If you think speaking Chinese is hard... try writing it!

For an English-speaker, learning to speak Chinese is harder than learning to speak Spanish because there are (virtually) no similar words.

But speaking Chinese isn’t THAT much harder than speaking Spanish. Quite a few foreigners have become decent Chinese speakers just by living in China and absorbing the language though osmosis. However, many of those foreigners living in China can’t read a local newspaper.

What makes Chinese REALLY difficult is its written language. If you learn to speak Spanish, French, Italian, German, etc., you pretty much learn to read and write it with no extra effort because the written and spoken languages correspond so closely.

With Chinese, learning to speak doesn’t enable you to read or write. In fact, learning to speak Chinese is less than half the battle because learning to read/write Chinese is even harder than learning to speak it. A Chinese word may have one or two sounds, but each of those sounds represents a character, which may be composed of 20+ strokes. To be good at Chinese, you must memorize 10,000+ characters.

Here’s proof written Chinese is HARD: Even Chinese people quickly forget how to write it:

[M]ore and more Chinese citizens feel they are losing the ability to write by hand…

Because so many people use computers in their work and hardly ever pick up a pen, their written literacy skills are in decline…

When typing Chinese characters rather than writing them by hand, a person types the sound of the character (a bit like spelling a word out) then the computer suggests possible characters for that sound from which they choose the appropriate one…

The Shanghai Language Commission conducted a survey among university students, which found that while many know what the characters should look like, they are unable to handwrite them.

I spend many spare moments (in the men’s room, checkout line, etc.) tracing Chinese characters in my head. Refreshing my memory is essential or I would forget the characters.

And I know many Chinese whose ability to write has deteriorated while living in America.

But it amazes me that even Chinese college students are forgetting how to write characters. To get into college, Chinese high school students must pass a grueling written exam. If they’re forgetting how to write characters after just a few years in college, that’s testimony to the difficulty of learning (and remembering) written Chinese.

Posted by James on Wednesday, May 19, 2010