How to Learn Chinese in 2,200 Not-So-Easy Lessons

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 9, 2005; 4:45 PM

I spent several years, and some of your tax dollars, trying to learn Chinese, so I need to say something about a new campaign to get that language into U.S. schools and colleges.

The Asia Society just put out a report (see the Web site ) on how more Americans can learn Chinese. There was a world conference on the subject last month in Beijing. Chinese language instruction is, obviously, a good idea. China is our biggest trading partner, after Canada and Mexico. The country reminds me in some ways of America in the 1870s. It is recovering from horrid domestic events, getting stronger, with the potential to be the most important nation in the world. Chinese, along with Arabic, should be among our top foreign language priorities.

But let me -- just this once because I don't like recalling the pain -- tell you that learning Chinese is not going to be easy.

Chinese culture -- its philosophy, its art, its code of conduct, its food, its literature -- is one of the wonders of human civilization. It is so humane and so productive that I share few of the fears that the rise of Chinese economic and military power inspires in some Americans.

But the Chinese, despite all their good points, have a very difficult and in some ways inefficient language. Those Americans ready to pursue the worthy goal of learning it should be ready for a long, hard march.

Unkind people are saying at this point: Mathews may have been too dumb or too lazy to master Chinese, but the Chinese themselves seem to be handling their language fine. That is true. It is one more indication of the drive and ambition of those 1.3 billion people that most of them have become fluent and literate in a spoken language that includes four tones and a written language based on ideographs that give few clues to pronunciation and sometimes drive typists mad.

But it is also true that having to learn thousands of ideographic characters instead of just the two dozen or so letters of the Western alphabet has forced Chinese education into a deep, narrow groove. Chinese students and teachers have grown accustomed to relying on memorization, the way they learned to read. There is less creative thinking in the schools as a result, some scholars think.

For more than a century the Chinese have been arguing among themselves over how to simplify the written language without cutting themselves off from one of the great literary mother lodes of the past 3,000 years. The invention of the digital computer and the Internet have eased the reproduction and transmission of written Chinese, but children in China, and non-Chinese high school and college students like I once was, have to pound the meaning of all those slants and dots and curves into their brains, and hope they stay there.

Take one small example. When I lived with my family in Beijing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my six-year-old son got to be a pretty good reader. There wasn't much television to distract him, and as a budding baseball and football fan he loved to decipher the sports pages of the International Herald Tribune. When Chinese saw him reading the newspaper in the dining hall of the hotel where we lived, they were amazed, since their equally bright children needed much more time before they could handle a Chinese newspaper.

You can imagine, then, what it was like for me at age 19 when I took my first Chinese lessons in college.

Learning the spoken language was not so bad. It had few annoyances like gender and tense and verb changes based on rank. My first Chinese professor was Rulan Chao Pian, who used a system invented by her father, the legendary UC Berkeley linguist Yuen R. Chao. She and her father shared a mischievous sense of humor, although I did not think it was so funny at first. One of her first exercises was a short story made of words that used only one Chinese sound, shi (sounds like 'sure'). It was totally incomprehensible -- just as the sentence "Sure sure sure sure, sure-sure, sure sure sure" would be in English -- unless you got all the tones right or could see the characters.

Once I absorbed this sobering introduction to the maddening subtleties of Chinese expression, Pian handed me her father's textbook. He had a unique way of romanizing Chinese word sounds so we could learn how to pronounce them properly. Some Chinese language textbooks assigned the numbers one to four to each of the four tones, and you would pronounce the word based on which number was next to it. Some books used little marks going up, down or otherwise to indicate the high, rising, low and falling tones. Chao decided to give a different spelling of the same sound to indicate different tones.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company