Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

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thevagrant88
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Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby thevagrant88 » Wed Apr 28, 2021 3:41 pm

Maybe it's just me, but I can't think of any other commonly studied languages that seem to have no general consensus as to how hard it is. Spanish? Throw it in the easy(ish) pile with the other romance languages. Oh you're learning Russian? Have fun with those cases friendo. Finnish? Hungarian? Wow, you must really be a glutton for punishment. JAPANESE AND KOREAN AND ARABIC OMG YOU MUST BE A SUPERGLOT!!!

And then there's Chinese...

The other day I was casually googling "which is harder Japanese or Chinese?", not because I was looking for an objective, well-defined answer; I just wanted to read others' experiences with learning the languages. Most of the discussions I came across were depressingly shallow. Things like, "Well Japanese has hard grammar but Chinese has no grammar. Not one grammar. But it's got tones so whichever gives you more trouble" or something else to that effect. I guess not too many people actually attain very high levels in both these languages to compare the learning processes fairly. So naturally, I seek out the youtube polyglots and again, wildly different opinions.

Luca Lampariella, in an interview with Matt from MIA, said that Chinese was, "not all that difficult to be honest" while Vladimir Skultety has gone on the record many times saying Chinese is unchallenged as the most difficult language he's ever studied. He's made a video comparing the two, but to be honest, his opinion as stated in that video is terribly biased and not very well communicated, imo.

So why do you guys think this is? Is there something unique about Chinese that sets it apart for westerners? I have my own theories, but I was curious as to your guys' opinions, and more importantly your experiences. Thanks y'all!
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby Mr Dastardly » Wed Apr 28, 2021 4:24 pm

I'm certainly no expert, but I've heard that, aside from the tones and given some diligence, learning to comprehend and speak everyday Mandarin is not overwhelmingly difficult, whereas learning to read and write in the language is exceptionally troublesome. Perhaps this is why opinion seems to be split? Perhaps those who claim MC is less challenging than one might expect are those who solely focus on developing speaking and listening skills, whilst those who claim it's particularly difficult are those who have taken on the challenge of reading and writing?
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby mokibao » Wed Apr 28, 2021 4:49 pm

It could be a linguist vs. language learner perspective. A linguist will argue some banality on the lines of "uuuh no language is intrinsically harder than another, it's all relative to your native tongue"; when you point out e.g. the inconsistency of the French spelling, the kanji readings, and how those are objectively harder to master than the almost completely phonetic Spanish spelling, they will usually backpedal on the lines of "writing systems don't count" because "a language is first of all spoken". Setting aside the different ways this statement could be challenged since the rise of global text communication, they are probably correct. A kid in China will master their native tongue just as quickly as a kid in Spain, Georgia or Uzbekhistan and in that sense, Chinese is probably not harder than Spanish.

But from a learner's perspective this is completely different. Since most people can't do year long immersion sessions, or pay for classes everyday, or spend all day practicing with conversation partners that will bear the patience of hearing you butcher their language in contrived attempts to talk about your hobbies and the weather, most of us pithy commoners have to make do with textbooks and other such canned appetizers for autonomous study. And the primary medium of interaction is text, not audio. There aren't that many different tapes of people speaking very slowly about their hobbies using the same 1000 words, anyway.

So, practically, most learning is actually spent reading. And when the writing system actually gets in your way instead of being a helpful cue, when you have no idea how to sound out the word in your head, when even looking up a word requires special skills and/or software, the language does get substantially harder for a classical learner.

Note that there are plenty reports of people living in China who had no trouble mastering the spoken language after a year or so but were still pretty much illiterate. I commend their achievement but I'm not sure I would be able to bear living like this.
Last edited by mokibao on Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby Dragon27 » Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:26 pm

mokibao wrote:But from a learner's perspective this is completely different. Since most people can't do year long immersion sessions, or pay for classes everyday, or spend all day practicing with conversation partners that will bear the patience of hearing you butcher their language in contrived attempts to talk about your hobbies and the weather, most of us pithy commoners have to make do with textbooks and other such canned appetizers for autonomous study. And the primary medium of interaction is text, not audio. There aren't that many different tapes of people speaking very slowly about their hobbies, anyway.

So, practically, most learning is actually spent reading. And when the writing system actually gets in your way instead of being a helpful cue, when you have no idea how to sound out the word in your head, when even looking up a word requires special skills and/or software, the language does get substantially harder for a classical learner.

Well, learner's perspectives differ too.
I, as a learner, am fairly convinced that all languages are approximately equally difficult to master in the long term. Sure, languages that are more similar to the ones you already know may take less time (due to the inherent head-start) overall (as well as make an impression of being "easy" when you're just getting into the language), but once you get past the beginner/intermediate stuff, achieve this break-through point when the language really starts working for you, there comes the long slog of picking up vocabulary/expressions and honing your grammar. And that what really takes most of your time and effort and it's pretty much the same in any language.

At least that's my view. I'm yet to engage with the Chinese characters, though. Obviously, when the number of symbols to learn jumps from a few dozens to a few thousands (just to have some basic competence), it has to become a challenge. We'll see. Other than that, an alphabetic writing system, phonetic inconsistencies (looking at you, English), etc., don't seem to make much of a difference, in my opinion. The sheer volume of all the rest of the language makes it seems not that significant.

And as a learner, I actually spend a lot of time listening, not reading (although I do start reading more at the later stages of language learning), which is so much easier now with all the content easily accessible online.
Last edited by Dragon27 on Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby RyanSmallwood » Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:31 pm

I think for people who want to have simple conversations, Mandarin feels easier because it doesn't have as many complicated grammar rules to keep track of, its simple to start putting your first sentences together and see how the language works. Tones are different but not too complicated so long as you aren't scared off by them in the beginning. Not sure what level Luca reached, but if he just wanted to have conversations I don't think it too tricky to get started and start enjoying the process.

But listening to tones and being able to readily identify them takes a long time to get used to, and learning to read all the characters will always just take a lot of time up front. Vladimir Skultety I think said it took him a really long time before he got to natural listening, not sure if Luca got to the same level or not.

I somewhat have a theory that the reason immersion methods are popular with Japanese, in addition to the popularity of its media, is also that its harder to use early, but has a lot of factors that make it more comprehensible than other languages. The phonology is overall pretty clear and easy to pick words out, and there's lots of English loan words that make it occasionally more comprehensible to beginners. The multiple alphabets are more of a hurdle in the beginning, but eventually make reading easier than 100% characters.

Whereas Luca mentioned that he failed to learn Japanese with his bidirectional translation method, because the structure was just much different from the languages he knew.

I think both inevitably take a long time if you don't know a related language, just because how much new vocab there is to absorb, but depending on your learning strategy people get more tripped up on one than the other.
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby einzelne » Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:49 pm

thevagrant88 wrote:Luca Lampariella, in an interview with Matt from MIA, said that Chinese was, "not all that difficult to be honest" while Vladimir Skultety has gone on the record many times saying Chinese is unchallenged as the most difficult language he's ever studied. He's made a video comparing the two, but to be honest, his opinion as stated in that video is terribly biased and not very well communicated, imo.


So on the one hand, you have someone who provided you with zero evidence of his level of Chinese and who claims that Chinese is not that hard.

On the other hand you have some institutions like FSI which trained American diplomats for more than a half century and which lists Chinese among the hardest languages to master for English speakers.

Whom to believe? Hmmm, it's a tough call...
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby RyanSmallwood » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:08 pm

Has Luca ever talked about his level of Mandarin, or had it evaluated anywhere? I remember searching out of curiosity a while back and only found a blogpost where he said he didn't think it was as hard as people said, but otherwise didn't really give anything concrete.
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby thevagrant88 » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:27 pm

mokibao wrote:It could be a linguist vs. language learner perspective. A linguist will argue some banality on the lines of "uuuh no language is intrinsically harder than another, it's all relative to your native tongue"; when you point out e.g. the inconsistency of the French spelling, the kanji readings, and how those are objectively harder to master than the almost completely phonetic Spanish spelling, they will usually backpedal on the lines of "writing systems don't count" because "a language is first of all spoken". Setting aside the different ways this statement could be challenged since the rise of global text communication, they are probably correct. A kid in China will master their native tongue just as quickly as a kid in Spain, Georgia or Uzbekhistan and in that sense, Chinese is probably not harder than Spanish.

But from a learner's perspective this is completely different. Since most people can't do year long immersion sessions, or pay for classes everyday, or spend all day practicing with conversation partners that will bear the patience of hearing you butcher their language in contrived attempts to talk about your hobbies and the weather, most of us pithy commoners have to make do with textbooks and other such canned appetizers for autonomous study. And the primary medium of interaction is text, not audio. There aren't that many different tapes of people speaking very slowly about their hobbies using the same 1000 words, anyway.

So, practically, most learning is actually spent reading. And when the writing system actually gets in your way instead of being a helpful cue, when you have no idea how to sound out the word in your head, when even looking up a word requires special skills and/or software, the language does get substantially harder for a classical learner.

Note that there are plenty reports of people living in China who had no trouble mastering the spoken language after a year or so but were still pretty much illiterate. I commend their achievement but I'm not sure I would be able to bear living like this.


So this is interesting and all, but the fact is I was asking about Chinese in comparison to Japanese so this post is moot.
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby Not Daryl » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:31 pm

In general, I think it is difficult to find a westerner with advanced experience in both Japanese and Chinese. Also, the difficulty depends on the goals of the learner.
I will explain why I think Chinese is difficult. Tones are difficult for westerners. Even after years of studying I find that I forget tones faster than the base syllable. As for “easy grammar” it seems simple, but it is difficult to construct a sentence that feels native like. I think it is more of a vocabulary usage issue. Mandarin collocations are not documented well, and it takes a long time to acquire the feel for them. As for vocabulary, I always feel like I need more vocabulary. Maybe when I reach 30k or 40k words I will feel differently. Even loan words aren’t very helpful. For example, lets say that you want to discuss the cities in your country with a Chinese speaker. You will have to learn every city name from scratch. Then, map this phenomenon to every area of vocabulary. Next, the difficulties with characters are well documented. It bugs me to know something that I can’t write. Learning to handwrite is difficult, and still seems necessary in a lot of academic roles. Pinyin is not necessarily a good fallback because for some reason I have never learned to like reading pinyin. Finally, I think Youtube has been really helpful in making interesting content accessible. I think Japanese and Korean is easier just because there was interesting content available, which wasn’t true for Chinese tell relatively recently. Otherwise, I think that Japanese shares a lot of the difficult areas with Chinese, except that maybe having hiragana and katakana makes things easier on beginners.
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Re: Why do people have such drastically different opinions on the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese?

Postby thevagrant88 » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:34 pm

einzelne wrote:
thevagrant88 wrote:Luca Lampariella, in an interview with Matt from MIA, said that Chinese was, "not all that difficult to be honest" while Vladimir Skultety has gone on the record many times saying Chinese is unchallenged as the most difficult language he's ever studied. He's made a video comparing the two, but to be honest, his opinion as stated in that video is terribly biased and not very well communicated, imo.


So on the one hand, you have someone who provided you with zero evidence of his level of Chinese and who claims that Chinese is not that hard.

On the other hand you have some institutions like FSI which trained American diplomats for more than a half century and which lists Chinese among the hardest languages to master for English speakers.

Whom to believe? Hmmm, it's a tough call...


I wouldn’t say “zero evidence”. He’s released videos in the past speaking Chinese, both prepared speeches and interviews. Not to mention many accomplished Chinese learners have said the same or close to the same thing. Steve Kaufman, Xiaoma, Chris Parker, The Metatron (Italian polyglot, Japanese instructor, and military historian, but I forget his real name), etc.

The entire point of my initial post was that this is something I encounter regularly.
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