“Learning Chinese is like money: You can marry into it.”

While I’ve never met anyone crass enough to say it like this, there is an assumption that if you have a Chinese-speaking spouse, you’ll somehow automatically absorb it.

In reality, there’s a difference between “spouse” and “teacher,” especially when facing the stress and time pressures of everyday life. When kids are on the scene, communication happens in the quickest and easiest way possible – which means foreign language education just doesn’t happen.

“The components of a Chinese character tell you what they mean, so ‘memorization’ isn’t actually necessary.”

I also call this “The Chineasy Myth.”

Like a lot of the myths here, there is a grain of truth behind it. Yes, there are sometimes clear meanings in the characters, but drawing a connection from the components to the meaning usually requires agile mental gymnastics that often have nothing to do with the character’s actual etymology.

This topic gets complicated, as native Chinese-speaking linguists historically can’t agree about how to even accurately categorize the ways components relate to each other. And this doesn’t even mention the worst part: Each character has its own tone that must be memorized, too. And, to shake things up, a lot of characters have tone changes that happen according to meaning within context.

Bottom line: Analyzing Chinese characters is helpful, but in the end, you still have to memorize it, along with both the phonetic information and meaning.

“Chinese doesn’t really have grammar.”

Since I went to a school that required us to take a full semester of grammar, I never fell for this one. In fact, my classmates and I had to write a thesis on Chinese grammar in order to graduate.

True, Chinese words don’t change form. You don’t have to learn verb conjugation charts, so in that way it is simpler. But, in reality, words fit together in certain ways, and don’t fit together in other ways.

That’s grammar, and you have to learn it.

“For the HSK 6, you only need to know 5,000 words.”

Unlike the previous HSK 6 myth, the reality here speaks to the value of an HSK 6 certificate. Each level of the HSK has a specific set of vocabulary words for the student to learn, with the quantity doubling at each level:

Critics look at this and rightly point out that 5,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to how many words you need in order to be proficient in a language.

But, here’s what those numbers don’t say: This is just the word count of the list of words Hanban recommends students memorize in preparation for the test. In reality, in spite of what Hanban says, if you’re going to do well on the HSK 6, your vocabulary must be far larger than 5,000.

According to an online test I’ve taken several times over the years, my current passive vocabulary is between 18,000 and 20,000 words. In spite of this reasonably large vocabulary, much of the HSK 6 vocabulary is still unfamiliar and difficult enough to routinely trip me up.

If I continue with my current study plan, I’d guess I need another 10,000 words before I can deal with the HSK 6 vocabulary list with confidence.

“Your Chinese is so good!”

Of course, compared to native speakers, it’s actually quite bad.

From what I’ve heard, people learning French suffer from the opposite myth: No matter how well you can communicate in French, the French people will delight in telling you how awful your French is.

For Chinese, the issue is this: China has spent decades working hard to standardize pronunciation. Without this standardization, it’s nearly impossible for one person from one region to verbally communicate with another person from another region. In the mountainous regions, this problem can exist from one village to the next.

You think New Yorkers have a hard time understanding people from Louisiana? That’s peanuts compared to the pronunciation gap China faces. We’re pretty much talking about hundreds of separate languages, unified by a single non-phonetic written language, being squished by government mandate down into one spoken language.

This is so much at the forefront of people’s minds that if you can pronounce words the way the government says those words should be pronounced, you appear to have reached the pinnacle of Chinese learning.

Never mind the fact that you’re an illiterate ignoramus who can’t read a grocery list, and that “My name is Joe, what’s yours?” is the only thing you can say or understand. If you can sound like a news anchor when you say it, then “Your Chinese is so good!”

Top 10 Myths of Learning Chinese (Part 1)

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