Reasons of NOT learning Chinese (Part 1)

Friday, 23 June 2017

For people without any Chinese background, learning Chinese is NOT easy. Do not believe any anybody (mainly publishers, textbook writers, and sometimes Chinese language teachers) who claims otherwise.

There is a popular post "Why Chinese is So Damn Hard" written in 1991 by David Moser (http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html ). I sincerely wish he had read his own post before jumping into Chinese. It would have saved him so much stress and pain. He could have had a happier life as a graduate student by doing something else, such as Spanish Studies or French Studies. Fortunately, Moser has a happy ending. I googled his name. He is now considered a China expert, and has written a lot on China.

Moser's post is funny, but also repetitious. And his Anglo-centric point of view is annoying. Moreover, as a student, he missed a couple of points. More than 25 years have passed. It is time to revisit his post and take another look on why Chinese is so hard for native English speakers. It would be a wise decision for many students to quit learning Chinese as soon as possible.

Moser considers that all Romanization methods suck. The reason is that all methods involve plenty of counterintuitive spellings. I agree with Moser's conclusion, but his reasoning is ridiculous. It is absurd that Moser finds some counterintuitive spellings hard, because there are too many in English.

Of all the Romanization methods, I can only comment on Pinyin, because I don't really know others well. IMHO, Pinyin sucks because it is not adequate.

Nonetheless, we should first give due credit to Pinyin. For zero beginners, Pinyin makes Chinese accessible and approachable. People can get a hang of it quickly, and be able to speak some basic Chinese without the knowledge of characters. It is really a handy tool.

However, excessively relying on Pinyin only hinders progress. There are three main reasons. First of all, Pinyin is very confusing. That so many Chinese characters have the same or similar pronunciations leads to so many Pinyin syllables look the same or are with minor differences. If one reads scripts written in characters, the meaning is very clear. But if the same scripts are written in Pinyin, extra effort must be made to decipher the meaning. Secondly, students cannot ground meanings in Pinyin, as they can do so with characters. For example, 事and是, the Pinyin syllables are the same. With one glance on the two characters, one knows the meaning clearly. But looking at singular Pinyin syllables of these two characters, no one knows which is which. Lastly, Pinyin does not reflect variations of pronunciations and tone changes in natural speeches. Relying too much on Pinyin gives a false impression that there are "correct pronunciations and tones".

Most people know that Chinese characters don't give clues on how to pronounce them. However, Pinyin gives fixed pronunciations, indicating clearly on the pitches and tones. Hard to get all the tones right is one of the most common complains about learning Chinese. Students often resort to hand gestures and head movements to facilitate their pronunciations. Indeed, these four tones can drive them nuts. In his post, Moser claims tonal languages "weird", and he cannot help but giving some examples such as "mathematics" (數學) and "blood transfusion" (輸血), in Pinyin of course. There are also some wide spread make-believe stories predating on students' fear of four tones. For example, a regular Chinese restaurant server cannot tell whether a customer wants "dumplings" (水餃) or "to sleep" (睡覺). Equally, these four tones have saved so many Chinese language teachers' jobs as the only thing they can do is to demonstrate repeatedly how important to get the four tones right.

Yet this concept of "correct pronunciations and tones" is so misconceived. It is a misconception so readily and willingly accepted by many, and wide spread through Pinyin.

Pinyin gives the wrong impression that all Chinese people speak according to one standard tonal script. And of course, they don't. Regional accents are real and fun to spot. A person with a Shandong accent speaks differently with a person with an Anhui accent. Neither of them speaks according to the standard Pinyin. If we pick 100 people randomly from China and ask them to read aloud 水餃and 睡覺, we probably hear 100 different pronunciations with slightly different tones. And watch it in awe, they probably can communicate without any problems! Moser did not mention whether or not, after years and years of learning Chinese, he eventually came to terms with different accents. Or perhaps he is just occupied himself with readings in libraries?

Moreover, over emphasizing pronunciations and tones neglects the material conditions of verbal communications in practical situations. For example, ordering "dumplings" in a restaurant. It is a big room with tables and chairs. Some customers are walking in and out, getting a table or paying their bills. Some are eating and drinking. Smells of food are in the air. You have to try really hard to convince anyone that you are not an idiot and you want to sleep there.

Lastly, it is ridiculous to claim tones highjack expressive intonations. Moser claims he is "straitjacketed", because he says something with the intonation that he feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. Moser's helpless feeling is only explainable when he takes tones as not-to-be-violated laws. He probably cannot sing in Chinese either. He will spend all his time trying to follow the tone marks and lose the melody! In short, he is searching for natural Chinese intonations but looking at the wrong place. Pinyin does not reflect natural speech in events like emphasizing, negating, stressing or questioning.

The point is that it is fine to start with Pinyin. It is good clean fun to try to differentiate "dumplings" from "sleep", or "buy fish" from "sell jade", as long as it is happening inside classrooms. Pinyin does not translate well outside of classrooms. In the long run, Pinyin sucks. For students who are not prepared to go into the realm of characters, Pinyin is a reason NOT to learn Chinese. And that brings us to the next topic – Chinese writing system.

Stay tuned.

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