The first sentence I learned to say in my Mandarin class was “Zhongwen hen nan,” or “Chinese is really hard.” My teacher made the class repeat the phrase over and over. Chinese is really hard. Chinese is really hard. The spindly characters, the singsong tones: To any monolingual English-speaker, Chinese seems as foreign as a foreign language can get.
As an adage, “Chinese is really hard” doesn’t tell you very much. Learning any language is hard. But if you think of the phrase as shorthand or euphemism, it reveals an unflattering attitude that Westerners hold regarding other cultures.
“Chinese is very hard” is less of a mouthful than, “Becoming proficient in Chinese is harder than becoming proficient in a Romance language.” The latter is more precise. Spanish and English have much in common: cognates, an alphabet, similar sentence structure. By the time you conjugate your first “-ar” verb, the most common type of regular verb in Spanish, proficiency is in sight. You don’t get such a head start studying Chinese. English offers no preparation for pronouncing “qi’s” and “xi’s.” Chinese and English share neither alphabet nor cognates. They don’t even pronounce chow mein the same way.
But proficiency is just one step. We can’t and shouldn’t appraise something as complex as foreign language learning in such simple terms. It’s shortsighted. With Chinese, we stare up at the learning curve, unable to see that the trek from proficient to advanced Mandarin is relatively rapid and flat. With Spanish and other romance languages, we underestimate the tricky climb from passable adeptness to idiomatic ease — not just knowing the difference between “por” and “para,” but hearing it. We don’t judge other disciplines so quickly. No one says learning the violin is hard because, in comparison, you can play piano scales without a single lesson.
The front-loaded difficulty of Chinese scares many people away, but at Yale, many gravitate towards difficulty. Some study Chinese not for an interest in the culture of a fourth of the world’s people, but precisely for the challenge. This isn’t a sustainable reason to take on as big an endeavor as learning a foreign language.
An intensive summer program in Beijing (and it’s always a summer program in Beijing) can be oppressive. The pollution, the culture shock, the tide of daily quizzes — it’s too much to slog through if you’re just doing it to prove you can.
When we fixate on how hard Chinese is, I fear we slip into our lesser, more xenophobic selves. “Chinese is really hard” also serves as a euphemism for “Chinese people and Chinese culture are weird and I could never understand them.” It fits in with the attitude that learning about non-Western cultures is burdensome and choosing not to learn about them is okay because it’s hard. But learning about other people is always hard.
There is so much to enjoy about Chinese: the crass idioms and spitfire cadences, the elated Beijingers who assume blond people don’t know more than “ni hao.” My Mandarin is still far from fluent. At times I am proud of my progress, and at other times I’m frustrated at how far I have to go. But ultimately Chinese is so many other things to me: It’s succinct and funny and elegant before it is hard.
We should be aware of cultural barriers, but we shouldn’t fixate on them. In my experience, Americans and Chinese have a lot in common. We want to earn a living and we want to be loved. We laugh at dumb jokes and sometimes we are close-minded.
There are an estimated 300 million Chinese people learning English right now. With so many people making the effort to understand me — learning English isn’t a breeze either — who cares if Chinese is hard? I want to understand them back.
Faced with people who look different and speak a different language, even a different type of English, our default should not be, “It’s hard to understand,” but “I want to understand.” We cannot master every language, or empathize with every person, but wanting to understand is more than half the battle. As the world gets smaller, the stakes of pursuing this understanding continue to grow.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.