The Difficulty of the Chinese Language

Never before have I been so happy that I don’t need to learn Chinese. I discovered this interesting and often amusing article on why the Chinese language–especially the written language–is so difficult to learn. For example, I didn’t realize that Chinese is a tonal language:

By itself, this property of Chinese would be hard enough; it means that, for us non-native speakers, there is this extra, seemingly irrelevant aspect of the sound of a word that you must memorize along with the vowels and consonants. But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed — when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like “Hey, that’s my water glass you’re drinking out of!”, and you follow your intonational instincts — that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for “my” — you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood.

This made me think: maybe this is why Chinese people tend to be so reserved. After all, if you can’t use your tone of voice to express emotion, you have to get a lot better at emotional control if you want to communicate.

I love that aspect of psychology, learning how a language both reflects and influences the people who speak it.

2 thoughts on “The Difficulty of the Chinese Language

  1. In my experience (which is, admittedly, somewhat limited, but I’ve visited Taiwan, mainland China and Hong Kong), Chinese people aren’t all that reserved; they certainly don’t conform to the quiet, unassuming, even cold stereotype that they’ve acquired in the U.S. Anyone who’s stood on a street in China and been mobbed by people trying to sell them things or watched two people have what looks like a huge argument, then part laughing and slapping each others’ backs, is unlikely to call Chinese people “quiet” at all. If anything, it seemed to me that the tonal nature of the Chinese language makes Chinese people seem louder than they actually are- and in comparison to other Asian cultures, particularly the Japanese (I just got back from two years there), I found the Chinese to be extremely friendly, open and gregarious- not reserved at all.

    I think the stereotype, which is often applied to Chinese-Americans, might derive from the fact that Asians in the U.S. are known for being hard workers, good students and having pretty sizeable expectations placed upon them by their families, which results in studious behavior. They also have the tendency to congregate with one another, which probably contributes to this idea, as well- Chinese people may be reserved with outsiders (though, while the Japanese certainly can be, I saw very, very little of this in China), but they’re hardly that with one another. There is a great deal of emphasis put on personal self control in Asian cultures, though, and losing one’s temper is considered a pretty big loss of face both in Japan and Korea- China may be the same, but going by the yelling matches I saw in the street when I was there, I’m not entirely sure of that.

    Chinese is incredibly hard to pronounce correctly, though, and one of the toughest things about visiting mainland China was making myself understood. You more or less have to have someone in your hotel write things out for you to show cab drivers and/or carry around a phrasebook with Chinese characters wherever you go. Good times, though- I’d recommend going to anyone.

  2. Interesting. I didn’t know that about the Chinese people. You’re right, I had just assumed the Chinese were reserved based on the stereotype. I can imagine that any immigrant to a country that speaks a foreign language would generally be a lot quieter than he would be in his home country.

    I’ve always thought tonal languages were interesting things to think about, but I’ve always been glad to speak a non-tonal language. It would take a lot of getting used to.