Is Chinese Really the Hardest Language On Earth?
FACT OR FICTION?
“Chinese is the hardest language in the world.”
Every time we hear that, we’ve gotta smile. The unspoken implication is: only geniuses or people who forego their social lives can lean Chinese. Well, call us crazy, but we disagree. And we’re the very examples that contradict that belief.
We each started studying Chinese as non-native speakers, each at different ages and maintaining normal student and professional lives.
Roger started studying Chinese starting in 7th grade and has consistently learned Chinese until today. In high school, Roger took Chinese from teachers from HK, Taiwan, China and focused on traditional Chinese; in college, written PRC Chinese (simplified/pinyin) was the focus of study. When he studied in Taiwan, he was forced to learn Bopomofo (zhuyinfuhao) and Taiwan’s way of alphabetical phonetic spelling (Wades-Giles) which was different from pinyin. He’s seen the teaching styles from across the board. Throughout his learning experience, there was a constant focus on written Chinese, knowing how to read characters and do sound-to-character exercises (called “tingxie” – but more on that later) to enable speaking and listening skills. Today, there still isn’t sufficient language material to train the listening and speaking part. He also believes the methods for approaching Chinese writing and sound/meaning acquisition are time-consuming and inefficient. Though Roger was lucky to be American-born Chinese – the Chinese treated him like one of their own and gave no excuses for bad Chinese – Roger still thinks and learns Chinese like a foreigner.
Manuela, on the other hand, started studying only after moving to Beijing when she was 25 years old, and that as a part-time student while holding down a full-time journalism job. She has studied in Manhattan’s Chinatown, through introductory-level Chinese-language programs in Beijing with 25 other students packed in, at Oxford as a graduate student, with private tutors all around the world and at the very best programs available in Beijing and Taipei, where students receive one-to-one attention. In other words, she’s seen every type of teaching style, methodology, approach and set of materials, and has myriad types of people who decide to learn Mandarin. As a Brazilian-American she’s gone through the fire learning Mandarin as a non-Chinese, an experience where expectations are low and a simple “ni hao” wins glowing accolades. She has come out on the other side to tell the tale and can do so fluently in Chinese, if you really want.
Our drawback might be that we’re native speakers, but we also think that’s our selling point. We learned Chinese as non-Chinese English-speaking foreigners. We have hiked the long trail of Chinese language and are now looking back at our adventure. Not from the top, because to reach the summit is impossible; but we’ve learned the tricks of the trade along the way. For example, there are bad habits to be avoided, and good habits that can be formed early on. We like to say, “anyone can teach you Chinese, but not everyone can teach you HOW to learn Chinese from YOUR perspective.” We’re not giving you a fish – we’re teaching you HOW to fish.
We’re not saying choose us over your native Chinese-speaking teacher: you do need that. We’re saying you need us PLUS your native Chinese-speaker. In China, everyone who learns English has a native English teacher; but they also have someone who learned English and is from their background to help understand the foreign language from a local approach. So why don’t we have that for learning Chinese?
Increasingly there are foreigners going back and speaking Chinese to English teachers. Dashan was in Beijing 10 years ago and speaks fluent Chinese. John DeFrancis started learning 70 years ago, and developed a dictionary that everyone loves. There are contributions to the field from foreigners. In this vein, we aim to teach you when to use this dictionary, and when not to so it doesn’t become a crutch. Know when, why, how to use each approach for a particular result. ‘How’ and ‘why’ – that’s key. Anyone can offer the ‘what’, as in, ‘what is the right word to use’. Tools already exist for that. We’re focused more on the process of the ‘how’. We’ll teach you how to learn, when, from whom, and yes, also, what to learn.
Given the subsequent success we both had in learning Chinese, even as adults, we have zero doubt that anyone, at any age, can learn Chinese if they decide to. But we knew pretty early on in the process that we had to be smart in the way we went about studying, otherwise it would consume our lives and we’d not be able to live our lives, hold down paying jobs, remain sane.
We believe the method (approach; strategy; whatever you want to call it) is just as important as the actual time and energy spent learning the language. In short, there is a systematic way to learn Mandarin Chinese, it just hasn’t been clearly explained, illustrated or fleshed out for students, from the start.
As time goes on, there will be more and more reference books and electronic tools, but there has been no one so far who has capably explained and shared the power and application of each of these tools and books in the same way we can.