Is “Chinese” a complicated/difficult language? (And how does it compare to Russian?)

When someone mentions the language “Chinese”, nowadays they are usually referring to the current standard promoted by the Chinese government. That standard is currently Mandarin using simplified characters. However, there are other varieties of spoken Chinese such as Cantonese (considered to be a lingua franca), Taishanese (formerly considered to be a lingua franca; it was the most common variety of Chinese spoken in the Chinatowns of North America – this might be why, in the 1960s, the U.S. Defense Language Institute offered a course teaching it), Shanghainese (also once considered a lingua franca), and Hakka. It is estimated that there are hundreds of varieties of Chinese. For political reasons, some may claim these are all just dialects, even though the varieties are not necessarily mutually intelligible. Based on my own knowledge of the following languages, I’d say Taishanese and Cantonese are closely related like Spanish and Italian, but Mandarin is to Taishanese as French is to Spanish.

When learning a Chinese language, we are really learning two languages – the written language and the spoken language. By that, I mean that the written language does not indicate what the spoken language sounds like phonetically. Even though there are “sound-loan” characters and “sound-meaning compound” characters, we still need to learn the sound associated with the original “loaned” character. Written Chinese is “logosyllabic” and each character represents a syllable. Each character can also represent a word, but other words may be made up of more than one character/syllable. Technically, there is only one writing system for Chinese. However, there are two different sets of characters in the system – simplified and traditional. The simplified characters are so named because they were “simplified” from their traditional, more complex forms. Not all characters were simplified though, which means that some characters are the same across both the simplified and traditional sets. Some examples include 我 (“I”), 你 (“you”), 女 (“female”), 男 (“male”), 水 (“water”), and 火 (“fire”). As mentioned, the standard by the Chinese government is to use the simplified characters. However, traditional characters are used in other varieties of Chinese such as Cantonese and Taishanese. Additionally, even though Mandarin is spoken in places like Taiwan and Macau, traditional characters are used.

When comparing “Chinese” to another language, we should first compare the writing systems.

As mentioned, written Chinese is logosyllabic. Russian uses an alphabet, which consists of 33 letters. That’s only seven more letters than in the English alphabet. Some of the Russian letters look like English letters and are pronounced like in English (e.g. “а”, “о”). Others only look like English letters, but have different pronunciations (e.g. “е”, “р”). If someone has learned a bit of Greek, then some of the Russian letters simply look like Greek letters (e.g., “г”, “ф”, “п”). Once someone manages to learn these 33 letters, he/she can read and write Russian.

For written Chinese, learning about 2000 characters is considered the most basic level. Learning about 4500 is considered to be a decent foundation for reading most contemporary Chinese materials. That is significantly a lot more to remember compared to an alphabet of 33 letters. This is also assuming that we are only learning one set of characters (either the simplified or the traditional; if we are learning both sets, obviously the number of characters would increase). Granted, Chinese characters can be broken down into individual smaller characters, but we still have to pay attention to how the character is composed. Then there are also similar looking characters where the type of stroke makes all the difference. For example, compare the traditional characters 貝 and 見. Both these characters are fairly simple, but both can also be used as components in other, more complex characters. Generally, for written Chinese, we need to be quite discerning when reading and writing.

However, written Chinese is becoming easier to learn because of technology. With pinyin for Mandarin and jyutping for Cantonese, typing Chinese characters is pretty easy because all that is required is the ability to recognize the characters that appear in a table after typing the romanization of the Chinese words (for Mandarin, pinyin romanization is used). Additionally, an English speaker who is learning the Chinese writing system nowadays may not ever need to learn to _handwrite every character perfectly in the correct stroke order_ as was the case before modern computing. Basically, written Chinese _can_ be relatively easy to learn for an English speaker who does not need to be concerned with being able to handwrite Chinese characters from memory.

Before comparing the spoken languages of Russian and Mandarin, let’s first compare Mandarin with Cantonese. Mandarin and Cantonese are fairly easy to learn _if_ one has a good ear for recognizing change or no change in pitch (i.e., tones). Compared to Cantonese though, Mandarin is easier to learn since it has fewer tones (four, plus a neutral tone). In the traditional analysis of tone contours, Cantonese is said to have nine tones, although effectively, it has six tones (in Hong Kong) and seven tones (in Guangzhou) (see “Cantonese phonology”). Regarding the other aspects of pronunciation, for Mandarin the pinyin system is slightly misleading. Technically, what is romanized as “b”, “d”, “g”, “z”, “zh”, and “j” should be pronounced as unvoiced consonants. A common mistake among English learners is to voice those consonants. The same is true for Cantonese – “b”, “d”, “g”, “j”, and “gw” should be unvoiced. It is kind of assumed that over a period of time, an English speaker will gradually learn to devoice those consonants. However, this may not even happen if the learner isn’t even aware of the subtle difference. Mandarin does have a few consonants that are tricky for both Cantonese and English speakers. These would be the retroflex “zh”, “ch”, “sh”, and “r”. All of these should have the tongue rolled back. To my ears, these consonants sound muffled, as if someone is speaking with a sock in his/her mouth.

Russian does have a few difficult consonants for English speakers. Ш and щ seem to be the most troublesome consonants. Although, ш and the Mandarin “sh” are quite similar (see “Voiceless retroflex sibilant”). Ж is not too troublesome if one is already familiar with the French “j”, as in “je t’aime” (“I love you”). Learning stress in Russian words isn’t that different than learning the stress in English words. English speakers are used to words having different stresses, but they are not used to every word having a tone. English speakers use tone completely differently than how they are used in tonal languages like Mandarin and Cantonese. For example, the rising tone at the end of a sentence turns it into a question in English. It may take an English speaker some time to adjust to the fact that the rising tone over a syllable at the end of a sentence in a language like Mandarin does not indicate a question; but rather, a sentence final particle is used to indicate a question (e.g. 嗎). Fundamentally, an English speaker should find a lot more common ground with Russian than with any Chinese language.

In regards to grammar, the type of grammar found in Mandarin or Cantonese is just fundamentally different than the type of grammar for an Indo-European language like Russian. Both of these types of systems have their own complexities and nuances. There may not be noun cases and verb conjugation classes in Mandarin or Cantonese, but there are different categories such as “classifiers” and “particles”. Leaving out a classifier or using the wrong classifier is considered to be poor grammar just as putting the noun in the wrong case is in Russian. Mandarin and Cantonese are also “topic-prominant languages” meaning that the topic of the sentence is placed first in the sentence followed by the comment on the topic. Native speakers of Chinese languages use this “topic-comment” structure quite easily and readily. I can recall my mother (who speaks both Taishanese and Cantonese) saying things like “This dress, my aunt gave me, I give to you”. This kind of sentence structure serves to place a kind of importance on what is said first. In the example with my mother, “this dress” is the most important part of the sentence. If my mother were to say this sentence in any other way, “this dress” would not have the same importance. By choosing to put “this dress” first in the sentence, my mother is indicating how important “this dress” is to her. In English, this would likely be indicated by using emphasis in the sentence (“I’m giving you _this dress_ that my aunt gave me”). In comparing Russian and a language like Mandarin, I’d say it is simply a trade-off between different types of grammar. Neither kind of grammar is easier or harder. They’re just different, and they might just take about the same amount of time to pick up, or not. I think that depends entirely on the individual learning the language. In a language like Russian, declensions and conjugations are about recognizing the pattern of a word and how that word changes; while in languages like Mandarin and Cantonese, the grammar is more about recognizing syntax – the pattern of the whole sentence.

It is interesting to note that the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has consistently listed both Mandarin and Cantonese, along with Japanese, Arabic, and Korean as some of the toughest languages for English speakers to learn (see Language Difficulty Ranking ). Their ranking is based on the amount of time it should take an English speaker to reach a specific proficiency in speaking and reading the language.

An interesting article to read is Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. “I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.” Indeed!

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