Point Counterpoint - Chinese is Hard - Chinese is Easy


中文很容易! ( Chinese is very easy )

Let's start with the character for wood:  木

It's a vertical line for the trunk, a horizontal for the ground, and two more strokes to make the roots.  Got it?  I thought so.  Not hard to remember is it.  Chinese is built on such simple and logical symbolic representation.  Building blocks with which to form communication.  口 is mouth.  水 is water.  That's a little harder to see (it's like a splash) but really it's not so hard to remember, especially once you do the stroke order and draw it a few times.  田 is a field.  See how it's broken up into four sections for different crops?  With this already we have enough to do some more complex characters.  Let's look at 果.  A field, and tree.  What could that be?  What kind of trees do we put in fields?  OK so this would be easier if you were seeing it in context, such as seeing this character at a market on top of a bunch of fruit.  果 is fruit.

How about 林 what do you think that means?  Or 森 ?  If you guessed "forest" congratulations, it appears your mind was made for thinking in Chinese.

Let's look at another harder example:

Monday =  星期一

Tuesday = 星期二

Can you perhaps guess what the written form of "Wednesday" is?  Good work!  Things are all simply laid out and logical here.

Now you might have heard that tones are important and that lack of pronunciation clues makes the language difficult.  Not true!  If you speak quickly nobody will notice what tones you use, and even native Chinese speakers don't remember the formal tone of some words (amongst the first three at least, the difference to the 4th is more crucial).  What's really important is context.  As it should be in a language eh?

Is that all?  Nope, just getting started.

In Chinese, every character represents one spoken syllable.  That's right, only one syllable per character.  Like baby talk.  Easy, eh?  And get this:

是  = To be  (shi)

It's a sun on top, and something walking below.  Everything under the sun "is".  Now here's the kicker:  you just learned the verb to be, in all persons, all cases, and all tenses.  That's right, ser y estar, sommes et serrions, all that stuff.  All delegated to context.

Now is this not the easiest human language or what?  One syllable words, built logically and symbolically, with minimal grammar.  No wonder so many people have learned it!


中文很难 (Chinese is very difficult)

Uh, OK there.  Lets start by pointing out that suggesting learning a human language is "easy" is absurd.  You're talking about a lifelong study which will never be completed.  Add to that countless idioms, irregularities, and nonsense which is there because it's there.  Chinese is no exception.  Even an average level requires studying root linguistics (in this case studying ancient Chinese), reading lots of books, and speaking for years.  Hardly 容易 is it.

Lets look at two things that make Chinese even worse than that, perhaps the hardest language in existence.  The first is that it has more homophones than any other language.  Heard somebody say "shi"?  Guess what, that could be hundreds of different words.  Sure the verb to be but also teacher, city, stone, feces, ten, and much much more.  Ditto - every other word.  At the end of the day, one word is useless on its own.  You need to provide context out the wazoo.  AND it better be the expected context, or else people will be confused.  You thought three genders was tough for nouns?  There are dozens of different "measure words" in chinese designed to help give context.  Without them you are likely to not be understood.  Good luck.

The other problem is that reading doesn't link with talking all that well.  A full 20% of the characters have no pronunciation clue at all.  This means you will be stuck with knowing words that you don't know how to say, and knowing how to say others that you have no clue how to write.  Good luck with that.

Let's look at the word for "nose" for example: 鼻   Can you even see all these strokes?  How many are there?  OK that's not so hard, it's an eye over a field with a greek pi.  Sure.  Oh it's spoken as pinyin "bi" like the English word bee.

How about the difference between 己 and 已 did you spot that?  Don't confuse either with 巳.

Oh and don't forget sentences like 我了解了。  "Wo liao jie le"  Yes, like other languages you also have different characters written the same.  Good luck!

Sure, having "no grammar" sounds nice at first.  But the fact is that if you have a certain scenario in mind, involving persons and tenses and case, there IS a way to say it in Chinese.  Just use one of half a dozen to a dozen "particles" in just the right way to make sure your context is clear and the order is right.  Sometimes it seems like more work learning how to use these particle suffices than it would be to have a formal grammar.

To make matters worse the situation on the ground is a chaos of dialects.  People from neighboring provinces can hardly understand each other.  Even the writing is different on occasion.

So no, not easy.  Sure a lot of people speak it but it takes kids several years of school to get to the level of reading a chapter book.