Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Kenya will start teaching Chinese to elementary school students from 2020 (qz.com)
249 points by kaboro 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 336 comments





From the article: "Mandarin is set to be taught alongside local languages besides other foreign ones including French and Arabic."

They could just as easily have titled the article:

"Kenya will start teaching French to elementary school students from 2020."

But of course that would have triggered fewer people leading to fewer readers (probably wouldn't have made it to HN either).

I'm quite wary about "Chinese neocolonialism" myself, but as a Kenyan Citizen who's seen the massive QOL improvement in the country over the last few years, I really don't see the issue with teaching the worlds most widely spoken language in schools.


Thank you for being the voice of reason by pointing out the obvious that others seem to miss.

It's click bait. People here love to commiserate over their FUD about China.

I started learning Mandarin a few months ago. My kid goes to a Saturday school so I figured I might as as well join when they made an adults class.

Thus far it's been reasonable. I do have some advantages, having parents who speak Cantonese. In fact a lot of the words seem similar. The grammar might be different, but we're not flying through the course since it's once a week.

I'd say thus far it's like when I went to learn German, being a native speaker of Danish. With just a very few lessons, knowing the neighbouring language opens up the new language very fast. I could pick up a German newspaper and read it within a few weeks, it having been gibberish to me previously. Even quite complex political stuff was understandable suddenly.

With Mandarin my expectations are lower. The characters are still hard to remember, and tbh I haven't spent the time trying to memorize them. What's cool is I've learned how to use a pinyin keyboard, which allows me to convert the sounds written in Latin script to Chinese characters. Much like one might write emojis. But I'm able to write stuff to Chinese friends and they can read it.

The great thing is translation services are pretty good now. You can just paste the pinyin into google translate, and something sensible seems to come out. Part of this is of course I have closer priors being a Cantonese speaker.

And finally I'm now on WeChat, which turns out to be one of the biggest apps in the world. Interesting to see how design is done in other parts of the world. The teacher has us write answers to questions in WeChat, and she has us pronounce stuff so she can critique it.


I started much this same way. I started at a local college taking just Mandarin I. I bought a bunch of books. I spent 2 months in China too. This was really worth it.

I do practice for an hour each day writing in Chinese. I also keep my day planner in Chinese and make notes in Chinese. I mean physically writing characters out.

WeChat is great.

Pleco is a great dictionary. I have it open all day long.

Google Translate is good. WeChat Translate and Google Translate differ on translations quite a bit. Bonus that translate.google.com is available while inside China.

Take a look at the "Chineasy" books. I found them great for gaining history of characters and therefore an understanding of why the characters are the way they are. Here is an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5FNvW19GbA

There is a good TED Talk - 3,500 characters vs 26 letters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LvhjgW9zh0

I actually was going to start a Discourse forum for learning Chinese. I have it ready to do basically just need to get a domain name.

Edit: Added YT link.


Did you have any prior background? I only ask because many commenters either were familiar with Cantonese or have Chinese heritage. I'm primarily familiar with Romance languages + German (i.e., never learned a new alphabet, no Arabic/Russian) and I'm curious about the impression of someone after diving in.

It really depends on the person, for me learning pronunciation is easy, I have the talent to be able imitate to other people's speech pretty accurately. On the other hand, I have a terrible handicap with learning grammar. It just feels like rote memorization of meaningless rules and it never sticks.

So for me personally Mandarin was like a dream come true because there's barely any grammar at all. I just have to speak the words in the correct order "you want with me eat food?" "you eat finished?" "tomorrow we together go climb mountain?".

relatively speaking. There's grammar of course and it's interesting and subtle, but it's much less than romance languages and there are basically no exceptions. The closest thing to the exception I can think of is the "ill-thought out sentence" (没想好的句子), which is an exception to word order where you forget to say the beginning of the sentence and instead put it at the end: "go see movie? ...you tomorrow"


I think that's a common misconception, as you've already alluded to - there is grammar, and it's easy to speak incorrectly if you don't study. There's just no inflection (do/does/did/done, der Mann/des Mannes/dem Manne/den Mann, hablas/hablaste/hablabas/hablaras/etc.)

Yes that's more accurate, it's really just the lack of inflection, which despite being a massive thing by itself, is by no means the entirety of grammar. I love Chinese grammar: the particles, the verb aspect markers, the resultative complements, they all feel really logical to me.

I would totally avoid the writing system if learning Chinese fresh. Study the language for a year, and if you want to stick with it at that point, then start learning characters. Otherwise it is just a futile waste of memory and time

It’s not a waste.

You would learn the radicals which helps you understand a words origin among other things.


It depends on the purpose. If your goal is to communicate with people, then focusing on the spoken language makes a lot of sense, given how laborious the writing system is and how divorced from the spoken language written Chinese is.

Yup, I do agree you should focus where you need to.

My focus was reading and writing mostly but I can speak (tones need work as expected)


Not a waste, but an inefficient use of a beginners time.

No prior background except Chinese coworkers.

Chinese American here that has foundation in Cantonese as well that took Mandarin during my younger years. If you know Cantonese, I highly recommend practicing the phonetics instead of words for a bit (like during a car ride or something). When I first learned Mandarin, we were drilled BoPoMoFo since it is a phonetic based system even when they taught primarily PinYin. It helps a lot with word enunciation in the future.

China is investing a lot in Africa, good video on the topic, "How Africa is Becoming China's China": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQV_DKQkT8o

I took an online class at Wharton Business School and the teacher said that Africa would be an economic power in twenty years. Teaching Mandarin in school is probably a good idea.

When my wife and I were in Kenya we went to two elementary schools and the kids in class seemed very happy to be there. Even at a young age someone probably informed them that education is the ticket to a better life.


what are the changes that are taking place that will allow Africa to be an economic power in twenty years?

For example building roads and infrastructure for everyone instead of building oil rigs for few?

https://qz.com/africa/1326618/china-is-building-expensive-ro...

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18973637


The late Hans Rosling's Factfullness is good for many reasons, but it also espouses Africa's coming demographic and economic explosion. I'm skeptical as well on the 2040 date, but the 2099 date has Africa becoming a major player in world affairs. Changes are already taking place at incredible rates for western minds.

Let's do a quick quiz for readers to introspect about their current views on the 'dark' continent:

1) How fast is the bullet train from Nairobi to Mombasa?

2) How much hydro-electric power does Guinea sell to it's neighbors?

3) How many riders/day does the light-rail serve in Addis Ababa?

4) In terms of current-day 'Californias', how many people will live in the city of Dar Es Salaam by 2099?

5) Where is the Great Wall of Nigeria? Hint: It's not dry.


"Africa" isn't one place, but rather a collection of dozens of countries. But in general, most of them are on the aggressive-growth path that leads from agrarian/illiterate poverty to urban/literate middle class over the course of 2-3 generations, just like Asian and European countries before them. Many African nations are growing economically at rates north of 5% annually, far faster than any "first world" nation.

Colonialism has been replaced by international trade, which expects nations to hold up their end of business. That means businesses want - need - workers who can read and do arithmetic, who are reasonably healthy, have access to transportation and personal communication (phones, internet). They need roads, clean water, good airports, stable local currencies, effective legal systems, all sorts of things that the old colonial system did not require. Provide schools, roads, vaccinations, clean water, and good currency, and it affects everyone. Things get much better very quickly.

This happened in America, too. Hell, both my grandfathers were illiterate. One didn't even have running water or electricity on his farm, when I was a small child and he was an old man. It wasn't weird then.


Ireland grew 4.1% in 2018. 26 out of 54 African countries had higher growth in 2017. Africa had an average growth of 4.34%, but Libia had 55% growth. Without Libia, average growth was 3,38%.

This says little about the overall state, one should examine more years, also I am comparing 2018 to 2017 but I am too lazy.

Bearish on Africa


I'm looking at ten year averages from Global Finance magazine. Over ten years, Ireland is at 3.3%, and even that makes it an outlier among western nations (it's the highest ranked European country). By comparison, the US is at 1.4%, and most of Europe is around 1%.

Libya is at -9.4% over the decade, largely due to the civil war there. Much of Africa is over 5% average for the decade (Kenya is 5%). Except for a few failed states like Libya and South Sudan, almost every country in Africa is above 2.5% growth over the past decade.

I'm really bullish on Africa. The numbers support it.


Ethiopia grew ~10% per year for >10 years. Very bullish on Ethiopia. Yes, I am agnostic about "Africa", that's too big a unit.

Chinese outsourcing of labor to many African countries.

Looking at the curriculum linked, it seems like Mandarin is being offered as an elective while English is a mandatory subject.

Kenyan here. English has always been mandatory in Kenya, seeing that it's a former British colony, just like India

Naturally, people will gravitate to where they believe opportunity lies. It's a great opportunity now in order to foster commerce and trade with China which has focused on East Africa.

Yet, this is only part of the requirements. Connections and insidership are also important. Just like learning Japanese in the 70s and 80s didn't mean you automatically qualified for a job, if you had connections and were an insider, knowing Japanese helped quite a bit. It'll likely be the same here.


Oddly a lot of positivity in this thread. Anecdotally, the kenyans I know are really not pleased with the Chinese invasion of their culture and food stocks. There is fear of food fraud (fillers and ingredients sold as other things) for example from chinese imports.

> There is fear of food fraud (fillers and ingredients sold as other things) for example from chinese imports.

Apparently this fear exists within China as well, especially for baby formula. This stems from the 2008 milk scandal. That incident had 300k victims, hospitalized 54k babies, and killed 6. Four years prior 12 babies died from watered down milk [0].

In 2007, pet food produced in China killed ~3600 pets around the world after being contaminated. On further investigation, the FDA later determined that 2.5mm to 3mm Americans had consumed chickens who had been fed tainted vegetables imported from China [1].

In 2003, the State Food and Drug Administration was created to improve safety of the food supply. However, it seems that individual farmers may not be incentivized to make safety improvements, as produce from multiple farms is typically combined prior to being sold to distributors [2]. There have been several publicized incidents since 2003, often involving counterfeit or contaminated foods [3].

I'd argue it's entirely rational to have concerns about the safety of these goods, especially since Chinese companies (as recently as 2014) have demonstrated they are willing to export unsafe and expired goods internationally.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_milk_scandal

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_pet_food_recalls

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_safety

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_safety_incidents_in_China


> the 2008 milk scandal.

In the wake of that, so many Chinese came to Hong Kong to buy milk powder that a new law was introduced in HK restricting its export (to 1.8 kg per person), with violations punishable by 60,000 USD or 2 years prison :-)

(promptly giving rise to baby formula smuggling rings, naturally...)


The USA used to have problems like that too (read The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, and many other works). The public demanded change, and got it. The same thing will happen in China. It's all part of the process of modernization.

These problems don't fix themselves automatically.

In the US, it required regulations and the creation of institutions like the FDA. These will remain sufficient to prevent further abuse hinges on the combination of regulatory institutions and the press (who reports grievous abuse when regulators allow grievous abuse, given regulatory capture is a constant threat). China's press and public institutions seem to be getting weaker and weaker. Thus things may or may not get better.


I'm not saying it's automatic. I'm saying it's inevitable. It took decades to get decent safety standards in the USA (one could argue we're still working on it). But a government that doesn't do basic things to protect its citizens risks its own legitimacy. And contrary to popular opinion here, the Chinese government has legitimacy, not just brute force. The people trust it to do the right thing most of the time, eventually.

Food safety standards in the west have come up over time and gotten stricter as time goes on. Not just China but most of developing world has a lot of food adulteration going on. I know because I actually am involved in agricultural trade. Most manufacturers have 2 separate product lines for selling to the west/developed countries vs selling locally as the products sold locally would not get past testing in the developed countries.

Unfortunately, in China, the public does not have much of a voice.

The Chinese government are legitimately afraid of political speech. Consider for a moment what that implies about the balance of power between the governed and the government. China has no equivalent of Fox News or MSNBC, but that does not mean that the Chinese people are voiceless.

Is that fear because of the balance of power or the consequences of losing power?

In the US, losing power means looking for a new job, or retiring with a pension. I believe the consequences of losing power are typically worse in China.


The USA used to have problems like that too (read The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

The key phrase here is used to.

Because things were bad in the United States over 100 years ago (The Jungle was published in 1904), doesn't mean that today's adulterated Chinese food is somehow magically OK.


I'm not saying it is okay. Sheesh, how do you even come to that conclusion? I'm saying that in a hundred years (assuming no social collapse/revolution), China won't have these problems anymore, just like the US. Probably much less time than that, as they have a model to draw from already.

It's likely you were misinterpreted because many people immediately jump to the worst possible interpretation of things when it comes to China on hn.

It's not just China... I see this response all the time. It's a variant of the strawman fallacy... draw a ridiculous conclusion from something someone said, and criticize the ridiculous conclusion.

I love a good tussle, but a lot of people are really, really bad at it. Political discussion online is like the Dunning-Kruger Effect made flesh.


Kenyans are poisoning other Kenyans by cooking things in PCB-laden oil. You know, a chemical that causes places to be labeled Superfund sites in the US.

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/12/thieves-f...


I'm surprised they haven't started adding bitterant to the oil, is there a reason that wouldn't work in this case?

I bet the electric company could save money by just giving away cooking oil instead of having thieves drain their transformer oil.

Wow! I never imagined there could be something worse than gutter oil.

You lose nothing by learning other people's language or way of thinking. Knowledge as they say is power... even if those giving it to you don't have your best interests at heart.

This is not always the case, as was shown in the history of Belgium and Brussels (and still is).

If you learn the other people's language, you will communicate in their language. If you are inside a company with mixed languages, that company will be run in the language of the people that do not speak the other language.

As you know, companies are highly political, and if you are missing all the nuances of a language because you are not a native speaker, your chances of taking a good position within that company will be lower.

This is exactly what I saw in a company in Brussels when I worked there. All help-desk operators were Flemish, because they are bilingual in Dutch and French (and English of course). Management were all native French speaking, unable to communicate in Dutch. My direct manager, who was Flemish, had a hard time covering his own ass in this political environment, because of the foreign language nuances.

So in effect, the ones who don't speak the other persons language have the benefit.


>You lose nothing by learning other people's language

That's not quite true. Bilingual speakers tend to have a smaller vocabularies in each individual language than monolingual speakers (even though they have a larger total vocabulary across both languages).

According to some studies monolingual speakers also have faster word retrieval and better verbal fluency overall.

Of course this has to be weighed against the benefits of learning another language, but there are costs.


> Bilingual speakers tend to have a smaller vocabularies in each individual language than monolingual speakers

Do you have any citations to support this? From the research I have read (and my own anecdotal experience) this is not necessarily the case, especially when taking into account the bilingual speakers' dominant language.

See e.g.

Pearson et al. (1993). Lexical Development in Bilingual Infants and Toddlers: Comparison to Monolingual Norms.

Allman (2005). Vocabulary Size and Accuracy of Monolingual and Bilingual Preschool Children. – although note the difference in English vs Spanish vocabulary scores for monolingual vs bilingual speakers.


That's not a controversial position. Neither of your links refute that bilinguals tend to have smaller vocabularies than monolinguals across each individual language.

From your 2nd link:

"However, on tests of vocabulary bilinguals frequently seem to perform at lower levels than monolinguals (Ben Zeev, 1977b; Doyle, Champagne, & Segalowitz, 1978). The reason for this seems to be that bilingual children have to learn two different labels for everything, which reduces the frequency of a particular word in either language"

"These findings also support Bialystok’s (2001) suggestions that bilinguals have a greater Total Vocabulary than monolinguals..."

The conclusion says nothing about vocabularies within individual languages, it's only talking about total vocabulary across languages.

Here's another study:

"The profile effects indicated comparable performance of bilingual and monolingual children in basic reading tasks, but lower vocabulary scores for the bilinguals in both languages."

"The distributed characteristic of bilingual knowledge provides an explanation for the low standard scores that have often been reported in bilingual children on vocabulary tests in both the first language (L1) and the L2 (Ben Zeev, 1977a; Fernández et al., 1992; Pearson & Fernández, 1994; Umbel et al., 1992). The low scores do not indicate that bilingual children are poor vocabulary learners, but that some of the vocabulary possessed by bilingual children is encoded in the L1 but not the L2, and vice versa, the signature pattern of the distributed characteristic."

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3358777/

If you want to read more you can follow up with the citations from that last paper.


It's not the language, it's everything that comes with it. The Congolese weren't happy to be learning French in 1900, either.

Colonizing Africa is a futile effort. The Chinese should look at South Africa to see how Africans will deal with unjust ownership.

With due respect, South Africa returned to majority rule / democracy when the apartheid government willingly stepped down. If they had not decided too, it is very probable that they would still be in power today. The odds of a China with its multi decades long plans and wealth stepping away from territory they have taken under their wing is very slim. China is being smart about it, using wealth (loans) and technology to build an economic foothold instead of strength. Once they are in though I could see it transitioning to something else in the long term.

> using wealth (loans) and technology to build an economic foothold instead of strength.

To be fair, that has been pretty much the world bank playbook for decades. I dont see why an exploitation in that form would revert back to more classic forms of colonialism. Upholding a colonial regime is simply not worth the effort if you have similar financial benefits with loans with horrible conditions.


Maybe... In most cases western colonialism didn't end because of resistance, but because the west decided it didn't like colonialism.

More to the point, the West could no longer afford colonialism in the post-WWII era. Empires were impractical.

"If you keep getting in fights with your white buddies, you won't have the energy to push around brown people." Now there's a message for our time.

Sad but true.

I am not sure how the rest of Western colonization was just. Check out King Leopold II of Belgium [1]; it's but an example.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrocities_in_the_Congo_Free...


I don't think Chinese investment in Kenya (or the rest of Africa) is the same as colonization, at all. International trade and investment is a much more mutually beneficial relationship, with a strong track record of success. What's mostly different here is that China, rather then the US or Europe, is the dominant financial partner.

It's pretty much textbook neo colonialism.

What does that even mean? Are there Chinese troops in Kenya? Is the government a puppet state? Don't just string buzzwords together, make a real argument that this is harmful, or comparable.

People make those broad claims because they never been colonized themselves, and it may not be worth your time educating them on the difference since they haven't experienced anything else.

In my humble experience, they are disproportionately likely to be the descendants of colonizers and are sometimes uncomfortable with their own privilege.


Lol, so Kwame Nkrumah has never been colonized? He's the one who defined the term.

I'm not stringing buzzwords together, it's a concept that's more than fifty years old talking about colonialist effects via economic power instead of direct military or political power.

> Neocolonialism, neo-colonialism, postmodern imperialism, or neo-imperialism is the practice of using capitalism, globalization and cultural imperialism to influence a developing country in lieu of direct military control (imperialism) or indirect political control (hegemony). It was coined by Kwame Nkrumah in the context of African countries undergoing decolonization in the 1960s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neocolonialism


It's a learning experience too, for both China and African societies. I believe Chinese people and institutions working in these countries are finding themselves in positions of responsibility and connectedness that they didn't expect, and they seem to be (sometimes slowly) be finding creative ways forward.

Interesting perspective! And it makes some sense.

A country offering chinese as an elective to its students is an invasion?

I'm not saying this is the case, but if I wanted my country to take over another country, I would do it slowly and as peacefully as possible.

Countries and cultures have been doing this all throughout history, and still do this today.


I guess that's possible. But history has shown that countries take over another through force. Not slowly and certainly not peacefully.

Which country has taken over another "slowly and peacefully"?

It's hyperbole at best to claim that kenya offering chinese as "an elective" ( not mandatory ) to its student is an "invasion". My high school offered spanish, french and japanese as language electives. Last I checked, we weren't invaded and conquered by spain, france or japan.


I'm not saying this is the case, but if I wanted my country to take over another country, I would do it slowly and as peacefully as possible.

I've read that children in Hong Kong now have to learn Mandarin in school instead of Cantonese. So using language as influence isn't foreign to the Chinese state.


Recommended reading:

http://pinyin.info/readings/defrancis/chinese_writing_reform...

Summary: emperical evidence shows that students who were taught Pinyin (romanized, phonetic Chinese writing) were far better off than students who learned with Hanzi characters (the pictograms you're familiar with). Despite this, Chinese written language reform is unlikely to happen due to political pressures from the elites, whose family's positions are secured by the higher barrier to entry to becoming an intellectual. It takes more work to learn Chinese than almost any other language because they want it to.

For this reason, even setting aside the other moral quandries presented by China, I'm against teaching Mandarin in schools. Though, as an optional class for high-school-level children, it makes more sense.

Edit: probably worth clarifying that I study Hanzi characters and I am fluent in Japanese.


>due to political pressures from the elites

As a Chinese, I can't think of ANY Chinese people would prefer to reform Hanzi to Pinyin and I'm surely not within "elites".

>whose family's positions are secured by the higher barrier to entry to becoming an intellectual

Holy shit, it's 2019 not 1950. China has a literacy rate of 96.4% [1]. What exact barrier are "elites" trying to set with that?

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_literacy_...


> China has a literacy rate of 96.4%

So what? Literacy raises the average but doesn't prevent huge class gaps in populations. OP's point is valid in the same way that the 1% in the USA can pay for their kids to attend elite schools, be hired be elite firms regardless of ability, and continue the elite family tree often at the expense of the poor. China is no different.


So both China and the US should adopt newspeak?

Yes, it is ridiculous "more good" is spelt "better". I am unsure whether the exact form of "doubleplusgood" is optimal, but something like that makes perfect sense.

Given that China successfully adopted simplified Chinese characters, English-speaking world is perfectly capable of adopting Newspeak, and it will bring long term benefit, just as simplified Chinese characters did. But like many long term beneficial things it won't happen due to short term cost.


>Yes That's a myopic view of language. Changes like "better" --> "more good" don't last for long as irregularities will naturally form, making your "optimal" language yet another legacy constraint.

Besides, the vast majority of complexity of language exists because they carry semantic meaning. For example, the redundancy in the terms "Pig" and "Pork" might have initially been due to a need to signal sophistication, but they survive in modern usage because it's a concise way to differentiate the animal from the meat.

>Given that China successfully adopted simplified Chinese characters Simplified characters are more on par with spelling changes than newspeak. It only reduces the stroke count of certain radicals, it doesn't make any changes to the underlying vocabulary or grammar, whereas both newspeak and phonetic writing would.


Standardizing or simplifying the language adopted as lingua franca is a common practice. English is actually an exception in this respect. For example, see Bahasa Indonesia, which can be considered Malay newspeak, and very successful.

Yes, and that standardized lingua franca invariably splinters off and becomes less regular. Compare medieval Latin to the modern Romance languages.

> invariably

Well, we do have more TV and travel today than in prior millennia. Languages are dying out, while there are more people than ever. Let's see where the development goes.


>is unlikely to happen due to political pressures from the elites, whose family's positions are secured by the higher barrier to entry to becoming an intellectual.

I'm sorry but this is veering into the realm of conspiracy. If you actually talk to any Chinese people you'll realize that most are very opposed to the Latinization of the writing system. In fact the "elites" you speak of were themselves the ones most interested in simplifying the writing system and possibly adopting the Latin alphabet. Their former attempt, simplified Chinese, is often met with rancor in modern day Taiwan and Hongkong, whereas the latter attempt is often tauted in China as an example of CCP backed globalization gone too far.


Yes, and in between the former and latter, there was also a short-lived attempt to simplify characters further [0]. It failed, perhaps because it was completely contrived, whereas the first simplification adopted many existing cursive/shorthand conventions of the time. Unofficial conventions are easier to adopt, and Japan's independent Kanji simplification scheme actually ended up with some of the same exact (simplified) characters (e.g. 與→与, 學→学, 國→国).

0: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_round_of_simplified_Chi...


It should be called Phoenicianization as you know.. That's where the concept of an alphabet and linear writing system comes from.

Writing has been invented several times independently, and AFAIK every culture that invented it made the jump to more phonetic writing (alphabetic/syllabic), at least partially, except China (well, maybe Indus valley).

How many cultures independently invented writing? By most accounts it’s either 3 or 4 times. English comes from a long family of alphabet writers, all the way back to Sumerian writing.

> Latinization

It's been always puzzling to me why borrowing Latin alphabet is usually considered today the only option. Many languages have phonetic alphabets of their own. Why is it that in the past people had no issue creating an original alphabet well suited for the language, and now the choice is between some bastardized form of Latin on the one hand and sticking to the inconvenient archaic writing system (however beautiful it looks) on the other.


It's English that has the bastardized Latin!

Things like "ough" for /a:f/, and vowel shifts whereby /a/ gets written "u".

Compared to that, some languages have sane Latinization.

Since English is so pervasive, people round the world can look at it and feel good about their own Latinization.


> It's been always puzzling to me why borrowing Latin alphabet is usually considered today the only option. Many languages have phonetic alphabets of their own.

The Latin alphabet is the most popular phonetic alphabet, and keyboards (and formerly typewriters) for it are widely available. Not so for many of the others.

I can see that being a major motivation for Latinization, especially for smaller languages.


The argument that Chinese writing has to be made phonetic because Chinese is too hard only holds sway to non-Chinese. Most Chinese people do not consider Chinese writing to be too hard. Therefore the most common argument for phonetic writing is compatibility with international standards. As of now the Latin alphabet is the international standard.

> only holds sway to non-Chinese.

Well, I'd say it holds sway to learners that a) know a better system, and b) learn as adults. Both factors allow them to form a better judgment than kids that don't know any better.


Except all Chinese speakers in the current generation are taught Pinyin in school.

And many speakers write characters (on their computer or devices) using Pinyin, and forget how to write rare characters, see

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_amnesia

* http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=25291 (and the articles linked from it)


Yes and English speakers forget the spelling of rare words, especially if they were to spend extended periods of time using nothing but text-to-speech.

Those that do use Pinyin to write on their computers also know that the large number of homophones makes it an order of magnitude slower than using radical based input methods to directly type the characters such as Canjie, Wubi, Boshiamy etc.


Completely agree, see the mess that's been made in Kazakhstan: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-4312681...

Pinyin or Bopomofo [0] doesn't really matter what symbols are used.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bopomofo


The anger isn't towards Pinyin specifically, but towards attempts to switch the writing system to phonetic writing.

Pinyin is still taught in schools today starting from preschool. Most of the current generation of Chinese people are familiar with both and the common sentiment is that truly phonetic writing systems aren't practical, and that CCP attempts to use Pinyin as a "real" writing system were misguided and yet another example of the government trying to destroy Chinese culture.


> "If you actually talk to any Chinese people you'll realize that most are very opposed to the Latinization of the writing system."

Bopomofo isn't Latin characters...


But it's still phonetic.

I wonder if there's something about Chinese language that makes phonetic writing somehow less suitable for it. What about a possibility of a syllabic system?

The problem isn't Chinese in general, but the written register of Chinese specifically, and all the texts already using it. If you've ever looked at a verbatim transcript of a spontaneous conversation, you'll probably have noticed how much of an incoherent mess spoken language can be. Written speech is much tidier, because people have the opportunity to be very deliberate in what they write down.

For Chinese in particular, that means that people can be much more succinct in writing than orally, because the characters provide additional disambiguation beyond just indicating the pronunciation. Any purely phonetic writing system would require everyone to readjust their standard of what kind of sentences are comprehensible.


DeFrancis book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy is excellent on that and many related questions [1].

First, Mandarin has no inflection (love/loves), which allows for writing in characters in the first place. Then, Mandarin has a fairly impoverished phonetic system, allowing for only about 400 different syllables ignoring tones, or 1200 or so when distinguishing tones (while English for example has some 7000 or so, without tones). This leads to many homophones, which can be distinguished by being written with different characters. Or so the traditional justification goes (I don't think much of that argument, because clearly people can speak to each other just fine, without having to clarify which word they mean - disambiguation happens by longer words (two or more syllables), which you could just write down. What happens is that in writing, you only need to write parts of a word: spoken out loud it would be ambiguous, but the chosen character disambiguates it, and thus people conclude that writing wouldn't work without the characters.)

However, arguably it's just a matter of habit (and resistance on the part of those that have already put in the time and effort to learn the characters). There are, in fact, Sinitic languages written alphabetically, eg Dungan [2].

The whole issue is very politicised, as you can see with the animated discussion here and the vigorous resistance to the initial comment (which was a bit unfortunately phrased, in my view, but fundamentally sound: Chinese is a very hard language to learn, mostly by virtue of its archaic writing system, and that is arguably somewhat deliberate.)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chinese_Language:_Fact_and...

[2] see the articles linked from here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=40417


>just a matter of habit

That's a vast understatement. Adopting a writing system that would render everything written in the formal register incomprehensible isn't exactly a tenable position.


Europeans used to write in Latin, which is now incomprehensible to most, and yet, it has all worked out.

But granted, the transition took a while and was not just a matter of habit.

Having said that, why could one not publish important classic texts in a phonetic vernacular version, and leave the study of the originals to those with the inclination (just as most people in the West do not learn Hebrew, ancient Greek, and Latin; yet can find versions of the Bible, Euclid, Seneca, and Newton that they can read if they so desire.)


You're drawing a false analogy here, the problem isn't that phonetic writing isn't capable of rendering classical texts; the problem is that they can't competently render any text written in the formal register.

So, here we get to the fundamental issue then: Chinese seems to have a larger divergence between spoken and written register than most other languages (particularly alphabetically written ones).

It's unclear to me how far that extends. (This issue seems intertwined with the issue that many speakers of other Chinese "dialects"/"languages" also use Standard Written Chinese (ie Mandarin), btw.)

It is possible to write some register of Chinese in phonetic writing, though - that's shown by Dungan (written in Cyrillic), by the experiments in the 30s (quoting Mao again: "we have begun experimenting with Hsin Wen Tzu—Latinized Chinese. It is now used in our Party school, in the Red Academy, in the Red Army, and in a special section of the Red China Daily News."), etc.


Characters can be mapped to their phonetic equivalents no?

Yeah, but not back (in other words, a mechanical mapping won't preserve sufficient information to disambiguate). It's definitely not trivial.

But they can't be mapped back.

Yes, that something is homophony. Mandarin has 1522 syllables when you include tone (413 syllables without). [0] English has 15,831. [1]

[0] https://chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/14596/how-many-s... [1] http://semarch.linguistics.fas.nyu.edu/barker/Syllables/inde... [via wayback: https://web.archive.org/web/20091115065840/http://semarch.li...]


Chinese characters are syllabic.

This ain't the 1800s. The vast majority of Chinese citizens who have finished elementary school are able to recognize at least 2000 characters. Knowing how to read and write Hanzi is no longer an indication of "intelligence" or "elite status". In Japan, maybe, but their language is completely different.

In case you've missed the last half-century, there has already been two Chinese written language reforms (though the second one didn't stick). It's called Simplified Chinese.

The rationale in your comment is absolutely bizarre and it reeks of arrogance with a side sprinkle of ignorance.


Not in Japan either really.

Turning character into pinyin introduces so much ambiguity and lose so much information at local level that we need to go back and forth multiple times to infer what that word really is according to the partially parsed part of the sentence. While written sentence in character we don’t even need to do linear character by character scan, usually a glimpse of it will give you most of what you need to understand it.

If you include an indication of the tone along with the pinyin, doesn't it end up being just about as informative as spoken word?

There are still way too many hompohones which can introduce a lot of amibiguity. Even Korean still includes Hanja to clarify technical terms in law/medicine.

Modern Standard Mandarin has way fewer syllables than Middle Chinese and Southern Chinese languages which makes homophones a lore more common. Vietnamese didn't really have this problem because the phonology is a lot more complex and it shows through the written word.

An example of homophones creating ambiguity: An Jung-geun was a Korean independence activist who assassinated a former Japanese Prime Minister in 1909. He is often called 義士 in Korean textbooks which means "hero, man of honor". However, 義士(의사) is pronounced in the same way as 醫師(의사) which means "doctor". The Hangul spelling is identical thus it has led to many younger Koreans to think An Jung-geun was a doctor and question why would a doctor intentionally kill someone. It's more of a tongue-in-cheek joke but it shows the problem of completely detaching a writing system from a language that does not sufficiently distinguish words without context. In Chinese this is not a problem because by people usually learn this type of stuff on paper first. The additional context helps reduce the ambiguity in spoken conversation. Being able to talk to each other without writing is not sufficient proof that a writing system can be abolished with minimal impact, because it ignores the fact that the writing system is what helped to dispel the ambiguity in the first place.


> There are still way too many hompohones which can introduce a lot of amibiguity.

Is this a problem when speaking? How many times a day do speakers of Chinese have to ask a collaborator which homophone they are using?


It’s not uncommon for a chinese speaker to say something and for the other speaker to say something like “which X, is it X with Y radical?”, or “is it X as in <word containing X>”. This happens especially with names.

> especially with names.

That makes sense! Since names will always lack disambiguating context. And I've seen that in Chinese movies come to think of it.

It happens in English too: Is your name Kerry or Carrie?


Enough times that replacing Chinese characters with a fully phonetic system will introduce more problems than it solves.

Did you read the example I wrote? Homophones usually aren't a problem because most people learn things in writing first, and that provides context in speech.


> In Chinese this is not a problem because by people usually learn this type of stuff on paper first. The additional context helps reduce the ambiguity in spoken conversation.

I read that, but I'm having trouble imagining how that works.

Do you have an example?


But I literally gave an example...

"Queue" and "cue" which are homophones in English. Now imagine if there is a language reform where IPA replaces the current writing system, and both words are replaced with /kjuː/ as the only written form.

"/kjuː/ the crowd" can be either "Queue the crowd" or "Cue the crowd". We are aware these two words are distinct from each other, since we learned these two words in their written form already, and in certain situations we won't have any ambiguity as to which action needs to be taken. If the reform lasts long enough that a new generation of people grows up only learning "/kjuː/" and not "queue/cue", they won't be so sure about which action is to be taken in "/kjuː/ the people" when it is presented as an isolated phrase without context.

Think of a hash table that resolves hash collisions via separate chaining. The collision is when words sound the same (have the same index). Abolishing the current writing system is like dumpking the bucket contents and only returning the index. It's not an immediate problem because we still know that the bucket used to contain chained entries ("cached" in our brain memories"). Those who have never accessed the hash table (e.g. younger generations receiving education after the change) won't know what was in there before. They just know the index but not that there used to be two different data entries stored at the same index. The downside of losing information should be evident.


So you're saying that, when conversing via speech, the problems created by ambiguities such as

"I heard a wail and I saw a whale" or "The knight was black"

are more tractable than the problems arising from

"When I lie, I lie on a bed" or "British left waffles on Falklands"

Is that right?

I'm not so sure. Given that you can only hear but not see, I feel they're probably equally problematic when there is not sufficient context to resolve the ambiguity.

The thing that changes if you move to a phonetics-based writing system, is that you're forced to include more context while writing. I don't think anything changes about oral communication. (But I'm happy to be refuted!)


>The thing that changes if you move to a phonetics-based writing system, is that you're forced to include more context while writing.

That would be a fundamental change for the language itself and I don't see why would it ever be necessary.

A person who has never heard of the first two sentences you mentioned will not be able to understand the meaning until you provide a long explaination of which word is which ("more context"), or just write down the sentence itself. Which one is faster and more concise? I don't see how does "British left waffles on Falklands" involve any homophones at all. Ambiguity of homophones can be resolved via context, but that's not one-and-the-same as all "out of context" sentences.

The beauty of the Chinese language is that it can be incredibly concise on paper despite having the same sentence sound like gibberish when read, which is not a problem as long as the current writing system still exists. The information density in East Asian languages are higher in general thanks to this.


"British left waffles on Falklands" is a moderately famous, ambiguous, historical newspaper headline from the UK [0]

If you have absolutely no context and know nothing about politics or human society, you'll probably take it to mean that the British went to the Falkland islands and then when they left the left behind some waffles.

In actuality it meant that someone was waffling on a decision to be made regarding the Falklands ("waffling" means being indecisive) and that someone was "the British Left" (the liberal faction of parliament).

[0] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-haber/british-left-w...


Sure, but written Chinese is very different from spoken Chinese. That is the case in any language, but even more so in Chinese. Much more concise. That's the problem, really - the written language would have to change (beyond switching from characters to alphabetic writing), to be closer to spoken language.

That's interesting!

Do you have a good example of a common sentence/thought/idea that is expressed with much greater concision in written chinese than spoken?

Surely a basic sentence like "mingtian wo xuexi yihou qu ti zuqiu" can't really get much shorter?

Hopefully that's a real sentence. I speak mandarin at something like the level of a 3-year-old kid.


Great question. There might be better examples, but let's look at one of the most famous poems, "Thoughts in the Silent Night" [1] by Li Bai:

  床前明月光,
  疑是地上霜。
  举头望明月,
  低头思故乡。
"Translated" word for word, it's something like

  Bed before bright moon shine
  Think be ground on frost
  Raise head hope bright moon
  Lower head think home
Note that it doesn't even contain 我 ("I"). One can render it as:

  Beside my bed a pool of light—
  Is it hoarfrost on the ground?
  I lift my eyes and see the moon,
  I bend my head and think of home.
Or:

  Before my bed, the moon shines bright;
  Be it frost aground? I suppose it might.
  I lift my head, the moon to behold, then
  Lower it, musing: I'm homesick tonight.
Moser [2] offers these gems on Classical Chinese: "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." "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."

Wikipedia says [3]:

"Classical Chinese is distinguished from written vernacular Chinese in its style, which appears extremely concise and compact to modern Chinese speakers, and to some extent in the use of different lexical items (vocabulary). An essay in Classical Chinese, for example, might use half as many Chinese characters as in vernacular Chinese to relate the same content." "Classical Chinese rarely uses words composed of two Chinese characters; nearly all words are of one syllable only. This stands directly in contrast with modern Northern Chinese varieties including Mandarin, in which two-syllable, three-syllable, and four-syllable words are extremely common." "However, even with knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, Classical Chinese can be difficult to understand by native speakers of modern Chinese, because of its heavy use of literary references and allusions as well as its extremely abbreviated style."

However, I don't have a neat example at hand... Anyone?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiet_Night_Thought

[2] http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Chinese#Grammar_and_...


That's a very nice poem (thanks!), but not a good example, mostly because it is a poem.

As a poem, it has no equivalent rendering in colloquial Chinese. Also as a poem, it deliberate sheds information, permitting (or even pursuing?) ambiguity in its quest for specific phonics, scansion, symbolism (in many cases - maybe not in this one), etc.

Probably the way to get an example is to start from something spoken in modern Chinese and see how it comes out different in written Chinese?


Classical Chinese is not modern written Chinese.

True. My point is that written Chinese register tends to occupy a space between Classical Chinese and modern spoken Chinese.

静夜思 is taught in early elementary school and not exactly what most native speakers would describe as a difficult poem.

Not difficult, concise (and in particular more concise than the thought would be expressed in spoken Chinese).

I don't know what your "fluent" means. But I recommend keep studying Japanese until you can read newspaper in native level speed and try to imagine the newspaper in 仮名 only 漢字無し, then in romanized latin letters.

Ane for fun: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_...


It is likely that this measure is being pushed by China in their bid to expand their global influence. Many such projects are being pursued right now in developed nations; one of them is probably pushing Mandarin as a second language.

In Kenya, that would be more like Mandarin as a fourth language. They commonly know their tribal language first, then Swahili and English, which are both official languages of Kenya. From fourth grade on English is the primary language used for teaching in school.

china has seemed to have recognized that chinese is too hard for most people to learn as a second language, and have been sponsoring efforts at establishing esperanto as an intl langauage

I have never heard about esperanto while in China, that was half of my lifetime, so I think there must be some exaggeration here. The efforts at establishing Confucius Institute branch schools all over the world to teach Mandarin I have clearly seen.

They’ve been sponsoring an Esperanto radio station for awhile (like half a century at least) but there haven’t been any increased pushes I’ve seen lately.

To be honest, I don't understand your reasons at all.

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html


I can sum it up as "it's deliberately hard and teaching it to children has been shown to slow their learning"

Except both of those are wrong.

Remember, literacy was a rare and elite thing throughout the Western world as well, until the 19th century started seeing the first attempts at universal education. Widespread literacy is a 20th century thing. And China lagged behind the West, having spent the first half of the 20th century throwing off colonial oppression rather than developing a sophisticated, modern education system. So until recently, it cost China nothing to use pictograms rather than romanization. So no, not "deliberately hard".

Since then, China built a modern education system, and has literacy rates on par with western nations. So it's not preventing China from teaching children to read. Therefore, your claim that "teaching it to children has been shown to slow their learning" constitutes an extraordinary claim, and requires some extraordinary evidence.

Occam's Razor suggests that you think it's hard because it's unfamiliar, not because it's hard.


I'd think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that the Chinese writing system is harder to master (and it thus takes longer) than alphabetic ones.

It's an extraordinary claim that learning 6000 symbols is just as easy as learning 26 symbols (hey, make it 52, or, since we're on HN, 128 or even 256 :-)


It's not a claim I'm making, because it's an irrational comparison. My son knew the alphabet by the time he was three years old. Did it give him a 6000 word vocabulary? No. Standalone Roman letters are meaningless, unlike Chinese characters.

And there are other tradeoffs. Chinese writing is much more compact and easier to read, relative to alphabetic writing. A layer of translation has been removed.

I'm not convinced that learning to write Chinese with a "literate" vocabulary is substantially harder than achieving equivalent literacy in a language with alphabetic writing. It might look easier to you if you've never learned both. But proof is in the pudding - China's literacy rate is on par with Western literacy rates, for similar educational effort.


> China's literacy rate is on par with Western literacy rates, for similar educational effort.

Well, that's precisely the claim that is under dispute. For example, DeFrancis [1] aims to dispel what he calls

"The Successfulness Myth: Chinese characters are responsible for a high level of literacy in East Asian countries. (A weaker version of this myth is simply that despite the flaws of Chinese characters, East Asian countries still have a high level of literacy.)"

He makes the opposite claim that (from the Wikipedia summary)

"The Chinese script, with its huge number of characters, its complexity and its irregularities, is harmful to the literacy improvement efforts of the Chinese society, and needs to be replaced by a more efficient writing system if China is to achieve the benefits of modernization."

There is, in other words, serious scholarly dispute about the success of the Chinese script.

> Chinese writing is much more compact and easier to read, relative to alphabetic writing

Agreed on the first part, it's more compact (not surprising if you have ten thousands of choices per character, say 14 bits, instead of 26, or 5 bits). But I don't think it's easier to read (let alone write), and I'd want to see evidence for that.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chinese_Language%3A_Fact_a...


Couldn't the same thing be said for the horrendous spelling and grammar issues of English?

For what it's worth, my spouse has a Master's degree in Chinese pedagogy. I've not heard such arguments from her. A single book, weighed against observation, isn't proof.


> horrendous spelling and grammar issues of English?

Sure, English has pretty horrible orthography, arguably the worst among alphabetic languages (though it's not that easy to reform, either, see eg. [1]). But it's still more phonetic than Chinese. Spanish has a beautiful orthography, and pretty close correspondence between written and spoken word.

"Chinese characters are so difficult to learn that even the best system of rudimentary characters, or simplified teaching, does not equip the people with a really rich and efficient vocabulary. Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate." "We believe Latinization is a good instrument with which to overcome illiteracy."

This was said by Mao Zedong (oh, dang, that's so ambiguous, I mean 毛泽东) in 1936, see [2].

"This has led many Chinese in the past to advocate the abolition of characters in favor of an alphabetic system, but such programs have met with little success." [3]

So, the idea that the Chinese writing system is too cumbersome is by no means new, or "Western", for what it's worth.

> A single book, weighed against observation, isn't proof

Well, no. But there is more than a single book, there are decades of discussion and scholarship on this.

It's conceivable to me that China could benefit from a move to alphabetic writing, and translations of Classical Chinese into vernacular (and anyone who wants can go study characters and Classical Chinese texts in the original, just like anyone in the West can go learn Latin and ancient Greek and Hebrew and read the classics in the original, or the Bible, for that matter).

[1] https://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/accents_spellingreform...

[2] http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp171_chinese_writing...

[3] http://sites.asiasociety.org/education/VISIBLE_TRACES/curric...


I don't think quoting Mao is doing your argument any favors.

>It's conceivable to me that China could benefit from a move to alphabetic writing, and translations of Classical Chinese into vernacular

The issue is not that classical texts become illegible, the issue is that all written language becomes illegible. For example, in the other DeFrancis source you provide, he uses the term "shuangwenzhi", the meaning of which I simply could not figure out. I saw the English "digraphia" below, at which point I assume he may have meant "双文zhi" but I am still unclear what he meant by "zhi". As of right now only 66% of the phrase he used has any semantical meaning and I am still unclear as to what he meant to say by "shuangwenzhi". Without the English translation I don't think I would've deduced any of the semantic meaning of that term.

>So, the idea that the Chinese writing system is too cumbersome is by no means new,

You are correct, this argument isn't new, it's outdated.


Nicely put :-)

The emergence of smart ubiquitous always-connected computers (with Unicode) does change the evaluation maybe.

I think one of the fundamental arguments against the Chinese script (it takes about twice as long to learn than alphabetic writing) stands, while others are outdated, indeed (nobody struggles with building Chinese typewriters anymore).

However, there are many arguments put forward against switching to an alphabetic script that strike me as misguided (that the Chinese language is so special, that it has so many homonyms, that characters are uniquely suited to it and indeed indispensable, that it allows speakers of different "dialects" to communicate, etc.).

At any rate, good discussion.


>At any rate, good discussion.

Agreed.


Mao led the development of the simplified character system, iirc, so it's relevant. That was part of the push for universal literacy. It is much easier to learn than traditional characters.

> Sure, English has pretty horrible orthography, arguably the worst among alphabetic languages (though it's not that easy to reform, either, see eg. [1]).

English orthography, summed up, is: all the orthographies from all the languages from all the time periods cobbled together into a monster.


Nicely put.

The Internet and Pinyin input methods has rendered these calls of reform largely irrelevant. Handwriting skills outside the education system are on the decline due to digitization, but the positive side is that any literate individual can utilize Chinese characters in online communication with trivial effort. For non-trivial ones there are always online dictionaries which can be accessed via online search in seconds.

An opinion on the Chinese language from 1984 is not applicable in 2018, pretending that it does is disingenuous.


Good point. Particularly with text-to-speech (and vice versa!) also being available now.

I'm still sorry for all those kids having to spend years of their childhood on characters, but maybe one can see it as a character forming exercise.


The book you keep citing was published in 1984. A lot has happened in China, especially in regards to education reform between 1984 and 2018. Aside from that book, I see no other signs of "serious scholarly dispute about the success of the Chinese script.".

Danish children acquire language skills at slower pace than six other languages (including Swedish which is in the same language sub-family): http://cphpost.dk/life-in-denmark/the-danish-languages-irrit...

Is there also a conspiracy by the Danish "elites" to deliberately keep the language's phonological complexity so there's a "higher barrier of entry" to become an "intellectual"?

Without using profanities, I'd just say that summary is absolute NONSENSE.


This would be a better reason to discourage the rest of the world from learning English, a language whose native speakers often use familiarity with its laughably bad orthography as a proxy for assessing intelligence, and also a language which unlike Mandarin has seen few serious attempts at reform (not only because of lack of centralised bodies, but also because English linguistic prescriptivists have generally preferred inventing tendentious grammatical style rules to classify "good writing" over cutting the bits which might confuse people).

On the other hand, English is quite a useful language to be able to speak, much like Mandarin.


Agreed. DeFrancis (in his delightful The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy) wrote (quoting from memory) that Japanese has the worst writing system among the character-based ones, and English the worst among the alphabetic ones.

What a pleasure Spanish writing is.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chinese_Language%3A_Fact_a...


The advantage of pictograms is you can infer meaning from component radicals when looking at more complicated pictograms. Pinyin is useful but limited, e.g. there is a number of different pictograms that are all pronouced 'shi4' so simply by looking at pinyin you won't be able to differentiate without additional context that might not be available in written scenario.

> The advantage of pictograms is you can infer meaning from component radicals when looking at more complicated pictograms. Pinyin is useful but limited, e.g. there is a number of different pictograms that are all pronouced 'shi4' so simply by looking at pinyin you won't be able to differentiate without additional context that might not be available in written scenario.

I kinda find it hard to believe that could be much of a real problem. Pictograms may allow homonyms to proliferate more than in an alphabetic writing system, but as long as the language still lives as a spoken language, there will be limits on them that prevent them from becoming too much of a problem. A spoken language with too many homonyms just isn't useful, so it will be adapted to eliminate the problem.

All bets are off when the spoken form is dead, though.


>'shi4'

but isn't that when you use context around the word to know what the meaning is? The same happens in English...you don't always know without context.

学习中文很有趣!

Xuéxí zhōngwén hěn yǒuqù!

hanzi or pinyin reading either way I know what this is intended to say.


Except Mandarin has a lot more homophones than English does, likely under the long influence of the writing system.

For spoken Mandarin, you can probably infer enough from the conversational context, but for official documents, business and technical terminology, or any literature, full romanization renders the text much less incomprehensible.

This isn't helped by the fact that Classical Chinese, from which most complex vocabulary is derived, is even more homophonic than daily speech.


That's just spoken language. There are many words that are "literary", which means they are used primarily in writing and not spoken language. Without hanzi it would be very difficult to understand what is written.

Yup this can be true.

If you read something like duo(3) it could be a measure word for flowers (朵) or maybe mean “to hide or avoid” (躲)


totally agree with other two comments, tbh, nobody uses pinyin anymore after grade six, it is really just a stepping stone for kids to learn chinese before they can memorize all the common characters help them to read. As a Chinese i actually hate pinin as an adult because my name would appear in Pinin on my passport and it loses all its meaning.

Yeah I follow you. Pinyin helped me learn tones and reading. But now I can look at a character and find the radical. Then could the remaining strokes and look it up in a paper dictionary.

I have the books school children buy in china and yeah 7+ it’s just characters.


And yet people speak Chinese without displaying characters for help in comprehension.

Because spoken language usually has more context (as compared to a brief written sign or a headline).

In those contexts, I'd think you could usually choose a different phrasing that wouldn't be ambiguous.

You have the same "advantage" with word components in alphabetic languages, such as "picto+gram", "sub+marine", and what have you.

Yes and in alphabetic languages those word components are much more ambiguous, especially in abbreviations. 加州 is a lot less ambiguous than CA, hence the greater prevalence of the former in daily use.

> alphabetic languages those word components are much more ambiguous

I don't think so. The components of a polysyllabic word can give (more or less) strong hints to its meaning, but typically the word and its meaning must still be learned. But the same holds for radicals in Chinese characters, and even polysyllabic words in Chinese (电视/電視 is electric + vision, and that's TV. Television is distant + vision, and that's also TV.)

That two characters with 14 bits each carry more information than two characters with 5 bits each is clear, but not a huge advantage of non-alphabetic writing, or a decisive one (compared to the disadvantages).


Yes but the point is that CA and 加州 are both two syllables in speech. In your example, "televison" is 4 syllables whereas "电视" is only two. As you've noted, the writing system has over time created a higher information to syllable ratio. A transition to a writing system with a lower information to syllable ratio would require a complete change in vocabulary and the translation of pretty much all written text.

> the translation of pretty much all written text

Yes, agreed. It would by no means be trivial. Question is whether it would be worth it (in terms of freeing up time for children to study something else, for example).


Homonyms exist in every language. The advantages do not outweigh the drawbacks.

There's order of magnitude more homonyms in Mandarin than English to the point where having a pictograms system starts making sense. That's why 80 percent of characters are multipart with one of the radicals carrying the pronunciation.

Homonyms don't exist in every language to the extant that you can write an entire essay with them.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_...


> Homonyms don't exist in every language to the extant that you can write an entire essay with them.

Homonyms like that don't exist in any living language. Spoken Classical Chinese is a dead language, like Latin. You only get that effect when you use modern Mandarin pronunciations, they wouldn't have been homonyms if you didn't use anachronous pronunciations. It's sort of like writing a poem that means one thing in Latin and an entirely different thing in modern Italian.


Yet Classical Chinese is still a large part of Chinese literary canon, partially because the writing system allows for written Classical Chinese to comprehended by modern readers. There are no examples to "Lion-Eating Poet" in Italian and English precisely because phonetic writing systems cause most writing to be incomprehensible as pronounciations change.

Your example is also egregious also because the entire point of "Lion-Eating Poet" isn't that "it means different things in classical and modern Chinese" but that semantical meaning can still be transmitted by the writing system completely independent of pronounciation.


> Yet Classical Chinese is still a large part of Chinese literary canon, partially because the writing system allows for written Classical Chinese to comprehended by modern readers.

But only essentially though translation. It's different enough that a typical Chinese reader can't jump into those works with ease.

Latin works are still part of the Western literary canon, and for many centuries Europeans went though the trouble of learning Latin to read them. You can still find fossilized Latin phrases in modern languages like English, et cetera. That doesn't mean Latin is a truly living language.

> There are no examples to "Lion-Eating Poet" in Italian and English precisely because phonetic writing systems cause most writing to be incomprehensible as pronounciations change.

> Your example is also egregious also because the entire point of "Lion-Eating Poet" isn't that "it means different things in classical and modern Chinese" but that semantical meaning can still be transmitted by the writing system completely independent of pronounciation.

There can be no exact analogy because phonetic writing systems are more conserving of pronunciation while systems like Chinese are more conserving of semantics. That's why I said it's "it's sort of like." My point was the poem is more of a stunt than a real statement about a real language.


>But only essentially though translation.

Classical works are not translated into Modern Chinese.

I think that's the source of our disagreement. When the writing system is focused on semantics, then the threshold where something is considered translation is different than for a phonetic writing system.

>Latin works are still part of the Western literary canon.

Yes, but most modern westerners can not read Latin on it's own, because of the writing system.

>My point was the poem is more of a stunt than a real statement about a real language.

What is a "real language" here? The poem is comprehensible to modern Chinese, although the grammar follows Classical Conventions. What makes it not a "real language"?


> What is a "real language" here? The poem is comprehensible to modern Chinese, although the grammar follows Classical Conventions. What makes it not a "real language"?

I should have been more specific: I meant a real living language. The poem is a stunt that demonstrates how far modern Mandarin pronunciation has diverged from Classical Chinese (which is dead as a spoken language), but it doesn't make much of a statement about the practicality of replacing hanzi with a phonetic system for writing modern living Mandarin.


>doesn't make much of a statement about the practicality replacing hanzi with a phonetic writing system for everyday use.

What is everyday use? Surely a writing system should be capable of more than "Hello, my name is Knolax?". If a proposed new writing system was incapable of representing Shakespeare in any comprehensible way, would it be suitable for English?

I realize now that you consider Classical Chinese as a seperate language from Modern Chinese. I and most Chinese speakers would probably disagree, but I don't think that's a line that can be drawn without a lot of nitpicking from both of us.


> What is everyday use? Surely a writing system should be capable of more than "Hello, my name is Knolax?". If a proposed new writing system was incapable of representing Shakespeare in any comprehensible way, would it be suitable for English?

Sorry I edited on you, but what I meant was a phonetic system could be used in all ways contemporary spoken Mandarin is currently used without getting too tripped up by homophones.

There would obviously be difficulties when dealing with very old texts, but I think such difficulties are inevitable regardless of the language as the changes pile up. Something will be lost unless you spend the appropriate effort learning the state of language as it existed when the text originally written.

> I realize now that you consider Classical Chinese as a seperate language from Modern Chinese. I and most Chinese speakers would probably disagree, but I don't think that's a line that can be drawn without a lot of nitpicking from both of us.

Yeah.


> I meant was a phonetic system could be used in all ways contemporary spoken Mandarin is currently used without getting too tripped up by homophones.

Except phonetic writing systems are aren't even capable of representing Chinese names correctly. I think you're underestimating the extent to which homophones are prevalent in Chinese. It's not just classical texts, it's all written texts and most non-trivial spoken words, including names. The vast majority of Chinese morphemes are only a syllable long, and have up to hundreds of homophones. Unlike most European languages, Chinese names do not all come from a fixed list like "John. Mary, Jane, etc..." and are instead constructed directly from morphemes. The result is that whenever you encounter a Chinese name transliterated phonetically in any system, there is no deterministic way of converting it back into Chinese without ambiguity.


> I think you're underestimating the extent to which homophones are prevalent in Chinese. It's not just classical texts, it's all written texts and most non-trivial spoken words, including names. The vast majority of Chinese morphemes are only a syllable long, and have up to hundreds of homophones.

I guess my question is how much of a problem are these in spoken communication (say over a telephone where there's less shared situational context)? My intuition is that if the prevalence of homophones were so troublesome to make a phonetic writing system difficult/impractical to use, they'd also make spoken telephone conversations similarly difficult/impractical. Since Chinese people can obviously speak productively on the telephone, then there must be enough context in the phoneme-stream that it's sufficient to effectively communicate without the extra context provided by the characters.

That's not to say the characters don't provide an extra layer of depth and subtlety to written text over phonetic writing.


> an extra layer of depth

I think that's the best way to put it. Like you intuited, a phonetic system is perfectly capable of writing down spoken conversations, but without as much context as a spoken conversation it's going to get more confusing. For example, he she and it in Chinese are all pronounced "tā", but are written as 他,她, and 它 respectively in Chinese. In fact it's common to write "ta" as an equivalent to xhe/xer/xem.


On this issue, see also "The Homonym problem", in Wm. C. Hannas, Asia's Orthographic Dilemma:

http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/east_asian_languages.html#...


Homonyms are words that are pronounced the same way. These words use different tones.

Good point.

Beyond that, FWIW, homophones are words that are pronounced the same way. Homonyms are pronounced and spelt the same way. I guess in the context of Chinese (where disambiguation by character is the big issue), one should speak of homophones?


There are four tones. The poem has 33 unique words.

Better off how?

The ability to communicate in another language can really only be a positive development for any individual group.

That is only true when the other language is one that someone else you want to talk to speaks AND the other person doesn't speak your language. Unfortunately there are thousands of different languages in the world, it doesn't matter what language you speak somebody exists who doesn't speak it and then you cannot communicate. Alternatively, if the other party has already invested in learning your language there is less benefit to learning theirs. (less is not zero)

Is any language a good choice? The world changes all the time, over my lifetime English has been the best choice for the majority of people - in part because the majority of language learners have chosen English making it self-reinforcing (which isn't to discount the other reasons to learn English). However history is not always a predictor of the future. Even if history is the best overall your particular future might make Kazakh the best language to learn. (I picked Kazakh because you have probably never even heard of it before)

Don't forget that time spent learning a language could be used for something else. Language is useful to know, but it isn't the only thing and you cannot possibly learn all the useful things there are to know. You have to choose and your choices will both open and close doors to your future. Good luck choosing.


"That is only true when the other language is one that someone else you want to talk to speaks AND the other person doesn't speak your language"

Don't agree. It's good for self development even if you'll never use it very often.

Language is an extremely powerful human concept. It forms cultures. They say Germans are candid and direct? Well, maybe that's because there's usually only one way to say something in German! In English, you can almost always say something that has two meanings, at the very same time.

Learning a language is like visiting a completely foreign culture and it can change your view of things. It's like having an extra limb.

Life is very long, there's plenty of time to learn all sorts of things. A second language is useful, which is why there are all sorts of options in grade school.

And Chinese is a pretty good option.


You have reduced language to no better than learning to knit, but I won't disagree.

Fun fact, European traders used to learn kipchak language, which highly resembles modern kazakh language. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Cumanicus

How are you judging positivity?

Classroom time should be spent on the most important things. Learning for the sake of learning is meaningless. There is no value in knowing how many dots are on the ceiling. The classroom time could been spent learning something more meaningful. For example, cursive writing should not be taught.

I would suggest only praising skills that help a child economically or make life fulfilling. I do not consider learning different ways to say a word as fulfilling as history, art, or philosophy.


Reductio ad absurdum. Could just as easily say any of the following:

I do not consider learning how to smear grease on a canvas could be as fulfilling as <whatever>.

I do not consider memorizing dates and people's names as fulfilling as <whatever>.

I do not consider ruminating on some made up dilemmas to be as fulfilling as <whatever>.

Second language learning is a hell of a lot more than learning a foreign vocabulary.

People like different things (to say absolutely nothing of the other half of how you justify investing in learning -- the economic value of having mastered a second language). Even if it were possible that your individual tastes were some kind of universal truth and we're all just unenlightened -- what have you done to enlighten us here -- the value of the things you like must be self evident? Is everyone just an NPC?


First - a lot of grade school is just babysitting. It's definitely not a cramped situation of required learning. Point being, there's little lost opportunity cost here. Assuming kids are getting the fundamentals ... there's lots of time for more, decent learning.

Second - any second language skill is going to be immensely useful as a learning tool. It really helps one understand language and communication.

Third - Chinese, it would seem, is likely going to be a useful language in a country receiving considerably Chinese investment.


Do you really think learning chinese won't be economically helpful in the coming decades?

Also, what makes you think learning a different language is just "learning different ways to say a word"? This only makes you seem uninformed on the subject. Do you speak more than one language?


Embrace the change and opportunity!

In germany we tried to start teaching Turkish at school. Boy was that a shit show of racism...


Teaching German kids Turkish feels like it has a political motive more than anything else. I can see Kenyans gaining opportunities of improving their lives by learning Chinese. What do Germans have to earn from learning Turkish? Are you sure the backlash was racism and not just a lot of "what a terrible waste of time and public money"?

Turkish has been taught in Germany for quite a while, with little or no controversy. Here's an article from 2014 on this [1], which mentions it started around 30 years earlier.

Germany and Turkey have long had a close economic relationship. Turkey is a major vacation destination for Germans. The largest ethnic minority in Germany is Turks. Germany has promoted Turkish migration to Germany for over 200 years, which really picked up in the mid 20th century to fill the German labor loses from WW II.

Offering Turkish as an elective language in Germany seems roughly equivalent to offering Spanish in the Southwestern United States.

[1] https://en.qantara.de/content/the-turkish-language-in-german...


Turkish is the most spoken language at homes with migration background.

Not even speaking about the percentage of people from foreign countries speaking or understanding Turkish as a second language.

Beside English and German, Turkish is the most understood and spoken language in germany.

Why not teach it in schools? you can pick languages, Latin, France, so why not Turkish? (beside English)


If all those families moved to Germany because there was no future in Turkey, it's highly unlikely that learning Turkish will do any good for them. I think the objective of a public education has to be to improve the lives of people, if they want to learn Turkish or Klingon they should pay for it themselves.

Also I can imagine that adding a new language choice is very expensive.


> If all those families moved to Germany because there was no future in Turkey, it's highly unlikely that learning Turkish will do any good for them

The classes are for people who only speak German. People emigrating from Turkey likely speak Turkish.

It's about understanding other cultures, and the ones most relevent. Just like how in England, along with learning about christianity, we learnt about Islam.

It's like in the US, Spanish is the most popular second language taught in schools, since you're very close to large numbers of spanish speakers, and have a high number of spanish-speaking migrants. In the UK, amongst a load of other reasons, until very recently French was the most poopular second language in schools, since France is pretty close to us.


Germans don't have to learn about Turks. Turks have to learn about Germans and blend in. If they can't, that's a very serious failure.

You seemed to have ignored several of my points, which leads me to believe that you're not debatting in good faith.

> Germans don't have to learn about Turks

Why not? If they reside in the same country, mutual culteral understanding can be key for integration.

> Turks have to learn about Germans and blend in

We can have both, Germans learn a bit of Turkish, Turks learn German, where's the problem?

> If they can't, that's a very serious failure.

Where above is it indicated that Turks are failing to learn German?


The typical alternatives for third language are French, Latin, Spanish or Russian, those clearly are much more about practical benefit than a language people around you regionally might actually speak (in parts of the country, I assume closer to the French border French is somewhat more practical than e.g. in Berlin)?

Was it mandatory for students?

I don't know about the specifics of that case, but but if I was forced to learn a language solely because there are many people who speak that language in the country, I would be upset. I want to learn the languages that are more useful to me, not to other people.


This is a double edged sword. China is increasing it's influence in Africa through it's debt and road .. ahem, I mean, belt and road.. initiative and is arguably the most influential great power in Africa.

It's doubtful, even in the long term that Mandarin will challenge English and French with respect to influence in Africa, but language is one of the strongest signifiers of cultural influence, and it's obvious that China is looking to tighten its influence on Africa.

That being said, the ability to speak Mandarin can only be viewed as a benefit. English is the de facto international language but there is an obvious advantage to fluency in a language spoken by the 2nd largest economy and 1.5 billion people.


That actually really sounds promising. Wish I had some Mandarin "for free" as a part of my HS/Uni curriculum.

I'm pretty sure that this "free" Mandarin comes with a pretty thick string attached.

How much will the kids owe to the Chinese exactly?

I don't know. How much is Kenya worth exactly?

Kenya holds third highest Chinese debt in Africa https://www.capitalfm.co.ke/business/2018/09/kenya-holds-thi...

Chinese names might be the next move :). Sorry but I don't think this is a coincidence.


As a supporter of multilingual education in general I'm all for this in principle.

That said, language learning really needs a media ecosystem to sustain it outside the classroom. (Most Americans take token Spanish or French but would be hard pressed to go beyond 'hola' or 'bonjour' in real life.)

Beijing projects its power through economic and political means. But that's not enough. Unlike e.g. Japan (anime, video games) or South Korea (K-drama, K-pop), China still doesn't have pop-cultural "soft power" to help fuel said ecosystem -- I'd argue this is the main problem China needs to overcome for the language to really take off in non-Chinese communities.


Shouldn’t they start younger than 10? I remember reading that languages are easier to retain the younger you are.

I suppose it will be their fourth language for many, as they will still want them learn Swahili and/or English. But I know almost nothing about Kenya, so I may be wrong.

Kenyan here. You're actually right. English and Swahili are already taught in schools. Most kids speak at least another tribal language. So in this case, Chinese will be the fourth for many

Also, it's virtually impossible to gain fluency in a script after a very young age (around 5 if I recall correctly) and verbal language isn't much better, with native fluency very rare after the age of 13-17 or so.

Source please, and define fluency.

I learned english at 22, german at 25, and mandarin at 28, It took several years of daily studying for each language, but I did it, and I was able to use these languages in professional environments. Plenty of people do it in my experience.


I did state "native fluency" which is more descriptive.

Anyway, sure, here's a source I found quickly which actually makes stronger claims than I did: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/at-what-age-does-...


I speak 6 languages including some Japanese and I disagree with you. I also met people who learnt to speak languages by the age of 60 and they made it good enough for easy business.

I'm not sure which part you disagree with. I explicitly claimed "native fluency" is the hard part. See the source in my sibling (cousin?) comment.

I'm 41 and learning 2 languages right now. I might learn slower than a 5 year old but I retain my learning and it isn't a race...

I agree completely. I'm not sure if you thought I implied otherwise?

Yeah, I did think that is what you were implying.

I know immigrants who moved to the US in their 20s and 30s. Quite a few didn’t have much of an accent and I would’ve guessed they were born here but learned English in school due to immigrant parents.

Without fail the best speakers told me they lost their accent because they wanted to describe a huge up hill battle. Hard work, practice, and a commitment to figure out the right way to say it. Plus loads and loads of English TV.


This is absolutely not true. I started learning english when I was about 13 years old. Now I'm definitely fluet in English. So it's incorrect that you cannot achieve fluency in a foreign language after the age of five.

That's not what I said... Please re-read my comment.

What exactly are you saying? People learn language after the age of 5 all the time.

Yes. That's not what I'm saying. It's virtually impossible to learn a new script and have "fluency" (which I'll loosely define as being able to effortless read a page without processing individual letters) after a very young age. I read a study that described this recently that I'll try to find again.

That age limit is 13. However, learning new languages is the only skill that does not get significantly worse by age, and you can do till you turn 65. Sources are underway.

Obviously an anecdote, but a friend of Minsk told me that knowing Mandarin can easily raise your salary x2, especially on managerial/sales positions.

It will be interesting to watch China try and exert soft power. Like everything they do, it's going to be a top-down affair. Hard to imagine the Standing Committee coming up with anything as influential as rock-n-roll or blue jeans.

Japan proved that East Asian culture is perfectly capable of capturing the global imagination. But that didn't happen until the culture had decades to develop in a prosperous and free society.

I imagine that for the most part we'll just see a lot more of this. Throwing money at nations that have a hard time saying no, and simply trying to buy cultural influence. I don't imagine it will be a huge success.


There's one way that China has done phenomenal with soft power already in a very bottom up fashion: tourism. At least throughout Asia, Chinese tourists are absolutely everywhere. This is a relatively new phenomena and I imagine it's a product of their middle class exploding (in a good way). You can also find countless Chinese migrating to other nations but still very much retaining their own culture.

As a result of these things the Chinese language is an increasingly valuable skill throughout the continent. And you even see a variety of things like signs and other things that are also written in a local language, English, and Chinese as well.

It's extremely difficult to predict where China is headed, but in my opinion they are blazing their own trail in a way that, for now at least, seems to be working phenomenally well. And there's one critical nuance here. China has a population of 1.4 billion that is mostly united. If their economic growth and general influence continues along anything even vaguely resembling its current trajectory, they will be the most powerful and influential nation in the world in the very foreseeable future.


> If their economic growth and general influence continues along anything even vaguely resembling its current trajectory, they will be the most powerful and influential nation in the world in the very foreseeable future.

I agree China will become the world's largest economy in the near future, it remains to be seen if they will be able to escape the middle income trap. China demographically is getting older and is set for a decline in population. What happens if the population starts declining before achieving high-income status?


Success by what measure?

It might be difficult, as chinese is incredibly difficult to learn. It seems just like a way to appease the Chinese government. I wonder what how they teach english.

How Africa is becoming China's China - https://youtu.be/zQV_DKQkT8o

I wish they taught me Chinese as well.

Have you started learning Chinese yet? It is quite fascinating. I've been learning for 4 years now.

Warning, controversial opinion: Chinese is too hard to be cost-effective to learn.

I took 3 years' worth of Mandarin in college.

But when I traveled to Brazil, I was able to communicate more easily in Portuguese in just a month, than I was in China after 2 full years of courses plus two and a half months of intensive courses in Beijing.

Chinese is hard because it has virtually zero cognates with English, you have to learn every word new. (Contrast with Portuguese, where I "knew" half the words already because I could easily guess that "television" is just "televisão". Same with French, Italian, etc.)

And Chinese is hard because you have to learn how to "spell" every word separately -- if you thought zero cognates was hard, this is 10x harder.

Quite frankly it's an insane time commitment, and unless you plan to live most of your life in China or Taiwan, it's just not worth it if your goal is communication. Chinese people are learning English so they can communicate with the world. It might seem unfair, but there's just zero practical reason for most English speakers to learn Chinese beyond some basic greetings, except as a fun hobby or some minimum vocabulary for travel.

For more info, read the very famous article "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard". [1] Anybody who wants to learn Chinese should read it first so they know what they're getting into.

[1] http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html


That's only true when you already speak English, or at least another Germanic or Romance language. Otherwise, all this applies to English exactly the same as it does to Chinese.

No, it's vastly easier for Chinese to learn English (or French or German) because they're generally phonetically-spelled languages.

There aren't any cognates, but you don't spend years memorizing thousands and thousands of characters to learn English.

And the payoff is much higher: learning Chinese only lets you communicate with Chinese/Taiwanese people. Learning English lets you communicate with a huge proportion of the world who also learns English as a second language, simply because it's the current lingua franca.


> No, it's vastly easier for Chinese to learn English (or French or German) because they're generally phonetically-spelled languages.

Interesting of you to make that claim as english spelling is usually a nightmare to learn (as is French spelling to a minor extent). Sometimes people really are learning it word by word. It seems easier for you because you're already familiar with it.

> And the payoff is much higher: learning Chinese only lets you communicate with Chinese/Taiwanese people. Learning English lets you communicate with a huge proportion of the world who also learns English as a second language, simply because it's the current lingua franca.

Well, seeing as there are well over a billion of chinese people I'd think twice about using the word "only". Also there are many who speak it as a second language as well.


> but you don't spend years memorizing thousands and thousands of characters to learn English

except you are memorizing thousands and thousands of spellings to learn English


This sounds like BS to me. There are rules and exceptions to those rules one must learn/memorise, but I highly doubt it's "thousands and thousands".

There's a lot of English comprehension you get "for free" by knowing some of these rules, e.g., "magic e" or [the actually incorrect] "i before e, except after c".


> There are rules and exceptions to those rules one must learn/memorise, but I highly doubt it's "thousands and thousands".

Exactly my point: This is true in Chinese (Hanzi) as well.

Edit: English-speaking individuals often overestimate the difficulty of learning Hanzi while underestimate the barrier of learning English spelling. For an example, see Ted Chiang's claim of "you need only learn a few dozen symbols and you can read most everything printed in a newspaper" [0].

[0]: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/16/if-chinese-wer...


I learned English. The spelling is a nightmare, you essentially need to learn it twice. Chinese at least doesn't pretend to be phonetic.

You also need smaller vocabulary in Chinese - 3500 characters is all you need. English vocabulary is absolutely massive.

The grammar is pretty bizarre as well, as far as I am able to judge.


Tangential to the main topic, but relevant to some of your remarks about English grammar.

Have you ever read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell?

Since covering it in High School, it's been my go to for all writing. Writing the way he describes will have everyone understand you. It doesn't need to be more complex than that. It might be argued that it's superior in most cases. (Sadly we never covered this in our general English classes. We only covered it in Creative Writing)

Here are his six rules for writing, and a link to the essay for anyone interested:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79p/

---

Edited to add my favourite example of what the essay is largely about:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

"""I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth"""

Here it is in modern English:

"""Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."""


To this day, English is difficult for my parents, who have a hard time keeping gendered pronouns straight. But at least the irregularity of the numerical system isn't as weird as French.

Chinese is considerably easier and English considerably harder if your first language is an Asian language.


> “...have a hard time keeping gendered pronouns straight.”

ha, i see that in the english captioning sometimes when watching chinese dramas. at least gender is only in the pronouns, rather than (nearly) every word via gender suffixes (like the romance languages).


How can they write Chinese if they can't get gendered pronouns straight? (他 vs. 她)

Chinese numbers quite logical and straightforward, true, though French (and German etc.) numbers pose small hurdles only, I'd say.

> Chinese is considerably easier and English considerably harder if your first language is an Asian language.

That really depends which language you're talking about. I'd bet most Indonesians, for example, would disagree. However, granted, a language will be easier when you are familiar with a language that has many cognates.


他 vs. 她 was invented in order to maintain compatibility with Western languages, and using 他 in place of 她 is not considered grammatically incorrect, and you don't learn to write both of them until you start to read and write in school, not when you're a baby learning to talk.

For instance, when my birth certificate was translated into English, there are male pronouns littered everywhere because the inexperienced translator didn't give it a second thought, even though the gender field was clearly marked as female.

French, though is particularly brutal for Chinese native speakers, because not only do you have to consciously track each human speaker's gender and whether they are in groups of mixed males and females or all females, but also track the arbitrary genders of objects.


Ah, interesting!

Try German, with 3 genders. :-)

Having said that, learners of Chinese need to memorise which measure word goes with any given noun, and there are more than 3 of those!


> but also track the arbitrary genders of objects.

That's still better than having to keep track of measure words in Mandarin. : )


As a learner of both I have found French speakers to be far less forgiving of mistakes in gender, probably because it’s unavoidable. In mandarin you can use a catch all counting word and people still understand. In French it seems to really confuse speakers when you mess up gender.

But do you believe it's the same for young students who have tons of free time over the space of many years? I'm not sure your personal experience dictates an absolute about this situation. I was forced to learn an extremely niche language in school; even learning the basics of chinese would have been more useful.

I do. There's actually a very plausible theory that Chinese economic development is harmed by the sheer number of hours schoolchildren spend memorizing characters rather than conceptual learning -- that moving to a phonetic alphabet would be a huge boost in terms of overall learning. (This isn't a Western argument, it's a Chinese argument for phoneticization which is still mostly opposed by the population.)

Young students don't have "tons of free time" -- their school time is spent on something, and if they're memorizing Chinese characters, then there are necessarily other skills that will be less developed.


Most of those arguments were made when China was 3rd world, it’ll get harder to sell that each passing year. Also that’s a great argument to simplify English as well, but few seem thrilled about that idea.
More

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: