Hapless Chinese learners agree: the Taiwan-only useless system of ‘Bopomofo’ ought to be immediately phased out, and the agreed-upon phonetic system of Hanyu pinyin used to teach Chinese if Taiwan wants competency and credibility as a Mandarin-language training center.
The first time I enrolled in a Chinese class was at the Chinese Language Institute in Taipei, about 6 years ago. In that first week, we were expected to learn a strange animal called “Bopomofo”. Derived from the first four letters of the system (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ; zhùyīn fúhào is its formal name), it’s a phonetic system only used in Taiwan to teach children to pronounce Chinese – it takes 10 weeks for 1st graders to learn, and is printed alongside Chinese in their books. ‘Bo-po-mo-fo’ effectively serves the same function as pinyin – a way to be able to pronounce (not necessarily understand) Chinese characters.
In my one-week crash course, I managed to learn Bopomofo and the four tones, but was also expected to be able to read, write and understand written Mandarin, or traditional Chinese, and was tested on all these areas — all within the first week of an elementary Chinese class. In comparison in the U.S., instruction in writing and reading Chinese characters does not even start until the second year.
My Chinese teacher at CLI spoke absolutely no English, so even if I managed to figure out how to ask a question, her answer would be completely incomprehensible. I relied for the most part on piecing together what I could with my fellow, often bemused foreign students, a hodgepodge of nationalities.
But I only lasted a week, crashing and burning in my Chinese crash course. The pace was too blistering even for me, a seasoned student of languages. Fluent in French after studying it for a decade, I’d also studied several other languages, including Russian. Further, I did possess a genuine interest in the Chinese language, and came to Taiwan with the priority of mastering it — although I’ve long since admitted this will take at least three or four times the time and effort as another language would. It might take a lifetime.
The first missionaries in China didn’t call it ‘the devil’s language’ for nothing. Chinese is considered the most difficult language in the world to learn. Cantonese uses written Mandarin but its pronunciation is even more complicated, putting it at the top of the list, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State. With Chinese, every word is a different symbol, and it’s not phonetic, giving no clues as to how it is pronounced. In Taiwan, every child is customarily forced to memorize each character by writing each of them one hundred times.
My conclusion of why learning Chinese is so hard is that it’s “teacher-centric”. The student, partly due to a dearth of ‘smart’ learning materials, must rely heavily on closely watching and mimicking the instructor’s tone and pronunciation. If one’s ‘tone’ is in the least bit off, the resulting character could have numerous, even hundreds of other meanings, as well as written forms of each ‘morpheme’. The sound “shi”, for example, in different tones, can mean ‘business’, ‘is’, ‘snake’, ‘poetry’, ‘shit’ and so on, in some cases nearly ad infinitum.
Once I asked a vendor “Duo xiao chien”, intending to ask “How much?” but because I used the fourth tone on ‘chien’ she heard “How much do you owe ME?” And for some reason, she wasn’t able to draw upon key contextual clues, such as, what else would I be trying to ask a vendor, while pointing at one of her wares? Incidentally, the Taiwan pronunciation of ‘xiao’ often would come out sounding like ‘sao’; and many other words are differently pronounced from one instance to the next — mountain, which is phoneticized as ‘shan’ (‘mountain’) is actually commonly pronounced in Taiwan as ‘san’. There are many other differences in the Taiwan accent, too many to go into detail here. But briefly, one Taiwanese friend summed up the difference between Mainland and Taiwan accents as comparable between American and English accents, respectively; the Taiwanese Mandarin accent is considered more formal, even ‘hip’ thanks to the success of many Taiwan pop stars and music there.
As one American observer here put it, “I get the impression that even native Chinese speakers have a hard time understanding each other.” Taiwan is not alone, of course. With the hundreds of dialects spoken in China, a population of 1.3 billion people, it is estimated that nearly half of Mainland Chinese cannot read, speak or understand the national Putonghua (“common”) language, Mandarin Chinese. Did you get that?! Half of Chinese people can’t speak Chinese! There are at least 250 dialects spoken within its massive boundaries, often incomprehensible to each other, with 75% of the population living outside urban areas, in the countryside. According to People’s Daily, only a little over half of Chinese surveyed can speak Mandarin (this is spoken, where the written form is much harder); another (unconfirmed) source says less than 10% speak it at home.
Beijing’s customary overestimation of the population’s literacy rate is examined fairly well here. In an attempt to improve literacy in the 1950s and 60s by implementing ‘simplified’ Chinese (Singapore also adopted it), the new characters used fewer strokes in its written form. However, the simplification process ironically complicated matters, rendering it practically illegible to both their Taiwanese cousins (and foreign learners of traditional Mandarin language), across the Taiwan Strait. To all intensive purposes, Simplified Chinese is yet another language for Chinese learners to learn. Nevertheless, through China’s hegemonic influence in the world, Mandarin language instruction internationally is taught 1) using pinyin, (部首; bùshǒu, lit. ‘phonetic’ in Chinese) a Romanized form of phoneticization, and 2) in its simplified written form.
Now, after being here for 8 years, I have been enrolled over a year in a practically free class for spouses of Taiwanese, called the “New Immigrant” courses, at a community college held on the campus of a junior high school in Taipei. There are almost as many teachers in the class as students, one of its excellent features, as students can get a one-on-one experience as necessary without having to interrupt the rest of the class. A few teachers speak a bit of English, enough to provide key assistance at this level. It should be noted that my now-husband, through two years of semi-intensive private tutoring and then off-and-on language exchange, has helped me get through a few standard Far East textbooks to this point of intermediate Chinese ability.
This week in class, I waited for Teacher Lilly to finish her 45 minutes of drilling us on Bopomofo, and they handed out a notebook for us to practice writing it — an additional language to learn in order to learn Chinese. She is a lovely teacher, always helpful and kind, but I had to address this one burning issue. Raising my hand I asked (in Chinese), “A few years ago, the Taiwan government decided to use Hanyu Pinyin. Taiwan is alone in the world to use Bopomofo, and pinyin is used to teach Chinese in other countries. Most of the other students, mostly Vietnamese but a Spaniard as well as myself, use a language that looks much like pinyin. So why do you (plural) insist on teaching us using Bopomofo? It is useless and a waste of time.” One of the Vietnamese students was staring at me in surprise, nodding slightly in agreement. Teacher Lilly spoke quickly in response, but I gathered that some of the Vietnamese in the class were mothers, and when their children came home they needed to help them with their Bopomofo. “But we’re adults,” I insisted. Not that I expect to change or have any impact on the system of Chinese teaching in Taiwan at all, and fully acknowledge that usually, nothing ever gets done or changes. But why is this system so entrenched and resistant to change?
One teacher in the class, Michael, is fluent in English. I recounted this situation after class, and after thinking about it, he gave me some key insight to the crux of the problem. “It’s hard for people to change their way of thinking,” he said. “The Chinese teachers don’t want to take the time – an hour at the library — to learn something new. It is an extra effort to learn to write pinyin so they can teach Chinese better.” The Chinese teachers here grew up using Bopomofo to learn Chinese, so this is the only way they know how to teach it.
Never mind that this system makes the world’s hardest language well-nigh impossible. Sure, I know and have admired the odd individual who has buckled down, studied Chinese intensively, at least four hours every day, and by the end of a year they can be fairly conversant and competent in spoken and even fairly good in written Chinese. It’s very rare, and it’s superhard, but it is possible — for that handful of usually brilliant, extremely hard-working people. For the rest of us, though, it’s like the old song says: you can keep on knockin’ but you can’t come in.
But it doesn’t help that every obstacle possible is thrown in the tortuous path of the poor Chinese language learner. I am convinced that if an attempt was made to devise a more convoluted way to learn a language, it’d be hard to beat the way that Taiwan teaches Chinese to foreigners. Not only are the teachers apparently clueless about making it as painless as possible, the textbooks are dry and dispirited. Far East textbooks phase out pinyin, English and even Bopomofo translations of its longer passages (often a page or two in length) in its intermediate-level texts, presuming learners should already know character pronunciation.
Unlike other Romanized languages, ‘looking it up in the dictionary’ is a laborious, painstaking and extremely prohibitive process for Chinese. There are a few ways to look characters up — by number of strokes, by its radical, and so on, but this takes (me) about 10-20 minutes. A few times I’ve asked Chinese speakers out of curiosity, “When was the last time you looked up a Chinese character in the dictionary?” The answer is typically “in grade school.” Even they avoid doing it if they can. Then, few dictionaries for foreigners are both Chinese-English and English-Chinese, when it is frequently necessary to go between the two. Besides, that dictionary would be huge; there are 80,000 characters in the Chinese language, with an estimated 3,000 most commonly used.
Out of the half-dozen times I have asked a Chinese native speaker to write down something in Chinese, two or three of those people were uncertain how to write the character, forgot how many strokes were necessary, and had to actually ask another Chinese speaker. Unsurprisingly to me, Chinese speakers who read for pleasure are a rarity, whereas in France, for example, the population is made up of avid readers.
One magazine estimated that 70 percent of Chinese high school students wear glasses or have poor vision; China Today claims that half of Chinese teens are near-sighted. It is very likely, in my opinion, that the reason – besides heavy studying, diet and little outdoor exercise — is because Chinese characters are so hard to read that it strains the eyes. I can make out English signs at almost twice the distance of Chinese signs. Reading Chinese does employ both sides of the brain, scientific study has proved, but this could be interpreted to mean it takes exponentially more effort to do so.
Years ago it occurred to me that to learn Chinese, one must learn several languages. To wit, there is the insanely difficult to memorize written Chinese (stroke order, the 214 radicals), the spoken (overall pronunciation, distinguishing the four tones), Bopomofo (only in Taiwan, China phased it out in the 1950s) and learning to recognize, write and pronounce Bopomofo’s 37 characters; idioms and proverbs dating back a few thousand years; how to type it (there are several ways of doing this, based on radicals, pinyin etc).
Then there is Chinese grammar, to me a critical aspect of Chinese learning. It is often said that “Chinese has no grammar”. But every language has a grammar. Grammar is a universal constant of language. Noam Chomsky argued this, and it is true for Chinese as well: grammar is inherent in all language, there is a universal grammar inherent in all language. So propagating the fallacy that Chinese ‘has no grammar’ clearly only stifles analysis, interpretation and categorization of Chinese grammar, and in turn therefore impairs its presentation/instruction, and ultimately its ability to be mastered. Inbuilt in this argument of “No Grammar in Chinese” is the seemingly ironclad excuse not to learn how to present/teach Chinese grammar. Thus, there are no books available on the treatment of learning Chinese grammar. Anyone trying to learn Chinese grammar is effectively forced to reinvent the wheel. From this intermediate learner’s perspective, I can tell you that Chinese grammatical structure seems in many ways the polar opposite of English. There are many, many rules in Chinese grammar, but they must be first presented to be learned.
I seriously doubt that Chinese will ever be Romanized, such as in the case of the Turkish language, for example, over a hundred years ago. It’d be problematic and the Chinese people have far too much pride in it, considering the written language intrinsically connected their ancient heritage — a view which is truly understandable. Written Chinese is a beautiful, often mysterious with a fascinating history of developing from ideograms, pictographs. But learning Chinese could be made easier and more accessible by the way it is taught — if that was the objective — drawing us all closer in cultural understanding. For sure, it’d be a step in the right direction.