Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

Mastering a new language is all in the mouth of the beholder

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-03-24 11:07

Westerners are often daunted by the thought of learning Chinese, mainly because of the perceived complexity of Chinese characters. In fact, if they knew that they'd be able to get by if they had to learn only pinyin (the Romanization system for Mandarin), they might not be as tentative.

But how do Chinese feel about using English?

Hezi Jiang, a Beijing native and China Daily USA reporter in New York, said: "There is a popular joke in China: A Chinese man flies to America. On the plane, the flight attendant approaches him and asks, 'Coffee or tea, sir?'

"The man thought, 'I've had coffee and tea. I'll have an "or". Thank you'," he said.

"To me, a lot of the embarrassing things happen with food-ordering," Hezi said. "For more than a year, I never ordered salmon no matter how much I wanted to have grilled salmon, because the word is hard to pronounce. I used to pronounce the 'l' in salmon, and the waiter/waitress would correct me by asking "sam-mon"?

Mastering a new language is all in the mouth of the beholder

"I found that really embarrassing, so I stopped ordering. I had mahi mahi instead. I love the name, so easy. Also, I didn't like when restaurants offer special menus. The waiter would say a list of things that I have no idea of, and I would look into his/her eyes, nodding.

"But it feels great when I can understand an item or two," she said. "Most times, I would order that thing just to prove that I could understand. (Very stupid, I know.)

"I found that we say 'yes' a lot when we don't understand. I remember once at a brunch place, a waiter asked my friend, 'White or wheat'?"

"He said 'yes'."

"We laughed, and he blushed. Ordering food is hard."

"I remember when I was preparing for IELTS (International English Language Testing System, a British version of the US' TOFEL) three years ago," recalled Long Yifan, an intern at China Daily USA in New York, who is from Shaoyang in Hunan province. "I tended to use the newly grasped academic words for oral English practice.

"I had some friends from Scotland, and one day when we ate out, I was in a hurry to find a restroom. I wanted to express my situation in an academic and formal way, so I said I wanted to 'discharge' myself. They were all surprised and amused.

"I felt something was wrong and wanted to make a clarification, so I said I wanted to urinate. They all burst into laughter."

"Just like how learning Chinese is hard for English speakers, the reverse is also true, for many of the same reasons," writes Andy Luan on, a Q&A website. "Pronunciation is probably the hardest part of learning English at first.

"Grammar is next. English grammar is ridiculous. There are a few so-called 'rules', but just about everything seems to be an exception to these rules. For basic grammar, Chinese has some things in common with English (subject-verb-object word order), but a lot of grammar is totally different.

"Articles ('a' and 'the') are very confusing to Chinese speakers. Vocabulary and spelling is very hard, but this is actually the part Chinese people are best at. Chinese and English have almost no words in common, as Chinese borrows very few English words. And when Chinese does borrow words from English, they change very considerably, so you wouldn't even recognize it.

"So why are Chinese people 'best' at memorizing English vocabulary? Well, they often learn all of it by rote memorization for their English classes. My mother memorized an English dictionary in China before coming to the US. As a result, she can recognize many rare vocabulary words when reading literature.

"But the harder part of vocabulary is how words have different endings to turn them into nouns, adjectives, adverbs or verbs. Because Chinese is an extremely analytic language, many words in Chinese can be used as different parts of speech without changing the endings. So this is one of the confusing parts of English for Chinese speakers.

"Generally, European students of English can speak English much better than Chinese students, because the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are all much more similar," Luan writes.

One of my observations is that Chinese speakers tend to have difficulty with third-person pronouns (he and she aren't interchangeable in English) and collective plurals.

Many English words are the same in the singular as in the plural, which can cause confusion. So you may hear someone talk about the "researches" done for a story, which is actually quite endearing.

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