Is Chinese the most difficult language in the world?

Ask most people what they think the most difficult language in the world is and a lot of them are likely to say “Chinese”. Oftentimes, foreign students of Chinese get looks and comments from their friends ranging from astonishment to awe. But is Chinese really that difficult?

Difficult aspects of Chinese

For starters, and no small thing, is the written form of the language. Without a traditional alphabet, Chinese is written down through thousands of iconographic characters that have evolved into meaningful idiograms over thousands of years. Not only that, but there is a very specific stroke order for writing Chinese that must essentially be learned from early childhood.

Tones make up the other difficult aspect of learning Chinese. The language has four official tones (plus one “non” tone), so each word can be said in four different ways to give four different meanings. For the beginner, this is extremely difficult.

Easy aspects of Chinese

Writing and tones aside, Chinese is a remarkably efficient language that takes very little time to master. Grammatically, the language is astonishingly simple, lacking the intense structures of other langauges, particularly Slavic ones, that include verb conjugation (I am vs. we are), noun declination, agreement by number and gender, etc. In Chinese, simple participles are added on to sentences, which, in addition to context markers, help denote tenses. For example, instead of changing the verb “to go”, as we do in English – “I went to Singapore.”, in Chinese, we need only to add a particle “le 了” onto the verb – “我去了新加坡 wǒ qùle xīnjiāpō”.

This means that even the most basic learners can be using functional Chinese quite quickly, because they don’t get bogged down in sentence construction and grammar.

Most difficult language?

Still, all of this begs the question as to whether or not Chinese really is the most difficult language on earth. Each person will have their own experiences, to be sure, but surely, with more than 845 million native speakers and more than a billion speakers worldwide, Chinese couldn’t possibly be the most difficult language in the world.

Photo credit: 肉 姨 – Flickr Creative Commons