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How Many Words Can You Memorize A Day?

Eric is a beginner language learner eager to learn French. He knows that fluency in la langue de Molière will boost his career prospects, and while he’s not a big fan of French cinema (is there such a person?), he can’t wait to travel to southern France next year and immerse himself in the local culture. After reading the latest fashionable language learning blogs out there, downloading the latest language learning and flashcard apps, and purchasing 2-3 expensive language learning textbooks, he feels like he’s ready to dive in. His first goal: learn 50 new words a day.

That’s it: 50 new words, every day. That’s 18,250 words in the space of a year, the approximate size of the (active) vocabulary of a native speaker. He’s even downloaded a list of the 2000 most common French words off of Wiktionary to get started, he’s found some cool pre-packaged decks of flashcards with fancy pictures, and with Duolingo freshly installed on his new shiny smartphone (that he’s just gotten for free with a 10-year contract), learning French is going to be a breeze. I mean, sure, learning 50 new words per day is a challenge, but hey, he’s got the tools for it. After a year, he’ll be pretty much fluent in French, with an impressive vocabulary that’ll be the envy of his friends and classmates.

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Want to Be Smarter? Science Says Do This

We’re always looking for little life hacks in hopes of improving the way our brain works. We’ve tried eating walnuts, solving one too many crossword puzzles, depleting our Sudoku collection, and reading countless stacks of books. Yet, despite all these little things, nothing we try really seems to amp up our brainwaves to any appreciable degree.

What, then, is the real trick to being smarter?

According to science, it’s learning a new language.

However, it’s not enough to simply pick up a few words of Spanish or French or Chinese to greet people and ask how they are. Only when we become truly fluent in another language–gaining the skills required to call ourselves bilingual–are we able to access the benefits of a second tongue.

According to studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, bilingualism can actually improve cognition–allowing us to more effectively manage higher cognitive processes like problem solving, memory, and thought. In fact, bilingualism increases turnover time for cognitive processes; it lets us think more quickly on our feet and formulate better reactions in response to outside stimuli.

In terms of memory, bilinguals naturally have a much greater ability to recall events that occur. They are, in general, better at eliminating superfluous information, homing in on important details and facts, and paying attention in general–whether the tasks are related to language or not. This has been speculated to be a consequence of needing to tune out “interference” from other languages when speaking in one.

Bialystok took these studies further and proved that these advantages continue long into older age, even acting as factors to aid in preventing dementia. Older people who participated in the study were able to demonstrate faster reaction and better memory overall–huge advantages in warding off mental illnesses that accompany progressive, age-linked diseases.

Being bilingual also ultimately affects the actual physicality of the brain. It increases gray matter–the stuff responsible for processing incoming information and intellectual activity.

So, next time you’re looking to up your brainpower, open up that dusty Rosetta Stone software in lieu of grabbing a handful of walnuts. The management of speaking two languages, as it turns out, directly affects our brain in more ways than we could have ever imagined.

Bilinguals of two spoken languages have more gray matter than monolinguals

 

 

A new study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex suggests people who speak two languages have more gray matter in the executive control region of the brain.

In past decades, much has changed about the understanding of bilingualism. Early on, bilingualism was thought to be a disadvantage because the presence of two vocabularies would lead to delayed language development in children. However, it has since been demonstrated that bilingual individuals perform better, compared with monolinguals, on tasks that require attention, inhibition and short-term memory, collectively termed “executive control.”

This “bilingual advantage” is believed to come about because of bilinguals’ long-term use and management of two spoken languages. But skepticism still remains about whether these advantages are present, as they are not observed in all studies. Even if the advantage is robust, the mechanism is still being debated.

“Inconsistencies in the reports about the bilingual advantage stem primarily from the variety of tasks that are used in attempts to elicit the advantage,” says senior author Guinevere Eden, DPhil, director for the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC). “Given this concern, we took a different approach and instead compared gray matter volume between adult bilinguals and monolinguals. We reasoned that the experience with two languages and the increased need for cognitive control to use them appropriately would result in brain changes in Spanish-English bilinguals when compared with English-speaking monolinguals. And in fact greater gray matter for bilinguals was observed in frontal and parietal brain regions that are involved in executive control.”

Gray matter of the brain has been shown to differ in volume as a function of people’s experiences. A prominent finding of this type was a report that London taxi drivers have more gray matter in brain areas involved in spatial navigation.

What about being bilingual leads to these advantages? To address this question the team went one step further. “Our aim was to address whether the constant management of two spoken languages leads to cognitive advantages and the larger gray matter we observed in Spanish-English bilinguals, or whether other aspects of being bilingual, such as the large vocabulary associated with having two languages, could account for this,” explains Olumide Olulade, PhD, the study’s lead author and post-doctoral fellow at GUMC.

The researchers compared gray matter in bilinguals of American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with monolingual users of English. Both ASL-English and Spanish-English bilinguals share qualities associated with bilingualism, such as vocabulary size. But unlike bilinguals of two spoken languages, ASL-English bilinguals can sign and speak simultaneously, allowing the researchers to test whether the need to inhibit the other language might explain the bilingual advantage.

“Unlike the findings for the Spanish-English bilinguals, we found no evidence for greater gray matter in the ASL-English bilinguals,” Olulade says. “Thus we conclude that the management of two spoken languages in the same modality, rather than simply a larger vocabulary, leads to the differences we observed in the Spanish-English bilinguals.”

The research team says their findings adds to the growing understanding of how long-term experience with a particular skill — in this case management of two languages — changes the brain.

In addition to Olulade and Eden, study authors include Nasheed I. Jamal, MD, Charles Perfetti, PhD, of The University of Pittsburgh, and Daniel S. Koo, PhD, and Carol J. LaSasso, PhD, of Gallaudet University (Washington, DC).

The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P50 HD40095), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (F32 DC007774), and the National Science Foundation (SBE 0541953 and SBE 0541953).

Want to Be Smart? Learn a Foreign Language

Want to Be Smart? Learn a Foreign Language

In an interconnected world, being multilingual helps you forge valuable global connections and increase your chances of making it big in the world of business. But being multilingual is good for your brain too.

In a recent study, scientists report that people who speak two languages have more gray matter in the executive control region of their brains—the area that controls higher cognitive processes like thinking, analyzing, making connections, and synthesizing information—than monolinguals. The findings of this study corroborate and bolster data from earlier investigations that suggestedbilingualism can not only improve brain functioning but also keep age-related neural disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia at bay.

Bilingualism and brain function

The above-mentioned study was conducted on Spanish-English bilinguals, bilinguals of spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL), and English monolinguals. The scientists found that the Spanish-English bilinguals had greater volumes of gray matter than the other two groups.

This finding also answers why bilingual people have more gray matter than monolinguals. According to the researchers, managing two spoken languages—switching from one to another seamlessly—gives the brain a workout and increases neural flexibility. Bilinguals who are fluent in two tongues have to constantly process two languages and instantly choose which language to speak in to best express their thoughts.

In fact, this is the reason why bilinguals are also better at filtering out irrelevant information and processing greater volumes of data than monolinguals. After all, their brains get vigorous exercise constantly. This also explains why the bilinguals of spoken English and ASL did not have more gray matter than the monolinguals despite being able to speak and sign together.

Several studies have been carried out on the superior mental abilities of bilingual people. According to one study, bilingual people are NOT smarter than monolinguals. It is just that certain areas of the brains of bilingual people are more developed than those who speak only one language. That is because, the bilinguals are merely more expert in one task than monolingual people.

During this study, one group of subjects was made to intensively study a foreign language within 13 months. The control group too studied hard, but subjects other than languages. The fMRI scans showed that the subjects who studied languages had greater growth in the cerebral cortex region than the control group. The hippocampus too, grew in size amongst the language learners.

More studies corroborate the above findings. The more you use various regions of your brain, the stronger they become. The fMRI scans of native English subjects who were made to learn Chinese showed improved brain networks after six weeks of language lessons. These subjects showed stronger connections between various areas of the brain after learning a new language.

The anti-aging benefits of learning a new language

The above-mentioned language studies confirm the neuroplasticity of the brain. What is encouraging is that the brain can develop across ages and learning a second language helps in this growth. The brains of elderly subjects showed positive anatomical changes and functional development after they learned a new language.

Another study demonstrated that adults who learn a new language also exhibit positive changes inwhite matter. The subjects in the study were healthy adults. They showed changes in white matter volume in the frontal lobe of their brains, a region that was, till now, not thought to be involved in language processing activities.

The positive changes in the structure and functionality of adult brains indicate that there are anti-aging benefits of learning a new language. Learning a foreign language imparts a protective effect on memory. One study have shown that, after taking into account factors like education, occupation, gender, and where the subjects resided (urban vs. rural), bilingual subjects with dementia manifested symptoms about 4.5 years later than monolinguals with dementia.

In another study, it was found that bilingual subjects had delayed onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease than unilingual subjects despite the former group exhibiting twice as much atrophy in those regions of their brains associated with the disease than those who spoke one language. The scientists involved in the study believe that because the bilinguals had brains that were constantly exercising, the neural pathways were well-developed and strong enough to keep away the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease for longer periods.

The anti-aging benefits of learning a foreign language were also documented in other studies. It was noted that bilingual seniors show greater cognitive facilities than those elderly people who speak only one language. The bilingual seniors completed the same tasks faster than the monolingual subjects belonging to the same age group. What is more, the bilingual group completed the tasks without spending more energy in the frontal regions of the brain, an area associated with executive functionalities. This indicates the bilingualism has lifelong neural benefits.

Bilingual toddlers are smarter than their monolingual peers

It is never too late to start improving, but learning a new language can give toddlers a substantial edge over their peers. In a study carried out on 24-month-old children, it was found that thosetoddlers who were exposed to a second language during infancy had greater cognitive abilities along with bigger vocabularies in both languages than their monolingual peers. These findings turn on its head the traditional belief that exposing infants to two languages confuses them.

Not all parents can pick up a new language and start conversing in it for the sake of their kids. But these findings have implications for curriculum designers and education planners. As for the adults, it is never too late to start attending a language class or taking lessons from a friend who speaks a different language.

References

Alladi, S., Bak, T., Duggirala, V., Surampudi, B., Shailaja, M., Shukla, A., Chaudhuri, J., & Kaul, S. (2013). Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration statusNeurology, 81 (22), 1938-1944 DOI: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4

Gold, B., Kim, C., Johnson, N., Kryscio, R., & Smith, C. (2013). Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains Neural Efficiency for Cognitive Control in Aging Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (2), 387-396 DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3837-12.2013

Gullifer, J., Kroll, J., & Dussias, P. (2013). When Language Switching has No Apparent Cost: Lexical Access in Sentence Context Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00278

Krizman, J., Skoe, E., Marian, V., & Kraus, N. (2014). Bilingualism increases neural response consistency and attentional control: Evidence for sensory and cognitive coupling Brain and Language, 128 (1), 34-40 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2013.11.006

Li, P., Legault, J., & Litcofsky, K. (2014). Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: Anatomical changes in the human brain Cortex, 58, 301-324 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.05.001

Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N., Lindgren, M., Johansson, M., Nyberg, L., & Lövdén, M. (2012). Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning NeuroImage, 63 (1), 240-244 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.043

Olulade, O., Jamal, N., Koo, D., Perfetti, C., LaSasso, C., & Eden, G. (2015). Neuroanatomical Evidence in Support of the Bilingual Advantage Theory Cerebral Cortex DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhv152

Poulin-Dubois, D., Blaye, A., Coutya, J., & Bialystok, E. (2011). The effects of bilingualism on toddlers’ executive functioning Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 108 (3), 567-579 DOI:10.1016/j.jecp.2010.10.009

Schlegel, A., Rudelson, J., & Tse, P. (2012). White Matter Structure Changes as Adults Learn a Second Language Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24 (8), 1664-1670 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00240

Schweizer, T., Ware, J., Fischer, C., Craik, F., & Bialystok, E. (2012). Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease Cortex, 48 (8), 991-996 DOI:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.04.009

Yang, J., Gates, K., Molenaar, P., & Li, P. (2015). Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study Journal of Neurolinguistics, 33, 29-49 DOI:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2014.09.004

 

7 Surprising Benefits of Learning a New Language (Backed by Research)

7 Surprising Benefits of Learning a New Language (Backed by Research)

There have been numerous studies pointing to the benefits of learning a new language. Yet, recent study shows that only 18% of Americans can fluently speak two or more languages.

 

Part of the reason is that learning a new language only becomes an interest to us once we reach adulthood, and we mistakenly think that it’s impossible to acquire a new language at a certain age. While it’s not a walk in the park, nearly anyone can learn a new language with a bit of motivation and diligence.

 

Some people have more aptitude for learning languages, including children, and we shouldn’t let it discourage us from continuing to improve.

“People vary in their aptitude like they do in learning math or in playing basketball,” — Dr. Robert DeKeyser, Professor of Second Language Acquisition

If you need more reasons to motivate yourself to learn a new language, here are 7 unusual benefits backed by science.

  1. You will improve your native languages

It’s only when we learn a new language, that we can appreciate the roots and fundamentals of our native language.

This is because we grew up speaking our native language, without much thought in terms of how sentence structures worked or breaking down the accents for each syllable.

According to the Impact of the Second Language Education, studying a second language alone will significantly improve grammar, reading, vocabulary, and speaking skills of your first language.

It’s similar to playing basketball your whole life, then learning how to play volleyball, and using those skills to improve your basketball game.

“You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” — Geoffrey Willans

  1. Enhances your focus

In a study, published online in the journal Brain and Language, individuals who spoke more than one language were observed through an fMRI, while performing word comprehension tasks.

Results showed that multi-lingual individuals were better at filtering out competing words than one-language speaking individuals. This ability to tune out competing words benefits in blocking out distractions to focus on the task at hand.

Luckily for us, studies have shown that even those of us with minimal knowledge of a secondary language can reap the advantages of these traits.

  1. Prevents common brain diseases

Hopefully non of us have to worry about this anytime soon, but aging is something that is common in all of us.

When it comes to the brain, learning a foreign language can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by 4.5 years. This is a far more powerful than the best drugs which only delays the symptoms by 6–12 months.

The American Academy of Neurology has performed studies showing that speaking more than one language increases the amount of neural pathways in the brain, allowing information to be processed through a greater variety of channels.

  1. Improve your math skills

powerful study was done at Massachusetts in 2007, where The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages stated that:

“Children who study a foreign language, even when this second language study takes time away from the study of mathematics, outperform students who do not study a foreign language and have more mathematical instruction during the school day.”

In another study published in the University of Michigan’s Language Learning journal (Armstrong and Rogers, 1997), students who studied just one semester of a foreign language for just 90 minutes per week scored significantly higher in maths and language arts.

In hindsight, this makes sense because learning the foundations of a new language involves logical and structural thinking. Memorization techniques, such as Mnemonics in language learning, can also play a big role in mathematics, as you need to memorize complicated equations on a frequent basis.

  1. Learn anything faster

In the same study done at Massachusetts in 2007, the researchers have concluded that the “exercise in cognitive problem solving” through language learning can be directly applied to anything we want to learn.

Your memory retention is also improved when you learn a new language. Absorbing and retaining more information can significantly shorten your learning curve, because you can spend more time learning new information instead of re-learning something you’ve already seen before.

Lastly, since distraction is inevitable in our learning journey, those who have the ability to multi-task and focus will have the upperhand. Bilinguals have been studied and reported to be better multi-taskers than the average individual.

  1. Become more outgoing and liked by others

Language learning is not only about speaking a new language, but it’s about experiencing a new culture.

The first reason is that meeting foreign people is embedded in the core of language learning. In order to practice and improve your new language, you’ll need to work with a native speaking teacher (or coach on Rype), use conversation exchanges, or attend language meetups. This is similar to how you need to just ride the bicycle instead of watching videos about it, its just part of the process.

The experience gained from speaking with language conversation partners is basically the same as meeting anyone. The skills of being outgoing and sociable are directly transferable to other areas of your life.

Most importantly, learning a language helps you step into the shoes of people different to yourself and see the world in a completely different perspective — therefore developing empathy for others.

The majority of conflicts between people in the world comes from lack of understanding the other side. Studying a new language not only helps you understand where the other person is coming from, but the cultural knowledge you gain can help the others feel more connected to you.

  1. Double your creativity

When speaking a new language, you’re often forced to think of an alternative word that you’re not used to using.

We often have to puzzle together words to form a sentence until it fits and makes sense to the other person. It improves your divergent think skills, training you to think of multiple solutions to problems on a consistent basis.

This “out of the box” experimentation practice is why researchers have concluded that multilingual individuals are more creative than monolingual individuals.

  1. It boosts your confidence level

When we set out to achieve something and find success, it boosts our confidence levels — no matter how small the success.

Even being able to carry a 30-second conversation with a native speaker can significantly make you more confident, because you know it’s something you wouldn’t have been able to do before.

This “yes, I can!” mentality will become your personal mantra, and can be applied to any goal you want to achieve in your life.

Author of Lean Forward, Eric Holtzclaw, has stated that even “a tiny change in your perspective that pulls you out of a funk and gives you the boost you need to take on that next challenge.”

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”— E.E. Cummings

Over to you

Which of these amazing benefits we mentioned gives you the most motivation to learn a new language? Is there any other great benefits that we have missed? Please share with us in the comments!

Speaking More Than One Language Eases Stroke Recovery

Speaking More Than One Language Eases Stroke Recovery

 

There are ways to reduce your risk of having a stroke — for example, you can exercise more and not smoke. But should a stroke occur, you might also be able to reduce your risk of losing brain function if you are a speaker of more than one language.

In a new study, bilingual stroke patients were twice as likely as those who spoke one language to have normal cognitive functions after a stroke, according to findings reported today (Nov. 19) in the journal Stroke.

The reason for the difference appears to be a feature of the brain called “cognitive reserve,” in which a brain that has built a rich network of neural connections — highways that can can still carry the busy traffic of thoughts even if a few bridges are destroyed.

“People with more mental activities have more interconnected brains, which are able to deal better with potential damage,” said Dr. Thomas Bak, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a co-author of the study. “Language is just one of many ways of boosting the cognitive reserve,” he added. [10 Things You Didn’t Know About You]

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is cut off, starving brain cells of oxygen. The major risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking.

Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, affecting about 800,000 Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 20 percent of stroke victims may die, and many more are left with disabilities such as paralyzed limbs, speech problems, dementia, depression or other mental health concerns, depending on which regions of the brain are damaged.

In the new study, researchers led by Dr. Suvarna Alladi, a professor of neurology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, examined stroke patients in Hyderabad, a large city in southern India where people commonly speak two or more languages, independent of their education level or social status. The researchers followed 608 patients for up to two years after a stroke, comparing the 353 bilingual patients with the 255 monolingual patients.

The researchers found that more than 40 percent of the bilingual patients had normal cognitive functions following a stroke, compared with less than 20 percent of single-language patients.

The bilingual patients also performed better on poststroke tests that measured their abilities to pay attention to retrieve and organize information. They were less likely to develop dementia or a related condition called mild cognitive impairment.

“The advantage of bilingualism is that it makes people switch from one language to another, so while they inhibit one language, they have to activate another to communicate,” said Alladi, who was the first author on the study.

This switching back and fourth — day to day, and sometimes minute to minute — seems to build more neural connections throughout the brain, Bak said. Bak and Alladi’s earlier research showed that bilingualism may postpone the onset of dementia and improve concentration.

The results do not mean that the bilingual people in the study recovered and those who spoke one language didn’t, Alladi stressed. The people in both groups had a range of cognitive outcomes, from complete recovery to lasting dementia.

Still, the difference in the rates of the outcomes between the groups suggests that “bilingualism may predict a better cognitive outcome in relation to global cognitive abilities, and specifically attention,” Alladi told Live Science.

Dr. Jose Biller, a stoke expert and brain surgeon at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine near Chicago, who was not associated with the research, said the study was “intriguing” and “well designed,” and contributes to a growing body of research showing that bilingualism, no matter when in life it is attained, may lessen the cognitive decline related to aging.

However, whether the findings in Hyderabad may hold true elsewhere isn’t clear, Biller said, adding that “more studies are needed.”

The languages spoken among people in Hyderabad were mostly Telugu, Urdu and Hindi. Alladi said that bilingualism in Hyderabad may not mirror bilingualism in the United States — fluency in more than one language is common in India, whereas in the United States, it tends to be seen more among recent immigrants and better-educated Americans.

“Constantly switching languages is a daily reality for many residents of Hyderabad,” Alladi said. “The cognitive benefit may not be seen in places where the need to function in two or more languages isn’t as extensive.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that bilingualism was not associated with better language abilities after a stroke. The bilingual and monolingual patients in the study were equally as likely to experience aphasia, a loss of ability to understand or express speech. [7 Things That May Raise Your Risk of Stroke]

Biller said this part of the findings agrees with research published earlier this year in the journal Brain concerning stroke and aphasia among bilingual speakers in the U.K., and that it certainly warrants further investigation.

Bak has likened language learning’s effect on the brain to swimming’s ability to strengthen the body. Learning a language at any stage in life provides a thorough workout, but other cognitive “exercises,” such as doing puzzles or playing a musical instrument, might also benefit stroke recovery, he said.

The research applies to the larger concept of neuroplasticity, in that the brain is dynamic and can adapt to new challenges when properly conditioned, Bak said.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of “Food at Work” and “Bad Medicine.” His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.

 

5 Reasons Why You Must Constantly Learn

How many times you had the feeling that you are lost with a new subject at work? If you are like most people, probably many times… But don’t worry! This is really common in our days because we live in a very dynamic environment, with a lot of new information to handle every day and staying up to date is a real challenge. The hard truth is that if you want to grow as person, in your society and in your job, you have to constantly keep learning new things.

But, why exactly? 1. To perform, perform and perform: you can only succeed at what you are doing if you have the right knowledge to do so. Today’s society is so well educated that you really need to be a “Superman” or “Superwoman” if you want to succeed.

If you are not a top performer there will be someone in the next corner really well prepared to do your job, and willing to do it. Then, simply learn how to be the best.

  1. To get out of your comfort zone: Experience shows that the most successful people are those who constantly go out of their comfort. These people welcome new challenges, new risks, and constantly discover new subjects, becoming this a daily practice in their lives. In other words, people succeed when they put themselves beyond their current limits. But the only way to get out of the comfort zone is by knowing what is beyond. You will be so scared to put a foot out if you don’t know what you are going to find there. First of all learn what is out there and then go for it!
  2. To have a longer and healthier life: believe it or not, but different demography studies performed all around the world show that keeping an active mental activity is one of the key factors to have a longer and better live. It is proven that diseases like Alzheimer, Parkinson or memory loss tend to appear less in people who stay mentally active. Be aware that staying active does not mean simply doing word searches (which are fun J). It means taking real mental challenges. A great example might be to learn a new language.
  3. To improve your personal relationships: this point is really simple to explain. When you have broader knowledge about more subjects, you can really connect with different people concerned by those subjects. This, automatically, will enrich your relationships. Imagine for a moment that you take a course on personal motivation which puts you in plenty of real situations applicable with your friends and family. Can you imagine how your relationships will improve as soon as you start giving them good tips which help them to be more motivated?
  4. To feel good: there is no better feeling than knowing interesting things. Imagine yourself travelling to a place where you acknowledge what is around: you know the history of the place, the important people who lived there, the meaning of a monument,… surely this will make you and the people around you feel great.

It is now really evident that you have to learn new things to be happy and to feel complete as a person. So, just go for it! There are plenty of opportunities out there. But bear in mind something: once you start doing this, you will become an addict to it.

 

Top 10 Learning Chinese Problems & Solutions

Top 10 Learning Chinese Problems & Solutions

  1. “We are native speakers, but our kids refuse to speak Chinese or learn the culture”

Unfortunately, some children who have native speaking Chinese parents refuse to learn Chinese. This is often done in the teenager years as a method of defiance to establish their power as they become adults. With defiance issues at that age, consider sending them to a full immersion environment.  Our daughter was starting to speak Chinese with English Grammar, which frustrated my wife.  The more frustrated my wife became, the less my daughter spoke Chinese. My daughter got to spend a summer with cousins in Taiwan, and nobody would speak English to her. Within a day, she was even speaking some Taiwanese, not to mention the Mandarin Chinese.

  1. “I am worried about my kids learning Chinese; won’t it hurt their English speaking skills?
  2. The truth is scientific studies have shown that children have an amazing ability to learn more than one language, such as Chinese. If you are a native born speaker, have one parent speak only English and the other Chinese.  This way the kids are forced to learn and speak both.  My wife speaks Mandarin Chinese to our daughter and I English, and it’s worked out great.  We have not had the issue of having her mix up the English and Chinese.  Their is so much English in the US, especially when they start school, that not getting enough English is not an issue. I have seen students who only speak Chinese at home, start public school and become the best in their class at English and want to become a writer.  They are also taking Chinese as their foreign language in High School. Kids have an amazing ability to Learn a foreign language, as long as they are given the opportunity.
  1. “It’s easier to just speak English to my kids, I’m not going to teach them another language”
  2. Kids have an ability to quickly learn a second language without an accent that adults don’t. There are so many adults I have met who are learning Chinese in College where it’s much more difficult as you get older. It would have been in great favor if their parents had them learn Chinese when they were younger.
  1. “Learning Chinese is a waste of time, it’s too hard!”
  2. Some US born Children and even their native parents believe this.  There are many reasons why one should learn to speak Chinese. Studies have shown that being truly bilingual can help a child develop their brain in new ways and make it easier to learn other languages as well as understanding the Chinese cultures better (like why the number 8 is a lucky number in Mandarin, and 4 is not).
  1. “It’s not fun like other studies in the US!”
  2. Usually kids have this belief and it takes time away from their other studies and video games.  Usually parents think their children have better things to do, and everybody knows English anyway around the world! However, there are many products and tools out there that make learning Chinese fun and easy!
  1. “Learning Chinese Characters is too hard.”
  2. There are great books and even computer software and some great books that make learning Chinese characters easier. I won’t be surprised when they finally release more apps for this to make it even easier!
  1. “Neither my wife or I speak Chinese. There is no native speaker at home.”
  2. Many parents are finding online tutors to help them. Finding local tutors at a center or have someone you trust come to you are classic ways of selecting a good teacher. Some parents are even learning Chinese with their kids.  Many curriculum and other Learning Chinese tools are specifically designed for non-native language learners of Chinese.
  1. “I’m so afraid my kids will HATE me for forcing them to learn Chinese.”
  2. It’s important to work with your kids so they are not being forced to Learn Chinese, but actually enjoy learning it. Picking the right curriculum that matches their learning style is also very important.
  1. “I don’t have Time! We have Piano, Soccer, and other things to do!”
  2. Time management is always a challenge with young kids. Prioritization and asking your self “am I doing the right work?” are key. Creating a weekly schedule and a dedicated time for Learning Chinese can help you a lot.  Keeping record of a time sheet for a few weeks to see where your time goes can also help. By starting a foreign language early, you will actually be helping your child in high school to give them more time, instead of learning a foreign language from scratch. Learning a language is just as important as other extracurricular activities.
  1.  “I have no idea where to buy fun, entertaining and affordable Learning Chinese Materials!”
  2. I can help you with that. ChildBook.com has a full range of Learning Chinese materials. We have best-selling books, CDs and DVD to suit your childs needs. I also offer lots of free advice and tips that are available as well!

Conclusion: Chinese Will Make You Better

  • Being bilingual gives you more opportunities! And by knowing a second culture, you can also relate better to other people.
  • By planting these seeds today, you are more likely to become even more productive and well-rounded.
  • With your support, now is the best time for your children to learn Mandarin Chinese.
  • Your commitment now will truly give them an advantage later on.

Top 10 Reasons to Learn Chinese

1. You’ll be Equipped for Future Opportunities

Learning to speak Chinese is a great way to give your children an advantage in the increasingly competitive business world. Between equal foreign competitors courting a Chinese company, who will the company choose to associate with: a Chinese-speaking foreigner or a foreigner with a translator? China is emerging from a period of stagnation and again taking it’s place as one of the great powers of the world. China currently has the second largest economy in the world, and has a huge growth rate of averaging 10% per year. To take advantage of this huge economic shift and opportunities.

2. “Made In China” and the Business World

From iPhones and other cutting edge technology, to cheap products sold at prices that are rock bottom, China makes it all. China has become the factory of the world and is moving up the technology food chain. Look at the balance of trade between the US and China. According to Nobel Prize Winner Robert Mundell China will become the factory of the world; in my opinion it already has. Now products are built, as well as designed in China. In the business world, especially manufacturing, knowing Chinese is helpful.

3. Export Opportunities

China is a huge export market for the US. 1/5th of the world’s population lives in China. Overseas Chinese dominate the economies of many countries in Asia, and speaking Mandarin gives you an edge in doing business with them.  Countries with large overseas Chinese populations include Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.  China has become one of the largest trading partners with the US. Over 16,000 US companies sell products in China. Trade is not only from China to the US, but also the other way. $41.8 Billion in 2006.

4. One-on-One Business Transactions

China is a 12 hour flight away from the U.S. Using Skype or calling China costs a few cents per minute. As Thomas Friedman has written, the world is becoming “flat” so communication, ideas, and goods are traveling faster and faster between countries including the US and China. Learning Chinese gives you the opportunity to take advantage of this change. It’s a great ice breaker when working with people from China if you can say a few words in Chinese. This helps especially when dealing with business people on the other side of the world via conference call if you can speak the same language, adding a translator in negotiations is another barrier.

5. Political Opportunities

The Austrian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. The US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geitner studied Chinese and attended Beijing University. The former Utah Governor, Ambassador to China, and Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is fluent in Chinese (he learned it as a missionary in Taiwan and has an adopted child from China). China is also investing around the world, so being involved in government affairs is another reason to learn Chinese.

6. You’ll Learn China’s Fascinating Culture

Chinese culture is over 5000 years old.  By learning the Chinese Language, you will learn another culture and another way of looking at the world. Learning a language gives you a better understanding through the grammar and even how the words are derived of the culture behind them. And with 20% of the world’s population in China, it would be extremely beneficial to be able to communicate with them!

7. You’ll Learn Another Point of View

When a child uses a word, this word also triggers associations in the brain, brought about by the other languages the child knows.  Maybe this is why it seems people who know languages seem smarter.  The numerous mental associations playing in their brain, opens new ideas.  It also helps as people age. I once had a fun talk with a programmer explaining how learning a new computer language helped keep his mind fresh.

8. Competitive Advantages

Chinese is the fastest growing Foreign Language being taught in US schools. I like Mayor Daly’s quote: “We want to give our young people opportunities to advance … and [Chinese] is a great opportunity to survive in today’s economy.”  Students can get higher grades when they take Chinese subjects in school because they started early at home.

9. Japan is Learning It 

Mandarin Chinese is the most taught foreign language after English in Japan. If the Japanese are learning it, shouldn’t people in the US? The Japanese have a sharp scent on who or what is arriving. Mandarin Chinese is the most used language on the Internet.   10. Family and Community 

My daughter’s ability (she is mixed) to talk to my in-laws in Mandarin is a gift I am glad my wife and I gave her. If you have relatives who don’t speak English, but only Chinese, it’s so great to be able to speak with them in Chinese.  If you also live within a Chinese community, it’s nice to be able to relate to neighbors and friends speaking their language.  I can’t tell you how proud my wife is that my daughter got selected to be the announcer for her Chinese Choir (in Mandarin Chinese)!  There are big Chinese communities all over the world. Whether for business or to establish personal ties, knowing the language is not only useful, but endears you to people you want to connect to.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, “Hard for whom?” A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the “terrible twos”, it’s Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by “hard”? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.

From Schriftfestschrift: Essays on Writing and Language in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday (Sino-Platonic Papers No. 27, August 1991), edited by Victor H. Mair

If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you’re coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I’m contending is that Chinese is hard compared to … well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it’s also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.1

If you don’t believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.

Everyone’s heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom “It’s Greek to me” and search for equivalent idioms in all the world’s languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression “C’est du chinois“, “It’s Chinese”, i.e., “It’s incomprehensible”. Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng跟天书一样 meaning “It’s like heavenly script.”

There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?

1. Because the writing system is ridiculous.

Beautiful, complex, mysterious — but ridiculous. I, like many students of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.

The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet — some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren’t too practical for daily use.

For one thing, it is simply unreasonably hard to learn enough characters to become functionally literate. Again, someone may ask “Hard in comparison to what?” And the answer is easy: Hard in comparison to Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hindi, or any other sane, “normal” language that requires at most a few dozen symbols to write anything in the language. John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time.2 Naturally, this estimate is rather crude and impressionistic (it’s unclear what “comparable levels” means here), but the overall implications are obvious: the Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system.3 Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself.

Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like “Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper”. Poppycock. I couldn’t comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by “read” in this context is “read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters”; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)

This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 But what such accounts don’t tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words “up” and “tight” doesn’t mean you know the word “uptight”.) Plus, as anyone who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning. Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of knowing a lot of words; one has to get a feeling for how those words combine with other words in a multitude of different contexts.5 In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text. A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline “JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS” is not going to get very far if they don’t know the words “jacuzzi” or “phlebitis”.

The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task — never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.

The comparison with learning the usual western languages is striking. After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels — La nausée by Sartre, Voltaire’s Candide, L’étranger by Camus — plus countless newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc. It was a lot of work but fairly painless; all I really needed was a good dictionary and a battered French grammar book I got at a garage sale.

This kind of “sink or swim” approach just doesn’t work in Chinese. At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn’t yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn’t read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People’s Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. Someone at that time suggested I read The Dream of the Red Chamber and gave me a nice three-volume edition. I just have to laugh. It still sits on my shelf like a fat, smug Buddha, only the first twenty or so pages filled with scribbled definitions and question marks, the rest crisp and virgin. After six years of studying Chinese, I’m still not at a level where I can actually read it without an English translation to consult. (By “read it”, I mean, of course, “read it for pleasure”. I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and a dictionary in my hand, I could get through it.) Simply diving into the vast pool of Chinese in the beginning is not only foolhardy, it can even be counterproductive. As George Kennedy writes, “The difficulty of memorizing a Chinese ideograph as compared with the difficulty of learning a new word in a European language, is such that a rigid economy of mental effort is imperative.”6 This is, if anything, an understatement. With the risk of drowning so great, the student is better advised to spend more time in the shallow end treading water before heading toward the deep end.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, another ridiculous aspect of the Chinese writing system is that there are two (mercifully overlapping) sets of characters: the traditional characters still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the simplified characters adopted by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Any foreign student of Chinese is more or less forced to become familiar with both sets, since they are routinely exposed to textbooks and materials from both Chinas. This linguistic camel’s-back-breaking straw puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese, who at this point would gladly trade places with Sisyphus. But since Chinese people themselves are never equally proficient in both simplified and complex characters, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in eventually concentrating on one set to the partial exclusion the other. In fact, there is absolutely no shame in giving up Chinese altogether, when you come right down to it.

2. Because the language doesn’t have the common sense to use an alphabet.

To further explain why the Chinese writing system is so hard in this respect, it might be a good idea to spell out (no pun intended) why that of English is so easy. Imagine the kind of task faced by the average Chinese adult who decides to study English. What skills are needed to master the writing system? That’s easy: 26 letters. (In upper and lower case, of course, plus script and a few variant forms. And throw in some quote marks, apostrophes, dashes, parentheses, etc. — all things the Chinese use in their own writing system.) And how are these letters written? From left to right, horizontally, across the page, with spaces to indicate word boundaries. Forgetting for a moment the problem of spelling and actually making words out of these letters, how long does it take this Chinese learner of English to master the various components of the English writing system? Maybe a day or two.

Now consider the American undergraduate who decides to study Chinese. What does it take for this person to master the Chinese writing system? There is nothing that corresponds to an alphabet, though there are recurring components that make up the characters. How many such components are there? Don’t ask. As with all such questions about Chinese, the answer is very messy and unsatisfying. It depends on how you define “component” (strokes? radicals?), plus a lot of other tedious details. Suffice it to say, the number is quite large, vastly more than the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. And how are these components combined to form characters? Well, you name it — components to the left of other components, to the right of other components, on top of other components, surrounding other components, inside of other components — almost anything is possible. And in the process of making these spatial accommodations, these components get flattened, stretched, squashed, shortened, and distorted in order to fit in the uniform square space that all characters are supposed to fit into. In other words, the components of Chinese characters are arrayed in two dimensions, rather than in the neat one-dimensional rows of alphabetic writing.

Okay, so ignoring for the moment the question of elegance, how long does it take a Westerner to learn the Chinese writing system so that when confronted with any new character they at least know how to move the pen around in order to produce a reasonable facsimile of that character? Again, hard to say, but I would estimate that it takes the average learner several months of hard work to get the basics down. Maybe a year or more if they’re a klutz who was never very good in art class. Meanwhile, their Chinese counterpart learning English has zoomed ahead to learn cursive script, with time left over to read Moby Dick, or at least Strunk & White.

This is not exactly big news, I know; the alphabet really is a breeze to learn. Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues’ gallery of hard-to-learn languages.

3. Because the writing system just ain’t very phonetic.

So much for the physical process of writing the characters themselves. What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters? Again, a comparison of English and Chinese is instructive. Suppose a Chinese person has just the previous day learned the English word “president”, and now wants to write it from memory. How to start? Anyone with a year or two of English experience is going to have a host of clues and spelling rules-of-thumb, albeit imperfect ones, to help them along. The word really couldn’t start with anything but “pr”, and after that a little guesswork aided by visual memory (“Could a ‘z’ be in there? That’s an unusual letter, I would have noticed it, I think. Must be an ‘s’…”) should produce something close to the target. Not every foreigner (or native speaker for that matter) has noted or internalized the various flawed spelling heuristics of English, of course, but they are at least there to be utilized.

Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for “president” (总统 zǒngtǒng ) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are. You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won’t give you a clue as to how the character is to be written. After you learn a few more characters and get hip to a few more phonetic components, you can do a bit better. (“Zǒng 总 is a phonetic component in some other character, right?…Song? Zeng? Oh yeah, cong 总 as in cōngmíng 聪明.”) Of course, the phonetic aspect of some characters is more obvious than that of others, but many characters, including some of the most high-frequency ones, give no clue at all as to their pronunciation.

All of this is to say that Chinese is just not very phonetic when compared to English. (English, in turn, is less phonetic than a language like German or Spanish, but Chinese isn’t even in the same ballpark.) It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range from 25% (Zhao Yuanren)7 to around 66% (DeFrancis),8 though the latter estimate assumes more knowledge of phonetic components than most learners are likely to have. One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it. Furthermore, this phonetic aspect of the language doesn’t really become very useful until you’ve learned a few hundred characters, and even when you’ve learned two thousand, the feeble phoneticity of Chinese will never provide you with the constant memory prod that the phonetic quality of English does.

Which means that often you just completely forget how to write a character. Period. If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical, and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you’re just sunk. And you’re sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact same difficulty you experience every day.

This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like “tin can”, “knee”, “screwdriver”, “snap” (as in “to snap one’s fingers”), “elbow”, “ginger”, “cushion”, “firecracker”, and so on. And when I say “forget”, I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like “knee” or “tin can”? Or even a rarely-seen word like “scabbard” or “ragamuffin”? I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether “abracadabra” is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on “rhinoceros”, but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.

As one mundane example of the advantages of a phonetic writing system, here is one kind of linguistic situation I encountered constantly while I was in France. (Again I use French as my canonical example of an “easy” foreign language.) I wake up one morning in Paris and turn on the radio. An ad comes on, and I hear the word “amortisseur” several times. “What’s an amortisseur?” I think to myself, but as I am in a hurry to make an appointment, I forget to look the word up in my haste to leave the apartment. A few hours later I’m walking down the street, and I read, on a sign, the word “AMORTISSEUR” — the word I heard earlier this morning. Beneath the word on the sign is a picture of a shock absorber. Aha! So “amortisseur” means “shock absorber”. And voila! I’ve learned a new word, quickly and painlessly, all because the sound I construct when reading the word is the same as the sound in my head from the radio this morning — one reinforces the other. Throughout the next week I see the word again several times, and each time I can reconstruct the sound by simply reading the word phonetically — “a-mor-tis-seur“. Before long I can retrieve the word easily, use it in conversation, or write it in a letter to a friend. And the process of learning a foreign language begins to seem less daunting.

When I first went to Taiwan for a few months, the situation was quite different. I was awash in a sea of characters that were all visually interesting but phonetically mute. I carried around a little dictionary to look up unfamiliar characters in, but it’s almost impossible to look up a character in a Chinese dictionary while walking along a crowded street (more on dictionary look-up later), and so I didn’t get nearly as much phonetic reinforcement as I got in France. In Taiwan I could pass a shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and never know how to pronounce any of the characters unless I first look them up. And even then, the next time I pass the shop I might have to look the characters up again. And again, and again. The reinforcement does not come naturally and easily.

4. Because you can’t cheat by using cognates.

I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up out of curiosity. “Hmm,” I thought to myself. “I’ve never studied Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand.” At random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186 people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.

What was going on here? Why was this “foreign” language so transparent? The reason was obvious: cognates — those helpful words that are just English words with a little foreign make-up.9 I could read the article because most of the operative words were basically English: aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica, emergencia, etc. Recognizing these words as just English words in disguise is about as difficult as noticing that Superman is really Clark Kent without his glasses. That these quasi-English words are easier to learn than Chinese characters (which might as well be quasi-Martian) goes without saying.

Imagine you are a diabetic, and you find yourself in Spain about to go into insulin shock. You can rush into a doctor’s office, and, with a minimum of Spanish and a couple of pieces of guesswork (“diabetes” is just “diabetes” and “insulin” is “insulina“, it turns out), you’re saved. In China you’d be a goner for sure, unless you happen to have a dictionary with you, and even then you would probably pass out while frantically looking for the first character in the word for insulin. Which brings me to the next reason why Chinese is so hard.

5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.

Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid, time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the equivalent. I’d say it took me a good year before I could reliably find in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can’t find at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.

Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland, dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ (special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries… on and on. An exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave one’s desk “strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a battlefield.”10

For looking up unfamiliar characters there is another method called the four-corner system. This method is very fast — rumored to be, in principle, about as fast as alphabetic look-up (though I haven’t met anyone yet who can hit the winning number each time on the first try). Unfortunately, learning this method takes about as much time and practice as learning the Dewey decimal system. Plus you are then at the mercy of the few dictionaries that are arranged according to the numbering scheme of the four-corner system. Those who have mastered this system usually swear by it. The rest of us just swear.

Another problem with looking up words in the dictionary has to do with the nature of written Chinese. In most languages it’s pretty obvious where the word boundaries lie — there are spaces between the words. If you don’t know the word in question, it’s usually fairly clear what you should look up. (What actually constitutes a word is a very subtle issue, of course, but for my purposes here, what I’m saying is basically correct.) In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it’s often trial and error to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:

FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR ‘S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY, A ONE MAN SHOW CASE THAT WAS HIS FIRST RUN A WAY BROAD WAY BOX OFFICE SMASH HIT. “THE FIRST A MEND MENT IS AT IS SUE” HE PRO CLAIM ED. “FOR A CENS OR OR AN EDIT OR TO EDIT OR OTHER WISE BLUE PENCIL QUESTION ABLE DIA LOG JUST TO KOW TOW TO RIGHT WING BORN AGAIN BIBLE THUMP ING FRUIT CAKE S IS A DOWN RIGHT DIS GRACE.”

Imagine how this difference would compound the dictionary look-up difficulties of a non-native speaker of English. The passage is pretty trivial for us to understand, but then we already know English. For them it would often be hard to tell where the word boundaries were supposed to be. So it is, too, with someone trying to learn Chinese.

6. Then there’s classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you’ll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you’re sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure.

Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It’s truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging.

“Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?” You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible “grass-style” calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.

“Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you what it says,” you stammer. “I think it’s about a phoenix or something.”

“Oh, I thought you knew Chinese,” says your friend, returning to their menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads that say things like: “Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”

In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming the English channel in a straitjacket.

7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.

Well, perhaps that’s too harsh. But it is true that there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or — even worse — by a committee of linguists. It is, of course, a very tricky task to devise a romanization method; some are better than others, but all involve plenty of counterintuitive spellings.11 And if you’re serious about a career in Chinese, you’ll have to grapple with at least four or five of them, not including the bopomofu phonetic symbols used in Taiwan. There are probably a dozen or more romanization schemes out there somewhere, most of them mercifully obscure and rightfully ignored. There is a standing joke among sinologists that one of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.

8. Because tonal languages are weird.

Okay, that’s very Anglo-centric, I know it. But I have to mention this problem because it’s one of the most common complaints about learning Chinese, and it’s one of the aspects of the language that westerners are notoriously bad at. Every person who tackles Chinese at first has a little trouble believing this aspect of the language. How is it possible that shùxué means “mathematics” while shūxuě means “blood transfusion”, or that guòjiǎng means “you flatter me” while guǒjiàng means “fruit paste”?

By itself, this property of Chinese would be hard enough; it means that, for us non-native speakers, there is this extra, seemingly irrelevant aspect of the sound of a word that you must memorize along with the vowels and consonants. But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed — when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like “Hey, that’s my water glass you’re drinking out of!”, and you follow your intonational instincts — that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for “my” — you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood.

Intonation and stress habits are incredibly ingrained and second-nature. With non-tonal languages you can basically import, mutatis mutandis, your habitual ways of emphasizing, negating, stressing, and questioning. The results may be somewhat non-native but usually understandable. Not so with Chinese, where your intonational contours must always obey the tonal constraints of the specific words you’ve chosen. Chinese speakers, of course, can express all of the intonational subtleties available in non-tonal languages — it’s just that they do it in a way that is somewhat alien to us speakers of non-tonal languages. When you first begin using your Chinese to talk about subjects that actually matter to you, you find that it feels somewhat like trying to have a passionate argument with your hands tied behind your back — you are suddenly robbed of some vital expressive tools you hadn’t even been aware of having.

9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.

Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like “Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne,” is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history — which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that’s in an American’s head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between China and the U.S., American culture and and French culture seem about as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.

Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can’t drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn’t know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.

Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough idea of the chronology of China’s dynasties? Has the average history major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even Mozi?

What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.

Conclusion

I could go on and on, but I figure if the reader has bothered to read this far, I’m preaching to the converted, anyway. Those who have tackled other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I’m sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to consider if you’ve decided to better yourself by learning a foreign language, and you’re thinking “Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat.”

It’s pretty hard to quantify a process as complex and multi-faceted as language-learning, but one simple metric is to simply estimate the time it takes to master the requisite language-learning skills. When you consider all the above-mentioned things a learner of Chinese has to acquire — ability to use a dictionary, familiarity with two or three romanization methods, a grasp of principles involved in writing characters (both simplified and traditional) — it adds up to an awful lot of down time while one is “learning to learn” Chinese.

How much harder is Chinese? Again, I’ll use French as my canonical “easy language”. This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.

One could perhaps view learning languages as being similar to learning musical instruments. Despite the esoteric glories of the harmonica literature, it’s probably safe to say that the piano is a lot harder and more time-consuming to learn. To extend the analogy, there is also the fact that we are all virtuosos on at least one “instrument” (namely, our native language), and learning instruments from the same family is easier than embarking on a completely different instrument. A Spanish person learning Portuguese is comparable to a violinist taking up the viola, whereas an American learning Chinese is more like a rock guitarist trying to learn to play an elaborate 30-stop three-manual pipe organ.

Someone once said that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility”. I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.

There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach’s uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, “But how are they able to perform such difficult music?”

“Shh — not so loud!” says the director, “If you don’t tell them it’s difficult, they never know.”