The chaos behind learning a foreign language

By John Lydon(China Daily) Updated: 2015-02-06

The State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs released not too long ago the results of a survey it conducted: Command of the Chinese language, it seems, remains a skill beyond the ability of most expats in China.

Seventy-three percent can understand only simple words in Chinese. Eighteen percent comprehend what's being said most of the time, but they cannot reliably make themselves understood. Only 8 percent can speak simple Chinese.

The main barrier, it seems, is that it is written in characters rather than an alphabet. It is said, for example, that to comfortably make one's way through a Chinese newspaper, one has to be familiar with about 1,500 characters. Beginner Chinese textbooks often set their goal at about 500 characters.

English, in contrast, is based on a 26-letter alphabet, and using that together with a few phonetic rules, one can plod his way through just about any piece of writing.

Easy, right? You might think so.

Out on the streets of Beijing, I always run into mothers or grandmothers who, seeing that I'm a foreigner, coach the toddlers in their care to say, "Hello" and "Bye-bye". Three-or 4-year-olds, mind you.

Around the corner from my apartment is a school that has an enrollment of several hundred 4- to 12-year-olds who spend much of their free time learning to speak English. There are similar institutes throughout the city.

And anyone who aspires to higher education in China had better bone up on English, because it's one of the subjects required on the national college entrance examination.

But is English really so easy for non-native speakers to learn?

After all, it's the evolution of a Germanic language, Anglo-Saxon, that along the way begged, borrowed and stole from Latin, ancient Greek, French and many other languages.

As its speakers spread across the globe, it developed regional variants that remain comprehensible, but odd to other speakers. A British colleague once said after hearing one of my Americanisms, "Ah, the British and Americans-two peoples divided by a common language".

And through its many roots, vast spelling inconsistencies arose that carry over into pronunciation. In 1920, Gerard Nolst Trenite demonstrated the point with The Chaos, a poem that rhymes when the spelling says it shouldn't, and that doesn't when your eye tells you it must. Here's the beginning:

I will keep you, Susy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy;

Tear in eye, your dress will tear:

Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,

Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare, heart, hear and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word.

Why is it that Chinese can so readily learn English, but expats in China have such difficulty with Chinese?

There must be er bai wu (250) reasons.