Chinese is the Most Difficult Language

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 20th, 2009

There comes a point in the life of every student of mandarin when he feels the call to write about the difficulty of the language. The time has finally come for me, and I will follow the path of the masters. In fact, I intend to go even further. I am set out to prove that Chinese is the most difficult language in the World.

I know I am treading on dangerous ground, and the sect of the Japanese learners is sure to fall on me with all the weight of their declensions. To make this a fair game, I will define first what I understand by difficulty: the time needed by one average person without previous contact with related languages, to attain a functional level, where functional is understood as being able to execute every normal activity in mandarin without significant disadvantage, such as: writing dissertations, hosting formal meetings, reading at a normal speed, chatting in a noisy a bar. I am taking my own level of French as standard measure of this level.

Of course, this standard and the whole notion of “significant disadvantage” are subjective and difficult to measure, but for the purpose of this post it should be enough. Note that the key factor here is utility: I am deliberately paying less attention to aspects such as accent as long as it doesn’t get in the way of normal communication. The reason is that I am considering the language as a communication tool rather than a mark of status, origin or other possible functions. In China, any possible use of imitating accent is lost to most foreigners because the facial features give them away immediately.

Apart form the accent, important fields like Classic Chinese are given very little weight in my definition of “functional”, for obvious reasons. It is true that by using this definition I am weakening my case for the Most Difficult Language, but we can afford that, because our most formidable weapons are still in reserve.

One more thing before I continue: this exercise has been tried many times already, like here, here and here. I am ignoring previous results because the criteria used in each of them—such as teacher’s perception or comparison of certain conventional parameters—do not have any use in real life. Each student is free to chose his own definition for difficulty and functional level, but it seems to me that the one in this post, summarized as “the level needed to use the language seamlessly in native contexts” is the one that most people would naturally accept.

My argument follows the process of studying Chinese through 3 stages: First I prove that Chinese is easy, then I prove that it is difficult. Finally, I will give the reason why Chinese is THE MOST DIFFICULT language in the World. If you are already familiar with the study of mandarin you might want to skip straight to the third chapter.

Chinese is Easy

The simplicity of Chinese grammar at a basic level and the easy pronunciation and memorization (without tones) of the first lists of words makes for a very mild learning curve at first. I’ve had many occasions to compare with students of Spanish in Spain, and almost always the students of Mandarin in China are faster to start using simple sentences. Apart from the language itself, I suspect that the curious and chatty nature of the Chinese is an important part of it.

If you have been in China long enough you have probably seen some of those miracle students that learnt Chinese in 1 year. I have met a few of them myself, and in some cases I was amazed by the results. These people are essentially natural communicators, they don’t need the tones or the characters because they use a very powerful tool in mandarin, which is context. Their intonation and body language channel tons of information, and so they are able to entertain a band of adult Chinese for hours on end, while you sit there bitterly wondering where to put the 了. That is a real story, by the way.

Of course, not everyone can be such a great communicator, but the point here is: for a certain kind of person and for a certain kind of objectives, Chinese can be in fact an easy language when learned in immersion. That is the kind of superficial level that is referred to when you hear someone say “he speaks 14 languages fluently”. It includes just the most basic characters, practically no grammar and long lists of everyday vocabulary memorized without tones. It is nowhere even near my definition of functional level, but it is useful and rewarding, and for most people it is all they need.

It is for this reason that to every foreigner coming to China, especially the curious and communicative ones, I strongly recommend studying Chinese conversation without characters. At this first level it makes economic sense for most of them to study seriously.

Given a prolonged exposure to mandarin speaking environment, a speaker can go a long way without characters. However, for serious students of mandarin, the non-character path is not sustainable. Among other reasons, because it will make it impossible to read and write, effectively leaving off limits large areas of knowledge.

Chinese is Difficult

The potential student should think very carefully before stepping into the next phase. Because it requires an investment in time that is out of proportion with the study of almost any other language, or even with such complex undertakings as, for example, obtaining a PHD. In the vast majority of cases it does not make economic sense, and it is simply not a rational choice. So if you decide to go there, just make sure you have irrational motivations.

The difficulties that appear in this phase, such as characters and tones, have already been described in the excellent articles mentioned above, so I will not go into details. I will just stress the factors of context and interdependence, which I feel are sometimes understated. The idea, summarized, goes like this: Those two diabolically difficult codes that are spoken and written Chinese are made even more difficult to learn because they tend to be not self-supporting in the mind of the student, but relying on each other, and then both of them rely a good deal on context.

This is the most absurd part of the system, because intuitively one would imagine that a (semi) ideographic script is independent from Speech. The truth is that not only they are not independent, but the whole system is so inefficient that Chinese themselves rely heavily on their Spoken language to interpret the characters. This explains, for example, why it is so easy to come up with characters that your average Chinese cannot read, or why they can read a newspaper knowing only 2000* characters but you cannot, as they successfully use their spoken language to remember/guess the missing characters.

In the other direction, the dependence on written material to learn to speak is common to any second language, as being able to read words in a phonetically significant way makes them much easier to remember.  In China, the existing material in proper pinyin (Latin letters with tonemarks) is practically zero, and the tendency of some letters and tones to vary among regions makes it almost impossible to learn them properly just from listening. To make matters worse, Chinese speakers themselves rely on the characters to solve ambiguities, as is often the case with names of people and places, or when they explain a new word: “My name is Jiang,” they say, “the beauty-woman Jiang” referring to the 2 parts of the character 姜. Ambiguities tend to happen a lot in contextual languages like mandarin, even more when a foreigner is involved.

This mutual influence between speech and writing has many other consequences unique to Chinese: for example, it is impossible to write down or even read foreign words without an advanced knowledge of characters, making it very difficult to understand familiar names both in writing and in conversation.

All  these factors (and many others I haven’t mentioned) provide an extremely difficult learning environment for a foreigner. This is the main reason why it is impossible to reach functional level without following a balanced approach on spoken and written language, plus immersion in Chinese culture. It explains why sinologists with a vast knowledge of characters never get to speak the language functionally, and neither do old China Hands living for decades in language immersion. They both stand on a wobbly platform with one leg shorter than the others.

In short, to study Chinese the effort is similar to learning 2 different languages that need to be pursued in parallel**.  And each of these two languages is a LOT more difficult than French (for an English speaker).

This however, has still failed to impress the students of Japanese, who are already grinding their katanas to come after my head. I will admit that, up to here, the Japanese language still has a good chance of beating Mandarin. Move on to the next section to see my checkmate.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language in the World

Now is when we get to the third phase, that of students at a functional level, without any “significant disadvantage”compared with native speakers.  As far as I am concerned, this phase is just hypothetical: I have never seen a foreigner who got there. I am not saying this person does not exist, I just mean that after 3 years in China I haven’t met any, that is how rare it is.

In terms of the measure standard established, I could phrase it like this: I have still not met a single foreigner who is fluent in Chinese at a level to compete with my own level in French, which is my 4th language, learnt as an adult in 3 years spent in France. I have an accent and a few faux amis, but I can read and write as fast and complex as any of my French colleagues with similar backgrounds, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get something on TV. I challenge anyone to get me a non-native Chinese speaker that can speak or write like I do in French, or even at a comparable level. Excuse me if I sound cocky, I am just writing this because it is the basis of the argument that follows.

But let’s get to the real point of this post: Why is Chinese the most difficult Language in the World?

The main basis for this assertion has to do with vocabulary. I think that in most studies about learning Chinese, this factor has been greatly understated. It is in my opinion the single most important obstacle for a student to get to the functional level. Before I explain why, let me give some background:

In the origin there are deep cultural reasons, that come from the fact that China is seen by its speakers as a cradle of civilization. Actually, it can be accurately said that China is one of the cradles of civilization, and the only one that has kept a living language to this day. Linguists will say that the language has changed completely since the times of the Shang, but this is a purely technical objection. Culturally, it is STILL the same people and the same language, it is felt like this by the speakers, and this entails a series of attitudes that are unique to Chinese.

These “attitudes” include not recognizing Latin or Greek as cultural references, and by extension not accepting English or other foreign roots in the creation of new words. This is the heart of the matter. This makes things extremely difficult for foreigners studying mandarin, and also for Chinese studying foreign languages. And it has implications that go beyond the scope of language learning.

Regarding the practical consequences for the student of mandarin, consider this: the active vocabulary required to obtain a standard level of language—for example, the vocabulary required for highest level of HSK— typically contains no more than a few thousand words, which are more than enough for everyday general conversation. And yet, the HSK11 people that I have met were not even close to competing with my French.

The reason is that for people with a higher education, the passive vocabulary really needed to attain a functional level is much larger than the vocabulary required in any standard test of proficiency.  Think of vector, ion or metaphysical. None of these words enter the standards lists of vocabulary because in theory they are technical terms, and yet they appear in normal conversation and you are expected to recognize them even if you have no idea what an ion really is. You acquire these words through a lifetime of living inside a culture.

So what happened with my French? Obviously,  I just learned the few thousand words necessary to get along, and from then on it was extremely easy…  because the vast pockets of specialized  vocabulary were for the most part already known to me. And that is because, once you have learnt to decode phonetics and grammar, and above a certain level of vocabulary, all the languages in the World become almost the same—except for Chinese, that is.

And as a consequence of this Chinese differentiation, the only practical method for most people to achieve functional level is to spend a lifetime in immersion, in order to acquire the vocabulary in all those fields that are not studied in language school and can only be learned through experience. In summary, for a student to become functional it would take, following our three phases above:

  1. Exceptional communication abilities, talent and motivation.
  2. Years of full-time study to learn reading and writing.
  3. Even longer - min around 10 years? - in 100% immersion in China.

Essentially, we are speaking of a person who is dedicated to Chinese as a career, who has a talent for language and who lives in a total Chinese environment for many years. It is not impossible that this person exists, and we might even have someone in comments below who responds to this description. But the conjunction of those 3 conditions in one single person is extremely rare, and for the vast majority of students, functional level in Chinese will always be out of reach.

Excuse the long post, I wrote it out of frustration the other day when I got stuck in the middle of a sentence containing ionic treatment, partly because the word for ion, 离子 (li2zi3) like many other technical words, does not give you any clue when it is out of the context of physics. I would like to see what the Japanese (who are pretty good at saying “ion” phonetically) have to answer to this. Checkmate.

And Chinese has won the dubious honour of being the most difficult language in the World.

NOTES:

*There has been much discussion about this and the number is probably wrong. The point is that even when you get to know more characters than a native Chinese, he will still be able to read much better and faster than you. This is frustrating.

** I am using terms very loosely here, Written Chinese is not in itself a language but a representation of Chinese. It is not really studying 2 languages, but I find this comparison useful to give a feel of the raw amount of data that needs to be stored into your head.

PS. If  you are interested in this debate,  see the summarized and hopefully more clear post here.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Nov
    20
    2:09
    PM
    spandrell

    I speak both languages (Japanese and Chinese), and I wouldn’t say Chinese is much more difficult. Its certainly easier to speak to an intermediate level. But yeah, the formal written language is harder.
    But again Japanese uses a mix of chinese and english terms as technical words, and the written system is pure madness. But yet again its a pretty uniform language, which Chinese is not. Regional differences add to the difficulty of Chinese I believe.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    My main point here is that Chinese is that to reach the very high level of fluency with complex vocabulary, the hurdle of not having international worlds even in the most specialized fields is much bigger than most people assume.

    In this sense, Chinese is more difficult than Japanese, and following my logic, it is the most difficult language. In the end, the Chinese vs Japanese competition depends really on what are your objectives when learning the language and how complex you want your vocabulary to be.

    The real message of the post is: Chinese is much harder than what most people imagine if you want to get to a high level.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nov
    20
    4:55
    PM
    yinbin

    “once you have learnt to decode phonetics and grammar, and above a certain level of vocabulary, all the languages in the World become almost the same—except for Chinese”

    - What do you mean by “all the languages in the World”? Swahili? Malay? Korean? Japanese? Thai? Vietnamese? … It is no surprise that Indo-European and Romance languages share a vast amount of vocabulary (I heard that Spanish and French share 80% of the words, and with similar grammatical genders!) due to historical reasons. But are they “all the languages of the World”?

    “because the word for ion, 离子 (li2zi3) like many other technical words, does not give you any clue about its technical nature.”

    - Actually there is a clue: the character 子:分子(molecule), 原子(atom). I think 子 can generally be used to form words denoting particles.

    “The consequences in the communication between cultures cannot be ignored, and ultimately language has an important role in many of the conflicts and misunderstandings we are seeing between China and the West.”

    - Valid statement. However, it does not have much to do with the (perceived) opacity of technical terms in Chinese. Miscommunication in this instance I think largely arises from the way speakers construct their arguments for the purpose of convincing their audience - as a generalization, Chinese tend to appeal to emotion and authority whereas Indo-European/ Romance speakers tend to appeal to reason and logic.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Nov
    20
    7:23
    PM
    Uln

    yinbin: I admit that I don’t know all the languages in the World, and all the information I have for this post are questions I asked to friends who studied Japanese, Russian, and also my own knowledg of Spanish, Basque, German, Mandarin and French.

    I have not found any language that has so few foreign terms as Chinese, but I admit that there might be out there and that is why I hope someone seeing this post will help out.

    You should bear in mind one thing, however, and it is that only the most developed langauges in the world really have all the range of technical vocabulary, because they have enought speakers and readers to develop them. Of the 100s of languages in the World, very few have the chance to meaningfully have a word for ion. TO give you an example, Basque, even if it is a very different language, also says ion, metafisika and bektor. It is unlikely that any other language would be powerful (or crazy) enough to go the Chinese way, except perhaps the arabic language… Think of this: to how many languages most research papers are translated? Most often just one: English, if they were not already witten in that language.

    In spite of all this, I admit there is a weak spot in the argument and I will try to see to that.

    Re: French and Spanish are very similar: this is true, but it does not affect the main argument. I only needed 3 months of study and perhaps 10 months in full immersion to get ALMOST to my actual level. (roughly, I cant really remember) In the case of Japanese this would be increased perhaps to 4 years of study and 4 of immersion, or perhaps even more, I don’t know. But the point is that you would reach a level where the whole thing would be self-supporting, because you would not need to re-learn all the language of science, technology and higher knowledge in general.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Nov
    20
    7:29
    PM
    Uln

    Regarding 离子: OK, the clue of 子 is very difficult to catch because there are HUNDREDS of words finished in 子 that are not in the field of particles. It is actually an extremely common ending, even the name of a philosopher is 老子. Believe me I know perfectly the meaning of 原子 or 分子, but the problem is I also know 胖子, 日子, 孔子 …

    That is why I say Chinese is very contextual, the main problem I had is that I read this in a stupid prospect of my gym there would be an expression such as ionic treatment. I woudl have guessed it is a particle if it ws in a text of physics, but really, in a gym leaflet it is impossible!

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Nov
    20
    7:37
    PM
    Uln

    Regarding your last point: “Valid statement. However, it does not have much to do with the (perceived) opacity of technical terms in Chinese. Miscommunication in this instance I think largely arises from the way speakers construct their arguments for the purpose of convincing their audience - as a generalization, Chinese tend to appeal to emotion and authority whereas Indo-European/ Romance speakers tend to appeal to reason and logic.”

    yinbin, I am not saying that language is the ONLY reason for miscommunication, not even the biggest reason. I am only saying that it is one factor, and it is probably the one which is easiest to change by politicians.

    My point with technical terms is that they are more and more often used in normal conversation, even among non specialists, somtimes as metaphors to refer to some similar concept. It is the same as with cultural references, except that technological references will increase as technology becomes more part of our life, whereas traditional references are moe likely to decrease or stay stable.

    This is why, even if I admit that not understanding high level terms is not a MAJOR reason of communication, it is actually a GROWING reason, and one that separates China from all the rest of the World.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Nov
    20
    9:10
    PM
    justkeeper

    Well, I would say the word “等离子体” conveys more meaningful information to me than “plasma”, a body with equal number of different kinds of ions…….Hmmm, and Taiwanese translate “plasma” as “电浆”.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Nov
    20
    9:44
    PM
    China Law

    I think Korean is tougher. Korean is borderline impossible to pronounce and if you say a word even slightly wrong, nobody will understand you, because Koreans are not used to accents. Oh, and then there are something like ten levels of speaking, depending on the relationship between the person talking and the person listening.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Nov
    20
    10:44
    PM
    spandrell

    Korean is not as hard to pronounce as Chinese, not by far.
    The levels of speaking are a hurdle but then again Japanese has it too, if not as complex. Anyway being a foreigner exempts one from part of it.
    The problem with Korean is you’ve got no Chinese characters to guide you, so you have to remember everything by sound.

    Uln, I understand your point, but Japanese in that level (specialized fields) is probably 70% Chinese origin vocabulary vs 30% English, and I believe Korean is similar.

    I’ve heard that Tamil also uses only native words for modern concepts, though I can’t confirm it myself.

    I found Japanese easier to learn because its fun to learn, i.e. there’s plenty of fun and interesting material to hook oneself until you kinda get fluent. Chinese pop culture is not as attractive, but its culture as a whole is engaging enough. I guess learning Hindi or Javanese (to an educated level) would be much harder, i.e. much more boring.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Kevin Reply:

    “I found Japanese easier to learn because its fun to learn, i.e. there’s plenty of fun and interesting material to hook oneself until you kinda get fluent” <- this. One of the biggest difficulties with Chinese (or at least Mandarin) is that there’s very little interesting content that you would want to watch even if you weren’t deliberately trying to improve your Chinese. A handful of Zhang Yimou movies and that’s about it - most of what I watch/read in Chinese is translations. Compared with something like French or Japanese, it’s a real struggle.

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Nov
    21
    12:50
    AM
    Avery

    At my level, I’m constantly tormented by chengyu. It’s especially frustrating when someone tosses in a few obscure chengyu when I’m on a roll reading an interview or something and I’ve got to reach for my “Chengyu without tears” book.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    At your level?? yeah, chengyus are a nightmare at every level! Even Chinese don’t understand all of them.

    That is only one of many factors that I didn’t mention in the post to avoid making it 10,000 words! :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Nov
    21
    2:51
    AM
    Uln

    @Dan - I am with Spandrell on that one. Korean is one of the most difficult languages in the World, sure, but it has two massive advantages compared to Chinese: 1- phonetic script 2- foreign loans. You have to get far enough into the study of Chinese to realize the significance of this.

    @spandrell - “but Japanese in that level (specialized fields) is probably 70% Chinese origin vocabulary vs 30%” -

    This is a point I need to verify a bit better, my friend studying Japanese was not advanced enough to know this. I am guessing it depends on what level of vocabulary you are counting, probably more modern/scientific vocabulary is more English loans. For the record the 3 examples I chos, metaphysics, ion and vector are all loans in Japanese, and I didnt chose them on purpose (I checked aftr writing the post)

    In any case, the contest Chinese/Japanese in the post is just a gimmick to make it more fun. To be honest I don’t think it makes sense to discuss too much this question because in the end it depends on many personal factors such as the set of abilites of each student, his particular objective when studying the language, etc.

    The real point I wanted to make in the post is the often understated difficulty of Chinese. And that a part of this difficulty is caused deliberately by the Chinese themselves, by refusing to use loans, isolating them from the rest of the World. In case we confirm your statement about Japanese, then that would make 2 languages that isolate themselves from the World. This doesn’t solve the problems that the non-loan approach cause to China.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Nov
    21
    3:08
    AM
    safarinew

    thank you for this post and the links linking how hard chinese is. i read for 2 hours only the first link laughing. finally i see:

    “Shh — not so loud!” says the director, “If you don’t tell them it’s difficult, they never know.”

    so now i know, i’ll read on if i have time tomorrow.

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Nov
    21
    9:32
    AM
    Nobody

    For a Westerner learning another Western language will definitely be much easier. It’s like comparing a Japanese learning Chinese and vice versa. The European languages had a lot in common. It’s almost like comparing the different region of China learning another regional language. In fact, these regional dialects will be a national language if it is a country, just like Europe. Furthermore, it would probably be easier for an Asian learning another Asian language than to learn a Western language. I am not saying Chinese is not difficult to learn, but your argument is purely based on a Westerner point of view.

    I hope when you said “all the languages in the World”, you don’t mean languages of Europe.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    No, I really mean it “all the languages in the World”. This is NOT based on a Westerners point of view.

    The only exceptions you might argue are Japanese and Korean, but even those languages for the most modern vocabulary usually comes from the West rather than from China.

    Please bear in mind that when I said “all the languages in the World” I added “above a certain level of vocavulary”. This “certain level” is NOT THE SAME in all languages. For example, lower between French/Spanish (where similarities start very early) than between Spanish/English (where phrasal verbs and germanic roots go up a long way until they give way to latin).

    The “certain level” would be even higher between English/Thai, for example, would include only words that are very modern or sophisticated, and so on the more different the languages the higher the “certain level”.

    Still, my point is that there is always a lot of common vocabulary above that level, and that most languages in the World are very easy to master past one certain tipping point, whereas Chinee is not because you have to relearn EVERYTHING again. We are speaking of course of high level learners, not of your average student of Chinese.

    Hope this clarifies.

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. Nov
    21
    2:40
    PM
    Xiefeilaga

    I’m just about at the functional level you described in Chinese. While I agree that Chinese is very difficult, I don’t agree that this is understated. In fact, it is overstated. The state department officially lists it as the most difficult language for English speakers to learn, and the voices supporting that view are much more numerous than the ones opposing it.
    Anyway, on the point of loan words, the Chinese language, being morpheme and character based, is structured in a way to make loan words difficult. But when it comes to technology, many loan words have seeped into the spoken language, while original Chinese words are used in writing. People say “email”, but they write “dianzi youjian”. Interestingly, the etymology of new technological terms often follows the etymology of the terms in English. They don’t use the Greek and Latin roots, they use the MEANING of the Greek and Latin roots.
    Here are some examples:
    download - xia zai “down” and “load”
    SMS - duan xin - short message
    processor - chuli qi -processing device
    The list goes on and on, and while the language isn’t sounding any more like other languages, the logic of the language is converging with that of others.
    Note also that the spoken and written versions of the language have never been closer together than they are now, closing yet another gap with the western languages.

    [Reply to this comment]

  14. Nov
    21
    4:16
    PM
    Uln

    @xiefeilaga - Good comment, thanks for that. Answers:

    Understatement: OK, I was not thinking of the State Department or professional linguists, obviously they know what they are talking about. I was thinking of the thousands of people that come to China and imagine they are going to learn the language in a couple of years. I was also thinking of the official language school in Barcelona where there were 5 full classes of optimistic students in the first year, and by the time it got to the 6th year there was only like 5 guys, and even those 5 guys weren’t close to functional.

    Re Loans: yes, good point. But there are also LOTS of examples where the logic doesn’t follow. I don’t know where you are based but in Shanghai I hear “youjian” much more than “email”.

    The most important objection however is this: your example is similar to the guy that objected 离子 above, in that you find it obvious BECAUSE you already know it. By this I mean: if you hear “chuliqi” in a conversation that is not specifically about computers, and you never heard the word before, then it is not obvious at all: Is it a processor? Is it some other kind of industrial part like a “handling fork” or some kind of vending machine like the automatic paying machine in a car “Parking”? In most cases it is not obvious (although admittedly “chuliqi” IS relatively easy to figure out).

    Anyway, you have a good point with the converging logic of the language, supposing it is really happening. This does mitigate the problems that I sugest, and it is worth mentioning. The last part of the post is still in draft so I will add this when I finish it tomorrow.

    Re: last paragraph. I don’t get what you mean by spoken and written versions being closer now.

    PS> Out of curiosity, since you claim just about functional level: how many years have you dedicated to studying Chinese, and how many living in China to achieve that level? Did you had any contact with mandarin during childhood/school period?

    [Reply to this comment]

  15. Nov
    21
    9:07
    PM
    Mei-Mei

    I go with Xiefeilaga on the logic of word composition. I’ve just recently done a lab internship in China and one in France and I found it similarily difficult/easy to get the technical terms in both languages. After all, the French are shooing Anglicism and saying ADN instead of DNA requires just as much learning as saying 核酸。 What’s more, the French use all kinds of rather complex verbs in science, while the Chinese stay with standard verbs like 来 and 去 for nearly everything. And just as Xiefeilaga said, the logic in word composition really helps you to understand what you’re reading about - instead of just seeing the term and having a “general concept” of it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  16. Nov
    22
    1:18
    AM
    Uln

    DNA = ADN, it is the same word, the difference is just grammar, not vocabulary, because in French the noun (Acid) comes before its modifier (Deoxyribonucleic). It is the same as with most abbreviations, like the UN, which is NU in French. Francky speaking Mei-Mei, I cannot believe that someone seeing “Nations Unies” could not understand “United Nations”. I know that it can be confusing the first time you see this inversion, but when you have seen it once then you know the trick and that it is not a difficulty anymore, it is MUCH EASIER than learning 核酸 which looks very simple to you because you already know that word. But now tell me, how do you say RNA in Chinese?

    The verbs that French use in science are almost always exactly the same as English or most other Western languages. Such as magnetiser, precipiter, solidifier, saturer, synthetiser… can you give some examples of what you mean?

    [Reply to this comment]

  17. Nov
    22
    3:15
    AM
    Joe

    If you want to know the reason you and the others posting here find their chosen languages of study difficult, you’re looking right at it. You’re spending all your time analyzing and complaining about it. Chinese is the most spoken human language on earth. That right there should disprove your argument that it is the most difficult language in the world. In those billions of people there are sure to be millions upon millions of snotty 5 year olds who can speak circles around you because instead of going online to whine they immersed themselves, listened intently to their parents, watched Chinese TV, found other Chinese playmates, etc., etc.. There are almost certainly millions upon millions of 10 year olds who can write circles around you for similar reasons.

    No language is inherently harder than another. It’s simply a matter of shutting up and letting yourself get lost in the language. I know from personal experience, I’ve been immersing myself in Japanese ever since I finished up a year abroad there last year. In a grand total of a year and a half of learning the language, I can read a newspaper and converse with all the Japanese students on campus about almost anything. If you have time to complain about a language then you have time to get good at a language.

    [Reply to this comment]

  18. Nov
    22
    11:32
    AM
    Xiefeilaga

    @Uln:
    I’ll start with my language background, which actually kind of strengthens your point. I’ve been living in China for nine years now, and I started out with some pretty intense and well thought-out training. Over the years I have held several positions in Chinese companies, using the language every day in a business setting, and I’ve been translating for artists, writers and filmmakers for a long time as well. I believe that if the language is taught in the right way, one can gain basic proficiency in the classroom, but fluency can only be gained through real immersion.

    And on to the question about spoken and written languages. For centuries, there was little resemblance between spoken and written Chinese. Written Chinese, beyond simple things like shop signs and menus, was extremely difficult and abstract, a pursuit for only the highly educated. While the spoken language of the Zhou dynasty was probably quite different from modern putonghua, it is impossible to imagine people actually speaking like the language written in the Dao De Jing.
    The baihua movement, which began in the early twentieth century, encouraged people to write in vernacular Chinese for the first time in history. A similar thing happened to the European languages hundreds of years ago with books like the Gutenberg Bible and Canterbury Tales. While there are still quite a few differences between written and spoken Chinese, most written Chinese is now based on spoken constructs, though it is often a little more formal and writers can abbreviate a bit thanks to the added visual context of the characters. This helped spread literacy, as Chinese speakers now only have to learn the characters to be able to read (a daunting task in itself), rather than learning an entirely different grammatical system.

    On technical terms, I don’t think any languages have built-in clues that the word you’re looking at is a technical term. That all comes from the speaker’s “sense of language” (语感), the ability to make inferences from context, intuition and the like. That is why you can pick up the technical terms in French and English. Your intuitive knowledge of Greek and Latin roots applied to your language experience fills in the rest.
    I didn’t learn terms like “processor” from some Chinese lesson book, I learned it at the computer market, trying to buy a computer. He would say things like “what kind of chuli qi do you want”, and because we were in that context, I was able to figure out that he meant processor.

    [Reply to this comment]

  19. Nov
    22
    11:48
    AM
    Uln

    Hi Joe, you are right: You learn a language faster if you spend 100% of your time learning or speaking it. And to the extent that this is true, you might also say that if I stop blogging, leave my job and completely lose all links with my Western life, then I would learn faster. Well, congratulations Einstein, but that is not the point of this post at all.

    This is not a whining post, on the contrary, I really enjoy studying Chinese. I write this post because I wanted to make an interesting point (for me at least) about the understated importance of specialized passive vocabulary when learning a language.

    “No language is inherently harder than another”: Not having a phonetic script is objectively and inherently more difficult than having it. Chinese is the ONLY LANGUAGE in the World that does not use a phonetic script. People please understand this before you speak. Even for the Chinese , their written language is very difficult to learn.

    [Reply to this comment]

  20. Nov
    22
    1:20
    PM
    Uln

    @Xiefeilaga -

    Thanks for sharing your experience. That is basically 9 years of total immersion, including serious study that I take to be fulltime in the beginning. Admittedly less than what I stated as “living a lifetime”. But it is still a lifetime in the sense that Chinese is the central focus of your studies and career. Anyway, will edit this in the post.

    Re: baihua, OK, thanks for clarification. I just thought you were referring to something else.

    Re technical terms: interesting point. I more or less agree about the built-in clues and the sense of language. Admittedly, like Joe said above, there is nothing *inherently* more difficult in processor than in chuliqi.

    But the central point in my post is not *inherent* difficulty, it is *relative* difficulty to those speakers that come from a Western based vocabulary. And the problem is that ALL SPEAKERS IN THE WORLD come from there, except Chinese. For example, in Japanese, processor is “porocesar”… There is no way that chuliqi can compete with that in simplicity, even if chuliqi is one of the least obscure technical terms.

    Re: “I didn’t learn terms like “processor” from some Chinese lesson book, I learned it at the computer market, trying to buy a computer.”

    Exactly. That is what I mean, you can only learn these things because you lived through the experience, you cant expect to learn that vocabulary in class becasue it is just too vast. This is what I meant by “you need to live a lifetime”.

    This “lifetime” in your case is pretty short, partly I am guessing because you are very talented for languages. But also partly because you are underestimating my level of French. Think of this, my level of French in terms of specialized vocabulary is 100% a native level. Because ALL THE WORDS above a certain level are the same as English or as my native language.

    In other words, I am still sure I can easily get you on specialized words that you need to look up in a dictionary, especially if I find a field where you didn’t work as translator. In all honesty, off the top of your head, can you translate these terms below to Chinese?

    polyurethane, calcium chloride, Arthur Rimbaud, Chaucer, chrome-vanadium, neoprene suit, dialectic materialism, distopya, matrix, political correctness, telepathy, platonic.

    All of them are a no brainer for most languages in the world. I can’t think so many good examples in different fields but you get the gist. Are you at that level really?

    If you are, congratulations, you are the best foreign speaker of Chinese I have ever talked to :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  21. Nov
    22
    6:38
    PM
    oiasunset

    Interesting that China Law is talking about Korean.

    Recently the Koreans have to repave one section of their high-speed railway because the contractor mistake “water-proof” for “water-soaking” in their work instructions - for some reason these two are the same in the Korean spelling.

    Guess the Koreans really messed up their language after they decided to turn to a phonetic system. On the other hand, Chinese and Japanese (not the street Japanese but the intellectual Japanese) retain the level of precision that can only matched by Latin.

    [Reply to this comment]

  22. Nov
    23
    10:51
    AM
    Xiefeilaga

    @Uln,
    You’re right about the terms in that way. I don’t know all of them off the top of my head, though I’ve used just about all of them before, and am confident I would recognize every single one if you showed them to me in Chinese.
    I would venture that most native English speakers don’t know what chrome-vanadium is either, or any Chinese speakers for that matter. But just like an English speaker faced with this unfamiliar word, the Chinese speaker would know from a glance at the characters (铬钒刚), that it was a type of steel.
    You do make a fair point, though. It is possible for an English speaker to reach that level of functionality in French, but not Chinese. In fact, native Chinese speakers don’t ever really reach that level either, because of the nature of the language.
    Your argument holds, but it is a highly conditional one. While it may be impossible for someone to reach the level where they can expect to understand every single specialized word, it is not impossible to reach the same fluency of a native-speaker, which is the goal for some of us in the first place. If I wanted to write a thesis about metal alloys, I could find a list of terms in a heartbeat. It’s just an extra step in the process.
    If we extracted the “must be able to write a thesis about metal alloys without a dictionary” part from your theory, you’d find that there are a lot of non-native speakers who can fulfill all the other requirements in Chinese fluency. Of course, you won’t meet many of them in Shanghai, where immersion is hard to come by.
    So, quickly, without consulting a dictionary, what is an “angle of repose”? (in English)

    [Reply to this comment]

  23. Nov
    23
    11:45
    AM
    Uln

    Re Angle of repose: not the same. Neoprene suits or expanded poliurethane isolating material appears in common conversation. Chrome vanadium a bit less, but still everyone recognizes it as an alloy even without seeing it written. “Angle of repose” I have never even heard that, in spite of being an engineer!

    You are right in this: There is a level of technicity above which vocabulary is irrelevant for the non specialists. But I think there is a very large area below that level, that is technical vocabulary and yet belongs to normal conversation, at least for people with a higher education.

    Re: Shanghai: very true, that is why I find it frustrating!

    Re: My argument against the existence of functional speakers. Yes, I agree with you that “impossible is nothing”, and that there must be a few people like you living in complete immersion who are very close to (or at) the functional level. My criteria would not be to translate a metal alloy book, but rather as simple as this: translate any general high-level text without using the dictionary.

    In any case this -the impossibility or not of learning Chinese functionally- is not the main point I wanted to make, and I am willing to admit that I exagerated it in the post and to leave the discussion here. I also edited the conclusions of the post, and I am writing a new one to concentrate in the aspects that interest me more.

    As a conclusion to our discussion I would say: for most languages, but ESPECIALLY for Chinese, full immersion is the only way to achieve (or approach?) functional level.

    And Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

  24. Nov
    23
    11:54
    AM
    Xiefeilaga

    @Uln: full agreement on that last statement there. The only foreigners I’ve ever met with what I would call fluency in Chinese are those who have immersed themselves.

    [Reply to this comment]

  25. Nov
    24
    3:59
    AM
    Mei-Mei

    Just read your second post which makes things a lot clearer. Not to mean that this one wasn’t as good as everything you write!

    But I insist: in German, we don’t use the expressions you mentioned above in daily lab life (except for synthetiser). Having learned Latin and English, I would certainly understand them, but I understood you were talking about actually using them. And for that I would definitely have to hear the French expressions at least once - just as in Chinese.
    On another note: what about Arabic?

    [Reply to this comment]

  26. Nov
    24
    9:39
    AM
    Uln

    I know, German is a bit specific, especially in some fields like chemicals, philosophy and some branches of science. I think it might be due to the leading role of Germany when those fields where developed: the German language had to create words that didn’t exist before. And I would guess that many of those terms were deliberately taken from Germanic roots rather than Latin, at a time when Germanic romanticism /nationalism was strong, in the 19th and first half of 20th century. This is only a guess though.

    As a result, German is one of the languages that has the largest independent vocabulary, from what I have been able to judge. And yet, it is not even close to Chinese in this respect.

    [Reply to this comment]

  27. Nov
    24
    3:33
    PM
    Wukailong

    I’ve never really liked the idea of the “most difficult language in the world,” but your post is the first I see that make an attempt at quantifying it. That’s really interesting. I would say - if it wasn’t for the characters - that Icelandic shares many of your points. It has really difficult grammar (more so than German, perhaps less than Russian) and there are almost no loanwords. 处理器 is gjörvi which means something like “doer”. Not that obvious either.

    I think you have to factor in the number of people studying the language. Imagine in 20 years’ time, if China’s rise succeeds, and Chinese becomes a world language (not to the same extent as English, but still). Will it still be as difficult to learn if so many people speak it?

    [Reply to this comment]

  28. Nov
    24
    3:45
    PM
    Wukailong

    This quote from one of the links is just hilarious (and quite true):

    “(…) classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway.”

    [Reply to this comment]

  29. Nov
    24
    5:21
    PM
    Uln

    WKL, yes, I enjoyed that paragraph as well.

    Re the “most difficult language in the World” title, I agree with you, I don’t like it either.

    The only reason why I did that title is that lately I had few comments and I wanted to catch the eye of the users… it is pue marketing, LOL

    [Reply to this comment]

  30. Nov
    25
    9:25
    PM
    Dave Lucas

    I’ve been studying Chinese for years and I wonder if I will EVER get to where I want to be::: you bi-linguals are SO lucky!

    [Reply to this comment]

  31. Nov
    26
    2:37
    PM
    Kyle

    After reading all of Ulns post I have decided to agree.
    I, also spending over three years in China, have never met anyone who can speak fluently at a high level,(Da Shan not included).
    Chengyus, writting ability, and an understanding of traditional characters are essential to fully grasp language.
    Finally I will comment that this article should be titled differently.
    Its main purpose is to defend Chinese is the most difficult language to learn, ‘at the highest level’, with that I will agree.

    However, I still stick to my point that anyone with a little personality and witt will have little problem communicating in the language after some practice. And China is the place to practice!

    There are much harder languages to learn at beginner levels- anyone ever tried pronoucing Thai or Lao? How about getting the jist of Farsi? As an English speaker I suffered a lot trying to learn the reflexive verbs of basic Spanish.

    So Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a higher level

    Agreed

    [Reply to this comment]

  32. Nov
    26
    4:44
    PM
    Uln

    @Dave: hey! I am not bilingual! Well, at least not in Chinese, LOL

    @Kyle: Thanks for the support. I think most students of mandarin in this thread are glad to see Chinese crowned as Most Difficult Language on Earth. There is something reassuring in that, like it is always a handy excuse for lazy students… :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  33. Dec
    2
    10:18
    PM
    FOARP

    Kevin: “I found Japanese easier to learn because its fun to learn, i.e. there’s plenty of fun and interesting material to hook oneself until you kinda get fluent” <– this. One of the biggest difficulties with Chinese (or at least Mandarin) is that there’s very little interesting content that you would want to watch even if you weren’t deliberately trying to improve your Chinese. A handful of Zhang Yimou movies and that’s about it - most of what I watch/read in Chinese is translations. Compared with something like French or Japanese, it’s a real struggle.

    I found the local daily the best source for practising characters, and since most of the stuff on Chinese television is dubbed-over Korean/Japanese stuff . . .

    [Reply to this comment]

  34. Dec
    2
    10:29
    PM
    FOARP

    I’m also reminded of the problems that UK patent attorneys have in passing the European Qualifying Exam to practice as patent attorneys in Europe. Unlike their European counterparts most have not actually learned either French or German (which along with English make up the three languages used in European patent practice) and so have to muddle their way through patents written in German and French during the exam. Despite this about as many UK applicants pass as German/French, because the British simply look at the diagrams, look at the technical terms in the test documents, and make educated guesses as to what it all means. They can get along without knowing either French or German because above a certain level the terms used as mostly near-identical.

    [Reply to this comment]

  35. Dec
    2
    11:11
    PM
    Uln

    Yes. Now try a similar text in Chinese, and good luck. I am in the chemical industry and by now I know how to call the 50 most common chemcial products, but let me tell you there are hundreds of them, and not a single one is of Western origin.

    One example: yixi is ethylene. How bout that?? LOL

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:

    Just like you said, it can’t be done. Working in patenting I had to stop and ask with pretty much every one of the technical terms, a simple thing like 光板 (a light diffuser board for a display) are guessable in context, but words like 碳纳米管 (‘carbon nano-tube’) and 梯形 (‘T shaped’ - ridiculous!) were both unguessable and uncheckable as they cannot be found in the dictionary.

    However, I guess Joe above has found a magic secret that allows him to get around all this, or at least the entirely human urge to vent about it!

    My one question, therefore, is how about Chinese immigrants to the west? There are an awful lot of Chinese people working in technical fields which require specialist vocabulary, many of them seem to be able to master English/French/German/etc. technical language, and whilst having a phonetic script with clearly separated words may make this easier, it can’t be that hard - or can it?

    [Reply to this comment]

  36. Dec
    3
    9:56
    PM
    Uln

    That’s a good question: how about the Chinese who go to the the West. In my opinion this has a double answer:

    1- Their problem is mitigated because Western languages use latin alphabet not characters, this makes things easier.

    2- In spite of #1, they do have a lot of trouble with high level vocabulary in Western languages. Even for Chinese who speak very good English and spent some time in the West, it happens very often that relatively unusual words like say “onomatopeia” or “magnanimous” are unknown to them. The ones that like reading usually get over this thanks to #1, but the ones who don’t are always stuck in very simple vocabulary.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:

    You quite right to identify reading as the key to gaining vocabulary. A former collegue of mine, born in America to a Chinese American woman and a non-English speaking Hong-Kong man who could not speak English, and whose childhood was devided between Hong Kong and San Diego, has somehow managed to go all the way to graduating from university without being fully fluent as per you above definition in any language - neither Cantonese, nor English, nor Mandarin. I would regularly have to re-edit his work just to check for simple errors - and the reason why was simple: he just wasn`t a reader. He hadn`t read a book for pleasure in his whole life and therefore lacked the full-scale immersion which long-term reading gives. My experience is that thgis is not actually all that uncommon amongst first generation immigrants - friends of mine in other companies report meeting people with exactly the same problem, and always with the same kind of lack of curiosity that drives the truly voracious reader. Those who did have this thirst for knowledge, however, managed to become fluent in at least one language - usually, it must be said, English.

    [Reply to this comment]

  37. Dec
    6
    12:49
    PM
    Ash

    I personally never found Chinese to be a difficult language to learn, but then again I never learned it in a formal setting until I reached university age here in China, until then I had basically been immersed in the culture and thus the language. I always felt as I was young when I came to China I was like a piece of putty that moulded to the culture rather than having the culture mould around me.

    Idioms sometimes confuse me, but thinking about the entomology of each word for a second make it easy enough to figure it out within 30 seconds, where as English idioms that I have never formally learned or heard still confuse me.

    In short, I found Chinese to be very easy, but I have given up on ever having to learn a second European language; verbs that change, male/female verbs etc etc now these are hard. Asian languages are easy in comparison.

    [Reply to this comment]

  38. Dec
    6
    3:56
    PM
    Uln

    Well, growing up in China is a massive advantage, you know. I am going to give you an example of a word that I learned just today, to illustrate how mandarin can be incredibly difficult if you are not immersed in the culture for a long time.

    This is embarrassing actually, but until today I didn’t know the meaning of 猫王 … Literally it is the Cat King, for those who don’t speak Chinese.

    The shuffle was playing Heartbreak Hotel on my laptop, and Xiaoyi said: “hey, that is the Cat King!”

    And I go: “no silly, that is Elvis!”

    … and now I know the meaning of 猫王 - try learning that in your 8 to 9 evening classes twice a week :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  39. Dec
    23
    3:00
    PM
    Pierre

    I know I am a bit late but it is a fascinating discussion !

    I read your examples of “hard words the same in most languages in the world” and I am not completely convinced. I am French, I understood them, and I could translate them in French, but it is not evident and I am not convinced an English-speaker learning French would know how to use them. For example, “calcium chloride” is “chlorure de calcium”. How do you guess that if you never studied chemistry in French ? How do you guess that “political correctness” is “politiquement correct” (literally “politically correct”, used as a both a noun and an adjective, however “correct” alone is never a noun). By the way, “distopya” does not exist, it is “dystopia” ;o) Ironic much ?

    When you say “I can read and write as fast and complex as any of my French colleagues with similar backgrounds”, I am not quite sure I believe you. I’m sure that reading is OK, but when you write it is probably possible to guess it was written by a foreigner. No doubt you can write very well and make few mistakes, but still, these are not the mistakes a French would do. For example we don’t say NU for UN, but always ONU.

    I am not writing all this to bash your French, it is very good ;o) I just want to point out that every language is hard to speak and write perfectly (at least the ones I know : French, English and Mandarin, I have to venture a guess for the others …). In other words, I think your analysis concerning the difficulty of a language linked to common vocabulary is mostly relevant for passive knowledge. I never studied Italian and yes a read a technical text of Italian much more easily than the same text in Chinese. I could probably understand “calcium chloride” in Italian. However, I you ask me how to say “calcium chloride” in Italian, I don’t know. And when I write English, there are often “frenchism”, words which are not exactly English, or words which evolved differently and are now pedantic in English while perfectly normal in French.

    I am with you for the proper names however, not to put the real name is stupid (the opposite is true too, imagine I find a interesting article about a minor Chinese personality in a western newspaper, how am I supposed to find more information with only a pinyin without tones ?).

    And of course, I also believe that Chinese is the hardest language in the world, if only to justify the hard work and years of fun I am having learning it …

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    Hi Pierre. Yeah pity you come a bit late in the conversation, but dont worry, the thread is still open.

    Regarding my French, I think you would be surprised. In speaking I have an accent, but in writing I tend to do less mistakes than my French colleagues. The same happens to me in English and Spanish, it is just because my main hobby is reading, and the fact is most people out there just dont read so much, even in their native language. So the situation is that I have read more French books than most French people my age (who rarely read). This includes things as varied as Proust, the whole series of San Antonio and memorizing all the songs of Brassens (which I used to play on the guitar). Similar situation with my English.

    Admittedly, from my writing people could tell I am not native, but not because my mistakes are too many, rather because they are different form mistakes natives do. Also because there is a phenomenon of hypercorrection, and a style that tends to be too grammatical, as opposed to the natural transcription of speech. But I don’t mind too much these things, and I take heart in the knowledge that even the great Nabokov had this problem and some scholars have counted dozens of grammar faults in Lolita. There is still hope for me :)

    Back to the main topic though: your calcium chloride/cloruro de calcio, etc is an example of what I call Code as opposed to Data. There a re simple rules to follow (ie in English it is -ide ending where in Spanish (Italian?) it is -uro ). But the words are the same. In Chinese you have to learn not only the Code rules, but also the whole set of roots for each element and most used combinations in organic chemistry PLUS you have to learn a character for each of them! So just to repeat again: I am not saying all the languages are THE SAME at a high level, I am just saying their Data element is the same. The Code element is much easier to master once you are already in the upper intermediate.

    Re: ONU is the same in Spanish as in French, no NU. Regarding dystopia, it is just a writing typo, it reminds me of a common error called the Attila/Atilla conversion (search the language log if you are curious) where it is common for native writers to mistake the position of one double consonant where there are 2 possibilites. Anyway, things like ONU and dystopia dont give me away as foreign. What does give me away is using “safety” instead of “security”, for example, because both are the same in Spanish… etc.

    [Reply to this comment]

  40. Jan
    9
    11:27
    PM
    Spring Jhingree

    Great discussion, Useful for me because i am working such related project. It guides me a lot.

    [Reply to this comment]

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