Learning Chinese vs learning English

So while I’m learning Chinese, my Chinese friend Julie’s learning English, and we frequently complain about how difficult and frustrating each others’ languages are.  Her English is much better than mine (she’s studied for longer and is more hardworking than I am), at least in that her vocabulary is quite good.  On the other hand, I think my Chinese grammar is better than her English grammar.

Of course, one of the most difficult things about Chinese is the characters.  When I learn a new word, I have to learn three items: what the characters look like, how the word should be pronounced, and what the word means.  Different characters may have different meanings and even pronunciation sometimes, depending on the context (for example, the “着” in “着急” is pronounced differently compared to when it just follows a verb).

On the other hand, English is largely phonetic so when you see how a word is written, you can guess its pronunciation and vice versa.  Of course, this itself leads to some troubles because English borrows from different languages, and so my friend was quite flabbergasted at the pronunciation of “genre”.

Another drawback about learning English is the grammar, which will seem very complicated to a native Chinese speaker, as Chinese doesn’t have much grammar.  My friend yesterday tried to learn the differences between “I study”, “I studied”, “I have studied”, “I have been studying”, “I will have studied”, and “I will have been studying”.  I struggled to explain some of these differences.

Pronunciation is important for both languages, but moreso for Chinese.  However, in both languages, people can often tell from the context what word you intended to say, even if your pronunciation is off.  Craig told me that his Chinese students often have difficulty understanding each other even when one is explaining an English word to another in Chinese, because so many Chinese words sound the same that, taken out of context, it is very hard to work out the meaning.  I have an advantage with the pronunciation in that I can speak Cantonese, though (as an aside – the other day, a Chinese person told me that my Mandarin pronunciation was better than her Cantonese-speaking boss’s in Shenzhen! I was stoked as).

Lastly, Chinese is a pretty logical language.  I didn’t know the word for treadmill, so I asked my teacher what to call the machine that you run on.  It’s 跑步机 (running machine). I was like, AH! So logical!  In contrast, when my friend learned the word “income”, she asked if the opposite was ”outcome”.  I explained that “outcome” had a completely different meaning, and that the opposite of “income” was “expenditure”.  Her reaction was rather priceless.


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