Learning Chinese is easy — not

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From the Facebook page of a friend:

The only term that might need explanation is chéngyǔ 成語 ("set phrases"), misleadingly usually referred to as "idioms", for which see herehere, and in the bibliography below.  In truth, they are not much used nowadays, although many Western learners mistakenly invest a lot of time and energy in memorizing them.  Actively knowing a dozen or two of them should suffice; passively recognizing two or three dozen should be plenty.

Also, those "dialects", i.e., "topolects", that get mixed in are often completely separate Sinitic languages with distinct grammars, lexicons, etc.

P.S.:  I love the little snail in the first panel of the "Spongebob Squarepants" meme template.

Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    July 20, 2022 @ 9:18 pm

    My teenage children, educated in the Hong Kong local system, agree entirely with this meme. However, they disagree that knowing a just dozen 成語 would suffice for daily use – they feel as if they are constantly having to explain them to me when they (various 成語) appear in the wild!

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 21, 2022 @ 7:35 pm

    Agree with the post in spirit that "chengyu" (a somewhat amorphous category) too often give off stale/pedantic/corporate/pretentious.. vibes — and are of pretty marginal utility in day-to-day interactions :D

    That said, yeah, one will of course encounter several thousand over the course of a few months of just, say, listening to the nightly news and/or reading novels. (The Li Weijiao et. al. collection has some stats.) Something for learners to whom such activities appeal to keep in mind…

  3. Guy said,

    July 22, 2022 @ 2:01 pm

    The snail’s name is Gary!

  4. T said,

    July 23, 2022 @ 2:09 pm

    I wonder if the general tolerance to code-mixing (Literary Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese), both written and spoken (Cantonese), in Hong Kong makes the daily use of chengyu more natural and less pretentious. You can surely get by not using chengyu actively. But I would agree with Jenny that you probably need to know passively quite a bit more. Plus chengyu are just fun to learn, aren't they?

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