If my Chinese homework could speak:
‘How do you spell that in Chinese?’ 哈哈哈！ Silly language student! You don’t spell anything in Chinese! You just suffer!
Bring some cheese, I’ve got the whine! But I promise this post is more than just a pity party cry-in for Mandarin students… it’s also a shameless attempt to provoke sympathy from everybody else. ;)
Actually, I’m curious to hear how other Mandarin students approach Chinese characters, and what their literacy goals are. For many Mandarin language students, Chinese characters are one of the most novel and intriguing — yet also the most disheartening and infuriating — aspect of learning Chinese.
Why Chinese is… ‘special’
You people who aren’t studying Chinese should understand why most people can’t learn Chinese as fast as Spanish or French or some other historically-related-to-English language with a spelling system. Behold! …from the Chinese themselves:
…each character has a unique form, but if you know the form you cannot necessarily read its pronunciation, and if you can read its pronunciation, you cannot necessarily write its form, and if you can read, write, and pronounce it, you don’t necessarily know its meaning, and only when you exhaustedly memorize each character’s form, sound, and meaning can you truly say that you know the character. Also, the strokes of characters are quite complicated.
And that just talks about characters; they haven’t got to words yet, which are often combinations of two or more characters. They should have included: “And even if you know the pronunciation and meaning of all the individual characters in a sentence, you don’t necessarily know what the words are in the sentence, since Chinese words are formed by characters both in isolation and in combination. Only when you’ve memorized the possible character combinations can you deduce the appropriate usage from their context in the sentence.” And there’s all the 多音字 — characters with more than one pronunciation, never mind all the characters with more than one meaning. Also, 90% comprehension is not as comfortable as it sounds.
There’s a misleading idea often thrown at Chinese language students that says you only have to know 2000 (or whatever number) characters to read the newspaper, because they did studies and apparently 90-something percent of the characters in daily news are the same 2000. But it’s possible to recognize all the characters in a sentence and still not know what it says. Multiply that number several times over for all the character combinations in daily use and you have a better idea of how much meaning you need to memorize.
Characters pose a special hurdle for Chinese language acquisition, and they know this. Frog in a Well translated an excerpt from a booklet discussing language reform legislation in 1956 (partially quoted above) and the special problem that characters posed to China’s development. According to the booklet, the government saw problems in education and industry due to the relatively long time needed for literacy and the unwieldy nature of a non-alphabetical language. The idea of ditching characters altogether apparently did cross their minds, and they were talking about difficulties Chinese characters pose for native Chinese speakers, never mind foreigners coming to learn Chinese as a second language!
Can you imagine how much Spanish we’d know if we’d spent the last two years in Mexico doing nothing but studying Spanish?
Language Study Goal Disagreement
Chinese takes longer to learn because it’s less accessible (on bad days, I feel like the culture as a whole is less accessible, but that’s beside the point). That doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible, just that there’s more work and time involved. But not everyone believes it’s worthwhile, or even possible, to learn to write Chinese characters.
Among the Chinese learners and teachers with whom I’m acquainted, there’s disagreement regarding what Chinese language students ought to aim for. Ultimately it boils down to (a) each individual’s language learning goals and (b) reality, but opinions for what long-term language learners (people who plan to live and work for several years in Chinese) can hope to accomplish range from “don’t learn characters, just learn pinyin” to “pinyin is not Chinese” and “if you can’t write characters then you don’t really know Chinese.” Many foreigners seem to settle for a compromise: working hard to recognize lots of characters, but not investing much time in learning to write them.
I personally lean toward valuing characters and the ability to write them, and I’m still hoping that over the long haul I’ll eventually be able to call myself literate. But I do have my doubts; maybe that’s simply not a realistic goal for an average-but-hard-working adult language learner. Still, I’m not giving up yet! And now that we’ve all had a good cry, I’m curious to hear what other Mandarin students’ language goals are.