3 Reasons Mandarin Chinese is Easier than English

550px-learn-mandarin-chinese-step-9Whether or not this is actually true, what I’ve always heard people say is that Chinese is the hardest language a Westerner can attempt. But after my very modest investment in studying, I’ve come across three elements that make Mandarin easier than English, and most Romance languages for that matter:

1. Forming negatives has one simple rule to follow: put before the verb. Forming negatives in English depends on the tense and the context.

2. No need to worry about varying verb forms for the tenses — just add a single word before/after the verb to indicate past or future. In contrast, verb forms in English are very complicated and depend primarily on time.

3. The word ma on the end of sentences indicate it’s a question — no guesswork whatsoever. English relies on the voice rising to communicate a question. Granted, this isn’t a lot of work, but using a word is certainly effective.

Now, these are admittedly small aspects, and I’m sure there are things that make Mandarin a deep and complicated language (just like any language, with very few exceptions), but the point is that it is not as hard as the people who say “It’s the hardest language ever” make it out to be.

What spurs this blog post on is in part from me touching on Mandarin, but also because of some negative responses to Benny Lewis, a travel and language blogger from Fluent in 3 Months. They’ve said that his attitude about applying his intensive and quick method to Mandarin is an insult to the language’s obvious extreme difficulty compared to every other one. Besides the fact that I find that attitude to be a ridiculous policing of someone’s positivity (not to mention obtuse in the face of his impressive improvement over a short span of time), it’s defeatist, particularly for would-be Mandarin learners.

In my opinion, of the languages I’ve studied in any significant way, those with non-Latin scripts have been the hardest — But there are aspects that I find just as simple or even easier to understand than others, including English. The extra difficulty has everything to do with my needing to sound out unfamiliar words, but I may have a different experience in the future. Other than that, to some extent I find Mandarin to be the same general language learning experience as Spanish or Italian — how does basic syntax work, okay, what are major key words, okay, etc. Even the tonality feature of Chinese doesn’t strike me as odd or intimidating because I could just as surely accidentally say pero (but) when I mean perro (dog) and a listener would wonder why I say dog so much. Every language has words that sound very similar, and it can be easy to misspeak. This is not unique to Chinese.

I wouldn’t want anyone to be so discouraged by defeatists that they forever convince themselves not to learn a language they would have otherwise enjoyed and used to deepen their understanding of a culture.

p.s. Of course I’ve transliterated the Mandarin words included in this article to the Latin alphabet just for the sake of illustrating the point. Learning a different script is indeed an extra step, but accepting that it is not impossible — and that plenty of Westerners with no special talent for languages have learned to recognize new characters — is one of the most important steps.

Photo credit: Wikihow

Follow-up on Japanese-English Exchange

I’ll try my best!

Yesterday I used Skype to talk with a native Japanese speaker who I met on italki (a great site I definitely recommend). It was my first time doing something like this, and my first time speaking face to face in Japanese. Because my level is still very low, I couldn’t manage much of a proper back-and-forth, but I was able to ask some questions and respond to others. I had the advantage of my exchange partner being very fluent in English, so she could understand my sometimes half-English, half-Japanese dialogue, and give me explanations.

I definitely learned a lot. I know some more phrases, and have some more understanding of the grammar. I now also know what words and phrases, in retrospect, would have been really helpful to know, and what will be important to look up.

The experience of having somebody speak to me in another language and to have to understand on the spot is obviously miles away from reading it and having the time to look up the words to understand, and then the words to respond, and getting the tenses right and all of that. I was making mistakes I wouldn’t have made if I was writing because I was under pressure to just say something, even if it was wrong. But, at the same time, I got immediate validation or correction when I made those mistakes, and it will ultimately make my speaking smoother.

That was great, and what made the conversation especially deep was the cultural exchange. One thing I didn’t know is that most Japanese people are apparently atheist. According to these statistics almost 80% of Americans are Christian of one affiliation or another, and even though that doesn’t account for the drastic differences in regions in the US, it’s still something that I’m sure makes a difference in the overall culture between our countries. For one thing I imagine Japan doesn’t have as many problems with people trying to impose biblical laws on state law, but that’s another conversation.

In short it was an amazing experience I hope to continue, with others as well.

Mission: Japanese 9/8/2013

Current level: A1ish

My introduction to Japanese in one way or another was Pokémon as a kid. Of course it was in English, but that show and the kid craze it spawned was what got me into anime, which got me into turning off the dubbing and turning on the subtitles, and so on and so forth. And seeing Japanese characters (script), I never tried to make sense of them; they were like part of the artwork and part of the anime culture I was absorbing. Most Americans will verify that they are terrified of Eastern languages – and when I say that, I mean it as a statement of fact, despite the fact that I’m guessing they would be equally terrified of any non-Latin script language – and I would definitely have included myself in that category. Anything non-Latin alphabet looked like scribbles that I assumed would always and could be nothing but scribbles to me.

With the right resources, for free at that, some simple associations, and engagement of short and long term memory, I learned how to read and write hiragana and katakana in about a month. Now, I could have learned it faster if that was what I wanted, so don’t take that time table to heart. I also learned to read most of the Hindi devanagari script in a night, and that’s no simpler or more difficult.

I mean, I also have a bit of a side mission in Mandarin Chinese, and just looking at sentences elicits a natural terror in me, but I’m honestly not sure if that is because I haven’t found great resources yet to explain how the script works or because I haven’t put enough time in. Japanese is comparatively easier in this sense; I knew to start with kana, the phonetic building blocks, and move into kanji and grammar afterwards.

So, Japanese writing is no longer scribbles to me, even if at the moment the vast majority of Mandarin is. And that fact alone is amazing to me, because for so long I and everyone around me had settled into a JUST ENGLISH FOREVER (AND MAYBE A LITTLE SPANISH OR FRENCH BUT ALL ELSE IS SCARY) mentality.

The next big hurdle staring at me in the face is getting out from behind my books and Memrise and chat boxes and in front of the Skype camera. Since most of my studying to begin with is based on reading and writing, speaking and listening is a (necessary) feat of a different color. I can read some French with fair basic comprehension, and write it and get my point across for the most part, but that communication tanks when I get in front of a person. I distinctly remember being in high school and my mother bringing a French co-worker home and introducing us since I was studying the language in school. I tried to say something, but there was absolutely no recognition at all in her face, and I was so embarrassed I gave up.

Soon I will try once again to overcome this fear by just jumping in; I will be speaking via Skype with a native Japanese speaker, and write about it sometime after the fact.