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dmoser

Characters are objectively harder, even for Chinese

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Quest
Why does 玫瑰花 mean rose? Why does 蚱蜢 mean grasshopper? Why does "throw money" mean "to invest"? Why does "silver line" mean bank? I know these are words most people already know, but they are examples of words whose meaning is not obvious from the characters they contain.

玫瑰花 - you can guess immediately it's a flower called“枚鬼”.

蚱蜢 - you can guess it's a bug called 乍 孟

投资 - put assets/money in.

银行 - 银 is money, 行 is store/office

very intuitive, and there's so much clue there to help you remember if you've mastered the characters.

In English you could probably only discern the meaning from grasshopper.

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Quest
Chinese characters are a pain in the arse. What a waste of my youth, time that could be spent doing something else--like learning and nurturing creativity. Add that to the fact there's no spacing; and foreign words are rendered from an incredibly large and rather arbitrary set of characters and mixed right into the regular text (and trying to memorize the arbitrary conventions). It is almost impossible trying to skim through text that have a lot of foreign proper names rendered in Chinese.

First of all, learning your own culture should never be considered a waste of your youth. Second of all, are you any less creative right now than if you were taught Pinyin only? More free time only makes most people lazier. Has no spacing ever been a trouble to you? I can't believe that. Foreign words rendered in any language is hard to read, period. It is impossible to skim Chinese names rendered in English and remember what names have been mentioned.

The muddy distinction between ci and zi in Mandarin, also explains why the majority of Chinese have very poor expressivity in writing without resorting to chengyu and idioms.

Chinese express themselves just fine in writing, chengyu and idioms add flavors. Why do you need to distinguish ci from zi? Do you not know which words are ci and which are zi? How does being able to distinguish them help you express your ideas in writings?

I rarely see original expressive sentences in Chinese that test the boundaries of acceptable usages and enrich Chinese grammar.

New words and slangs are constantly being created each generation.

Chinese can probably only tell me about 的、地、得 if I asked about Chinese grammar on the spot (and the majority of Chinese disregard 地 anyway)

Well I am one exception. Moreover, how does that make Chinese impossibly hard? As far as I know, it is officially accepted that 的 and 地 are interchangeable, and few people mix 得 with the other two. Once I asked a native English speaker when to use "the" and when to pronounce it as "thee", she couldn't tell me. Every language has its fuzzy spots.

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Quest

I would agree that Chinese is hard for a foreigner, but forgetting how to write a character once in a while does not make it hard for Chinese natives, especially now there's Pinyin to help.

Chinese might have made some simple words hard, but it also made hard words simple.

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dmoser

Quest says:

________________________________________________________

I would agree that Chinese is hard for a foreigner, but forgetting how to write a character once in a while does not make it hard for Chinese natives, especially now there's Pinyin to help.

Chinese might have made some simple words hard, but it also made hard words simple.

___________________________________________________________

"Now that there is pinyin to help" is precisely the problem. Pinyin is a phonetic, alphabetic system, and the fact that it must be called on for "help" merely illustrates the difficulty and problem with Chinese characters. Chinese children must learn two orthographic systems in order to represent their native language, one alphabetic, the other character-based, and this represents an enormous burden and time requirement that their alphabetic cousins in the West do not have to deal with. The added time needed to master the writing system is not negligible. It is many years of added effort, time that could be spent on other tasks. And the subsequent mastery does not achieve alphabetic levels. It is not a matter of "forgetting how to write a character once in a while". but forgetting how to write characters all the time. I work at CCTV in Beijing, and almost every day I witness well-educated Chinese people halting, faltering, or asking their colleagues how to write a character for a common word. Yesterday it was the word "pillow", zhentou. And the woman in question is a graduate of Beijing Normal University. She simply could not retrieve the components sufficiently to get the character on paper. One simply does not see forgetting at this level with well-educated alphabetic script users. Misspelling "parallel" is not to be equated with totally forgetting how to write "pillow". These are not cherry-picked examples. The problem is pervasive. The other day my Chinese wife temporarily forgot how to write one of the characters in her own mother's name. She eventually remembered, but this sheer fact is mildly incredible, and is virtually inconceivable in alphabetic scripts. Chinese people don't, on the whole, recognize the extent of the problem because they (1) have learned to deal with the problem and (2) don't often have extensive enough experience with alphabetic systems to become acutely aware of how much more difficult Chinese characters are. Anyway, we mustn't lose sight of the crucial issue here. Spelling rules are difficult for Chinese to master, just as character shapes are hard for Westerners. That's not the issue. The problem is that Chinese characters, as a system, are harder for native Chinese speakers to learn, order, manipulate and retain than the alphabet and spelling rules are for native speakers of English and other languages that employ the alphabet. It's simply easier to apply a small number of rules than to recall a large number of arbitrary shapes.

As for the second point, this is indeed true. Chinese is indeed more semantically "transparent" than English, due to the fact that characters are by and large morphemes. Chinese is morphologically more evident, more transparent. So that fuke 妇科 is probably more immediately understandable than "gynecology". And this probably does confer some advantage when kids (or struggling foreigners) are acquiring new vocabulary. But note that this is a fact about the language/spoken language, NOT the writing system. It would be equally true if Chinese were written in pinyin. Very little advantage is conferred by the use of characters to represent the morphemes. And even this advantage must be weighed against the awesome task of acquiring five or six thousand characters.

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ala
玫瑰花 - you can guess immediately it's a flower called“枚鬼”.

蚱蜢 - you can guess it's a bug called 乍 孟

投资 - put assets/money in.

银行 - 银 is money, 行 is store/office

very intuitive, and there's so much clue there to help you remember if you've mastered the characters.

In English you could probably only discern the meaning from grasshopper.

I disagree. 投资 tells me as much as the English word "Invest", notice the morphemes in English In and Vest (to clothe, equip, endow). 投 means toss in, throw, select.

The English word bank is a single morpheme, and thus you can't use the two-morpheme Chinese word as comparison. It is derived from the word bench referring to the "moneychanger's table." Forgetting what "bank" means in English is like forgetting what 行 is in addition to not recognizing 银行. In this case, the Chinese characters give me little phonetic clue, while the English I could try to do hooked-on-phonics and get it. You can't qualify your statements with "if you've mastered the characters," then "there's so much clue there to help you remember." It's like saying if you know all your English roots, monosyllable words, and their spelling patterns, it will give you a huge boost in memorizing longer and more complex words. No duh. But English orthography is still easier because even its roots provide ample phonetic information.

One is also incapable of exactly knowing what 银行 is until told. One could assume that it referred to the financial business or profession. 行 means line, way, walk, line of profession, firm. To someone who has no idea what 银行 is, nor has ever heard the expression, 银行 might as well mean the Milky Way (银河 btw).

English orthography to me is very powerful in containing semantics, not nearly as stunted as you portray, and it does this far more efficiently than Chinese.

About flowers, that has more to do with the LANGUAGE than the script. In Chinese -hua1 is added to flower names, not because of the script, but because that is how the language works and a reflection of Chinese culture. One can say the same about suicide, pesticide, homocide, infanticide, matricide, patricide, regicide, fratricide, etc. Or homonym, acronym, pseudonym. Vietnamese speakers can probably help me here too.

I stress again, zi and ci distinction needs to be made in Chinese. Vernacular Chinese operates in a ci environment.

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Ian_Lee

I do not agree what Chinese education lacks is grammar education. My kid never learns English grammar in school in US.

In fact, the problem with Chinese learning English is the over-emphasis on grammar at the beginning.

I also think the simultaneous dual learning of characters and hanyu pinyin is too cumbersome for grade school kids.

Maybe Chinese educational systme should modify its approach.

In HK. the grade school kids first learn characters with Cantonese -- the dialect that they speak at home -- then in Grade 5 or 6 after they grasp hundreds of characters and is able to write short sentences -- then Mandarin class is taught on instruction in hanyu pinyin.

For many non-native Mandarin speakers in Mainland, Mandarin with hanyu pinyin as well as English learnt simultaneously is like demanding a 9-yr old kid to learn three foreign languages at the same time.

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ala
I do not agree what Chinese education lacks is grammar education. My kid never learns English grammar in school in US.

English grammar is most certainly taught in the US. The predicate, gerund, subjunctive mood, passive voice, the tenses, agreement, case, split constructions, dangling modifiers, faulty comparison, antecedents, paragraph and sentence structure.........

American elementary and middle school students do not read a non-interactive textbook of writings related to social and physical sciences; and then memorize characters. English grammar is far more formalized than Standard Mandarin.

I also think the simultaneous dual learning of characters and hanyu pinyin is too cumbersome for grade school kids. Maybe Chinese educational systme should modify its approach. In HK. the grade school kids first learn characters with Cantonese -- the dialect that they speak at home -- then in Grade 5 or 6 after they grasp hundreds of characters and is able to write short sentences -- then Mandarin class is taught on instruction in hanyu pinyin.

From personal experience, hanyu pinyin took me a semester to master COMPLETELY at age 6.5. It was incredibly easy. Only the lowest 2-3% of our grade could not do pinyin after 1st grade. Sure there were confusions with -n and -ng (being from a region that doesn't differentiate them), but nothing difficult about pinyin itself. I remember writing extremely expressive essays using pinyin in the first grade. What was amazingly cumbersome was the Chinese character learning that followed. Because certain essays demanded that we use characters, I would typically choose only vocabulary that I were able to write down in characters. My writing was hardly creative and instead was typically a ripoff of the reading we did, yet it got high marks because I was able to write in characters. And this continued all the way till college. Suck and spew, suck and spew.

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Ian_Lee

Ala:

As far as I recall, my kid never needed to learn and memorize every verb in its forms of infinitive, present, present continuous, past, past continuous, present perfect, past perfect, future,.....etc as I had been through hell in the primary school years in Hong Kong.

I don't know why our posters who have English as their mother tongue never complains about such drawback of alphabetic language which Chinese lack.

The tedious time invested on English grammar could easily get me acquainted with at least 300 Chinese characters.

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ala
As far as I recall' date=' my kid never needed to learn and memorize every verb in its forms of infinitive, present, present continuous, past, past continuous, present perfect, past perfect, future,.....etc as I had been through hell in the primary school years in Hong Kong.

I don't know why our posters who have English as their mother tongue never complains about such drawback of alphabetic language which Chinese lack. The tedious time invested on English grammar could easily get me acquainted with at least 300 Chinese characters. [/quote']

You are confusing language with writing script. The drawback of English as you say (the tenses, etc) are related to the fact that English has inflection, and Chinese has nearly zero inflection. An alphabetic rendering of Chinese would be equally absent of inflection.

Second, there's far more to grammar than just tenses. The fact is that Chinese has grammar, but the education system refuses to teach them in a systematic manner (besides the elementary 的、得、地). And this makes Chinese writing notoriously vague and inexpressive (without resorting to even more ambiguous idioms and cliches).

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nnt

Why does 玫瑰花 mean rose? Why does 蚱蜢 mean grasshopper? Why does "throw money" mean "to invest"? Why does "silver line" mean bank?

I would say: it's just as difficult (or as easy) to explain what kind of flower 玫瑰花 is, or "rose". If I don't have a picture to point at and say "this is a ..." (玫瑰花 or "rose"), it would be just as difficult. It's the same difficulty (or easinesss) for 投资 / "to invest" or 银行 / "bank" or 蚱蜢 / "grasshopper".

The difference does not lie in this kind of question, but as dmoser said:

The difference is that for Chinese kids there are always words they simply cannot write at all until they have acquired the characters for them, whereas their western counterparts, armed with a relatively small preliminary number of spelling heuristics, can write virtually anything they can say.

and I would say: read and write instead of just write.

Instead of one question: How do you spell "rose"? : roz? rowz? lowz? etc...

you have two questions in Chinese:

How do you write "mei2 gui1 hua1"? How do you read 玫瑰花? (extra question: how do you write the characters...)

and the answers are not so easy to find...

In Vietnamese, 投资 is đầu tư and has exactly the same meaning as in Chinese.

银 is ngân as in Ngân Hà 银河, and hàng 行 as line, way, shop and 银行 is ngân hàng.

A rose in Vietnamese is just hoa hồng (chữ Nôm: 花红 ), or sometimes hoa mai khôi (chữ Nôm:花玫瑰)

妇科 is phụ khoa in Hán Việt/Vietnamese, and easy to understand (phụ as in phụ nữ 妇女 and khoa as in khoa học 科学)

蚱蜢 is read trách mãnh in Hán Việt, but the Vietnamese word for "grasshopper" is châu chấu 蛛蛛 or [虫周][虫周] in chữ Nôm. This is an example of the big leap forward latinized transcription has brought to the language: no need to know Chinese characters to write Vietnamese words!

Chinese characters are used to explain the etymology of Hán Việt terms in Vietnamese language, but often, the Vietnamese do not need to write the actual characters to understand the etymology: the phonetic latinized transcription is most often self sufficient, due to the phonetic richness of the Vietnamese language.

About flowers, that has more to do with the LANGUAGE than the script. In Chinese -hua1 is added to flower names, not because of the script, but because that is how the language works and a reflection of Chinese culture. One can say the same about suicide, pesticide, homocide, infanticide, matricide, patricide, regicide, fratricide, etc. Or homonym, acronym, pseudonym.

I completely agree with Ala on this point. Vietnamese language has adopted the same kind of structure.

For example:

"ism" words are words with chủ nghĩa 主义 endings: "socialism": 社会主义 xã hội chủ nghĩa

"ise/ize" words are words with hóa 化 endings : ex. "latinize" : 拉丁化 (Vietnamese pronunciation: lạp đinh hóa), la tinh hóa (this last one is Vietnamese, not a Hán Việt word)

For flowers, it's also hoa 花, although not the same order (see above for "rose").

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Ian_Lee
An alphabetic rendering of Chinese would be equally absent of inflection.

I seriously doubt it.

In the alphabetic languages that I know like Japanese, Korean, German, English and French, inflection is present.

If there will be an alphabetic rendering of Chinese, inflection will soon develop as the script evolves.

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pazu

smith: I think the Eng-Chi and Chi-Eng dictionaries are sold separately because they're just too heavy to carry! And the fact that a good dictionary should be quite thick, it's just inconvenient to have two books combined together. And this is why I almost gave up any dictionaries printed on paper... One more point for this, for Chinese native speaker, sometimes it's hard to check a word in a dictionary, because there're many combinations of the Chinese with similar meanings and it's hard to choose one to look up. 静謐, 安寧, 寧靜, 平靜, while all can be translated as "serene", while this may not be a very good example (because most people would choose "安寧" to check up in a dictionary), there're some other words which could be difficult to find. And this is also a reason why I kept an English and a Chinese dictionary with me while learning Vietnamese. Vietnamese has a large stock of Chinese vocabulary so sometimes it's good for me to check up the original words in Chinese, but it can be quite hard if I want to check up, say, the meaning of "roof" Should I check 房, 屋, 頂?

ala: I'm indeed quite surprised to hear a Chinese native speaker who think this is a waste of youth to learn Chinese characters, while this may be something personal of yourself, I never think like this though I agree that writing can be difficult for me too (as I've said in my previous post).

While the system can be difficult, I think there must be some compensations (as I've said in my previous post too) for people to keep it (besides national pride).

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dmoser

This quote from ala is quite interesting.

__________________________________________________________

From personal experience, hanyu pinyin took me a semester to master COMPLETELY at age 6.5. It was incredibly easy. Only the lowest 2-3% of our grade could not do pinyin after 1st grade. Sure there were confusions with -n and -ng (being from a region that doesn't differentiate them), but nothing difficult about pinyin itself. I remember writing extremely expressive essays using pinyin in the first grade. What was amazingly cumbersome was the Chinese character learning that followed. Because certain essays demanded that we use characters, I would typically choose only vocabulary that I were able to write down in characters. My writing was hardly creative and instead was typically a ripoff of the reading we did, yet it got high marks because I was able to write in characters. And this continued all the way till college.

___________________________________________________________

This confirms what I've said earlier about how the characters delay Chinese children's ability to roam freely in semantic space. With pinyin they can more or less freely write whatever they can say. Characters limit them to writing only what they can already write.

Actually, using pinyin would allow Chinese kids to soar beyond their English-speaking American counterparts, because English spelling is so irregular. Pinyin is virtually rule-invariant.

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smithsgj

Ian raises an interesting point in a way. If the 漢字 were done away with, how would the language change? Well I'm sure written Chinese would start to resemble spoken Chinese much more closely, as more two-syllable words would be needed for disambiguation.

But the idea that Chinese would evolve into an inflecting language is just silly. It's like saying it'd stop being a tonal language because most alphabetic languages are not tonal!

And Vietnamese didn't magically start inflecting everything overnight now did it?

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smithsgj

But I've *seen* pretty much free format essays by very young kids in Pinyin. The essays talked about homelife and stuff, there were one or two spelling errors but nothing serious as expected.

So at what point does the education system stop/ discourage the use of Pinyin? Surely it would make more sense to let the kids write in whichever system they are comfortable with?

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smithsgj

Pazu, why? Other language pairs manage it. The mention of the "dictionary lookup competitions" in Taiwan, above, gives it away really.

Similar meanings? Come again? If you want to know the English for 安寧 and 安寧 is a word in your native language, then look up 安寧, not some other word!

Chinese people just aren't comfortable looking things up in a dictionary.

(btw the way what are the two renditions of 嚏 cos they both look the same in my browser?)

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Quest

When I went to elementary school, we never wrote purely in pinyin, it was just there to help us pronounce new words. There were maybe a couple of pinyin story books given to us in grade 1 as "outside reading" material, and the teachers generally discouraged the use of those books. We as students also hated reading pinyin books, because we all thought it was much harder to read in pinyin.

Surely it would make more sense to let the kids write in whichever system they are comfortable with?

Pinyin is nearly not used at all outside of the classrooms; there is only one system to write Chinese.

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Quest

I don't think it is a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of native Chinese speakers old or young prefer characters over pinyin.

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dmoser
I don't think it is a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of native Chinese speakers old or young prefer characters over pinyin.

"I don't think it is a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of American eaters, old or young, prefer forks and spoons over chopsticks."

Think about what you are saying.

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nnt

If there will be an alphabetic rendering of Chinese, inflection will soon develop as the script evolves.

Vietnamese has no inflection at all, whether in chữ nôm or in latinized transcription, and will not develop it. Reversely, Japanese has inflection, although Kanji is heavily used (and Romaji very rarely by Japanese people).

look up 安寧, not some other word!

Chinese people just aren't comfortable looking things up in a dictionary.

The problem is: why aren't they comfortable? Because the searching process is not an easy one(back to the problem again).

Chinese speakers old or young prefer characters over pinyin

Whether or not they prefer characters to pinyin, they are "stuck" with characters writing because of TINA ("There is no alternative"):

- Characters is a strong China unity factor (as the first Emperor saw it), whereas Chinese Pinyin is a strong division factor.

- There is no uncertainty when you see a character, wheareas the conversion character<--> Chinese Pinyin (both ways) is hard, even for Chinese people. Just think about the input methods used to enter Chinese characters: Fuzzy Pinyin IME is an input method because of these uncertainties...

- Vietnamese latinized transcription has been successful because Vietnamese language has only three dialects (North, Center, South) which are understood without translation by any Vietnamese whatever his dialect. At China's scale, latinization is just impossible.

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