Victor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the test. This story has remained in my thoughts for weeks. It pulls together several worries I have about foreign-language instruction.
One is that too many people imagine that human languages can be conceptualized simply as big bags of words, so that teaching someone a language is a simply a matter of getting them to learn and repeat words and know their meanings. A language is not a bag of words: It’s a system for crafting sentences out of words. You could know every single word in a Hungarian dictionary and still not have a clue how to explain in error-free Hungarian that Katy seems to think Laszlo may have made Zoltan doubt the integrity of the promotion procedure.
Another relates specifically to Chinese. People confuse words and characters. The South China Morning Post quotes Professor Wang Hongtu as saying that most Chinese people know “5,000 to 6,000 words,” which is nonsense. In any language, native speakers generally know tens of thousands of words. Professor Wang means characters in the awful Chinese writing system — and there he probably overestimates: 2,000 to 3,000 characters is probably a lot closer to the truth. The glyphs making up the traditional Chinese writing system do not represent words; many words in Sinitic languages (a majority, in fact) have more than one syllable, and are written with at least two characters, sometimes in a way that makes the combination guessable (or at least easily learnable), but often not. This article on the Quora site has a lot of interesting information about how many words (and characters) the average Chinese person knows. Note especially the remarks of the commenter Shawnxuande Li, who expresses (after a prefatory apology for offense) the opinion that the “Chinese character system sucks.”
Literacy in China is much exaggerated by government authorities. The truth is that adults struggle to remember even a couple of thousand characters. Smartphones and similar helpful technologies lead to further atrophy. Things are further muddied by maintenance of the fiction that the Sinitic family is just one language with various regional “dialects” (they aren’t dialects, they are mutually unintelligible languages, but since the character system is adapted to write them, they look similar on the page).
In a post written during my bewildering one-week visit to Chongqing I mentioned that my traveling companion had taken several courses in Chinese in college, but not one single time did she turn out to be able to read anything in the Chinese script that helped us get around. Students in high school or college who learn hundreds of Chinese characters and a bit of the spoken language tend to have forgotten all of it by their late twenties unless they start maintaining a very close connection to Chinese life.
I am no expert in Chinese or writing systems or second language learning or teaching. I am just a concerned linguist with several interacting worries about foreign language teaching. I’m worried about (i) a lack of understanding of the practical purpose of teaching foreign languages; (ii) confusion between words and characters in Chinese; (iii) the widespread belief that a language is just a bag of words so that vocabulary size is a measurable surrogate for proficiency; and (iv) the consequent pointless teaching of rare words (which is basically the topic of the story from New York).
As Victor Mair has often stressed, if Mandarin Chinese is going to be taught as a general-interest subject to schoolchildren or college students it should be firmly based in an active command of simple, everyday, conversational language, informed by a thorough grounding in phonetics and a modest amount of linguistics more generally, using high-frequency words, and syntax appropriate to practical situations. And writing things down should be done entirely with the Pinyin romanization. The time-honored custom of drills in character after character, like the temptation to teach classical texts from earlier centuries, should be jettisoned.
But it’s not likely that educators will pay much attention to what I think. The long-established character-based rote-learning teaching methods for Chinese are deeply rooted in the very people who will be doing the teaching. Expect many more millions of hours of classroom time to be wasted over the coming years, as the economic rise of China leads more schools and colleges to think they should offer tuition in its language.