Is Chinese really the hardest language in the world to learn?

Answer by JB Brian:

I have studied over 20 different languages and have a fairly good command of spoken Mandarin, so I feel like I can add my two cents to this one.

I assume by "Chinese", you are referring to "Mandarin Chinese" and not another Chinese language such as Cantonese or Wu so I'll refer to "Chinese" as Mandarin in my answer. Now, if your question was :

Is Chinese really the hardest language in the world to learn to read and write?

… I would give you an emphatic YES! 

Mandarin (and the other Chinese languages) use a pictoral system of writing words and sounds called hanzi  汉字

There are over  100,000 of these and mastering them takes a lifetime, even for native Chinese!  Other languages which use modified forms of hanzi  such as Japanese (Kanji)  or Korean (Hanja) have adopted syllabaries to allow them to spell foreign or unfamiliar words. No such luck in Chinese. Although knowledge of 2500 or so would allow one to be "literate" one could imagine how inadequate this would be for all but the most basic texts.

On the other hand, if one wanted only to speak Mandarin, it is FAR from the most difficult language for an English speaker.  Mandarin grammar is mercifully simple for anyone who has studied an Indo-European language.

  1. There are no genders,
  2. There are no articles
  3. The plural ending is predictable
  4. There are no cases
  5. The syntax is very straightforward:  Subject -> Verb -> Object  Wo chi fan = I eat rice.
  6. Verbs do not conjugate (Romance language students rejoice!)
  7. Verbs do not have tenses. Yes, there is "aspect" to deal with but compared to Indo-European languages, this is a walk in the park. (Romance language students rejoice again!!!)
  8. No cumbersome system of honorifics as seen in Korean and Japanese
  9. The "tones" really aren't tough to get a grip with.  There are only 4 in Mandarin.  Vietnamese has 6 and Cantonese has 9 (by some counts)!
  10. Mandarin is a "standardized" language and thus efforts have been made over the past century to streamline it to make it accessible to all Chinese citizens.  ( I'm not necessarily a fan of this, but it does make it easier to learn than, say Cantonese which is peppered with all sorts of slang and colloquialisms!)

As far as languages I have studied, I would say the hardest to master (speaking only) is Korean…hands down.. With its undecipherable system of honorifics, more undecipherable system of verb tenses and speakers who sound like they have a mouth full of potatoes, Korean wins my grand prize for most difficult spoken language on earth.

Not far behind is Arabic mainly because the "Standard Arabic" that is taught to foreigners is not the Arabic that anyone actually speaks.  Every region has their own dialect which could be completely unintelligible to an Arab from another country.  In addition, the grammar is heinously complex and the vocabulary (which has been amassing over 2000 years) is monstrous.  Still, much easier than Korean!

As far as spoken Mandarin goes, I would put it as only slightly more difficult than the Romance and Germanic languages for English speakers.  Certainly easier than any Slavic or Baltic language and much easier than other Asian languages such as Vietnamese, Cantonese, Thai or Khmer!

Is Chinese really the hardest language in the world to learn?

Might as well face it, I’m addicted to Glossika…

B8HY9IhCIAEtcon.jpg-largeAs I wrote last month I have been dabbling with Mike Campbell’s Glossika courses. I continue to be impressed.  I can honestly say that I have made more progress in less time with Glossika than I have with any other language method.  It’s not perfect, but for a motivated learner with limited time and some background in the target language, it is very, very efficient and worthwhile.

Shortly after I published last months post, Mike Campbell posted a video on his site on how someone could use a Glossika course with NO background in a language. He outlines his own experience with Armenian and how he dove into it in the video below.

One of my initial criticisms of Glossika was that it is not suitable for absolute beginners.  Mike has proved to me through his beginners method above that it IS possible. (Thanks Mike!) Clearly it does take much more work as an absolute beginner, but clearly it can be done.

So yes, I have become addicted to Glossika.  Since my last post I have purchased the Swedish and Finnish courses and have been working through those in my spare time.  Its refreshing to see how much Swedish I am able to understand as a result of my past study of Norwegian. ( Danish, ugh, that’s a different story.  I can’t even grasp a single Danish word watching Borgen, and that has subtitles!!).  I have also purchased and am eagerly awaiting the Vietnamese, Dutch and Turkish courses.


Again, I’m really impressed with the extent to which Mike is reaching with these courses.  According to his website, in the next year he hopes to complete and release courses in:

 Turkish, Tatar, Azeri, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, Uyghur, Kalmyk, Mongol, Manchu, Korean, Japanese.

Adyghe (Circassian), Georgian (Kartuli), Chechen

Mandarin (Mainland, Taiwan), Northern Wu (Shanghai), Southern Wu (Wenzhou), Eastern Min (Fuzhou), Southern Min (Taiwan, Chaoshan/Teochew), Hakka (Sixian, Hailuk), Yue Cantonese (Hong Kong), Tibetan, Dzongkha, Burmese.

Saisiyat, Atayal, Seediq, Truku, Sakizaya, Nataoran, Amis, Pazeh, Kaxabu, Thao, Bunun, Tsou (Cou), Kanakanavu, Hla’arua (Saaroa), Siraya, Rukai (Mantauran, Thakongavadane, Teldreka, Vedrai), Paiwan, Puyuma, Kavalan, Tao, Ilokano, Tagalog, Cebuano, Indonesian, Balinese, Javanese, Sundanese, Malay, Malagasy, Maori.

Vietnamese (Northern, Southern), Khmer (Cambodian).

Thai (Standard, Isaan), Lao

Tamil (Standard, India Colloquial, Sri Lankan), Malayalam, Kannada, Tulu, Telugu

Ossetian, Kurdish (Kurmanji, Sorani), Persian (Iran), Dari, Tajik, Pashtu, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi, Nepali, Odia (Oriya), Bengali, Assamese, Khasi, Sylheti, Marathi.

Slovak, Czech, Slovene, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Bulgarian.  Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish.

Romanian, Galician, Spanish (Mexico), Portuguese (Portugal), Portuguese (Brazil), Catalan, Spanish (Castilian), French, Italian, Albanian, Greek, Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic.

German, Dutch, Afrikaans, English (American, British, Australian, Scottish), Scots, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian (Bokmal, Nynorsk), Faroese, and Icelandic.

What’s amazing is not just the sheer number of languages Glossika is tackling but the fact that most of these are seldom studied languages with few educational resources.  Many of these languages are also endangered which is admirable from a language preservation standpoint. What an undertaking.  I highly recommend that you support Mike and Glossika in this ambitious endeavor!

A Review of Glossika!

ENZHZS-F1-EBK It has been quite a while since updating the mainlymagyar blog.  Unfortunately, life has been getting in the way of blogwriting and language study. Nevertheless, I would like to share a new language learning program that I have stumbled upon and how I’m using it for my next challenge. The company Glossika was founded a few years ago by fellow polyglot Mike Campbell.  I remember Mike, who went under the username “Glossika”,  from several old posts he wrote on the How To Learn Any Language forums.  He is a big proponent of learning vocabulary through complete sentences instead of learning isolated words. I believe this is one of the key methods he used to become fluent in Mandarin (and many, many other languages). He then adapted this method to create his Glossika courses which are now available in 20 or so languages (with several more on the way!) 10489986_10152545403315199_4952585432665820608_nMike’s method is intended to be used as an aid in increasing one’s abilities in comprehension of foreign language conversational speech and establishing fluency in complete sentence production.  Each course contains over 3000 (!) sentences. The sentences are broken down into manageable units. Glossika calls these units GMS (Glossika Mass Sentence) files or GSR (Glossika Spaced Repetition) files. The GMS files are meant for more comprehensive study with phonetic and IPA transcriptions and, in some languages, literal word for word translations. The GSR files are meant for review, or abbreviated “on the go” study.  They are the equivalent of an audio Anki deck or an audio flashcard deck of all of the sentences.  Each day for study is numbered in sequence and prior sentences are reintroduced in subsequent lessons according to the principles of spaced repetition.  Thus, over several days the learner gradually “absorbs” the sentences to the point where they can be understood and reproduced effortlessly. The Glossika courses are not meant to be used in isolation or used by pure beginners as there is no language “instruction” per se.  I thought about trying Glossika for Thai, a language in which I have very little knowledge. I soon discovered after sampling the trial lessons available on iTunes that it was much too advanced for me as an absolute beginner and I was in way over my head!    I noticed that there was a Glossika course for Mandarin Chinese and figured that it has been two years since I had studied any Mandarin.  Why not challenge myself to work through the Glossika Mandarin course and see what I’m able to accomplish? Since my free time is very limited I will mainly be using the GSR files in the car on my way to and from work.  Conveniently, the GSR lessons average about 15 minutes apiece which also happens to be the length of my commute!  I have found it helpful to review the GMS files when I do have free time.  Specifically I have found it useful to stay about a week ahead of the GSR lessons with the GMS files.  This seems to help me familiarize myself with the sentences so they are easier to reproduce when they emerge on the GSR lessons. Finnish Glossika So far I have completed about twenty days of the Glossika Mandarin course and these are some of my initial impressions:

  • The sound quality is excellent on both the English and Mandarin sides
  • The sentences are recorded in Colloquial Dialects (both Beijing and Taipei for Mandarin) and are in common, NOT FORMAL speech,  as is the norm in most language programs
  • The spaced repetition really does appear to work.  I was completely lost for the first few days since I hadn’t studied any Mandarin for two years. Now, three weeks into it,  sentences like  “What’s you favorite color?” and “What are the children doing?, They’re watching TV.” flow effortlessly.
  • The sentences in the first level are at an appropriate difficulty level for an advanced beginner such as myself.  They are challenging but not too challenging.  Again, this wasn’t the case with Thai.  I would not recommend this method unless you have completed at least a beginner level course.
  • The written files are very well done.  I find the phonetic and the “GLOSS word for word” transcriptions very useful since I can’t yet read Chinese characters.
  • There is a wealth of vocabulary to be obtained from each level.  Level one alone teaches at least 2000 Mandarin words. I imagine this would total close to 6000 words with all three levels. (someday I’ll count all three levels!)  Compare this to three levels of Pimsleur which teaches a paltry 450 words.
  • The sentences seem to come from high frequency, “small talk” sorts of conversations which I could see myself actually using.  Ten lessons aren’t spent learning how to invite a member of the opposite sex over to “your place” like in the Pimsleur courses.
  • The price is very reasonable. Most of the courses are priced between $69 and $85 USD.  This is an incredible bargain compared to Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone which are upwards of $500 USD!
  • Each language course is uniform which linguists believe aids learning subsequent languages.

My only complaint with Glossika so far is that I’ve become really impatient waiting for them to release other languages such as Japanese, Turkish, Khmer and Tamil! ( a minor complaint no less) In summary, I highly recommend Glossika for advanced beginners and up. It’s like the Pimsleur courses on steroids!! Stay tuned for my results!