Linguistic Complaining

Learning a foreign language can be very rewarding. But it can also be very frustrating. Chinese sometimes seems to be unfairly frustrating in many ways.

I’ve been thinking about outlets for that frustration and I’ve decided that the one I’m most prone to is complaining about the Chinese language. I’ve found the following to be true about my linguistic complaining:

  1. I usually complain to other foreigners (especially those who are also trying to learn Chinese).
  2. I don’t mind complaining in front of Chinese people.
  3. I almost always complain about unchangeable, ingrained parts of the language (like the fact that there are tones).
  4. I use the word “they” when complaining about the language to mean “Chinese people” or “speakers of Chinese.”
  5. I prepare my complaints ahead of time so that when I meet a sympathetic listener I’m ready.
  6. It feels good to complain.

However, despite the temporary good feelings I may get from venting, I’ve come to believe that linguistic complaining is overall a very destructive activity. This may come as a surprise since I’ve occasionally even used this blog for some ranting. Let’s just say I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.

But before I explain why I feel I’ve got a problem and I’m trying to quit, let me give some examples of the type of complaining I’m most prone to so it’ll be easier to imagine my plight.

Types of Linguistic Complaining

1. Pronunciation

Probably the most common category for me is the tones. I find it unfair that I’ve got to learn two things for each word (the word itself and the tone with which to say it). I also find it strange that Chinese people can understand the words of songs (which follow the “tones” of the melody rather than the tones the dictionary gives for each word) but can’t understand the words I’m saying with the wrong tones. I’ve often felt that a fruit vendor or someone “misunderstood me on purpose and knew full well what I meant!”

2. Vocabulary

How do you say something in Chinese? Well there might be a whole lot of words for it and every dictionary you look in might give you a different word. I’ve often been frustrated that “They have so many words for the same thing!” in Chinese. There are also some divergent concepts where Chinese has two or more different words for something we’ve only got one word for (for example “thin” and “thick” are different in Chinese depending on the shape of the object).

3. Listening

One of the side effects of only having 409-ish syllables in Chinese plus the 5 tones is that a whole lot of words sound the same. This makes listening especially difficult. I’ve found myself getting angry when a student asked me in class (without any context), for example: “How do you say shíwù in English?” My brain immediately starts pumping out permutations of all the meanings those syllables could have with those tones (here are the four in the dictionary) and I have no way of knowing which one the student meant without resorting to hanzi or some sort of clarifying discussion.

4. Lack of Practice Partners

Over my five years in China, it’s been a real “feast or famine” regarding Chinese language practice partners. Fact is: you can’t learn Chinese (well, most people can’t) unless there’s someone who’s willing to talk to you in Chinese. During times when I’ve been isolated or unable to find people who don’t want to talk to me just to improve their English, I’ve often said to myself, “They’re so selfish! I’m trying to learn THEIR language and no one’s helping me!”

Effects of Complaining

The above examples are meant to help you identify whether you too are prone to linguistic complaining. If you are, it’s of course up to you also to decide if you think it’s a good use of your energy. For me, personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that no good comes of the type of complaining I’ve described.

1. It Torpedoes My Motivation

When I complain about these things, all of which are out of my control to change, I find that a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness quickly grows. I start thinking, “It’s not getting better, and I’ve already been trying this long. Maybe I’ve done about as much as I can with this language.”

2. It Torpedoes My Relationships with Chinese Friends

Imagine for a moment I have my own children. I don’t want my neighbor to come over and list all the bad things my kids do. I know my kids aren’t perfect, but I’m stuck with them. And there are a lot of good things they do too.

Well, as polite as our Chinese friends may be when listening to rants against their language, they would probably rather talk about something else. It’s out of their control as much as it is out of mine. But I’ve actually (shockingly!) found myself blaming individual Chinese friends of mine for “this language” and its perceived flaws. It really put a damper on our relationship. I’ve often wondered if that’s one contributing factor to those dry spells when I didn’t have Chinese friends who wanted to speak Chinese with me.

I’m amazed at how emotional I can get over these issues. Some people get angry about sports teams. I’ve gotten angry about measure words. No one wants to be around angry people on a prolonged basis.

3. It Makes Me Proud

If I could sum up the problem with linguistic complaining in one sentence it would be:

“When I complain, I feel powerful and it gives me an artificially inflated sense of who I am in this country and the whole universe for that matter.”

When I complain about something as ancient and complex as the Chinese language, I’m setting myself up as a sort of “Linguistic God.” I’m actually thinking thoughts like, “If I’d created the language I would have done things very, VERY differently.” As if I can even take credit for anything in my own language!

Zěnme Bàn? 怎么办?

Now that I’ve identified the fact that I’m a linguistic complainer and that it’s a problem for me, the issue becomes how to avoid slipping back into those tendencies to complain. As with all complaining, the root is actually thinking.

The key, for me, is to still feel free to think honestly about the language and the language-learning process, without being negative. Many of the solutions I’ve come up with have come about by thinking and speaking honestly about difficulties I’ve encountered.

But problems arise when I start thinking negatively about things I have no control over (for example the fact that the language has tones at all).

For example, I’ve found I need to avoid thoughts in the following general categories:

  • “Chinese is a bad language.”
  • “English (or some other language) is better because of ____.”
  • “If I were trying to learn a different language I wouldn’t be feeling this way.”

Such thoughts put the blame for how I’m feeling on the language. In fact, I’m in charge of my own emotional response to the language and the thoughts I allow myself to entertain. Besides, no one is forcing me to continue attempting to learn the language or even stay in China for that matter.

I’m now convinced that, regardless of the difficulties inherent in learning Chinese (and there are many), complaining about them is of no benefit to me (or anyone) and only leaves me angry or discouraged. Complaining makes me feeling powerful and it may even be entertaining to listen to. But I’ve found that the long-term costs outweigh the temporary benefits.

Thus ends the confession of a linguistic complainer.

12 Replies to “Linguistic Complaining”

  1. I feel the same way as I find English-learning is not an easy thing(perhaps it’s true to other languages too).Nearly 10 years’ learning though,still I find it difficult to speak pure English.The vocabulary is also the biggest problem both in spoken and written English.What i want to express is just on tip of my tongue.

  2. I think all of us who’ve even made a tiny attempt at learning Chinese can relate to this tendency to complain. Thanks for being so honest!

  3. Complaining, we all do it. Lately I have taken to even turning it into a blaming joke with Chinese friends here in the U.S. If something tough comes up (for example all the ways to say carry something – e.g. 端着,背着,提着,etc.). I say “It’s all your fault!”. Actually I think it’s relief for some people who have struggled so hard with English and all it’s crazy aspects (phrasal verbs, etc.). At least overseas Chinese here, who have the daily difficulty of using English in the work place, seem to get some relief from seeing Americans struggle with there language as well, which brings me to the one thing I think you can rightfully complain about: lack of people willing to speak Chinese with you. And it’s the only aspect you can change. I’d work hard at finding those rare people who love to speak their language and are interested in developing a friendship with you in Chinese. Honestly it is easier here in the U.S., where people are sick of speaking English all day and come to my Mandarin group to get a break. Maybe you can start a group there for expats interested in using their Chinese and Chinese people interested in sharing their language and culture with foreigners. I think is banned in China, is that right? If not, I’d use that. Then you can lay the ground rules for interaction. Mine are NO ENGLISH allowed. It weeds out English pirates and helps you identify those interested in getting to know people in Chinese. If you have that aspect in place, and you spend most of your non-work hours speaking Chinese, I bet your urge to complain will naturally abate. Great post as always.

  4. Usually I don’t complain so much about the language itself but rather about my chances of ever becoming proficient (let alone fluent) because of limitations of time, opportunity and ability. It doesn’t change the level of frustration, only the source.

    And as you have pointed out, the best way to deal with the frustrations is to think about what the real problems are and address those if you can.

    I’ve heard many of the complaints you mention. In fact, when I hear complaints about the Chinese language I tend to think about counter-arguments such as the following. (These only apply if you are intent on learning another language.)

    1. How even more difficult it would be to learn some other language where available information, learning materials and “community” are scarce.

    2. Be glad to have only 4/5 tones. Consider other dialects/languages of Chinese that have more (8 or 9 for Cantonese?). Or languages that add “clicks” or other sounds unusual to the ears of English speakers. Having additional sounds might help some people but would be a serious challenge to me.

    3. Be happy that you don’t have to learn English as an L2. For example, compare standard alphabetic spellings to the IPA spellings to see the ambiguities. At least when you see pinyin (with diacritics) you have an idea of the standard pronunciation. Or compare the complexity of English grammar to the relatively simpler Chinese grammar.

    4. Unless you know Latin, or are already well educated in the formation of English words, figuring out what an English word means can be a challenge. At least with Chinese, two character words give you at least a fighting chance to understand. Even single character words sometimes provide a little help because of the radicals.

    5. Look in a thesaurus to see how many similar words there are in English for a given idea.

    6. As you pointed out before (I believe in another article), convergence and divergence applies both ways (English Chinese) so this is a wash.

    So, I agree with you that complaining is not usually productive and the best approach is to address the problem and devise a solution. And this is not to say I have all the solutions. Painfully, I don’t.

    One last thought. Given your experiences and your writing ability, maybe you could develop and market a 12-step recovery method for Chinese language complainers? 🙂

    By the way, I enjoy reading your articles.

  5. complaint is a great way to relieve stress! almost everyone on this planet complains!

    Learning Chinese isnt an easy task, just like learning any other languages. you probably speak better Chinese than many Chinese people do.

    that’s right, Chinese language isnt easy for native Chinese as well. how many of your students are able to score more than 90 when it comes to Chinese Exams? Even a Professor of Chinese Literature often makes mistakes! My professor couldnt pronaunce “论语” correctly, “字,一般读为第四声lù, 但《论语》的字读二声论lú he didnt know “” should be read as “chéng” (not shèng) if its someone’s last name, or “一般读在姓氏时读oū, etc. etc.

    it is not easy to find someone speaks & writes good Chinese even you are in China. These Chiense Webistes or local newspapers are full of grammar mistakes. here is a tip: if someone out there is able to tell you why “联系我们” (Contact us) is not grammarly correct, then, this is the one you should practice your Chinese with.

  6. This is a perennial debate amongst learners. The difference between Chinese and English, I think, lies not in their respective difficulty levels – the languages are both difficult IMO, albeit in different ways – but rather in their learning curves. Whilst beginner’s English can be learnt rapidly and easily understood when spoken poorly, this is not really the case with Chinese. However once one advances beyond the intermediate level, Chinese becomes easier as it has the linguistic system is logically connected; English, on the other hand, is chaotic and messy and unpredictable.

    As for the specific complaints themselves, although I see your point about pronunciation, I don’t think tones can be seen as an “extra” thing to learn, but rather an integral part of the word itself, and presents no more difficulty than learning emphasis or morphological aspects in English. The “China has so many more words/synonyms than English” is a common argument, but is very hard to actually prove. Don’t forget that men have been arguing the same thing about English for decades without being able to totally convince linguists.

    Great post though, thanks for sharing your honesty with us.

  7. English is a foreign language for me and when I first started learning it (at 12), it was freakishly difficult for me. “Why do they say it like that, it makes no sense” was a common emotion when trying to learn your language. But it wasn’t as bad as French, which was really outlandish to me.

    After six years of studying I thought my English was pretty okay until I went to an English language country for the first time in my life. So saw/heard so many words I had never heard before. I remember wondering what ‘beverages’ could mean. I still don’t understand the use of this word. What is wrong with ‘drinks’?
    (native language: Netherlandic aka Dutch)

  8. Pingback: Lingomi’s Reading List for July 30, 2010 « Lingomi Blog

  9. Albert.

    I really enjoyed your post about linguistic complaining. Very insightful and well written.

    I find with my international group of students that a great discussion topic is, “why is English so hard to learn?”. I don’t have to do much more for 45 minutes; I just sit back and listen to the animated ranting.

    I also find myself apologizing for the inconsistencies in English spelling/phonetics. 🙂

  10. People complain about almost everything, but not many people reflect on the actual effects of the complaints they made. So it’s enlightening to read your thought about this, because this leads rest of us to think about our own complaints too!

    Chinese is indeed a very difficult language. Memorizing those characters is a big hurdle, as well as the pronunciations. I recently came across an iPhone/iPad app, I Learn Chinese (, and I’m amazed at the historical information about the characters’ formation methods. For example, I never realized that the simple character (friend) was actually a picture of two hands holding each other, indicating friendship. I’m wondering whether some of my efforts in memorizing those characters could have actually been better exercised. By the way, you can also practice writing on the touch screen with the app.

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