Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard
by David Moser
University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, “Hard for whom?” A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the “terrible twos”, it’s Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by “hard”? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.

作者:David Moser

看到这篇文章的标题,任何有头脑的人第一个问题都会是“难,是对谁而言?”问的有理。说到底,中国人看起来学的还挺顺当的。当中国小孩儿经历那“狗 都嫌的两岁”时,他们用的是中文来把父母们逼疯。几年之后,同样这些孩子就已经在用复杂得不可思议的汉字来歪歪斜斜地写情书和购物清单了。所以我说的 “难”到底是什么意思?既然我早就知道本文的语调将充满牢骚和抱怨,那我最好还是说清楚自己到底是什么意思。我的意思是,对我来说很难,一个以英语为母 语,试图学习中文的成年人。他会经历教科书、磁带、语伴等等这一整套折磨人的繁琐过程。我的“难”是说的对我自己,呃——当然还对很多其他西方人,那些花 费了经年累月,在中文的长城上撞到头大的人们(译者:原文“Chinese”同时表示“中文”和“中国的”)。

If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you’re coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I’m contending is that Chinese is hard compared to … well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it’s also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.
如果我要说的只有这些,那这些话相当空洞。中文对我来说当然难喽。毕竟,任何外语对非母语人士都很难,对不对?这个嘛,差不多是这样。不过不是所有的外语 对任何学生的难度都是一样的。它取决于你自己的母语。一个法国人学意大利语往往比美国人快,而一个普通美国人掌握德语则多半比一个普通日本人快得多,如此 而已。所以我所谈论的部分观点是指中文很难,相对于……反正相对于你有可能想学的几乎其他任何语言。我的意思是中文不但对我们(英语人士)来说难,它在绝 对意义上也是难的。这意味着对于中国人来说,中文也很难。

If you don’t believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.
如果你不信,随便问个中国人。绝大多数中国人都会高兴地承认他们的语言很难,可能是地球上最难的。(实际上很多人以此为傲,就好象实际上有些纽约人以居住 在美国最不宜居的城市为傲一样。)可能所有中国人都该因为生为中国人而获得一枚奖牌才是。不管怎样,基本上他们早晚都会意识到他们母语那种珠穆朗玛峰一样 的地位的,当他们站在那至高无上的山峰上,优越地俯视着那些有勇无谋的外国人们在陡峭的山崖上气喘吁吁的时候。

Everyone’s heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom “It’s Greek to me” and search for equivalent idioms in all the world’s languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression “C’est du chinois”, “It’s Chinese”, i.e., “It’s incomprehensible”. Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng 跟天书一样 meaning “It’s like heavenly script.”

大家都听过这个公认的说法,那就是如果你考虑英语中的“It’s Greek to me”(译者注:原意是“这对我就像希腊文”,引申为“难以理解”。),然后在全世界的语言中寻找一个与之相对应的习语,从而得到一个关于哪个语言最难的 共识。那这样一个语言调查的结果将是中文轻松获得最难解语言的称号。(比如,法语就有这种表达“C’est du chinois”,意为“这是中文”,亦即“这是神马我不懂”。其他语言有类似说法。)那么问题来了,中国人自己认为什么才是最不可能学会的困难语言呢? 你在中文中寻找类似的习语,然后你找到了——“跟天书一样”

There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.
Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?

这些可不完全是在说笑话,中文那令人心痛的难度是名副其实的。所有那些试图学习这门语言的人们,除了纯粹以此为乐的,都会对学习中极低的投入产出比感到沮 丧。那些实际上正是被这门语言吓人的复杂和难度吸引的家伙,则绝不会失望。不管原因为何,所有中文学习者早晚都会问自己这个问题“我到底为啥在干这个?” 还能记着自己初衷的人会明智的选择立刻放弃,因为没有什么值得付出如此多的痛苦挣扎。而对自己回答说“事已至此,无路可退”的人呢,则有机会成功,因为他 们拥有学习中文必需的素质——不见黄河不死心的死钻牛角尖精神。

1. Because the writing system is ridiculous.
Beautiful, complex, mysterious — but ridiculous. I, like many students of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.

1. 因为书写系统很不合理

优美,复杂,神秘……但是莫名其妙。像很多中文学习者一样,我一开始就是被这些汉字所吸引的,它们肯定是世界上最迷人的字符之一。你学中文越多就就 越发现汉字的让人上瘾的魅力。中文汉字的学习可以令人痴迷一生,很快你就每天一滴滴地从汉字的海洋中积累成癖,徒劳地试图建立一点储备,靠着那漏水桶一般 的长期记忆能力。

The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet — some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren’t too practical for daily use.

For one thing, it is simply unreasonably hard to learn enough characters to become functionally literate. Again, someone may ask “Hard in comparison to what?” And the answer is easy: Hard in comparison to Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hindi, or any other sane, “normal” language that requires at most a few dozen symbols to write anything in the language. John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time. Naturally, this estimate is rather crude and impressionistic (it’s unclear what “comparable levels” means here), but the overall implications are obvious: the Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system. Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself.

Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like “Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper”. Poppycock. I couldn’t comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by “read” in this context is “read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters”; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)

汉字的优美是不容置疑的,不过当中国人意识到普及识字的重要性时,有一点就很明显了,这些表意文字有些像裹足小脚——可能有些恋物癖喜欢这些小脚, 可是它们在日常中并不实用。首先,要学会基本识字要求的汉字就已经是不可理喻的难了。“相对什么而难?”有人可能会再次发问。答案很简单:相对西班牙语, 希腊语,俄语,印地语,或者任何只需要最多几十个符号就能完成书写的“正常而理智”的语言。 John DeFrancis在他的书The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy中提到,他的中国同事估计让一个说普通话的人学会读写三千个汉字需要七到八年,而他的法国和西班牙同事估计他们的母语要达到类似水平则是只 需一半时间。自然的,这些估计很粗糙,凭印象而已(比如什么算“类似水平”就没说清楚),不过其中寓意是显然的:中文书写系统在绝对程度上比字母书写系统 更难学习。在中国,就算是吸收能力处于顶峰的小孩子,他们学起汉字来也比其他国家小孩学习其他文字更费劲。所以想象一下已过青春期的,学习相对缓慢的外国 人学习者(比如我)经历的困难吧!

大家都听说过中文很难是因为需要掌握巨量的汉字,这一点千真万确。好多畅销书和文章中淡化了这一困难,说什么“尽管中文拥有 (10000,25000,或者50000。来,您选个数字)个不同的汉字,你其实只需要学习大约2000个就能读报了”。这是瞎掰。我学习了2000个 汉字的时候并不能顺利地读报。我常常每看一行就得查几个字,之后还得冥思苦想文章的意思。(我假定读报中“读”的意思是“阅读并且能基本理解文章意思,而 不需要查几十个字先”,不然的话这个说法就没什么好讨论的了。)

This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones. But what such accounts don’t tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words “up” and “tight” doesn’t mean you know the word “uptight”.) Plus, as anyone who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning. Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of knowing a lot of words; one has to get a feeling for how those words combine with other words in a multitude of different contexts. In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text. A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline “JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS” is not going to get very far if they don’t know the words “jacuzzi” or “phlebitis”.

The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task — never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.

这个神话广泛流传,主要因为当考虑出现频率时,任何报纸中超过95%的汉字都是在最常用的2000个汉字之中。但这样的数字并没告诉你其实还有非常 多的由这些熟悉的汉字组成的陌生词汇。(比如说,在英文中知道“up”和“tight”并不意味着你也知道“uptight”的意思。)(译者注:猜猜看 uptight什么意思?)而且,所有学过任何语言的人都知道,你常常明白每个词儿的意思,但就是不懂整段文字的含义。阅读理解可不是整明白一大堆词儿的 意思就行了,你还得搞清楚这些词儿和其他词汇在很多不同语境中如何结合使用。此外,很明显,即使你认识一段话里95%的汉字,剩下的5%也常常恰好是理解 文章最需要的部分。一个非英语母语的人读到“JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS”这条新闻标题时如果不知道什么是“Jacuzzi”或“phlebitis”,那他也基本上搞不清这句话什么意思。(译 者:jacuzzi是一种按摩式浴缸;phlebitis则是静脉炎。)

阅读的困难在学习中国的圈子里是个恼人的问题。我们汉学家们中有多少人敢在大家面前站出来,大声阅读一段随机挑选的文字呢?然而自卑情结或是怕丢脸 的心理让很多教师和学生不自觉的变成了某种无言的共犯:每个人都假装好像学习四年中文之后,勤奋的学生就应该能飕飕地阅读从孔子到鲁迅的任何作品,只是偶 尔停下来查一些烦人的低频率汉字(当然,用的还得是中中字典)。其他一些人呢,当然对困难的存在就更诚实些。有一天一个学了中文十年以上的同学跟我说, “我的研究被一个问题阻碍着,那就是我还是不能阅读中文。读两三页书要花掉我好几个小时,而我甚至不能略读来节省些时间。”要是一个学了十年,比如说,法 国文学的学生这么承认,那可真是令人惊讶。然而我在同侪中常听到此类评论(至少在那些放松的时候是这样,比如喝了太多青岛啤酒,开始哀叹论文的工作进度多 么缓慢……)

我一个老师曾经跟我说了个他和一个同事会玩的游戏:他们在亚洲图书馆的中国区里随机从书架上抽一本书,看谁先搞懂这本书在讲什么。所有在东亚文学作 品集上花过工夫的人都可以证明,这个游戏的确相当难,更不必提真正阅读整本书。这样的状况真是令那些迫不及待要在中国文学的宝库中大快朵颐的学生们伤心沮 丧,头几年他们只能靠乏味的罐装教材,讲义和小心剪辑过的开胃小文章度日……

The comparison with learning the usual western languages is striking. After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels — La nausée by Sartre, Voltaire’s Candide, L’étranger by Camus — plus countless newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc. It was a lot of work but fairly painless; all I really needed was a good dictionary and a battered French grammar book I got at a garage sale.

This kind of “sink or swim” approach just doesn’t work in Chinese. At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn’t yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn’t read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People’s Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. Someone at that time suggested I read The Dream of the Red Chamber and gave me a nice three-volume edition. I just have to laugh. It still sits on my shelf like a fat, smug Buddha, only the first twenty or so pages filled with scribbled definitions and question marks, the rest crisp and virgin. After six years of studying Chinese, I’m still not at a level where I can actually read it without an English translation to consult. (By “read it”, I mean, of course, “read it for pleasure”. I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and a dictionary in my hand, I could get through it.) Simply diving into the vast pool of Chinese in the beginning is not only foolhardy, it can even be counterproductive. As George Kennedy writes, “The difficulty of memorizing a Chinese ideograph as compared with the difficulty of learning a new word in a European language, is such that a rigid economy of mental effort is imperative.” This is, if anything, an understatement. With the risk of drowning so great, the student is better advised to spend more time in the shallow end treading water before heading toward the deep end.

对比一般常见的西方语言,差别非常明显。 只学了一年法语,我就能阅读很多东西了。我浏览了大致的小说名作,萨特的《La nausée》,伏尔泰的《Candide》,卡缪的《L’étranger》,还有数不清的报纸,杂志,漫画,等等。花了不少工夫,不过却不怎么痛苦: 我用到的只是一本好字典和一本旧货市场上买来的破旧不堪的语法书。

这种“扔到水里学游泳”的方法就是不适用于中文。在学了中文三年的时候,我还没读过一本完整的小说。我发现那读起来实在太难,太慢,毫无收获可言。 报纸那时候也还是令人畏惧。那时候我读篇文章恨不得每十个字就得查个字典。看一遍人民日报的头版,连一个标题也“解密”不了,这种事儿也一点儿不少见。当 时有个人推荐我看《红楼梦》还送我一套漂亮的三卷版。我只能笑…… 它现在还躺在我的书架上呢,得意洋洋地对我露出胜利者的微笑。只有前二十几页涂满了潦草的笔记和问号,其他部分则是清爽洁净的处女地。学了中文六年之后, 我仍然没有达到能不借助英文翻译阅读它的水平。(阅读它,我当然是指的阅读取乐。我估计如果谁拿把枪指着我脑袋然后手里扔本字典,我也能想法儿读下来它吧 吧。)在一开始的阶段就冲进中文的浩瀚海洋,这种做法不但有勇无谋,而且适得其反。如同George Kennedy写的,“记忆一个中文(象形)字比学习一个欧洲语言词汇难上如此之多,以至于严格地节约精神力是必须的。”这其实还是低估了难度。(在中文 的海洋中)被淹没的风险非常大,所以学生最好还是先在浅谈涉水中多花点时间,再考虑前往深处。

As if all this weren’t bad enough, another ridiculous aspect of the Chinese writing system is that there are two (mercifully overlapping) sets of characters: the traditional characters still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the simplified characters adopted by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Any foreign student of Chinese is more or less forced to become familiar with both sets, since they are routinely exposed to textbooks and materials from both Chinas. This linguistic camel’s-back-breaking straw puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese, who at this point would gladly trade places with Sisyphus. But since Chinese people themselves are never equally proficient in both simplified and complex characters, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in eventually concentrating on one set to the partial exclusion the other. In fact, there is absolutely no shame in giving up Chinese altogether, when you come right down to it.

好像这些还不够糟似的,中文书写另一个发指的特点是居然有两套系统(幸好,有部分重叠):台湾和香港仍在使用的繁体字,和大陆在五六十年代开始使用 的简体字。所有学中文的外国学生多少都被迫要学习两种体系,因为他们常常遇到分别来自两个中文系统的教学材料。这无疑给已经不堪重负的学生们压上最后一根 稻草,于是他们这时都很乐意跟西西弗斯交换角色。(译者注:西西弗斯,希腊神话中被迫不断推石头上山的那位。)不过既然中国人自己从来不会同时精通简繁 体,外国人最终只注重学习其中一种也完全没什么可丢脸的。事实上,当你认真权衡之后,完全放弃中文也没什么可丢脸的……

2. Because the language doesn’t have the common sense to use an alphabet.

To further explain why the Chinese writing system is so hard in this respect, it might be a good idea to spell out (no pun intended) why that of English is so easy. Imagine the kind of task faced by the average Chinese adult who decides to study English. What skills are needed to master the writing system? That’s easy: 26 letters. (In upper and lower case, of course, plus script and a few variant forms. And throw in some quote marks, apostrophes, dashes, parentheses, etc. — all things the Chinese use in their own writing system.) And how are these letters written? From left to right, horizontally, across the page, with spaces to indicate word boundaries. Forgetting for a moment the problem of spelling and actually making words out of these letters, how long does it take this Chinese learner of English to master the various components of the English writing system? Maybe a day or two.

Now consider the American undergraduate who decides to study Chinese. What does it take for this person to master the Chinese writing system? There is nothing that corresponds to an alphabet, though there are recurring components that make up the characters. How many such components are there? Don’t ask. As with all such questions about Chinese, the answer is very messy and unsatisfying. It depends on how you define “component” (strokes? radicals?), plus a lot of other tedious details. Suffice it to say, the number is quite large, vastly more than the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. And how are these components combined to form characters? Well, you name it — components to the left of other components, to the right of other components, on top of other components, surrounding other components, inside of other components — almost anything is possible. And in the process of making these spatial accommodations, these components get flattened, stretched, squashed, shortened, and distorted in order to fit in the uniform square space that all characters are supposed to fit into. In other words, the components of Chinese characters are arrayed in two dimensions, rather than in the neat one-dimensional rows of alphabetic writing.

2. 因为中文没有按照常识使用字母

为了进一步解释为什么中文书写系统如此之难,也许应该先说清楚为什么英语那么简单。想象一个普通的成年中国人决定学习英文时面对的任务吧。要掌握这 个书写系统需要什么技能呢?很简单,26个字母而已(当然是大小写,再加上一些书写方式和变体。还有引号,分号,破折号,括号等等,这些中国人自己也用 的。)这些字母怎么书写?从左到右,水平书写。保留空格来分开各词。先不考虑拼写的问题,这个中国人学习这些英文书写系统的各个要素需要多久?也许只要一 两天吧。

现在再看看另一个决定学习中文的美国大学生。要掌握中文书写系统需要什么呢?完全没有和字母对应的东西,虽然汉字里会重复出现一些构件。这些构件有 多少个?别问我。就跟所有关于中文的问题一样,这个问题的答案也是繁复而无迹可寻 ,令人不满。它取决于你如何定义“构件”,以及很多其他冗长的细节问题。这么说吧,有很多个,比26个拉丁字母多多了。那么,这些构件如何组成汉字呢? 嘛,你说吧,可以从左到右加到别的构件身上,也可以从右至左,或者从上到下,或者包围起别的构件,或者钻进别的构件里……怎样都有可能。而在这些空间组合 过程中,这些构件们或变平,或延伸,或压扁,或缩短,总之会扭曲到能够符合所有汉字应满足的方块区域为止。换句话说,中文汉字的构件们是在二维上排列,而 不是字母系统的简单明了的一维。

Okay, so ignoring for the moment the question of elegance, how long does it take a Westerner to learn the Chinese writing system so that when confronted with any new character they at least know how to move the pen around in order to produce a reasonable facsimile of that character? Again, hard to say, but I would estimate that it takes the average learner several months of hard work to get the basics down. Maybe a year or more if they’re a klutz who was never very good in art class. Meanwhile, their Chinese counterpart learning English has zoomed ahead to learn cursive script, with time left over to read Moby Dick, or at least Strunk & White.

This is not exactly big news, I know; the alphabet really is a breeze to learn. Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues’ gallery of hard-to-learn languages.

Ok,先不考虑优雅的要求,一个西方人要学中文多久,才能看到一个新字的时候至少知道怎么动笔写出一个差不多的模仿来?难说,不过我估计平均的学习 者要花几个月的努力来掌握基本功。要是个从来不擅长图画课的笨手脚的家伙,也许要一年或更多。有这个时间,那个同时学习英文的中国人已经学会了书写英文花 体,而且还有空读读Moby Dick,或者至少是Strunk&White。
(译者:Moby Dick即《白鲸记》,赫尔曼•梅尔维尔发表于1851年的小说,“被视为美国文学史上最伟大的小说之一”;Strunk&White又名the Elements of Style,即《英文写作指南》,著名的写作指导工具书。)

这不是什么新鲜事,我知道的:字母学起来很容易。我认识的中国人学过几年英文后常常能写出一手跟美国人无法区别的书法。另一方面,只有很少的美国人 能够写出自然一点的,至少是比一个笨拙的三年级小孩要好点的中文书法。就算中文其他都不难,光是学习写汉字的难度就足以把中文放进“难学语言”的陈列室里 了。

3. Because the writing system just ain’t very phonetic.

So much for the physical process of writing the characters themselves. What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters? Again, a comparison of English and Chinese is instructive. Suppose a Chinese person has just the previous day learned the English word “president”, and now wants to write it from memory. How to start? Anyone with a year or two of English experience is going to have a host of clues and spelling rules-of-thumb, albeit imperfect ones, to help them along. The word really couldn’t start with anything but “pr”, and after that a little guesswork aided by visual memory (“Could a ‘z’ be in there? That’s an unusual letter, I would have noticed it, I think. Must be an ‘s’…”) should produce something close to the target. Not every foreigner (or native speaker for that matter) has noted or internalized the various flawed spelling heuristics of English, of course, but they are at least there to be utilized.

Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for “president” (总统 zǒngtǒng ) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are. You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won’t give you a clue as to how the character is to be written. After you learn a few more characters and get hip to a few more phonetic components, you can do a bit better. (“Zǒng 总 is a phonetic component in some other character, right?…Song? Zeng? Oh yeah, cong 总 as in cōngmíng 聪明.”) Of course, the phonetic aspect of some characters is more obvious than that of others, but many characters, including some of the most high-frequency ones, give no clue at all as to their pronunciation.

All of this is to say that Chinese is just not very phonetic when compared to English. (English, in turn, is less phonetic than a language like German or Spanish, but Chinese isn’t even in the same ballpark.) It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range from 25% (Zhao Yuanren) to around 66% (DeFrancis), though the latter estimate assumes more knowledge of phonetic components than most learners are likely to have. One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it. Furthermore, this phonetic aspect of the language doesn’t really become very useful until you’ve learned a few hundred characters, and even when you’ve learned two thousand, the feeble phoneticity of Chinese will never provide you with the constant memory prod that the phonetic quality of English does.

3. 因为书写系统并不太与其发音对应。

关于书写汉字本身的过程就不多说了。那么记忆如此之多汉字的艰巨任务又如何呢?同样的,比较中英两种语言有助于说明。假设,一个中国人前一天学了英 文词儿“president”,现在呢想依靠记忆写出它来。怎么办?任何学过英文一两年的人都能找到大量的线索和窍门(即使不那么完美的)来帮助自己。这 个词儿肯定只能以“pr”开头,之后呢稍微猜一下再加上视觉记忆(“会有个字母z么?z不太常见,所以有的话我应该会注意到。那么肯定是字母s了。”), 他就能弄出一个差不多的东西了。不是每个外国人(母语人士也算)能注意到或者不自觉的运用英文中这些有一定缺陷的拼写窍门的,但至少它们存在。

现在想象你一个学习中文的,昨天刚刚碰到中文里的president“总统”。现在你想写它。你如何回忆起这个词儿呢?首先呢,你 (很可能)已经忘掉怎么写了,生活中很少能忘得如此彻底和干净…… 你可以尽情地重复学习这个词,而发音绝不会帮助你记起如何书写。当你学了较多汉字,掌握一些发音构件的规则时可以情况会好些。(“总”有时出现在其他汉字 里,也发类似的音,对吧?Song?Zeng?对了!“总”在“聪明”里有。)当然有些发音的构件要更明显一些,不过很多汉字,包括一些最常见的高频率汉 字,对它们的读音完全不给任何线索。

这些要表达的是中文跟英文比较起来不怎么表音。(英文呢,反过来又比不上德文或者西班牙文表音,然而中文根本不在一个数量级上。)有些外行觉得中文 完全不表音,这是不对的,不过一个非常聪明的初学者也完全可能几个月都发现不了中文表音的地方。中文的表音程度是个复杂的问题。研究观点从25%(赵元 任)到66%(DeFrancis)都有,只是后一个估计要求掌握很多发音构件的知识,而这些知识绝大多数学习者都不会拥有。你可以这么说,中文是一种表 音语言,就好象性爱是一种有氧运动:技术上讲的确如此,但实际上并不是最明显的特点。而且呢,中文表音的部分只有在你学了几百个汉字之后才能为你所用,而 即使你已经学了两千汉字,中文的薄弱的表音成分仍然不会提供类似英文表音那样的对记忆的帮助。

Which means that often you just completely forget how to write a character. Period. If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical, and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you’re just sunk. And you’re sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact same difficulty you experience every day.

This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like “tin can”, “knee”, “screwdriver”, “snap” (as in “to snap one’s fingers”), “elbow”, “ginger”, “cushion”, “firecracker”, and so on. And when I say “forget”, I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like “knee” or “tin can”? Or even a rarely-seen word like “scabbard” or “ragamuffin”? I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether “abracadabra” is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on “rhinoceros”, but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.

这些就意味着,你常常会完全忘记怎么写一个汉字,完毕。如果字根上没有语义的明显线索,也没有什么表音构件来帮忙,你就完蛋了。即使中国人自己也是 如此:跟普遍的迷信正相反,中国人并没什么天生的记忆字迹的能力。实际上,一个外国学习者最感安慰的时候,就是看到一个中国人被要求写一个常见汉字时一个 笔画也写不出来。看到一个母语人士遇到你每天经历的困难时,你真是感到那些委屈得到了莫大的伸冤和解脱。

事实上,这种经历如此令人宽慰,以至于我干脆记了一个单子,上面列着我看到的中国人提笔忘掉的汉字(提笔忘字?)(一个有病的,强迫症的行为,嗯我 自己也知道……)。我见过很有学问的中国人忘掉如何书写“罐头”的“罐”,“膝盖”的“膝”,“改锥”的“锥”,“捻拇指”的 “捻”,“胳臂肘”的 “肘“,“姜”,“垫子”的“垫”,“鞭炮”的“鞭”,等等。我说的忘,指的是他们常常连第一笔画都不知道怎么写。你能想象一个教育良好的英语人士完全不 会书写“膝盖”或者“罐头”么?(译者注:分别是knee和tin can)或者哪怕“scabbard”或“ragamuffin”这种少见的词,他们也不会忘。我有一次和三个北京大学中文系的三个博士生吃午饭,他们三 个都是中国人(一个来自香港)。我那天正好感冒,打算给一个朋友写个纸条取消我们一个约会。我发现自己想不起来怎么写“喷嚏”中的“嚏”了。于是我问那三 位该怎么写。结果吓我一跳,他们仨都尴尬而难为情地耸耸肩。谁都不能正确地写这个字儿。各位同学!北京大学常常被认为是中国的哈佛啊。你能想象三个哈佛大 学英文系的博士生不会写“sneeze”(喷嚏)?然而这种情况在中国绝不少见。英文就是大大地比中文容易书写和记忆。不管这个词频率多低,拼写多奇怪, 英语人士总能整出点儿什么来,就是因为拼写和发音是有一定对应关系的。你可能不记得“abracadabra”里面有没有连接符,或者 “rhinoceros”最后几个字母不会拼,但最糟的家伙也能差不多点儿的拼出来几乎任何词。与此相反,即使是教育最好的中国人在写某些特别难记的汉字 时也可能束手无策,只能问问别人。

As one mundane example of the advantages of a phonetic writing system, here is one kind of linguistic situation I encountered constantly while I was in France. (Again I use French as my canonical example of an “easy” foreign language.) I wake up one morning in Paris and turn on the radio. An ad comes on, and I hear the word “amortisseur” several times. “What’s an amortisseur?” I think to myself, but as I am in a hurry to make an appointment, I forget to look the word up in my haste to leave the apartment. A few hours later I’m walking down the street, and I read, on a sign, the word “AMORTISSEUR” — the word I heard earlier this morning. Beneath the word on the sign is a picture of a shock absorber. Aha! So “amortisseur” means “shock absorber”. And voila! I’ve learned a new word, quickly and painlessly, all because the sound I construct when reading the word is the same as the sound in my head from the radio this morning — one reinforces the other. Throughout the next week I see the word again several times, and each time I can reconstruct the sound by simply reading the word phonetically — “a-mor-tis-seur”. Before long I can retrieve the word easily, use it in conversation, or write it in a letter to a friend. And the process of learning a foreign language begins to seem less daunting.

When I first went to Taiwan for a few months, the situation was quite different. I was awash in a sea of characters that were all visually interesting but phonetically mute. I carried around a little dictionary to look up unfamiliar characters in, but it’s almost impossible to look up a character in a Chinese dictionary while walking along a crowded street (more on dictionary look-up later), and so I didn’t get nearly as much phonetic reinforcement as I got in France. In Taiwan I could pass a shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and never know how to pronounce any of the characters unless I first look them up. And even then, the next time I pass the shop I might have to look the characters up again. And again, and again. The reinforcement does not come naturally and easily.

作为一个表音书写系统优势的平凡例子,我在法国时常常遇到这样一些情况(再一次地我用法语作为“容易”外语的经典例子)。在巴黎有天早上我醒来打开 广播,听到一个广告,其中有个词儿“amortisseur”出现了几次。“amortisseur”是什么意思?我想了一下,不过由于当时正要见人,我 匆忙离开的时候忘了查字典。几小时后我正好在街头一个标志上看到了“amortisseur”,这个我早上刚听过的词。“amortisseur”这个词 下面是一张减震器的图片。哈哈,看来“amortisseur”的意思是减震器。就这样,我学了一个新词,快捷无痛。仅仅是因为我试图读这个词儿的时候发 音是和我早上听到的词一样的。两者互相印证。接下来一周我几次看到这个词,每次我都能通过照字面阅读而找到它的发音“a-mor-tis-seur”。没 多久,我就能轻松想起这个词儿,在对话中使用,或者在给朋友的信里写出来。这样一来,学外语的过程就没那么可怕了。

当我第一次去台湾呆几个月的时候,情况则完全不同。我被汉字的大海完全淹没了,它们看起来很有趣,可是完全不给什么发音线索。我带了一个小字典来查 陌生的字,不过在拥挤的街道上查中文字典实在是不可能的任务(后面还会说关于查字典的事儿)。所以我一点儿也没得到类似在法国的那种发音的帮助。在台湾, 我可以走过一个卖减震器的商店,却完全不知道该如何发任何一个汉字的音,除非我先查字典。即使查了一遍,下次走过的时候我还得再查一遍。然后,再查,再 查。记忆增强的过程一点也不自然易行。

4. Because you can’t cheat by using cognates.

I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up out of curiosity. “Hmm,” I thought to myself. “I’ve never studied Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand.” At random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186 people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.

What was going on here? Why was this “foreign” language so transparent? The reason was obvious: cognates — those helpful words that are just English words with a little foreign make-up. I could read the article because most of the operative words were basically English: aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica, emergencia, etc. Recognizing these words as just English words in disguise is about as difficult as noticing that Superman is really Clark Kent without his glasses. That these quasi-English words are easier to learn than Chinese characters (which might as well be quasi-Martian) goes without saying.

Imagine you are a diabetic, and you find yourself in Spain about to go into insulin shock. You can rush into a doctor’s office, and, with a minimum of Spanish and a couple of pieces of guesswork (“diabetes” is just “diabetes” and “insulin” is “insulina”, it turns out), you’re saved. In China you’d be a goner for sure, unless you happen to have a dictionary with you, and even then you would probably pass out while frantically looking for the first character in the word for insulin. Which brings me to the next reason why Chinese is so hard.

4. 因为你不能取巧使用同根词。

我还记着,当我刻苦学习了中文三年的时候,有过一次有趣的经历。有天我正好在旁边座位上找到一张西班牙文的报纸。我好奇地拿起来看,“嗯~”我想 说,“我从来没学过西班牙语。看看我到底能懂多少。”我随机挑了一篇关于空难的小文开始看。结果我发现稍微猜一下就能获取大部分的文章信息。空难发生在洛 杉矶附近,186人遇难。没有幸存者。飞机起飞后一分钟后即坠毁。飞行记录上没有什么特殊状况的提示,而塔台则并不知道任何紧急情况。飞机三天前刚维护 过,也没发现什么机械故障。等等等等。看完文章后我突然沮丧地意识到:从没学过一天西班牙文,我读起它的报纸却比学了三年的中文报纸还容易……

这到底是怎么回事?为啥西班牙这个“外语”这么容易?原因很明显:同根词。这些同根词跟英文词汇相比只有小小的改造。我能读懂文章,因为绝大多数关 键词基本都是英文:aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica, emergencia,等等。认出这些词儿不过是一些英文词穿了马甲,这难度大约和发现超人不过是肯克拉克不戴眼镜的难度差不多。不用说,这些类英文词比 中文汉字好学(中文汉字则多半是类火星文……)。想象一下,一个糖尿病人在西班牙发现自己需要注射胰岛素。他跑进诊所,只需很少的西班牙语和猜测的过程, 他就能获救(其实,英语”diabetes” 翻成西班牙语就是 “diabetes” , “insulin” 等于”insulina”。)在中国呢,他肯定完蛋了。除非他带了一本中文字典,即便如此,他多半也会在字典里疯狂地查胰岛素第一个汉字时不支晕倒。这正 好说明了我下一个要说的中文难的原因。

5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.

Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid, time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the equivalent. I’d say it took me a good year before I could reliably find in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can’t find at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.

Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland, dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ (special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries… on and on. An exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave one’s desk “strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a battlefield.”

For looking up unfamiliar characters there is another method called the four-corner system. This method is very fast — rumored to be, in principle, about as fast as alphabetic look-up (though I haven’t met anyone yet who can hit the winning number each time on the first try). Unfortunately, learning this method takes about as much time and practice as learning the Dewey decimal system. Plus you are then at the mercy of the few dictionaries that are arranged according to the numbering scheme of the four-corner system. Those who have mastered this system usually swear by it. The rest of us just swear.

Another problem with looking up words in the dictionary has to do with the nature of written Chinese. In most languages it’s pretty obvious where the word boundaries lie — there are spaces between the words. If you don’t know the word in question, it’s usually fairly clear what you should look up. (What actually constitutes a word is a very subtle issue, of course, but for my purposes here, what I’m saying is basically correct.) In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it’s often trial and error to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:


Imagine how this difference would compound the dictionary look-up difficulties of a non-native speaker of English. The passage is pretty trivial for us to understand, but then we already know English. For them it would often be hard to tell where the word boundaries were supposed to be. So it is, too, with someone trying to learn Chinese.

5. 因为连在字典里查一个字都很复杂。

学中文中最不可理喻的困难之一,就是连学会查字典的难度都基本等于在文秘专业学一个学期。在台湾的时候我听说有时还有初中生查字典比赛。想象一下 吧,有种语言里连查字典都成了跟辩论或是排球一样的技能!你多半不会称中文是个善待用户的语言,而中文字典则绝对是虐待用户的典型。

找出所有部首和它们的变体,再加上处理那些没有明显部首模棱两可的汉字,这是个愚蠢的,花时间的苦差事。和其他拥有合理的字母或类似系统的语言相 比,这一点大大放慢了学习中文的过程。我得说,我花了一年时间才能比较顺利的在字典中找到任何汉字。而直到今天,我极偶尔还是会遇到即使查个十分钟还是查 不到的汉字。这种时候我就会像(圣经中信仰屡受考验的)约伯一样,举手向天,同时考虑去电话营销业之类的工作……

中文肯定也是地球上最需要字典的语言之一。我现在手头有超过二十本各种中文字典在书桌上,每本都有单独用途:有大陆用的简体字字典,有香港台湾用的 繁体字字典,还有简繁体都有的字典;有用威妥玛拼音的字典,有用大陆拼音方案的字典,还有用其他更超现实主义的拼音的字典;有经典的中文虚词字典,有北京 方言字典,有成语字典,有歇后语词典,有谚语词典,有中国GCD用语词典,有佛教用语词典,还有反查用词典,不一而足。一次穷尽式的查询某个难解词汇可能 会让书桌上“堆满词典,如同战场上的士兵尸体一样。”

查陌生汉字的时候还有一种四角系统的查法。有谣言说这方法很迅速,基本上和查字母语言的情况下一样快(虽然我没见过谁能第一次就找到正确的编码)。 不幸的是,学习这个查法本身就跟学杜威十进图书分类法花的时间和精力差不多。此外你还得指望字典的确按照四角系统安排过(这类字典并不多)。那些掌握了这 个四角查法的人对其推崇备至,我们其他人则是赌咒发誓。

查字典还有一个问题来自中文汉字本身的特性。绝大部分语言中词汇之间的分界很明显,有空格在那儿。如果你不懂一个词,那找到该查什么一般不难(当然 什么算一个词是个微妙问题,不过在这个话题方面我的说法基本正确)。在中文里呢,汉字之间有空格,但是得需要好多中文知识和真正的侦探本领才能让你找出词 汇之间的界限。所以找一个词儿往往是个试错过程。就好象英文写成如下的样子:


6. Then there’s classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you’ll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you’re sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure.

Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It’s truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging.

“Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?” You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible “grass-style” calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.

“Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you what it says,” you stammer. “I think it’s about a phoenix or something.”

“Oh, I thought you knew Chinese,” says your friend, returning to their menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads that say things like: “Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”

In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming the English channel in a straitjacket.

6. 然后还有个文言文……






现代汉语仅仅是古怪的难,而古典中文则是刻意让人不可能学会。汉学家不会告诉你这样一个小秘密:要看懂文言文一小段话,你必须首先知道它在讲什么。 因为古典中文根本是由几个世纪的典故用一种简要的编码组成,流传于一个书虫们组成的精英小团体中,他们自己都彻底了解任何一点相关的文学背景。一个没有专 业知识的西方人没法理解这些,就好象如果孔子本人来到现在,也看不懂分类广告中“个人”一栏里这类的东西:“Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”(译者注:这个意思就不翻译了,好孩子不需要知道……)

公平的讲,文言文你越尝试就会变得越容易。 不过高尔夫一杆进洞或者穿着束身衣横跨英吉利海峡也是如此。

7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.

Well, perhaps that’s too harsh. But it is true that there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or — even worse — by a committee of linguists. It is, of course, a very tricky task to devise a romanization method; some are better than others, but all involve plenty of counterintuitive spellings. And if you’re serious about a career in Chinese, you’ll have to grapple with at least four or five of them, not including the bopomofu phonetic symbols used in Taiwan. There are probably a dozen or more romanization schemes out there somewhere, most of them mercifully obscure and rightfully ignored. There is a standing joke among sinologists that one of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.

7. 因为字母化方案太多了,而且全都不给力。

嘛,这么说可能有点过分。不过真的,把中文用字母表达的方案很多,而绝大多数都是由某个委员会或是某些语言学家弄出来的。有时候还更糟,是个语言学 家组成的委员会…… 当然啦,设计一种字母化方案非常不易,有些方案比较好,但所有的方案都需要很多与直觉抵触的拼写。而如果你真想发展中文方面的职业道路,那你至少得会其中 四五种,还不包括台湾用的那些鬼画符。总共恐怕有超过一打的字母化方案,大部分都是晦涩难懂而理所应当地被大家忽略了。长久以来在汉学家之间有个笑话:一 个汉学学者老年痴呆的标志,就是他感到发明一种新的字母化方案的迫切性。

8. Because tonal languages are weird.

Okay, that’s very Anglo-centric, I know it. But I have to mention this problem because it’s one of the most common complaints about learning Chinese, and it’s one of the aspects of the language that westerners are notoriously bad at. Every person who tackles Chinese at first has a little trouble believing this aspect of the language. How is it possible that shùxué means “mathematics” while shūxuě means “blood transfusion”, or that guòjiǎng means “you flatter me” while guǒjiàng means “fruit paste”?

By itself, this property of Chinese would be hard enough; it means that, for us non-native speakers, there is this extra, seemingly irrelevant aspect of the sound of a word that you must memorize along with the vowels and consonants. But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed — when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like “Hey, that’s my water glass you’re drinking out of!”, and you follow your intonational instincts — that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for “my” — you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood.

Intonation and stress habits are incredibly ingrained and second-nature. With non-tonal languages you can basically import, mutatis mutandis, your habitual ways of emphasizing, negating, stressing, and questioning. The results may be somewhat non-native but usually understandable. Not so with Chinese, where your intonational contours must always obey the tonal constraints of the specific words you’ve chosen. Chinese speakers, of course, can express all of the intonational subtleties available in non-tonal languages — it’s just that they do it in a way that is somewhat alien to us speakers of non-tonal languages. When you first begin using your Chinese to talk about subjects that actually matter to you, you find that it feels somewhat like trying to have a passionate argument with your hands tied behind your back — you are suddenly robbed of some vital expressive tools you hadn’t even been aware of having.

8. 因为音调系统很古怪。

Ok,这种说法很白人中心主义,我知道。但我得提一下这一点,因为它是最常见的抱怨之一,也是西方人最恶名昭著的弱项之一。每个学中文的人一开始都 无法相信中文有音调系统的一面存在。怎么可能Shuxue既可以是“数学”同时还能是“输血”呢?或者guojiang可以是“过奖”或者是“果酱”?它 本身就是中文一个大难点了,因为这意味着我们非母语人士在记忆元音辅音之外,还得记住这些看起来不重要的发音部分。更大的真正的困难出现在你实际使用中文 表达自己的时候:你发现自己束手束脚的,你可能语调都挺自然,结果音调都搞错了。比如,你可能想说“嗨你在喝我的杯子里的水!”,然后你想当然地把重音放 在“我的”身上(结果声调变成了四声)(相当于中文四声的声调),那你说的多半是些胡言乱语,可能被理解也可能不被。

语调和重音习惯具有非常大的追加和自由性质。在无音调的语言中,你基本上可以随心所欲地(加上必要的修改)按你的习惯来强调,否定,重视,和质疑。 说出来的可能不太自然,但绝对能被理解。中文则不然,你的语调习惯必须遵守每个你用的词汇音调的限制。中国人当然能自由地表达所有微妙的语调,和使用那些 无音调的语言的人一样。只是他们的方式对我们说无音调语言的人来说有点陌生。当你真正开始用中文说些你在意的话题时,你就发现好像你不得不双手被捆着,同 时试图表达一个激情四射的观点。你突然被剥夺了一些重要的表达手段,以前你可能还没意识到自己拥有它们。

9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.

Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like “Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne,” is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history — which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that’s in an American’s head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between China and the U.S., American culture and and French culture seem about as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.

9. 因为东西方泾渭分明,而两者才刚刚相遇。

语言和文化当然无法分割,这也是中文对美国人如此难的主要原因之一。中美文化隔绝太久了。读法语句子“Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne”的难度仅仅如同于看懂一些行话而已。其原因不但在于印欧语系之间的相似性,还因为这些表达方式中的核心概念和文化背景是同源的。我们 有一样的绘画史,音乐史,乃至历史的历史,后者的意思是一个法国人脑中的各种典型例子以及文化角色的集合和一个美国人一样的。我们熟悉阿蒂尔•兰波,就好 象法国人熟悉兰博。事实上,与中美文化的差异比起来,美国和法国文化的区别就类似于Peter Pan花生酱和Skippy花生酱。(译者:好吧,换个例子,就好象可口可乐和百事可乐,两者内容几乎一样……)

Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can’t drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn’t know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.

Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough idea of the chronology of China’s dynasties? Has the average history major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even Mozi?

What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.

和中国人说话往往不一样。你没法谈话中随口提到狄更斯,人猿泰山,开膛手杰克,歌德,或者披头士,同时期望对方总是能明白。我有个中国朋友,他都读 过卡夫卡著作最早的中文译文,却仍然不知道Santa Claus是什么。最近几十年来中国和西方接触甚多,然而两者之间仍然有大量的知识和思想差异。




I could go on and on, but I figure if the reader has bothered to read this far, I’m preaching to the converted, anyway. Those who have tackled other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I’m sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to consider if you’ve decided to better yourself by learning a foreign language, and you’re thinking “Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat.”

It’s pretty hard to quantify a process as complex and multi-faceted as language-learning, but one simple metric is to simply estimate the time it takes to master the requisite language-learning skills. When you consider all the above-mentioned things a learner of Chinese has to acquire — ability to use a dictionary, familiarity with two or three romanization methods, a grasp of principles involved in writing characters (both simplified and traditional) — it adds up to an awful lot of down time while one is “learning to learn” Chinese.

How much harder is Chinese? Again, I’ll use French as my canonical “easy language”. This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.

One could perhaps view learning languages as being similar to learning musical instruments. Despite the esoteric glories of the harmonica literature, it’s probably safe to say that the piano is a lot harder and more time-consuming to learn. To extend the analogy, there is also the fact that we are all virtuosos on at least one “instrument” (namely, our native language), and learning instruments from the same family is easier than embarking on a completely different instrument. A Spanish person learning Portuguese is comparable to a violinist taking up the viola, whereas an American learning Chinese is more like a rock guitarist trying to learn to play an elaborate 30-stop three-manual pipe organ.

Someone once said that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility”. I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.

There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach’s uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, “But how are they able to perform such difficult music?”

“Shh — not so loud!” says the director, “If you don’t tell them it’s difficult, they never know.”


我还能再继续,不过我想如果亲爱的读者们能看到此处,多半他们早就已经同意我的看法。那些学习其他困难语言的人们有他们自己的恐怖故事,我敢肯定。 但我仍然能相当自信地断言,对于一个普通美国人,中文比世界上三十多种主要语言(亦即在大学阶段常常学习的语言)中其他任何一种都难得多。这件事也许不会 引起语言学家们的兴趣),但它值得你好好考虑一下,如果你决定最好学个外语,想着说“嗯~中文看起来好像不错。”



学习语言也许类似于学习乐器。比如说,虽然口琴有某些精彩的作品,一般而言钢琴学起来要比其他乐器困难而花更多时间。作为类比,可以说我们都是某种 乐器的高超演奏家(即我们的母语),而学习同类的乐器则比学习完全不同的乐器容易得多。西班牙人学葡萄牙语类似于小提琴手学习中提琴,而美国人学习中文则 更像摇滚吉他手试图学习演奏拥有三个手键盘,三十个音栓的管风琴。


仍然有一个令人敬畏的事实,那就是中国人掌握他们的语言相当不错。可能他们就像是那些巴洛克艺术表演团体招收的小孩子们,然后去表演巴赫的康塔塔清 唱剧。那个故事里,有个听众十分惊讶于听到这些胖嘟嘟的小孩子们能够如此完美无瑕地演唱,而这些乐曲都是巴赫那些困难的要求严格一丝不苟的作品。他问合唱 团指挥,“但这些孩子们怎么能够演唱如此高难度的音乐呢?”


2 thoughts on “趣文共享:为什么中文这么TM难?

  1. 好有趣。


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / 更改 )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / 更改 )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / 更改 )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / 更改 )

Connecting to %s