汉语怎么他妈这么难 Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

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汉语怎么他妈这么难 Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

Postby jjjd » Wed Jun 04, 2014 1:35 pm

作者:David Moser 密歇根大学汉语学习中心
翻译:jacketruc
原文:Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

看到这个标题的时候,稍微有头脑的人都会问:“对谁来说很难?”这是个很有道理的问题。的确,中国人学汉语不难。当中国的小孩儿咿呀学语的时候,他们的汉语能把父母逼疯。但过不了两年,这些小孩儿就可以用难死人的汉字写情书了。那么我说的“难”到底是什么意思?我知道这篇文章的开头有一种满是怨念的调调,所以我必须澄清一下我的意图。我是说,汉语对我来说很难。对于我这样一个母语是英语,又在学习汉语的成年人来说,淹没在汉语课本、磁带和对话练习之中,简直是自虐。当然,天下觉得汉语难的绝不止我一个人,还有千千万万学汉语的人,他们花费了生命中若干年的时间,在“用汉语筑成的长城”脚下抛头颅,洒热血。对于他们来说,汉语当然也很难。

如果我想说的只是上面这些牢骚,那文章就太空洞了。汉语当然很难,所有“外”语对于所有“外”国人都很难,对吧?某种程度上说,是这样的。但是,并不是所有外语对于所有人都一样的难,困难与否取决于你的母语。比如法国人学意大利语就比美国人快,美国人学德语也比日本人快,等等。我想说的是……汉语可能比你想要学的所有外语都难。也就是说,汉语的难,不仅是相对于我们而言的,而是绝对意义上的。哪怕是对于中国人来说,汉语也不简单。

如果你不信,可以随便找个中国人问问。大多数中国人都知道汉语很难,也许是世界上最难的语言(而且很多中国人还引以为荣,就好像纽约人生活在美国最不适合人类居住的城市里,却还美得不行一样)。作为一个中国人,仅仅是生在中国,就应该得到一块奖牌。他们一出生就站在语言的制高点上,四下一望,看见那些傻了吧叽的外国人,正咬牙切齿气喘吁吁地往上爬呢。由此他们多多少少地意识到,他们自己的语言,原来有着珠穆朗玛峰一般的高贵地位。

就像英语俗话说“这简直是希腊语”一样,全世界的其它语言里都有意思差不多的一句话,表示某种语言非常难懂。许多人都听到过这样一种说法:如果你去搜集这些句子进行比较,那么研究结果肯定是:汉语是大家公认的最不可理解的语言(比如,法语里有“这简直是汉语”,意思是说“不可理解”,其它语言也有类似的说法)。于是就又有一个问题:中国人心目中最难的语言是什么呢?巧了,在汉语中,也有一句表示“完全不懂”的话,叫做“像天书一样”。

在上面这个关于语言的小笑话中包含着一个真理:汉语难得令人心碎,难得举世无双。如果不是出于强烈的兴趣而学习汉语的话,那你一定会为学习过程的“事倍功半”而感到绝望。如果你恰恰是被汉语的无比复杂和繁难深深吸引的话,那你绝对不会失望。不管出于什么原因开始学汉语,每个学了汉语的人早晚都会问自己:“世界如此宽广,我为啥非得跟自己过不去呢?”到了这时候,那些还记得自己为什么要学汉语的人,大都会放弃这种无谓的努力,因为实在是太亏了;只有极少数人会认为“我已经搭进去很多东西了,不能半途而废”。这部分人有可能成功,因为他们对学汉语的前途完全没有概念,而且还一根筋外加死心眼儿。

OK,稍微解释过我说的“难”是什么意思之后,我们言归正传:汉语怎么他妈就这么难呢?



1.因为汉语的书写系统太荒谬了

美丽、复杂、神秘——但非常荒谬。像许多学汉语的人一样,我最初对汉语产生兴趣,就是因为它的书写系统。汉字无疑是世界上最有吸引力的文字之一。你了解汉字越多,就对它越有兴趣。学习汉字简直可以成为毕生的事业。很快你就会发现,学汉字成了每天的一项任务,自己深陷其中,你一点一滴地在汉字的海洋里搜集着,“徒劳无功想把每朵浪花记清”,却无奈地让它们在长期记忆中默默溜走。

汉字的美是毋庸置疑的,但当中国人认识到语文国际化的重要性之后,他们就越来越清晰地意识到这些表意文字某种程度上就是像被捆住的双脚。也许有些人会喜欢它的字形,但从日常应用的角度说,它确实不方便。

比方说,学习足够的汉字以达到“脱盲”的水平,就是件非常难的事。又会有人问了:“和什么相比非常难?”答案很简单,和西班牙语、希腊语、俄语、印地语等这些“常规”的语言相比,它都非常难。对于“常规”的语言,我们只要学习几十个符号就可以写出这种语言所有的内容。John DeFrancis在他的著作《汉语:现实与梦想》中说:他的一个中国同事估计一个说普通话的中国人要熟练读写三千个左右的汉字,需要七到八年的时间;而他的法国和西班牙同事估计在他们各自的国家,普通学生达到类似的水平只需要大约一半的时间。诚然,这种估计是凭感觉的,并不精确(没有说清什么叫“类似的水平”),但大体上的含义是显而易见的:汉语的书写系统是绝对的难学,比拼音文字要难得多。即使是中国孩子,在他们的头脑吸收能力最强的时候,学汉字的难度也比其它各国孩子学习各自文字的难度大。更何况是像我这样青春期已过,脑子也已经不那么灵光的学习者呢。

人人都知道,汉语很难学是因为你必须学习巨大量的汉字,这千真万确。但却有许多书籍和文章都在试图降低这方面的难度,声称“不管汉语有一万、两万五千还是五万汉字,你只需要记住大约2000汉字就可以读报纸了。”胡说八道!我学了2000汉字的时候,根本不能顺畅地读报纸。我总是每行都遇到需要查的生字,而且经常是查完之后,还是不明白文章的意思。(我只能把“读报纸”中的“读”定义为“如果读完后不查生字,就只能理解个大概意思”,否则“能读报纸”这种说法就更是瞎掰了。)

那些“记2000汉字就可以读报纸”的谣言能够广为流传,也有其原因。当你注意到汉字的频率统计的时候,就会发现报纸上95%以上的汉字都是那“2000字”当中的。但那些谣言并没有告诉你,还有大量的生词是由那些“熟字”组成的(要理解这个问题,可以设想一个英语的例子,你认识“up”,也认识“tight”,但并不等于你认识“uptight”)。此外,每个学外语的人都有这样的经历:一句话里面每个词你都懂,但就是不明白整句话的意思。这对于汉语也不例外。阅读理解并不是背了一大堆单词就可以完成的,阅读者需要对不同的文章中单词的组合方式有敏锐的感觉。此外,还有一种情况就是,或许你认识文章中95%的字,但剩下的那5%才恰恰是理解文意的重点。当不以英语为母语的人读到“JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS”这样一则标题时,如果不知道“jacuzzi(译者按:一种浴缸)”或者“phlebitis(译者按:静脉炎)”的意思,那估计也读不出什么信息来。

对于学汉语的人来说,阅读是个很敏感的问题。有多少人敢站在一群同仁面前大声朗读一篇随机抽取的文章?更何况强烈的自卑或者害怕丢脸的心理,还会让许多老师和学生都下意识地保持沉默呢?大家都设想,四年汉语学习之后,个别勤奋的学生会在孔子和鲁迅之间辗转,偶尔在查某个生僻字的时候(当然是在汉汉字典里)才能小憩一下;而另一部分人,对待学汉语的困难则更加诚实一些。前几天,有个学汉语十年以上的本科毕业生跟我说:“汉语阅读给我的研究带来了巨大的障碍,我总是得用几个小时才能看两三页书,根本没法泛读,没法节约时间。”这话要是从一个学了十年法语的人嘴里说出来,会让人觉得不可思议,但我却每天都能听到同仁们类似的抱怨(至少是在他们放松戒备的时候,也就是多喝了几听青岛啤酒之后,因为论文进度太慢而悲愤不已的时候。)

我的一个老师曾经告诉我他和同事常玩的一个游戏:从亚洲图书馆中国部的书架上随便抽一本书,然后比赛看谁能先概括出这本书的大概内容。凡是有过类似经历的人都能感觉到,仅仅概括大意也是一项非常困难的任务,更不要说带着问题去仔细阅读了。很多学生都没有能力去面对汉语文献的饕餮盛宴,在学习的最初几年里,他们只能靠讲义、课文范例等这些“罐头食品”过日子。因此,“带问题去阅读”是一件非常令人沮丧的事情。

与学习通常的西方语言相比,学汉语的不同是非常明显的。学法语一年左右,我就已经能读很多东西了。我浏览了一系列法语小说,比如萨特的,加缪的等等,还看了无数的报纸、杂志、笑话书。看这些东西“工作量”虽然不小,但并不怎么痛苦。我需要的只是一本不错的字典和一本清仓甩卖时买的旧语法书。

这种“沉浸式学习”的理论对学汉语没什么作用。学了三年汉语之后,我还是不能完整地读一部小说,简直太难了,读起来慢得令人发指。而且与付出的努力相比,读一本小说非常不值。看报纸也是一样令人恐惧的。我几乎每看十个汉字就得翻一次字典,不然什么文章也看不明白。我经常在把人民日报头版的标题全都扫视一遍之后,发现一个都没看懂。那时候有人建议我读《红楼梦》,而且还给我一套非常不错的三卷本。现在想来只觉得可笑。那套《红楼梦》至今仍然像个胖胖的、嬉皮笑脸的佛像一样坐在我的书架上,只有前二十来页被我写满了乱七八糟的解释和问号,其余的部分完好如新。学了六年汉语之后,我也还是没有达到不对照英译就能直接读《红楼梦》的水平(当然,我说的“读”是指快乐地读,如果有人用枪指着我的头再塞给我一本字典,估计我也能读得下去)。在学习伊始就一头扎进汉语文献的海洋里,不仅是愚蠢的,甚至结果可能是适得其反的。就像肯尼迪说的:“如果把记忆一个汉语象形字的难度和记忆一个欧洲某语言的生词的难度相比较,我们就会发现在学汉语时努力节约脑力是多么重要了。”这是个非常谨慎和保守和说法。一头扎进汉语海洋的学生有呛水的风险,所以我们最好先让他们在浅的地方练练踩水,再让他们往深的地方去。

如果上述这些情况还不够糟糕的话,另一个不可理喻的方面就是,汉语有两套书写系统(不幸中的万幸是,这两套系统是重叠的):一套是繁体字,现在香港和台湾还在用,另一套是简体字,是上世纪50年代开始由中国大陆政府推广的。外国学生们或多或少都会被迫熟悉这两套系统,因为他们经常会看到由这两套系统分别记录的文献。这就好像压垮骆驼的最后一根稻草,学生们本来已经不堪重负,而两套汉字系统又在他们身上增加了一份近乎荒唐的负担。不过考虑到中国人也大多不能同时精通繁简汉字,所以对于外国学生来说,最终熟悉了一个而抛弃了另一个,一点儿也不丢人。实际上,当你大体了解了汉字系统之后,就算把两套都放弃了也是可以理解的。



2.因为汉语不能套用拼音文字的规律

要进一步解释汉语的书写系统为什么这么难,我们有个不错的方法,就是考虑一下英语的书写系统为什么这么容易。想像一下,一个普通的中国成年人学习英语书写时需要完成什么任务?很简单,学习26个字母。(包括大小写字母,还可以加上手写体和其它一些变体,也可以包括引号、省略号、破折号、括号等汉字书写时用到的所有其它项目)。这些字母怎么写呢?从左到右,水平方向,跨过整页,词间空格。暂时不考虑拼写问题以及由外来字母组成的单词,那么一个中国学习者学习英语的书写系统需要多久呢?或许一天到两天。

现在来看一个打算学汉语的美国本科生,他学汉字需要多长时间?尽管汉字里有可以重复用来组字的部件,但其中没有能和字母对应的东西。那些组字的部件又有多少呢?你还是别问了。因为所有关于汉字的类似问题,答案都是云山雾罩、模棱两可。部件有多少,取决于你怎么定义“部件”(笔划?偏旁?),以及其它一些无聊的细节问题。肯定地说,部件的数量是巨大的,比26个字母多多了。下一步,这些部件是怎么组成汉字的?哼哼,凡你想得到的各种方式都可以。一个部件可以在另一个部件的上边,下边,左边,右边,外边,里边,没个准谱,怎么都行。而且,在这个空间组合的过程中,这些部件还会被抻平,拉长,压扁,缩短甚至扭曲,只为了适合所有汉字都必须遵守的“方块”造型。换句话说,拼音文字是线性排列的,但汉字是二维组合的。

好了,先不管书写美不美观的问题,要让一个外国人看到一个没见过的汉字时,至少知道先写哪一笔,这需要多长时间?也很难说,不过我估计对于一般学习者来说,废寝忘食几个月,也就学点儿皮毛。如果没什么艺术感觉,脑子又不太灵光的话,可能得一年多。有这个功夫,学英语的中国人已经开始练花体字了,而且还有业余时间可以翻翻英语写作书什么的。

字母学起来确实是小菜一碟,这一点也不新鲜。学过几年英语的中国人,经常能写一手和普通美国人没什么差别的好字。然而与之形成鲜明对照的是,极个别的美国人,很努力地练习,希望能流畅地书写汉字,但充其量也就能达到一个笨笨的三年级中国小学生的水平。就算汉语的其它方面都不难,仅仅是书写汉字一项,就已经足够将汉语推入“难学的语言”的行列了。



3.因为汉字和它的读音没什么关系

关于书写汉字的困难我们已经说了很多了,那么你又如何才能记住那么多汉字呢?我们再来对比一下英语和汉语。假设一个中国人前一天刚学过“president”这个词,现在想凭着记忆写出来,那么他从哪里下手?学过一两年英语的人一般都是各有各的高招,想各种办法,使用也许并不十分科学的拼写规则来帮助他们回想起这个词。这个词必定是以“pr”开头的,之后的任务就是我们在视觉的帮助下猜些“小迷语”了,(这个地方是“z”吗?“z”并不多见,如果有的话我应该记得,我猜大概是“s”…)这种猜测帮助我们逐渐靠近目标。并不是所有学英语的人都会注意并使用这种“探索”式的拼写法,但是,至少我们这样做是完全没有问题的。

现在设想一下你是一个汉语学习者,前一天刚刚学过“总统”这个词,今天想把它写出来。你回忆这个词的过程是什么样的?呵呵,最常见的情况就是你压根想不起来,你平常可能极少会把什么事忘得如此干净。你可以尽情地在心中默念这个词一千遍,一万遍,它的读音也不会提供任何线索,你照样想不起来怎么写。当你学了足够多的汉字并找到一点声旁的规律的时候,你可能会感觉稍稍好一点(“总”在其它汉字里常作声旁对吧?Song?Zeng?欧耶!在“聪明”的“聪”里它读cong)。确实,有些汉字的读音信息比这个例子中的要明显得多,但是包括很多最高频字在内的大量汉字,并没有提供语音上的线索。

相比较而言,汉字并不像英语单词那样在字形上反映语音(确实,英语单词反映语音的程度也没有德语或西班牙语那么高,但是汉字跟这些拼音文字相比,根本就不是一个概念)。但汉字也并不像很多外行人想的那样,完全不反映读音。虽然一个天资聪颖的初学者可能学了几个月也没觉得汉字里有什么语音线索,但它还是有表示语音的成分的。只是一种文字在多大程度上体现语音,这是个非常复杂的问题。对此,专家们的意见也并不一致,从25%到大约66%都有。以大多数学生对汉字声旁的了解程度,要从汉字中看出66%的语音线索,似乎也是不太可能的。有人可能会说,汉字与其读音的关系,就好像做爱也是一种有氧运动,客观上说是这样的,但实际应用中有氧运动并不是做爱的重点。而且,可能在你学会几百个汉字之前,汉字反映语音的这种方式对你的学习起不了什么作用;即使你学了两千汉字,字形中带有的“微弱”的语音信息,也不会像英语语音那样,能帮你长久地记住书写形式。

也就是说,你经常会完全忘记一个字怎么写,如果部件中既没有语义的线索,也没有语音的提示,你就郁闷了。其实,不论一个人的母语是不是汉语,都会遇到同样的尴尬。中国人也不是天生就能记住那些奇奇怪怪的线条的,这一点可能和我们想的不一样。让学汉语的外国学生感觉最爽的事情,就是中国人也会提笔忘字。当你看到他们也会遇到你每天都遇到的困难的时候,你会感到无比的轻松和愉悦。这是多么爽的一种感觉呀!

为此我专门搜集了一个中国人容易忘的汉字的“黑名单”(我知道这种做法挺变态的)。我遇到过不少很有文化的中国人,可他们却想不起来“罐”、“膝”、“螺”、“啃”、“肘”、“姜”、“垫”、“鞭”等汉字。我说的“想不起来”,是指他们甚至连第一笔都不记得。你可以想像一个受过良好教育的英美人完全忘记“knee”或者“tin can”怎么写吗?即使是不那么常见的词,诸如“scabbard”或者“ragamuffin”也不怎么会忘吧?我曾在一次午餐会上遇到三个北大的汉语博士,都是中国人(其中一个是香港的),恰巧我那天感冒了,想给朋友写个便条取消约会,却想不起来“打喷嚏”的“嚏”怎么写了。于是我求教于那三位汉语博士。令我很意外的是,他们三个都愣住了,没有一个人会写。你能想像三个哈佛的英语博士不会写“sneeze”吗?而这样的事情在中国并不奇怪。在书写和记忆的难度上,英语比汉语低N个数量级。不论多么生僻,多么不符合拼写规则的英语单词,说英语的人往往多少能想起点儿来,因为拼写和读音之间有一定的对应关系。人们可能记不清“abracadabra”有没有连字符,也可能写错“rhinoceros”的最后几个字母,但就算拼写最差的人,也往往能合理地写出点儿什么来。与此相反,即使是受过最好教育的中国人,也常常在写字的时候,尤其是遇到生僻字的时候显得束手无策,直接问别人怎么写。

举一个能体现拼音文字优势的很平常的例子吧,这是我在法国经常遇到的情景(我又一次以法语作为“容易”的语言的标本)。我在巴黎的时候,早上醒来打开收音机,听到一则广告里出现了几次“amortisseur”这个词。这个词什么意思?我想了一下。不过因为我急着赴约,所以没有查字典就匆忙地离开了公寓。几小时后,我正沿着大街走着,看到一个标志牌上写着“AMORTISSEUR”,也就是我早上听到的那个词。这个词下面是一张减震器的图片。哦!所以“AMORTISSEUR”是减震器。没错!我学到了一个新词,很快很轻松。这一切都是因为我读单词后拼出来的语音和我早上在收音机里听到的语音是一样的,两个读音可以互相印证。之后的一周里,我又好几次见到那个词,每次我都能看着单词,读出它的语音。不久之后我就可以很容易地记住那个词,并在对话和书写中使用它。就这样,学习外语的畏难情绪也就越来越少了。

而我第一次去台湾的时候,情况就完全不一样了。我被淹没在汉字的海洋里,那些汉字在视觉上是千姿百态的,但在语音上是“沉默寡言”的。我随身带着一个小字典,用来查不熟悉的字,但在熙熙攘攘的大街上查字典几乎不可能(大多都是后来查的),所以我也就没有获得我在法国得到的那种语音增强记忆的效果。在台湾,我或许也会经过一个印着“减震器”的广告牌,但在查字典之前,我肯定一个字也认不出来。等我再次经过那里的时候,我可能还需要再查一次字典,这样一遍又一遍,记忆的强化过程又生硬又艰难。



4.因为你无法通过同源词猜出生字的意思

我想起我努力学了三年汉语后的一次有趣的经历。一天,我碰巧在我旁边的座位上发现一张西班牙语报纸,出于好奇,我拿了起来。“嗯……”我想,“我从来没学过西班牙语,试试看我能看懂多少。”我随便选了一篇关于空难的小文章读了起来。我发现我通过猜词,一点一点了解到了文章的基本信息。空难发生在洛杉矶附近,186人遇难,无人生还。飞机在起飞后一分钟就坠毁了。黑匣子里没有任何危险提示的记录,塔台也没有发现紧急情况。那架飞机刚启用三天,也没有任何机械故障,等等等等。读完了这篇文章之后,我突然觉得非常沮丧:我完全没学过西班牙语,但学汉语已经三年了,可是读西班牙语报纸却比读汉语报纸还要流畅得多。

这到底是为什么?为什么有些外语那么“通俗易懂”?原因很简单——同源词。这些词就像是英语单词稍微化了化妆,和英语单词很接近,对阅读外语很有帮助。我能读懂那篇文章,主要是因为里面的关键词基本和英语一样。透过这些化了妆的单词看出对应的英语单词,其难度与透过眼镜看出克拉克·肯特就是超人差不多。这些“准英语”单词,学起来比汉字(准火星文字)容易太多了。

假如你是个糖尿病患者,在西班牙,马上就要胰岛素休克了,你可以冲进一家诊所,只需极少的西班牙语外加一些猜测,你就可以得救。如果在中国,估计你已经死了,除非你凑巧还带着字典。即使你有字典,可能还没查出来“胰岛素”的“胰”字,就已经昏死过去了。这也是我要说的汉语很难的下一条原因。



5.因为即使是查字典也非常复杂

学汉语过程中,最无厘头的困难之一就是:哪怕只是查个字典,你都恨不得要在秘书学校学一学期。我在台湾的时候,听说他们的初中竟然有查字典比赛。想像一下,一种语言,居然连查字典都像辩论或排球一样是一项专门技术!汉语也许不是一种“用户友好型”的语言,但汉语字典绝对是一种“用户敌对型”的字典。

拼音文字有顺序清晰的字母或者类似的东西,而要记住所有汉字的偏旁以及变体,再加上那些四不像的独体字,是一件又蠢又浪费时间的事情。这使得学习汉语的速度变得极慢,可能连学习拼音文字的十分之一都没有。我大约花了整整一年的时间才能在字典中准确地查出我遇到的生字。直到现在,我还是偶尔会被我查不着的生字卡住,有时来回翻上十分钟也还是找不到。

汉语也肯定是世界上字典最多的语言。我桌上现在堆着二十多本各式各样的字典,每种都有独特的用途。有中国大陆用的简体字典,港台用的繁体字典,还有简繁都有的字典。有用韦杰氏罗马拼音注音的,有用汉语拼音注音的,还有用其它“超现实主义”的罗马字母方案注音的。有经典汉语词典、北京方言词典、成语词典、歇后语词典、谚语词典、政治术语词典、佛教术语词典、反序词典……等等。我时常为了查一个记不住的或有疑问的词而搞得精疲力竭,桌子上的词典就像是战场上士兵的尸体一样。

查生字还有一个办法,叫做“四角号码”。这种方法很快,传说中,或者理论上,它和按音序查英语单词差不多快(虽然我没见过有谁每次都能一下就说对号码)。很不幸的是,学习这套系统所需的时间和练习,与学习杜威的十进分类法差不多。而且,按四角号码排列的字典几乎没有。熟练运用这套方法的人,都非常信赖它,像我们这样的人,就只能骂娘了。(译者按:杜威的十进分类法是在世界上影响最广泛的图书馆分类法,把书籍分为十个大类,一千个小类,非常细致复杂。它跟随人类知识发展不断修订,至今已经修订20版。)

查字典的另一个问题与汉字书写的特点有关。在大多数语言中词的界限都非常明显,每两个词中间都有空格。即使不认识某个词,你也至少清楚你应该查什么。汉语的词之间也有界限,但你需要大量的知识和敏锐的观察力才能找出这种界限。因此,查一个词经常是屡战屡败,屡败屡战。汉字的排列就好像你把英语写成下面这个样子:

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."

设想一下这种写法将给一个英语初学者带来多么大的困难。整段话都剁碎了,这还是在我们都懂英语的情况下,对于初学者,可能根本看不出来哪儿到哪儿是一个词。学汉语的时候就是这样的。



6.接下来,还有文言文的问题。

算了吧,文言文就别想了。如果你认为学了三四年汉语之后,就能像学了三四年法语的学生读懂狄德罗和伏尔泰那样轻松地读懂孔子和孟子,那你就大错特错了。确实有人能够非常流畅地阅读古汉语,但那大部分不是满头银发就是终身教授。

又很不幸的是,古汉语偏偏到处都是,尤其是在中国画和书法卷轴上。而且大多数人都认为只要学过汉语就都能看懂。当你在一个中国餐馆吃饭,有人让你翻译墙上挂着的字句时,那种感觉太糟了。

“嘿!你懂汉语,那个立轴上写的什么?”你抬头看了看,立轴上写的是文言文,而且还是狂草的,那看起来就像是个要死的人的心电图一样。

“呃……我能认识一两个字,但不知道上面到底说的什么……”你吞吞吐吐地说,“我想可能是关于凤凰之类的内容。”

“嗨!我还以为你懂汉语呢!”你的朋友一边说着一边接着看菜单了。虽然一个诚实又有学问的中国人在这时可能也只是挠挠头耸耸肩,但是丢脸的,是你。

现代汉语只是难学,古代汉语简直就是“不可能完成的任务”。有一个秘密,汉学家们不会告诉你:一段古汉语只有在你一开始就知道它说的是什么内容的情况下,你才可能读懂(译者按:谁说的?)。因为古汉语以非常简练文字记录着上千年的典故和趣闻轶事,并且一直在少数极有“资质”的书呆子之间流传,这些人在读到这些文字之前就已经非常了解它们的内容了。如果让孔子生活在今天,估计他也看不懂征婚广告上“京男房车未”是什么意思;让一个汉语还没开蒙的西方人去看文言文,恐怕还不如让孔子看现在的征婚广告呢。

公平地说,你尝试的次数越多,古汉语就越好懂。但这就和一击入洞以及游过英吉利海峡一样,全靠练了。



7.因为汉字有很多种罗马化的方案,而且都不怎么样。

这话也许太难听了,但事实如此。汉字罗马化的方案很多,而且其中多数方案的编制者,不是某委员会就是语言学家,甚至是语言学家委员会,这就更糟糕了。设计一套汉字的罗马字母方案当然是很难的,这些方案当中有的可能稍微好一点,但不管哪种都包含着违反直觉的拼写方式。如果你想在中国找个工作的话,你就必须至少会用其中四五种,这还不包括台湾的老注音字母。各种各样的罗马字母拼音方案至少有十来种,其中多数因为模糊不清而被自然淘汰了。汉学家之间一直流传着一个小笑话:汉学家走向衰老的征兆之一,就是想要提出一种罗马字母的拼音方案。



8.因为声调语言是一种很奇怪的语言

我知道这种观点是不折不扣的英语为中心的视角,但我不得不提,因为这是学汉语的人最常提到的难点之一,也是西方人最不擅长的一方面。许多西方人在刚开始学汉语的时候,甚至都不愿意相信语言还需要区别声调。Shùxué是“数学”的意思,shūxuě是“输血”的意思,guòjiǎng是“过奖”,guǒjiàng是“果酱”,这这这,这怎么可能呢?

汉语的这个特点给学习者造成了很大的困难,这意味着我们,作为汉语学习者,必须把这些本来与单词读音毫不相干的东西和元音辅音一起背下来。但真正的难点还不在这儿,当你真的用汉语开口说话的时候,你会突然发现你被捆住了手脚:如果你觉得你的语调很自然,那么声调就全错了。比如,你用最自然的语调对别人说“Hey, that's my water glass you're drinking out of!”,你肯定会给“my”的第一个字加上一个降调(译者按:也就是把“我”读成四声)。那么你的这个汉语句子肯定会变得不可理解。

语调和重音的习惯是天生的,顽固的。学习非声调语言的时候,你可以比较容易地对已有的肯定、否定、感叹和疑问语调进行一些微调,以适应一种新的语调。微调的结果可能多少还有点儿“外国味儿”,但大体上能理解。汉语可不是这样的,说汉语时,你的语调轮廓总是和声调的限制相冲突。中国人当然可以表达非声调语言中那些微妙的声调变化,因为他们每天都在用一种在我们看来非常奇异的方式说话。当你开始用汉语表达非常重要的想法时,你会感觉像是在与人激辨的时候双手被绑在了背后。你被一种交流工具限制了,而你之前毫无预感。



9.因为东方是东方,西方是西方,双方最近才开始有交流。

语言和文化是分不开的,汉语对美国人来说很难,重要原因之一是这两种文化彼此独立的时间太久了。当我们读一个法语句子,诸如“Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne”的时候,感觉就像是解密pig Latin一样(译者按:pig Latin是一种故意颠倒字母顺序而造出的黑话或者隐语,这对说英语的人来说不太难猜)。这一方面是因为印欧语系的语言有高度的相似性,另一方面是由于我们的核心概念和文化预设有着共同的源泉。我们有着共同的艺术史,共同的音乐史,乃至共同的历史。也就是说,法国人头脑中的原型意象和文化角色与美国人基本上一样。我们熟悉Rimbaud(译者按:兰波,法国诗人)就像法国人熟悉Rambo(译者按:兰勃,小说《第一滴血》中的英雄)一样。与美国和中国的区别相比较,美国文化和法国文化的区别就像水饺与煎饺一样。

和中国人交流可能就是另一回事了。你很难随口谈论狄更斯、人猿泰山、开膛手杰克(译者按:19世纪末在伦敦残忍危害五名妓女的著名凶犯,至今未破案,百年来在西方世界已经演变成为一个传奇故事)、歌德或者披头士,因为他们很难跟你有更多的交流。我有一个中国朋友,在卡夫卡的作品刚在中国出版的时候就读了他的作品,可是却不知道Santa Claus(圣诞老人)是谁。中国在近几十年与西方有了广泛的接触,但双方仍有海量知识和观念需要互相沟通。
与此相对应,除了汉学家之外,有多少美国人对中国历史上的朝代有概念?是不是随便一个历史专业的学生都了解秦始皇及其功过?有多少音乐专业的美国学生听过京剧或者认识琵琶呢?那些受过良好教育的美国人中,又有多少听说过鲁迅、巴金或者墨子?

这就说明,当美国人和中国人在一起的时候,阻碍我们交流的,不仅是语言的障碍,还有更多的文化上的阻隔。这是学习汉语非常有趣的原因之一,当然更是学汉语非常难的原因之一。



总结

关于这个话题,我还有很多东西可说。但如果你看到这儿已经烦了,那我再说下去也是徒劳。我肯定,不管学哪门外语,都会有一肚子的牢骚。但我坚持认为,对于美国人来说,学汉语比大学里其它三十来种世界主要语言的课程都要难(可能日语的难度和汉语还接近一点)。如果你想要通过学习一门外语来“完善自我”的话,那你会觉得:“咦~!汉语似乎还不赖!”

语言学习过程的错综复杂是难以量化的,但有一个公认的标准,就是掌握“学习某语言的技术”需要多长时间。算一算上面提到过的汉语学习者必须掌握的东西:查字典、学拼音、简体字、繁体字……学习“如何学汉语”,这本身就是一项艰巨的任务。

汉语比其它语言难多少?我不得不再一次把法语作为“容易的”语言进行参照。凭感觉粗略估计,在汉语的说、读、写各方面达到一定的水平,所需要的时间大约是学法语达到类似水平的三倍左右。你为了流利地使用汉语所花的时间,至少足够你熟练掌握两种西方语言。

有人把学汉语比作学乐器。且不论那些神奇秘谱之类的东西,钢琴恐怕是公认最难学,最费时的乐器了吧。再打个比方,我们每个人都是一种“乐器”的大师(这种乐器就是你的母语),那么学习同一个家族里的乐器要比学毫不沾边的乐器容易得多。西班牙人学葡萄牙语,就好像学小提琴的人学中提琴;而美国人学汉语,就好像摇滚吉它手去学30个音栓、三排键盘的管风琴(译者按:管风琴有大有小,复杂程度不同,音栓和键盘越多,演奏时操作越复杂)。

有人说学汉语是“关于谦逊的五年课程”。我原来以为这句话的意思是,学了五年之后,你可以熟练地掌握汉语,并且同时学会了谦逊。然而,现在我已经学了六年汉语了,总结一下,这句话的意思是,学了五年之后,你的汉语仍然很烂,但你至少能大体学会谦逊。

有一个令人惊异的事实,那就是中国人对汉语的掌握相当地好。就好像是小学生组成的巴洛克乐团演唱巴赫的康塔塔。台下的观众一边赞叹着这么小的孩子却能如此完美地演绎如此偏难险怪的作品,一边问指挥:“他们是怎么完成这么难的作品的呢?”

“嘘——小点儿声!”指挥说,“如果你不告诉他们难,他们永远都不知道。”
Last edited by jjjd on Wed Jun 04, 2014 1:55 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: 汉语怎么他妈这么难

Postby jjjd » Wed Jun 04, 2014 1:37 pm

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.

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."
Bibliography
(A longer version of this paper is available through CRCC, Indiana University, 510 N. Fess, Bloomington, IN, 47408.)
Chen, Heqin, (1928)"Yutiwen yingyong zihui" [Characters used in vernacular literature], Shanghai.
DeFrancis, John (1966) "Why Johnny Can't Read Chinese", Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, Vol. 1, No. 1, Feb. 1966, pp. 1-20.
DeFrancis, John (1984) The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
DeFrancis, John (1989) Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Kennedy, George (1964) "A Minimum Vocabulary in Modern Chinese", in Selected Works of George Kennedy, Tien-yi Li (ed.), New Haven: Far Eastern Publications.
Mair, Victor (1986) "The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects", Sino-Platonic Papers, No. 1, February, 1986 (Dept. of Oriental Studies, University of Pennsylvania).
Zhao, Yuanren, (1972) Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics, Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Notes
I am speaking of the writing system here, but the difficulty of the writing system has such a pervasive effect on literacy and general language mastery that I think the statement as a whole is still valid. back
John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984, p.153. Most of the issues in this paper are dealt with at length and with great clarity in both this book and in his Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989. back
Incidentally, I'm aware that much of what I've said above applies to Japanese as well, but it seems clear that the burden placed on a learner of Japanese is much lighter because (a) the number of Chinese characters used in Japanese is "only" about 2,000 -- fewer by a factor of two or three compared to the number needed by the average literate Chinese reader; and (b) the Japanese have phonetic syllabaries (the hiragana and katakana characters), which are nearly 100% phonetically reliable and are in many ways easier to master than chaotic English orthography is. back
See, for ex., Chen Heqin, "Yutiwen yingyong zihui" [Characters used in vernacular literature], Shanghai, 1928. back
John DeFrancis deals with this issue, among other places, in "Why Johnny Can't Read Chinese", Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, Vol. 1, No. 1, Feb. 1966, pp. 1-20. back
George Kennedy, "A Minimum Vocabulary in Modern Chinese", in Selected Works of George Kennedy, Tien-yi Li (ed.), New Haven, 1964, p. 8. back
Zhao Yuanren, Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics, Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976, p. 92. back
John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, p. 109. back
Charles Hockett reminds me that many of my examples are really instances of loan words, not cognates, but rather than take up space dealing with the issue, I will blur the distinction a bit here. There are phonetic loan words from English into Chinese, of course, but they are scarce curiosities rather than plentiful semantic moorings. back
A phrase taken from an article by Victor Mair with the deceptively boring title " The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects" (Sino-Platonic Papers, No. 1, February, 1986, Dept. of Oriental Studies, University of Pennsylvania). Mair includes a rather hilarious but realistic account of the tortuous steeplechase of looking up a low-frequency lexical item in his arsenal of Chinese dictionaries. back
I have noticed from time to time that the romanization method first used tends to influence one's accent in Chinese. It seems to me a Chinese person with a very keen ear could distinguish Americans speaking, say, Wade-Giles-accented Chinese from pinyin-accented Chinese. back
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Re: 汉语怎么他妈这么难 Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

Postby jjjd » Wed Jun 04, 2014 1:39 pm

A very interesting article, though I don't agree with the author.
Chinese is easy cuz the grammar is quite simple.
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