Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Are Some Languages More Difficult to Learn?

When I was in college I literally spent hours writing Chinese characters over and over on paper and on a dry erase board.  I'm clearly a kinesthetic learner, and the only way I've found that I can really hammer those characters into my brain is via repetition.  I spent plenty of time making flash cards as well, but truthfully it wasn't so much using the flash cards that helped me to learn the words as making them (definitely kinesthetic - see!).  I know there are people out there who learn easily by just reading or hearing something once or twice, but I'm not one of those people  - and if you're one of those people and you aren't already fluent in a second language, kick yourself in the shins for me.  Some of us just don't have a photographic memory, and with complicated languages like Chinese, we find ourselves with a seemingly impossible mountain to climb as we strive for fluency (or even the ability to order some good dim sum...).  My point is that for many of us, learning a language can be very off putting.  When we think about the thousands of words we need to learn, the grammar, the idiomatic expressions and so on, it's not surprising that I frequently hear people say that they just can't learn a second language.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it just isn't true.  Anyone can learn a second language if they can figure out what methods of learning work for them.

This brings me to an important question.  If it's possible for anyone to learn a language, does that mean that all languages are equally difficult, or easy, to learn?   I would say no, and my reasoning is this - some languages involve more visual learning than others.  As a native English speaker, I find learning languages written with roman letters easy.  Aside from the occasional spelling error, learning a second language that uses the same system of writing that I'm already accustomed to is just a matter of learning to speak the language.  Essentially, I can already write in the language.  This would apply to any language that uses roman characters (think Italian, German, Portuguese, etc.).  Yes, many written languages that use roman letters have their own special characters, accent marks, and other distinguishing features, but the basics are the same and those few extra marks aren't typically difficult to master.  Even if the language has letters that are pronounced differently from how an English speaker would pronounce them, it usually isn't a problem.  In contrast, consider a language like Chinese, which uses characters.  Chinese characters are derived from ancient pictograms and thus instead of using letters that represent individual sounds, each Chinese character represents a syllable.  As with English, a Chinese word can contain more than one syllable, but with Chinese, each syllable is represented by one character.  For learners of Chinese who are used to writing with roman letters, learning to read and write Chinese can seem a daunting task.  Rather than simply learning a few dozen letters which symbolically represent the few dozen sounds that make up the language, a learner of Chinese must learn literally thousands of characters to represent the many syllables used in spoken Chinese.  Add to that the fact that a syllable of Mandarin Chinese can be vocalized using one of its four distinct tones, and the fact that the same syllable typically has a distinct character for each of those tones (because the characters represent a picture of the word rather than how the word sounds), and the result is dizzying.

So, are some languages more complicated to learn than others?  Absolutely.  What are we going to do about that?  I think the key is to make learning complicated languages a part of every day life.  That's what this blog is all about.  I'm bringing you a few words of Chinese (and maybe some other languages in the future if we really get going) each day so that together we can commit them to memory and then go on with our day without getting overwhelmed.  We learn new words in our native languages all the time and we think nothing of it.  Learning a second language doesn't have to be any different.  As far as the Chinese characters go, seeing a few Chinese characters a day is a great way to start exposing yourself to Chinese writing.  Just from reading this post you've already learned some important things about written Chinese.  That's a good start, and as we all know, with any task, large or small, you've got to start somewhere.


  1. I know for a fact that portuguese (my 1st language) is way harder to learn then english - and I'm seeing it now with my daughter. It's so much easier for me to teach her "dog" than "cachorro" :).

  2. I definitely agree with you - particularly in light of the fact that I don't speak portuguese!

  3. I am impressed that you think so of your mom that you would head for the darts if she were referred to as horse. You are a good daughter.

    What keys would I use on my keyboard to write the little signs above the the words? I have an H P laptop. Thank You.

  4. Thanks! I use this website for typing characters and pinyin:


    Then I copy and paste into my blog. I'm sure there are other programs out there to do this as well, but I'm not using them yet.

  5. I think people learning languages need to create good goals. Saying, "I want to learn Chinese" is far too open-ended. When are you finished learning it?

    I prefer making specific goals. The more specific, the better. "I want to learn to read my favorite actor's tweets on Sina Weibo" is concrete enough that you measure how far along you are.

    Did you have any specific goals when learning Chinese?

  6. Such an excellent point Steven! If you're planning to travel to China and just want enough Chinese to get by, then you can learn what you need to know pretty quickly (especially given the fact that your motivation is related to a coming event). However, if you want to work as a translator (this is my long term goal) then you've got a long road ahead of you.

    Your goal in particular is a fantastic one, especially since being able to understand tweets in Chinese would give you so many opportunities to learn even more vocabulary via inference!