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?