ZT:Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard? (by David Moser)
【老外的咆哮体：学中文的人你们都伤不起！！！】Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard? (by David Moser)
Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard
by David Moser
University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies
The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, "Hard for whom?" A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the "terrible twos", it's Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by "hard"? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me -- and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.
If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you're coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I'm contending is that Chinese is hard compared to ... well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.
If you don't believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.
Everyone's heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom "It's Greek to me" and search for equivalent idioms in all the world's languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression "C'est du chinois", "It's Chinese", i.e., "It's incomprehensible". Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng 跟天书一样 meaning "It's like heavenly script."
大家都听过这个公认的说法，那就是如果你考虑英语中的“It's Greek to me”（译者注：原意是“这对我就像希腊文”，引申为“难以理解”。），然后在全世界的语言中寻找一个与之相对应的习语，从而得到一个关于哪个语言最难的共识。那这样一个语言调查的结果将是中文轻松获得最难解语言的称号。（比如，法语就有这种表达“C'est du chinois”，意为“这是中文”，亦即“这是神马我不懂”。其他语言有类似说法。）那么问题来了，中国人自己认为什么才是最不可能学会的困难语言呢？你在中文中寻找类似的习语，然后你找到了——“跟天书一样”
There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far -- I can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.
Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?
1. Because the writing system is ridiculous.
Beautiful, complex, mysterious -- but ridiculous. I, like many students of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.
The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet -- some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren't too practical for daily use.
For one thing, it is simply unreasonably hard to learn enough characters to become functionally literate. Again, someone may ask "Hard in comparison to what?" And the answer is easy: Hard in comparison to Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hindi, or any other sane, "normal" language that requires at most a few dozen symbols to write anything in the language. John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time. Naturally, this estimate is rather crude and impressionistic (it's unclear what "comparable levels" means here), but the overall implications are obvious: the Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system. Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself.
Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like "Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper". Poppycock. I couldn't comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by "read" in this context is "read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters"; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)
汉字的优美是不容置疑的，不过当中国人意识到普及识字的重要性时，有一点就很明显了，这些表意文字有些像裹足小脚——可能有些恋物癖喜欢这些小脚，可是它们在日常中并不实用。首先，要学会基本识字要求的汉字就已经是不可理喻的难了。“相对什么而难？”有人可能会再次发问。答案很简单：相对西班牙语，希腊语，俄语，印地语，或者任何只需要最多几十个符号就能完成书写的“正常而理智”的语言。 John DeFrancis在他的书The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy中提到，他的中国同事估计让一个说普通话的人学会读写三千个汉字需要七到八年，而他的法国和西班牙同事估计他们的母语要达到类似水平则是只需一半时间。自然的，这些估计很粗糙，凭印象而已（比如什么算“类似水平”就没说清楚），不过其中寓意是显然的：中文书写系统在绝对程度上比字母书写系统更难学习。在中国，就算是吸收能力处于顶峰的小孩子，他们学起汉字来也比其他国家小孩学习其他文字更费劲。所以想象一下已过青春期的，学习相对缓慢的外国人学习者（比如我）经历的困难吧！
This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones. But what such accounts don't tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words "up" and "tight" doesn't mean you know the word "uptight".) Plus, as anyone who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning. Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of knowing a lot of words; one has to get a feeling for how those words combine with other words in a multitude of different contexts. In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text. 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 problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).
A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task -- never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.
这个神话广泛流传，主要因为当考虑出现频率时，任何报纸中超过95%的汉字都是在最常用的2000个汉字之中。但这样的数字并没告诉你其实还有非常多的由这些熟悉的汉字组成的陌生词汇。（比如说，在英文中知道“up”和“tight”并不意味着你也知道“uptight”的意思。）（译者注：猜猜看uptight什么意思？）而且，所有学过任何语言的人都知道，你常常明白每个词儿的意思，但就是不懂整段文字的含义。阅读理解可不是整明白一大堆词儿的意思就行了，你还得搞清楚这些词儿和其他词汇在很多不同语境中如何结合使用。此外，很明显，即使你认识一段话里95%的汉字，剩下的5%也常常恰好是理解文章最需要的部分。一个非英语母语的人读到“JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS”这条新闻标题时如果不知道什么是“Jacuzzi”或“phlebitis”，那他也基本上搞不清这句话什么意思。（译者：jacuzzi是一种按摩式浴缸；phlebitis则是静脉炎。）
The comparison with learning the usual western languages is striking. After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels -- La nausée by Sartre, Voltaire's Candide, L'étranger by Camus -- plus countless newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc. It was a lot of work but fairly painless; all I really needed was a good dictionary and a battered French grammar book I got at a garage sale.
This kind of "sink or swim" approach just doesn't work in Chinese. At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn't yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn't read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People's Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. Someone at that time suggested I read The Dream of the Red Chamber and gave me a nice three-volume edition. I just have to laugh. It still sits on my shelf like a fat, smug Buddha, only the first twenty or so pages filled with scribbled definitions and question marks, the rest crisp and virgin. After six years of studying Chinese, I'm still not at a level where I can actually read it without an English translation to consult. (By "read it", I mean, of course, "read it for pleasure". I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and a dictionary in my hand, I could get through it.) Simply diving into the vast pool of Chinese in the beginning is not only foolhardy, it can even be counterproductive. As George Kennedy writes, "The difficulty of memorizing a Chinese ideograph as compared with the difficulty of learning a new word in a European language, is such that a rigid economy of mental effort is imperative." This is, if anything, an understatement. With the risk of drowning so great, the student is better advised to spend more time in the shallow end treading water before heading toward the deep end.
对比一般常见的西方语言，差别非常明显。 只学了一年法语，我就能阅读很多东西了。我浏览了大致的小说名作，萨特的《La nausée》，伏尔泰的《Candide》，卡缪的《L'étranger》，还有数不清的报纸，杂志，漫画，等等。花了不少工夫，不过却不怎么痛苦：我用到的只是一本好字典和一本旧货市场上买来的破旧不堪的语法书。
这种“扔到水里学游泳”的方法就是不适用于中文。在学了中文三年的时候，我还没读过一本完整的小说。我发现那读起来实在太难，太慢，毫无收获可言。报纸那时候也还是令人畏惧。那时候我读篇文章恨不得每十个字就得查个字典。看一遍人民日报的头版，连一个标题也“解密”不了，这种事儿也一点儿不少见。当时有个人推荐我看《红楼梦》还送我一套漂亮的三卷版。我只能笑…… 它现在还躺在我的书架上呢，得意洋洋地对我露出胜利者的微笑。只有前二十几页涂满了潦草的笔记和问号，其他部分则是清爽洁净的处女地。学了中文六年之后，我仍然没有达到能不借助英文翻译阅读它的水平。（阅读它，我当然是指的阅读取乐。我估计如果谁拿把枪指着我脑袋然后手里扔本字典，我也能想法儿读下来它吧吧。）在一开始的阶段就冲进中文的浩瀚海洋，这种做法不但有勇无谋，而且适得其反。如同George Kennedy写的，“记忆一个中文（象形）字比学习一个欧洲语言词汇难上如此之多，以至于严格地节约精神力是必须的。”这其实还是低估了难度。（在中文的海洋中）被淹没的风险非常大，所以学生最好还是先在浅谈涉水中多花点时间，再考虑前往深处。
As if all this weren't bad enough, another ridiculous aspect of the Chinese writing system is that there are two (mercifully overlapping) sets of characters: the traditional characters still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the simplified characters adopted by the People's Republic of China in the late 1950's and early 60's. Any foreign student of Chinese is more or less forced to become familiar with both sets, since they are routinely exposed to textbooks and materials from both Chinas. This linguistic camel's-back-breaking straw puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese, who at this point would gladly trade places with Sisyphus. But since Chinese people themselves are never equally proficient in both simplified and complex characters, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in eventually concentrating on one set to the partial exclusion the other. In fact, there is absolutely no shame in giving up Chinese altogether, when you come right down to it.
2. Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet.
To further explain why the Chinese writing system is so hard in this respect, it might be a good idea to spell out (no pun intended) why that of English is so easy. Imagine the kind of task faced by the average Chinese adult who decides to study English. What skills are needed to master the writing system? That's easy: 26 letters. (In upper and lower case, of course, plus script and a few variant forms. And throw in some quote marks, apostrophes, dashes, parentheses, etc. -- all things the Chinese use in their own writing system.) And how are these letters written? From left to right, horizontally, across the page, with spaces to indicate word boundaries. Forgetting for a moment the problem of spelling and actually making words out of these letters, how long does it take this Chinese learner of English to master the various components of the English writing system? Maybe a day or two.
Now consider the American undergraduate who decides to study Chinese. What does it take for this person to master the Chinese writing system? There is nothing that corresponds to an alphabet, though there are recurring components that make up the characters. How many such components are there? Don't ask. As with all such questions about Chinese, the answer is very messy and unsatisfying. It depends on how you define "component" (strokes? radicals?), plus a lot of other tedious details. Suffice it to say, the number is quite large, vastly more than the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. And how are these components combined to form characters? Well, you name it -- components to the left of other components, to the right of other components, on top of other components, surrounding other components, inside of other components -- almost anything is possible. And in the process of making these spatial accommodations, these components get flattened, stretched, squashed, shortened, and distorted in order to fit in the uniform square space that all characters are supposed to fit into. In other words, the components of Chinese characters are arrayed in two dimensions, rather than in the neat one-dimensional rows of alphabetic writing.
Okay, so ignoring for the moment the question of elegance, how long does it take a Westerner to learn the Chinese writing system so that when confronted with any new character they at least know how to move the pen around in order to produce a reasonable facsimile of that character? Again, hard to say, but I would estimate that it takes the average learner several months of hard work to get the basics down. Maybe a year or more if they're a klutz who was never very good in art class. Meanwhile, their Chinese counterpart learning English has zoomed ahead to learn cursive script, with time left over to read Moby Dick, or at least Strunk & White.
This is not exactly big news, I know; the alphabet really is a breeze to learn. Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues' gallery of hard-to-learn languages.
（译者：Moby Dick即《白鲸记》，赫尔曼·梅尔维尔发表于1851年的小说，“被视为美国文学史上最伟大的小说之一”；Strunk&White又名the Elements of Style，即《英文写作指南》，著名的写作指导工具书。）
3. Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic.
So much for the physical process of writing the characters themselves. What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters? Again, a comparison of English and Chinese is instructive. Suppose a Chinese person has just the previous day learned the English word "president", and now wants to write it from memory. How to start? Anyone with a year or two of English experience is going to have a host of clues and spelling rules-of-thumb, albeit imperfect ones, to help them along. The word really couldn't start with anything but "pr", and after that a little guesswork aided by visual memory ("Could a 'z' be in there? That's an unusual letter, I would have noticed it, I think. Must be an 's'...") should produce something close to the target. Not every foreigner (or native speaker for that matter) has noted or internalized the various flawed spelling heuristics of English, of course, but they are at least there to be utilized.
Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for "president" (总统 zǒngtǒng ) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are. You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won't give you a clue as to how the character is to be written. After you learn a few more characters and get hip to a few more phonetic components, you can do a bit better. ("Zǒng 总 is a phonetic component in some other character, right?...Song? Zeng? Oh yeah, cong 总 as in cōngmíng 聪明.") Of course, the phonetic aspect of some characters is more obvious than that of others, but many characters, including some of the most high-frequency ones, give no clue at all as to their pronunciation.
All of this is to say that Chinese is just not very phonetic when compared to English. (English, in turn, is less phonetic than a language like German or Spanish, but Chinese isn't even in the same ballpark.) It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range from 25% (Zhao Yuanren) to around 66% (DeFrancis), though the latter estimate assumes more knowledge of phonetic components than most learners are likely to have. One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it. Furthermore, this phonetic aspect of the language doesn't really become very useful until you've learned a few hundred characters, and even when you've learned two thousand, the feeble phoneticity of Chinese will never provide you with the constant memory prod that the phonetic quality of English does.
现在想象你一个学习中文的，昨天刚刚碰到中文里的president“总统”。现在你想写它。你如何回忆起这个词儿呢？首先呢，你 (很可能)已经忘掉怎么写了，生活中很少能忘得如此彻底和干净…… 你可以尽情地重复学习这个词，而发音绝不会帮助你记起如何书写。当你学了较多汉字，掌握一些发音构件的规则时可以情况会好些。（“总”有时出现在其他汉字里，也发类似的音，对吧？Song？Zeng？对了！“总”在“聪明”里有。）当然有些发音的构件要更明显一些，不过很多汉字，包括一些最常见的高频率汉字，对它们的读音完全不给任何线索。
Which means that often you just completely forget how to write a character. Period. If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical, and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you're just sunk. And you're sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact same difficulty you experience every day.
This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on. And when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"? I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether "abracadabra" is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on "rhinoceros", but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.
事实上，这种经历如此令人宽慰，以至于我干脆记了一个单子，上面列着我看到的中国人提笔忘掉的汉字（提笔忘字？）（一个有病的，强迫症的行为，嗯我自己也知道……）。我见过很有学问的中国人忘掉如何书写“罐头”的“罐”，“膝盖”的“膝”，“改锥”的“锥”，“捻拇指”的 “捻”，“胳臂肘”的 “肘“，“姜”，“垫子”的“垫”，“鞭炮”的“鞭”，等等。我说的忘，指的是他们常常连第一笔画都不知道怎么写。你能想象一个教育良好的英语人士完全不会书写“膝盖”或者“罐头”么？（译者注：分别是knee和tin can）或者哪怕“scabbard”或“ragamuffin”这种少见的词，他们也不会忘。我有一次和三个北京大学中文系的三个博士生吃午饭，他们三个都是中国人（一个来自香港）。我那天正好感冒，打算给一个朋友写个纸条取消我们一个约会。我发现自己想不起来怎么写“喷嚏”中的“嚏”了。于是我问那三位该怎么写。结果吓我一跳，他们仨都尴尬而难为情地耸耸肩。谁都不能正确地写这个字儿。各位同学！北京大学常常被认为是中国的哈佛啊。你能想象三个哈佛大学英文系的博士生不会写“sneeze”（喷嚏）？然而这种情况在中国绝不少见。英文就是大大地比中文容易书写和记忆。不管这个词频率多低，拼写多奇怪，英语人士总能整出点儿什么来，就是因为拼写和发音是有一定对应关系的。你可能不记得“abracadabra”里面有没有连接符，或者“rhinoceros”最后几个字母不会拼，但最糟的家伙也能差不多点儿的拼出来几乎任何词。与此相反，即使是教育最好的中国人在写某些特别难记的汉字时也可能束手无策，只能问问别人。
As one mundane example of the advantages of a phonetic writing system, here is one kind of linguistic situation I encountered constantly while I was in France. (Again I use French as my canonical example of an "easy" foreign language.) I wake up one morning in Paris and turn on the radio. An ad comes on, and I hear the word "amortisseur" several times. "What's an amortisseur?" I think to myself, but as I am in a hurry to make an appointment, I forget to look the word up in my haste to leave the apartment. A few hours later I'm walking down the street, and I read, on a sign, the word "AMORTISSEUR" -- the word I heard earlier this morning. Beneath the word on the sign is a picture of a shock absorber. Aha! So "amortisseur" means "shock absorber". And voila! I've learned a new word, quickly and painlessly, all because the sound I construct when reading the word is the same as the sound in my head from the radio this morning -- one reinforces the other. Throughout the next week I see the word again several times, and each time I can reconstruct the sound by simply reading the word phonetically -- "a-mor-tis-seur". Before long I can retrieve the word easily, use it in conversation, or write it in a letter to a friend. And the process of learning a foreign language begins to seem less daunting.
When I first went to Taiwan for a few months, the situation was quite different. I was awash in a sea of characters that were all visually interesting but phonetically mute. I carried around a little dictionary to look up unfamiliar characters in, but it's almost impossible to look up a character in a Chinese dictionary while walking along a crowded street (more on dictionary look-up later), and so I didn't get nearly as much phonetic reinforcement as I got in France. In Taiwan I could pass a shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and never know how to pronounce any of the characters unless I first look them up. And even then, the next time I pass the shop I might have to look the characters up again. And again, and again. The reinforcement does not come naturally and easily.
4. Because you can't cheat by using cognates.
I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up out of curiosity. "Hmm," I thought to myself. "I've never studied Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand." At random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186 people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.
What was going on here? Why was this "foreign" language so transparent? The reason was obvious: cognates -- those helpful words that are just English words with a little foreign make-up. I could read the article because most of the operative words were basically English: aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica, emergencia, etc. Recognizing these words as just English words in disguise is about as difficult as noticing that Superman is really Clark Kent without his glasses. That these quasi-English words are easier to learn than Chinese characters (which might as well be quasi-Martian) goes without saying.
Imagine you are a diabetic, and you find yourself in Spain about to go into insulin shock. You can rush into a doctor's office, and, with a minimum of Spanish and a couple of pieces of guesswork ("diabetes" is just "diabetes" and "insulin" is "insulina", it turns out), you're saved. In China you'd be a goner for sure, unless you happen to have a dictionary with you, and even then you would probably pass out while frantically looking for the first character in the word for insulin. Which brings me to the next reason why Chinese is so hard.
这到底是怎么回事？为啥西班牙这个“外语”这么容易？原因很明显：同根词。这些同根词跟英文词汇相比只有小小的改造。我能读懂文章，因为绝大多数关键词基本都是英文：aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica, emergencia,等等。认出这些词儿不过是一些英文词穿了马甲，这难度大约和发现超人不过是肯克拉克不戴眼镜的难度差不多。不用说，这些类英文词比中文汉字好学（中文汉字则多半是类火星文……）。想象一下，一个糖尿病人在西班牙发现自己需要注射胰岛素。他跑进诊所，只需很少的西班牙语和猜测的过程，他就能获救（其实，英语"diabetes" 翻成西班牙语就是 "diabetes" ， "insulin" 等于"insulina"。）在中国呢，他肯定完蛋了。除非他带了一本中文字典，即便如此，他多半也会在字典里疯狂地查胰岛素第一个汉字时不支晕倒。这正好说明了我下一个要说的中文难的原因。
[ 此帖被本草知無在2011-08-16 22:48重新编辑 ]