Why the “Hardest” Language is Actually the Easiest

Why the “Hardest” Language is Actually the Easiest

Whenever I tell people that I’m learning two languages they seem to think it is something incredible. The comments I get when I tell them the languages are Mandarin Chinese and Arabic are even more complimentary. People seem to think that these languages are the most difficult languages in the world and if I were to somehow try to learn both at the same time, I must be some type of genius. Let’s stop right there. I am by no means a genius. Most the people I surround myself with I feel are much smarter than I am. So why is it that I can take on these two languages? My attitude.

 

Positivity is a large part of what I build my image around. I try to look at the positives of any circumstance. I carry this same approach to learn a language: if you think a language is exceptionally hard, it will be. If you approach the language by noticing all of the ways that it is easy, you can have a better attitude about how you can go about learning it.I’m going use this approach to explain how the language I originally thought was the hardest language in the world is actually one of the easiest: Mandarin Chinese.

 

Many times we get confused as we learn a new language because the rules that we apply to our native language don’t match up with our new language. Since we are more used to our native tongue, this foreign language can see “confusing”, “frustrating”, or “hard” just because of these differences. When I approach these situations, I like to assume that the foreign language is the correct way and that I’ve always learned the wrong way. This has allowed me to keep a level head as I go about approaching different challenges along the way.

Pinyin

There is a whole lot of “pinyin” that will be included in this article. Pinyin is a phonetic medium of how to speak Chinese characters using English letters. If you’ve already started learning Chinese, you likely have already started to see these. It also marks the tones (which we can cover later) that you may have heard of as well. Most of it can be sounded out pretty standard with English. A few to note are “z” and “c”. These are pronounced like the “-ds” and “-ts” at the end of “words” and “cats” respectively. Also, x-, sh-, j-, zh-, q-, and ch- all sound similar to each other except one is pronounced in the front and the other is in the back of the mouth.

Grammar

I’m going to start you off with my favorite part of Chinese that makes it SOOOOO much easier than most European languages: the grammar. You don’t have to conjugate verbs! There are no genders with regards to different objects. The grammar is so simple to use. Here are some examples of how to say different things in English and Chinese:

English: Chinese Pinyin:
I am American

You are American

He is American

She is American

You (pl.) are American

We are American

They are American

我是美国人

你是美国人

他是美国人

她是美国人

你们是美国人

我们是美国人

他们是美国人

wǒ shì měi guó rén

nǐ shì měi guó rén

tā shì měi guó rén

tā shì měi guó rén

nǐ men shì měi guó rén

wǒ men shì měi guó rén

tā men shì měi guó rén

Tenses

If you noticed, the only word that changed was the noun. The verb was always the same. When you learn the verb for noun, you know it for all nouns. This also works with tenses. You don’t have to change tenses for words as well.

English Chinese Pinyin
This morning I ate breakfast

Right now I am eating lunch

Later I will eat dinner

这早上我吃了早餐

现在我吃午餐

然后我吃晚餐

zhè zǎo shang wǒ chī le zǎo cān

xiàn zài wǒ chī wǔ cān

rán hòu wǒ chī wǎn cān

Questions

My favorite part though is that you can easily form a question with very little vocabulary. All you have to do is add a question word at the end of a sentence. The easiest translation for it would be to say “yes?” at the end of a sentence in hopes of confirmation. If instead of telling something they are American, I would ask them, “You are American, yes?” Obviously this isn’t how we usually ask somebody in English, but it also shows why you may notice some people form questions to you in this manner.

English Chinese Pinyin
You are American

Are you American? (You are American yes?)

你是美国人

你是美国人吗?

nǐ shì měi guó rén

nǐ shì měi guó rén ma?

Tones

So let’s talk about what people think makes this language difficult. People mention that they don’t like that it is a tonal language because they aren’t musically gifted of sorts. We actually use tones in English, we just don’t realize it. “I’m Ron Burgundy?” (from the American film, “Anchorman”)  is a perfect example of where a tone can drastically change the meaning of a sentence. In Chinese you have 5 tones: Flat, Rising, Dipping, Falling, and Neutral tone. The best example of how different these are is by using the word “ma”

 

Mother, hemp, horse, scold, question

妈麻马骂吗

mā má mǎ mà ma

 

All five of these words mean something very different. Making sure you use the right tone can be the difference between saying something or just utter nonsense. The good thing is that as you are beginning and tones are hard to differentiate, context can typically give you a good idea. If I was telling you about my breakfast and I said, “I ate with my ‘ma’ ” but you were unsure of which tone I used, I’m guessing you could easily single out which word I meant to use.

Characters

By now you’re probably realizing that the characters are pretty confusing. The reason pinyin was created was to help be a middle ground specifically because there is not any indication of how to say a word based on the character. Honestly, when I come across a new word there is no easy method to figure it out besides looking it up. Chinese characters are graphical representations of the words. Basically, I like to think of them as cave drawings. The easiest one is for the words “person” and “big”. If you look below, the first character is a very simplified stick PERSON. The second is as if the person was trying to explain how BIG of a fish they caught. These are the “simplified” characters as the “traditional” characters were much more complex and people would spend hours practicing how to write them (only Taiwan still uses the traditional characters as their native language).

Person

Big

Vocabulary

Lastly, the vocabulary is pretty entertaining. Any new words that have been created typically reside in one of two categories: loan words or combination words. A loan word is basically taking a word from another language and turning it into a Chinese word. A good example of this is the word pizza in Chinese (比萨 “bǐ sà”). The combination words are the ones that I really love. Basically as a new word is needed it is a combination of other words to describe it. Here are a few examples, try to see if you can determine what the full word is based on the other words that make it up:

diàn yǐng

Electronic Shadow

电影

shǒu yǔ

Hand Language (this is currently my favorite one)

手语

Both load words and combination words are words that are new to the Chinese language. Obviously these were not phrases that existed hundreds of years ago when the language was just starting up. This does allow you to build on your vocabulary more than you first thought.

 

English Words From Above:

Movie

Sign Language

Conclusion

When you approach a problem with the right attitude it can really affect how simple that problem may seem. We can’t think that the “hardest” language in the world has the largest native population as well, can we?


This post is contributed by Alex. Alex is a Mechanical Engineer living in the Washington, DC area who became passionate about learning other languages and cultures. He enjoys making people laugh, embracing every day, and doing what intrigues him at the time. He currently is learning Mandarin Chinese and Arabic but counted 13 different languages he can say at least one word with. In the future, he hopes to polish up his Spanish and next pursue American Sign Language before moving on to a few European languages.
Alex’s blog, “What Did You Just Say?”, follows his journey through the struggles of learning a new language (Arabic) from day one. He hopes that other people will be encouraged by seeing the mistakes he makes to allow themselves to be more comfortable about pushing themselves to learn a new language and share the struggle. The blog breaks down some of the tips that Alex was able to learn and use as he was able to get to a conversational level of Mandarin Chinese in a short time.
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