“Just go to school for a year or two. You can pick the rest up along the way.”

I heard this before I even started, and nothing could be further from the truth. By the time I finished my second year, I could barely have a coherent conversation, much less function as a normal adult. I’m now in year 11, and I still don’t “pick up” anything along the way. Every step must be intentional, or it simply doesn’t happen.

“There are tens of thousands of characters, but you only need to know a couple thousand.”

As Chinese scholar David Moser pointed out in his famous (infamous?) essay “Why Chinese Is So **** Hard,” sure, you can look at a newspaper and know 95% of the words. But the 5% you don’t know are precisely the words you must know in order to understand what is being discussed.

Since the words aren’t written phonetically, you can’t “sound them out” and “pick them up” as you go. Each one must be intentionally memorized. Usually many times. Including which tone usually goes with that character.

In my opinion, anyone who is even considering learning Chinese must set out to systematically (not to mention indefinitely) study and review the 5,000 most common characters. Without that, you simply can’t be literate.

“If you don’t know a word, you can guess the meaning in context.”

This goes back to Moser’s the-one-word-you-don’t-know-is-the-one-word-you-must-know principle, but it also goes beyond that. The Chinese way of communication is so alien to an English speaker that, even if you know every single word in a given sentence, odds are high that you’ll still be clueless on what on earth it means. My experience is that, if you want to have even a glimmer of hope of understanding written Chinese, you must in general know all the words, or you’ll crash before you take off.

“If you can pass the HSK 6, you’re almost like a native speaker.”

According to the HSK website, passing the HSK 6 means you have a CEFR level of C2: You’re pretty close to being a native speaker. A CEFR C2 language-learner is described as follows:

  • “Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.”
  • “Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.”

I can attest to the nonsense of this claim. It has been soundly rejected by associations of Chinese language teachers in Europe, who maintain that the HSK 6 is more like a C1 or even just a hokey B2.

I wish I had known that years ago. I had been given the impression that I had pretty much “arrived,” when in fact I was still years of formal education away from the finish line.

Why would Hanban make such exaggerated claims? My guess is they know that if they set the bar where it belongs, there would hardly be anyone who could get there. Chinese is so difficult, and CFL (Chinese as a Foreign Language) methodology is currently so immature, that a more honest statement of “Yeah, this deal will take about a decade of school” would be pretty detrimental to student recruitment.

Don’t get me wrong – in general, I’m a huge fan of Hanban’s new HSK. Preparing for this test is actually a very good way to improve real-world Chinese ability. But without question the results exaggerate the student’s abilities. Significantly.

“You can practice reading skills by reading the newspaper.”

While in a coffee shop in Northern China, I overheard a Chinese girl talking with an English-speaking friend. She said something like, “I like reading English books, because I feel like the author worked hard to make it easy to understand. I don’t like reading Chinese books, because I feel like the author worked hard to make it difficult to understand.”

This expresses well a major cultural difference I discovered in my 4 grueling semesters of “Newspaper Class”: Unlike my training in the U.S. (I was a Print Journalism minor), newspapers in China aren’t written to inform the masses. Rather, they’re written to keep the uneducated in the dark. Western newspapers are egalitarian, while Chinese newspapers are elitist.

This shows up in many ways: In the U.S., writers are trained to use short sentences and simple words. “Never use a long word, when a short word works just as well.” I even remember my journalism teacher forcing us to count words in all our sentences, and we’d lose serious points if we went over.

In Chinese newspaper writing, the more obscure your vocabulary and the more complex your sentences, the better writer you are. The opening sentence can stretch on forever, filled with characters I’ve never seen before. After excruciating analysis I can discover the basic subject-verb-object meaning: “Important Person A met Important Person B.” That’s it. There was nothing more there beyond pedantically long titles and pompous descriptions of always-friendly diplomatic conversations.

Lower-level students sometimes ask me, “Should I start trying to read a Chinese newspaper?” They’re shocked when I chuckle and say, “The Chinese New Testament is way easier.”

Coming Soon: Top 10 Myths of Learning Chinese (Part 2)

Photo: 朱家角 water town near Shanghai, China © 2005 Elijah Wilcott