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Quest

How difficult is learning Chinese characters?

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Quest

[edit]this topic has been split from the Characters vs Phonetic writing systems topic - Roddy[/edit]

as a native speaker learning chinese characters, i never found it difficult. the elementary school years passed so quickly I never noticed I had to memorize anything. Also, learning new words in chinese is much easier than learning new words in english, because you just put the same basic characters together. there are too many fangyans in china, a unified phonetic writing system is probably unrealistic, and it works against the integrity of the nation. It may be difficult for foreign learners of chinese, but I never heard any native chinese complain about the characters being too difficult to learn, and I think that's what matters.

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Guest Anonymous
as a native speaker learning chinese characters, i never found it difficult. the elementary school years passed so quickly I never noticed I had to memorize anything. Also, learning new words in chinese is much easier than learning new words in english, because you just put the same basic characters together. there are too many fangyans in china, a unified phonetic writing system is probably unrealistic, and it works against the integrity of the nation. It may be difficult for foreign learners of chinese, but I never heard any native chinese complain about the characters being too difficult to learn, and I think that's what matters.

Well said. I don't believe any language in the world, besides Esparanto, was designed to be easy for adult foreigners to learn. If the language works well for the native speakers, that's what really matters. Besides, it isn't like Chinese doesn't have any pheontic script at all (Zhuyin Fuhao and Hanyu Pinyin).

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Haizi
as a native speaker learning chinese characters' date=' i never found it difficult. the elementary school years passed so quickly I never noticed I had to memorize anything. Also, learning new words in chinese is much easier than learning new words in english, because you just put the same basic characters together. there are too many fangyans in china, a unified phonetic writing system is probably unrealistic, and it works against the integrity of the nation. It may be difficult for foreign learners of chinese, but I never heard any native chinese complain about the characters being too difficult to learn, and I think that's what matters.[/quote']

Well said. I don't believe any language in the world, besides Esparanto, was designed to be easy for adult foreigners to learn. If the language works well for the native speakers, that's what really matters. Besides, it isn't like Chinese doesn't have any pheontic script at all (Zhuyin Fuhao and Hanyu Pinyin).

Oh, come on. Learning Chinese characters is DIFFICULT. You don't remember how we learned thousands of Chinese characters by copying them again and again in our childhood? It was so easy for our teachers to say: "Today's homework is to copy each of the new words 20 times." I doubt students in English-speaking countries need to do so much copying exercises. I don't know any other effective ways to learn Chinese characters than going through just a lots of repetitions. Telling stories to teach and learn Chinese characters? Whom are we kidding? How many stories can you tell about the thousands of charcters that you know? A few dozens or a few thousands?

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Guest Anonymous
Oh, come on. Learning Chinese characters is DIFFICULT.

Trust me, for those who don't speak a language that's based on Roman letters, it's extremely difficult to acquire new English vocabulary. When I first came to the United States, I was given a list of 10 English words a day and had to memorize the meaning, how to use it in a sentence, pronounciation, and most difficult of all, spelling, since English words aren't spelled the way it sounds, most of the time, unlike other European languages such as Spanish.

Whether something is easy or difficult all depends on what the individual is used to. I was brought up learning characters so even after spending 13 years in the U.S., I can still acquire new characters quite easily. However, an English speaker could find it extremely difficult to do the same.

All I can say is, if you find learning characters, or Chinese in general, so difficult, then go learn something else, instead of suggesting changing the writing system and the base of a whole culture and society to accomdate you. When I was struggling memorize English vocabularies, I never thought to change the English system where everything is spelled the way it sounds, although that would be nice.

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Haizi
Oh' date=' come on. Learning Chinese characters is DIFFICULT.[/quote']

Trust me, for those who don't speak a language that's based on Roman letters, it's extremely difficult to acquire new English vocabulary. When I first came to the United States, I was given a list of 10 English words a day and had to memorize the meaning, how to use it in a sentence, pronounciation, and most difficult of all, spelling, since English words aren't spelled the way it sounds, most of the time, unlike other European languages such as Spanish.

I don't see how Chinese is any easier in all the respects you have mentioned. Admittedly, English spelling is not total regular. Yet you cannot deny that, unlike Chinese, it is still a phonetically based system. Chinese is markedly worse in this regard.

Anyway, we are debating about the written form of Chinese language. Natively English speakers acquire their vocabulary phonetically first. Learn to spell the words they already understand and know how to use is much easier than you, a non-native speaker, to learn the same words. Chinese students need to spend 5 years to learn about 3000 characters in their primary schools. What a burden!

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Haizi
Oh' date=' come on. Learning Chinese characters is DIFFICULT.[/quote']

Whether something is easy or difficult all depends on what the individual is used to. I was brought up learning characters so even after spending 13 years in the U.S., I can still acquire new characters quite easily. However, an English speaker could find it extremely difficult to do the same.

This is probably because you invested huge amount of time and effort in learning other Chinese characters in your earlier years while the English speaker didn't. I don't understand why it is so difficult for you admit that Learning Chinese characters is DIFFICULT (in comparison with an alphabetical system), which is so obvious to me.

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Haizi
Oh' date=' come on. Learning Chinese characters is DIFFICULT.[/quote']

All I can say is, if you find learning characters, or Chinese in general, so difficult, then go learn something else, instead of suggesting changing the writing system and the base of a whole culture and society to accomdate you. When I was struggling memorize English vocabularies, I never thought to change the English system where everything is spelled the way it sounds, although that would be nice.

Of course, Chinese people won't change their language simply because foreigners find it difficult to learn. On the other hand, what harm will it do if non-Chinese people also think about and voice the pros and cons of Chinese language? I think it is a good thing. It helps us to think about our language from different angles. Whether you like it or not, the change of Chinese language has been under a lot of Western influences in the last 100 years. IMO, it's better to be aware of all kinds of dangers as well as opportunities than to shut out different opinions.

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Quest

okay, let me tell you this. when i was in first or second grade, it was all characters copying. however, the assignments were never meant to take you longer than half an hour a day. so, I always finished the chinese class assignments before i left school. Since I spoke and saw chinese characters everywhere, I never forgot characters that I learned. or if indeed i forgot one or two, I would ask my parents when i needed to use it, then I would remember it and never forget it again. then third grade, the number of characters i had to copy and the times i had to copy shrank dramatically, and we started concentrating on writing compositions and reading literatures, and that's when students started to get lower grades, because in first and second grade if you are not a really bad student, you should be able to get 90+ easily on every test. After third grade, we stopped character copying all together, and we learned new characters by just seeing them in literatures. and in most of the fifth and sixth grade period, I hardly learned any new characters. after sixth grade, we were basically done with learning chinese, we learned all the characters we needed for our whole lives. i just think memorizing 5000 characters(most of which are similar in parts and structure)was easier for me than memorizing 300,000 english vocabulary. but i wouldn't be surprised if foreigners find characters difficult, but there's no free lunch.

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wix

Quest, it is interesting to hear about your experience of learning Chinese characters when you were young. A very important thing to remember in this discussion is that the process of a child learning to read and write their mother tongue is very different to an adult learning to read and write a second language.

With that in mind I would say it is a little more difficult for Chinese* children to learn to read and write Chinese (compared with a language using an alphabet). It is a lot more difficult for an adult learning Chinese as a second language to learn to read and write.

Even though it is easier for Chinese children to learn Chinese characters they must still devote a lot more time to learning to read and write in the early years of school. This would affect the child's development in various ways. However, you then get on to the issue of the Chinese education system and all its faults. (Please note I am also extremely critical of the Western education system, although that is for different reasons).

i just think memorizing 5000 characters(most of which are similar in parts and structure)was easier for me than memorizing 300,000 english vocabulary.

I don't remember ever memorising a single English word when I was at school. Vocabulary was simply acquired naturally through speaking and reading. We did have spelling tests, which is the closest thing to memorising words. It is also important to note that while English spelling does not seem to be phonetic it usually follows rules which can be learnt or which are internalised by continual exposure to the language. (Admittedly one of the big problems with English is that there are always exceptions to the rule).

* I use the word Chinese in its broadest sense of meaning throughout my post.

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Quest

wix, i understand your point. I did not say the characters are very easy to learn. but to native children, it's jsut not all that difficult as you might think, and no one can be certain that doing away with characters would affect the child's development positively.

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Quest
I don't remember ever memorising a single English word when I was at school. Vocabulary was simply acquired naturally through speaking and reading.

chinese kids acquire new vocabulary through speaking and reading, too. you probably dont believe me when i say learning to write chinese as a native kid is almost effortless in a sense and does not take away much of the kid's time to do other things.

i understand it is quite difficult for adults to learn them, but it's not impossible. i think if you chose to learn the language, learn it in its entirety. or would you rather china throw away chinese and use english as its national language that would make everybody happy.

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Tsunku

I think its interesting that the ability to write characters can atrophy with disuse. My boyfriend, a Chinese English major, spent 4 months living with me, during which we spoke almost exclusively English, and he was reading novels in English rather than Chinese. He told me he had started making more frequent mistakes in his written Chinese, and had forgotten completely how to write some characters. He remarked that he needed to start reading more in Chinese again to keep his vocabulary up.

In a language like English, you can't really forget how to write or read. Your handwriting can become more sloppy, but you're not going to completely lose your ability to express yourself in writing. In Chinese, if you do not practice, you will forget characters, a fact which alone gives it a degree of difficulty. You cannot be lazy with Chinese and maintain a good written vocabulary.

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wix

Quest, I more or less agree with what you are saying with regards to Chinese children learning the language.

Another point is that even after all the effort invested in learning Chinese characters they can sometimes be forgotten. Working with my Taiwanese boss, it is surprising how often he forgets how to write a character. (I am sure he still knows how to read them).

The difference between characters and words written using an alphabet is that it is possible to completely forget how to write a character while in an alphabetical language you can always guess and at worst spell the word incorrectly.

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Haizi
I don't remember ever memorising a single English word when I was at school. Vocabulary was simply acquired naturally through speaking and reading.

chinese kids acquire new vocabulary through speaking and reading, too. you probably dont believe me when i say learning to write chinese as a native kid is almost effortless in a sense and does not take away much of the kid's time to do other things.

i understand it is quite difficult for adults to learn them, but it's not impossible. i think if you chose to learn the language, learn it in its entirety. or would you rather china throw away chinese and use english as its national language that would make everybody happy.

First of all, I'd like to make it clear that saying the written system of Chinese language is not one of the most efficient systems in the world does not necessarily mean we would rather throw it away. People do things for different reasons. Efficiency is only one of the reasons. It's not like that accepting Chinese characters are difficult is the beginning of the end of the written system.

It seems to me that there is little difficulty for everyone here to accept that Chinese characters are difficult for foreign adults to learn. What then about native speakers? I don't currently have any numbers with me but my impression is that it takes years for a Chinese adult to learn enough characters from scratch to become functional in reading Chinese. That's why when China wanted to improve the literacy level of its population, there were so many shi2zi4ban1 (character recognizing classes) popping up all over the country. The biggest obstacle in becoming literate was to learn enough Chinese characters.

I do have some numbers that can illustrate how Chinese kids learn Chinese characters in their primary schools. It is said that in a 200-hour semester, Chinese kids only learn about 200 characters. In the 1950s, there was a comparison study between what a former Soviet Union student would learn and what a Chinese student would learn in their respective primary schools. It was found out that the Chinese student would read only about 300,000 characters in six years; while the former Soviet Union student would read about 800,000 characters in four years. One of the headaches of textbook compilers for grade one and two students in China is that the content selection is severely restricted when the compilers have to come up with something intelligent and meaningful with just a few hundred characters that the students can possibly absorb.

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roddy

I've deleted about half this thread. I thought about just deleting the entire thing as it would have been much quicker that way, but decided the above discussion is very interesting, and deserves to be continued.

Participants are welcome to start NEW threads entitled 'Effect of Chinese Characters on Chinese culture', 'Brainwashing in Chinese Education' or anything else, if they wish to.

Comments on this decision can be sent to me by private message.

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