China First Hand

16 February 2006

Language Learning

Filed under: Language — china1sthand @ 7:10 pm

I’m a native English speaker. We’re a lazy bunch. Today I tutored my first English language student. I figure the average Chinese learns at least 6 languages.

Alright, I am twisting boundaries a bit – but Chinese people do learn a lot. To show this clearly, I’m going to split the speaking/listening and reading/writing sides of language so that English actually counts as two. As I show below, the Chinese Mandarin language counts as an additional 4 (6 total!) and really, it should count as more when you consider point 3:

  1. As anywhere in the world, kids learn to speak and listen to their native language.
  2. Pinyin is the Chinese language written with the Romanic alphabet (a b c…) and is now taught to Chinese children.
  3. Although Pinyin is increasingly used in our globalising world, it does not replace Chinese writing. Unlike Romanic languages, Chinese is written with hieroglyphic-style symbols representing each word. To read, the relationships between each symbol and sound, as well as meaning, must be learnt manually. To write, the structure and order of strokes of each symbol must also be manually memorised. At least with Romanic words there are logical rules connecting the structures and sounds of words, and a limited number of simple symbols (letters) to learn how to reproduce.
  4. With two versions of written language, most Chinese Mandarin speakers also learn two verbal languages. In a country the size of China there are many dialects of the same language. Often, these have become so diversified that people do not understand each other. In addition to knowing their local dialect, all Chinese are required to speak and listen to the standard Chinese language.

All Chinese are taught to be fluent in all of these languages, including English. This puts their number to 6 compared to our 2! That’s 3 times the amount we learn! But there’s more…

For my teacher training I learnt rules and structures of my own language that I hadn’t previously known. Chinese speakers of English understand the rules that got them there. …They know our language better than us! Secondly, there is another ‘language’ that Chinese people seem to know well, but I’ve not heard mentioned by an English person. This is a standard phonetic notation used in dictionaries to aid correct pronunciation. (This software won’t even let me show the symbols you’re supposed to say!) On top of all this, some Chinese may be incredibly clever without you realising because written Chinese was originally far more complex than it is now. Some people can also read the ancient language, even though we couldn’t tell the difference! So maybe I was a bit cheeky by saying the Chinese learn 6 when I count English as 2! – But I’ve here listed another 3 that would still nudge their total up to 6 against our 1!

Alright, there are a couple reasons why learning Chinese may not be equivalent to English. Pinyin is much simpler than written English because it always follows the rules, and there are fewer spellings to learn. Many words in pinyin are spelt the same because the Chinese tones distinguish the different meanings. In fact, there are far fewer words in Chinese to learn at all! The English language includes worldwide words such as scientific and medical terms, but even so, the difference in number of words between these languages is significant. Chinese has around 80,000 words compared with 1,000,000 in English – that’s 12 ½ times the words! Sometimes the Chinese do supplement their language – I once overheard a conversation between my friend and another Chinese lady that had visited England. She randomly interspersed her Chinese words with English ones like, ‘independent’, ‘ostentatious’ and ‘diplomacy’. What was she talking about??!

Finally, I have to address a common misconception. In addition to the official Chinese Mandarin language that has the most native speakers in the world – over 800 million – there is also the language that most Westerners think is Chinese! People in south China, including Hong Kong, speak Cantonese. This is a completely different language to Mandarin. As I have mentioned, different dialects separate Chinese Mandarin speakers, but there are still similarities between them, for example the writing is the same. Cantonese is a completely different language; just like Japanese, Korean, French, or English. Most people emigrating from China will be from Hong Kong, and therefore speak Cantonese. Also – don’t forget that these people chose to leave their Chinese culture. If your perception of China relies on Chinese immigrants, it may not be entirely accurate.



  1. […] In Chinese writing each character represents one syllable (which is usually one word), so in this sense it’s quite simple. However – the lack of relationship between the sound and the character means that even if you speak fluently, the written world of Chinese is still completely hidden! The structure of Chinese characters is not built up of smaller parts like the letters of the Roman alphabet. This makes reading and writing very hard to learn. I have been learning Chinese with the use of Pinyin – this is the written Chinese that uses the Roman alphabet. […]

    Pingback by Language Differences « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  2. […] I watch a lot of travel programmes on CCTV9. They’ve taken me places that take days to get to. More importantly, they’ve explained things to me that they only found out by talking to the locals! I’d struggle to even find the place I wanted! Even if I could talk well, there are dialects in Chinese that would still prevent me communicating! I see beautiful scenery at the best time of the year. I see ceremonies from culture minorities that are rarely performed. I see the best of China. […]

    Pingback by Location, Location, Location! « China First Hand — 21 September 2006 @ 1:01 am | Reply

  3. Are there some web sites that you can down load or take some lessons to learn more so I can suprise my wife, I wish to try to speak and understand Chinese as well as she can English some day. 🙂 So wonderful. You know the words she uses in English have help me to understand the Enlish laugauge better in feelings than I ever imagined, but their laugauge is just this, it is to convay feelings in a laugauge that are unspoken here in America, I can thank all the forfathers in China for this. Laugauge with feelings and thoughtful exspresions. Just wonderful, a huge bonus. I have found deep meaning in words that I thought were just common. When she speaks, it is music and feelings.

    Comment by david — 12 June 2007 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

  4. I have been there both times during the Spring Festival, The New Year. breath takeing………………………………………………..Where have I been all my life. 🙂

    Comment by david — 12 June 2007 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

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