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10 popular misconceptions about Chinese

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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.

Update: This continues to be one of the most controversial posts on this site. The funny thing is, none of the numerous commenters have argued with something I actually said. So far there has just been a great deal of misunderstanding around the points made in this post.

So before you join the comments to repeat what has already been said, please bear the following in mind:

  • This post is aimed at people with little to no experience of the Chinese language. Or at least, the misconceptions listed should be interpreted at that level. This is not an academic journal article or a scientific examination of the Chinese language. As you’re reading, think of someone you know who knows almost nothing about Chinese, and consider how _they _might interpret these misconceptions, not how you might interpret them with your deep knowledge of Chinese.
  • The misconceptions are given as generalised statements. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, you can interpret them in ways them make them inaccurate. Just remember they’re generalisations of wrong ideas some people have about Chinese. That’s all.
  • If you still think something is wrong, please do comment! But have the courtesy to directly quote the exact statement that I wrote, in my own words. Please don’t put words in my mouth, set up straw-man arguments or re-interpret what’s written here in order to show off your knowledge. That’s already getting boring in the comments.

With that in mind, I’ve added extra sections to many of the points made in this post, clarifying them and pointing out the ways people are misinterpreting them.

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.

Frequent misunderstandings of this section:

  • I am not saying Chinese is not hard. I’m just saying it’s not a great deal harder than French or Arabic or any other language. Once you really get into them, there’s endless difficulty in any natural human language.
  • I am not saying that your high level of Chinese is not an achievement. It is. I just don’t think it’s any more of an achievement than someone getting to a high level in another language.

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 can seem more like a linguistic game or exercise than a real writing system at times. 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”* ), this perception of Chinese is unfounded and quite offensive.

Like any other language, Chinese can be very aesthetic or very harsh on the ears. Chinese can have a very balanced rhythm, and its array of sentence final particles make it very colourful to listen to, in my view.

_* I’m aware that this is neither the standard pinyin romanisation of 重庆, nor the way it is pronounced in standard Mandarin. It’s there for people who can’t read pinyin._

The main point here is that Chinese can very much be appreciated for its auditory beauty, just as much as the written language can be appreciated for its visual beauty.

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”.

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.

This seems to be the most misunderstood section of this post. To clarify:

  • I am not saying it’s not useful to learn more characters.
  • I’m not saying it’s impossible to learn to read Chinese.
  • I’m not saying words are not made up of characters.
  • I’m not saying characters can never be words on their own.
  • I’m not saying it’s not possible to guess what a word means from its component characters.
  • I’m not saying the amount of characters you have learned is not an achievement.

What I am saying: there is more to learning to reading Chinese than learning characters individually.

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 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.

This is the second most controversial / misunderstood section of this post. To clarify: all I’m saying here is that there is overlap and similarity between the characters used to write Chinese and Japanese. Some people with no experience of the languages believe that the two are totally unrelated. I am simply pointing out that they are related.

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 misconception 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.

Some people seem to think I’m trying to claim that Mandarin is the only Chinese language, or that the other languages are not important. I don’t think that at all. My only point here is that Mandarin is ‘the main language', and that the majority of non-Chinese people learning Chinese will be learning Mandarin.

4. “Chinese is one language”

<img class="aligncenter” title="“请讲普通话” - “Please speak Mandarin” sign on a bus” src=”/img/2012/01/please-speak-mandarin2.jpg” alt="请讲普通话” />

Even more wrong is the myth that ‘Chinese’ is one single 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 & Chinese words are characters”

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 in a very similar way to  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 .

Wow, I must have written this section incredibly unclearly. It is being misunderstood in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways in the comments. To clarify:

  • Yes, many words are individual characters.
  • Yes, many individual characters are words.
  • Yes, characters are often used as words.
  • Yes, words are made up of characters.
  • Yes, many concepts can be expressed with single characters or multi-character words.
  • Yes, characters are important for meaning.
  • Yes, English and Chinese are different.
  • Yes, Chinese characters can be compared to other things in other languages.

The only point I’m making here is that the concept of ‘character’ is not equivalent to the concept of ‘word’. Again, this is something that people with little to no experience of the Chinese language are often unaware of.

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.

Chinese characters, like any other writing system, have of course been associated with various mystical properties at various times by different people. And, also like any other writing system, Chinese characters can be very aesthetic and Chinese calligraphy is incredibly beautiful. The only point I’m making here is that whilst all that is true, some people are unaware that Chinese is also an everyday writing system used to write boring everyday things.

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!

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net