How do you spell that in Chinese? Language students’ love/hate relationship with Chinese characters

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.

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30 thoughts on “How do you spell that in Chinese? Language students’ love/hate relationship with Chinese characters”

  1. I just enrolled into the Foreign Studies University and will be starting sometime on Feb 16, and my motivation is looking at all the foreigners who speak it fluently, which gives me hope that the language is not impossible.

    Also I really like the language, and I believe this is one of the keys to mastering anything, you have to really enjoy it. I met a few chinese people who speak really good Russian, and I was astounded at their dedication, and they really wanted to speak with me, using so many big words that I never heard before. I also want to say that not many people are like that, most study english because they think it will lead to better jobs later in life… but when probed more about it, they really don’t enjoy it.

    As for Chinese characters, how do you study them? I know many books which make you associate pictures with each character, but I want to try the rote memorization method, and just practice writing and recalling them over and over…again

  2. actually i refuse to say that mandarin is a difficult language because i think it is not. It does take more time and effort to learn, mostly because of the characters. Remembering them i don’t think is too hard since most of them you can disect into pieces which makes it easier, IF you know the pieces. The insane amount doesn’t help though. Then again, imagine chinese being an abc language. Who the hell would be able to know which wang, chang, shi,… is which? Initial-final combinations are pretty limited.

    The language excl. the written part, is way more easy than any other language i have ever studied and that were all european and thus very similar languages. In my opinion it is more consistent, more logical, it just makes more sense (except for the expressions haha).

    so…not more difficult….but way more time and dedication. I think this is not necessarily a contradiction. Besides it wouldn’t be chinese if it wasn’t at least a little paradoxical.

    my goal? it changes every day, i have more of a procedural goal than an aim of reaching something. If i can continue studying every day like i am doing now i am happy and progress is bound to be plentifull and i will see where i can get when i get there. Good luck to you!

  3. In addition to the books that associate characters with pictures (which I believe are great), there are interactive games with characters that I believe activate one part of the brain that reading alone simply does not.

    Rosetta Stone is a program that is based on activities like this, but I haven’t used it enough to know how thorough a language learning program it is. I know it connects images with characters and sounds.

  4. to continue the above list of complications we’re faced with one should add : And even if you know how to say all the words of the sentence you have in mind in chinese, and utter them, then though chances are that you’ll be understood, but probably be told: “Oh, I know what you mean. But we dont say that so in chinese.” Since the language is full of idioms and set phrases that cant be taken literally.

    My Goal? learn more tang poems like this by heart:


  5. I did once check out literacy rates for Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Mainland, and Taiwan and Hong Kong, even though they use traditional characters, have literacy rates comparable with developed countries. The Mainland doesn’t look too shabby for a developing country. Conclusion: It’s not the characters, but access to quality education.

    I would say us foreign learners of Chinese (any Sinitic language or dialect, Mandarin, Cantonese, whatever) are our own worst enemies. We spend so much time getting all daunted by the magnitude of the task we’ve taken on we give up before we’ve even started. Yeah, characters take time and effort, but there are a multitude of ways to make the task easier (支持 Michael), and besides, have you ever seen Russian grammar? I have, and that’s a daunting task for a second language learner if ever I saw one- but like Chinese characters, it’s also amazingly beautiful and logical. Actually, I would rate Russian as my favouritest of all the grammars I’ve come across… but I digress. Anyways, my point is, as I often tell myself, stop the bloody whingeing and get stuck into the task at hand. It really is a lot less difficult than we make it appear.

  6. In the time that it takes to “learn” Chinese, one could instead achieve the same level of proficiency in Spanish, Italian, and French. It’s all about what’s important to you.

  7. I agree with what you guys are saying — Chinese requires more time and effort than many other languages not because the grammar is so complicated and hard to understand, but because characters must be memorized. In some respects Chinese is easier. You don’t have to perform mental gymnastics in order to get it, but you’ll have to toil away at mental drudgery. I’d also add that the language learner’s cultural heritage makes a big difference, too; that the historical/cultural distance between China and North Americans/Western Europeans makes a difference.

    Reminds me of something I saw on Sinosplice comparing pronunciation and grammar learning curves between Chinese and Japanese. Different languages pose difference challanges for various reasons.

    I don’t know that the idea that Chinese literacy requires more time in school is merely a matter of education quality. Their point, I think, is simply that characters require more time than an alphabetic language. Merely comparing literacy rates might not tell us that much; we’d need to compare literacy rates against how much time students in each country spend in studying, and what they spend that study time on.

  8. Do you think it is harder for us to memorize characters because we are taught over and over in the university that memorization is an inferior learning skill and that critical thinking is king. Maybe there is some mental block that has to be overcome.

  9. I assume that’s part of it — it is for me at least. As North Americans we’re usually less culturally oriented toward that kind of learning. But the sheer amount of information needs to be memorized whether your education system emphasizes rote learning or not. There’s no way around it, which is why I think some language students “opt out” in the sense of settling for less than what we would normally consider full literacy. They feel that, for adult students, the time it would take is just not worth it and/or too impractical.

    For us, since we hope to live in China for a long time, I can’t imagine living in a place and not being literate. People do, but they usually live and work in a ‘cultural ghetto’/foreign subculture bubble. Eventually I hope our Mandarin can be good enough that we could work in more mainstream society.

  10. Oh, I agree that literacy rates are a very crude measure- and inherently dodgy, too. I mean, how does one define literacy? The ability to write one’s name? (and yes, sometimes the bar is set that low- or close to it). Even so, the literacy rates suggest that Chinese characters are less of an obstacle to Chinese literacy than they are often made out to be. If the 50 year old with little education manning the checkout can read and write enough to do her job, then why can’t I?

    Joel, in your last comment, I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head: People just decide it’s too much effort and give up. It’s not that Chinese is difficult, it’s that people choose to quit. And although I’m never far from wanting to quit, the idea of quitting is just pathetic.

  11. Yeah, but at the same time, though, I don’t want to make it sound like people are wrong for having different language goals. I’m still holding on to the idea that Chinese literacy is possible for adult language learners — it’s just a matter of being willing to put in the time and effort, but the time and effort isn’t worth it for everyone.

  12. I can’t write, so I’m not literate, but you’ve neglected to mention the wonderful invention of computers! I can type, email, text in Chinese without ever having learned to write. The only thing is it is embarrassing but I can’t even hold my chopsticks right so I just live with the shame.

  13. I’m left handed so its difficult for me to learn how to properly eat with chopsticks, I think the trick is to put your face like… right inside the bowl, and try to get a mouthful ^__^

    and yeah, i also txt like crazy in chinese, I use a phrase book online or on my portable dictionary, then just type in pinyin. The real problem comes when they reply back in chinese…

  14. My only foreign english teacher is also left handed,but I found that she can use chopsticks easily just like a native chinese.At the first sight on her using chopstick,that really surprised me.I am sure she must spend lots of time on using chopsticks.

    I know a guy via cctv6,who was a host of a program half a year ago,I found his chinese is perfect and he also has a blog in sina(I don’t know whether you-jole know the website or not),he can use chinese freely,I guess he also can write characters freely,maybe you can connect with him and ask him how to learn chinese well,I am sure he will be happy to give others a hand when he can do.
    here is the site:

  15. I don’t set goals for my self, I tend to misplace them in my room where they collect dust for eons. Instead I come up with a plan for accomplishing a type of goal, for instance I plan on studying Chinese every day in both written and oral forms (writing, reading, listening and speaking)and then I just do it, like Nike says to. That way, I cant procrastinate ;)

  16. Bamboo – Yes, I’m Canadian, born and raised. But I have dual citizenship. Why do you ask?

    Carl – I found that for me having the plan, like you described, is at least as important as having a goal, maybe more so. My plans need to be specific though, or they end up getting ‘misplaced’ as well.

  17. Language proficiency has so many benchmarks, it’s easy to set our goals beyond reach. When I began, I had roughly two years set aside for becoming “as proficient as I could”. I was hoping to score “intermediate” on the HSK. Here’s a rough summary of my progress:

    I needed practical, attainable, measurable goals.
    (1) get through everyday communication. Reading/writing is a goal of personal choice. I wanted to read roadsigns and shopsigns.
    (2) Get through a menu, so that I didn’t have to eat the same thing at every meal out. I kept a scratchpad with me, writing down a menu item at a time, or a road-sign at a time. My textbooks at the university included hanzi practice, and our teachers implemented a dictation (听写) every week. Reading (i.e., character recognition) became my obsession! I set-up written flashcards, but the stack grew too quickly. Computerized flashcards were the next tool.
    (3) write letters — baby steps, first postcard, then a letter.
    (4) transition from my English-Chinese / Chinese-English dictionary to the 现代汉语词典. wow, that was painful. (5) read the newspaper (6) write my classnotes in Chinese, whenever I could. I’ve used the character-tracing copybooks (字帖, that children and budding calligraphers use), but that got boring. Perhaps that’s related to personality and distractibility.

    In the end, I think 语感 is the missing key here. My writing (syntax, diction, and penmanship) is rubbish — I’m sure it’s painful to read. I haven’t time to prepare for the next HSK anymore, but I can see the progress I’ve made simply by using the language everyday.

  18. “Can you imagine how much Spanish we’d know if we’d spent the last two years in Mexico doing nothing but studying Spanish?”

    Haha I can’t count how many times I’ve thought that to myself. I just imagine myself on a nice beach, somewhere in Mexico, sipping a fruity cocktail, freely conversing with somebody named Sancho, reading Borges novels, and some Chinese tourist comes up and says 你是哪里的? And I just shrug and laugh with Sancho.

    Oh the future that could have been.

    But more seriously, I dedicated myself to full, actual literacy a long time ago and it’s way too late to turn back now.

  19. “I just imagine myself on a nice beach, somewhere in Mexico, sipping a fruity cocktail, freely conversing with somebody named Sancho, reading Borges novels, and some Chinese tourist comes up and says 你是哪里的? And I just shrug and laugh with Sancho.”

    ha. you know, these are not helpful Chinese language learning thoughts! =)

  20. I think Chinese is as difficult to English speakers as English is to Chinese speakers. Not because Chinese is more difficult, but Chinese is too different. It did not take me very long to read/guess 20% of daily French articles after learning basic vocabulary and grammar of French because it’s similar to English (structure and vocabulary, to Chinese, grammar also alike). Chinese may not appear to be very difficult to Japanese or Koreans. Even I never learn Japanese, I can guess road signs and advertisement in Japanese. That’s not because Japanese is easy to learn.

    You can’t imagine how long time Chinese students spent on learning English.(I probably spent more time learning English than learning Chinese) It IS difficult. It does not make any sense why we should say “he has” instead of “he have”, why not “they is” but “they are”. There are logic reasons, but why we need to be logic? Why it is not “with regard of” and “regardless to”? Why “look forward to doing” but “hope to do”? Learning a language is all about memorizing! It took me a whole day to memorize “* be* and “* have” structure in French and only another day to forget it totally! While you need to remember a picture when learning Chinese, we need to memorize the spelling of words like “navigate”. Why it is not”lavigate” or “nevigate” or “negate”? Dictation is also a must when learning English.

    So, if a Chinese can be literate in English, you can be literate in Chinese! There is nothing intimidating! It is always difficult learning a new language in adulthood.

  21. (Another reason to love Chinese: it is more environment friendly. Chinese version is always the thinnest among the six official languages of UN publication.:) )

  22. thanks for the encouragement! We’ll take all of that we can get. =)

    I agree that English is harder when it comes to the grammar. Chinese grammar is easier to learn, but learning to read and write Chinese lakes more time due to the nature of the writing system. So it’s hard to say which language is “more difficult” — maybe Chinese is less complicated, but I do think Chinese reading and writing takes longer to learn.

    One of the reasons Chinese students of English have such a hard time (aside from the grammar), is because they treat English words like Chinese characters; they try to learn to read English words through sheer rote memorization of each word’s spelling and IPA pronunication (like what students of Mandarin must do with hanzi and pinyin/bopomofo). I’m teaching ESL in Canada at the moment, and all my Chinese students learn this way, and it was the same when we taught in Taibei. The buxiban high-pressure subculture doesn’t help, because parents want demonstrated results daily, and that means a list of new words that their kids have memorized. My students never believe me at first when I tell them we never use IPA. Instead, they could have started learning spelling, pronunciation rules, syllable types, etc. Learn the rules and much less memorization is required; most of words themselves tell you how to be spelled and pronounced (haha – that’s why we whine so much about Chinese not having spelling!). But we that was a hard sell to buxiban parents because they didn’t get the same kind of constant resuls showing ‘progress.’

  23. Maybe in buxibans that are audacious enough to teach phonics and other “theories” that are invaluable investments in putting learners onto the path of self learning and rapid advancement… maybe we could show the eager parents their advance in part by memorization of the rules and paradigms that we know they need to learn. They may not be the same lists of words, but they can go home and show their parents what they have learned. Then in class we will owork with those memorized concepts and shape the students into self-motivated and capable thinkers and learners.

    Well, I’m sure I haven’t mentioned any new ideas here ;)

  24. Huhhh… That’s a good suggestion. If I teach my child to speak English, teach him/her spelling and pronunciation rules first. But, to be frank, I realized it is “‘ignorant” instead of “ig’norant” at the age of 26. As we are not in an English speaking environment, we often learn words from dictionaries, instead of beginning from listening to/saying the words, which makes IPA and memorizing spelling unavoidable.

    It is true that by practicing listening/speaking one can begin learning English, but one must learn Chinese through reading/writing. (Although ultimately improvement in writing/reading is a must to further improve skills in every language.)I know many English speakers who come to China for many years and can speak fluent Chinese but can hardly read/write. Now I know why.

  25. I agree – Zijie has great English.

    Part of the reason that so many laowais can speak OK Chinese but not read or write hardly anything is because the Chinese writing system takes longer to learn with no alphabet. But other part is that lots of us are just lazy! ;)

  26. @ michael…

    I actually used to think the same way…and still do to some extent. But then I started dating a korean, and all my assumptions about “how would this language work if it were an alphapetic language?” went out the window. Korean has about a 70% Chinese vocabulary, no tonal differentiation, similar number of syllables, and its own hangul alphabet system. It too has lots of repeat sounds, though I guess word formation is a bit more flexible than the character by character standard of Chinese. But you know, in Chinese, we can’t differentiate characters when speaking, and we still understand each other. Similarly, Korean syllables are just as strict about their sound formation as pinyin, and don’t have the flexibility of using different letter formations to form homonyms. So…it’s got to be doable right? I mean, if we can speak and understand, then we should be able to read and understand. Anyway, that’s just an argument for the sake of an argument. Even though I suck at writing, I’d hate to do away with the characters, and I do think the transition to reading pinyin would be a pain.

  27. Joel,

    In Japan around the same time as in China there were some unsuccessful and reckless attempts to replace 漢字/Kanji with Romaji.

    And ten years before the Chinese simplification of 漢字 there was a systematic reduction of common use 漢字in Japan in the later 1940’s. That list was called 当用漢字 and then in 1982 that list was updated and retitled 常用漢字.

    None, of the attempts at replacing 漢字 with Romaji/Japanese pinyin worked. Many Japanese believe that it is impossible to write Japanese without 漢字.

    One of China’s great gifts to the world and much of Asia is 漢字.

    Although, Chinese and Japanese ‘might’ be easier without
    漢字 the risk of losing a tangible connection with the historical cultures, arts, and litterateurs is far to great for that to be seriously considered. Not, to mention the vast amount of homophones in both Chinese and Japanese that would become indistinguishable in Pinyin/Romaji. I have often notice in Japan when two Japanese have a misunderstanding one may write the 漢字 in the air with his/her finger, or on paper. Without Kanji/Hanzi they wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.

    Here is an interesting article written on the subject. I can’t agree with it all points but it is still worth a read:

  28. I’ve been renewing my interest and disgust with Chinese characters by going through Lawrence J. Howell’s book on kanji. His detailed explanations of where the characters come from renew my conviction that they are truly antiquated and . . . STUPID. I say that with reservations because i know they contain much that is intelligent and delightful and are highly expressive, but they are also so convoluted and nonsensical as to be a huge waste of time. On the other hand, the ideogram as a mode of writing is powerful, so i feel the Chinese and Japanese are both hobbled and helped by their characters. My solution was to make my own system of characters for English (to heck with learning Chinese–let’s learn English much better! They’re at I illustrate Latin and Greek roots with them. Oriental students of English might like them as a congenial way to learn.

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