The Chinese language is increasingly appearing on people’s radar, and with that comes the spread of various myths and misconceptions. I’ve gathered the ten that I come across the most, and ranked them on how prevalent and how wrong they are.
- 10. Chinese is the hardest language in the world
- 9. Chinese sounds ugly
- 8. It takes X number of characters to master Chinese
- 7. Chinese has no tone of voice
- 6. Chinese characters are completely different to Japanese characters
- 5. There are two main languages in China
- 4. Chinese is one language
- 3. Chinese characters are words
- 2. Chinese characters are mystical runes
- 1. Chinese has no grammar
10. Chinese is the hardest language in the world
This comes up all over the place (e.g. on HTLAL and in David Moser’s famous article), but as more people attempt to learn Chinese it’s becoming apparent that it can be done in a reasonable amount of time.
Spoken Mandarin really isn’t much harder to learn than other languages. A lot of people would even say that it’s easier. Benny at Fluent in 3 Months is currently tackling Mandarin and it appears he’ll do fine with it.
A lot of the perceived difficulty arises from comparison to European languages. Native English speakers will of course find that other European languages are more familiar and therefore a bit easier to learn.
But the languages of the world aren’t divided into European and Chinese. In the grand scheme of things spoken Chinese shouldn’t stand out as a particularly hard language. Tens (hundreds?) of thousands of foreigners have made a lot of progress with Chinese, some to extraordinary levels.
Written Chinese is actually quite hard though
I would say, though, that the written language is actually pretty hard compared to a lot of other languages. Alphabets, syllabaries and other phonetic writing systems (which Korean and Japanese both make use of) really are easier to learn and use than a logographic one like Chinese.
I often think that written Chinese is more of a linguistic game or exercise than a practical writing system. Having said that, once you’ve got some grasp of it, you do find that it can be fantastically efficient and lexically dense. Chinese poetry can make its English counterpart look inelegant and spidery, with far too much fluff around the content.
9. Chinese sounds ugly
The stereotypical perception of the way Chinese sounds is that it’s all “ching chong”. Whilst certain readers will be delighted to know that China does actually have a major city called 重庆 (Chongqing – “chong ching”), the reality is that those nasal sounds really don’t come up that much.
To me the more striking sounds in Chinese are breathy consonants and buzzy vowels. I think it often sounds like it’s all being brewed up in the back of the throat. A bit like an outrageous French accent, actually.
But Mandarin can be very aesthetic. Standard Mandarin always sounds so crisp and precise, perhaps because there’s a very specific set of syllables. Good Chinese also seems to have a very balanced rhythm, and its array of sentence final particles make it very colourful to listen to, in my view.
8. It takes X number of characters to master Chinese
You come across all sorts of figures for the number of characters required for various tasks. One frustrating one is to be told that as a foreigner I “only need about 500 characters” (it doesn’t seem to have occurred to some people that foreigners might come to China for things other than tourism or business trips).
In any case, whatever the number is, it’s always a load of crap. The logic seems to be that 3000 characters account for 80% of usage (or whatever figure). This may be true. But David Moser points out the flaw with this reasoning:
A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline “JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS” is not going to get very far if they don’t know the words “jacuzzi” or “phlebitis”.
The 20% of words that you don’t know are likely to be the most important ones. Some stuff will be easy with 3000 characters, some stuff will be hard. The point is that there’s no set of characters that will let you tackle all tasks.
7. Chinese has no tone of voice
A lot of people, on learning that Chinese has tones, assume that all pitch in the language is decided by tones. This idea is often spread further when foreigners learning Chinese end up saying the wrong thing when their natural tone of voice interferes with the tones.
But it’s completely untrue that Chinese lacks tone of voice. It has it, it just works with the tones. All languages have a different intonation anyway. French is different to English which is different to Chinese. Of course using English tone of voice is going to mess up Chinese, but it would also mess up non-tonal languages.
Part of learning a foreign language is getting this native style pinned down, and it’s no different with Chinese.
6. Chinese characters are completely different to Japanese characters
Every now and then a post comes up on Chinese Forums asking if a character is a Chinese one or a Japanese one. Elsewhere on the web I’ve seen doubts about people’s language ability being raised because they “couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese characters”.
The vast majority of Japanese kanji characters are in fact the same as traditional Chinese hanzi characters. Korean also makes use of this same set of characters. The names are similar in all three languages: hanzi (Chinese), kanji (Japanese) and hanja (Korean).
Korean and Japanese also have their own phonetic writing systems, but the famous ‘characters’ are largely the same across all three languages. Anyone who can read one of these languages will be able to read your 愛 tattoo.
In the past this meant that the literati of these three countries (and others) could communicate with a common writing system even though their spoken languages were completely different. It’s a little bit like European scholars all being proficient in Latin and Greek in the past.
See also: a more detailed discussion of the difference between hanzi and kanji.
Update 2012/04/25: mihao pointed out below that this section could be misleading. There are differences between the character sets used in Chinese, Japanese and Korean, but there is far, far more similarity than difference. The vast majority of these characters originated in Chinese and retain their meaning and form in the other two languages.
5. There are two main languages in China
When I tell people I’m studying Chinese they often ask “So are you studying Cantonese or Mandarin?” There’s a common misperception in Europe and America that China’s two dominant languages are Mandarin and Cantonese.
This isn’t true at all. Mandarin has 850 million native speakers and is the standard language in education, media, government etc in China. It is spoken all over China (or at least is promoted all over China).
Cantonese has just 70 million speakers and is spoken almost exclusively in two or three provinces in the south of China. It’s not even the second largest language group in China. The far less famous group of Wu Chinese (which includes Shanghainese) has 90 million speakers.
The confusion arises because of the relative wealth and spread abroad of people from the south of China, particularly Hong Kong. Cantonese has a disproportionate representation outside of China, leading people to believe it vies for position with Mandarin.
4. Chinese is one language
Even more wrong is the myth that ‘Chinese’ is a language. Saying “I’m studying Chinese” is a bit like saying “I’m studying European.” Chinese is a huge family with many mutually unintelligible languages.
Obviously, in general usage ‘Chinese’ refers to ‘Mandarin’. Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken Chinese language, but it’s by no means the only one.
3. Chinese characters are words
The Chinese writing system is very hard to get your head around if you’re not familiar with it. It does (sort of) make sense but it takes a while to get used to. The Japanese writing system is arguably even more confusing, though.
One big thing to remember is that in modern Chinese, characters ≠ words. Some words are single characters, but most are two. Some are even more.
Characters are actually morphemes: discrete units of meaning. Morphemes are the smallest unit of meaning in the language. You can then see that characters work exactly the same as morphemes in English. Some English words are just one morpheme (you can’t break them down further), e.g. car, whilst others consist of several morphemes, e.g. automobile.
Similarly, some Chinese words are just one character, e.g. 我, whilst others consist of several, e.g. 自行车.
2. Chinese characters are mystical runes
This one is mainly directed at tattoo artists and other places selling Chinese characters as art without much understanding of how they work. You will nearly always see this set of characters on sale in these places:
愛 (love), 力 (strength), 龍 (dragon), 友 (friendship), 信 (trust)
And probably a few others. People don’t seem to realise that Chinese characters are an everyday writing system like any other, so having 龍 permanently inked into your skin isn’t really all that different to getting the letters “DRAGON” done.
It’s true that Chinese characters are aesthetic, but so is the Latin alphabet. In the West we only ever see Chinese calligraphy and assume that that’s what written Chinese is. If you see normal Chinese handwriting you’ll realise it’s just as much of a scrawl as any other language.
1. Chinese has no grammar
This is the one that bugs me the most. Because Chinese doesn’t have any of the things thought of as grammar in European languages (conjugation, agreement, declension, gender etc.) people say it doesn’t have grammar.
To me this is like saying that European languages don’t have writing systems because they don’t have characters like Chinese does. The two language families are very different, but both have grammar and both have writing systems.
It’s just so nonsensical to say that Chinese doesn’t have grammar. How would it make any sense if it didn’t? If it had no grammar, all you’d have to do to learn it is just memorise vocabulary and randomly spurt it out.
If you want to see how much grammar Chinese has, check out the Chinese Grammar Wiki that I spent six weeks working on in summer 2011. That already has over 500 articles purely on Chinese grammar, and it’s only just getting started.
Got more myths? Pet-peeves? Please share all in the comments!