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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  1. Gordon Pryra

    Doesn't surprise me

    I can't speak Chinese either

    1. Flatpackhamster

      Re: Doesn't surprise me

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

    2. ItsNotMe
      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.

  2. LaeMing

    So how does this compare...

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

    1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge
      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.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: So how does this compare...

      Who cares when ya can jest git er done?!

      Aight?

    3. Evil Auditor Silver badge
      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.

    4. Code Monkey

      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

    5. Euripides Pants Silver badge

      Re: So how does this compare...

      me no unnerstan

  3. Rich 2

    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.

    1. Len Silver badge

      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.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        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.

        1. Len Silver badge
          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!

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Facepalm

          Re: French?

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

        3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          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.)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        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...

        1. Chuunen Baka

          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.

          1. Steve the Cynic Silver badge

            Re: French?

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

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

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: French?

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

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

      3. keith_w
        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.

      4. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: French?

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

    3. Anonymous Coward
      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!".

  4. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No wonder

    It's a bloody hard language to learn.

    1. James 36

      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.

      1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge
        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).

        1. Goldmember

          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.

          1. Michael Hoffmann
            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)

          2. Lars Silver badge
            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.

          3. PJI
            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.

          4. Michael Dunn
            Joke

            Re: No wonder @Goldmember

            Was it Stephen Leacock who wrote "Nobody can read Russian, that is why all their books have to be translated."

        2. Chris Miller

          @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.

          1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

            Re: @ElReg!comments!Pierre - Japanese

            there are (at least) 6 different honorific forms

            I don't think there are that many, but maybe I'm wrong on that. You really only have to learn two form: the dictionary forms (like taberu, kiku, aru, iru, etc.) is informal, while (if you're a foreigner) the polite forms (tabemasu, kikimasu, arimasu, imasu, etc.) are perfectly fine for almost any social occasion. Conjugation of both forms follow some very simple rules, with a minimum of irregular verbs. It's only if you're talking with someone of very high standing or you want to ask someone to do a favour for you that you need to worry about other forms. Apart from a few set phrases (things like "itadakimasu", "gochisousamadeshita), knowing how to ask someone of higher status to do something for you or describing something they have done for you (conjugating agemasu and morau, to give and receive) and the odd time you might have to use "degozaimasu" instead of the regular copula "desu", there's really not much to it. The only other major pitfalls as regards levels of politeness are to do with avoiding using certain verbs when a more polite version is appropriate (sometimes in specific social circumstances, so one never uses the verb kiru, to cut, at a wedding, since it conjures up thoughts of divorce in that context, but generally because, eg, kuu, to eat, is conventionally vulgar, while taberu and itadaku are safer or more polite, respectively) or not using the honorific prefix o- (or, sometimes go-) when talking about certain things (or using honorific terms to describe yourself, which is never acceptable regardless of your rank).

            I think that these three levels (dictionary form, polite -masu form and a smattering of more idiomatic phrases) are enough for most interactions in Japanese. I find that yakuza films and (to a lesser degree) older samurai films (since the language used can be a bit dated) are a handy way of picking up at least some of the ultra-polite expressions. Of course, as I said, as a foreigner you can get away with just using -masu forms for the most part, and you'll be forgiven for most mistakes. But then, even Japanese people have difficulties with ultra-polite language. There's a particularly good scene in "Ososhiki" (the funeral) where the next-of-kin have to watch an instructional video to learn the appropriate phrases for greeting mourners. It mightn't teach you any practical phrases, but I'd recommend the film nonetheless...

            1. Drakkenson

              Re: @ElReg!comments!Pierre - Japanese

              @I don't think there are that many

              The forms you mentioned (-ru forms and -masu forms) exist for all verbs. However, polite conversation makes extensive use of humble and exalting variants of a few verbs (become, do, go, come, give and a few others) and combines these in idioms that are capable of expressing the six degrees of politeness another poster was mentioning. One never ever speaks in the same way to the Emperor, to one's parent, to one's friend, to one's company president, to one's direct boss, to one's assistant, to one's younger/newer colleague, to one's female colleague, to one's child, or indeed to someone else's child, and so on. If you do use an inappropriate level of politeness people feel offended, because if you are overly polite it is perceived as irony, and if you are insufficiently polite you are being rude. Foreigners get away with some inappropriateness, but past a certain limit you will lose goodwill and business. You will always be treated politely though, and even overly politely, if they want to have a laugh behind your back.

              Well, at least that was what I learned while I was there, part of it 'the hard way'.

              1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

                Re: @ElReg!comments!Pierre - Japanese

                @Drakkenson

                Hi.. thanks for that. I'd never actually considered the humble verb forms when I was counting up. I just lumped all of these things in as being idiomatically polite. And maybe, as you say, the proper distinction becomes increasingly important the longer your stay in Japan. I'm reminded of the Nihongo Notes series of books. They do a very good job of walking through the pitfalls in how the Japanese actually use the language, with Mr. Lerner making some mistake or other in each capsule lesson---sometimes, though by no means always, involving inappropriate levels of politeness.

                I suppose that I was really more trying to get across that honorific speech in Japanese isn't actually as difficult as people think it is. More to the point, I actually think that Japanese is quite a simple language to learn on many fronts. It's got regular verb conjugation (with only a handful of tenses/modes to worry about), no male/female versions of words to learn, or even definite/indefinite articles. It's also got explicit topic and object/subject markers, so it's easy enough to parse. On the downside, adjectives and adverbs need to be conjugated (but they're all regular, with only two forms) and you have to count things differently depending on the type of object it is classed as (eg, days, bank-notes, plates, bottles, etc.). Other than that, I honestly think that learning Japanese grammar is a lot easier than for other languages.

                I'm leaving aside the issue of learning to read and write, obviously, but even there Japanese is a whole lot easier than Chinese thanks to having hiragana and katakana for lots of the grammatical glue that holds the nouns, verbs and so on together. Chinese script just looks like an wall of hieroglyphs to me, despite being able to read a fair amount of kanji.

                1. Drakkenson

                  Re: @ElReg!comments!Pierre - Japanese

                  @Fruminous Bandersnatch

                  About politeness, in linguistics this refers to being polite, as in showing deference (and not only, this is called 'positive face), as well as being impolite or rude, or just critical of someone (this is 'negative face"). Of course, you can be polite or impolite towards your superiors as well as inferiors, and you can do that (intentionally or not) by using an inappropriate level of politeness. Imagine,for instance, someone of superior status being excessively polite towards someone of inferior status. The lower status person will be properly insulted, because he or she will interpret excessive politeness as unwarranted irony.

                  I think you are correct in saying that Japanese is syntactically regular and therefore easy to memorise, but the difficulty of the language lies in things like the politeness aspect, and other aspects outside syntax as such.

                  For me personally, another difficulty was learning the kanji, because, unlike in Chinese, most of them have more than one reading, so they each have to be learned together with as many contexts as you can remember.

                  With regard to counters, there are perhaps hundreds of them, but most of them are obscure linguistic curiosities, and in everyday life you can get away with twenty or so.

        3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: No wonder

          AFAIK Japanese beats Mandarin by a quite hefty margin

          Spoken Japanese is quite an easy language to acquire reasonable proficiency in. Japanese was traditionally a tonal language, but tonal inflection has become largely vestigial, so most second-language speakers don't bother with it and have no trouble making themselves understood.

          Written Japanese takes a bit of effort, but hiragana and katakana are only 46 symbols each and you only need to know about 1500 kanji to read nearly anything printed in the last century. Students learn to read and write Japanese as a second language with only a few years' coursework (which could be condensed into a much shorter timeframe). It's really not that hard.

          There's a lot of folklore about what languages are "easy" or "difficult", and in my experience most of it is complete rubbish. Obviously you can make some general observations. Yes, tonal languages like Chinese require some practice for second-language speakers coming from non-tonal languages. Yes, the huge number of irregularities in English pronunciation and orthography mean a lot of memorization. But statements like "X, Y, and Z are the hardest languages" are patent nonsense.

      2. ratfox Silver badge

        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)

        1. fandom Silver badge

          Re: No wonder

          Everyone knows that English is tough

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            @ fandom

            Here's the doggerel that I know about it:

            O-U-G-H

            A Fresh Hack at an Old Knot

            by Charles Battell Loomis

            I'm taught p-l-o-u-g-h

            S'all be pronouncé "plow."

            "Zat's easy w'en you know," I say,

            "Mon Anglais, I'll get through!"

            My teacher say zat in zat case,

            O-u-g-h is "oo."

            And zen I laugh and say to him,

            "Zees Anglais make me cough."

            He say "Not 'coo' but in zat word,

            O-u-g-h is 'off,'"

            "Oh, Sacre bleu! Such varied sounds

            Of words make me hiccough!"

            He say, "Again mon frien' ees wrong;

            O-u-g-h is 'up'

            In hiccough." Zen I cry, "No more,

            You make my t'roat feel rough."

            "Non, non!" he cry, "You are not right;

            O-u-g-h is 'uff.'"

            I say, "I try to spik your words,

            I cannot spik zem though."

            "In time you'll learn, but now you're wrong!

            O-u-g-h is 'owe'"

            "I'll try no more, I s'all go mad,

            I'll drown me in ze lough!"

            "But ere you drown yourself," said he,

            "O-u-g-h is 'ock.'"

            He taught no more, I held him fast

            And killed him wiz a rough.

        2. graeme leggett Silver badge

          Re: No wonder

          "tough (as staff)"

          as "stuff" surely?

          1. Purlieu

            Re: No wonder

            "tough (as staff)"

            as "stuff" surely?

            not if you're from Surrey

        3. Squander Two

          "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.

        4. Lars Silver badge
          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.

        5. PJI

          Re: No wonder

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

        6. sisk Silver badge

          Re: No wonder

          No way English is one of the top three hardest languages to learn

          Given the number of NATIVE English speakers who are unable to speak it properly I'm inclined to disagree with you. I'm not just talking about uneducated Americans here. I've heard linguistic sins come from the mouths of Englishmen that would rival anything in one of Jeff Foxworthy's Southern words sketches. Idiots exist everywhere.

          But when you set the difficulties of native speakers with unusual dialects aside, English still has a rather insane grammatical structure. Not to mention the inconsistent spelling rules and high number of common homonyms in the language. Add in all the regional dialects and pigeon tongues in the English speaking world, as well as the lack of anything remotely resembling a body of standards, and the whole language is a chaotic mess. It is, indeed, a very hard language to learn. I pity anyone trying to learn it as an adult.

        7. Dexter

          Re: No wonder

          You missed out

          lough (as loch)

          rough (as ruff)

      3. Moosh

        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".

        1. Len Silver badge

          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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