Chinese is often called the hardest language in the world with its complex writing and tonal systems. But is it really the “hardest language” when compared to others?
I’ve studied plenty of languages throughout my life, but I’d never encountered anything quite so challenging until I commenced my love affair with Mandarin. Early on, I remember being vexed by the unfamiliar concept of grammatical cases, that Russian language introduced me to, or by the multitude of letters in French words that were there, yet not to be pronounced at all. I also remember wining about the “differentness” of Hindi and Urdu, which I studied at university, complaining that every single word I learned was truly a new one. How come these two shared nothing in common with any of the other Indo-European languages that I was familiar with? And there were also all those quaint postposition structures and the way you had to twist your tongue backwards to pronounce some of the consonants. Challenging indeed, I thought at the time.
Now I know, of course, that it all pales in comparison to my new endeavor. Because mastering those languages’ beautiful alphabets was all done within a few weeks of diligent studies. Even before achieving any degree of fluency, their convoluted grammatical structures could not prevent me from eventually, ever so slowly, reading books and newspapers in their original languages. Reading, of course, being the perfect way to relatively effortlessly enrich your vocabulary, while learning something new or being entertained at the same time. I’m nowhere near to achieving this level of passive language skills when it comes to Chinese, I’m afraid
They say, that if you love doing something, it’s never too hard. I certainly love learning Mandarin, at least most of the time. It is hard though! It’s a strain on the tongue, on the eyes, on the memory, even on the fingers.
But is it really the most difficult language in the world to learn?
Well, the straight answer simply must be “no.” There are thousands of languages in the world. For the vast majority of them there are considerably fewer teaching resources available than for Mandarin, which, I’m sure, makes acquiring them much more difficult. I still remember with awe how one of my assistant professors in linguistics volunteered for a field assignment to Polynesia, aiming to learn, and thus hopefully preserve, a dying language only spoken by a handful of islanders. Now that must have been a real challenge for the brave young lady, right? Even disregarding the notion that many of the local tribes on those islands allegedly still practice cannibalism.
The difficulty of learning Mandarin is largely dependent on what your first language is.
Also, the difficulty of learning Mandarin is largely dependent on what your first language is. Chinese is notoriously difficult for speakers of Indo-European languages, like myself. My Korean and Japanese classmates however find it somewhat less challenging. Most of them are already familiar with plenty of Chinese characters, they even prefer them to pinyin, which for most of us Westerners is a real godsend. In fact, if you ask other Asians, many of them would agree that becoming fluent in English is a goal far more difficult to reach.
Mandarin appears to be relatively easy in comparison to some of its closest neighbors as well. Consider Cantonese with its nine tones, or Vietnamese with its endless variation of vocals and diphthongs, or Korean with its undecipherable system of honorifics. That’s without even mentioning some of the more obscure languages and dialects spoken on this vast continent.
Yes, Chinese characters are an impossible threshold to literacy, I know. However, you would need to learn those even if you were studying Japanese. Plus, two more complicated Japanese writing systems, because why would one be enough?
So, there’s plenty of evidence that Mandarin is not, despite the common belief, the hardest language to learn. That said, for those of you already studying the language or speaking it fluently, how about we keep it our little secret? After all, there’s no harm in basking in the admiration and awe that our accomplishment inspires in others, is there?