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The Chinese difficulty debate


Things have really kicked off at WooChinese. After John Biesnecker posted an article explaining why he believes learning Chinese isn’t hard, a long argument began in the comments. There was general disagreement with John’s point, which is understandable – learning Chinese is certainly an achievement to be proud of, and to be told it’s actually not that hard could be a bit of a blow.

Some of the criticism got quite vicious:

“So, just to keep score, you’ve called me full of bullshit, foolish, pretentious, and condescending… I think that’s enough for today, David. 贾君鹏,你妈叫你回家吃饭。”

However, I think a large bulk of the arguing was more of a disagreement on definitions (and there was much quoting of dictionaries). John’s point seems to be that ‘difficult’ and ‘requiring effort’ are not the same thing, and I agree with this.

On the whole I think it is true that so long as you put the time and effort in, your attempt to learn a language will be fruitful. It’s just a lot of time and a lot of effort.

This is not the same as something like maths or a science – you could spend hours trying to understand one small point and still not get it. There is a real element of difficulty, i.e. conceptual complexity, that isn’t present in language learning.

A good illustration of this, I think, is that children learn languages, and they learn them very well. I’m sure Chomsky would have something to say about why that is, but the point still stands: a young child can learn any language, but on the whole they cannot grasp advanced physics or maths.

Languages are conceptually easy, but require masses of material to be acquired. I think this is John’s point, and I tend to agree with it.

Link: Learning Chinese isn’t hard – WooChinese

The debate elsewhere:


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  • http://woochinese.com/ John Biesnecker

    ‘Twas indeed my point. :D

    There’s no question that learning Chinese (or any language) is going to take a while, and will require effort. The problem with the “Spanish is so much easier than Chinese, Chinese is so hard” argument is that it totally discounts the massive amount of time a native English speaker has spent learning a language that is conceptually very similar to Spanish. As an adult that time might feel free because we don’t remember a lot of it, but it certainly wasn’t. It’s not that Chinese is somehow intrinsically harder than Spanish or French, but rather that you’ve already spent your entire life doing something that has prepared you for them — learning English.

    I do think — and John Pasden brings this up in the Sinosplice post you linked to — that Chinese can seem extra-frustrating to a learner because it feels like its going to take forever. The “no light at the end of the tunnel” thing can certainly amplify the perceived difficulty of the task. One of my reasons for starting the blog in the first place was to be the resource that I wish I had had a decade ago when I first dipped my toes into Chinese.

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