How hard is it to learn Chinese language?
Many European, American or African students nowadays decide to study Mandarin. The reasons for this are various. Whatever the reason, the task is the same: somehow master a language that is so unfamiliar to them as the natural sciences are to me- a linguist.
Once the decision is made, and you start to study Mandarin, everyone will ask you this one question: “Is Chinese the hardest language in the world?”.
My answer to this question usually is as following: the grammar is not that hard, as you do not differentiate between he/his/him, adjectives never change according to the gender (see Germanic and Roman languages), there are no cases for nouns (see German, Russian or Hungarian), there are no real tenses for the verbs (see English or French). The key, to grammatically speak correct Chinese is the sentence order, stick to that, leave everything in its “infinitive” form and you’ll be alright – 差不多 of course.
The big BUT, is that everything else about Mandarin – compared to any other language I can relate to- is seemingly impossible to master.
Pronunciation: In most languages, the meaning of a word will not change if your voice goes up at the end, or down, or stay level or is a rollercoaster. It mostly indicates a question or irony in your voice. In Mandarin however, these changes will alter the meaning of what you say. For example, you have learnt how to say „Excuse me, may I ask “…/qǐng wèn /请问. “Wen” has the fourth tone. If you pronounce this word in a wrong manner you just might ask a Chinese if you could smell him/her: qǐng wén / 请闻 or to kiss him/her qǐng wěn/请吻. You can imagine how a Chinese person will look at you in disbelief if you asked to smell him…
The next huge difficulty, which everyone knows about: the characters. Every learner of Mandarin has – at least once (a day)- wondered why he/she is even bothering to write lines after lines filling pages and books with the same characters, only to forget them immediately afterwards. There is no explanation, no trick, no help – you have to learn every character by heart, writing it a million times, over and over again. Let’s not even get started on traditional Mandarin characters as used in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macao, where you wouldn’t be even able to order food: miantiao/ noodles/ 面条 /麵條
Now, let’s combine the pronunciation and the character … if you hear a Mandarin word, you will not know, how to write it, if you have never studied it. In the same way, seeing a new word, you will not have a clue how to pronounce it. USUALLY.
The good news is: after about 1000 characters, you will recognize bits and parts in new words, helping you to guess the pronunciation – not the tones of course. You will also be able to guess the meaning because you know half of the character from another word (most Mandarin words consist of two characters)
Another good part about Mandarin is that very often, words are very logical. Even if you didn’t learn them you are able to understand: 飞机/ fēi jī. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that flying and machine means airplane. Or: 木 / mù / tree and 森林 / sēn lín /forest.