An Inconvenient Truth about Learning Chinese

Translation of a Tuluotuo Post

Beginning of translation –>

Once in a while, I see two American Chinese people. They are both originally from mainland China, went to America after their university education, got a doctor’s academic degree, and hence stayed in America to become Americans. They have become older, can count as people of achievements and they frequently publish books. They hold some lectures in mainland China every year, just like Huaqiaos returning to their country as foreign experts.

I heard that many Americans learns Chinese, but only few learn it well. I’m afraid they are children from Chinese households. I listened to two experts from America and I then understood the reason.

Is it because Chinese is difficult? No.

Ms Zhang, an expert who doesn’t look really much different from a Granny in the park here, says that American children are really squeamish – learning pressure of the kind prevalent in China doesn’t work in America. Once a child is not happy, American parents advise the headmaster. Then the headmaster has a word with the teacher, and this will influence the teacher’s bonus. If a teacher is only temporarily employed, he or she can prepare for an early leave. Many of those who teach Chinese in America are temporarily employed.

Therefore, to protect their own rice bowls, Chinese teachers have to resort to “Happy Chinese” (快乐汉语) or “Monkey King Chinese” (美猴王汉语). Compare Chinese characters to the English alphabet – want to scare the kid?

So what you do is, you teach pinyin. Some children have learned Chinese for four years, but don’t know even one character. Ms Zhang’s child still took [his or her] exams in a Chinese primary school, but apart from speaking fluent Mandarin with some Henan dialect within, her child is illiterate – without knowledge of Chinese characters. As the teacher came from Henan province, Ms Zhang didn’t speak much Chinese with her child, and her child came from school speaking Henan dialect.

A Chinese teacher a taught first-form primary school student Chinese. Her father, an educational service official, took a strong interest in his daughter’s learning progress and had hired the Chinese teacher as a home tutor. He heard her teaching his daughter this line: “他有3个苹果,你有四个苹果,你比他多多少?” He asked the tutor what it meant. “Oh,” she cheerfully replied, “that’s easy. It’s how many apples do you have more than he has?” The educational official, on hearing this string of Chinese-style English, almost fainted. “What? Such a difficult question? Even an adult’s brain needs to take several bends to understand that – how can you teach that to a child?”

Professor Ying has taught Chinese in America for several years. Recently, he prepared some “Happy Chinese” method, named “Rhythmical Chinese”. He gave us a little demonstration of his researching result, like replacing the line “I want to eat” (我要吃饭, wo yao chi fan). You can’t simply say that. First you have to add some rap music and to speak along its rhythm: “Chi fan, chi fan, wo yao chi fan” several times. It’s said that American children like this method. Maybe they do, but that comes at a price. In the end, the child may have learned Chinese for one year and can only say “Yao Ming is taller than I”. This is a comparative line, it’s rather difficult within the Chinese language, so professor Ying has to proceed orderly, and after one year, with luck, if the child is still sufficiently interested, teacher Ying can teach him or her this incredible line!

With lifetime employment, Ms Zhang and Mr Ying are still in no bad position, and they have social insurance all included. But Ms Wang is in no such easy position. She’s from Beijing, she studied geology with a doctoral degree, but found no work. So she became a housewife. Now her child attends school, and she wanted to get back to work, but finding a job is still not easy. [Correction/Update: Fortunately, more or less, her idiomatic Beijing dialect helped her land the job.]  She is now employed as a Chinese teacher, but it is still only temporary. Once a child or the headmaster isn’t happy with her, she can lose her job any time.

Like other teachers, she doesn’t dare to teach characters. She practices colloquial language, thanks to pinyin, making the kids believe that Chinese writing is based on the alphabet, and that Chinese isn’t difficult. But give them a Chinese newspaper, and they are stunned.

The current economic crisis should be no problem for Ms Zhang. As for Ms Wang, I’m not so sure.

<– End of translation


Footnotes and Remarks

Corrections are welcome.


I don’t feel with Ms Wang as much as Tuluotuo does, and may explain later. But what Tuluotuo writes about “Happy Chinese” and many childrens’ inability to cope with some stress, it’s true for Germany, too. Inconveniently true.

– JR

Related (update): What it takes to learn, and to teach, Febr 3

3 Responses to “An Inconvenient Truth about Learning Chinese”

  1. Does C.A. speak Chinese?


    Fortunately, more or less, her idiomatic Beijing dialect helped her land the job.

    For your information, Mandarin techinically refers to all the northern and southwestern Chinese dialects, with Beijing hua or Beijing speech as one of them.

    It’s said that the two best Chinese cities where foreign people learn to speak Chinese is Beijing and Harbin. Well, I heard of this claim when I worked in Harbin from 2000-02.


  2. That’s right, she reads and speaks Chinese. I got some corrections from her on a previous translation.
    Thanks for your advice, I’ll put an update into the text this weekend.
    Hope you are having a good holdiday, and happy new year!



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