The Triple Challenge

The trials & tribulations of learning a foreign language can be overwhelming. With Mandarin’s intricate system of symbols, this means an essential trio with each new word.

As a student of the beautiful Mandarin language, and a frequently complaining one at that, I often get to hear the following comment from my Chinese friends: “You know, it’s just as difficult for us to learn English as it is for you to learn Chinese.” So, let’s get things straight once and for all: No, my dear friends, it is not! Of course, no foreign language is easy to master, and English is a particularly rich and complex specimen of a language with plenty of layers that could certainly keep you busy for years. And yet I do believe that structurally it is much easier to learn English than Chinese. The single idiosyncratic feature that makes learning Chinese so much more of a challenge than learning English is spelled characters. But, of course, “spelled” is the wrong word here. While English—like most other modern languages—relies on just a few letters to represent the full range of its plentiful vocabulary, whereas the Chinese have opted for preserving an ancient pictographic system that consists of tens of thousands of unique and intricate characters, albeit somewhat simplified nowadays.

Being married to a multiple IronMan, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe in awe the stamina and the sheer willpower needed to complete this kind of impressive long-distance triathlon. It’s exhausting even simply standing on the side-lines and following the athletes as they emerge themselves in one challenging endeavour after another: open-water swimming, followed by hours-long bike riding and a full marathon at the end! Well, you could think of learning Chinese as the equivalent of a long-distance triathlon: For each new word you learn you’ll face the “triple challenge” of remembering how it sounds, what it means and what it looks like.

Maybe it used to be easier, once upon a time, to deduce the meaning of a character from the stylized shape that it represented. My learned Chinese friends also claim that it is easier to guess the meaning of traditional characters than that of simplified ones, as they have preserved some of the original logic behind the complicated pictograms. I seriously doubt it though. Entertaining as it might be to speculate on the subject of why the character for “good” [好], is a combination of the two characters for “woman” [女], and “child” [子], I do not think that anyone unfamiliar with the character to start with would be able to guess its meaning directly upon seeing it for the first time. Well yes, a woman with a child is a good thing, but so are many other combinations, right? And, let’s face it, sometimes the logic behind the characters can be quite puzzling—have you ever wondered why on earth “home” [家], is represented by a pig under a roof while “peace” [安], is a woman under a roof?

And, let’s face it, sometimes the logic behind the characters can be quite puzzling—have you ever wondered why on earth “home” [家], is represented by a pig under a roof while “peace” [安], is a woman under a roof?

That said, I do enjoy the occasional thrill of helping a foreign friend, totally unfamiliar with the language, to guess the meaning of a particularly easy character. Try, for example, showing the character for “skewer” [串], to a complete novice. Chances are they’ll be able to guess what it is, especially if the picture is accompanied by the characteristic barbecue smell and smoke. Or let them admire the simple logic of characters [凸] and [凹], “convex” and “concave” respectively, and I promise you that they will immediately be able to tell you which is which, as well as guess the meaning of the adjective “[凹凸].” You can almost see it means “bumpy” right?

Seriously though, the simple and logically shaped characters are few and far between. And in order to be able to remember the shape and meaning of all the rest of the thousands of opaque and highly stylized symbols, as well as what they sound like of course, I’m afraid you’ll still need to apply that IronMan stamina and willpower of yours.