China Elevator Stories

“Is Learning English Hard For You?”

I chat with a cab driver in Shenzhen about learning languages.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


For mid autumn festival 2013, I fly to Kunming from Shenzhen to visit friends and attend a wedding for China’s Mid-Autumn Festival 2013.

I take one of the black cabs in Shenzhen to go to the airport. I can usually easily find a black cab where I live, since black cabs are parked downstairs, waiting for passengers.

The driver of this cab is a friendly Chinese guy in his 50s. After I tell him my destination, he asks: “How long have you been living in China?”
I tell him: “I have been living here for two years.”
“Have you studied Chinese?”
“Yes, I have.”
He tells me: ” 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 from the US?”
“Neither of both. I’m from Austria.”

He says: “Do you speak English?”
“I do, but my mother tongue is German.”
“How did you learn English?”
“I learned it at school, similar to how Chinese kids learn English at school.”

He inquires: “Is learning English hard for you?”
I answer: “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 languages. English and Chinese are completely different, and thus it is much harder for Chinese to learn English than it is for Austrians. Japanese, on the other hand, is a language that is more similar to Chinese than to German. It is easier for Chinese people to learn Japanese than it is for German native speakers.”

He asks: “Do you think that this is also because Chinese and Japanese culture are more similar to each other than German and Japanese culture?”
“I don’t think so. Japanese makes use of Chinese characters, which is one of the reasons that makes Japanese really challenging for German native speakers to learn.”

What is your view on this?

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