What’s the hardest language to learn? Just do a quick Google search, and you will see. Several sources cite the ‘hardest language for English learners to learn’ as none other than – you guessed it – Mandarin Chinese!
It boils down to two main reasons: the tones in Chinese, and Chinese characters.
Chinese is a tonal language
One of the first things learners of Chinese are taught is how to distinguish between the different tones in Chinese. There are 4 tones in Mandarin Chinese, and depending on the tones, a word with the same pinyin can mean vastly different things! The most common example people give is ‘ma’. The 4 tones for ‘ma’ can mean anything from horse, mother, scold, or numb.
The difficult thing about this is that English (and most other languages) do not use tones as a defining factor in words. Thus, some people have trouble even differentiating them, much less producing them in speech!
Chinese characters are not alphabets
Most languages today use some form of phonetic writing system, which means that different letters in the alphabet correspond to different sounds. So, to read a word, all you need to do is combine the sounds in sequence.
However, the Chinese writing system is what linguists call a logographic system. Words are represented by symbols which encompass both meaning and pronunciation. So, unless you have learnt the word before, there’s no way to be sure how to read a new word you see.
But is it that difficult to learn Chinese?
All things considered, Chinese is indeed a difficult language to learn, but it is by no means impossible to pick up. To learn Chinese, all you need is dedication, and a good teacher. After all, with a bigger challenge, you will enjoy a greater sense of satisfaction once you master it.
Chinese has its ‘easy’ aspects as well. Instead of worrying over tense markers like the ‘-ed’ we add in English for past tense verbs, Chinese uses actual words to mark time, like ‘already’ to indicate something that has happened.
There are also tips and tricks to master the challenging aspects of Chinese. Take Chinese characters, for example. Once you realise that Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’, this makes it easier to make associations and remember the thousands of characters. In fact, the average number of characters you need to be able to recognise is 2000 to 3000 to be able to read a Chinese newspaper comfortably.
Furthermore, there’s always help around the corner! According to some counts, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. That means you will have no lack of Chinese speakers to practise your Chinese with. It also means that Chinese courses are abundant all around the world, including in Singapore.
So, picking up the Chinese language may be difficult, but don’t let that deter you! If you want to learn the Chinese language, start small and keep working at it. Before you know it, you’ll be surprised at how far you’ve come!