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:
- As anywhere in the world, kids learn to speak and listen to their native language.
- Pinyin is the Chinese language written with the Romanic alphabet (a b c…) and is now taught to Chinese children.
- 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.
- 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.