Learning Chinese is Easier Than You Think? Afraid Not.

You can imagine what I was thinking when I got this link in a Google alert: Chinese easier to learn than students expect, languages lecturer says

From the article:

“…McClure said he wouldn’t trade teaching Chinese for anything, but also notes that there are also two major misconceptions about the Chinese language.

“Chinese is a fairly easy language. In Chinese, you’ll never have to conjugate a verb. It’s very straightforward.” McClure said.”
I agree with Mr. McClure, the lecturer quoted in the article, that there is no conjugation necessary in Chinese, and this does make life easier for people learning Chinese. What I cannot agree with is the statement that Chinese is an “easy language.” What about the four regularly used tones and the necessity of getting them right if one wants to be understood? What about the writing system, which has no alphabet and requires memorization of 3,000 characters and their often complicated stroke orders just to reach a first year high school student level of fluency? What about the fact that there are almost no vocabulary words in Chinese that sound anything like an English word? Chinese is decidedly not an “easy language.” More accurately, Chinese grammar is easy to understand. If you come from a romance language learning background, you’ll jump for joy on the day your Chinese teacher explains Chinese verb tense to you. There are essentially no plurals in Chinese, and prepositions are much easier than they are in English or Spanish.

I’m thinking that Mr. McClure is either trying to be encouraging to students and went a bit overboard, or he was misquoted.

The second misconception mentioned had to do with whether or not native English teachers can effectively teach Chinese. I fully support Mr. McClure’s assertion that a native English teacher can be a very effective teacher of Chinese. There are many reasons why I feel this way, all of them based on personal experience, but the details on why I believe this are fodder for a future blog post.

The middle of the article gets a bit closer to the truth…

“…there are thousands of characters to learn and not even a native Chinese speaker will know them all.

Although the average high school student in China will graduate knowing more than 3,000 characters, a Chinese student at this college will learn how to read and write 300 characters in one semester, and another 300 if they continue in the course.”

…before careening back into la-la land…

“Because each word in Chinese is made up of one, two or three characters, a student can become proficient in the language while here.”

(Proficient? In a few semesters of studying Chinese in America, you would be able to have very simple conversations in Chinese, but not in any depth, and certainly not with any grasp of detailed information.)

…and then moving back into the realm of reality again…

“Because it is a four-credit class, McClure also teaches the culture and history of China. Frequently, he uses movie clips to illustrate a lesson.

“It’s somewhat over their heads,” McClure said, “but they enjoy it when they can pick up phrases they know. Watching a movie with duct tape over the English subtitles is the closest you can get to immersion.” “

Kudos to Mr. McClure for adding history and culture components to his syllabus. It makes classes more interesting and gives students a cultural framework for their studies. Saying that movies in Chinese are “somewhat over their heads” after only a semester or two of study is another understatement.

Look, I don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to learn Chinese. If you are interested in doing business in greater China, working as a diplomat, getting into translation, or teaching English in greater China, learning Chinese is a very worthwhile pursuit. The fact that Chinese is so difficult to learn is what attracted me to the language in the first place (that, and growing up with a father who spoke fluent Cantonese). But let’s not do students the disservice of making Chinese sound easier than it is. You’re looking at a year or two of classes in the US, Canada, wherever, and then a good six months to a year of study abroad in China or Taiwan before you’ll be able to hold a conversation that goes into a bit of depth or actually be able to put the language to some kind of functional use. If you want to be able to read and write, you’re looking at an even longer period of time. It can be done, but you should go into it knowing what you’re up against.


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Filed under Language, The Learning Chinese Craze

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