      I know many native English speakers who can speak Chinese fluently. Once you learn pinyin, you can easily ‘write’ Chinese on a computer within 5 minutes. How difficult is that?

      If I were you living in a different country, I would definitely study its language — even it is Russian!

    2. I am a Chinese and I am a teen. True, all of my friends and I use pinyin to input characters into computer. As long as we know what a character sounds like, we can type out its pinyin. However, if you give us a article just made up of pinyin, it will be extremely hard for us to read (it‘s just too time-consuming and confusing). We only use pinyin as a tool to input characters.

      1. I agree. Using pinyin or other Romanization system to replace Chinese characters is a very stupid idea. But some people who never used Chinese before preach abolishing the Chinese characters once and for all, and it is utter ignorance and pure prejudices.

  3. You know that the CCP, in developing pinyin, originally planned that it should replace the character-writing system? Of course, there’s never been any attempt to draw up a timetable for implementation, so that idea has been sidelined for 50 years; but I believe that it is still, in theory, an ‘official policy’ of the Chinese government.

    That’s another reason why I believe the abandonment of the characters could happen quite soon. When the CCP says “Make it so”, it happens! Once the Party leadership is convinced of how sensible this move would be, it could be implemented very quickly; resistance to the idea from ordinary people won’t much matter. Not many other governments in the world have this capacity to institute sweeping changes – in disregard of any foreign or domestic criticism.

    1. @froog
      Your claim that the Chinese government wanted to change the character based system into a pinyin system is simply absurd. Just imagine how difficult it would be reading a all pinyin book, trying to guess the tones. Pinyin was developed to make learning Chinese easier, and it has done that.
      Do you have any reference to back your claim or is it just hearsay?

      1. John, I’d refer you to ‘Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems’ by John DeFrancis, as well as the works of Zhou Youguang, or for that matter the Wikipedia page on Hanyu Pinyin.

        However, the replacement of Chinese characters by Hanyu Pinyin or any other system of romanization has not been official or unofficial government policy since at least the mid-50s — though legally Pinyin enjoys the same status as characters.

  4. Anyone who knows a little pinyin would agree using pinyin as the writing system is totally unimaginable, because Chinese language has so many homophones.

    The grand plan froog referred to did exist, but one has to put it in a historical context. That was the time when ‘they’ even planned to use Slavic alphabets for Chinese writing system, as suggested by the soviet cohort.

    Things can be planned, but implementing them is a different story. froog, have you heard about China’s plan to surpass Britain and U.S. with 15 years?

    froog, since you are in China, why not learn some Chinese first and then make your judgment? It is really not that difficult since a billion people have already done that.

  5. I agree about the inadequacies of pinyin, and not only because it fails to address the tones. I think some earlier transliteration systems did rather better than this, but I’m no kind of expert about this and can’t remember the names of them. Perhaps Wikipedia would help. If you check my earlier comments, you’ll see I didn’t actually suggest that pinyin should replace the characters; I just predicted that something would (and I hoped it would be something better than pinyin).

    I admit my communicative level in Chinese is very poor and I am a little bit embarrassed by that, but I do know quite a bit of the language passively (in being able to recognise it when I hear it or see it) and I do know quite a lot about it (through having lots of friends, both Chinese and foreign, who I love to discuss this with, and having been for many years interested in linguistics). And one doesn’t need any knowledge of Chinese to form a judgment on these issues: is the writing system impractical, are there arguments for change, what do you think is likely to happen in the next 50 or 100 years?

    Yes, I’ve admitted that I play at being fenwai sometimes, but not in too extreme or provocative a way, I hope. I’m only out to have fun and generate an interesting discussion. Here I am quite earnest: I do respect the character system’s place in Chinese culture, and I hope it survives as a form of art – but as a way of writing the language it is very impractical, and I think it will – as a natural, inevitable process – die…. quite soon.

    I think China’s already surpassed Britain’s economy. Or will this year! My understanding was that 2050 was the target for surpassing America, though that may have been moved forward because of current circumstances.

    My point about the CCP’s (historic) commitment to replacing the character system was not really about pinyin but about the practicality and conceivability of such a big (and unpopular and difficult) change happening in China in a short space of time. If the CCP embraces such a policy, it can and will happen. And I think it will, perhaps within a few decades; certainly within a century or so.

  6. I return and look at your last comment, TW, and see that you are being a bit fenqing again – which is to say, not participating in the debate, just resorting to personal attacks.

    Do you accept there are certain impracticalities about the Chinese writing system?

    Do yo accept that it is conceivable the Chinese government could change this very quickly if it chose to do so?

    Do you accept that a lot of Chinese don’t share your view that Chinese is easy to learn, or that the Chinese classic literature is easy to read?

    Do you accept that the ease of writing in pinyin on a keyboard is likely to undermine the the recognition and use of characters by young Chinese people over the next decade or so?

    If not, why not? Do you have any arguments to make against any of these points that I raised?

    The debate is “not going anywhere” not because I don’t know enough about Chinese, but because you appear to be incapable of replying to what I’ve said.

    1. Q: Do you accept there are certain impracticalities about the Chinese writing system?

      A: No. It is so practically used in China. What are the impracticalities you are referring to?

      Q: Do yo accept that it is conceivable the Chinese government could change this very quickly if it chose to do so?

      A: No. Not only this is a very hypothetical question in the sense that there is NO official indication that the current writing system is impractical, it is also extremely difficult to do. There is a limit to anything.

      Q: Do you accept that a lot of Chinese don’t share your view that Chinese is easy to learn, or that the Chinese classic literature is easy to read?

      A: A lot? How many? Did they also tell you that English or any foobar language is difficult to learn? Or they claim learning English is quiet easy. Any Chinese with a high school education can read the Four Classics of Chinese literature without much difficulty. Poems from Tang and Song Dynasties are taught to three-year old kids, and they recite very well. I am not saying ALL classics, but many classics are approachable by a vast majority of Chinese.

      Q: Do you accept that the ease of writing in pinyin on a keyboard is likely to undermine the the recognition and use of characters by young Chinese people over the next decade or so?

      A: No. All standard tests in China require examinees to write by hand. High school kids, if they want to enter college, must write on paper. I forgot to write many Chinese characters because I use English more than I do with Chinese. (Is it more grammatical to say “I use English more than Chinese”?)

      Q: If not, why not? Do you have any arguments to make against any of these points that I raised?

      A: You really need to learn some Chinese to debate on this topic. Have you read Ryan’s and John’s response to your earlier comments? They know some Chinese and they are more on my side.

      “The debate is “not going anywhere” not because I don’t know enough about Chinese, but because you appear to be incapable of replying to what I’ve said.”

      I just replied. Learning ANY foreign is difficult, and to be very efficient on one may take ten plus years. Chinese is so different from European languages, but that does not mean it is more difficult than them. Please talk to more Laowai who are learning Chinese and ask their opinion.

      Did you also take notice of what I said earlier? Learn to write Chinese characters is NEVER a problem for school kids and college students. Their headache comes mainly from their English courses.

  7. Hi ThinkWeird, only recently was turned on to your blog, and really enjoy it.

    Great post, and as an armchair (swivel chair?) learner of Chinese, I agree with most of it. I also agree with froog that you did delve back into the fenqing role for a bit there (the fenqing post was actually the post that lead me to your site).

    The part that always irritates me in any debate is when Chinese bring up anything, anything about the “barbarians” to the north. The Chinese were, numerous times, defeated by barbarians – Wei, Liao, Jin, Yuan and one of the longest “Chinese” dynasties, the Qing, had China ruled by “barbarians” for nearly 300 years. That the writing system survived is impressive, but played any part in conquering the barbarians that so often conquered China? I just don’t see it.

    I don’t share foog’s prediction that characters will be done away with though – as I think the sheer number of homonyms would make written Chinese (literature, anything online, signage) without the visual differences from characters extremely difficult to understand.

    froog, you mention that pīnyīn doesn’t do well to illustrate tones, but it surely does – at least as well as any of a number of languages do in illustrating phonetic accents. There are some exceptions (ie. 2 third tones makes first a second tone, etc.) that need to be remembered, but largely pīnyīn does a decent job of telling you how something should sound – provided, of course, you have some basic pīnyīn phonetic lessons.

    The limit with pīnyīn is that there is a total lack of meaning attached to the words. It may be that chunks of meaning could be inferred if the majority of the passage is understood, but it is by no means easy – certainly not to a level where pīnyīn or anything like pīnyīn would replace hanzi.

    Generally speaking languages aren’t “invented”, there is no eureka moment, no light bulb. They are evolutions. Natural linguistic selection at its finest. And so for a language to change so drastically in the next hundred years, we would surely be able to envision an alternative now. It may not pass and become common practice, but it should be visible, right?

    So what could it be? What would allow an logogram-based language to morph into a phonographic language? Could Korea and Japan serve as examples? Or does the fact that they still use hanzi prove that it’s not possible? I don’t know enough about either language to say, but I am curious what you guys think.

    1. TW,
      I wonder if you have read either of the following:

      DeFrancis, J. (1984) The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press.
      Hannas, Wm. C. (1197) Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press.

      It really is not useful to claim that because a foreigner does not have native speaker competence s/he is incapable of knowledge about the Chinese writing system or of commenting meaningfully on it.

      The points which Froog and Brendan make are supported by some of the world’s leading experts on Chinese. By the way, much of the pioneering work on Chinese writing has been carried out by Westerners such as Karlgren and Wieger. Being a learner forces one to scrutinise the writing system in a way which native speakers do not need to do as they master the spoken language first and then, for the vast majority of characters, simply link already familiar phonetic elements to known words.

      I suggest you read the above books and then get back.

      1. No, I didn’t read the books you mentioned. Could you quickly summarize their points as related to my arguments?
        My basic line of argument in my post is whether China should use an alphabetical writing system, and whether China’s failing to do so in history partly resulted in the high level of illiteracy — two claims which I totally disagree.

        Don’t tell me the authors who probably never learned to speak/write Chinese fluently support with these nonsense.

  8. @Froog, I’ll reply to your list of our debate questions tomorrow. I had a busy day and I need to relax a bit. You know I can’t write English as fluently as you do. Indeed I thank you for visiting my site and spending time for this discussion. But that doesn’t mean I agree with you 😉

    @Ryan, you are absolutely right about the historical facts, but I am afraid you misunderstood me. Please allow me to rephrase:

    1) Chinese culture is a result of the constant interaction with the cultures from boarding nations and ethnic groups. Chinese learned a lot from these peoples and some of these peoples accepted Chinese culture and became Chinese.

    2) I meant to say: although China was conquered by the nomadic/roaming people from the north in history, it actually incorporated/assimilated these people into a bigger China because of its advanced civilization. This is what I meant by conquering the barbaric groups with Chinese culture, and the Chinese writing system is part of its culture.

    Qing Dynasty, established by Man People, is a case in point. Now it is almost impossible to tell a Qing person (the conqueror) from a Han Chinese (the conquered).

  9. Ah, yes. That is a good point, and I did misunderstand you. Han assimilation, for better or worse, is unrivaled.

    BTW: Your tab order for the form inputs is a bit out of whack for anyone using tabs instead of a mouse to fill out the “Leave a Comment” info. If you try and tab from Name to E-mail it jumps up to the search bar at the top of the sidebar. Sorry, off-topic, but wanted to let you know.

    1. Ryan,
      Thank you for letting me know the bug. I never noticed it before. I’ll contact the theme designer.

  10. Every character must be memorised individually: its appearance, its meaning, its pronunciation, and how to write it.

    Ha…Isn’t this true for English words as well?

    That is much harder than learning an alphabet system and a few rules of spelling, which then give you ready access to learning an almost unlimited number of words

    A few thousand common Chinese characters AND their combination do the same job. You don’t need to learn 20,000 characters to read extensively, as you do with English. Please, don’t confuse alphabets with characters. A character in Chinese equals to an English word. Do you ever get it?

    and being able, usually, to immediately know how to pronounce them even if you’ve never heard them, and often even being able to infer their meaning

    The same is true for Chinese. Chinese characters use radicals widely. Any Chinese character is comprised of radicals and characters are grouped in dictionaries by their radicals. People learn the radicals to memorize the ‘word’.

    Criticisms of pinyin usually seem to be based on the fact that it doesn’t show tones.

    Nope. pinyin represent tones very well. There are too many similar sounding Chinese words for pinyin to efficiently represent them. This is the very reason that pinyin will NEVER replace Chinese characters.

    How many Chinese have complained to me how much they suffered at school in learning Chinese… I would say probably about 98% of everyone I’ve ever talked to about it.

    You still haven’t answered my question: Do those Chinese think it is actually easier to learn English than Chinese? Do they ever complain about how hard it is to learn English and pass examinations? They must have had one too many. Ask them which one is more difficult next time, and see if they claim learning 20,000 English words is easier.

    Almost every other language in the world ditched pictographic systems of writing thousands of years ago in favour of alphabets, and they have benefited from this.

    Wrong. Chinese writing system today is not pictographic by all means. It is a system of symbols, not ‘pictures’. Upon its earliest appearance and development, Chinese writing system did carry some pictographic elements, but it is no longer the case for modern Chinese.

    Don’t you think it’s rather “culturally imperialistic” of you to demand that other people learn Chinese?

    I suggest you to learn some Chinese because you know so little about it and you don’t have much evidence to back your claims up. All you have is hearsay and your own imagination. It is actually culturally imperialistic for you to advocate ditching a country’s writing system completely while not possessing one iota of knowledge about it. Isn’t it ridiculous?

  11. @Thinkweird: Regarding the bug – cool 🙂

    @the conversation: I think what is being misrepresented in this argument is the benefits of both languages.

    Thinkweird, you’re absolutely right that Chinese characters do offer some insight into their pronunciation through radicals – a fact that I didn’t know until I started learning Chinese at a Chinese university, but that most good texts will teach as well.

    However, when you say that English words also need to be memorized individually for appearance, meaning, pronunciation and how to write it, this isn’t so. English words are, largely, not memorized the same way Chinese needs to be. Having taught a good amount of ESL previously, I remember all too well how Chinese students tried to (and continue to, I’m sure) apply their own learning styles (namely rote memorization) to English, and struggle with it – never realizing that the key to English spelling/pronunciation isn’t by looking at each word as an individual image to memorize, but through understanding alphabet-based phonetics as building blocks for the words. A word isn’t a symbol, as in Chinese, it is a series of sounds joined together.

    Reading both arguments, you both have valid points, but both seem to be arguing your points with cultural blinders on.

    The one thing that is very relevant from Froog’s points is the amount of time that students are required to devote to being literate. I’m certain it’s not the sole reason, but I do wonder if it’s why students in North East Asia, all countries using Hanzi in some form, are required to spend so much additional time in class to achieve similar scholastic results as students in countries without such a complex writing system.

    1. I remember all too well how Chinese students tried to (and continue to, I’m sure) apply their own learning styles (namely rote memorization) to English, and struggle with it – never realizing that the key to English spelling/pronunciation isn’t by looking at each word as an individual image to memorize, but through understanding alphabet-based phonetics as building blocks for the words.

      The interference from one’s mother tongue is natural when learning a foreign language. How strange is that? I am sure Chinese students struggle so more their English courses than with Chinese characters.

      I do wonder if it’s why students in North East Asia, all countries using Hanzi in some form, are required to spend so much additional time in class to achieve similar scholastic results as students in countries without such a complex writing system.

      Same scholastic results? Chinese students are generally better in math than U.S. students from the same age group. And they are not spending the extra time on learning Hanzi because English has taken so much of their time.

      Blame Asian students’ diligence on Confucius, highly competitive college entrance tests, cultural tradition to emphasis on studying, but not on learning Hanzi.

  12. [Chinese] only around 10,000 of these are in “common use”. I’ve also seen estimates of between 80,000 and 120,000 for the number of Chinese ‘words’ formed by character combinations, but again fewer than half of these are deemed to be in “common use”. It’s pretty much impossible to count the number of words in English. Estimates usually go somewhere around 2 million.

    By your own numbers, which one is more difficult to learn? English.

    Many of the Chinese I know who’ve attained a really high level in their English say that they no longer find it hard to study. A good many of them say that they actually prefer using English to Chinese, because it gives them more subtlety and flexibility of expression.

    You are constantly using ‘many Chinese” or “a good many of them” to backup your claim. I really doubt the actually numbers. You are not only saying one is more fluent with a foreign language than his mother tongue, which runs counter to common sense, but also imperialistically hinting Chinese has less “subtlety and flexibility of expression than English”.

    I consider myself fairly good at English but I never dare to say that my English is better than my Chinese or I prefer using English at all time. Learning English or ANY other language is a life-long journey, one can never be perfect with a foreign language. Those Chinese who are boasting their level of English must, I have to say this again, have one too many. Why do you always cite testimonials from drunken Chinese?

    If I were aggressively advocating that the Chinese abandon something that is distinctively “Chinese” in favour of something that is “non-Chinese”, purely for my own satisfaction

    This is exactly what you are doing. Learning how to write Chinese is definitely a difficult thing to do for foreigners, but it is NEVER a problem for native Chinese. How do I know?

    In America, students have learn so many new words for GRE test, due to the very reason that the sheer number of words in English is overwhelming. In Chinese universities, English courses have such a dominance that college students spend a whole chunk of their time to study it. In contrast, they only take elective courses on Chinese literature or none at all. To become a graduate student, Chinese vocabulary is never ever tested because writing Chinese characters is easy for everyone. Do you get it?

    I merely observe, as a student of linguistics, that I think such a change is likely to happen at some time; and I express the belief, the hope that it would, on balance, be a good thing for the Chinese language, and for the Chinese education system.

    I am surprised that you said you studied linguistics. Not only your training in linguistics failed to teach you have a broad vision on things that are different, but also made you confused with the basic concepts such as word, characters, alphabets and pictographs. Modern Chinese is not a pictographic system. Like English, every character is a symbol, functioning as a signifier of meaning(s).

    By the way, I studied linguistics for my master’s, but I am too shy to tell other people about it, because I deem myself not so proficient in it.

    The majority of Chinese are satisfied with the current writing system. The difficulties you philosophized on are never a big deal for them. Where do you get the idea it is a good thing for them to change the writing system? Or it is simply good for YOU?

    Here’s the thing: culture is essentially non-national: it transcends borders. And it isn’t rigid, it is constantly evolving.

    This is one thing we can agree on. Chinese writing system is constantly evolving. And it has transcended boarders to reach Vietnam, Japan and Korea. The latter two countries are still widely using Chinese characters. But it is not evolving to distinction as you imagined.

    Don’t let alphabetic system block your eyesight, you really have to learn to accept different options, which includes learning some Chinese.

  13. I just asked one of my Chinese friends, who barely knows English, to comment on your view using one sentence. He said “You are not fish, how do you know the joy of being a fish”, quoting from traditional Chinese literature. This says plenty.

  14. It’s not a question of numbers, TW. An alphabetic system gives you the capability to learn an almost infinite number of words with comparative ease.

    We all base most of our arguments on personal belief and anecdotal evidence. What else do you do? But, by the standards of most laowai, I have met a very large number of Chinese, and these are topics that I like to talk to them about. So, my anecdotal evidence isn’t based on a negligible sample. It is, though, I admit, based on a skewed sample: it contains a disproportionately high element of unusually intelligent people, unusually well-educated people, people who have spent many years overseas and/or worked for foreign companies.

    It lowers the tone of the discussion – and tends to discredit your position – if you abuse people (even in jest). Just because Chinese people express views which you may not understand or agree with does not mean that they must be drunk. It’s also not good argumentation to ascribe comments to people which they didn’t make – again, it’s a classic fenqing vice. The Chinese friends are quoted did not brag that their English was better than their Chinese. (It’s not impossible for that to happen, for someone who’s been living overseas a long time and using almost exclusively English. But it is very, very rare.) It was I who rated their English as “really high level”.

    Your repeated assertion that learning the Chinese writing system is NEVER a problem for native Chinese is based on….. what? What about all the Chinese that can’t write at all? What about all the Chinese that can write only a fairly small number of characters? What about the Chinese who learned thousands of characters at school, but have forgotten how to write many of them since they left? The fact that Chinese writing ability is not tested at university proves absolutely nothing. If anything, it suggests that there are concerns that students wouldn’t be able to pass a rigorous writing test. It would be very instructive to know what might be the results of thorough testing of the number of characters that can be read and written by students across China at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. Do you have any statistics on this?

    You have so far not only omitted to mention your qualification in linguistics, but also to give any evidence of a knowledge of linguistics. Chinese ‘humility’ is a strange thing, indeed.

    I’m not really “advocating” this change, simply “predicting” it; I feel it is a natural and inevitable process. And I’m not being “aggressive” about it. It’s just that you perceive it as “aggressive” because it’s not an idea you feel comfortable with.

    1. Froog, I suggest to accurately pinpoint our views, you use “blockquote” html mark to highlight my argument and then debate it.

      it contains a disproportionately high element of unusually intelligent people, unusually well-educated people, people who have spent many years overseas and/or worked for foreign companies.

      And you are quoting these people to supporting your view that Chinese is difficult to write? Actually you don’t have to go that far for evidence. Did you forget I told you using too much English and typing in pinyin deteriorated my memory of Chinese characters?

      These people, including myself, though I don’t belong to your category of ‘unusually well-educated people’, can not be used to prove that Chinese writing per se is difficult to learn.
      You should cite evidence from people who use Chinese ONLY in their daily life, and seek their opinion on our argument. Unfortunately, this is what you cannot do.

      If I don’t use English as often as I do now, I will forget to spell many English words as well. It is just psychology. Please don’t complicate it.

      The Chinese friends are quoted did not brag that their English was better than their Chinese.

      Did you forget your earlier remark “A good many of them say that they actually prefer using English to Chinese, because it gives them MORE subtlety and flexibility of expression.” The emphasis is mine. What do you mean by MORE here?

      By simple logic, if using one language gives MORE subtlety and flexibility of expression, and it is a PREFERRED way of communication, then either this language is superior (which I disagree) or it is better commanded.

      I’d like to see your explanation of this point. 😉

      What about all the Chinese that can’t write at all? What about all the Chinese that can write only a fairly small number of characters? What about the Chinese who learned thousands of characters at school, but have forgotten how to write many of them since they left?

      Why do you always complicate matters by making a universal phenomenon a China-specific problem? Replace the words “Chinese” and “China” with “American” and “America”, and run it again. Did you just successfully prove that English is difficult to learn?

      The fact that Chinese writing ability is not tested at university proves absolutely nothing. If anything, it suggests that there are concerns that students wouldn’t be able to pass a rigorous writing test. It would be very instructive to know what might be the results of thorough testing of the number of characters that can be read and written by students across China at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. Do you have any statistics on this?

      You are saying the graduate schools are afraid to give students writing test, because the students “wouldn’t be able to pass a rigorous writing test” on writing Chinese. How ridiculous! Students must pass an English test, which including essay writing, to be accepted into graduate schools. Using your logic, does it mean that the authorities are so confident of the high proficiency in English among Chinese students, and they give these students an EASY test?

      Did you also forget what you said earlier “Also, language teaching in China tends to be very, very poor. It’s improved quite a bit in the last decade or so, but it’s still pretty bad.”

      You do notice the contradictions in your argument, don’t you?

  15. You know how some people – science teachers, chefs – burn themselves so frequently that they become used to it; their skin gets tougher, and they cease to notice the pain?

    In fact, after a while, they forget that they ever felt any pain. They take pride in showing off the skill they have acquired: “Hey, that’s not HOT. Look how easily I can pick it up! No pain at all. Easiest thing in the world.”

    I suggest maybe that’s what TW and his Chinese friends are like when they think about learning to write Chinese characters. Easy, easy, easy – not difficult at all.

  16. Though I am not a fish, I can imagine the joy of being a fish.

    A fish, however, can never imagine the joy of being a man.

    A fish, in fact, can’t even really savour the joy of being a fish for very long, since it has no long-term memory.

    This is an excellent metaphor for fenqing. They keep saying the same thing over and over and over again, as if they’ve forgotten that they just said it a couple of minutes ago. And their last line of defence is always…. “You’re not like me, so you can never understand me.” Fish, of course, don’t get this, but…. fish ain’t the only thing that can swim.

    1. Why do you keep labeling me as Fenqing? What you said above applies to your attitude in every sense. How hard is it for you to understand you must learn some Chinese to debate on it?

      If the fish metaphor does not ring a bell, how does this English proverb sound to you — the proof of pudding is in the eating. I am expecting more of your imaginations in your future replies.

  17. “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

    I don’t mean to offend you by bringing up the dreaded word fenqing, TW. I know that you like to think you’ve got beyond that. And some of the times I’ve mentioned it here, I’ve been generalising, rather than referring directly to your arguments.

    However, you do, here and there, lapse into fenqing tendencies – repetitious arguments, cheap personal sneers, ascribing comments to people that they haven’t actually made, running off at a tangent, getting over-emotional, adopting a strident, confrontational tone.

    None of us is immune from this sort of thing occasionally. In fact, one of the reasons why I try to avoid getting sucked into comment threads is that it can drag you down to the level of your antagonists.

    So, I think I’m done here.

    You simply refuse to understand or accept most of the points I’m making. Alphabetic writing systems have huge advantages. There’s not really much room for doubt or argument about that. If you can’t even accept that, there’s obviously some kind of cognitive deficit going on, which we’re never going to bridge. All this nonsense about whether it’s easier to learn English than Chinese is an irrelevance. If you don’t acknowledge the advantages of alphabets, then there’s no point talking about anything else.

    Actually, of course, the CCP’s promotion of pinyin is only a smokescreen. The reason for the emphasis on English in graduate admissions tests is that the true ‘master plan’ is to establish English as the joint official language of the PRC by 2050, and to phase out putonghua by 2100.

  18. Regarding point 2, I think you’re being a bit too simplistic here: Chinese is not a monosyllabic language, and so “words” do not equate to “characters,” as the majority of Chinese words are disyllabic or longer, and a knowledge of the constituent characters of a word doesn’t necessarily mean an understanding of the word itself.

    As for point 3: I agree that the overall constancy of the Chinese writing system has allowed people access to the wealth of China’s literature across incredibly long spans of time, but: (a) if we’re talking about characters, then we’re talking about script, not language, and alphabetic scripts haven’t changed all that much over the past couple of millenia either, and (b) I would argue that Chinese people can, by and large, not read classical texts with full comprehension unless they’ve already been trained in Classical Chinese; the texts schoolchildren “understand” are almost invariably presented with a modern Chinese gloss to allow for comprehension, and so people tend to interpret the texts in terms of the gloss rather than in terms of the text itself. The sheer number of books with titles like 《老子究竟说什么》 and 《论语心得》 should be evidence enough of this.

    5) I’ll have to go back and dig up the studies on this, but there are two points: firstly, it is generally not particularly easy for children to learn their native language, no matter what it might be — as shown by any number of studies on child language acquisition. Secondly, and more importantly, you’re conflating writing with language again: by the time Chinese children begin to learn how to write, they’re already perfectly proficient speakers of Chinese. And going from my own experience as a foreign learner of Chinese, it’s sometimes easier, or at least quicker, for foreign adult learners of Chinese to gain literacy than for Chinese primary school students, in part because of the differing ways in which characters are taught.

  19. Hate to break it to you, but there is in fact a Chinese translation of Jabberwocky. It was made by Zhao Yuanren/Y.R. Chao/赵元任, the linguist/mad scientist responsible for Gwoyeu Romatzyh, and it’s more than a little bit brilliant.

  20. Hi TW,

    I disagree with your premise – that learning Chinese is easier compared to other languages. It’s in fact more difficult due to the characters. Studies have shown that it takes Chinese children a little bit longer to start reading than it does for those reading alphabet languages. Chinese is also considered by the US state department as the hardest major language to learn for English speakers alongside Korean, Japanese, and Arabic. Chinese grammar is a lot simpler than those languages so Chinese difficult mainly due to the characters and tones.

    Anyways, that being said, its not like Chinese characters are ever going to be done away with. The very idea that they will be replaced is stupid (hear me froog). Characters are part of China’s national identity and anyone proposing to get rid of them would infer a strong reaction from just about everyone. Honestly, how many Chinese people would want to get rid of characters?? None!

    The only window of opportunity to get rid of the characters was maybe right at the start of Mao’s rule. Mao was one of the biggest supporters for a complete switch to pinyin until he visited Stalin and was convinced that the characters are crucial for the country. Anyways, at that time most people couldn’t read and the government had some radical ideas for the future, but those days are over. Good thing.

    Characters are what makes Chinese such a unique and great language and their loss would be a loss for not only China by all of humanity, even if it means Chinese is a bit harder to learn. (In my case though, it was the characters that first made me want to come to China and learn!)

  21. Hey Guys,
    Sorry it took so long for me to reply to your comments. I was caught in something else.

    First, thank you guys for sharing your ideas. Allow me to summarize my opinions in simple lines:

    1) Learning any language is difficult. Chinese is difficult for foreigners and English is difficult for Chinese.

    2) With my limited knowledge I am pretty sure the grammar of Chinese is easy — ideational grammar.

    3) froog is trying to prove Chinese is inherently difficult by design and going to extinct. My claim that Chinese is an easy language is a direct response to his opinion. Not that I am not aware it is difficult for non-natives.

    4) Really, it really takes more than a post-doctoral study at Oxbridge to even support the claim that Chinese is ‘faulty by design’ and thus should be totally abandoned. Froog, you are still wrong.

    5) Writing Chinese characters is difficult for non-natives, but typing is not. Computers, rather than make Chinese characters obsolete, typing will probably popularize them. I can teach an English speaker type Chinese within five minutes. Typing pin-yin does ease the burden to memorize the characters, so is spelling-check so widely used on word-processors. The computer makes writing so easy and so fast and it will facilitate the writing system instead of destroy it.

  22. 你好!
    不過 我覺得英文好難


    Maybe I don’t know Chinese is difficult or not.
    But I think English is difficult.

    Don’t give up. =)

    1. Thank you for commenting. It is a long journey, but I will keep improving my English.

      Any language is difficult if one wants to excel at it. But there is no way that Chinese characters be replaced by alphabets to make it easy.

  23. A translator writes: It’s depressing to have to keep on pointing this out to critics who don’t know what they are talking about, but if Chinese was written in roman letters, it would EVEN HARDER to read. A word like ‘jian’ has dozens of different meanings, and even when the tone is marked, there will be four or five possible readings. This is even a problem in compound words, like xingshi, xingshi, xingshi and xingshi. See what I mean? The problems with understanding written Chinese derive mainly from its grammatical vagueness, not from the characters, which are not actually that difficult to read (writing is a different story though).

    1. I second your view. The thing is some European language speakers know nothing about how Chinese characters or Kanji work, and they are eagerly passing judgment on this unique writing system without an iota of knowledge about it. Maybe imperialist mentality is still at work here.

      Writing Chinese used to be difficult, but now it has never been easier: anyone who knows pinyin can quickly type, rather than write, Chinese on a computer screen. I have personally taught Americans typing Chinese within five minutes.

      The pinyin input programs can ease the burden of foreigner learners to memorize the individual strokes. All they need to learn in order to type is the shape of the characters.

  24. 很抱歉,我必須說你的看法太偏頗而且膚淺,有兩個事實是世界公認的,第一,中文、俄文、阿拉伯是世界上最難的三大語言,第二,別把簡單到跟垃圾一樣的英文拿來跟任何語言比。


    Sorry but I have to tell you that your vision is so superficial and stupid, since there are two truths, the first is that Chinese, Russian and Arabic are the most difficult languages to learn that are admited by the Global, second truth is that there’s no any capacity for simple language, such as English, to compare with any prime language.

    Thank you very much. 🙂

    1. Hi, thank you for commenting. Somehow I only read your comment seconds ago.

      I can only partially agree with you: Russian is very diffult to learn due to its complicated conjugations. But it can be argued that Arabic and Chinese are difficult. An American who worked in foreign service told me learning Abrabic was a thousand times easier than Chinese.

      I strongly disagree with your claim that English is a simple garbage language and not comparable with Chinese, which is the “prime language”. How did you come to that conclusion?

      In fact, any language is difficult for non-native speakers. What I am trying to say in this post is: Chinese will never abandon its writing system and use an alphabetical system.

      We can all write Chinese characters, and it is one thing we should be very proud of.


  25. I am an English speaker just starting to learn Chinese, and even at this early stage I am envious of Chinese grammar. If I was to design a language from the ground up I think it would have a lot in common with Chinese.

    I really don’t see any way an alphabet would work with Chinese aside from a supporting roll like Pinyin. The number of homophones would be huge trouble in a situation like that.

    When I was a kid in school, Chinese was rarely an option for foreign language study, but things are really changing in that regard. Chinese, in its current, un-alphabetized form is gaining popularity. If there was ever a language for the future, Chinese has to be in the running for the title.

    1. Hi Andy,

      English is obviously more ‘difficult’ and I am sure you can pick out many grammatical mistakes or misuse of words in the posts of this blog.

      I still have headaches in grammar. I’d appreciate it if you could help identify a few for me.

      Thank you for commenting and good luck with your efforts in learning Chinese.

  26. I know this is an old post, but I just found it.

    You see, in English there are a few words that sound the same but have multiple meanings, such as their, there, and they’re.. This can be confusing to a learner of English as a second (or 3rd, 4th) language. Now imagine AN ENTIRE FREAKING LANGUAGE MADE UP SOLELY OF WORDS LIKE THAT. Tada! Chinese. Chinese needs many different characters because THERE ARE ONLY 1600 or so “WORDS” IN CHINESE. 56 total sounds (21 initials and 35 finals – combine to make a total of 413 different “sounds”, plus 4 tones = just over 1600. Even if you know 3000 characters and can read a newspaper in China, it doesn’t change the fact that 50% of those words, no matter what the character is, are GOING TO SOUND THE SAME as another word. There are some words that even have 20+ meanings, all defined by the character. Chinese is difficult to learn because you need to hear the sound in context of other sounds to know what the hell it’s supposed to mean, and because Chinese has ZERO room for growth (ie, there won’t be “new” characters), any new word needs to be made of of existing characters and sounds.

    So, Chinese characters will never go away because the language can’t be represented in pinyin accurately. It REQUIRES characters, otherwise its incomprehensible.

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