How to Learn Chinese in 2,200 Not-So-Easy Lessons
By Jay Mathews
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
The Asia Society just put out a report (see the internationaled.org Web
site ) on how more Americans can learn Chinese. There was a world
conference on the subject last month in
instruction is, obviously, a good idea.
getting stronger, with the potential to be the most important nation in
the world. Chinese, along with Arabic, should be among our top foreign
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
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
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
There is a common Chinese sound that most American newspapers spell
"zhang" (pronounced sort of like "jong"), under the standard pinyin
romanization system used in China. Chao spelled that sound four ways: jang
if it were first tone, jarng if it were second tone, jaang for third tone
and janq for fourth tone. Different words required different spelling
changes. Good old "wu," thankfully spelled that way in nearly every
system, was u for first tone, wu for second tone, wuu for third tone and
wuh for fourth tone.
Once I practiced it, it became second nature. By the time I got to the
chapter where Chao, a huge Lewis Carroll fan, asked us to memorize his
translation of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in Chinese, I was admiring
the professor's sense of the ridiculous.
But Chao and Pian had no happy way to learn the written characters. We
just had to sit down and do it. My girlfriend began to tell our friends I
was bringing my Chinese flashcards on dates. This was malicious slander,
but she continues to spread this myth 38 years into our marriage, and I am
not allowed to forget this most difficult part of my education.
The Asia Society report says it takes "an educated English speaker 1,300
hours to achieve the native-proficiency of an educated native speaker of
Chinese, while it would only take about 480 hours to achieve the same
level in French or Spanish." In Sunday's edition of The Washington Post
Magazine , my Post colleague Elizabeth Chang quotes another source saying
that it actually takes 2,200 class hours to achieve full proficiency.
Chang's magazine article was not really about learning Chinese. It was
about learning Arabic. She visited a class at the International Language
Institute in Northwest Washington and watched several people working with
teacher Mustafa Alhashimi. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean each takes
2,200 class hours -- or about four years even if you attended a very tough
school that had you in language class three hours a day every weekday for
nine months a year.
That helps explain why, according to the Asia Society, a 1998 survey of
college language instruction showed 656,590 students taking Spanish, but
only 28,456 taking Chinese and 5,505 taking Arabic. In that survey,
Spanish was in first place, followed by French (199,064), German (89,020),
Italian (49,287) and Japanese (43,141). Chinese was in sixth place,
followed by Russian, Arabic and Korean in that order.
The number of students taking Chinese and Arabic has increased
substantially since, but we don't know how well they are doing in those
classes, and even great strides forward are going to seem very modest. The
Asia Society report asks this question: "What would it take to have 5
percent of high school students learning Chinese by 2015?" It estimates
about 24,000 students in Chinese classes in K-12 schools, plus 150,000 in
what it calls heritage schools -- private after-school or Saturday
programs that my ethnic Chinese friends remember their parents forcing
them to attend. Even if we counted all those 175,000 students, that would
be only about 1 percent of American high school students.
The Asia Society suggests many ways to increase these numbers: encourage
the new Advanced Placement Chinese program, promote a new Chinese-designed
online game and teaching program called CHENGO, give qualified Chinese
teachers shortcuts to jobs in our schools, help the 2,400 high schools who
have indicated they would like to add Chinese, improve teaching materials
and look for federal money, like the National Defense Education Act that
funded language instruction in the 1960s and 1970s, including some of my
graduate school study.
I applaud the Asia Society's plan. I have seen how Chinese culture
blossoms in free societies. I want to bring the United States and China
closer. Since the Chinese are spending so much time and effort learning
our language, we should try to return the compliment. Chang said neither
she nor her husband speak Chinese, but they are happy their sixth grade
daughter will be starting a class in that language this fall at Hoover
Middle School in Montgomery County.
The mental exercise is good, and China is going to be an increasingly
vital part of our world. Our Chinese may never be perfect. Mine certainly
never was, but I am glad I tried.