I just read a provocative essay by David Moser entitled “Why Chinese is so damn hard.”
Is it really that hard? And are we talking about speaking Chinese or reading it? Hard compared to what? Hard for a foreigner or hard for a native? And does Moser specifically mean Mandarin, or does he mean any of the myriad other Chinese languages (which most Americans mistakenly call “dialects”)?
You should read the essay to find out the answers. But first a few comments here:
College students often talk — complain, even — about the relative difficulty of certain courses. I have indeed heard from reliable sources that college courses in Chinese are extremely difficult. I’ve heard similar remarks about Arabic and about organic chemistry. Those are the three most common subjects of the claim of extreme difficulty. But maybe that’s because I hardly ever run into anyone who studied Sanskrit in college.
And then there are special examples like Harvard’s Math 55.
My college experience did not include any of the above courses, so all I have is third-hand information. I have studied some Chinese, but it was only through private tutoring, not a formal course. Clearly spoken Chinese has one well-known difficulty — the tones — but its grammar is remarkably simple, with no gender or verb endings (contrast with Spanish, French, and Latin), no noun endings (contrast with German, Latin, and Greek), in fact no prefixes or suffixes at all, not even for plurals. Yes, vocabulary presents the same problems as does any non-Indo-European language (for English speakers, at any rate), and there are tricky rules of word order, but spoken Mandarin is still basically pretty straightforward. So before you read Moser’s article, bear in mind that he’s primarily talking about written Chinese, which causes all sorts of difficulties — not only for the foreigner but even for native speakers! Now go and read his article.