Written versus Spoken Chinese
There was a post on Reddit from an English learner who thought she or he was fluent, until reading the verb ‘shrug’ in a book. And then she or he made the point that if you think you’re fluent in a language, that you should try to read a book, because you’ll encounter so many new words.
There are some really interesting points attached to this.
First is the concept of fluency
Fluency means ‘the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately’, but the exact interpretation is vague. Technically, you could say you’re fluent in HSK3, if you use those words ‘fluently’; naturally and without thinking.
You could also say you’re only fluent at a native level of speaking, but my 60-year-old neighbor in Shanghai (who is native Chinese) doesn’t know anything about online video games; on this topic, I am more ‘fluent’ than him.
This point is important because it begs the question: can be fluent if you’re good at spoken language, but not in written language? Or are only fluent if you have mastered both?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. But if you want to say ‘native level’, it’s worth noting that there are Chinese people— especially above 50 and not living in tier 1 cities — who are not that good at reading either, the characters being a massive hurdle.
Spoken language can also be written down
Another misleading term is ‘spoken language’. Some people think that if you learn Spoken Chinese, you only learn how to talk and listen. Spoken language still consists of words and Chinese Hanzi characters which you should learn to read and write; it’s just that those words are typically used in people-to-people conversations. (Maybe for this we should name it Colloquial Language, as Olle Linge has done before. Just when looking up other resources, it’s good to search for ‘Spoken’.)
You encounter plenty of spoken language in written form too. This article is an example, but also:
- Email conversations
- Meeting notes
- WeChat messages
- Social media posts
Actually, the majority of what you read is written in spoken language (if you’re still following?!).
But written language is rarely spoken out aloud
With written language we mean literature. HSK5 and HSK6 are great examples of this. The BLCUP books are filled with formal written language, including Confucius and Laozi, and not everything is applicable during daily life (unless you talk a lot about philosophy, that is).
Novels are full of written language. Here’s an example of Ann Patchett novel, ‘The Dutch house‘:
“The drawing-room VanHoebeeks were the show-stoppers, life-sized documentation of people worn by time, their stern and unlovely faces rendered with Dutch exactitude and a distinctly Dutch understanding of light, but there were dozens of other lesser portraits on every floor—their children in the hallways, their ancestors in the bedrooms, the unnamed people they’d admired scattered throughout.”
This is not how real people talk to each other (except for museum guides, perhaps). But if you only learn spoken language, some words are out of your vocabulary, possibly ‘stern’, ‘rendered’, ‘exactitude’. Even if you’d know all the words, the sentence is long and complex, compounded.
We can sum up the key differences. Compared to spoken language, written language:
- Uses less of personal pronounce (E.g. ‘You’, ‘me’)
- Longer and more complex, compounded sentences
- Huge variety of words to narrowly define an idea
- Almost no use of sayings, idioms, and colloquialism
- No ability to adjust to the audience
- Lots of references to other sentences or chapters, or even in sentences (E.g. “the former”)
Literature vocabulary & compound sentences are difficult for foreign speakers
There are only a few advantages of written language compared to spoken language:
- You can read at your own pace and easily look up a word.
- Idioms and sayings aren’t used often.
But written language is so hard for foreign learners because of the huge vocabulary — words you barely encounter in daily life, but only in literature.
Another pain point are the long sentences. The reader needs to keep points made in their mind as they read on, connecting sentences later.
In China (and many non-native English speaking countries around the world), people have learned English through ‘Specialized English‘. Aside from a lower spoken speed and a core vocabulary of only 1500 words, one of the rules of Specialized English is that sentences are short. They can only have one idea.
See this compound sentence as an example:
- “My dad who had been a mathematics teacher before, laughed when I told him a joke about my homework.”
This is easy to split up. Foreign ears may confuse the order because the grammar in their language isn’t like this, or they may simply be flooded with keywords. This also works the other way around though. See the following sentences:
- “Erica gave Sophia an explanation why she didn’t want to go to Spain for holiday. Then she showed other destinations on her mobile phone.”
It’s not clear who showed the other destinations. It’s not even clear who’s mobile phone it was — there are actually multiple possibilities here. This could easily be clarified by replacing ‘she’ with a name in the second sentence.
Why it matters so much for the Chinese language
Spoken versus written language matters for each language, but for Mandarin Chinese specifically. Olle Lingen already wrote: “Written Chinese is much more distant from colloquial Chinese than written English is from spoken English. There are many words that are only used in writing, abbreviations or contractions that make more sense if you see the characters and a very large number of near-homonyms.”
Spoken versus written: not per se a matter of difficulty
Yes, you could say written language is more complex than spoken language because often sentences are longer and written as prose rather than only conveying information. But Spoken Chinese also comes with ranging levels of difficulty/fluency.
Talking about cycling isn’t per se an HSK1 or HSK2 conversation. You can talk about riding bicycles in spoken languages in huge details, with high-level vocabulary:
- 我应该给我的后拨链器上油，链条在 7 档时有点打滑。
- Wǒ yīnggāi gěi wǒ de hòu bō liàn qì shàng yóu, liàntiáo zài 7 dàng shí yǒudiǎn dǎhuá.
- I should oil my rear derailleur, the chain slips a bit in 7th gear.
Whereas with HSK1 you would say something like this:
- Wǒ zìxíngchē bù hǎo.
- My bike is not good.
The same for picking up someone from the airport. From HSK2 you can say:
- Wǒ yào qù jīchǎng jiē tā.
- I’m going to pick him up at the airport.
But with more advanced Spoken Chinese you can say:
- 大老板刚刚给我发了一条消息。 他在旅途中遇到了颠簸，飞行人员没有给他吃饭。 他的心情可能没那么好。 他现在应该随时从海关出来。
- Dà lǎobǎn gānggāng gěi wǒ fāle yītiáo xiāoxī. Tā zài lǚtú zhōng yù dàole diānbǒ, fēixíng rényuán méiyǒu gěi tā chīfàn. Tā de xīnqíng kěnéng méi nàme hǎo. Tā xiànzài yīnggāi suíshí cóng hǎiguān chūlái.
- The big boss just sent me a message. He had turbulence on the trip, and the flight personal had no meal for him. His mood may not be so good. He should come out of customs any moment now.
HSK5 & HSK6 are filled with formal written language, including Confucius and Laozi, and not everything is applicable during daily life (unless you talk a lot about philosophy, that is). The last book of HSK6 (HSK6下) still has starts with a text about online shopping, but uses written language to talk about it. There’s the first sentence:
- Rújīn xǐhuān wǎngluò gòuwù de rén jí zēngjiā, mǎi dōngxī bùyòng zài chuānliúbùxī de rénqún zhōng bēnzǒu, jǐn xū dēnglù wǎngzhàn, dòng jǐ xià shǒuzhǐ, xià jǐ dào zhǐlìng jiù kěyǐ bǎ dōngxī mǎi huí jiā, rénlèi gēnshēndìgù de guówù xíguàn zhèngzài gǎibiàn.
- Nowadays, the number of people who like online shopping has increased rapidly. To buy things, you don’t need to run among the endless crowds, you only need to log in to the website, move a few fingers, and give a few instructions to buy things home, so the deep-rooted state habits of mankind are changing.
Typical literature words are 如今Rújīn (today), 川流不息Chuānliúbùxī (constant stream), 奔走Bēnzǒu (run), and 仅需Jǐn xū (Just need).
- Now let’s look at a sentence from Advanced Speaking Course, the second book, also about internet usage:
- Hánguó shì shìjiè shàng hùliánwǎng zuì pǔjí de guójiā zhī yī. Gēnjù hánguó xìnxī tōngxìn bù zuìjìn gōngbù de shùjù, hánguó 6 suì yǐshàng de shàngwǎng rénkǒu dá 3482 wàn, yuē zhàn zǒng rénkǒu de 73%.
- South Korea has the world’s highest adaption of internet usage. According to data recently released by the Ministry of Information and Communication, South Korea has 34.82 million Internet users over the age of 6, accounting for about 73% of the total population.
Why is this so important for your language studies?
We’re not here to bash HSK, because there’s nothing really wrong with the HSK5 & HSK6 books. But starting from HSK5, many students lose enthusiasm and stop, which is a great pity. Such students often find the Spoken Language Courses not only more enjoyable to learn, they’re also closer to their learning goals and ambitions. Since the HSK5 and HSK6 books take around 550 class hours to complete, it’s worth considering other options too.
It’s good to keep in mind that HSK is just a grading system. Many students do not realize that you can learn Chinese without doing HSK.