Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It really is incredibly hard to learn [Why I don't learn Chinese - 16]

I was sent a link recently to this excellent essay (written more than 20 years ago, it would seem), Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, by David Moser, an academic Sinologist and long-time Beijing resident. It is a pretty exhaustive account of why Chinese is such a uniquely difficult language to learn (for non-East Asians, particularly; but, in fact, for everyone, even the Chinese themselves).

In this occasional series, I mostly confine myself to a more personal response to the challenge of learning Chinese - pondering my particular learning handicaps, my lack of emotional engagement with the language, my doubts about its practical utility (even for someone living in China - and certainly for anyone living anywhere else!), and so on. I haven't often attempted to address the qualities of the language itself that make it so dauntingly difficult to learn. I suppose I don't really need to; Moser has had the last word on that. [His bibliography includes a link to an article by another eminent Sinologist, Victor Mair, on the near-impossibility of using a Chinese dictionary.]

Moser warns us:
"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. [My emphasis] Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed."

So, you see, it's not just me.

Of course, Moser may have modified his view somewhat in the interim - now that he has, I'm sure, attained a much higher level of mastery in the language than back when he was a struggling graduate student. And he was clearly being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek when he observed a few lines later in the essay:
"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."

Nevertheless, beneath the overlay of humorous exaggeration, I think his argument is basically earnest and accurate. Chinese is, for all sorts of reasons, much, much harder to learn than almost any other language. Only dedicated translators and academics can realistically expect to ever achieve a reasonably high level of functioning in it. And, in order to do that, they must be prepared to give up many hundreds - nay, probably many, many thousands - of hours of soul-crushing effort to study and practice.

If mastering Chinese is not to be one of the central aims of your life, is it worth bothering with it at all?

Well, that's what this series of mine is about. I haven't yet found any convincing argument that it is worth bothering with - but  I remain open to suggestions on the point.


JES said...

I have a nephew who's been studying Chinese recreationally (I guess you could say) for years. This year, he may actually get his long-standing wish for a posting to the country; this reminds me that I need to refer him to the 'ville for a skeptical insider's view.

Froog said...

He'll probably hate me.

People who've undergone years of pain to acquire a basic proficiency in the language almost invariably do hate people who can't be bothered with it (and demonstrate that it is no longer that necessary here).