Because the writing system is ridiculous. 因为书写系统很不合理
Beautiful, complex, mysterious — but ridiculous. I, like many students of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.
The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet — some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren't too practical for daily use. For one thing, it is simply unreasonably hard to learn enough characters to become functionally literate. Again, someone may ask "Hard in comparison to what?" And the answer is easy: Hard in comparison to Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hindi, or any other sane, "normal" language that requires at most a few dozen symbols to write anything in the language. John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time.2 Naturally, this estimate is rather crude and impressionistic (it's unclear what "comparable levels" means here), but the overall implications are obvious: the Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system.3 Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself.
汉字的优美是不容置疑的，不过当中国人意识到普及识字的重要性时，有一点就很明显了，这些表意文字有些像裹足小脚——可能有些恋物癖喜欢这些小脚，可是它们在日常中并不实用。首先，要学会基本识字要求的汉字就已经是不可理喻的难了。“相对什么而难？”有人可能会再次发问。答案很简单：相对西班牙语，希腊语，俄语，印地语，或者任何只需要最多几十个符号就能完成书写的“正常而理智”的语言。 John DeFrancis在他的书The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy中提到，他的中国同事估计让一个说普通话的人学会读写三千个汉字需要七到八年，而他的法国和西班牙同事估计他们的母语要达到类似水平则是只需一半时间。自然的，这些估计很粗糙，凭印象而已（比如什么算“类似水平”就没说清楚），不过其中寓意是显然的：中文书写系统在绝对程度上比字母书写系统更难学习。在中国，就算是吸收能力处于顶峰的小孩子，他们学起汉字来也比其他国家小孩学习其他文字更费劲。所以想象一下已过青春期的，学习相对缓慢的外国人学习者（比如我）经历的困难吧！
Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like "Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper". Poppycock. I couldn't comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by "read" in this context is "read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters"; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)
This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 But what such accounts don't tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words "up" and "tight" doesn't mean you know the word "uptight".) Plus, as anyone who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning. Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of knowing a lot of words; one has to get a feeling for how those words combine with other words in a multitude of different contexts.5 In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text. A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline "JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS" is not going to get very far if they don't know the words "jacuzzi" or "phlebitis".
这个神话广泛流传，主要因为当考虑出现频率时，任何报纸中超过95%的汉字都是在最常用的2000个汉字之中。但这样的数字并没告诉你其实还有非常多的由这些熟悉的汉字组成的陌生词汇。（比如说，在英文中知道“up”和“tight”并不意味着你也知道“uptight”的意思。）（译者注：猜猜看uptight什么意思？）而且，所有学过任何语言的人都知道，你常常明白每个词儿的意思，但就是不懂整段文字的含义。阅读理解可不是整明白一大堆词儿的意思就行了，你还得搞清楚这些词儿和其他词汇在很多不同语境中如何结合使用。此外，很明显，即使你认识一段话里95%的汉字，剩下的5%也常常恰好是理解文章最需要的部分。一个非英语母语的人读到“JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS”这条新闻标题时如果不知道什么是“Jacuzzi”或“phlebitis”，那他也基本上搞不清这句话什么意思。（译者：jacuzzi是一种按摩式浴缸；phlebitis则是静脉炎。）
The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).
A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task — never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.
The comparison with learning the usual western languages is striking. After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels — La nausée by Sartre, Voltaire's Candide, L'étranger by Camus — plus countless newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc. It was a lot of work but fairly painless; all I really needed was a good dictionary and a battered French grammar book I got at a garage sale.
对比一般常见的西方语言，差别非常明显。 只学了一年法语，我就能阅读很多东西了。我浏览了大致的小说名作，萨特的《La nausée》，伏尔泰的《Candide》，卡缪的《L'étranger》，还有数不清的报纸，杂志，漫画，等等。花了不少工夫，不过却不怎么痛苦：我用到的只是一本好字典和一本旧货市场上买来的破旧不堪的语法书。
This kind of "sink or swim" approach just doesn't work in Chinese. At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn't yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn't read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People's Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. Someone at that time suggested I read The Dream of the Red Chamber and gave me a nice three-volume edition. I just have to laugh. It still sits on my shelf like a fat, smug Buddha, only the first twenty or so pages filled with scribbled definitions and question marks, the rest crisp and virgin. After six years of studying Chinese, I'm still not at a level where I can actually read it without an English translation to consult. (By "read it", I mean, of course, "read it for pleasure". I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and a dictionary in my hand, I could get through it.) Simply diving into the vast pool of Chinese in the beginning is not only foolhardy, it can even be counterproductive. As George Kennedy writes, "The difficulty of memorizing a Chinese ideograph as compared with the difficulty of learning a new word in a European language, is such that a rigid economy of mental effort is imperative."6 This is, if anything, an understatement. With the risk of drowning so great, the student is better advised to spend more time in the shallow end treading water before heading toward the deep end.
这种“扔到水里学游泳”的方法就是不适用于中文。在学了中文三年的时候，我还没读过一本完整的小说。我发现那读起来实在太难，太慢，毫无收获可言。报纸那时候也还是令人畏惧。那时候我读篇文章恨不得每十个字就得查个字典。看一遍人民日报的头版，连一个标题也“解密”不了，这种事儿也一点儿不少见。当时有个人推荐我看《红楼梦》还送我一套漂亮的三卷版。我只能笑…… 它现在还躺在我的书架上呢，得意洋洋地对我露出胜利者的微笑。只有前二十几页涂满了潦草的笔记和问号，其他部分则是清爽洁净的处女地。学了中文六年之后，我仍然没有达到能不借助英文翻译阅读它的水平。（阅读它，我当然是指的阅读取乐。我估计如果谁拿把枪指着我脑袋然后手里扔本字典，我也能想法儿读下来它吧吧。）在一开始的阶段就冲进中文的浩瀚海洋，这种做法不但有勇无谋，而且适得其反。如同George Kennedy写的，“记忆一个中文（象形）字比学习一个欧洲语言词汇难上如此之多，以至于严格地节约精神力是必须的。”这其实还是低估了难度。（在中文的海洋中）被淹没的风险非常大，所以学生最好还是先在浅谈涉水中多花点时间，再考虑前往深处。
As if all this weren't bad enough, another ridiculous aspect of the Chinese writing system is that there are two (mercifully overlapping) sets of characters: the traditional characters still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the simplified characters adopted by the People's Republic of China in the late 1950's and early 60's. Any foreign student of Chinese is more or less forced to become familiar with both sets, since they are routinely exposed to textbooks and materials from both Chinas. This linguistic camel's-back-breaking straw puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese, who at this point would gladly trade places with Sisyphus. But since Chinese people themselves are never equally proficient in both simplified and complex characters, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in eventually concentrating on one set to the partial exclusion the other. In fact, there is absolutely no shame in giving up Chinese altogether, when you come right down to it.