Whether 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 bù 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.
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