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10 popular misconceptions about Chinese


神話

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

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

漢字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 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

请讲普通话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. , 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:

(love), (strength), (dragon), (friendship), (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 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!


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  • http://www.sellyslittleworld.com Selly

    Couldn’t agree more with the points you raised, especially the one about Chinese being the hardest language to learn, I hear it almost every time I mention that I’m learning Chinese and it’s become a massive pet peeve of mine. It obviously is possible to learn the language if you put your mind to it so I’ve really run out of ways to explain that Chinese, or Mandarin as I should say, really is not a difficult language to learn. As for the grammar, strangely enough I’m finding it easier to grasp, when it’s explained to me, than let’s say my native language…which is strange, I do realise that. Great summary though!

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      I think it’s often easier to learn about the grammar of foreign languages as you haven’t got your native intuition telling you “It’s like that because it just is!”

  • http://www.sarajaaksola.com Sara

    Excellent post!

    I think Chinese is not an easy language, but not the hardest either! For me the hardest language seems to be Latin, I tried learning it at university, but it was all grammar, grammar and more grammar. It was very hard for me because I didn’t have the real interest towards the language (I just thought that history student should learn some Latin). But Chinese isn’t as hard as Latin for me because it’s my passion.

    In the beginning when I started learning Chinese I thought there isn’t much grammar and it’s really easy. Compared to Latin it is! But the more I’ve studied, the more grammar I’ve found. I think the grammar gets harder the deeper you get into the language, because you don’t want to use those simple sentence structures forever.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Yeah exactly, Chinese grammar seems dead simple at first but it’s deceptive. It’s actually really hard because it doesn’t have hard and fast rules like European languages do. Although John Pasden thinks differently.

      • http://www.sinosplice.com/life/ John

        It’s not that Chinese grammar is totally easy, it’s that it’s way easier than Japanese grammar, which has politeness levels and tenses built right into the verb forms. So it’s a relative thing.

        • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

          I meant that you think Chinese gets easier as it goes on, whereas I think it actually gets harder!

          • http://www.sinosplice.com/life/ John

            Keep studying. :)

        • John

          tbh, Chinese grammar is only easy to make it easy to learn. Spoken chinese is at a vastly different level than all the other Chinese you could think of. In modern times spoken Chinese is meant to be easy everyday with realy no academic value to it. I have perfect vocal Chinese and when I studied how to write form, documents, poems, stories, even a simple description of something the grammar and the vocabulary you suddenly need to have is crazy. You end up realizing that spoken Chinese is the pre-school of real Chinese.

          Plus Chinese has politeness and honorifics too. Again skipped over for spoken simplicity.

  • http://www.omniglot.com/ Simon

    Another misconception is that Chinese people can communicate with one another in writing no matter what variety of Chinese they speak. While it’s true that most Chinese people use a written language based on Mandarin, it’s also possible to write in Cantonese, Taiwanese and other varieties of Chinese, and those familiar only with standard written Chinese struggle to read the other varieties.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      That’s a good clarification of my point about a common written language in the past. That was Classical Chinese, a specific written language that people studied in addition to their native spoken (and maybe written) languages. The different Chinese languages (and certainly East Asian languages) don’t completely share a writing system today.

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  • http://www.sinosplice.com/life/ John

    Great list. I like your #1! :)

    BTW, have you ever read DeFrancis’s classic Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy? This article reminded me of that book…

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      I haven’t. I do want to get a copy though, it’s on my Amazon list at the moment.

      • http://www.sinosplice.com/life/ John

        You can borrow a hard copy from me next time you’re in town, but you gotta promise to give it back!

        • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

          Sounds good!

  • Chris

    I agree with pretty much every point, especially the grammar one. I tend to say that people who say Chinese has no grammar probably don’t speak Chinese well anyway, haha.

    However, I don’t totally agree with the first point. The foreigners you linked who speak pretty much fluent Chinese took many years to do so, some over a decade (decades?) of being in China. There’s hardly anything in the world you can’t learn in a long period of time like that. Can you learn fluent Chinese in 2 years in China? You definitely can in case of French and living in France. I studied a lot of languages and the time required for required for relative fluency in Chinese is much longer. It’s true that the grammar in other languages, especially inflected ones like Latin, German or Polish is an obstacle, but it seems like that obstacle in Japanese or Korean grammar: it will be very hard in the beginning but later it becomes easier. I have met people like French speakers fluent in Japanese and Chinese, or Koreans fluent in Japanese and Chinese, and they all say Chinese is hands down most difficult they ever studied.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Well, keep an eye on Benny at Fluent in 3 Months. I think if the right methods are used you could get to a fantastic level of Mandarin in 2 years. It’s just that the right methods are rarely used.

      The main point for me is that Chinese children learn to speak Chinese in the same time-frame as children speaking other languages.

      • John

        I’m gonna say this. It’s all about the spoken Chinese. Speaking Chinese is what kids learn and speech is usually the first step. Chinese people have a saying 听说读写. In modern translation it just lists out the forms of a language but what it implies is that you learn by listening and understanding what other people are saying then you start speaking it then learn to read it and finally you learn how to write it for yourself. Listening and eventually speaking is easy. The last two take much more time. This is true for any language but much harder in logographic languages like Chinese because you can’t spell out the words you want even though you can say them.

        In english you can learn “smelly fish” easily and then you can spell it out for yourself by learning the alphabet. In chinese 臭鱼 doesn’t look anything like what you’d say. You just have to memorize that the characters correspond to the words. Japanese is a nightmare because of that because one character can be pronounced up to four different ways. (the grammar is kinda a nightmare too since they structure their sentences similar to classical chinese which is no longer used for that reason)

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  • http://www.justlearnchinese.com Grace

    First of all, very good article, Hugh. It easily shows how deep you’ve got into the language itself.

    I nodded on most of the points you laid out there. I just want to contribute a bit more to the number one misconception: “Chinese has no grammar”.

    The rest of this comment was so interesting it got made into a post of its own: Learning Chinese grammar in Grade 1

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  • A Chinese

    Actually there is no shortcut to Chinese- it is accumulated.

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  • mihao

    Sorry, but instead of being a mythbuster you’re spreading myths yourself.

    Ad 8. I don’t know where you took the 80% from, but according to Jun Da’s character list, the most frequent 3000 characters make up 99.5% of all the characters in informative texts. That’s enough, in overwhelming majority of cases, to understand the rest from the context (if you know the words, of course). And yes, 波浪式浴盆 (jacuzzi) and 静脉炎 (phlebitis) are both written using top-3000 characters.

    Ad 6. The Unihan database contains 298 characters that have Japanese reading and no Mandarin reading (so they are used only in Japanese), and 12384 characters that have Mandarin reading and no Japanese reading (so they are used only in Chinese). Moreover Japanese fonts present the same characters slightly differently than Chinese fonts. What you are saying about 爱 is similar to saying “Cyrillic and Latin scripts are the same, if you write MAMA it will be the same word in both”.

    Ad 4. I take it it’s just a typo, you wrote “mutually intelligible languages”, while they are of course in many cases mutually unintelligible.

    The things above are plainly wrong. I’d also like to nitpick that (ad 5) there are different possible definitions what a language is, and taking some sociolinguistic factors into account it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable to assume a definition that would make Mandarin and Cantonese two separate languages and Wu only a dialect. And (ad 3) most characters are indeed morphemes, but there are more and more multicharacter morphemes in Chinese, mostly because of loan words.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Thanks for your comment, added a lot to the article.

      8. The 80% isn’t taken from anywhere, I used it to illustrate the idea in general. It may well be 99.9%, but the point still stands that the 0.1% you don’t know are likely to be important. Place names, people’s names, the names of unusual objects, etc. will often throw you, but if the author has chosen to use them instead of more common vocabulary It’s also worth pointing out that any list of the top 3000 characters must be based on a specific corpus and will be peculiar to that corpus. The jacuzzi and phlebitis examples used by David Moser aren’t intended to demonstrate the problem in Chinese, they’re intended to convey it to readers in English.

      6. I didn’t say that there were no differences in the character sets between the three languages, just that they are the same in meaning to a very large extent. The 愛 reference was intentionally simple in order to be disparaging to people with character tattoos. You’re right that this section is misleading though, I’ve added a note to make it clearer.

      4. Thanks for pointing out the typo, I’ve fixed it now.

      5. My point here was not that Cantonese isn’t a language, but that it doesn’t compare even slightly to the dominance of Mandarin as a national language.

      3. Again, I didn’t say that there are no multi-character morphemes, just that individual characters are always morphemes, and words consist of one or more morphemes.

      • John

        I want to add
        6. Many Japanese characters are changed a little on purpose to differentiate from their chinese origins. One of the ones my friends like to joke about is the “pot lid” how Chinese uses a point while the Japanese stretch it down vertically. But there are some words that are simplified differently. i think that’s what minhao is saying. The simplified form of dragon is 龙 in Chinese but it is 竜 in Japanese.

        I also want to add to what minhao said and say all the characters you mentioned as tattooes can be used as a single word. It just depends on how you phrase your sentence. Dragon is just the easiest to see because it is the only object noun.

  • mihao

    8. That’s simply not true. My English is at about C1 level, which means that I encounter some unknown words in every long English text that was made by and for native speakers. And it doesn’t prevent me from reading English effortlessly in all kinds of academic and professional situations. If I look up a word in dictionary, it is in order to improve my English, not to understand the text I’m reading. And place names or people’s names are definitely the easiest part, as you usually know from the context that they are just names, so they don’t have any inherent meaning you need to check. Perhaps you won’t be able to read them aloud in Chinese, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to understand the content of the text. Chinese newspapers contain characters that most Chinese native speakers can’t read, would you say they can’t read a newspaper?

    It was a corpus of informative texts, i.e. newspaper, the very thing you wrote about in your “myth”. There are some differences between most frequent character lists made of different corpora, but the difference is not that big. It’s not a coincidence that all the words on all the HSK levels (old and new) are made up of about 3000 different characters. Anyway, I think you’re taking the Moser’s article too seriously.

    3. Individual characters are not always morphemes, e.g. I don’t think 圪 is a morpheme.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      I think you’re taking the title of that section, which was just illustrative of a wider point, and focusing too much on it. The point I was making there was given in the first and last sentences: “You come across all sorts of figures for the number of characters required for various tasks.” … “The point is that there’s no set of characters that will let you tackle all tasks.” I’m not talking about just newspapers; my point is that you can never really finish learning characters.

      But if we are looking at that specific aspect, according to Skritter I can read about 3000 characters, and can read a Chinese newspaper fairly comfortably. But I still don’t agree with the statement “it takes 3k characters to read a newspaper”. It makes it sound too much like a final goal, rather than the stepping stone that it is.

      Again, you’ve taken an illustration and assumed it is my entire point. Yes you can indeed compile a corpus that is useful for reading newspapers. But it will be far less useful for reading different kinds of material. Overall my point on this is: you never finish studying, there is no final goal amount.

      And yes, there are a limited number of characters that aren’t morphemes. 儿 is probably the most obvious example. But it’s still helpful to the majority of learners, and especially to those who’ve studied no Chinese at all, to move from thinking characters = words to thinking characters = morphemes. Simplifications necessarily have to be slightly inaccurate and miss a few exceptions, but they’re still useful.

  • mihao

    “you never finish studying, there is no final goal amount”

    Of course there is. If you want to be able to say “I’m sorry” then you need to learn to say 谢谢 and that’s it. If you want to read a newspaper fairly comfortably, you need to learn about 3000 characters, an appropriate amount of words and grammar, and you should be there. Reading about philosophy, understanding urban slang, translating UN documents, you name it – there is always a finite amount of work that will make you do it well enough. Of course the higher your standards are, the more work you will need. You can’t do anything perfectly – but the native speakers aren’t perfect either.

    And 儿 is a morpheme. In bound form it may signify e.g. a diminutive or a noun.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      I’m a native speaker of English but don’t consider myself to have finished learning it. I’ll keep getting further into it my whole life; it’d be a shame if there wasn’t anything else to learn after you reach adult proficiency.

      Again, you’re still missing the point of that section. It’s making the point that learning a language is something you do forever and that there’s always more to learn. I’m not denying that you can master specific tasks and goals. Of course you can. But you can never learn enough that everything will be easy. Again, I made that point in the article: “The point is that there’s no set of characters that will let you tackle all tasks.”

      I was referring to 儿 in e.g. 电影儿, which is no different to 电影 other than in pronunciation.

  • Gail

    My daughter is dyslexic and learning to write Chinese is less frustrating for her than learning to write a European language. Her school had a native teacher for a few years, but no more because the school did not promote the language and the common misconceptions that “Chinese is soooo hard” prevailed.

  • Martin R

    It interests me how a language starts to actually sound different, the more you study it. I’m sure it all used to sound “ching chong” to me once. I think just knowing a few common words and phrases and some understanding of tone changes perception irreversibly. I wish I could temporarily switch my brain back to total ignorance (versus 99% ignorance) of Chinese to compare with how it sounds to me now.
    I also believe it a foreign language starts to sound SLOWER the more you get used to it – please don’t disillusion me on that one – if it’s a misconception, then it’s one I need to presserve :)

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  • http://www.olatztranslatesandinterprets.com/ Olatz Rodríguez

    Excellent post! I’m studying a degree in Translation and Interpreting and three years I started studying Chinese even if we had no choice to translate from Chinese in my university. When I finnish the degree I’m planning to go there and improve it, and I just wanted to thank you for all the wonderful posts you write, they’re really both interesting and helpful! :-) Here in Spain it’s quite common to hear these myths and misconceptions you wrote… I think that people in general (including) me know very little about East Asian culture.

    Congratulations again and keep posting!

    Olatz Rodríguez.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Cool, good luck with your studies!

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  • Anonymous

    If I recall, David Moser was a student of Douglas Hofstadter’s and translated Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach to Chinese–a daunting task, given the level of word play in the original. Have you happened to have read it? It would be way beyond any Chinese language competency I’ll ever attain. Actually, this comment is mostly an excuse to plump for my favorite book on translation in a broad sense, DH’s Le Ton beau De Marot. He sent a little 16th or 17th century French poem to 200 people and asked them to translate it, then used the various translations and their various relationships with the original as analogies to a multiplicity of other notions. A language geek’s delight. Ron Tuohy

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  • 梓鼯

    i am a native speaker of chinese, and i want to point out some mistakes. In No. 2, you mentioned that some characters are just half of word, that’s not true. Take 愛 as example, 愛 itself does mean love and is often used singly as both verb or noun. It is just in some times we speaker want to extend word into two syllables to make a sentence more fluently or balanced that we have words like 愛情 to mean the same thing as 愛.

    And furthermore, in some cases, say 游泳 (swim). 游 is even more frequently used than 游泳 in usage of verbs, while 泳 for adjectives. in another case, like 窗戶 (window), 窗 means window, while 戶 means door, but together 窗戶 mean 窗.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/ Hugh Grigg (葛修远)

      I didn’t mean they can only ever be one half of a word, just that in some situations a two-character word is more appropriate.