Yes, I have really been provoked by my colleague’s recent article on Top 5 Hardest Languages and not only because Polish was not included 😉 Personally, I have learnt Chinese Mandarin for almost three years now, and while I’m still far from fluent, I just don’t believe it’s really this difficult. It’s got its problems but they are not necessarily where you think – I’m going to discuss them next time. So here we go, point by point.
1. Chinese script
Arguably the script is the trademark of this language. It’s so admired for its beauty that even people who have no idea about the language use Chinese characters for decorative purposes. And apparently there exist over 100,000 of them. But are they really so difficult?
First, the high number may mean that so many characters are registered but it doesn’t mean they’re used on a daily basis. HSK, the Chinese proficiency test for foreigners includes 2,600 characters on its highest level. Requirements for native speaker students differ from region to region but it seems that an average person should know about 5,000 by the time they hit 18.
And by the way, the characters are constructed from a limited number of components. Once you remember the components, it’s easy to remember characters. “Word” and “wolf” are two totally different words in English but since they both include letters which are components from the set of 26, we can easily recognise them.
You can’t instantly deduce how the character is read from the way it’s written but every now and then they give you some ideas (eg. 媽 is mā, and 馬is mǎ). Similarly in English you never really know for sure either.
Yes, tones are difficult. At first. But then you forget they exist and somehow can survive this way as you’re most of the time understandable from the context (this is how many foreigners whose Chinese is otherwise advanced survive for years). And the Chinese make mistakes with tones too.
Nobody’s ever said it’s difficult but still not everyone’s aware that it’s goddamn easy. Chinese grammar is the simplest thing ever. It hasn’t got anything that you can live without – no tenses, no numbers, no genders. And almost anything goes.
4. Local varieties
Oh, nobody will really speak a non-Mandarin Chinese to you. And local accents to Mandarin are akin to the thing you’ve got to face anytime you learn a foreign language. Earlier this year I was in Taiwan where they’ve got a really broad accent to their Mandarin, and it seems their inventory has a completely different set of consonants than what is taught in Chinese classes. But still context is the king. In the context you understand things even if you don’t know what sounds and tones they’re made of.