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back to article 400 million Chinese people can't speak Chinese: Official

In very agreeable news for those who fear that everyone on homogenised Planet Earth will eventually end up speaking an unholy mix of English, Chinese Mandarin and Spanish – with a soupçon of Portuguese, Russian, Hindi and Javanese thrown in for good measure – the Chinese authorities have admitted that 400 million of their …

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Doesn't surprise me

I can't speak Chinese either

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Re: Doesn't surprise me

Don't worry, China has you on their list for re-education, just like the rest of us.

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Coat

Re: Doesn't surprise me

Hey...here in the US...most folks can't speak ENGLISH...'merican or otherwise.

Mine's the one with the Webster Pocket Dictionary in it.

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So how does this compare...

...to the number of USians who can't write English! :-P

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Pint

Re: So how does this compare...

Still a bit higher. According to the US Census Bureau, only 316M USians can't write (or speak) English.

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Re: So how does this compare...

Who cares when ya can jest git er done?!

Aight?

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Joke

Re: So how does this compare...

LeaMing, I think not many USians can write and harldy any speak English. But that's said from a rather British point of view and not to be taken too seriously.

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Re: So how does this compare...

As the number of Chinese wot can't speak Chinese (~400m) is greater than the total number of USians (~300m), therefore it is greater than the number of USians wot can't English talk proper.

We (I) need an anti-joke chicken icon

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Re: So how does this compare...

me no unnerstan

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French?

"Earth will eventually end up speaking an unholy mix of English, Chinese Mandarin and Spanish – with a soupçon of Portuguese, Russian, Hindi and Javanese thrown in for good measure"

How annoyed do you think the French will be? They'll probably pass a law to make the list illegal.

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Len

Re: French?

That is not a very scientific list obviously. With over 200 million speakers French is more widely spoken than Javanese or Portuguese. Similarly, Malay and Arabic should be in this list. But then, I don't think the author intended to provide an authoritative list, he just wanted to make a point.

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Re: French?

With over 200 million speakers French

French, as we know it today, wasn't even widespread in France until relatively recently. There were many other languages and dialects until they were stamped out by Paris.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: French?

200 Million French speakers?

More widely spoken than Japanese maybe, but more useful? I am not sure....

I would say Mandarin and Japanese are both more useful than French...

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Len
Headmaster

Re: French?

That's true. If you go the South West of France you can tell that these people didn't speak French a century ago. Their great grandparents spoke Occitan, not entirely dead but most young people speak French with a pronunciation reminiscent of Occitan.

That said, no language is entirely uniform. As we know, English can be very different between various countries and most other widely dispersed languages have strong variations. It is not a given that a Moroccan Arabic speaker can understand an Iraqi Arabic speaker. In Latin America you can get dictionaries to help you translate Colombian Spanish to Chilean Spanish etc. The structure is the same but nouns can vary quite a lot with a couple of tricky pitfalls!

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Re: French?

"Useful" for languages depends on context. I've found French very useful in north and west Africa. My Japanese isn't much use outside Japan (and wasn't much use in it). And I think the "Chinese" people in UK speak Cantonese anyway so I can't even order a take-away in Mandarin.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: French?

Yeah, they are pissed that french is no longer linqua franca :D

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Coat

Re: French?

With the population of Brazil over 201 million, Portugese, at least the Brazilian flavour, has a greater number of speakers than French.

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Re: French?

"I've found French very useful in north and west Africa."

I've found French very useful in France...

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Re: French?

>I've found French very useful in France...

Why? You could only use it to speak to French people !

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Anonymous Coward

Re: French?

It's funny (not really) when naïve Québécois visit France for the first time. The French waiter, typically with the advanced Arts degree, tells them to (and I paraphrase), "Please stop. You're hurting my ears. Please - just use English."

In Quebec "oui" (yes) is pronouced "wha" (with phlegm), and " " (space) and "," (comma) are both pronounced "Fack!".

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Facepalm

Re: French?

Two downvotes for a well documented fact. You wacky downvoting Registerians, always good for a laugh.

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Re: French?

There were many other languages and dialects until they were stamped out by Paris.

The first opportunity for a clever use of the Reg's "Paris" icon, and you missed it. Maybe that explains the downvotes.

(I jest, of course. Nothing can explain the downvotes. Downvotes in Reg forums are ineffable.)

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standard written language vs dialects

Here is an interesting article from Language Log last week setting out an analogy to explain the discrepancy between written Mandarin standard and the other spoken Chinese languages (which people have to write using the standard Mandarin system).

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Anonymous Coward

No wonder

It's a bloody hard language to learn.

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Re: No wonder

IIRC

the hardest languages to learn are

1) Chinese

2) Russian

3) English

please google to check though as my memory is not reliable

The main difficulties with English are too many exceptions to rules and words that sound identical but are spelt differently depending on meaning

again please check the above.

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Meh

Re: No wonder

AFAIK Japanese beats Mandarin by a quite hefty margin, and then there is Navajo, Khoisan languages (hard for us damn vocalists), Cantonese is actually "harder" than Mandarin too, also Finnish has a quite fiendish reputation.

English and Russian are both quite "easy" languages to get the basics of (even though mastering English can be rather difficult; some of the darkest corners of the English language are positively ugly, and some even lack definitive rules).

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Re: No wonder

It's true that English and Russian are both easy to pick up and difficult to master. I'm not sure Japanese beats Mandarin though. Japanese uses quite a few Chinese characters when it's written, but (I'm led to believe) it's easier than the Chinese languages because it isn't "sung", i.e. in Cantonese or Mandarin, pronouncing a word in a higher tone, or pronouncing the beginning of the word higher and going lower (and vice versa) can completely change the meaning. Getting the tone wrong can make your speech unintelligible. I started learning Cantonese, and even the basics are bloody difficult.

I read somewhere that someone can spend a lifetime learning to speak and write Mandarin, and can never fully master it.

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Re: No wonder

No way English is one of the top three hardest languages to learn. Finnish and Czech have got to be harder, without even mentioning Navajo and Swiss German which cannot be pronounced if you did not hear them in the womb.

Though English does have this particularity that, say, a word ending in -ough can be pronounced in seven different ways:

- tough (as staff)

- trough (as scoff)

- though (as low)

- thorough (as law)

- through (as brew)

- bough (as how)

- hiccough (as cup)

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Re: No wonder

I don't know how Polish compares to Russian, but I have been informed that it is pretty damn hard to learn. You have like 8 different ways you can say the word "Cat" depending on the context and who you're speaking to.

They do have some great sayings though. I have no idea how to spell it, but it's pronounced as "doo-pe nye oo-reeva", and it's essentially the same as an english person saying "eh, it doesn't blow my ass apart".

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Re: No wonder

Everyone knows that English is tough

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Headmaster

Re: No wonder

I swear there was a Wikipedia article on this, but google gave me:

http://voxy.com/blog/index.php/2011/03/hardest-languages-infographic/

http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Wikibooks:Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers

(yeah yeah, Wikibooks is almost like Wikipedia)

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Re: No wonder

"tough (as staff)"

as "stuff" surely?

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Re: No wonder

English isn't terribly irregular, it's just that most of its speakers don't know what the rules are. For example, lots of people think that 'sing' is an irregular verb. It ain't, it's a class 3 strong verb.

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Len

Re: No wonder

I tried Polish, talk about complexity! They even apply grammar to names of cities (easily four ways of spelling a city depending on whether you are from that city, are going to it, use it to describe an institution of that city etc.) and surnames (Magda Polanska is the wife of Tomasz Polanski etc.).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

English may be tough for Foreigners, BUT the British are very tolerant of mistakes and will help a Foreigner who tries to speak English, and we're pretty good at understanding badly spoken English, I have to say I prefer it when they try to speak British English, but unfortunately the American accents and spellings get everywhere these days!

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Re: No wonder

At least with written English, everyone has the letters on their keyboards to translate. I've seen Japanese keyboards, with both the European characters and their own. And you only have 26 letters to chose from. You can at least type them into your phone for a translation.

Russian has some extra funky characters

Chinese, Arabic, etc are a little more script like.

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"a word ending in -ough can be pronounced in seven different ways"

No, it's eight different ways. You are of course forgetting "lough". Of course, this word is from one of the provinces and therefore the English don't believe it even exists and most of them can't pronounce it. I'm guessing you're American, though, based on your insane rhyming: "tough" with "staff" and "thorough" with "law"? Weirdo.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

I am fluent in several very different languages, including both English and Russian. I speak these two from my very early childhood (from birth for practical purposes), and I use these and a couple of other languages (learned later) daily. From this prospective, I think the difficulties often stem from very different structure, and this is reflected in many comments here. Accordingly, the "difficulty" of a language is not absolute, but depend on what one knows or is used to.

Examples:

- English is "analytical" on the sentence level. Sentences have a mostly fixed structure (subject-predicate-direct object, space-related clauses precede time-related ones, etc.), and exceptions are rather few and regular as well. This allows English to have, e.g., nouns that do not change between cases, i.e., the word's role in a sentence is derived from the position (and prepositions).

- In Russian words (nouns) change between cases (yes, proper names, and locations as well - I guess similar to Polish), and the specific form helps you identify the case and therefore the word's role in the sentence. Accordingly, the word order in a sentence is practically completely free, unlike in English.

- English pronunciation is very clear, especially the words' endings. Russians are very sloppy in their pronunciation (apart from vocals in stressed syllables), especially in the word endings. This makes good pronunciation very difficult for speakers of the other language. Russians may have more problems in Italy, but even the Brits may find that it is important to carefully pronounce the double ff when ordering "caffè" in a bar in Rome - more so than asking for "coffee" in London. This is something quite foreign to Russians who won't write or pronounce "кофе" with double anything.

- I don't think that the English "writing Liverpool and reading Manchester" is all that difficult, unless you are trying to guess how to pronounce a word you don't know (the 7 ways to pronounce *ough are a good example).

- Russians put multiple prefixes and suffixes to great use to convey nuances and personal attitudes where English-speakers will likely resort to multiple modifiers or give up altogether. This expressiveness in word-building is mind-boggling to foreigners and is extremely difficult to master. It is also very different from German word-building, completely unrelated.

- The power of English articles is completely foreign to Russian-speakers who don't know what articles are as their native language does not have them. Even Russians who speak pretty good English often don't use articles properly.

- English gender is usually neutral except for people and animals where biological functions are important. Russian has neutral gender but most words that would be neutral to English-speakers are actually feminine or masculine. It is exceedingly difficult to determine the gender from how the word is written or pronounced. Whether or not the fact that there is a neutral gender makes things easier or more difficult than in languages that don't do neutral (while French or Italian would benefit from some common European/Roman/Latin intuition, some more "exotic" language like Hebrew will not) I don't know, but dealing with gender is definitely difficult for anglophones. "Coffee" is neutral in English, but masculine in both Russian and Italian, though *lots* of Russians will mistakenly use neutral gender in their native language (confusing the Brits). On the other hand, translating from English into a language that *must* specify gender may be a problem without enough context, especially for dialogues/direct speech, when "I say/do/go" is unclear without knowing whether the speaker is male or female. Try translating subtitles without seeing the movie or having enough written hints. Translating into English will be simple in comparison.

And Asian languages add intonation as a means to convey meaning, non-alphabetic scripts, etc. I don't speak any Far-Eastern language to comment in more detail, but it is something completely different.

I suspect that learning Chinese/Mandarin may be easier for a native Japanese speaker than for either Russians or Brits. And Polish may be easier for Russians (but more useful for londoners?). And "la langue anglaise est une langue française mal prononcé" may be easier (to understand, not necessarily to accept or agree with) for English-speakers than for Russians or Chinese.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

According to Steven Pinker, in one of his books, Hausa is an example of a really hard language.

Chinese is certainly not hard for everyone. I knew someone who got to the level of basic conversation in Chinese in a few months over the summer holidays.

However, it does seem to depend on the individual and not just on the linguistic background. Some English people insist that French is much easier than German, while others insist that German is much easier than French. I've heard that it's similar for Finnish people with English and Russian.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

"English may be tough for Foreigners, BUT the British are very tolerant of mistakes " - AC 10:51

Indeed, the strength of English is that it's still more or less intelligible even when mangled, mainly because it came about by a mangling of a huge number of other languages. French is too homogenous- there's only really one 'French' so unless you're spot on people often won't quite get what you're saying for the first few goes.

Russian seem to be good like that too, I spent a while over there and utterly mangled the language and still got my (rather technical) point across.

Still the only language I've found where I failed the Big Mac Challenge*, though**.

*On your first trip to a country, go to a McDonalds and order a Big Mac or equivalent without resorting to English or pointing.

** I've not yet been to China, I assume it'll be even more difficult...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

Thats because as a country the UK spent a long time going to othe rcountries planting a flag and mugging them for loose language and grammer.

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"the UK spent a long time going to othe rcountries planting a flag"

If it were true that building a great big empire causes your language to flourish, about a quarter of the world would be speaking variants of Mongolian.

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Re: No wonder

All the Slavic languages (Czech, Polish, Russian, etc) have the same ability to change words based on who, how, when, and sometimes where relative to the speaker, listener, and subject of the sentence. It is designed to confuse - in fact, one of my Czech language books says that the Czech language is one of the greatest weapons the country has! It isn't so much a language as a framework to add endings to ...

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Happy

Re: No wonder

"I read somewhere that someone can spend a lifetime learning to speak and write Mandarin, and can never fully master it.". That would apply to the English too. (and anybody else).

It's not a good sign if the Chinese Government starts to push Mandarin to hard. The Russian Empire (before the revolution) woke up to the fact that half the population spoke something else but Russian. They tried to change that forcefully and that was not popular at all. We inherit our native language, race, colour and "religion" when we are born and attack people about something like that probably pisses off people more than anything else. One of my English teachers why I like English, and I told him it's because there is no grammar. He was not amused at all.

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PJI
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Happy

Re: No wonder

Cantonese is tricky in that it has six or eight tones (depending upon how classified - high falling, low rising ....) and Mandarin has only, I believe, about four. But I had to learn and use Cantonese. It has some great advantages: no gender, number nor tense to speak of. The main difficulty is that "street" Cantonese is a crude, earthy, lively language which has about as much relationship to the formal form taught as Geordie to English.

As for English being hard: lots of irregularities (but lots of commonality with German, Dutch, Scandinavian languages and even French. I would separate learning to read and write it from speaking. Spoken, a reasonably sub-set will suffice and it is far less awkward than the spelling would suggest. However, that is not an argument for revising the spelling as then we end up like the Germans, changing the official spelling every decade or so just to keep up with changes in theories and usage, till before long one can not even read Dickens without a crib.

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Happy

Re: No wonder

IBM came to the conclusion, when looking for a spoken language suitable for a computer, that the Finnish language was the number one language in that respect. To understand that you have to understand Finnish. Anyway I don't think any language is more, or less, easy to learn, it's all about to which group of languages your native language belongs, your age and how many other languages you are familiar with.

Kids learn their native tongue no matter the language. One of the advantages of Finnish is that it's written and pronounced the same way. If you do business with Finns you have to remember that they are awfully bad when it comes to spelling their names as they don't have to do it as it is spelled the way it's pronounced.

On the phone they will get your name and what ever wrong every second time and you will get it wrong too.

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PJI
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Re: No wonder

French and Spanish are said to be relatively straightforward - smaller vocabularies and greater regularity. Now Welsh ....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

"unfortunately the American accents and spellings get everywhere these days!"

Their grammar too:

Their corrupted and ever more irregular grammar, with lots of unnecessary prepositons and the omission of necessary ones leading to verbosity and ambiguity.

Speaking German, as I do, I recognise the strong immigrant pidgin-English effect from German, East European and Yiddish (strong German influence) speakers.

The sad thing is, even the BBC is starting to use American grammar and vocabulary, let alone the younger people heavily influenced by film and computer.

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@ElReg!comments!Pierre - Japanese

The big challenge with Japanese is that, once you've mastered the basics, you discover that there are (at least) 6 different honorific forms whose use depends on the social relationship between speakers (a bit like the French tutoyer/vouvoyer times three - but with different vocabulary and declension to go with it). Children (and foreigners) are only expected to use the basic 'familiar' form, but correct use of honorifics is vital for polite adult conversation. This is why they are so insistent on exchanging business cards - until you understand your social relationship to a person, it is impossible to speak to them.

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