5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.
One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.
Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid, time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the equivalent. I'd say it took me a good year before I could reliably find in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can't find at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.
Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland, dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ (special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries... on and on. An exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave one's desk "strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a battlefield."
For looking up unfamiliar characters there is another method called the four-corner system. This method is very fast -- rumored to be, in principle, about as fast as alphabetic look-up (though I haven't met anyone yet who can hit the winning number each time on the first try). Unfortunately, learning this method takes about as much time and practice as learning the Dewey decimal system. Plus you are then at the mercy of the few dictionaries that are arranged according to the numbering scheme of the four-corner system. Those who have mastered this system usually swear by it. The rest of us just swear.
Another problem with looking up words in the dictionary has to do with the nature of written Chinese. In most languages it's pretty obvious where the word boundaries lie -- there are spaces between the words. If you don't know the word in question, it's usually fairly clear what you should look up. (What actually constitutes a word is a very subtle issue, of course, but for my purposes here, what I'm saying is basically correct.) In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it's often trial and error to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:
FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR 'S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY, A ONE MAN SHOW CASE THAT WAS HIS FIRST RUN A WAY BROAD WAY BOX OFFICE SMASH HIT. "THE FIRST A MEND MENT IS AT IS SUE" HE PRO CLAIM ED. "FOR A CENS OR OR AN EDIT OR TO EDIT OR OTHER WISE BLUE PENCIL QUESTION ABLE DIA LOG JUST TO KOW TOW TO RIGHT WING BORN AGAIN BIBLE THUMP ING FRUIT CAKE S IS A DOWN RIGHT DIS GRACE."
Imagine how this difference would compound the dictionary look-up difficulties of a non-native speaker of English. The passage is pretty trivial for us to understand, but then we already know English. For them it would often be hard to tell where the word boundaries were supposed to be. So it is, too, with someone trying to learn Chinese.
FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR 'S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY, A ONE MAN SHOW CASE THAT WAS HIS FIRST RUN A WAY BROAD WAY BOX OFFICE SMASH HIT. "THE FIRST A MEND MENT IS AT IS SUE" HE PRO CLAIM ED. "FOR A CENS OR OR AN EDIT OR TO EDIT OR OTHER WISE BLUE PENCIL QUESTION ABLE DIA LOG JUST TO KOW TOW TO RIGHT WING BORN AGAIN BIBLE THUMP ING FRUIT CAKE S IS A DOWN RIGHT DIS GRACE.
6. Then there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen).
Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you'll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you're sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure.
Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It's truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging.
"Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?" You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible "grass-style" calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.
"Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn't tell you what it says," you stammer. "I think it's about a phoenix or something."
"Oh, I thought you knew Chinese," says your friend, returning to their menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.
Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the "personal" section of the classified ads that say things like: "Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please."
In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming the English channel in a straitjacket.
现代汉语仅仅是古怪的难，而古典中文则是刻意让人不可能学会。汉学家不会告诉你这样一个小秘密：要看懂文言文一小段话，你必须首先知道它在讲什么。因为古典中文根本是由几个世纪的典故用一种简要的编码组成，流传于一个书虫们组成的精英小团体中，他们自己都彻底了解任何一点相关的文学背景。一个没有专业知识的西方人没法理解这些，就好象如果孔子本人来到现在，也看不懂分类广告中“个人”一栏里这类的东西：“Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”（译者注：这个意思就不翻译了，好孩子不需要知道……）
7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.
Well, perhaps that's too harsh. But it is true that there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or -- even worse -- by a committee of linguists. It is, of course, a very tricky task to devise a romanization method; some are better than others, but all involve plenty of counterintuitive spellings. And if you're serious about a career in Chinese, you'll have to grapple with at least four or five of them, not including the bopomofu phonetic symbols used in Taiwan. There are probably a dozen or more romanization schemes out there somewhere, most of them mercifully obscure and rightfully ignored. There is a standing joke among sinologists that one of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.
8. Because tonal languages are weird.
Okay, that's very Anglo-centric, I know it. But I have to mention this problem because it's one of the most common complaints about learning Chinese, and it's one of the aspects of the language that westerners are notoriously bad at. Every person who tackles Chinese at first has a little trouble believing this aspect of the language. How is it possible that shùxué means "mathematics" while shūxuě means "blood transfusion", or that guòjiǎng means "you flatter me" while guǒjiàng means "fruit paste"?
By itself, this property of Chinese would be hard enough; it means that, for us non-native speakers, there is this extra, seemingly irrelevant aspect of the sound of a word that you must memorize along with the vowels and consonants. But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed -- when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like "Hey, that's my water glass you're drinking out of!", and you follow your intonational instincts -- that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for "my" -- you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood.
Intonation and stress habits are incredibly ingrained and second-nature. With non-tonal languages you can basically import, mutatis mutandis, your habitual ways of emphasizing, negating, stressing, and questioning. The results may be somewhat non-native but usually understandable. Not so with Chinese, where your intonational contours must always obey the tonal constraints of the specific words you've chosen. Chinese speakers, of course, can express all of the intonational subtleties available in non-tonal languages -- it's just that they do it in a way that is somewhat alien to us speakers of non-tonal languages. When you first begin using your Chinese to talk about subjects that actually matter to you, you find that it feels somewhat like trying to have a passionate argument with your hands tied behind your back -- you are suddenly robbed of some vital expressive tools you hadn't even been aware of having.
9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.
Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like "Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne," is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history -- which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that's in an American's head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between China and the U.S., American culture and and French culture seem about as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.
语言和文化当然无法分割，这也是中文对美国人如此难的主要原因之一。中美文化隔绝太久了。读法语句子“Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne”的难度仅仅如同于看懂一些行话而已。其原因不但在于印欧语系之间的相似性，还因为这些表达方式中的核心概念和文化背景是同源的。我们有一样的绘画史，音乐史，乃至历史的历史，后者的意思是一个法国人脑中的各种典型例子以及文化角色的集合和一个美国人一样的。我们熟悉阿蒂尔·兰波，就好象法国人熟悉兰博。事实上，与中美文化的差异比起来，美国和法国文化的区别就类似于Peter Pan花生酱和Skippy花生酱。（译者：好吧，换个例子，就好象可口可乐和百事可乐，两者内容几乎一样……）
Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can't drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn't know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.
Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough idea of the chronology of China's dynasties? Has the average history major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even Mozi?
What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.
I could go on and on, but I figure if the reader has bothered to read this far, I'm preaching to the converted, anyway. Those who have tackled other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I'm sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to consider if you've decided to better yourself by learning a foreign language, and you're thinking "Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat."
It's pretty hard to quantify a process as complex and multi-faceted as language-learning, but one simple metric is to simply estimate the time it takes to master the requisite language-learning skills. When you consider all the above-mentioned things a learner of Chinese has to acquire -- ability to use a dictionary, familiarity with two or three romanization methods, a grasp of principles involved in writing characters (both simplified and traditional) -- it adds up to an awful lot of down time while one is "learning to learn" Chinese.
How much harder is Chinese? Again, I'll use French as my canonical "easy language". This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.
One could perhaps view learning languages as being similar to learning musical instruments. Despite the esoteric glories of the harmonica literature, it's probably safe to say that the piano is a lot harder and more time-consuming to learn. To extend the analogy, there is also the fact that we are all virtuosos on at least one "instrument" (namely, our native language), and learning instruments from the same family is easier than embarking on a completely different instrument. A Spanish person learning Portuguese is comparable to a violinist taking up the viola, whereas an American learning Chinese is more like a rock guitarist trying to learn to play an elaborate 30-stop three-manual pipe organ.
Someone once said that learning Chinese is "a five-year lesson in humility". I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.
There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach's uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, "But how are they able to perform such difficult music?"
"Shh -- not so loud!" says the director, "If you don't tell them it's difficult, they never know."