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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Re: No wonder

Fortunately for Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, etc., China has never undertaken such enterprises

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Re: No wonder

A very nice, cogent and obviously well-informed post. Thank you :)

I couldn't help but chuckle, though, when just after saying how fluent you were, you described having learned Russian and English from birth "for practical purposes". Not a criticism, just that it conjures up a completely different picture to having learned the languages "practically from birth" or "to all intents and purposes, from birth". I never considered infants making a concious decision which languages they're going to learn based on how practical they'll be :)

So, have an upvote for an informative post first, and the unintentional humour second.

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Re: No wonder - or is it just prejudice

I am an Englishman who went to Cardiff High School, and so studied Welsh in the same way as I studied French, and then Latin, and finally German. I therefore say that Welsh is comparable in difficulty to those other languages; but many English people describe it as obscure.

Russian and Hungarian have reputations of being infested with grammatical paraphernalia, but perhaps it all seems natural if you grow up with it. Or perhaps it does not, and their schoolteachers have a hard time beating correct usage into their youngsters.

Certainly about half of British people don't 'do' reading and writing except under extreme pressure. (An overlapping half does not 'do' the Internet.) Full use of any language seems to be hard.

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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...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No wonder

I find that the British English has too much old English in its pronunciation; people should listen to Canadians for a good (limited) accent (though not me personally as I tend to mumble).

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Childcatcher

Re: No wonder

...and the omission of necessary ones...

Skipping over the irony of a rant on grammar that misses the benefits of the same, I would like someone - anyone - to take the blame for the word "ones" as used here. I do not know who first decided to use "ones" to mean something other than "low denomination bills you leave as a tip," but it strikes me in much the same way as do "very unique" and "completely similar."

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Anonymous Coward

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"."

Polish native speaker here.

The "8 way of saying cat" is probably a reference to declension (we have 7 cases for nouns, one which is the equivalent of the Saxon genitive). In English that's comparable to "who/whom", but for all nouns instead. Usually several cases of a noun have the same form (so "cat" has 5 distinct declination forms actually), but yeah, it's a lot to remember.

Polish phonology is MUCH simpler than English `though - if you know how to pronounce one sequence of letters in a word, you probably know how to pronounce them in all words.

And your rendition of "dupy nie urywa" made my day - it's quite close to how you should say it too! So in thanks, here's another, somewhat related Polish saying to amuse you:

W dupie był, gówno widział.

He was [only] in an arse, [so] he's seen shit.

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Re: No wonder

I don't know how any language is much more difficult than any other: Babies seem to learn them all at about the same rate.

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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.

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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.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Canadian accent

Et les Québéquois?

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Re: No wonder

You missed out

lough (as loch)

rough (as ruff)

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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'.

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Re: No wonder

You might be the person to ask. I once read that English would be 'better' if written in Cyrillic rather in Latin.

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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.

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corrupted American grammar

Anonymous Coward of 13:40 GMT, would you please provide some examples of the corrupted and ever more irregular American grammar, where lots of unnecessary prepositions are included and necessary prepositions are omitted? Given your familiarity with German, which other telltale signs of German and Yiddish influence have you recognized in US English?

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English in Cyrillic

Heathroi, I wonder if there are languages that use the Cyrillic script which have letters for English’s “h”, “w”, consonantal “y” (by itself), two “th” sounds, and the “ng” sound of ring, since Russian doesn’t have letters for these. (It doesn’t seem that using «нг» for “ng” would be any “better”.) The number of vowel sounds in English is greater than the number of Latin vowel letters (without diacritics), and I’d guess that the same would be true of Cyrillic vowel letters.

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Re: No wonder

>The main difficulties with English are too many exceptions to rules and words that sound identical

> but are spelt differently depending on meaning

"The hardest language to learn" does NOT mean "The hardest language to spell", or even "The hardest language to read" (which English is not).

English is difficult for many people to speak and understand because it has more distinct vowel sounds than many languages. They have (for example) difficulty understanding the difference between "ship" and "sheep".

Going from a language with many distinct sounds to one with fewer is easier than going from one with few distinct sounds to a language with many distinct sounds.

All people always have this difficulty when learning a language: English is more difficult in this respect because it has more distinct vowel sounds than many other languages.

This does not make English a very difficult language to learn: (like trade languages, it was simplified by it's multiple sources) but it is an aspect of English that many people have difficulty with.

Apart from that, it is interesting to note (1) That it takes a child something like 18 years to become a good English speaker: I compare the language of the 15yo's I work with to that of the 18yo's I work with.

And (2) That "difficulty in learning" has no effect on how many people actually learn a language. People always learn both easy and difficult languages if there is an economic or social benefit.

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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.

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Re: No wonder

"tough (as staff)"

as "stuff" surely?

not if you're from Surrey

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Re: corrupted American grammar

HOPEFULLY, you won't meet WITH too many.

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Re: corrupted American grammar

Primus Secundus Tertius, sentence adverbs have been a part of English since at least the 17th century. In the particular case of hopefully, I’ll quote from the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

Someone who says Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified makes a hopeful prediction about the fate of the treaty, whereas someone who says I hope (or We hope or It is hoped) the treaty will be ratified expresses a bald statement about what is desired. Only the latter could be continued with a clause such as but it isn’t likely.

Regarding meet vs. meet with, the latter is used only in the sense of “by previous arrangement”. Thus, I met Joe Bloggs could mean either that you encountered him by chance at your local market, or that you purposely got together to sort out how best to fix his leaky shed roof; but I met with Joe Bloggs avoids that ambiguity, since it would not be used in the random encounter sense.

Both of your examples do have German analogues, but they also have distinct purposes within English.

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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."

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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.

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Re: No wonder

I would like someone - anyone - to take the blame for the word "ones" as used here. I do not know who first decided to use "ones" to mean something other than "low denomination bills you leave as a tip," but it strikes me in much the same way as do "very unique" and "completely similar."

It strikes you wrong. Plural pronoun "ones" in this sense goes back at least as far as the seventeenth century, per the OED; similar use with the singular number goes back several centuries before that. (I realize the entry for "one" occupies several pages in the OED, but really any educated English reader should be able to find this out with no more than fifteen minutes' research.)

If you don't like English, you're welcome to use another language. I realize we might miss out on some rants about your personal shibboleths, but I'm sure we'll survive.

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他们为什么不只是使用谷歌翻译?

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So like Spanish....

The question mark appears at the start of the sentence and not the end? Or is that a Marco Poloism

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大概是因為魔猿谷歌機經常出現失誤特別是朝鮮薊的話!

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因为股沟经常翻译得跟屎一样

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而且中国大陆不使用繁体字。

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也許中國的防火牆長城不會讓他們嗎?

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谷歌翻译是不完美的。

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Anonymous Coward

而且中国大陆不使用繁体字。

True enough.

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Re: So like Spanish....

In Spanish the question mark appears at the beginning AND at the end.

Although the one at the beginning is upside down.

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鰻魚我氣墊船。

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Anonymous Coward

為了去

蝦片

脆皮鴨

糖醋排骨

特別炒飯

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Re: 為了去

A fourteen,

A seven,

A nine

And lychees.

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Re: So like Spanish....

Chinese can also be written left to right, so that question mark is at the end.

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Re:

我也可能會增加,如果你回英文翻譯這個線程在谷歌翻譯部分的問世徹底錯位。包括這個職位。

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Angel

Re: So like Spanish....

AND Chinese characters can be written from top to bottom.

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The gentle touch of the State...

'Nonetheless, China's Education Ministry is poised to launch another Mandarin unification drive, with a spokeswoman saying it would be "focusing on the countryside and areas with ethnic minorities".'

No doubt concentrating on the Uighurs and their like who, despite there only being around eight million of them, continue to speak their own dialect, much to the fury of the Central Committee, who love homogeneity in all things - or at least among the masses.

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Big Brother

We have ways of making you speak Chinese

I bet you do

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Lìngrén jingyì!

"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"

Cool, sort of BladeRunner meets Firefly

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Happy

Re: Lìngrén jingyì!

Shiny!

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sloppy

they speak chinese just fine, just not the state sponsored dialect

sensationalism much?

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Re: sloppy

That's like saying you speak a European language, but not English. I know someone who speaks Hakka, a Chinese language. She cannot understand people speaking other Chinese languages such as Mandarin or Cantonese, because they are completely different languages.

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Re: sloppy

"they speak chinese just fine, just not the state sponsored dialect"

...except for the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and others who lands have been designated as part of China but who have their own languages, cultures, etc.

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Thinking about it ...

If you consider the size of France and Germany (as a European example) and their short distance apart, we don't express surprise that the people in those two regions/countries speak in different languages. Then consider the size of the regions of China and their geographical separation from each other.

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Happy

Doesn't matter much

They may all speak a different language, but they all read and write the same one…

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Re: Doesn't matter much

No they don't. There are 56 recognized ethnic groups (and probably many more self recognized) with almost 300 spoken languages, at least 30 written languages and more than 15 different scripts. Many of them (Mongolian, Manchu & Tibetan for example) bare more resemblance to Arabic than any of the three "Chinese" scripts.

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