Friday, January 31, 2014

French or Chinese? Whichever you learn, it's cultural subtleties that count

Learning the tongue of the world's second largest economy may seem daunting but le français also has its challenges

French has been the first foreign language for the English since the Norman Conquest. Should the English now switch their attention to learning Chinese? It would certainly be wise for more English people to know the language of the world's second largest economy, but it would also be foolish for England to stop learning the language of our nearest continental neighbour with whom we share centuries of common history.

Many universities and some schools already offer Chinese for those who want to study it, and students already make their choices. In fact, spoken Chinese is less fearsome than its reputation. Students get used to the four tones – where rising, falling or level intonation can change the meaning of a word – and cope reasonably well with the different range of consonants.

There are not many similarities between Chinese and European vocabulary, but where it gets really difficult is the writing system. There is no alternative to learning hundreds of characters to read even a simple text. This is why Chinese authorities developed an alphabetical equivalent, pinyin.

French, by contrast, uses the same alphabet as English, give or take a few accents, and we share a lot of very similar words even if they can sometimes have different nuances. Spoken French has its difficulties for English learners, including the rolled R and the pinched U, although the French rather enjoy an English accent.

The problems come with grammar features such as the conjugations of verbs, genders and agreements. Chinese grammar appears more straightforward in structure.

Ultimately, the real challenge in learning another language is to understand the subtleties of meaning, the complex relationships and the cultural baggage it carries with it. This is the joy and the despair of learning a new language whether it begins with bonjour or nihao.

Kelly, Mike. 2014. “French or Chinese? Whichever you learn, it's cultural subtleties that count”. The Guardian. Posted: December 5, 2013. Available online:

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