“Is learning English hard for you?”

This is part 1 of a conversation I had with a taxi driver. The conversation was rather long, so I’ve split it into 6 parts. Stay tuned for the other parts: “Do you know Deng Xiaoping?”, Weddings and gifts, “Do you like China?”, “The most important thing is happiness” and “Does Austria also have birth planning?”.

For mid autumn festival 2013 I fly to Kunming to visit friends and attend a wedding. Still in Shenzhen, I take one of the black cabs to go to the airport. These cabs are usually parked downstairs waiting for passengers. The driver is a friendly guy in his 50s. After telling him my destination, he asks:

“How long have you been living in China?”
I: “Two years.”
He: “Have you studied Chinese?”
I: “I have.”
He: ” I already thought so. It would be quite surprising if you could speak Chinese at this level without having studied it. Are you from the UK or the US?”
I: “Neither of both. I’m from Austria.”
He: “Do you speak English?”
I: “I do, but my mother tongue is German.”
He: “How did you learn English?”
I: “I learned it at school, similar to Chinese kids.”
He: “Is learning English hard for you?”
I: “Generally speaking, the closer a language is to your mother tongue, the easier it is to learn. German and English are different and you still have to put an effort into learning English, but they are still related. English and Chinese for one are completely different, so it’s harder for Chinese to learn English than it is for us. Japanese, on the other hand, would be closer to Chinese than to German, so it’s easier for Chinese people to learn it than it would be for German native speakers.”
He: “Do you think that this is also because the cultures are more similar to each other?”
I: “I don’t think so. Japanese also makes use of Chinese characters, which is one of the aspects that make Japanese really hard for us to learn.”

What do you think? I’d love to read your comments.

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9 thoughts on ““Is learning English hard for you?”

  1. You have it spot on. I’ve met graduates who have 5 degrees – but they’re all in languages, all in the same region i.e. English (native), then French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian (Romance languages), or German-Swedish-Austrian which also belong in the same grouping.

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    • Yes, people who study one language are often even required to study a related language. Didn’t know that you can actually study Austrian. People in Austria always say it’s not a language, just a dialect, but it’s surely different from the dialect that has become the standard German in use today. Swedish is in a group with Austrian and German? Are you sure you didn’t mix it up with Swiss German?

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  2. Indo-european languages have lots in common, beyond the Germanic/Latin distinction. I speak fluently Italian (native), French and Spanish and understand well Portuguese because – frankly – if you have a good ear they basically are variants on the same theme and I learnt English as a child and never had any problem. I struggled more with German but at the end all these languages are dominated by the same logic (subject – verb – complement) and if you have that clear in your native language you won’t have any major problem in learning the others. (I was amazed while in Iran by how many words Farsi has in common with the Latin languages, even there you recognize the common root). I gave a short try at Chinese and well, that is something else. Different logic, characters, structure. So, yes, maybe it is harder after all to learn languages coming from different roots.

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    • It definitely is, although sometimes I was surprised to find that even languages as different as Chinese and German can have common characteristics (there were some things that those two languages did have in common and which were different from English, but of course the differences are more numerous than the commonalities).

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  3. Pingback: “Do you know Deng Xiaoping?” | China elevator stories

  4. Pingback: “Do you like China?” | China elevator stories

  5. Pingback: “The most important thing is happiness” | China elevator stories

  6. Pingback: “Does Austria also have birth planning?” | China elevator stories

  7. Pingback: Weddings and gifts | China elevator stories

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