Chinese most Difficult Language in the World (2)

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 23rd, 2009

Last Friday I wrote a very long post where I ended up including too many ideas. The main point got a bit obscured as a result, but it was simply this: that vocabulary plays an essential role in learning a language, and that because of this Chinese is not only extremely difficult at an advanced level, but also growing more difficult with time.

I don’t suppose this is groundbreaking research, but it is interesting because most people are not aware of it, and also for its implications in the limit betwen language and politics, two fields we like to cultivate in this blog. Here is the argument in full with conclusions, for examples and details see the previous post and its comments:

  • To learn a new language the main knowledge required is in three areas: grammar, phonetics and vocabulary. Grammar and phonetics differ essentially from vocabulary in that the first two are rules applicable to infinite cases, whereas the latter is raw data. We can call them the Code and the Data elements of the language. The Code elements are finite and not growing. The Data element is practically infinite and growing, to the point that it is not completely mastered even by native speakers.
  • When studying a language, the Code elements play an essential role in the basic and intermediate levels, but at advanced level the real obstacle for communication—and therefore for progress—is Data.  For example, in German advanced students may sometimes use the wrong declension, and in Spanish they may fail to differentiate “rr/r”sounds. These things tend to not hamper communication because human languages are highly redundant. I would never understand “pero” (but) when a speaker says “perro”(dog). Ultimately,  imperfections in the Code elements amount to the same as having an accent: most of the times they are only relevant as metadata.
  • But while Code above a certain level is highly redundant, Data remains essential at every level. Borrowing from this great article: The phrase “Jacuzzi is found effective in treating Phlebitis”is meaningless when either or both of the nouns are unknown. A single missing word can often obscure the meaning of a whole paragraph or article.
  • The number of words used passively in real life far exceeds the typical standard lists of language levels. This is because semi-specialized words—such as ionic, jacuzzi or matrix—are not included in vocabulary lists as they are considered too rare. Certainly each of these words is rarely used, but there are so many of them that as a whole they are actually very often used. This Data element is so large that it cannot be memorized in a classroom, and the only way to acquire it is through many years of immersion.
  • The reason why most language learners never realize this problem is because they are “cheating”. In most languages in the World, this high level vocabulary is practically identical and it doesn’t need to be learned. There is a certain limit level for each language above which most modern words are international and the Data is no more specific of the language .
  • This limit level of vocabulary convergence is different for every language, but it doesn’t so much depend on the language family or geographical origin, rather it depends on the size and the development of the community of speakers. That is the reason why even non indo-European languages like Basque are extremely easy above the intermediate level: the community is not big enough to support complex terms, and all higher Data is adopted from International words. Most people tend to misunderstand and attach too much importance to the concept of language families, and they come up with absurd lists like this one.
  • The internationalization of vocabulary is growing with the advances in telecoms and globalization, especially since English has become the only language of scientific research. There is little point in inventing new Swedish terms in science, for example, when all the scientific community are reading/writing their papers in English. Often, in spite of political efforts to promote a local vocabulary, the economics of language revert the higher Data back to Internationalese.
  • There is only one language in the World that for historical, political and demographic reasons has remained an exception to this trend: that language is Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese or others, the difference is irrelevant  here). It constitutes a parallel system of high level Data that has very few words in common with the rest of the Word. Japanese and Korean are partial exceptions in that they draw from both the Chinese and the International System, but modern words are increasingly International and these languages are converging with the rest.
  • In addition to this, Chinese has a ridiculously difficult writing system unique for its lack of a functional phonetic script. This compounds the vocabulary problem: not only there are more words to learn than in any other language, but each word  contains much more information as it needs to be associated with its corresponding characters.
  • Moreover, since there is no standardized way to transcribe foreign Proper Nouns, even names of places and persons tend to be “translated” into Chinese, sometimes completely departing the original phonetics and becoming Chinese Names in their own right. This adds to the already massive Data element in the Chinese language.

All this takes us to the conclusion: Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level, regardless of the origin of the student.

This is particularly interesting because up to now the right answer to this question was only: “depends on your own mother tongue”.  With the possible  exception of Japanese/Korean students,  this post justifies that Chinese is actually the hardest for everyone else.  Inversely,  it is also very difficult for Chinese to learn other languages, although this is mitigated by the fact that other languages do have functional phonetic scripts.

Another interesting conclusion:  Chinese is not only difficult, it is actually growing in difficulty.

As the World grows more interconnected and technology occupies a more important part of our lives, new semi-specialized vocabulary takes an increasing part in everyday language. Expressions that refer to international concepts such as “spam”or “plasma TV” increasingly take the place of expressions referring to  local cultural heritage.  In this sense, we can say that all languages in the World are converging, while Chinese is an island diverging from all the rest.

Then there are the political conclusions that we can draw from this, but I am committed to writing shorter posts, so we will leave that for the next day. Comments and corrections are welcome to my arguments above.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Nov

    You make some good points, but I thought I’d comment on a few things.

    This Data element is so large that it cannot be memorized in a classroom, and the only way to acquire it is through many years of immersion.

    Well, extensive reading will do it too. One might argue that extensive reading (and perhaps exposure to lots of audio) is the best way to acquire all that data, and neither strictly require total immersion.

    In my own experience, learning words at the technical level is quite simple in Chinese. This is because the morphemes Chinese uses to construct the technical terms are largely the same elements found in everyday words. Whereas European languages borrow from Greek and Latin, Chinese often uses whatever makes sense. Compare:

    word, etymology; 词, 词源

    bug, insect, entomology; 虫子, 昆虫, 昆虫学

    sound, phonology, acoustics; 声音, 音位学, 声学

    This all does nothing to deny that you can’t rely on loanwords or international standard terms with Chinese, although I’m not sure that’s entirely true either. In many fields, IT especially, the English terms are used quite often.

    So the situation is not quite as dire as you portray it. :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nov

    Thanks for commenting John.

    Re reading: I agree, that is what I am doing myself, since in Shanghai total immersion is impossible when you work in a foreign company. For the listening I try to do as much as possible on TV and with you guys on chinesepod. This might work when you are in partial immersion in Shanghai, but I find it very difficult to believe that someone sitting in his house in the US can get even close to full fluency.

    Re semi-specialized words: You are right, term formation is logical in many cases, this was also mentioned in various comments yesterday. The problem is that this kind of logic is always much easier to use when you already know the word (it helps to remember it) but often it is useless when you are attempting to say something. More importantly, however “relatively simple” this term creation might be, I am comparing it with languages that actually say “etymology”, “acoustics” and “entomology” just like in English. Chinese is necessarily harder.

    This reminds me of an example: Saturday we were in Cantina Agave, the Mexican Restaurant. It was so noisy you could barely speak, and I told my friend: “This room has very bad acoustics!” My improvised 音学 didn’t work. Back home I checked JdeFrancis Dictionary. What I should have used is: 音响效果很差. Very logical when you already know it, but very difficult to come up with it out of the blue, this never will happen to you in Spanish (“la acustica es mala, hombre!”)

    Re IT, I have seen that there are a few terms, like USB, U-pan, DVD. I guess the more complex/specific the component, the more English is used, as less general speakers need to use the word. This is especially true of English abbreviations (DVD), which are surprising exceptions because they are written in Latin script. Might be the start of a trend. Think of it, if they can use “DVD” in writing, why can’t they use “BARACK” or “RONALDINHO”?

    PS. The situation is not dire, it is fascinating and I guess this is what makes Chinese language so addictive to many of us: It is in so many ways unique and different from any other language in the World.

    What I am saying in this post is: we are not learning just a language here, we are learning the whole vocabulary of a different civilisation, perhaps the last parallel system of vocabulary that humanity still has. How cool is that!

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Nov


    Oops, I read your previous post before it had all those comments; sorry to repeat!

    Anyway, glad to hear you don’t see the situation as dire… Also, I actually think that thanks to the internet, both Chinese and Japanese are evolving relatively rapidly AWAY from characters (or at least away from characters with semantic meaning). Perhaps in a few hundred years, the vocabulary system will be notably less parallel.

    [Reply to this comment]

    串门的 Reply:

    呵呵 这个基本上是没可能的,随着时间发展,中文的优势只能说越来越明显。

    也许几百年后 汉字的效率会远大于英文?

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Nov
    JP Villanueva


    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    I don’t dispute that Chinese is a difficult language to learn, although claiming that it is the hardest language in the world is a strong claim… I feel there might be others, and for different reasons.

    Basque grammar has 17 declensions, and from what I’ve seen, pedagogy is pretty primitive. Philippine languages have focus-based morphology, primitive pedagogy… and is even harder since Filipinos are notoriously unconscious bilinguals; it’s hard to get an immersion experience when people look you in the eye and tell you “I’m not speaking English, I’m speaking Tagalog…” IN ENGLISH.

    My point is that there may be other factors that make a language “hard to learn;” Mandarin, for example, doesn’t have inflectional morphology of any sort, and it’s relatively easy to find a true ‘immersion’ experience.

    Also, Mandarin language pedagogy seems to be 50 years behind contemporary American ESL or Spanish pedagogies; people I know that have become superior speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese have done so ‘on their own;’ not because of formal instruction, but in spite of it. I wonder how difficult Mandarin would really be if there were more teachers teaching Communicative, Task-based Method at all levels. (I’m not making a claim here, I’m actually wondering).

    Finally, I want to get on my soapbox for just a second. Chinese languages may be hard to learn for us (certainly for me!) but (putting the writing system aside) for Chinese kids, they’ve got recursive subordinate clauses down well before age 5, just every other linguistically normal kid learning any language in the world. My point is that if it’s difficult, we’re probably making it more difficult than it has to be.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Nov


    You say: “putting the writing aside…” . Of course, if Chinese was written in pinyin (phonetics) it would not be such a difficult language. And if it took loans even less. Unfortunately, the reality is different.

    I agree that the Chinese language in itself is not particularly difficult. The tones are difficult but not overwhelming, and the grammar is very simple. What makes Chinese difficult is writing and vocabulary.

    Then of course, the real discussion would be: How important is Vocabulary as opposed to Grammar/Pronunciation when learning a language? Here is where my specific conditions apply: My argument applies only for advanced students, normally (I dare say necessarily) living in immersion.

    When you are in this situation, the way you progress is by using the language for practical purposes. While it can be difficult even for advanced students of Japanese to get the right case/declension every time, this will not usually hamper the practical use of the language. But if they are missing the keywords in a conversation/article, this is a much more serious obstacle, and they need to look up thte dictionary all the time (and thanks God there are electonic dictionaries now, otherwise it would be even harder)

    This is the core of my argument, but certainly it is not a mathematical proof, and some might argue that Arabic or Korean grammar are so unimaginably difficult that they completely hamper the student even at advanced levels. Or that it’s so hard to even get to that advanced level that the student never reaches this advanced level I describe.

    I don’t know enough Korean/Arabic/etc to answer to that, although from my experience with grammatically difficult languages like Basque, people quickly get into conversations when they have enough vocabulary, and they find ways to commmunicate very well even if they always get the Subject -k endings wrong. I would be interested to hear other arguments though.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Nov

    For newcomers to the Chinese world Id like to stress the point that Uln made, “Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level,”. With extra emphasis on “a high level”. I had almost zero training in Chinese and after two years of practicing in social situations was fluent enough to defend myself in a fast paced ‘angry Shanghai girlfriend’ conversation.
    As Uln has said Spoken Chinese is very simple. There is almost no grammar and as John mentioned a lot of words have links, and not just technical words. Not only that but Chinese only has 40 or 50 sounds so if you have a brain like mine its very easy to remember words because they sound the same. (If I were able to write characters I would give you some examples but since I don’t you’ll have to take my word for it.)
    I want to give Uln the heads up as he has mastered English as you can all see from this excellent article. I have not learned Chinese at a “high’ level so I cannot comment on this statement.
    I will tell you, new Chinese students, don’t be afraid! Since Mandarin is a second language for a lot of Chinese, (they will learn and speak their dialect fluently before they ever go to school) they struggle with the language as much as you and I.
    In my opinion Chinese is easier than Spanish, especially at a beginner and intermediate level, so give it a shot!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    Haha, Kyle your Chinese is amazing for someone who hasn’t studied it formally, I have seen few foreigners communicate so fluently. You are one of the examples I was thinking in the “Chinese is easy” part of the previous post.

    I agree with Kyle, and to those who want to follow his advice I say: go for it! And if you are half as talented as he is, you might be chatting freely in Chinese by the end of next year!

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Nov

    Basic chinese is easy because most Chinese people’s Putonghua mostly sucks. An angry Shanghai girlfriend’s grammar and vocabulary is pretty basic. Try calming an angry Beijing girlfriend, or a Shanghainese in her dialect and you’ll find it much harder.

    And I’m with John in this one, once you master the Hanzi, most terms are just a combination of them, so its pretty straightforward. You don’t have to memorize a bunch of Greek or Latin vocabulary which is uncomprehensible at the beginning, like hepatitis vs 肝炎.

    Por cierto ULN, no me habia dado cuenta de que eres Español :) Ya veo que en este mundo hay que escribir en ingles para hacerse un nombre.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    Hola, no es por hacerme un nombre, lo que pasa es que empece en Espanyol y la gente no me hacia ni caso, nunca tenia comentarios. Es que en Espanya hay muy poca gente interesada en estas cosas.

    Ademas, escribiendo en ingles tengo la ventaja de que me puden leer muchos Chinos.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Nov

    “Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level, regardless of the origin of the student.”

    i back you on that. i remember my high school classmates(we are chinese BTW) deeply adept in this language (esp. four-some-idoms) usually scare the **** out of less adept classmates. so when you feels awkward towards certain MADE PATTERNS of chinese, you are not this case and since you know chinese, i suggest you read this chinese book lashing out at english. i’d say it’ve given me the similar kind of joy like your links in your last post.

    i hope you get the joy too

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    Will see if I can find the 盗版 on the 三轮车 down the street.

    [Reply to this comment]

    串门的 Reply:


    哈哈 你说话真好玩儿~

    “最难学语言”令人沮丧,我担心这“称号”会吓走本来要学它的外国朋友 :( 因为我相信天下无难事,只怕有心人。



    如果指的是日常交流 我双手同意!表面上没有像英语那样多变的格、数、性、时态……(我快疯掉了)。但我认为有时外国朋友会把西方对“Grammar”一词的理解生搬到中文里。中文中看似没有复杂严格的语法是因为,语法结构规则(主谓宾定状补……这些是近代源自外语的概念)只是现代汉语的基础,真正浩大的用法与规则分散在词语或熟语里,而这才是真正精髓部分。

    由“字”组成“词”,由字或者词组成“成语”,另外像Wukailong所说的,还有老百姓的 “谚语”“俗话”或者地方性的“俚语”。这些数量庞杂的词和熟语就像一个箱子,把本应在句子语法结构里表达的数量、时态、动作、状态、感情/觉、程度、褒贬等信息精辟地打包到几个字中。很多用法还分性别、年龄、场合等。当然英语中也有谚语和俚语的概念,但是这类用法在中文里占的比重,更庞大也更密不可分。词语和成语等表达出的信息量,表达的生动性和所起到的作用才是学习中文真正的核心地带。

    “Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level, regardless of the origin of the student.”

    I back you on that too!!

    First time !! “Chinese” kick my ass off!!
    No one feels safe.
    Of course!! “ 古 文 ” is a BIG!! FAT!! Crazy!! Tough!!BITCH!! Basically ,that`s a another language。
    但对比高中和大学,这个阶段接触的只算是比较基础的内容…… not even ”high level“

    我知道很多人会觉得没必要,但是他们绝对不会反对我讲——”如果你的目是要了解中文 古文是一定要接触的,因为那儿是一金矿”

    但是我始终认为英语是世界上最难的语言,直到现在,我只能看懂但是不会写。:( 见笑了 。

    学海无涯,苦作舟。 共勉!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    ”No one feels safe. Of course!! “ 古 文 ” is a BIG!! FAT!! Crazy!! Tough!!BITCH!!“

    LOL, 你写英语还不错都会骂娘! 但是我得告诉你,我那个句子 ”regardless of the origin of the student” 原来不包括中国人在里面!! :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Nov

    The word “matrix” in itself is interesting, because a lot of people in China probably don’t know what a 矩阵 is. I was wondering why The Matrix was translated as 黑客帝国 rather than 矩阵, but in retrospect it seems quite natural.

    As an aside, I often find Chinese translations of words more expressive than their English counterparts. 灭火器 is quite obviously some sort of container for the purpose, but if you told a child about a “fire extinguisher” for the first time they would probably not know what kind of thing it was. The same goes for 鼠标, in which you understand it’s not a live mouse you’re talking about.

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Nov

    No si ya haces bien, la idea es que te lea gente. Ventaja que tienes de hablar bien inglés.

    Chengyu is by far the most difficult part of Chinese, and what makes the difference with other languages. I enjoy seeing TV series based in Beijing, and the speed and ease with which they spit those Chengyu is really amazing. I’m really thinking on getting a long vacation which a Chengyu dictionary and rote learn the whole thing.

    Then again, its not really necessary for real life. But I don’t feel happy myself until I get to a real native level.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Uln Reply:

    Spandrell, my advice on chengyus is: don’t try to learn them actively but just pasively. The best is to just read a lot and watch many CCTV serials where they speak like they were chengyu-automats. See my recent post about the serial “冷箭“, there were almost more chengyus than words! The 50th time I heard 引蛇出洞 and 打草惊蛇 I had to jump out the window (luckily Im ground floor)

    My technique is not to memorize them on a list, but rather everytime they come up I try my best to guess at them and then look up the dictionary. I find that most of the time, although they are very difficult to use actively, they are easy to remember passively, ie. it is easy to guess/remember the meaning when you have already come across it before.

    Besides, apart from the common ones like “不可思议“, the rest are rarely used in conversation. My guess is there are no more than a few dozens of these commonly used ones.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Nov

    spandrell: “I’m really thinking on getting a long vacation which a Chengyu dictionary and rote learn the whole thing.”

    I’ve done that (not the whole thing, but the most common ones), though not on a long vacation. Chengyu is a bit like words - learn a thousand or so from a small dictionary, to ensure that you learn the common ones, and you should be ready to go. I doubt anyone not specifically schooled in classical Chinese knows more than 2000.

    Then of course, there’s suhua and yanyu, but these might be learned among the words.

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. May

    I’ve learn both Chinese and Japanese and in my opinion Japanese is harder.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Björn: Thanks for your contribution. But with all due respect, this opinion has no value unless you specify to which level you studied the two languages.

    Chinese is actually an easy language up to intermediate level, I would say almost as easy as Spanish (for an English speaker).

    But the point of this post is that Chinese is the most difficult language to learn *at an advanced level*. This is because the learning curve of Chinese turns up at later stages much more steeply than other languages. And when I say “advanced level” here, I mean very high, I am speaking of the point where you already speak and write fluently about many general subjects.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Björn Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga: Sorry, I hit the submit button by mistake before I finished the comment. Please see my contribution below.

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. May

    I’ve learned both Chinese and Japanese up to an advanced level and in my opinion Japanese is the more (and hence the world’s most) difficult language. The reasons are as follows.

    1) Japanese grammar is way harder.
    2) Japanese hanzi have both Chinese stem and Japanese stem pronunciations. One therefore has to learn completely divergent pronunciations for each character.
    3) Japanese mix native words with loan words derived from Chinese and European languages. Thus, the vocabulary is much more complex than the refreshingly logical structure of Chinese etymology.
    4) Japanese has a complicated honorific speech.

    All of these reasons put together surely outweighs the somewhat tricky pronunciation and the larger number of hanzi used in Chinese.

    [Reply to this comment]

  14. May
    Julen Madariaga

    Points 1) and 4) is essentially the same point. Yes, the grammar is much harder in Japanese, I know that and I say it in the posts. But my point is based on the theory that, at a level sufficiently high, grammar is not a main obstacle for communication. In other words, grammar is a finite set of rules that you can learn, it is the CODE element, whereas vocabulary is virtually illimited (it is the DATA element). I am sure even at very advanced level people still get some declensions wrong, particularly in honorific speech. But unlike the DATA, this is not a major obstacle to communication.

    2) I know this problem, but I maintain that having 2 very distinct set of pronunciations is not necessarily harder than having very similar ones. In Chinese there are many characters with a slight difference, often only a tone difference, depending on their meaning. At first this is easy, but when you know 20 characters pronounced yi, and some of them can be said in different tones, it can be very tricky to retain. What is terrible of the tones in Chinese is that in fast speech we don’t usually decode them, we tend to understand more from the context than from the tones. Because of this, since you are not decoding it every time you hear it, it is very difficult to retain the tones of the least common words. In my definition of fluency, perfect pronunciation is irrelevant (it is an absurd notion anyway), what is important is perfect Listening Comprehension. This comprehension is harder when so many characters sound almost the same. Therefore, in this aspect I don’t believe Japanese is harder at a higher level.

    3) This is IMO the most powerful of your points. If you tell me that all Japanese words at all levels are doubled (for example, that for most words there is an “elektron” and a “dianzi” version, and both are commonly used), in this case I will admit Japanese is harder. But the information I have from students of Japanese is that, in fact, there is a strong tendency to use English roots for most modern and technical words, except for older things like “dianzi” that were invented before the war.

    Finally, to summarize my theory, the main obstacle in Chinese is not the “somewhat tricky pronunciation and the larger number of hanzi”.

    All that is hard enough, but the main difficulty is: A complete parallel set of words unrelated to the international system of vocabulary, compounded with a great difficulty to read fluently and therefore memorize words that are almost never used in spoken contexts (see my latest post about this). In other words, the DATA part of Chinese is larger than any other language, and also more difficult to retain.

    You might be able to convince me that Japanese is harder (I am not 100% sure of my own theory anyway), but to do that you need to address mainly this point 3, and read carefully the post above why I think this Data, as opposed to the Code, is a more important obstacle at advanced level.

    [Reply to this comment]

  15. May

    I basically agree with your theory that grammar (CODE) is not the main obstacle to language learning as you reach the higher echelons of fluency. For all the languages that I’ve studied so far I eventually reached a point when further improvement came to equal vocabulary (DATA) acquisition.

    However, Japanese honorific speech continues to pose difficulties even for advanced learners. The reason is that it is different from grammar (i.e. not strict CODE). In fact, you can learn Japanese grammar perfectly without knowing any honorific speech! Even educated Japanese frequently make mistakes when using honorific speech. So, to become skilled at honorific speech is an additional study task that advanced learners of Japanese — Japanese people and foreigners alike — have to grapple with way beyond the point when they have internalized basic grammar.

    However, let’s concentrate on you main argument why Chinese is the world’s most difficult language. As I understand it, your claim that Chinese is harder than Japanese is partly based on two misconceptions.

    Firstly, you overestimate the difficulty of vocabulary acquisition for advanced learners of Chinese.

    Secondly, you underestimate the difficulty of vocabulary acquisition for advanced learners of Japanese.

    In my opinion, that the Chinese vocabulary is unrelated to the international system of vocabulary (=Anglicized Greek and Latin) does not consequently make the language more difficult to learn. I’d go so far as to argue that the uniqueness of Chinese vocabulary on the contrary benefits the learning process for advanced students! This is because the structure of Chinese vocabulary is extremely logical. In other words, the more characters you learn the easier it becomes to learn new characters and compound words. For example, the Chinese word for server 服务器 (serve-machine) is a piece of cake to learn if you already know the meaning of 服务 (serve) and 器 (machine). In my own experience, after I mastered about 2000 Chinese characters it became significantly easier to learn new characters and words. Of course, I still stumble across the occasional 离子, but then again, Japanese is not dissimilar in this regard. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, the main bulk of Japanese vocabulary is made up of Japanese stem and Chinese stem words written in hanzi. True, as your friends who study Japanese have pointed out, Japanese uses English loan words for *many* technological and *some* modern words. But this still amounts to only a fairly limited percentage of the total vocabulary. An early learner of Japanese might get away with throwing in a lot of Japanicized English words in his daily conversation. Maybe his Japanese interlocutors will even do the same out of courtesy for his scarce language skills. But the expectations from the environment increases as he encounters more ‘real life’ situations and the over-reliance on English loan words eventually has to go. Not to talk about most of the more demanding sort of written material (novels, scholarly literature, etc.), which compared to spoken langauge tend to employ even less English loan words.

    Moreover, in contrast with Chinese vocabulary, Japanese vocabulary is decidedly less logical. As I wrote in my earlier post, the mix of native words and loan words derived from Chinese and European languages makes learning new vocabulary a thorny task for students of Japanese. In addition, Japanese word stems tend to be fuzzier than Chinese ones. The problems connected with Japanese vocabulary structure do by no means fade away when you reach an advanced level.

    Make no mistake; I think Chinese is a daunting language to learn indeed. It‘s no doubt the second most difficult language out there ;-)

    [Reply to this comment]

  16. May
    Julen Madariaga

    There is one important aspect that you ignore. An independent vocabulary system like the Chinese is like a Universe in expansion, constantly growing as new words are included every single day (in technical, internet, media, politics, etc.)Whereas Japanese vocabulary, although vast, is controlled and doesn’t create new roots.

    I also think, as I explained in the first comments above, that the logic of Chinese vocabulary (while I agree it is beautiful) is not useful in most cases except as a reminder when you already know the word. A word like 贴吧, for example, is very logical, but you would never come up with it if you haven’t heard it before, it could have been just as well: 谈站,聊天页,or a dozen other possibilities. Loans are infinitely easier because you only have to remember a code to “japanize” their pronunciation, whereas for Chinese you have to store raw data.

    I think the main point you are forgetting here is that I don’t state plainly “Chinese is more difficult than Japanese”. What I state is: the learning curve of Chinese never reaches a plateau due to the independent DATA system, and therefore AFTER a certain point of proficiency N, it can be said that Chinese is harder than any other language. But this N point is not the same for all, in Japanese it would be a very very high N, corresponding to a level where you are past all the honorific problems.

    Admittedly, if this N is so high that we are entering into native proficiency level, then the whole formulation becomes difficult to apply in practice.

    In any case, as I said in the previous post of the series, the Chinese vs Japanese competition was just a gimmick to attract readers. I don’t take any such competition seriously, if we go to the end of it, we would have to start quantifying things more scientifically.

    The objective of this series was not that, but just to analyze the aspects of Chinese that make it so hard, and in particular that aspect that I find fascinating, the parallel vocabulary system. See the post 3 in the series for what I think is the most interesting conclusions in this respect.

    So, I close this discussion for the moment with a draw: I accept to call Japanese the most difficult language, at the same level as Chinese, for different reasons.

    I am into something else right now, and my next language Thursday is already taken with this. But if you are interested we can do a Guest post afterwards, where we debate this, you write for Japanese, I write for Chinese. Then we can put a poll in the end of the post, and see who is the champion of the World by popular election, this way we can break the draw, what do you say?

    One thing however we must not

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  17. Sep

    IMO you can’t tell which is harder unless you’ve learnt both chinese and japanese to the hardest level. That’s pretty stupid and will only lead to endless discussion.
    Well, I have a comparison that is more or less inarguable due to its subjectivity. From a non-native of the following languages, here are my list of the beauty of the language from the way they sound (from the most beautiful to the most dreadful):
    Japanese - Korean - Taiwan Mandarin - Shanghai Mandarin - Thai - Cantonese - Hokkian - Northern China Mandarin - Beijing Hua & Vietnamese.
    Yes, I despise both Beijing Hua & Vietnamese at the same lowest level.
    Now for food from the most delicious to the most dreadful:
    Hongkong (Canton) food - Japanese - Southern China - Taiwan - Thai - Korean - Vietnam - Northern China - Beijing food.
    IMO anyway.

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  18. Nov
    China Scholarship

    It’s never ending. The more I learn, the more I have to remember. The more I have to remember the more I forget! :-( Still I’m trying

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