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Is there a language that is most difficult to learn? Show more Show less
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Many languages are notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn. Linguists have claimed that some languages are objectively more complex than others, while other linguists claimed that all languages are equally complex or complex in their own way, with their writing systems, grammar structures, number of possible syllables, pronunciation, and more. Are languages objectively or relatively difficult to learn?

Yes, some languages are more difficult than others Show more Show less

Language learners and linguists alike know that some languages are more difficult to learn than others. Linguists can measure a language's complexity by its pronunciation, sentence organization, or morphology. If an alien came to earth asking which language was the easiest to learn, linguists could point to one.
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Chinese is the most difficult language to learn.

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The Argument

On lists that rank languages by their complexity and difficulty to learn for foreigners, Chinese is the one that consistently comes out on top. Most languages have alphabets composed of letters that can be combined in many ways to form words and sentences, or syllabaries where each written character represents one syllable; the Chinese language, however, is comprised of over 50,000 characters[1] that may represent a singular syllable or an entire word[2]. The characters themselves are complex visually, and could be representative of pronunciations, abstract concepts, or physical objects[3] (For example, the Chinese symbol for mountain is 山, which is visually similar to a mountain). There are a total of 6 kinds of Chinese characters[4]. In order to be considered truly fluent in Chinese, you need to know around 8,000 of these characters[5]. In addition to an extensive dictionary, there are several subdivisions of written Chinese which can appear quite different from one another: simplified, traditional, and pinyin[6]. Simplified Chinese uses less strokes for each character; this form is used primarily in Singapore and mainland China. In order to preserve the original written language, the traditional style is still used predominantly in some areas such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau. Someone who wants to learn to read Chinese would have to choose between these two forms; although they can be very similar, some characters may vary greatly (for example, 压 and 壓 both represent the same syllable, but are visually very different). Pinyin is a style of writing that uses Roman letters; the words are spelled based on their pronunciation in Chinese. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Chinese language is the presence of hundreds of different dialects. Mandarin is the most widely spoken and recognized dialect, but every single one has its own pronunciations, vocabulary, colloquialisms and slang; many native Chinese speakers cannot even understand dialects that are not from their own region[7]. Lastly, Chinese has four distinctive tones that can give one syllable completely different meanings depending on how it is said. Using the wrong tones may make it difficult to communicate with others in Chinese; most non-native speakers never completely get the hang of it[8]. This factor, as well as the ones previously mentioned, make Chinese the most difficult language to learn.

Counter arguments

Mandarin Chinese is actually one of the easiest languages to learn (excluding its written component because linguists usually ignore written components when measuring objective linguistic complexity). Mandarin has a simple grammar structure and lacks tenses or complex morphology[9]. Dialect-wise, the number of Mandarin speakers far exceeds even the next most widely-used dialect - 65.7% of Chinese speakers as opposed to the Min dialect, which is only 6.2%[10]. Since Mandarin is the dialect most often taught in schools, learners should not have any trouble unless they visit the more rural areas of China.

Premises

Rejecting the premises

References

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/chinese/real_chinese/mini_guides/characters/characters_howmany.shtml
  2. https://blog.tutorming.com/mandarin-chinese-learning-tips/how-do-chinese-characters-work
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Written_Chinese
  4. https://www.writtenchinese.com/lowdown-6-types-of-chinese-characters/
  5. https://www.writtenchinese.com/how-many-chinese-characters-do-i-need-to-know/#:~:text=4.,know%20around%2020%2C000%2D35%2C000%20words!
  6. https://ethnomed.org/resource/chinese-language/
  7. https://www.thoughtco.com/mandarin-chinese-harder-than-you-think-4011914
  8. https://thevivekpandey.github.io/posts/2019-02-02-way-of-chinese-language.html
  9. https://www.languagesoftheworld.info/linguistic-typology/what-is-linguistic-complexity-and-how-to-measure-it.html
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_varieties_of_Chinese
This page was last edited on Saturday, 29 Aug 2020 at 00:08 UTC

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