“Are you fluent in Chinese yet?”

Every time I hear this question is a facepalm moment. It’s so difficult to answer because it’s always subject to how you define “fluent” and so “fluency” isn’t a yes-no sort of question. Therefore I always respond with an awkward “Urmm, well, maybe, depends what you mean…”.

I suppose I should first say how I view my level of Chinese at the moment. If there’s an idea that I want to communicate, I can do it using a fairly good range of words, although there will be times that I’m struggling to find a specialised word. For example, if I wanted to find a plumber, and didn’t know the word for ‘plumber’, I would ask if anyone knew “someone who could fix the water pipes in my house”. It communicates the idea nicely, and gets the job done, but is kind of cheating. Therefore I’d probably say that I’m confident, and I’m an expert corner-cutter, although my range of extended vocabulary probably isn’t actually that good. (‘Plumber’ is shuĭguăn’gōng 水管工, so now I know, and looking at the characters, it makes total sense: “water” + “pipe” + “work”).

This isn’t something I think is unique to Chinese. Whatever language you learn, I think that “fluency” is anything you want it to be. It might be the ability to speak simply to get a point across, to attain confidence in speaking and listening like a native, to read and understand complicated texts, or to be able to write essays or articles with native-style flair. I would say that Chinese in particular makes it hard for a foreigner to achieve this final one, since it has an insane amount of idioms and so-called “four-character expressions”, all littered with subtle nuances and historical references. It’s virtually impossible that I’ll ever be “fluent” if it’s this last definition that you mean.

I would imagine that most language learners would agree that it is a long and sometimes arduous road through tedious vocab drills and grammar exercises to finally attain some degree of confidence. Living in a totally immersive situation, like I did in China, however, creates some deceptive illusion that you can skip the ‘studying’ step, and just let it ‘all soak in’. Maybe if I were three years old, couldn’t speak any other language and didn’t live in a flat of English-speaking housemates, it could possibly have worked. Living in the country shouldn’t be seen as some magical key to fluency, and I slightly regret that I didn’t take to the whole experience more diligently.

For the moment, though, if I’m asked the “fluency” question again, I suppose I’ll have to settle for simply responding “sort of”.

Should You Teach Your Kids Chinese?


As promised, it’s been a fair while since I’ve put anything up here, thanks to the fact that, over the past month, visitors have been flooding through our doors and we have been busy taking them around Beijing, as well as heading to Shanghai and Suzhou. I’ll write up something about Shanghai / Suzhou soon (hopefully!), but I’d like this post to be about an article which a friend linked me to.

The article (which you can find here: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/robert-lane-greene/should-you-teach-your-kids-chinese) was published in the Economist’s More Intelligent Life section, and to briefly summarise its argument, the Chinese language is not close to becoming an “international” language because of one aspect: the writing system. Therefore, the fact that Westerners increasingly want to open themselves up to Chinese speakers by learning to speak their language is, according to the writer, in vain, as English will remain the world’s most dominant language for the foreseeable future. As a student of the Chinese language, it got me thinking about how internationally useful my degree will be in the coming decades, and though I completely agree with the writer’s statement about how Chinese is not close to overtaking English, I think there are a good few more factors to this.

I think that a huge barrier against Chinese becoming an international language is surely that it is contained to one country. In contrast, there is an “English-speaking world”, and English has its roots firmly buried in numerous influential countries, and therefore spreads to countries with lesser influence. While Chinese are expanding their influence around the world, as we always hear about in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, their cultural or linguistic influence does not follow. Why? Because many of these countries already have de facto “second languages” due to historical reasons – Central Asia has Russian, and Africa has English and French. Why would a Zambian miner have to learn Chinese to interact with the mine’s new owner when his country’s main operational language is English? The languages of British, French and Spanish colonists were able to catch on in the past, but the world has moved past that stage now, and the Chinese (or anyone else, for that matter) will be unable to roll up and insist on establishing their language as supreme. In this way, the need to learn English and other truly world languages is unwavering.

Returning to China itself, I think that foreigners would find it difficult to “break into” China and appreciate it with the same ease that anybody could, for example, settle in to Europe or America. There are countless aspects about China which could potentially put off foreigners from wanting to work or live in China: everything from people’s unspoken codes and customs and detailed cultural references, to the political system, lack of civil liberties and human rights record, right down to the urban problems of cities like Beijing (for example air pollution, traffic and overcrowding). Don’t get me wrong, living in Beijing is great, but ask the man on the street to choose between American/European cities and Beijing, and there is no competition. China cannot attract foreigners, such as worldwide academics or long-term business people, with the same pull that America or Europe can command. Not solely because the language is difficult, but also because China doesn’t have a highly “liveable” reputation overseas. If that can change (which is itself dependent on a host of other factors), then maybe the true shift to the east can begin, but if China cannot exert itself favourably in the minds of foreigners, I don’t think that Chinese is going to become a truly “international language” to rival English.

In terms of the Chinese language in particular, I think the tones are also particularly off-putting. In a tonal language like Chinese, the pitch of your voice when pronouncing a certain sound can alter the meaning, and represent a different character. There are four tones in Chinese, and if you say the incorrect tone to a Chinese speaker, chances are that they will have difficulty understanding. It’s quite hard work for a new learner to be confronted by not only the characters, new sounds and new concepts, but also the tones. In this respect, European languages and their absence of tones are definitely a more appealing option for prospective language-learners.

A side point I also wanted to mention is how I slightly disagree that if Chinese switches to use an alphabet, then the world will immediately be able to learn Chinese. The reason I disagree with this is that I personally find the character system to make it easier to memorise and retain vocabulary. For me, at least, the visual element of a Chinese character creates a link between the concept (i.e. the thing I want to say) and its pronunciation. Part of this is because in many characters, there are actually visual particles which act as a prompt for the pronunciation. Sounds complicated, but take the following as an example.

Note how these two characters look incredibly similar.

  • (pronounced – meaning “wave” or “ripple”)
  • (also pronounced , but this time meaning “spinach”).

They are both pronounced identically, but the 艹component on the top of the second character distinguishes the meaning from the first. 艹 is one of many “radicals” (these building block components, here counting for semantic value), which in this case means “grass”, and sometimes by extension, “plant”. And then you see that the meaning is “spinach” (thanks to the “plant” meaning of 艹), it’s pronounced , and it all makes sense. It’s also interesting that the three dots on the left-hand side of the first (and thus the second as well) is the “water” radical, which helps lend the first character’s meaning of “wave”, or “ripple”. It takes a while to get into the rhythm of learning and understanding characters this way, and I’m not denying that learning characters is a hell of a lot of work, but once you’re there, the process is sped up significantly and the target of 6,000 characters is not as much of a mammoth task as it initially seems.

The reason I went through all of this is to illustrate that if you’re just presented with , you’re presented with a huge amount of possible meanings (which are now represented by 波, 菠, 玻, 播, 拨, 剥, 饽 and others). While the character system certainly isn’t without its flaws, it provides a distinction between words which would otherwise just be represented by Roman alphabet letters. Therefore without Chinese characters, so many words which are homophones but also different concepts would merge, and the whole thing would be a lot more confusing.

I’ve just noticed what a lengthy essay I seem to have written, so I’ll keep it short. There are a few points which I think will give Chinese a hard time in becoming a world language, such as the current position of China in the world, existing prevalence of English and the tones and, of course, the difficult character system. However I disagree that the whole problem could be removed if the Roman alphabet were instated. The standing of Chinese in the order of world languages is more nuanced by other factors, and so if the authorities (of course, tied to one or two states – another distinction from the relative autonomy of English) wanted to promote Chinese internationally, they are going to have a hard time. And I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that one.