Friday, October 14, 2011

(Spoken) Chinese is Not That Hard

A well-known essay on Why Chinese is So Damn Hard recently reappeared online. I remember reading it back when it first appeared, agreeing heartily with the main points it makes – yes, the writing system is too complex and not very phonetic! Yes, classical Chinese is freakin’ impossible! Yes, the tones are irritating!

I still agree with much of it – forget Classical Chinese unless you’re doing it out of sheer love of the language or studying it in a scholarly fashion. The writing system is ridiculous, not very phonetic and not even easy for native speakers. I will go so far as to say that the writing system is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, in the world.  Basically, I agree with everything the writer says about written Chinese with one exception: the piece makes it sound like reading Chinese is as hard as writing it – it’s extraordinarily difficult, true, but not quite as Sisyphean as learning to write. I can recognize far more characters than I can write – which makes reading approximately one order of magnitude easier than writing.

It’s spoken Chinese where I disagree with what the writer is saying.

I don’t think the tones are as insurmountable – they’re tough, they’re hard to remember, they’re arbitrary and I agree that they go against how you’d normally stress words in the native languages of many learners of Chinese, but there are only four of them and these are challenges that a little hard work – no harder than figuring out how to utter a decent “r” sound in French or sentence stress in Korean – can’t overcome. While I agree that wrong tones can at times create nonsense or misunderstood sentences, this isn’t as big a problem as the writer makes it out to be: generally speaking even with a few misplaced or wrong tones, a listener can get your meaning by context. With a little practice you can stress important words in a sentence and still use their correct tone.

I also feel that the writer is not quite correct about Romanization systems – they don’t all suck. Tongyong sucks, and Wade-Giles sucks, and that random other one I sometimes see in Taiwan that isn’t Tongyong sucks, but I think Pinyin is fine. I have friends who disagree, and that’s their prerogative, but I find spelling in Pinyin to be much more regular than spelling in English, the words as they are written, when pronounced according to the rules of Pinyin do sound like what the word actually is – unlike with other systems - and once you master its few challenges it is a straightforward system to use (those issues are “x” vs. “sh”, the use of “i” which changes its sound depending on what consonant it follows, pronunciation of “c” and “q”, and “q” vs. “ch”. The umlauted “u” can be tough, too). These are challenges but unlike English spelling, predictable in every word. The rules of how to pronounce things written in Pinyin doesn’t change – I daresay if you can’t master it after a bit of practice, that you aren’t trying. It’s just not that hard.

In Chinese’s favor, word order is not terribly rigid (there are rules, and then exceptions like the construction, and ways to change around word order by using passive voice and a mock passive, and you can get your meaning across even if you change the order in many cases), the grammar is fairly straightforward with a few exceptions – and the group of verbs that use (v)起來 being two personal bugbears of mine – and far more streamlined than anything in the Indo-European tree, not to mention Japanese or Korean. Compound words are formed fairly regularly and without all the weird prefix/affix/suffix squeezing and spelling changes of English, and using words that as a composite create the meaning you’re after when a needed piece of lexis escapes you is something you can do fairly easily, and get your point across.

I would say the main difficulty in speaking Chinese are all of the homonyms – unless you have a strong sense of context it can be fairly easy to misunderstand someone who used a word that sounds just like another word, especially if they’re speaking quickly, in a dialect or very colloquially.

All in all though, it’s absolutely true that learning to write Chinese is horrifically difficult, so much so that Chinese will never be an international language, at least not a written one because non-native learners, especially adults, will simply not be able to master it in great numbers. Imagine a busy businessperson deciding to pick up written Chinese for work and take classes in his/her slivers of spare time – how far will they get? Not far at all. It just won’t happen.

It’s spoken Chinese where I think the writer is downright wrong. It’s no harder – and in many ways easier – than learning to speak many other languages.

Which forces me to add: it seems like the writer is committing the same mistake that so many have: associating Chinese mainly with the written form, and not focusing nearly enough on the spoken language. Written Chinese is not the entirety of the Chinese language, and I wish people would stop acting as though writing Chinese was the end-all and be-all of Chinese.

If you get adequate practice, immerse yourself if possible and try to do a good job of learning to speak Chinese the way you would learn any language, you can learn to speak it, assuming you aren’t one of those folks with no aptitude for languages (in which case any other language would be equally hard).

So why do foreigners struggle so much with Chinese? Why do relatively fewer foreigners who begin learning Chinese get very far? Why is it such a problem if speaking Chinese is no harder than other languages, and in many ways easier?

Because teaching methodologies for Chinese SUCK.  They S-U-C-K suck. They are aeons behind the latest ideas in teaching for EFL and the various popular Romance languages as well as German. I don’t know where Chinese teachers train to become “teachers” but I don’t have much respect for the pedagogy they’ve learned. I’ve written about it already here and here so I won’t repeat myself too much, but I will give examples:

To learn a language effectively, you need:

-       = Many and varied opportunities to practice: this means the receptive skills (listening, reading) in both extensive and intensive ways (ie generally/for pleasure or for comprehension/detail as one would do in class, the productive skills (speaking and writing – both for fluency and accuracy in terms of speaking, and free as well as guided for writing) – I felt, in Chinese class, that I was afforded few chances to practice and they certainly weren’t varied or targeted

-       Varying interaction patterns with a focus on letting students do as much as possible, with as little teacher-led time as possible – my Chinese classes were so teacher-centered that it was amazing we spoke at all other than to read from the textbook

-       Practice in different types of activities (there’s a world of difference between a discussion question and a ‘make a sentence’ or ‘guess the word’ game, as between writing a restaurant review and creating a poster)  - yeah, none of this. “Write ten sentences for homework using these words” and the occasional throwaway question was the closest we ever got to that.

-       A strong knowledge of how students best practice (example: asking students to read out loud, especially in turn, is one of the worst ways to handle reading) – we read every single reading out loud, and honestly, I didn’t understand most of them. Not because I couldn’t understand them, but the medium of practicing them made it hard to follow

-       Opportunities to create original speech – yeah, very little of that and when it did happen, it was mostly written and assigned as homework

-       Some testing, but not allowing testing to take over the main thrust of the course – we had dictation quizzes daily, tests after every unit and a test every three units. FAR too much testing. Of course there was a section in the feedback form that allowed you to say there was too little testing, but no bubble you could tick to say there was too much, and no room to write it yourself.

-       Tailoring grammar and time spent on it to how important/useful the grammar is, and trying to present it in ways that show students how to use it in the real world – not at all. All grammar was taught with equal weight in the same ineffective “do this exercise, there now you know the grammar” way.

-       Opportunities to practice, at great length, the grammar taught in various “situations” or activities – basically none of that, maybe a workbook exercise or two

-       Knowing how much vocabulary an average student can absorb in a given class time – the teachers would cram as much unit vocabulary into us as they could in any given class, and yes, I had trouble remembering it all because it came too fast, without enough practice, in a very dry form, not contextualized enough and without enough good examples of natural usage. We went around and read it in turns, which encouraged people to basically not pay attention and was not a good way to keep students engaged or interested. It certainly did not facilitate actually remembering the vocabulary.

…and a hell of a lot more. 

I mention these because these are all of the things that I observed, in my time at Shi-da, that the MTC does not do, and they’re supposed to be one of the better institutions. Chinese teachers ‘round the world still seem to think that having students go around and read vocabulary examples with sentences in turn, with no opportunities to actually create sentences, and then quickly going through a few grammar exercises and rounding it up nicely with quizzes and tests is a fine way for students to learn Chinese…but it’s not working. It doesn’t work. It can’t work. And yet that’s how Chinese is taught in so many places.

Oh yes, and I’ve said in previous posts that Chinese language programs lean far too heavily on Chinese for textbook/academic purposes and not for daily use, and that they seem to care far more about perfect writing than fluent speaking – both of which are fine for those learning Chinese for academia, but an utter mess for someone who just wants to speak Chinese already. And those who are learning it for academia? Either they are quite erudite but sound like a textbook (sorry J – but you’ve improved a lot in that area!) or they just don’t speak it well at all (as with a few people I’ve met, and heard stories about, as in ‘how did she get into the graduate program when she can barely string together a sentence in Chinese?’).

THIS is why foreigners aren’t doing a good job of learning Chinese – not because spoken Chinese is all that inherently difficult.

Get some good Chinese teachers to really make changes in how the language is taught, and get classes with real practice on all levels of the language, and you’ll see a massive uptick in foreigners’ ability to master the language: the spoken language, at least. The problem isn't the language - it is 100% the piss-poor methodology. There's no excuse for it. 


Holly said...

I totally agree both about the speaking and the writing. In terms of the writing, I often encounter examples of Taiwanese themselves struggling with the language, which is a bit discouraging for the rest of us - for instance, my roommate (who is Taiwanese) recently had to take a written exam for the first time in ages and explained that she was sure she did badly in part because she couldn't remember how to write half of what she wanted to say. She said she's been using computers since college, and simply hasn't needed to remember how to write things out by hand. And as far as the speaking goes, you're totally right that pinyin is incredibly easy to learn with practice. Once you've mastered it, it's just a matter of building vocabulary and sentence structures and staying in it for the long haul. I think once you've passed the pronunciation hurdle, spoken Chinese is not much harder than any other language.

Jenna said...

Exactly! Writing is insanely hard - as you noted, even native speakers struggle with it, especially now that most people type rather than write - but one cannot conflate writing with the entire language.

I do realize there's a cultural factor at play here: throughout a lot of Chinese history the script was considered to be something transcendent, even heavenly*. Reading, writing, calligraphy and literature were accorded a great deal of respect, to the point where writing was and often still is elevated in importance over speaking (you can see that at play in many Chinese language classrooms, where the teacher doesn't care if you can put a sentence together verbally as long as you write well). There is a bit of an attitude about Chinese characters that they're the "real deal" and speaking isn't much of anything. As most teachers of Chinese are Chinese or Taiwanese and not foreigners (although a few exist, just far fewer than non-French people who teach French or non-native English speakers who teach EFL), this attitude can't help but permeate classrooms.

Which is no good, I say, because speaking is important: arguably more so than writing (although every Chinese learner should learn to write) if you are not doing it for academic purposes (and in some cases, ie learning Chinese to do anthropological or sociological work, not even then).

*although in temples you will come across flags and such emblazoned with a different script that is unreadable that some people will tell you is the language of gods or demons. I don't know what to make of this.

cephaloless said...

I don't know about writing being sacred but I think the writing system was the only thing that bound all the different dialects together into 1 chinese language for a very long time (vs french/italian/spanish). Times have changed and now the standardized dialect complements the standardized script. For teaching native speakers their native language, writing headaches (and hand cramps + occasional eye strain) can't be avoided. But for teaching a second language to foreigners, there's little reason why learning to order dim sum with minimal gesturing should be be an insurmountable wall. (this is probably a bad example since learning the cantonese dialect might be more appropriate)

John S said...

Part of the attitude that reading and writing Chinese is valued over learning to speak might have a lot to do with the fact that as recently as a couple of generations ago (relatively recent in comparison with some parts of the world), only people from fairly well-off families could read. The other 99% could not read, and didn't even really need to be literate. So until fairly recently, being literate WAS a sign of social and economic status and "true education". It was the same in Europe, perhaps 100 years ago.

Then you have the (still very) typical reliance on rote learning in east Asian cultures that colors pedagogy.

I agree, Chinese peoples' emphasis on reading and writing Chinese makes learning the language SEEM harder than it ought to be. That attitude also makes it harder for Chinese to learn other languages. Taiwanese English teachers in high schools, for example, perpetuate the attitude that real, true proficiency is all about reading and passing tests, and not about actually using the language for real-life communication.

I'm curious—does anybody know how universities in Taiwan or China test foreigners' Chinese proficiency these days, when establishing criteria for entrance into certain degree programs? Do they care about or assess oral proficiency at all? In the English-speaking world, we have IELTS and TOEFL iBT as examples of proficiency tests where not only reading and writing, but also listening and speaking are assessed. Is there a similarly standardized test of Chinese that assesses speaking?

When I am teaching language, I sometimes ask my students to imagine for a moment that they are blind, and so can't use a dictionary, or use a computer, or read books, or study lists of vocabulary words, or use a pencil, or take tests like a sighted person. I ask them if they think they would still be able to learn to communicate effectively in a foreign language.

Of course they could, and maybe even learn faster and more confidently. They would just have to rely on other skills. I try to remember that myself when learning Chinese.