Why is English so hard for Chinese people?

Why is English so hard for Chinese people?

As we’ve discussed in a previous article (Why Native English is Worth its Weight in Gold in China), learning English is something of a priority for the Chinese.

But, despite all the time, money, and effort, China just can’t seem to produce very many competent ESL speakers. The flip side is no different; Chinese is consistently ranked among the very hardest languages to learn for native English speakers. The number of Chinese programs in American higher education is growing rapidly, so more and more people are feeling the pain many of our readers struggle with on a daily basis.

In this and in my next article, I’m going to take a stab at explaining why exactly this is – starting with why English is such a nightmare for Chinese students.

Problem 1: There’s too many words and sounds

When studying English, the sheer volume of material that a native Chinese speaker needs to learn is pretty staggering. We all know that Chinese is (in)famous for having thousands upon thousands of characters, but when it comes right down to it, they all draw from the same extremely limited pool of syllables; 412 of them to be exact.

When an English speaker starts learning Chinese, there’s only a handful of truly new sounds they need to master – the “q” of 请-type words, the “x” in words like 许, the umlaut in words like 绿, and a few others. But from Day 1, Lesson 1, a Chinese ESL student is confronted with a whole host of sounds they’ve never had to produce before.

Ever noticed that Chinese people seem to say “Hallo” rather than “Hello”? That’s because “ha” (as in “哈”) is a sound in Chinese, but the “e” of “hello” isn’t. Literally the first word a Chinese ESL student is ever taught forces them to make a sound they’ve never made.

It’s not just the new sounds, either. The complaint I generally hear more than anything else from Chinese students is that there’s just too damn many words in general. And it’s true that English has a pretty huge vocabulary; for starters, it took lots of words from Latin, German, Dutch, and French while it was developing.

Furthermore, in the modern era of globalization and mass immigration, American English in particular has absorbed countless words from languages all over the world – even Chinese (see: kung fu, chi, feng shui, gung ho, mu shu, tai chi, and yin yang).

And when your starting point is Chinese, the vocabulary required to understand – much less speak – English can seem pretty overwhelming. Chinese is a super contextual language and often uses one word to describe a whole bunch of different things. For example, 场 (chang) is a character that basically means any big open space used for some particular purpose. “ice ball 场” means hockey rink, “competition 场” means stadium, “basketball 场” is court, “golf 场” is golf course, “plane 场” is airport, “fire bury 场” is crematorium, and…

Well, you get the point. Explaining to kids that they have to learn a new (multisyllabic) word for every single one of these things is somewhat akin to telling them Santa – which they call “Christmas Old Man, by the way” – doesn’t exist.

Problem 2: Learning to spell

This is one of the many facets of Chinese-English learning that has been made much easier by computers and smart phones. That being said, it can be hard for native speakers to appreciate just how wacky (to put it charitably) our spelling system is.

Consider, if you will, teaching a bunch of kids the following sentence: “I don’t know why this goddamn language is often quite odd.” (ps. SDC does not condone teaching children this sentence. Proceed at your own risk).

These kids have spent hours reciting and copying the alphabet, and you have to straight-facedly act like it makes perfect sense that “damn” is really just “dam” and “know” isn’t pronounced “keh-now.” Once they’ve got a handle on that, you have to explain that “qu” and “gu” are really more like “qw” and “gw,” that the “t” in “often” can take a hike; and that, for some reason, the letter “y” sounds exactly like “w,” “h,” and “y” put together (to say nothing of asking them to “queue” up in line).

If explaining all the different words is like telling kids Santa isn’t real, this is kind of like telling them that Benny the golden doodle had to go to a big farm upstate.

And that’s just basic silent letters and the kind of rules most native speakers master at a young age. The average Chinese student tends to abandon all hope roughly around the time you start getting into plural spellings.

When there’s more than one of something, just add an “s” or an “es,” right? Wrong! One mouse becomes two mice, one goose becomes two geese, and don’t even get me started on octopi and moose. And hey, what about “ie” vs “ei?” I believe the age-old rule goes as follows: “i before e, except after c, science, either, neigh, weird, caffeine, and go f@#k yourself.” The unfortunate reality is that our lovely melting pot language kinda screwed the pooch when it came to standardizing rules.

And speaking of rules…

Problem 3: Our grammar is ridiculous

Our collection of set-in-clay grammatical rules are pretty nonsensical; should he or she want to prove that that is false, the Grammar Nazi the comments section has has their work cut out for them.

Seriously, though. I’m not going to spend much time on actual grammar rules because a.) they’re a nightmare for everyone, not just the Chinese and b.) an in-depth discussion of English grammar could cure even the most stubborn (stubbornest? ironically, it just green-lined me) case of insomnia. Moving on.

Problem 4: Tenses are an entirely new concept for a Chinese student

The more time you spend teaching English in China – at least in my limited experience – the more you go from worrying about the technical difficulties to worrying about the fundamental and seemingly insurmountable differences between not just our languages, but the way we and the Chinese perceive the world. Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but hear me out.

Chinese has no tenses. Words don’t change in any way based on when they occur, have occurred, or are going to occur. There are of course, words that mean “future” and “past” and “will,” but the basic construction of a sentence about when you did something goes noun-time-verb-object.

So, “I ate a hamburger yesterday” becomes “I-yesterday-eat-hamburger.” There is a particle – 了 – that indicates the completion of an action, but that’s about it.

If you want someone to know when something is taking place, you just stick the time in the sentence. Simple, right? WRONG – but that’s a topic for the article about why Chinese is hard, so we’ll give it a pass for now.

On a surface level, it should be clear how the addition of tenses adds to the burning slag heap of difficulties Chinese students have with English. Once again, it comes down to too much material: their whole lives, they’ve gotten away with using a single verb for all situations.

Let’s take swimming as an example. In Chinese, “swim” is 游泳, or yóuyǒng (sounds like yo-yawng). So “I went for a swim yesterday” is “I-yesterday-go-游泳” and “I like swimming” is “I-like-游泳.” If you want to say “I swam from China to Australia,” you just say “I-from-China-游泳-go/arrive-Australia,” and “she swims everyday” becomes “She-everyday-游泳.” Notice the very subtle pattern?

Nothing but 游泳. 游泳 for days, as it were.

We’ve already told the kids Santa doesn’t exist and that their dog is dead. Get ready to cut them and pour salt in the wound, because you now have to explain that in order to say 游泳, they have to learn “swim,” “swims,” “swimming,” “swam,” and of course “swum,” if it so happens to be preceded by a helping verb (because English grammar is super intuitive!).

And why?

Because of tenses! You know, the thing that is a totally new and alien concept to you! Well, and making pronunciation sound more natural. Sometimes. Depending on the situation. You just kinda have to do it enough times to get the hang of it.

That can be difficult, though…

Problems 5 – 1,000,000: The deck is stacked against Chinese ESL learners from Day 1

For all the crazy difficulties of English – and for all the ways it pretty objectively makes no sense – people all around the world manage to learn it. As noted in a past article, China is something of a standout when it comes to poor ROI for their English students.

In my experience, the airport staff in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia – a city of just over a million in the most sparsely populated country on earth – have better English than those at Beijing’s Capital Airport – one of the largest and busiest in the world.

On the EF English Proficiency Index, China ranks below Uruguay, Russia, Vietnam, Bosnia, Japan, South Korea, and perhaps most tellingly, Hong Kong and Macau. They’ve got the largest population and economy in the world – they throw more money and effort at teaching their kids English than anywhere else on the planet!

And Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Macau all demonstrate that being native speakers of an East Asian language – even Cantonese – can’t be the only factor.

If that seemed like an overly-long introduction to this point, it’s because I wanted to solidly cushion the following statement: the Chinese education system is broken nearly beyond repair. That’s an opinion and you’re free to disagree with it, but let me make the case.

Actually, let me do one more round of cushioning: let’s not forget that China has one of the most impressive academic histories on the planet – they pioneered the concept of the civil service exam, and were producing impressive scholars before most of our (Europeans and Americans, that is) ancestors had figured out how books worked.

Ok? Ok.

But the world has changed – and to be blunt, their system hasn’t. The teacher lectures, and the student memorizes. Kids are expected to recite and to copy. They are never allowed to question their teacher, and most devastatingly, the concept of asking “why” is completely alien to them.

If they’re extremely lucky, they see a native speaker once a week who might throw some new ideas their way now and then. But every other day of the week, twice a day, they “study English” with a Chinese teacher who, 9 times out of 10, has never left China and teaches the entire class in Chinese (excepting the example sentences the kids have to chant).

They recite passages without ever knowing what they mean, memorize sentences for exams that they never use again, and learn exactly one *correct* way to deal with every situation that leaves them utterly helpless when confronted with any real-world communication that deviates even 1% from what they have memorized. Ever spent time talking with any Chinese exchange students? Odds are, they absolutely aced all the standardized tests and have thousands of crazy vocab words memorized – and yet they have immense difficulty with even the simplest real-world English communication.

And that’s the situation if everything is running as it should – in reality, corruption and mindless bureaucracy means that class-ruining rich kids are never removed from high-level courses, completely unqualified teachers (both Chinese and foreign) fail to teach their kids anything at all, and a completely dogmatic focus on teaching to the test (a sin we Americans are neither unfamiliar with nor innocent of) means that any attempt at introducing practical communication skills into the curriculum has to be fought and bled for.

Bonus Round Problems

Need a few more reasons? Take three!

  • As we’ve written about before, there’s hardly any foreigners in China, and even fewer native English speakers, so any kind of real life practice is near-impossible to come by.
  • Learning to write Chinese is essentially a full-time job from ages 0-18 (and believe you me, we’re gonna get to that in the next article), so studying any other language is naturally going to get less attention than it would elsewhere.

Conclusion: Welp, I guess they’re screwed

Yup. Sad as it is, the average Chinese student who wants to learn English is going to be confronted by a perfect storm of difficulties. That’s not to say no one ever manages to overcome them, but it’s more hardship and headache than any kid deserves.

But then again, we’re fighting directly against nature here; humans that developed civilizations on opposite sides of the planet definitely weren’t designed to talk to each other. Hell, with the tools evolution gave us, we’d spend our entire lives just trying to find each other.

Corny as this may sound, I feel like all the Chinese students struggling to learn English are kind of like the pioneers of flight and sail – literally every natural factor is telling them to knock it off, but they won’t be deterred. And with the help of technology, globalization, and falling travel costs, they get a little better at it every year.

Too positive? Never fear! The doom and gloom will return in my next article: Why Chinese Can F@#k Right Off Why Mandarin’s Myriad Subtleties Demand, Nay, Deserve Years of Intensive Study.

Cover Photo Credits: Photo by twixx on Depositphotos©

11 thoughts on “Why is English so hard for Chinese people?”

  1. i speak English, my family speaks Chinese. at dinner, I speak Chinese and they speak English. we have a lot of fun

  2. I’m Chinese and I support almost every explanation you post. But let me add something about your last idea.
    China is large country and it has thick population. But there are not enough education opportunities to make sure that all teenagers can step into the university for further education. Therefore, we have to use a strict and fair exam to select better students(I know it’s a little ridiculous).
    Besides, in some middle schools, there are about 50 students in one class, so it’s hard for teachers to communicate with every student . And that maybe why our classroom is like that.
    Now increasing parents have noticed this disadvantage, and thus some changes are falling in today’s Chinese education.

  3. My sister taught English to Normal University students in the 80s and learned Mandarin. She talked about the ease at which one could misspeak when not using proper inflection in the voice. The voice rising or lowering or both working a word made it seem learning the language even more difficult. But she learned enough to teach English and I am proud of her

  4. Interesting article!

    Yet, for someone writing an explanation on linguistics, I find your lack of proper english punctuation (in some places) to be quite curious…

    1. I always thought that people that take the time to comment just to make some non-constructive comment about grammar/punctuation are kind of sad : )

      1. A fair comment on the quality of your English usage is neither irrelevant nor sad. It’s a valid point. If one is teaching our complex language to people for whom it presents special difficulty (as you and I both do), consistent and correct application of grammar, punctuation, and syntactical rules is essential to demystifying it. Plus, sometimes, your meaning is obscured, and I don’t like to have to read sentences twice.

        That said, your analysis is sound.

  5. English Course Amsterdam

    I can imagne that learning English can be very hard for Chinese people, as it is a total different language. Some tips: read English books, watch TV in English and talk to people in real life to practice.

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