How difficult is it to learn Japanese?

So, how difficult is Japanese to learn? Well, that’s a great question! I’m glad you asked. And it’s a question I get asked a lot, perhaps partly due to the mass of confusing information on the internet on this question.

On the one hand, there are a lot of blogs with similar titles such as “10 reasons Japanese is way easier than you think”. On the other, there are more scholarly research papers that put Japanese up there with Mandarin, Cantonese Arabic and Korean in terms of difficulty.

And then there’s the question of how do you define “difficult”? And who is it difficult for? And…I understand if your head is starting to hurt now.

But fear not my friends, as someone who has lived in Japan for 20 years and uses Japanese on a daily basis, perhaps I can offer some personal anecdotes and experience to help answer this question.

But before that…

What kind of language is Japanese? Is it similar to anything else?

Short Answer: Japanese is sort of unique…ish…

Japanese Toori GateJapanese is an exotic colourful bird out there in the menagerie of world languages. It’s part of the Japanese-Ryukaan linguistic group, Japanese being the only branch in this family and is spoken by 130 million people. It has a similar grammar structure to Korean and adopts Chinese kanji characters into the writing system.

It’s not as widely spoken as English and doesn’t have as many speakers as Mandarin, but 130 million speakers is a fair amount of people.

One of the features of  Japanese is the written language which has 3 main scripts. They are Hiragana, the basic syllabary, Katakana, used for foreign words and kanji, pictographs imported from China. It’s also quite common to see romaji or roman letters used in magazines, posters and books so things can get a little confusing at times for a student new to Japanese.

So with the exception of Chinese kanji and the increasing mass of Katakana words, Japanese isn’t that similar to other languages.

Yes, but is Japanese difficult? First of all we have to ask…

What is a “difficult” language?

Short answer: A language that takes a long time to learn and/or is very different from your mother tongue…with exceptions…

Study Japanese in JapanOne way, but not the only way, to define a “difficult” language is to look at how different it is from your own mother tongue. For example, learning Spanish is supposedly easy for an Italian speakers as both languages are quite similar in grammar and vocabulary. They also have a common Latin root. On the other hand, it would take a French speaker a longer time to get to the same level of proficiency with Cantonese as both languages are almost completely unrelated.

The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State has released a list of languages ordered in difficulty for native English speakers. They calculate the estimated number of hours you would have to study to get to an “S3” level which is “general professional proficiency in speaking”. For example, they calculate it takes an English speaker about 500 hours to learn Afrikaans, 750 hours to learn German and 900 hours to learn Swahili to comparable levels of proficiency.

So guess where Japanese falls on the scale? That’s right, 2200 hours right up there with Arabic and Mandarin.

Ouch…

The idea is that because basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary is so unrelated to English, it’s going to take your average English speaker really long time to get their head around it.

It’s interesting that Korean, Chinese and Japanese are grouped together. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese Language Proficiency Test center in Japan, it’s not uncommon to see a lot of Chinese and Korean students beating their Western counterparts hands down on the test.

Korean and Japanese grammar is quite similar and Japanese contains a lot of Chinese kanji characters. So, you can see how our Chinese and Korean friends often get a good head start on learning Japanese.

But here’s where this theory breaks down a little: I personally felt that French was way harder to learn than Japanese. That’s probably because:

a) I didn’t pay attention in French class at school and made my poor teacher’s life hell…excuse moi.

b) I found French confusing because when I didn’t know a word, I’d just use an English word with French pronunciation. This worked most of the time for words like “international” but at other times it left my poor suffering French friends confused, laughing hysterically or sometimes so angry, they wouldn’t give me another slice of pain au chocolat.

c) I’m just a weirdo

So “difficulty” can be a little tricky to define and we haven’t even talked about other factors such as motivation and hours of exposure to the language.

But for now, let’s break Japanese down into it’s component parts and see how hard speaking, grammar, listening and writing are and how they compare to other languages, at least in my experience.

How difficult is speaking Japanese?

Short answer: Pronunciation is straightforward and basic conversation isn’t too challenging.

Japanese cultureLet’s start off with pronunciation. The great thing about Japanese is you can get away with imperfect pronunciation and still make yourself understood to some degree. On the other hand, you have tonal languages such as Thai, Cantonese and Mandarin which are notoriously hard for English speakers to pronounce accurate. A shout out to my Cantonese friends who suffered the indignity of my murdering their beautiful language as they tried to teach me a few simple phrases in vain. But at least they had someone to laugh at so I’m sure it wasn’t all that bad.

Japanese pronunciation requires you to only learn 5 vowel sounds: a, i, u, e o as in the often quoted sentence “Please pass me two egg rolls”. Learn those vowel sounds and you’re done. Although it is never mentioned that this mnemonic works best with an American accent rather than a British one.

As for basic conversation, I would argue it’s pretty simple. This is because in my experience, elementary Japanese grammar is somewhat logical. Also, Japanese is fantastic because there is a list of high frequency daily set phrases that can be used in a lot of situations. Just learn a list of them and you’re well on your way to mastering elementary conversation.

For example:

1) おはようございますohayou gozaimasu – Good morning

2) お疲れさま – otsukaresamaThanks for your hard work / Well done / Nice job

3) よろしくお願いしますPlease do something for me / Nice to meet you

4) いつもお世話になりますThanks for your continued support

This doesn’t translate easily into English but is used a lot at the beginning of a polite business conversations.

5) ありがとうございますarigatou gozaimasu – Thanks

6) すみません – sumimasen – I’m sorry

(Apologizing is one of the most important skills you can learn in Japanese. Read more about how to apologizing in Japanese here. )

Speaking really fluently and sounding like a native is hard, but that is true for any language. So basic conversation, I think, isn’t too difficult.

How difficult is reading and writing Japanese?

Short answer: It’s a tough slog but not necessarily rocket science

Japanese culture - Meneki NekoAs mentioned before, you have 3  scripts in Japanese. Hiragana has 46 basic characters and Katakana a few more than that. However, the main beast to slay is kanji which includes thousands upon thousands of characters.  To read 90% of a newspaper you would need to know around 1000 kanji.

Ouch…

But learning Hiragana, Katakana and kanji has become a little easier with mobile apps, games and websites.

There are a few rules to remember but again, it’s not astrophysics. If you have the motivation, time and a big stack of kanji cards to practice with you can do it. But I won’t lie, it’s a long battle. I used to be a weird kanji nerd all those years ago in college which definitely helped.

Is listening comprehension in Japanese difficult?

Short answer: It depends but understanding basic conversation isn’t too challenging

Omikoshi, Japanese portable shrineIf you can get plenty of listening practice though either listening to Japanese music, news, online videos, or best through conversation, you’ll start to notice that basic Japanese conversation uses repeating patterns of grammar and daily set phrases. Also, as Japanese people can sometimes be a little minimal when speaking so listening comprehension, at least at an elementary level, isn’t too challenging.

If you watch TV, you’ll notice that some things are easier to understand such as the weather forecast and TV dramas as a lot of the language used is repeated on a daily or weekly basis.

Again, compared to tonal languages such as Thai and Cantonese, Japanese is easier to comprehend as tones are much less important.

Of course it’s not all easy especially if you are listening to high level native conversation. Turn over to a Manzai show (stand up comedy)on TV and you’ll be completely lost due to the in-jokes and culturally specific topics they talk about.

How difficult is Japanese grammar?

Short answer: It’s different but somewhat logical

I won’t get too bogged down in grammar here but there are a few things to learn about Japanese grammar.

1) Speak like Yoda: The verb at the end of the sentence you put.

東京に行きました Tokyo ni ikimashita Lit. Tokyo to went

(someone) went to Tokyo.

2) Verb endings follow easy patterns

There are a few exceptions but there are learnable patterns to conjugate verbs. For example:

食べる – Taberu – I eat

食べた – Tabeta – I ate

食べない – Tabenai – I don’t/won’t eat

食べなかった – Tabenakatta – I didn’t eat

You’ll notice the stem of the verb 食べ tabe- doesn’t change unlike other European languages. There are a few exceptions to this but not that many

3) You have to conjugate adjectives BUT they are very similar to verbs

So once you have learned some basic verb conjugations, it’s almost the same rules for adjectives:

美味しい – oishii – delicious (present)

美味しかった – oishikatta – was delicious

美味しくない – oishikunai – isn’t delicious

美味しくなかった – oishikunakatta – wasn’t delicious

As you can see, the pattern is very similar to verb conjugation.

4) There is no future tense

Hooray! That will make you happy!

5) The verb and subject don’t have to agree as in many European languages

Hooray again!

私は東京に行きます– watashi wa Tokyo ni ikimasu

I go to Tokyo

田中さんは東京に行きます– Tanaka san wa Tokyo ni ikimasu

Tanaka san goes to Tokyo.

See? Just use the same verb regardless of the subject! Yeah!

6) You can leave out the subject and even the object of the sentence if the meaning is obvious to the listener

Hooray! Oh wait, boo! That can make things vague and a little unclear.

So, on balance, although Japanese grammar is quite different to English grammar, once you master the rules, it’s really not that hard. Koreans apparently have a really easy time learning Japanese as the grammar is so similar.

What else is difficult about Japanese?

Vagueness in Japanese

Honestly, apart from the writing system, I never really struggled that hard with Japanese. But if there is one thing that leaves me utterly confused, it’s the vagueness.

Japanese people tend not to speak too directly as it can be seen as slightly rude or aggressive. Also, Japanese is a very high context language. That means the basic information you need to understand something is not just contained in the sentence, it should be obvious from the situation. For example you could say:

昨日のパーティーは楽しかったです – kino no paati wa tanoshikata desu

The party yesterday was fun.

But if the topic of conversation is obvious to both parties then you could just shorten it to:

楽しかった – tanoshikatta

(It) was fun

Argh! There’s no subject or even an object. Something, was fun, that’s it. It’s great for quick shorthand communication but if you walk in on a conversation mid-flow or weren’t paying attention you will get lost. Therefore you have to be quite attuned to the situation around you. It’s not even the kanji or the exotic vocabulary that I found most challenging about Japanese. For me, it was trying to understand the vagueness.

Levels of politeness in Japanese

This deserves it’s own blog post, or book, or perhaps an entire library. Suffice it to say, the Japanese language has many levels of politeness that uses distinct vocabulary and grammar. Here’s an example of various ways to ask someone if they want to eat:

ご一緒にお食事に行きませんか goissho ni oshokuji ni ikimasen ka – Would you like to eat with me (very polite)

食べませんか tabemasen ka – Won’t you eat? (polite)

食べる?taberu – You wanna eat? (Casual)

飯食う?meshi kuu – You eating? (Very familiar usually between men)

So, it’s not only hard to learn all this different vocabulary but also know when to use it in the appropriate situation. But don’t give up in despair. You’re not alone, I’m regularly told by Japanese people they find it hard too.

So is Japanese difficult?!

Japanese text booksTo summarise I would say that, speaking elementary Japanese is pretty easy and the grammar, albeit with a few exceptions, is not too challenging. Koreans will find Japanese grammar easy to learn.

Reading and writing are very challenging but not necessarily complex. You’ve just got to put in the time to learn the kanji but apps and online courses can help. Of course Chinese people get a head start on kanji.

Cultural understanding and modes of communication in Japanese including vagueness and levels of politeness are perhaps the most difficult thing to master for the intermediate and advanced student of Japanese.

I also think that the degree to which Japanese is different to other languages may not be such a big factor in how difficult it is to learn because, without being too obvious or trite…

Learning Japanese is all about motivation

There, I said it. I know it’s cheesy but like most things in life, if you love it and want to do it, you will find a way achieve it. Added to that, everyone learns language differently so there is no one single method or single best practice that I could prescribe for learning Japanese. If you are highly motivated to learn, the whole process of studying Japanese becomes more enjoyable. In this way, even though Japanese might be very different from English might not matter anymore.

So although asking if Japanese is hard to learn is a great question, it’s also very helpful to ask yourself things like:

Why do I want to study Japanese?

What goal will I achieve if I study Japanese?

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Thanks for reading and please leave your comments and questions below. Are you studying Japanese now? What do YOU find difficult about studying Japanese?

Is French Hard to Learn? An Honest Analysis for Beginners

Today I’m delighted to feature a guest post that answers the common question: “Is French hard to learn?”

Here’s what you’ll learn: 

  • The difficulty of learning French compared to other languages
  • Some of the most common problems learners face with French
  • How you can learn French quickly and effectively

I hope you enjoy the post!

Over to Jan…


So you want to learn the language of love?

French is spoken by more than 220 million people on five continents.

It’s the international language of cooking, film, fashion, theatre, the visual arts and dance.

But it’s also a language that inspires fear in learners because of its notoriously tricky pronunciation.

But just how hard is it to learn French?

Two years ago I wanted to take on a new language challenge and I decided to learn French in … Morocco!

In this article, I’m going to show you what it takes to learn French, and you’ll see that learning this beautiful language doesn’t have to take a lifetime.

is french hard to learn? learn french morocco

Why French Is Easier Than You Think

To see if French is hard, I decided to learn it for one month and find out.

My goal was simple, I wanted to hold a 10-minute conversation with a native speaker, entirely in French, after only 1 month.

You might think: “In just one month? Is French that easy?”

Well, this answer depends on a few factors, for example, what your native language is and what your definition of a ‘hard’ language is.

Let’s assume that you’re a native speaker of English or that you speak English very well. What does it actually take to become fluent in French?

Let’s take a look at the facts.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has created a list to show the approximate time you need to learn a specific language as an English speaker:

how long it takes to learn french

As you can see in the image above they’ve categorised French as a language that is closely related to English and therefore easy to learn.

According to different sources, 45% of all English words have a French origin. And that is a lot!

Take a look at these examples of common vocabulary in English and French:

  • la boutique
  • l’empire
  • la cage
  • la date
  • le fruit
  • le garage
  • l’image
  • le menu
  • la nature
  • la photo
  • le sandwich
  • la radio
  • le train
  • le yoga
  • l’alphabet

Did you recognise all of the words? Pretty easy I guess, but keep in mind that the pronunciation in French is quite different.

So, if French is supposed to be an easy language to learn then why are there so many people who say that French is difficult?

There are a few things that French learners complain about which might be tricky to learn for beginners. Let’s take a look at some of them.

French Pronunciation Is Tricky

French has a huge number of vowels (whereas Spanish and Italian rarely use more than five). Many of these vowels are new for an English speaker and mastering the pronunciation may take some time. Spanish and Italian are easier than French in this regard.

And then, there is, of course, the famous French ‘r’. In the south of the Netherlands (where I come from) we’ve got a very similar ‘r’, so for me, it wasn’t much of a struggle, but I know that it can be a tricky one for native English speakers.

Also, in everyday spoken French, particularly when you’re speaking quickly, words can sound quite different from the standard pronunciation:

  • Qu’est-ce qu’il fait? (‘qu’il’ is pronounced as “kee”)
  • Elle connaît la réponse (‘elle’ is pronounced as “0eh”)
  • Tu sais qu’il veut ça (qu’il’ is pronounced as “kee”)
  • Je veux qu’elle m’appelle (‘qu’elle’ is pronounced as “keh”)

Why French Verb Conjugations Aren’t So Difficult

In English, our verb conjugations are very limited;

  • I eat
  • you eat
  • he/she eats
  • we eat
  • you (pl.) eat
  • they eat

It’s only the verb for the third person singular that changes.

Of course, we also have irregular verbs with more variation;

  • I am
  • you are
  • he/she is, etc.

In French, on the other hand, there are more conjugations:

  • Je mange
  • tu manges
  • il mange
  • nous mangeons
  • vous mangez
  • ils mangent

Now this might seem tricky but the good news is that the difference between written and spoken French is so big that the first person singular (I), second person singular (you), third person singular (he/she/it), and third person plural forms (they) of the verb ‘’manger’’ are pronounced exactly the same despite having written forms that vary substantially.

So, the verbs here – je mange / tu manges / il mange – are all pronounced the same way!

This works similarly for many other verbs. Perhaps, we could say that the conjugation of verbs is easier than you might think at first, at least in spoken French, as the conjugated verb is often pronounced the same.

How Autocorrection Can Help You With Conjugations

I found that writing French is a little harder than speaking for this reason. If you focus on speaking and you don’t practice your writing, you will find that it can be pretty tricky to write a text message to someone in French, even once you speak the language well.

A trick you can use here is that you make sure you use the auto correction on your smartphone. When you want to write ‘you eat’ and you’re not sure if it should be ‘tu manges’ or ‘tu mange’, you just write ‘tu mang..’ and most of the time it will show you the verb conjugation which is most likely to be correct.

In this case, the suggestions for the word are “manger” and “manges”. As “manger” is pronounced differently I’m pretty sure the right conjugation for “tu” here should be “manges”.

You could say that I’m cheating here, but why not use technology when it’s available? Texting in French (with auto correction) is also a fun and useful way to practice your writing skills.

Does Irregular Spelling Make French Hard?

french_spelling

French is not a phonetic language which means that you can’t really tell the way a word is pronounced by the way it’s written.

The thing is that English isn’t a phonetic language either and yet people from all over the world manage to learn to speak it.

In French, many letters are silent, when they appear at the end of words. Usually, the letters bcfklq and r are pronounced when they appear at the end of words (although bk, and q are rarely final consonants).

So, for example, the word “parler” (to speak) has a silent r at the end.

IPA: paʁle (you don’t pronounce the ‘r’ at the end of the word)

Now, of course, when you’ve been learning French for a while you start seeing the similarities in the written forms and you get a feeling for how certain words are pronounced.

Still, you need to be careful. Always listen carefully to a native’s pronunciation.

Recently, a friend told me over the phone that she had to go to Braine-l’Alleud, a place in Belgium. I thought that I had a pretty good idea about how French spelling works, but it took me a long time to find out how the name of this city was actually written. Yeah, languages with non-phonetic alphabets can be tricky sometimes…

How To Wrap Your Head Around Word Gender

All nouns in the French language have a gender, either masculine or feminine. Gender is determined by the definite or indefinite article (‘a/an’ or ‘the’ in English).

When learning the language, you need to learn the gender of each word with the word itself. When you learn the word ‘’house’’ you should know that is it ‘la maison’. If you get the gender of a word wrong it can be confusing. In French, the adjectives refer to the gender of the noun they describe.

french_word_gender

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

The beautiful house – La belle maison

If you’re not sure about the gender of the word ‘maison’ and you assume it’s masculine, you might say: “Le beau maison” (incorrect)

From the perspective of a French speaker, the last option sounds very strange.

In French, they use ‘belle’ to describe feminine nouns and ‘beau’ for masculine.

Each adjective has a masculine/feminine and a single/plural version.

The adjective “belle/beau” in French is irregular but most adjectives add an ‘e’ to the masculine singular form to get the feminine singular.

  • Américain – Américaine (American)

  • Blond – blonde (blond)

  • Fort – forte (strong)

  • Joli – Jolie (pretty)

  • Petit – petite (small)

If you get the gender wrong, you’ll probably also write/pronounce the adjective of that noun incorrectly.

The good thing?

People will probably still understand what you’re trying to say!

How You Can Learn French in a Matter of Months

I’m fluent in Mandarin but I think that I managed to learn more French in 3 months than Mandarin in a year.

So is French easy to learn? Well. it’s certainly not as hard as you think!

In the end, the answer depends on a few factors:

  • Your motivation
  • The materials you use
  • The languages you speak
  • How many hours each week you devote to learning the language

Let’s take a look at the level I reached in French after only one month:

As you can see I’m not very fluent and of course I made mistakes but I managed to hold a conversation in French with polyglot Felix Wang who is a native French speaker.

So, how can you do the same?

1. Make Sure You Have the Motivation

Make sure that you’ve got the right motivation. Learning any language takes a serious amount of effort.

List a number of reasons why you want to learn French. Imagine yourself speaking French and become obsessed with your new challenge.

Without enough motivation, you will eventually give up and that would be a pity.

2. Make a Serious Game Plan

Learning French becomes more fun when you set goals for yourself and create a plan how you can achieve those goals.

Don’t be too ambitious; ‘speaking fluent French by the end of this year’ sounds cool but it’s not very specific.

Better, work with so‐called ‘mini‐goals’; goals that are relatively easy to accomplish within a few months or weeks.

Here are some examples of mini goals that you can set for yourself for the first month:

  • Learn the 100-200 most important words and phrases
  • Learn how to make basic sentences
  • Hold a basic 10-minute conversation by the end of the month

How do you apply these goals??

  • Study 30-60 minutes per day with a resource that fits you.
  • Schedule 3 online lessons per week with a French tutor on Italki.com

3. It’s time for action!

Now it’s time to get started for real.

If you want to become conversational quickly, you need to find good learning materials that teach you the most important words and phrases first.

Learning from books that teach you difficult words and tricky grammar can be overwhelming, frustrating and time-consuming, so don’t do that!

Instead: Learn the first things first!

Learning first things first is the key to quick progress in your new language.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule) basically states that you get 80% of the results from 20% of the work. This principle can be applicable in language learning as well.

Languages contain hundreds of thousands of words but only a fraction of them are used on a daily basis by native speakers and only a fraction of those are words that you need for your first conversations.

Your first conversations in a new language will always be the same:

“What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, “What do you do here?”, “Do you live here?”, “How long have you studied….. for?”.

To create your first sentences you need words like; I, you, to like, can, to do, today, to want, to be, expensive, big etc.

You will be surprised by how many things you will be able to say by knowing only 200 words and knowing how to use them. Of course, your speech will be limited, but it’s a great way to start!

Bruce Lee once said; “I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.”

Watch the video below to see how we can apply this strategy in language learning.

4. Speak French, even if you think you can’t!

There are a number of reasons you shouldn’t wait too long to speak:

  • Using the new words you have just learned in your speech will help you to
    memorise them better.
  • By speaking you also find out what important words you are missing and
    what basic grammar features you need to know.
  • Speaking a new language is exciting, adds the human aspect, makes it
    something ‘real’ and is good for your momentum.

Now you might think to yourself “how can I speak a language if I only know 100 words (or less)?”

Two things are important here:

  1. You need to be creative.
  2. You need a good teacher or conversation partner who can make you speak
    with a limited vocabulary.

In the beginning, the main goal of your speaking sessions is to simply interact in your target language with the basic words you know. At this stage it’s not important what you say, it’s more about trying to say something and keep the conversation alive.

Making mistakes is 100% allowed!

5. Practice, practice and practice…

Many language learning products claim that learning can be almost effortless.

Unfortunately, it’s not.

The real reason why some people succeed in language learning and others don’t is that some don’t have enough motivation and willingness to practice the language over a longer period of time. Sometimes it might just all seem to be too difficult, but in fact, it’s only a matter of more practice and exposure to the language.

So follow your game plan and put in the hours. You will be able to make fast progress, especially in the beginning.

Now that you’re ready to start to learning French you need to start by focusing on what matters the most at the beginning stage; learning the most important vocabulary.

VocaBooster French is ideal for this because it contains hundreds of words and example sentences which will allow you to hold basic conversations from the beginning!

So Is French Hard to Learn?

In conclusion – no. French is relatively easy to learn but it does take some time and effort.

As French is closely related to English, I have to agree with the graph of the Foreign language institute at the beginning of this article, that says that French belongs to the easiest group of languages to learn for English speakers.

Having so much common vocabulary helps a lot!

And yes, French pronunciation and grammar can be a little tricky sometimes, but I actually only found out about most of the difficulties when I was doing research for this article. Don’t worry about the difficulties.

When you’re driving a car and you want to get to a destination you’ve never been to before, you don’t worry about potential obstacles.

Just set your destination in your GPS, anticipate the obstacles and keep driving ‘till you get there. In other words, set a learning goal, keep correcting yourself and keep practising until you reach your goals.

Make sure that you set a challenging learning goal for yourself, find good materials and a tutor that suits you, enjoy the learning process and put in the time!

It will be worth it!


Jan van der Aa is polyglot from the Netherlands and founder of Language Boost, a site dedicated to helping learners take the fast path to fluency in their chosen language.

What’s your experience of learning French? Do you think it’s a difficult language to learn? Let us know in the comments!

Detailed Introduction about Russian language

Russian (Russian: ру́сский язы́к, tr. rússkiy yazýk) is an East Slavic language and an official language inRussia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and many minor or unrecognised territories throughout Eurasia(particularly in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, the Caucasus, and Central Asia). It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Latvia, Moldova, Ukraine and to a lesser extent, the other post-Soviet states.[32][33] It was an official de facto language of the Soviet Union during its existence until itsdissolution in 1991.[14]

Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages and is one of the four living members of the East Slavic languages (which in turn is part of the larger Balto-Slavic branch). Written examples of Old East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onward.

It is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia and the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages (followed by Polish and then Ukrainian). It is also the largest native language in Europe, with 144 million native speakers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world by number of native speakers and the seventh by total number of speakers.[34] The language is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Russian is also the second most widespread language on the Internet after English.[35]

Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those without, the so-called soft and hard sounds. Almost every consonant has a hard or a soft counterpart, and the distinction is a prominent feature of the language. Another important aspect is the reduction of unstressedvowels. Stress, which is unpredictable, is not normally indicated orthographically[36] though an optional acute accent (знак ударения, znak udareniya) may be used to mark stress, such as to distinguish between homographic words, for example замо́к (zamók, meaning a lock) and за́мок (zámok, meaning a castle), or to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words or names.

Classification

Russian is an East Slavic language of the wider Indo-European family. It is a lineal[citation needed] descendant of the language used in Kievan Rus’, a loose conglomerate of East Slavic tribes from the late 9th to the mid 13th centuries. From the point of view of spoken language, its closest relatives are Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Rusyn,[37] the other three languages in the East Slavic languages. In many places in eastern and southernUkraine and throughout Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilingualism resulted in language mixtures such as Surzhyk in eastern Ukraine and Trasianka in Belarus. An East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect, although vanished during the 15th or 16th century, is sometimes considered to have played a significant role in the formation of modern Russian. Also Russian has notable lexical similarities with Bulgarian due to a common Church Slavonic influence on both languages, as well as because of later interaction in the 19th and 20th centuries, although Bulgarian grammar differs markedly from Russian.[38] In the 19th century, the language was often called “Great Russian” to distinguish it from Belarusian, then called “White Russian” and Ukrainian, then called “Little Russian”.

The vocabulary (mainly abstract and literary words), principles of word formations, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been also influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly russified form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by theRussian Orthodox Church. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to be used exclusively in the various dialects that are experiencing a rapid decline. In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with many different meanings. For details, see Russian phonology and History of the Russian language.

Over the course of centuries, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have also been influenced by Western and Central European languages such as Greek, Latin, Polish, Dutch, German, French, Italian and English,[39] and to a lesser extent the languages to the south and the east: Uralic,Turkic,[40][41] Persian,[42][43] Arabic, as well as Hebrew.[44]

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level III language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 1,100 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency.[45] It is also regarded by the United States Intelligence Community as a “hard target” language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers and its critical role in U.S. world policy.

Standard Russian

The standard form of Russian is generally regarded as the modern Russian literary language (современный русский литературный язык). It arose in the beginning of the 18th century with the modernization reforms of the Russian state under the rule of Peter the Great, and developed from the Moscow (Middle or Central Russian) dialect substratum under the influence of some of the previous century’s Russian chancellery language.

Mikhail Lomonosov first compiled a normalizing grammar book in 1755; in 1783 the Russian Academy‘s first explanatory Russian dictionary appeared. During the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, a period known as the “Golden Age”, the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of the Russian language was stabilized and standardized, and it became the nationwide literary language; meanwhile, Russia’s world-famous literature flourished.

Until the 20th century, the language’s spoken form was the language of only the upper noble classes and urban population, as Russian peasants from the countryside continued to speak in their own dialects. By the mid-20th century, such dialects were forced out with the introduction of the compulsory education system that was established by the Soviet government. Despite the formalization of Standard Russian, some nonstandard dialectal features (such as fricative [ɣ] in Southern Russian dialects) are still observed in colloquial speech.

Geographic distribution

Competence of Russian in countries of the former Soviet Union (except Russia), 2004

In 2010, there were 259.8 million speakers of Russian in the world: in Russia – 137.5 million, in the CIS and Baltic countries – 93.7 million, in Eastern Europe – 12.9 million, Western Europe – 7.3 million, Asia – 2.7 million, Middle East and North Africa – 1.3 million, Sub-Saharan Africa – 0.1 million, Latin America – 0.2 million, U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand – 4.1 million speakers. Therefore, the Russian language is the 7th largest in the world by number of speakers, after English, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu, Spanish and Arabic.[46]

Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Education in Russian is still a popular choice for both Russian as a second language (RSL) and native speakers in Russia as well as many of the former Soviet republics. Russian is still seen as an important language for children to learn in most of the former Soviet republics.[47] Samuel P. Huntington wrote in the Clash of Civilizations, “During the heyday of the Soviet Union, Russian was the lingua franca from Prague to Hanoi.”[48]

Europe

In Belarus, Russian is co-official alongside Belarusian per the Constitution of Belarus.[49] 77% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 67% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50]

In Estonia, Russian is officially considered a foreign language.[49] Russian is spoken by 29.6% of the population according to a 2011 estimate from the World Factbook.[51]

Despite large Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia (26.9% ethnic Russians, 2011)[52] Russian is officially considered a foreign language.[49] 55% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 26% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50]

In Lithuania Russian is not official, but it still retains the function of a lingua franca.[49] In contrast to the other two Baltic states, Lithuania has a relatively small Russian-speaking minority (5.0% as of 2008).[53]

In Moldova, Russian is considered to be the language of inter-ethnic communication under a Soviet-era law.[49] 50% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 19% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50]

According to the 2010 census in Russia, Russian language skills were indicated by 138 million people (99.4% of the population), while according to the 2002 census – 142.6 million people (99.2% of the population).[54]

In Ukraine, Russian is seen as a language of inter-ethnic communication, and a minority language, under the 1996 Constitution of Ukraine.[49]According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 14,400,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 29 million active speakers.[55] 65% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 38% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50]

In the 20th century, Russian was a mandatory language taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be satellites of the USSR. According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey,[56] fluency in Russian remains fairly high (20–40%) in some countries, in particular those where the people speak a Slavic language and thereby have an edge in learning Russian (namely, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria).

Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century, each with its own flavor of language. The United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Norway, and Austriahave significant Russian-speaking communities.

Asia

In Armenia, Russian has no official status, but it is recognized as a minority language under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.[49] 30% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 2% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50]

In Azerbaijan, Russian has no official status, but is a lingua franca of the country.[49] 26% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 5% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50]

In China, Russian has no official status, but it is spoken by the small Russian communities in the Northeastern Heilongjiang province.

In Georgia, Russian has no official status, but it is recognized as a minority language under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.[49] Russian is the language of 9% of the population according to the World Factbook.[57] Ethnologue cites Russian as the country’s de facto working language.[58]

In Kazakhstan, Russian is not a state language, but according to article 7 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan its usage enjoys equal status to that of the Kazakh language in state and local administration.[49] The 2009 census reported that 10,309,500 people, or 84.8% of the population aged 15 and above, could read and write well in Russian, as well as understand the spoken language.[59]

In Kyrgyzstan, Russian is an official language per article 5 of the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan.[49] The 2009 census states that 482,200 people speak Russian as a native language, or 8.99% of the population.[60] Additionally, 1,854,700 residents of Kyrgyzstan aged 15 and above fluently speak Russian as a second language, or 49.6% of the population in the age group.[60]

In Tajikistan, Russian is the language of inter-ethnic communication under the Constitution of Tajikistan and is permitted in official documentation.[49] 28% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 7% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[50] The World Factbook notes that Russian is widely used in government and business.[51]

In Turkmenistan, Russian lost its status as the official lingua franca in 1996.[49] Russian is spoken by 12% of the population according to an undated estimate from the World Factbook.[51]

In Uzbekistan, Russian has some official roles, being permitted in official documentation and is the lingua franca of the country and the language of the élite.[49][61] Russian is spoken by 14.2% of the population according to an undated estimate from the World Factbook.[51]

In 2005, Russian was the most widely taught foreign language in Mongolia,[62] and was compulsory in Year 7 onward as a second foreign language in 2006.[63]

Russian is also spoken in Israel. The number of native Russian-speaking Israelis numbers around 1.5 million Israelis.[64] The Israeli press andwebsites regularly publish material in Russian.[citation needed]. With Israel Plus, there is an Israeli TV channel mainly broadcasting in Russian. See also Russian language in Israel.

Russian is also spoken as a second language by a small number of people in Afghanistan.[65]

North America

The language was first introduced in North America when Russian explorers voyaged into Alaska and claimed it for Russia during the 1700s. Although most Russian colonists left after the United States bought the land in 1867, a handful stayed and preserved the Russian language in this region to this day, although only a few elderly speakers of this unique dialect are left.[66] Sizable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the U.S. and Canada, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco,Seattle, Spokane, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver and Cleveland. In a number of locations they issue their own newspapers, and live inethnic enclaves (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early 1960s). Only about 25% of them are ethnic Russians, however. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in New York City were Russian-speaking Jews. Afterward, the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat, with ethnic Russians and Ukrainians immigrating along with some more Russian Jews and Central Asians. According to the United States Census, in 2007 Russian was the primary language spoken in the homes of over 850,000 individuals living in the United States.[67]

Australia[edit]

Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney have Russian-speaking populations, with the most Russians living in southeast Melbourne, particularly the suburbs of Carnegie and Caulfield. Two-thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Azerbaijanis, Armenians orUkrainians, who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed, or are just looking for temporary employment.[citation needed]

As an international language

Russian is one of the official languages (or has similar status and interpretation must be provided into Russian) of the following:

The Russian language is also one of two official languages aboard the International Space StationNASA astronauts who serve alongside Russian cosmonauts usually take Russian language courses. This practice goes back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which first flew in 1975.

In March 2013 it was announced that Russian is now the second-most used language on the Internet after English. People use the Russian language on 5.9% of all websites, slightly ahead of German and far behind English (54.7%). Russian is used not only on 89.8% of .ru sites, but also on 88.7% of sites with the former Soviet Union domain .su. The websites of former Soviet Union nations also use high levels of Russian: 79.0% in Ukraine, 86.9% in Belarus, 84.0% in Kazakhstan, 79.6% in Uzbekistan, 75.9% in Kyrgyzstan and 81.8% in Tajikistan. However, Russian is the sixth-most used language on the top 1,000 sites, behind English, Chinese, French, German and Japanese.[68]

Dialects

Russian dialects in 1915

Other

  12. Northern Russian dialect withBelarusian influences
  13. Sloboda and Steppe dialects ofUkrainian
  14. Steppe dialect of Ukrainian with Russian influences

Russian is a rather homogeneous language, in terms of dialectal variation, due to the early political centralization under Moscow’s rule, compulsory education, mass migration from rural to urban areas in the 20th century, as well as other factors. The standard language is used in written and spoken form almost everywhere in the country, from Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg in the West to Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the East, notwithstanding the enormous distance in between.

Despite leveling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary and phonetics, a number of dialects still exist in Russia. Some linguists divide the dialects of Russian into two primary regional groupings, “Northern” and “Southern”, with Moscow lying on the zone of transition between the two. Others divide the language into three groupings, Northern, Central (or Middle) and Southern, with Moscow lying in the Central region.[69][70] All dialects also divided in two main chronological categories: the dialects of primary formation (the territory of the Eastern Rus’ or Muscovy, roughly consists of the modern Central and Northwestern Federal districts); and secondary formation (other territory). Dialectology within Russia recognizes dozens of smaller-scale variants. The dialects often show distinct and non-standard features of pronunciation and intonation, vocabulary and grammar. Some of these are relics of ancient usage now completely discarded by the standard language.

The Northern Russian dialects and those spoken along the Volga River typically pronounce unstressed/o/ clearly, a phenomenon called okanye (оканье).[70] Besides the absence of vowel reduction, some dialects have high or diphthongal /e⁓i̯ɛ/ in the place of Proto-Slavic *ě and /o⁓u̯ɔ/ in stressed closed syllables (as in Ukrainian) instead of Standard Russian /e/ and /o/.[70] An interesting morphological feature is a post-posed definite article -to, -ta, -te similarly to that existing in Bulgarian and Macedonian.[70]

In the Southern Russian dialects, instances of unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalizedconsonants and preceding a stressed syllable are not reduced to [ɪ] (as occurs in the Moscow dialect), being instead pronounced [a] in such positions (e.g. несли is pronounced [nʲaˈslʲi], not[nʲɪsˈlʲi]) – this is called yakanye (яканье).[70][71] Consonants include a fricative /ɣ/, a semivowel/w⁓u̯/ and /x⁓xv⁓xw/, whereas the Standard and Northern dialects have the consonants /ɡ/, /v/, and final /l/ and /f/, respectively.[70] The morphology features a palatalized final /tʲ/ in 3rd person forms of verbs (this is unpalatalized in the Standard and Northern dialects).[70][72] Some of these features such as akanye and yakanye, a debuccalized or lenited /ɡ/, a semivowel /w⁓u̯/ and palatalized final /tʲ/ in 3rd person forms of verbs are also present in modern Belarusian and some dialects of Ukrainian (Eastern Polesian), indicating a linguistic continuum.

The city of Veliky Novgorod has historically displayed a feature called chokanye or tsokanye(чоканье or цоканье), in which /tɕ/ and /ts/ were switched or merged. So, цапля (‘heron’) has been recorded as чапля. Also, the second palatalization of velars did not occur there, so the so-calledě² (from the Proto-Slavic diphthong *ai) did not cause /k, ɡ, x/ to shift to /ts, dz, s/; therefore, where Standard Russian has цепь (‘chain’), the form кепь [kʲepʲ] is attested in earlier texts.

Among the first to study Russian dialects was Lomonosov in the 18th century. In the 19th, Vladimir Dal compiled the first dictionary that included dialectal vocabulary. Detailed mapping of Russian dialects began at the turn of the 20th century. In modern times, the monumental Dialectological Atlas of the Russian Language (Диалектологический атлас русского языка [dʲɪɐˌlʲɛktəɫɐˈɡʲitɕɪskʲɪj ˈatɫəs ˈruskəvə jɪzɨˈka]), was published in three folio volumes 1986–1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

Derived languages

Alphabet

A page from Azbuka (Alphabet book), the first Russian printed textbook. Printed by Ivan Fyodorovin 1574. This page features theCyrillic script.

Russian is written using a Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters. The following table gives their upper case forms, along with IPA values for each letter’s typical sound:

А
/a/
Б
/b/
В
/v/
Г
/ɡ/
Д
/d/
Е
/je/
Ё
/jo/
Ж
/ʐ/
З
/z/
И
/i/
Й
/j/
К
/k/
Л
/l/
М
/m/
Н
/n/
О
/o/
П
/p/
Р
/r/
С
/s/
Т
/t/
У
/u/
Ф
/f/
Х
/x/
Ц
/ts/
Ч
/tɕ/
Ш
/ʂ/
Щ
/ɕː/
Ъ
/-/
Ы
/ɨ/
Ь
/ʲ/
Э
/e/
Ю
/ju/
Я
/ja/

Older letters of the Russian alphabet include ⟨ѣ⟩, which merged to ⟨е⟩ (/je/ or /ʲe/); ⟨і⟩ and ⟨ѵ⟩, which both merged to ⟨и⟩ (/i/); ⟨ѳ⟩, which merged to ⟨ф⟩ (/f/); ⟨ѫ⟩, which merged to ⟨у⟩ (/u/); ⟨ѭ⟩, which merged to ⟨ю⟩ (/ju/ or /ʲu/); and ⟨ѧ⟩ and ⟨ѩ⟩, which later were graphically reshaped into ⟨я⟩ and merged phonetically to /ja/ or/ʲa/. While these older letters have been abandoned at one time or another, they may be used in this and related articles. The yersъ⟩ and ⟨ь⟩ originally indicated the pronunciation of ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/.

Transliteration

Because of many technical restrictions in computing and also because of the unavailability of Cyrillic keyboards abroad, Russian is often transliterated using the Latin alphabet. For example, мороз (‘frost’) is transliteratedmoroz, and мышь (‘mouse’), mysh or myš’. Once commonly used by the majority of those living outside Russia, transliteration is being used less frequently by Russian-speaking typists in favor of the extension of Unicode character encoding, which fully incorporates the Russian alphabet. Free programs leveraging this Unicode extension are available which allow users to type Russian characters, even on Western ‘QWERTY’ keyboards.[73]

Computing

The Russian alphabet has many systems of character encoding. KOI8-R was designed by the Soviet government and was intended to serve as the standard encoding. This encoding was and still is widely used in UNIX-like operating systems. Nevertheless, the spread of MS-DOS and OS/2 (IBM866), traditional Macintosh (ISO/IEC 8859-5) and Microsoft Windows (CP1251) created chaos and ended by establishing different encodings as de facto standards, with Windows-1251 becoming a de facto standard in Russian Internet and e-mail communication during the period of roughly 1995–2005.

All the obsolete 8-bit encodings are rarely used in the communication protocols and text-exchange data formats, having been mostly replaced withUTF-8. A number of encoding conversion applications were developed. “iconv” is an example that is supported by most versions of Linux, Macintosh and some other operating systems; but converters are rarely needed unless accessing texts created more than a few years ago.

In addition to the modern Russian alphabet, Unicode (and thus UTF-8) encodes the Early Cyrillic alphabet (which is very similar to the Greek alphabet), as well as all other Slavic and non-Slavic but Cyrillic-based alphabets.

Orthography

Russian spelling is reasonably phonemic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonemics, morphology, etymology, and grammar; and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points. A number of rigid spelling rules introduced between the 1880s and 1910s have been responsible for the former whilst trying to eliminate the latter.

The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918, and the final codification of 1956. An update proposed in the late 1990s has met a hostile reception, and has not been formally adopted. The punctuation, originally based on Byzantine Greek, was in the 17th and 18th centuries reformulated on the French and German models.

According to the Institute of Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences, an optional acute accent (знак ударения) may, and sometimes should, be used to mark stress. For example, it is used to distinguish between otherwise identical words, especially when context does not make it obvious: замо́кза́мок (“lock” – “castle”), сто́ящийстоя́щий (“worthwhile” – “standing”), чудно́чу́дно (“this is odd” – “this is marvelous”), молоде́цмо́лодец (“attaboy” – “fine young man”), узна́юузнаю́ (“I shall learn it” – “I recognize it”), отреза́тьотре́зать(“to be cutting” – “to have cut”); to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words, especially personal and family names (афе́ра, гу́ру,Гарси́я, Оле́ша, Фе́рми), and to show which is the stressed word in a sentence (Ты́ съел печенье? – Ты съе́л печенье? – Ты съел пече́нье? “Was ityou who ate the cookie? – Did you eat the cookie? – Was it the cookie that you ate?”). Stress marks are mandatory in lexical dictionaries and books for children or Russian learners.

Phonology

The phonological system of Russian is inherited from Common Slavonic; it underwent considerable modification in the early historical period before being largely settled around the year 1400.

The language possesses five vowels (or six, under the St. Petersburg Phonological School), which are written with different letters depending on whether the preceding consonant is palatalized. The consonants typically come in plain vs. palatalized pairs, which are traditionally called hardand soft. (The hard consonants are often velarized, especially before front vowels, as in Irish). The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch. Stressed vowels are somewhat lengthened, while unstressed vowels tend to be reduced to near-close vowels or an unclear schwa. (See also: vowel reduction in Russian.)

The Russian syllable structure can be quite complex, with both initial and final consonant clusters of up to four consecutive sounds. Using a formula with V standing for the nucleus (vowel) and C for each consonant, the structure can be described as follows:

(C)(C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C)

Clusters of four consonants are not very common, however, especially within a morpheme. Some examples are: взгляд ([vzglʲat], ‘glance’), государство([gəsʊˈdarstvə], ‘state’), строительство ([strɐˈitʲɪlʲstvə], ‘construction’).

Consonants

Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar
/Dental
Post-
alveolar
Palatal Velar
plain pal. plain pal. plain pal. plain pal.
Nasal m n
Stop p
b

t
d

k
ɡ

[ɡʲ]
Affricate ts
Fricative f
v

s
z

ʂ
ʐ
ɕː
ʑː
x
[ɣ]
[xʲ]
[ɣʲ]
Approximant
(Lateral)
j
l
Trill r

Russian is notable for its distinction based on palatalization of most of the consonants. While /k, ɡ, x/ do have palatalized allophones [kʲ, ɡʲ, xʲ], only /kʲ/ might be considered a phoneme, though it is marginal and generally not considered distinctive. The only native minimal pair that argues for/kʲ/ being a separate phoneme is это ткёт ([ˈɛtə tkʲɵt], ‘it weaves’) – этот кот ([ˈɛtət kot], ‘this cat’). Palatalization means that the center of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant. In the case of /tʲ/ and /dʲ/, the tongue is raised enough to produce slight frication (affricate sounds). The sounds /t, d, ts, s, z, n, rʲ/ are dental, that is, pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge.

Grammar

Russian has preserved an Indo-European syntheticinflectional structure, although considerable levelling has taken place. Russian grammar encompasses:

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary one but continues to preserve characteristic forms. The dialects show various non-standard grammatical features,[citation needed] some of which are archaisms or descendants of old forms since discarded by the literary language.

The Church Slavonic language was introduced to Moskovy in the late 15th century and was adopted as official language for correspondence for convenience. Firstly with the newly conquered south-western regions of former Kyivan Rus and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later, when Moskovy cut its ties with the Golden Horde, for communication between all newly consolidated regions of Moskovy.

Vocabulary

This page from an “ABC” book printed in Moscow in 1694 shows the letter П.

See History of the Russian language for an account of the successive foreign influences on Russian.

The number of listed words or entries in some of the major dictionaries published during the past two centuries, and the total vocabulary of Alexander Pushkin (who is credited with greatly augmenting and codifying literary Russian), are as follows:[74][75]

Work Year Words Notes
Academic dictionary, I Ed. 1789–1794 43,257 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary.
Academic dictionary, II Ed 1806–1822 51,388 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary.
Dictionary of Pushkin’s language 1810–1837 >21,000 The dictionary of virtually all words from his works was published in 1956–1961. Some consider his works to contain 101,105.[76]
Academic dictionary, III Ed. 1847 114,749 Russian and Church Slavonic with Old Russian vocabulary.
Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language(Dahl‘s) 1880–1882 195,844 44,000 entries lexically grouped; attempt to catalogue the full vernacular language. Contains many dialectal, local and obsolete words.
Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ushakov‘s) 1934–1940 85,289 Current language with some archaisms.
Academic Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ozhegov‘s) 1950–1965
1991 (2nd ed.)
120,480 “Full” 17-volumed dictionary of the contemporary language. The second 20-volumed edition was begun in 1991, but not all volumes have been finished.
Lopatin’s dictionary 1999–2013 ≈200,000 Orthographic, current language, several editions
Great Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language 1998–2009 ≈130,000 Current language, the dictionary has many subsequent editions from the first one of 1998.

History and examples

The history of Russian language may be divided into the following periods.

Judging by the historical records, by approximately 1000 AD the predominant ethnic group over much of modern European Russia, Ukraine and Belaruswas the Eastern branch of the Slavs, speaking a closely related group of dialects. The political unification of this region into Kievan Rus’ in about 880, from which modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus trace their origins, established Old East Slavic as a literary and commercial language. It was soon followed by the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the introduction of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and official language. Borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the Old East Slavic and spoken dialects at this time, which in their turn modified the Old Church Slavonic as well.

The Ostromir Gospels of 1056 is the second oldest East Slavic book known, one of many medievalilluminated manuscripts preserved in the Russian National Library.

Dialectal differentiation accelerated after the breakup of Kievan Rus’ in approximately 1100. On the territories of modern Belarus and Ukraine emerged Ruthenian and in modern Russia medieval Russian. They became distinct since the 13th century, i.e. following the division of that land between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland and Hungary in the west and independent Novgorod and Pskov feudal republics plus numerous small duchies (which came to be vassals of the Tatars) in the east.

The official language in Moscow and Novgorod, and later, in the growing Muscovy, was Church Slavonic, which evolved from Old Church Slavonic and remained the literary language for centuries, until the Petrine age, when its usage became limited to biblical and liturgical texts. Russian developed under a strong influence of Church Slavonic until the close of the 17th century; afterward the influence reversed, leading to corruption of liturgical texts.

The political reforms of Peter the Great (Пётр Вели́кий, Pyótr Velíkiy) were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularization and Westernization. Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe. By 1800, a significant portion of the gentry spoke French daily, and German sometimes. Many Russian novels of the 19th century, e.g. Leo Tolstoy‘s (Лев Толсто́й) War and Peace, contain entire paragraphs and even pages in French with no translation given, with an assumption that educated readers would not need one.

The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Alexander Pushkin (Алекса́ндр Пу́шкин) in the first third of the 19th century. Pushkin revolutionized Russian literature by rejecting archaic grammar and vocabulary (so-called высо́кий стиль — “high style”) in favor of grammar and vocabulary found in the spoken language of the time. Even modern readers of younger age may only experience slight difficulties understanding some words in Pushkin’s texts, since relatively few words used by Pushkin have become archaic or changed meaning. In fact, many expressions used by Russian writers of the early 19th century, in particular Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov (Михаи́л Ле́рмонтов), Nikolai Gogol(Никола́й Го́голь), Aleksander Griboyedov (Алекса́ндр Грибое́дов), became proverbs or sayings which can be frequently found even in modern Russian colloquial speech.

Зи́мний ве́чер IPA: [ˈzʲimnʲɪj ˈvʲetɕɪr]
Бу́ря мгло́ю не́бо кро́ет, Russian pronunciation: [ˈburʲə ˈmɡɫoju ˈnʲɛbə ˈkroɪt]
Ви́хри сне́жные крутя́; Russian pronunciation: [ˈvʲixrʲɪ ˈsʲnʲɛʐnɨɪ krʊˈtʲa]
То, как зверь, она́ заво́ет, Russian pronunciation: [ˈto kaɡ zvʲerʲ ɐˈna zɐˈvoɪt]
То запла́чет, как дитя́, Russian pronunciation: [ˈto zɐˈpɫatɕɪt, kaɡ dʲɪˈtʲa]
То по кро́вле обветша́лой Russian pronunciation: [ˈto pɐˈkrovlʲɪ ɐbvʲɪtˈʂaɫəj]
Вдруг соло́мой зашуми́т, Russian pronunciation: [ˈvdruk sɐˈɫoməj zəʂʊˈmʲit]
То, как пу́тник запозда́лый, Russian pronunciation: [ˈto ˈkak ˈputʲnʲɪɡ zəpɐˈzdaɫɨj]
К нам в око́шко застучи́т. Russian pronunciation: [ˈknam vɐˈkoʂkə zəstʊˈtɕit]

The political upheavals of the early 20th century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Political circumstances and Soviet accomplishments in military, scientific and technological matters (especiallycosmonautics), gave Russian a worldwide prestige, especially during the mid-20th century.

During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice. Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian, although it was declared the official language only in 1990.[77] Following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which has partly reversed the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the language of post-Soviet national discourse throughout the region has continued.

The Russian language in the world is reduced due to the decrease in the number of Russians in the world and diminution of the total population inRussia (where Russian is an official language). The collapse of the Soviet Union and reduction in influence of Russia also has reduced the popularity of the Russian language in the rest of the world.[46][78][79]

Recent estimates of the total number of speakers of Russian
Source Native speakers Native rank Total speakers Total rank
G. Weber, “Top Languages”,
Language Monthly,
3: 12–18, 1997, ISSN 1369-9733
160,000,000 8 285,000,000 5
World Almanac (1999) 145,000,000 8          (2005) 275,000,000 5
SIL (2000 WCD) 145,000,000 8 255,000,000 5–6 (tied withArabic)
CIA World Factbook (2005) 160,000,000 8

According to figures published in 2006 in the journal “Demoskop Weekly” research deputy director of Research Center for Sociological Research of theMinistry of Education and Science (Russia) Arefyev A. L.,[80] the Russian language is gradually losing its position in the world in general, and in Russia in particular.[78][81][82][83] In 2012, A. L. Arefyev published a new study “Russian language at the turn of the 20th-21st centuries”, in which he confirmed his conclusion about the trend of further weakening of the Russian language in all regions of the world (findings published in 2013 in the journal “Demoskop Weekly“).[46][84][85][86] In the countries of the former Soviet Union the Russian language is gradually being replaced by local languages.[46][87] Currently the number speakers of Russian language in the world depends on the number of Russians in the world and total population in Russia.[46][78][79]

The changing proportion of Russian speakers in the world (assessment Aref’eva 2012)[46][86]:387
Year worldwide population, million population Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation, million share in world population, % total number of speakers of Russian, million share in world population, %
1900 1,650 138.0 8.4 105 6.4
1914 1,782 182.2 10.2 140 7.9
1940 2,342 205.0 8.8 200 7.6
1980 4,434 265.0 6.0 280 6.3
1990 5,263 286.0 5.4 312 5.9
2004 6,400 146.0 2.3 278 4.3
2010 6,820 142.7 2.1 260 3.8

the History & Phonology of Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin (/ˈmændərɪn, –drɪn/ (About this sound listen); simplified Chinese: 官话; traditional Chinese: 官話; pinyin:Guānhuà; literally: “speech of officials”) is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of Standard Mandarin or Standard Chinese. Because most Mandarin dialects are found in the north, the group is sometimes referred to as the Northern dialects (北方话; běifānghuà). Many local Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, Mandarin is often placed first in lists of languages by number of native speakers (with nearly a billion).

Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, spoken by 70 percent of all Chinese speakers over a large geographical area, stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is generally attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas.

Most Mandarin varieties have four tones. The final stops of Middle Chinese have disappeared in most of these varieties, but some have merged them as a final glottal stop. Many Mandarin varieties, including the Beijing dialect, retain retroflex initial consonants, which have been lost in southern dialect groups.

The capital has been within the Mandarin area for most of the last millennium, making these dialects very influential. Some form of Mandarin has served as a national lingua franca since the 14th century. In the early 20th century, a standard form based on the Beijing dialect, with elements from other Mandarin dialects, was adopted as the national language. Standard Chinese is the official language of the People’s Republic of China[4] and Taiwan[5] and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is used as one of the working languages of the United Nations.[6] It is also one of the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities internationally.

Name

The English word “mandarin” (from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri, from Sanskrit mantrin, meaning “minister or counsellor”) originally meant an official of the Ming and Qing empires.[7][8][a] Since their native varieties were often mutually unintelligible, these officials communicated using a Koiné languagebased on various northern varieties. When Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they called it “Mandarin”, from its Chinese name Guānhuà (官话/官話), or “language of the officials”.[10]

In everyday English, “Mandarin” refers to Standard Chinese, which is often called simply “Chinese”. Standard Chinese is based on the particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing, with some lexical and syntactic influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the de facto official language of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), and one of the four official languages of the Republic of Singapore. It also functions as the language of instruction in Mainland China and in Taiwan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, under the name “Chinese”. Chinese speakers refer to the modern standard language as

  • Pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話, literally “common speech”) in Mainland China,
  • Guóyǔ (國語, literally “national language”) in Taiwan, or
  • Huáyǔ (华语/華語, literally “Hua language/Chinese language”) in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines,

but not as Guānhuà.[11]

Linguists use the term “Mandarin” to refer to the diverse group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China, which Chinese linguists call Guānhuà. The alternative term Běifānghuà (北方话/北方話), or “Northern dialects”, is used less and less among Chinese linguists. By extension, the term “Old Mandarin” or “Early Mandarin” is used by linguists to refer to the northern dialects recorded in materials from the Yuan dynasty.

Native speakers who are not academic linguists may not recognize that the variants they speak are classified in linguistics as members of “Mandarin” (or so-called “Northern dialects”) in a broader sense. Within Chinese social or cultural discourse, there is not a common “Mandarin” identity based on language; rather, there are strong regional identities centred on individual dialects because of the wide geographical distribution and cultural diversity of their speakers. Speakers of forms of Mandarin other than the standard typically refer to the variety they speak by a geographic name—for example Sichuan dialect, Hebei dialect or Northeastern dialect, all being regarded as distinct from the standard language.

History

The hundreds of modern local varieties of Chinese developed from regional variants of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Traditionally, seven major groups of dialects have been recognized. Aside from Mandarin, the other six are Wu, Gan and Xiang in central China, and Min, Hakka and Yue on the southeast coast.[12] The Language Atlas of China (1987) distinguishes three further groups: Jin (split from Mandarin), Huizhou in the Huizhou regionof Anhui and Zhejiang, and Pinghua in Guangxi and Yunnan.[13][14]

Old Mandarin

A page of the Menggu Ziyun, covering the syllables tsim to lim

After the fall of the Northern Song (959–1126) and during the reign of the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern China, a common speech developed based on the dialects of the North China Plain around the capital, a language referred to as Old Mandarin. New genres of vernacular literature were based on this language, including verse, drama and story forms, such as the qu and sanqu poetry.[15]

The rhyming conventions of the new verse were codified in a rime dictionary called the Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324). A radical departure from the rime table tradition that had evolved over the previous centuries, this dictionary contains a wealth of information on the phonology of Old Mandarin. Further sources are the ‘Phags-pa script based on the Tibetan alphabet, which was used to write several of the languages of the Mongol empire, including Chinese, and the Menggu Ziyun, a rime dictionary based on ‘Phags-pa. The rime books differ in some details, but overall show many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin dialects, such as the reduction and disappearance of final plosives and the reorganization of the Middle Chinese tones.[16]

In Middle Chinese, initial stops and affricates showed a three-way contrast between tenuis, voiceless aspirated and voiced consonants. There were four tones, with the fourth, or “entering tone”, a checked tone comprising syllables ending in plosives (-p, -t or -k). Syllables with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch, and by the late Tang dynasty, each of the tones had split into two registers conditioned by the initials. When voicing was lost in all languages except the Wu subfamily, this distinction became phonemic and the system of initials and tones was rearranged differently in each of the major groups.[17]

The Zhongyuan Yinyun shows the typical Mandarin four-tone system resulting from a split of the “even” tone and loss of the entering tone, with its syllables distributed across the other tones (though their different origin is marked in the dictionary). Similarly, voiced plosives and affricates have become voiceless aspirates in the “even” tone and voiceless non-aspirates in others, another distinctive Mandarin development. However, the language still retained a final -m, which has merged with -n in modern dialects, and initial voiced fricatives. It also retained the distinction between velars and alveolar sibilants in palatal environments, which later merged in most Mandarin dialects to yield a palatal series (rendered j-,q- and x- in pinyin).[18]

The flourishing vernacular literature of the period also shows distinctively Mandarin vocabulary and syntax, though some, such as the third-person pronoun (他), can be traced back to the Tang dynasty.[19]

Vernacular literature

Until the early 20th century, formal writing and even much poetry and fiction was done in Literary Chinese, which was modeled on the classics of theWarring States period and the Han dynasty. Over time, the various spoken varieties diverged greatly from Literary Chinese, which was learned and composed as a special language. Preserved from the sound changes that affected the various spoken varieties, its economy of expression was greatly valued. For example, (yì, “wing”) is unambiguous in written Chinese, but has over 75 homophones in Standard Chinese.

The literary language was less appropriate for recording materials that were meant to be reproduced in oral presentations, materials such as plays and grist for the professional story-teller’s mill. From at least the Yuan dynasty, plays that recounted the subversive tales of China’s Robin Hoods to the Ming dynasty novels such as Water Margin, on down to the Qing dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber and beyond, there developed a literature in written vernacular Chinese (白话/白話 báihuà). In many cases, this written language reflected Mandarin varieties, and since pronunciation differences were not conveyed in this written form, this tradition had a unifying force across all the Mandarin-speaking regions and beyond.[20]

Hu Shih, a pivotal figure of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote an influential and perceptive study of this literary tradition, entitledBáihuà Wénxuéshǐ (“A History of Vernacular Literature”).

Koiné of the Late Empire

Zhongguo Guanhua (中國官話), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela (“Middle Kingdom’s Common Speech”), used on the frontispiece of an early Chinese grammar published byÉtienne Fourmont (withArcadio Huang) in 1742[21]

The Chinese have different languages in different provinces, to such an extent that they cannot understand each other…. [They] also have another language which is like a universal and common language; this is the official language of the mandarins and of the court; it is among them like Latin among ourselves…. Two of our fathers [Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci] have been learning this mandarin language…— Alessandro Valignano, Historia del principio y progresso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales (1542–1564)[22]

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in many parts of South China spoke only their local variety. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà. Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.[11]

Officials varied widely in their pronunciation; in 1728, the Yongzheng Emperor, unable to understand the accents of officials from Guangdong and Fujian, issued a decree requiring the governors of those provinces to provide for the teaching of proper pronunciation. Although the resulting Academies for Correct Pronunciation (正音書院, Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) were short-lived, the decree did spawn a number of textbooks that give some insight into the ideal pronunciation. Common features included:

  • loss of the Middle Chinese voiced initials except for v-
  • merger of -m finals with -n
  • the characteristic Mandarin four-tone system in open syllables, but retaining a final glottal stop in “entering tone” syllables
  • retention of the distinction between palatalized velars and dental affricates, the source of the spellings “Peking” and “Tientsin” for modern “Beijing” and “Tianjin”.[23]

As the last two of these features indicate, this language was a koiné based on dialects spoken in the Nanjing area, though not identical to any single dialect.[24] This form remained prestigious long after the capital moved to Beijing in 1421, though the speech of the new capital emerged as a rival standard. As late as 1815, Robert Morrison based the first English–Chinese dictionary on this koiné as the standard of the time, though he conceded that the Beijing dialect was gaining in influence.[25] By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court.[26]

Standard Chinese

In the early years of the Republic of China, intellectuals of the New Culture Movement, such as Hu Shih and Chen Duxiu, successfully campaigned for the replacement of Literary Chinese as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern dialects. A parallel priority was the definition of a standard national language (simplified Chinese: 国语; traditional Chinese: 國語; pinyin: Guóyǔ; Wade–Giles: Kuo²-yü³). After much dispute between proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The People’s Republic, founded in 1949, retained this standard, calling it pǔtōnghuà (simplified Chinese: 普通话; traditional Chinese: 普通話; literally: “common speech”).[27] Some 54% of speakers of Mandarin varieties could understand the standard language in the early 1950s, rising to 91% in 1984. Nationally, the proportion understanding the standard rose from 41% to 90% over the same period.[28]

The national language is now used in education, the media and formal occasions in both the PRC and the ROC but not in Hong Kong and Macau. This standard can now be spoken intelligibly by most younger people in Mainland China and Taiwan with various regional accents. In Hong Kong and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the sole language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life remains the localCantonese. Mandarin is now common and taught in many schools[29] but still hasn’t gained ground. In Mandarin-speaking areas such as Sichuan and Chongqing, the local dialect is the native tongue of most of the population.[clarification needed] The era of mass education in Standard Chinese has not erased these regional differences, and people may be either diglossic or speak the standard language with a notable accent.

From an official point of view, the PRC and ROC governments maintain their own forms of the standard under different names. Technically, bothPǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ base their phonology on the Beijing accent, though Pǔtōnghuà also takes some elements from other sources. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of “school-standard” Chinese are often quite different from the Mandarin varieties that are spoken in accordance with regional habits, and neither is wholly identical to the Beijing dialect. Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ also have some differences from the Beijing dialect in vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics.

The written forms of Standard Chinese are also essentially equivalent, although simplified characters are used in China, Singapore and Malaysia, while people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan generally use traditional characters.

Geographic distribution and dialects

Distribution of the eight subgroups of Mandarin plusJin Chinese, which many linguists include as part of Mandarin, according to the Language Atlas of China(1987)[30]

Most Han Chinese living in northern and southwestern China are native speakers of a dialect of Mandarin. The North China Plain provided few barriers to migration, leading to relative linguistic homogeneity over a wide area in northern China. In contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have spawned the other six major groups of Chinese varieties, with great internal diversity, particularly in Fujian.[31][32]

However, the varieties of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary, andgrammar, and many Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible.[b]

Most of northeastern China, except for Liaoning, did not receive significant settlements by Han Chinese until the 18th century,[37] and as a result the Northeastern Mandarin dialects spoken there differ little from the Beijing dialect.[38] The Manchu people of the area now speak these dialects exclusively; their native language is only maintained in northwesternXinjiang, where Xibe, a modern dialect, is spoken.[39]

The frontier areas of Northwest China were colonized by speakers of Mandarin dialects at the same time, and the dialects in those areas similarly closely resemble their relatives in the core Mandarin area.[38] The Southwest was settled early, but the population fell dramatically for obscure reasons in the 13th century, and did not recover until the 17th century.[38] The dialects in this area are now relatively uniform.[40] However, long-established cities even very close to Beijing, such as Tianjin, Baoding, Shenyang, and Dalian, have markedly different dialects.

Unlike their compatriots on the southeast coast, few Mandarin speakers engaged in overseas emigration until the late 20th century, but there are now significant communities of them in cities across the world.[40]

Classification

The classification of Chinese dialects evolved during the 20th century, and many points remain unsettled. Early classifications tended to follow provincial boundaries or major geographical features.[41] In 1936, Wang Li produced the first classification based on phonetic criteria, principally the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials. His Mandarin group included dialects of northern and southwestern China, as well as those of Hunanand northern Jiangxi.[42] Li Fang-Kuei‘s classification of 1937 distinguished the latter two groups as Xiang and Gan, while splitting the remaining Mandarin dialects between Northern, Lower Yangtze and Southwestern Mandarin groups.[43] The widely accepted seven-group classification of Yuan Jiahuain 1960 kept Xiang and Gan separate, with Mandarin divided into Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern and Jiang–Huai (Lower Yangtze) subgroups.[44][45]

Of Yuan’s four Mandarin subgroups, the Northwestern dialects are the most diverse, particularly in the province of Shanxi.[40] The linguist Li Rongproposed that the northwestern dialects of Shanxi and neighbouring areas that retain a final glottal stop in the Middle Chinese entering tone(plosive-final) category should constitute a separate top-level group called Jin.[46] He used this classification in the Language Atlas of China(1987).[13] Many other linguists continue to include these dialects in the Mandarin group, pointing out that the Lower Yangtze dialects also retain the glottal stop.[47][48]

The southern boundary of the Mandarin area, with the central Wu, Gan and Xiang groups, is weakly defined due to centuries of diffusion of northern features. Many border varieties have a mixture of features that make them difficult to classify. The boundary between Southwestern Mandarin and Xiang is particularly weak,[49] and in many early classifications the two were not separated.[50] Zhou Zhenhe and You Rujie include the New Xiangdialects within Southwestern Mandarin, treating only the more conservative Old Xiang dialects as a separate group.[51] The Huizhou dialects have features of both Mandarin and Wu, and have been assigned to one or other of these groups or treated as separate by various authors. Li Rong and theLanguage Atlas of China treated it as a separate top-level group, but this remains controversial.[52][53]

The Language Atlas of China calls the remainder of Mandarin a “supergroup”, divided into eight dialect groups distinguished by their treatment of the Middle Chinese entering tone (see Tones below):[54]

The Atlas also includes several unclassified Mandarin dialects spoken in scattered pockets across southeastern China, such as Nanping in Fujian andDongfang on Hainan,[64] Another Mandarin variety of uncertain classification is apparently Gyami, recorded in the 19th century in the Tibetan foothills, who the Chinese apparently did not recognize as Chinese.[65]

Phonology

Syllables consist maximally of an initial consonant, a glide, a vowel, a final, and tone. Not every syllable that is possible according to this rule actually exists in Mandarin, as there are rules prohibiting certain phonemes from appearing with others, and in practice there are only a few hundred distinct syllables.

Phonological features that are generally shared by the Mandarin dialects include:

Initials

The maximal inventory of initials of a Mandarin dialect is as follows, with bracketed pinyin spellings given for those present in the standard language:[66]

Labial Apical Retroflex Palatal Velar
Stops /p/ ⟨b⟩ /t/ ⟨d⟩ /k/ ⟨g⟩
/pʰ/ ⟨p⟩ /tʰ/ ⟨t⟩ /kʰ/ ⟨k⟩
Nasals /m/ ⟨m⟩ /n/ ⟨n⟩ /ŋ/
Affricates /t͡s/ ⟨z⟩ /ʈ͡ʂ/ ⟨zh⟩ /t͡ɕ/ ⟨j⟩
/t͡sʰ/ ⟨c⟩ /ʈ͡ʂʰ/ ⟨ch⟩ /t͡ɕʰ/ ⟨q⟩
Fricatives /f/ ⟨f⟩ /s/ ⟨s⟩ /ʂ/ ⟨sh⟩ /ɕ/ ⟨x⟩ /x/ ⟨h⟩
Sonorants /w/ /l/ ⟨l⟩ /ɻ ~ ʐ/ ⟨r⟩ /j/
  • Most Mandarin-speaking areas distinguish between the retroflex initials /ʈ͡ʂ ʈ͡ʂʰ ʂ/ from the apical sibilants /ts tsʰ s/, though they often have a different distribution than in the standard language. In most dialects of the southeast and southwest the retroflex initials have merged with the alveolar sibilants, so that zhi becomes zi, chi becomes ci, and shi becomes si.[67]
  • The alveolo-palatal sibilants /tɕ tɕʰ ɕ/ are the result of merger between the historical palatalized velars /kj kʰj xj/ and palatalized alveolar sibilants /tsj tsʰj sj/.[67] In about 20% of dialects, the alveolar sibilants failed to palatalize, remaining separate from the alveolo-palatal initials. (The unique pronunciation used in Peking opera falls into this category.) On the other side, in some dialects of eastern Shandong, the velar initials have failed to palatalize.
  • Many southwestern Mandarin dialects mix /f/ and /xw/, substituting one for the other in some or all cases.[68] For example, fei /fei/ “to fly” and hui /xwei/ “dust” may be merged in these areas.
  • In some dialects, initial /l/ and /n/ are not distinguished. In Southwestern Mandarin, these sounds usually merge to /n/; in Lower Yangtze Mandarin, they usually merge to /l/.[68]
  • People in many Mandarin-speaking areas may use different initial sounds where Beijing uses initial r- /ɻ/. Common variants include /j, /l/, /n/and /w/.[67]
  • Some dialects have initial /ŋ/ corresponding to the zero initial of the standard language.[67] This initial is the result of a merger of the Middle Chinese zero initial with /ŋ/ and /ʔ/.
  • Many dialects of Northwestern and Central Plains Mandarin have /pf pfʰ f v/ where Beijing has /tʂw tʂʰw ʂw ɻw/.[67] Examples include /pfu/ “pig” for standard zhū /tʂu/, /fei/ “water” for standard shuǐ /ʂwei/, /vã/ “soft” for standard ruǎn /ɻwan/.

Finals

Most Mandarin dialects have three medial glides, /j/, /w/ and /ɥ/ (spelled i, u and ü in pinyin), though their incidence varies. The medial /w/, is lost after apical initials in several areas.[67] Thus Southwestern Mandarin has /tei/ “right” where the standard language has dui /twei/. Southwestern Mandarin also has /kai kʰai xai/ in some words where the standard has jie qie xie /tɕjɛ tɕʰjɛ ɕjɛ/. This is a stereotypical feature of southwestern Mandarin, since it is so easily noticeable. E.g. hai “shoe” for standard xie, gai “street” for standard jie.

Mandarin dialects typically have relatively few vowels. Syllabic fricatives, as in standard zi and zhi, are common in Mandarin dialects, though they also occur elsewhere.[69] The Middle Chinese off-glides /j/ and /w/ are generally preserved in Mandarin dialects, yielding several diphthongs andtriphthongs in contrast to the larger sets of monophthongs common in other dialect groups (and some widely scattered Mandarin dialects).[69]

The Middle Chinese coda /m/ was still present in Old Mandarin, but has merged with /n/ in the modern dialects.[67] In some areas (especially the southwest) final /ŋ/ has also merged with /n/. This is especially prevalent in the rhyme pairs -en/-eng /ən əŋ/ and -in/-ing /in iŋ/. As a result,jīn “gold” and jīng “capital” merge in those dialects.

The Middle Chinese final stops have undergone a variety of developments in different Mandarin dialects (see Tones below). In Lower Yangtze dialects and some north-western dialects they have merged as a final glottal stop. In other dialects they have been lost, with varying effects on the vowel.[67] As a result, Beijing Mandarin and Northeastern Mandarin underwent more vowel mergers than many other varieties of Mandarin. For example:

Character Meaning Standard
(Beijing)
Beijing, Harbin
Colloquial
Jinan
(Ji–Lu)
Xi’an
(Central Plains)
Chengdu
(Southwestern)
Yangzhou
(Lower Yangtze)
Middle Chinese
Reconstructed
Pinyin IPA
lesson kʰɤ kʰɤ kʰə kʰwo kʰo kʰo kʰɑ
guest tɕʰie[c] kʰei kʰei kʰe kʰəʔ kʰɰak
fruit guǒ kwo kwo kwə kwo ko ko kwɑ
country guó kwe kwe kɔʔ kwək

R-coloring, a characteristic feature of Mandarin, works quite differently in the southwest. Whereas Beijing dialect generally removes only a final/j/ or /n/ when adding the rhotic final -r /ɻ/, in the southwest the -r replaces nearly the entire rhyme.

Tones

Four tones of Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, using musical notation.

In general, no two Mandarin-speaking areas have exactly the same set of tone values, but most Mandarin-speaking areas have very similar tone distribution. For example, the dialects of Jinan, Chengdu, Xi’an and so on all have four tones that correspond quite well to the Beijing dialect tones of [˥] (55), [˧˥] (35), [˨˩˦] (214), and [˥˩](51). The exception to this rule lies in the distribution of syllables formerly ending in a stop consonant, which are treated differently in different dialects of Mandarin.[70]

Middle Chinese stops and affricates had a three-way distinction between tenuis, voiceless aspirate and voiced (or breathy voiced) consonants. In Mandarin dialects the voicing is generally lost, yielding voiceless aspirates in syllables with a Middle Chinese level tone and non-aspirates in other syllables.[40] Of the four tones of Middle Chinese, the level, rising and departing tones have also developed into four modern tones in a uniform way across Mandarin dialects: the Middle Chinese level tone has split into two registers, conditioned on voicing of the Middle Chinese initial, while rising tone syllables with voiced obstruent initials have shifted to the departing tone.[71] The following examples from the standard language illustrate the regular development common to Mandarin dialects (recall that pinyin d denotes a non-aspirate /t/, while t denotes an aspirate /tʰ/):

Reflexes of Middle Chinese initials and tones in modern Mandarin
Middle Chinese tone “level tone”
(píng 平)
“rising tone”
(shǎng 上)
“departing tone”
( 去)
Example
Middle Chinese tan tʰan lan dan tan tʰan lan dan tan tʰan lan dan
Standard Chinese dān tān lán tán dǎn tǎn lǎn dàn dàn tàn làn dàn
Modern Mandarin tone 1 (yīn píng) 2 (yáng píng) 3 (shǎng) 4 ()

In traditional Chinese phonology, syllables that ended in a stop in Middle Chinese (i.e. /p/, /t/ or /k/) were considered to belong to a special category known as the “entering tone“. These final stops have disappeared in most Mandarin dialects, with the syllables distributed over the other four modern tones in different ways in the various Mandarin subgroups.

In the Beijing dialect that underlies the standard language, syllables beginning with original voiceless consonants were redistributed across the four tones in a completely random pattern.[72] For example, the three characters , all tsjek in Middle Chinese (William H. Baxter’s transcription), are now pronounced , and respectively. Older dictionaries such as Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary mark characters whose pronunciation formerly ended with a stop with a superscript 5; however, this tone number is more commonly used for syllables that always have a neutral tone (see below).

In Lower Yangtze dialects, a minority of Southwestern dialects (e.g. Minjiang) and Jin Chinese (sometimes considered non-Mandarin), former final stops were not deleted entirely, but were reduced to a glottal stop /ʔ/.[72] This development is shared with Wu Chinese and is thought to represent the pronunciation of Old Mandarin. In line with traditional Chinese phonology, dialects such as Lower Yangtze and Minjiang are thus said to have five tones instead of four. However, modern linguistics considers these syllables as having no phonemic tone at all.

Reflexes of the Middle Chinese entering tone in Mandarin dialects[73]
subgroup Middle Chinese initial
voiceless voiced sonorant voiced obstruent
Beijing 1,3,4 4 2
Northeastern
Jiao–Liao 3
Ji–Lu 1
Central Plains 1
Lan–Yin 4
Southwestern 2
Lower Yangtze marked with final glottal stop ()

Although the system of tones is common across Mandarin dialects, their realization as tone contours varies widely:[74]

Phonetic realization of Mandarin tones in principal dialects
Tone name 1 (yīn píng) 2 (yáng píng) 3 (shǎng) 4 () marked with
glottal stop ()
Beijing Beijing ˥ (55) ˧˥ (35) ˨˩˦ (214) ˥˩ (51)
Northeastern Harbin ˦ (44) ˨˦ (24) ˨˩˧ (213) ˥˨ (52)
Jiao–Liao Yantai ˧˩ (31) (˥ (55)) ˨˩˦ (214) ˥ (55)
Ji–Lu Tianjin ˨˩ (21) ˧˥ (35) ˩˩˧ (113) ˥˧ (53)
Shijiazhuang ˨˧ (23) ˥˧ (53) ˥ (55) ˧˩ (31)
Central Plains Zhengzhou ˨˦ (24) ˦˨ (42) ˥˧ (53) ˧˩˨ (312)
Luoyang ˧˦ (34) ˦˨ (42) ˥˦ (54) ˧˩ (31)
Xi’an ˨˩ (21) ˨˦ (24) ˥˧ (53) ˦ (44)
Tianshui ˩˧ (13) ˥˧ (53) ˨˦ (24)
Lan–Yin Lanzhou ˧˩ (31) ˥˧ (53) ˧ (33) ˨˦ (24)
Yinchuan ˦ (44) ˥˧ (53) ˩˧ (13)
Southwestern Chengdu ˦ (44) ˨˩ (21) ˥˧ (53) ˨˩˧ (213)
Xichang ˧ (33) ˥˨ (52) ˦˥ (45) ˨˩˧ (213) ˧˩ʔ (31)
Kunming ˦ (44) ˧˩ (31) ˥˧ (53) ˨˩˨ (212)
Wuhan ˥ (55) ˨˩˧ (213) ˦˨ (42) ˧˥ (35)
Liuzhou ˦ (44) ˧˩ (31) ˥˧ (53) ˨˦ (24)
Lower Yangtze Yangzhou ˧˩ (31) ˧˥ (35) ˦˨ (42) ˥ (55) ˥ʔ (5)
Nantong ˨˩ (21) ˧˥ (35) ˥ (55) ˦˨ (42), ˨˩˧ (213)* ˦ʔ (4), ˥ʔ (5)*

* Dialects in and around the Nantong area typically have many more than 4 tones, due to influence from the neighbouring Wu dialects.

Mandarin dialects frequently employ neutral tones in the second syllables of words, creating syllables whose tone contour is so short and light that it is difficult or impossible to discriminate. These atonal syllables also occur in non-Mandarin dialects, but in many southern dialects the tones of all syllables are made clear.[72]

Vocabulary

There are more polysyllabic words in Mandarin than in all other major varieties of Chinese except Shanghainese. This is partly because Mandarin has undergone many more sound changes than have southern varieties of Chinese, and has needed to deal with many more homophones. New words have been formed by adding affixes such as lao- (老), -zi (子), -(e)r (儿/兒), and -tou (头/頭), or by compounding, e.g. by combining two words of similar meaning as in cōngmáng (匆忙), made from elements meaning “hurried” and “busy”. A distinctive feature of southwestern Mandarin is its frequent use of noun reduplication, which is hardly used in Beijing. In Sichuan, one hears bāobāo (包包) “handbag” where Beijing uses bāo’r (包儿). There are also a small number of words that have been polysyllabic since Old Chinese, such as húdié (蝴蝶) “butterfly”.

The singular pronouns in Mandarin are (我) “I”, (你 or 妳) “you”, nín (您) “you (formal)”, and (他, 她 or 它) “he/she/it”, with -men (们們) added for the plural. Further, there is a distinction between the plural first-person pronoun zánmen (咱们/咱們), which is inclusive of the listener, and wǒmen (我们/我們), which may be exclusive of the listener. Dialects of Mandarin agree with each other quite consistently on these pronouns. While the first and second person singular pronouns are cognate with forms in other varieties of Chinese, the rest of the pronominal system is a Mandarin innovation (e.g., Shanghainese has non 侬/儂 “you” and yi 伊 “he/she”).[75]

Because of contact with Mongolian and Manchurian peoples, Mandarin (especially the Northeastern varieties) has some loanwords from these languages not present in other varieties of Chinese, such as hútòng (胡同) “alley”. Southern Chinese varieties have borrowed from Tai,[76] Austroasiatic,[77]and Austronesian languages.

There are also many Chinese words came from foreign languages such as gāo ěr fū (高尔夫) from golf; bǐ jī ní (比基尼) from bikini; hàn bǎo bāo (汉堡包) from hamburger.

In general, the greatest variation occurs in slang, in kinship terms, in names for common crops and domesticated animals, for common verbs and adjectives, and other such everyday terms. The least variation occurs in “formal” vocabulary—terms dealing with science, law, or government.

Grammar

Chinese varieties of all periods have traditionally been considered prime examples of analytic languages, relying on word order and particles instead of inflection or affixes to provide grammatical information such as person, number, tense, mood, or case. Although modern varieties, including the Mandarin dialects, use a small number of particles in a similar fashion to suffixes, they are still strongly analytic.[78]

The basic word order of subject–verb–object is common across Chinese dialects, but there are variations in the order of the two objects ofditransitive sentences. In northern dialects the indirect object precedes the direct object (as in English), for example in the Standard Chinese sentence:

一本 书 。
gěi yìběn shū.
I give you a (one) book.

In southern dialects, as well as many southwestern and Lower Yangtze dialects, the objects occur in the reverse order.[79][80]

Most varieties of Chinese use post-verbal particles to indicate aspect, but the particles used vary. Most Mandarin dialects use the particle -le(了) to indicate the perfective aspect and -zhe (着/著) for the progressive aspect. Other Chinese varieties tend to use different particles, e.g. Cantonese zo2 咗 and gan2 紧/緊 respectively. The experiential aspect particle -guo (过/過) is used more widely, except in Southern Min.[81]

The subordinative particle de (的) is characteristic of Mandarin dialects.[82] Some southern dialects, and a few Lower Yangtze dialects, preserve an older pattern of subordination without a marking particle, while in others a classifier fulfils the role of the Mandarin particle.[83]

Especially in conversational Chinese, sentence-final particles alter the inherent meaning of a sentence. Like much vocabulary, particles can vary a great deal with regards to the locale. For example, the particle ma (嘛), which is used in most northern dialects to denote obviousness or contention, is replaced by yo (哟) in southern usage.

Some characters in Mandarin can be combined with others to indicate a particular meaning just like prefix and suffix in English. For example, the suffix -er which means the person who is doing the action, e.g. teacher, person who teaches. In Mandarin the character 師 functions the same thing, it is combined with 教, which means teach, to form the word teacher.

List of Chinese prefix and suffix

Affix Pronunciation Meaning Example Meaning of Example
-們[们] men plural, same as -s, -es 學生們 [学生们]、朋友們 [朋友們] students, friends
可- same as -able 可信、可笑、可靠 trusty, laughable, reliable
重- chóng same as re-(again) 重做、重建、重新 redo, rebuild, renew
第- same as -th, -st, -nd 第二、第一 second, first
老- lǎo old, or show respect to a certain type of person 老头;老板、老师 old man; boss, teacher
-化 huà same as -ize, -en 公式化、制度化、強化 officialize, systemize, strengthen
-家 jiā same as -er or expert 作家、科學家[科学家]、藝術家[艺术家] writer, scientist, artist
-性 xìng same as -ness,_ -ability 可靠性、實用性[实用性]、可理解性 reliability, usability, understandability
-鬼 guǐ usually used in a disparaging way similar to –aholic 煙鬼、酒鬼、胆小鬼 smoker, alcoholic, coward
-匠 jiàng a technician in a certain field 花匠、油漆匠、木匠 gardener, painter, carpenter
-迷 an enthusiast 戲迷[戏迷]、球迷、歌迷 theater fan, sports fan, groupie of a musician
-師 [师] shī suffix for occupations 教師[教师]、厨師[厨师]、律師[律师] teacher, cook/chef, lawyer

Why do human beings speak so many languages?

The thatched roof held back the sun’s rays, but it could not keep the tropical heat at bay. As everyone at the research workshop headed outside for a break, small groups splintered off to gather in the shade of coconut trees and enjoy a breeze. I wandered from group to group, joining in the discussions. Each time, I noticed that the language of the conversation would change from an indigenous language to something they knew I could understand, Bislama or English. I was amazed by the ease with which the meeting’s participants switched between languages, but I was even more astonished by the number of different indigenous languages.

Thirty people had gathered for the workshop on this island in the South Pacific, and all except for me came from the island, called Makelua, in the nation of Vanuatu. They lived in 16 different communities and spoke 16 distinct languages.

In many cases, you could stand at the edge of one village and see the outskirts of the next community. Yet the residents of each village spoke completely different languages. According to recent work by my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this island, just 100 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, is home to speakers of perhaps 40 different indigenous languages. Why so many?

We could ask this same question of the entire globe. People don’t speak one universal language, or even a handful. Instead, today our species collectively speaks over 7,000 distinct languages.

And these languages are not spread randomly across the planet. For example, far more languages are found in tropical regions than in the temperate zones. The tropical island of New Guinea is home to over 900 languages. Russia, 20 times larger, has 105 indigenous languages. Even within the tropics, language diversity varies widely. For example, the 250,000 people who live on Vanuatu’s 80 islands speak 110 different languages, but in Bangladesh, a population 600 times greater speaks only 41 languages.

Why is it that humans speak so many languages? And why are they so unevenly spread across the planet? As it turns out, we have few clear answers to these fundamental questions about how humanity communicates.

Why do some places have many languages, and others only a few? Man vyi, CC BY-SA
Some ideas, but little evidence
Most people can easily brainstorm possible answers to these intriguing questions. They hypothesize that language diversity must be about history, cultural differences, mountains or oceans dividing populations, or old squabbles writ large – “we hated them, so we don’t talk to them.”

The questions also seem like they should be fundamental to many academic disciplines – linguistics, anthropology, human geography. But, starting in 2010, when our diverse team of researchers from six different disciplines and eight different countries began to review what was known, we were shocked that only a dozen previous studies had been done, including one we ourselves completed on language diversity in the Pacific.

These prior efforts all examined the degree to which different environmental, social and geographic variables correlated with the number of languages found in a given location. The results varied a lot from one study to another, and no clear patterns emerged. The studies also ran up against many methodological challenges, the biggest of which centered on the old statistical adage – correlation does not equal causation.

We wanted to know the exact steps that led to so many languages forming in certain places and so few in others. But previous work provided few robust theories on the specific processes involved, and the methods used did not get us any closer to understanding the causes of language diversity patterns.

For example, previous studies pointed out that at lower latitudeslanguages are often spoken across smaller areas than at higher latitudes. You can fit more languages into a given area the closer you get to the equator. But this result does not tell us much about the processes that create language diversity. Just because a group of people crosses an imaginary latitudinal line on the map doesn’t mean they’ll automatically divide into two different populations speaking two different languages. Latitude might be correlated with language diversity, but it certainly did not create it.

Can a simple model predict reality?
A better way to identify the causes of particular patterns is to simulate the processes we think might be creating them. The closer the model’s products are to the reality we know exists, the greater the chances are that we understand the actual processes at work.

Two members of our group, ecologists Thiago Rangel and Robert Colwell, had developed this simulation modeling technique for their studies of species diversity patterns. But no one had ever used this approach to study the diversity of human populations.

We decided to explore its potential by first building a simple model to test the degree to which a few basic processes might explain language diversity patterns in just one part of the globe, the continent of Australia.

Map of Australia’s 406 languages before contact with Europeans. Claire Bowern, Yale University, with support from the National Science Foundation BCS-1423711, CC BY
Our colleague Claire Bowern, a linguist at Yale University, created a map that shows the diversity of aboriginal languages – a total of 406 – found in Australia prior to contact with Europeans. There were far more languages in the north and along the coasts, with relatively few in the desert interior. We wanted to see how closely a model, based on a simple set of processes, could match this geographic pattern of language diversity.

Our simulation model made only three basic assumptions. First, populations will move to fill available spaces where no one else lives.

Second, rainfall will limit the number of people that can live in a place; Our model assumed that people would live in higher densities in areas where it rained more. Annual precipitation varies widely in Australia, from over three meters in the northeastern rainforests to one-tenth of a meter in the Outback.

Third, we assumed that human populations have a maximum size. Ideal group size is a trade-off between benefits of a larger group (wider selection of potential mates) and costs (keeping track of unrelated individuals). In our model, when a population grew larger than a maximum threshold – set randomly based on a global distribution of hunter-gatherer population sizes – it divided into two populations, each speaking a distinct language.

We used this model to simulate language diversity maps for Australia. In each iteration, an initial population sprung up randomly somewhere on the map and began to grow and spread in a random direction. An underlying rainfall map determined the population density, and when the population size hit the predetermined maximum, the group divided. In this way, the simulated human populations grew and divided as they spread to fill up the entire Australian continent.

Our simple model didn’t include any impact from contact among groups, changes in subsistence strategies, the effects of the borrowing of cultural ideas or components of language from nearby groups, or many other potential processes. So, we expected it would fail miserably.

Incredibly, the model produced 407 languages, just one off from the actual number.

The simulation model predicts virtually the same number of languages (407) as were observed in reality (406).Gavin et al DOI: 10.1111/geb.12563, CC BY
The simulated language maps also show more languages in the north and along the coasts, and less in the dry regions of central Australia, mirroring the geographic patterns in observed language diversity.

And so for the continent of Australia it appears that a small number of factors – limitations rainfall places on population density and limits on group size – might explain both the number of languages and much of the variation in how many languages are spoken in different locations.

A simulation model based on a few simple processes predicts much of the geographic variation in language diversity in Australia. Gavin et al DOI: 10.1111/geb.12563, CC BY
Applying the model elsewhere
But we suspect that the patterns of language diversity in other places may be shaped by different factors and processes. In other locations, such as Vanuatu, rainfall levels do not vary as widely as in Australia, and population densities may be shaped by other environmental conditions.

In other instances, contact among human groups probably reshaped the landscape of language diversity. For example, the spread of agricultural groups speaking Indo-European or Bantu languages may have changed the structure of populations and the languages spoken across huge areas of Europe and Africa, respectively.

Undoubtedly, a wide variety of social and environmental factors and processes have contributed to the patterns in language diversity we see across the globe. In some places topography, climate or the density of key natural resources may be more critical; in others the history of warfare, political organization or the subsistence strategies of different groups may play a bigger role in shaping group boundaries and language diversity patterns. What we have established for now is a template for a method that can be used to uncover the different processes at work in each location.

Language diversity has played a key role in shaping the interactions of human groups and the history of our species, and yet we know surprisingly little about the factors shaping this diversity. We hope other scientists will become as fascinated by the geography of language diversity as our research group is and join us in the search for understanding why humans speak so many languages.

Tips For Quickly Learning Arabic Vocabulary

Learning Arabic is something many want to do; it is, after all, one of the most spoken languages in the world. Boasting more than 300 million speakers across the globe, Arabic is considered to be a universal language and is currently enjoying amazing growth. Moreover, the Arabic language also has (geo)political, economical and cultural influence in international relations. All of this renders this language increasingly important. And the more important a language is, the more interesting it is to learn! But, can Arabic be learned quickly? That’s exactly what I’ll be speaking about in this article.

tips-for-quickly-learning-arabic-vocabulary-mosalingua

Is Learning Arabic Difficult?

Some people think this language sounds like gibberish simply due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like any Indo-European language. They thus are skeptical that quickly learning Arabic can be done. This has been shown to be just a wrong impression some have of this language. Research conducted by linguists shows that learning Arabic is a process that is not any different from learning any other language.

Memorizing Arabic vocabulary is an important step for learning this language. Many are those who encounter difficulties when trying to memorize the necessary lexicon for speaking this beautiful language. However, there are highly efficient learning methods elaborated according to scientific parameters, which are based on concepts of cognitive science and psychology, freely available to anyone who has the desire to study this language. Such methods are great for quickly learning Arabic!

After taking a quick look at the current status of this magnificent language, I’ll describe some methods to apply to efficiently memorize Arabic vocabulary in record time.

Taking a Look at Arabic

The Arabic language is a Semitic, universal language and is thousands of years old.More than 300 million people speak it across the globe, and over 20 countries speak it as their official language.
Arabic experienced a massive growth when Islam spread to the four corners of the world. Moreover, it is currently expanding due to all the migrations and the strong presence of communities of Arabic origin in the Occident.

This language can be divided into two variations: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), also called Literary or Standard Arabic, and Popular Arabic (or “Popular Arabic Dialects” because of their many variations).
Literal Arabic is the national and official language of the Arabic speaking world. It’s the one that is used in literary, in themedia, administrative correspondence, etc. Popular Arabic, in turn, is the one used in daily conversations. It is composed of words which come from various languages, but most of its words come from MSA—one could say it’s a patchwork of words. And these two variations, MSA and Popular Arabic, coexist in all Arabic speaking countries.

Quickly Learning Arabic With Frequency ListsLearning arabic, study arabic, learn arabic for free, how to start studying arabic, arabic alphabet

All languages spoken around the world have “basic words”, which are the most used words in daily conversation. To boost your level in Arabic and to successfully learn this language, I highly encourage you to memorize them.

For the Arabic language, you can easily find a list with, for example, 500 words. In other words, these are the 500 most used words in the Arabic language. This list is thus theideal tool for quickly learning Arabic. This method of memorizing frequency lists is simply applying the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.

Once you get hold of a frequency list of 500 words, you can memorize it within a month. All it takes is memorizing 15 words a day

How to Memorize Arabic Vocabulary

In order to memorize 10-15 Arabic words a day, it’s indispensable to implement the Spaced Repetition System. This system allows learners to memorize words, concepts and information for the long-term by increasing the time in between each reviews. To do this, you need to plan what you will learn according to the forgetting curve, which will allow you to review words in your frequency list you will have previously memorized just before you forget them. This way, you won’t waste time reviewing words you’re not about to forget anyway, and you won’t review words after you’ve completely forgotten them.

Please note: there are more than one frequency list, some are organized by themes. Here are a few examples of such lists. What you can do is memorize the vocabulary used in basic phrases, then for meeting new people, after this, the one for asking directions, and so on. Once you’ve chosen which vocabulary list you want to memorize, quickly learning Arabic will be possible thanks to the Spaced Repetition System.

arabic, bar, bottlesLearning Arabic Words by Classifying Them in Categories

One thing that you want to do when learning Arabic is to implement a technique for memorizing words with flashcards. The efficiency of this technique lies in the fact that using it means you will easily be able to recall the words you’ve memorized.

This technique makes use of active recall of which results are interesting, to say the least. With it, you can work on the pronunciation of Arabic words you want to learn. It leans very much on being able to answer questions asked and on entertainment. This technique is a bit similar to that of putting sticky notes on objects around the house with their names in the language of choice. Active recall is among the most efficient methods for memorizing Arabic words.

Learning Arabic Words by Memorizing Phrases

Memorizing a frequency list with Arabic vocabulary is a very important and necessary step to reach fluency, but it’s not enough. In fact, learning isolated words is not sufficient for learning Arabic, or any language for that matter. To reach fluency, you need to put these words into phrases in order to grasp how they are to be used thus enabling you to use them adequately in a real conversation.

For this, you have to memorize ready-built phrases with words you already know. Just as there are frequency lists, there are sentence patterns: the most used phrases used in everyday conversations which can be memorized for learning Arabic in record time. Memorizing ready-built phrases will allow you to quickly use these phrases and to adapt them to build more complicated ones.

This method for quickly learning Arabic by memorizing phrases can help you with a major problem many learners of the language encounter: not mastering grammar and conjugation rules. But between you and me, you don’t need to master all these rules to properly express yourself; not during the first months, at least. Memorizing ready-built phrases will be perfect for your level, initial goals and needs thus by-passing the grammar rules beginners struggle so much with.

Going One Step Further

Once you’ve assimilated the language and memorized words and phrases, you can go further in your study of the language by concentrating on the alphabet and pronunciation.

Learning arabic, study arabic, learn arabic for free, how to start studying arabic, arabic alphabetTwo Ways to Learn The Alphabet

The Arabic alphabet is composed of 28 letters. To efficiently learn this alphabet, it is of utmost importance to carefully listen to the vocalization of each letter. Looking for the equivalent of the Arabic letters in English can seem something efficient to do, but it isn’t! And this it due to the fact that there are some letters in the Arabic alphabet of which sounds simply don’t exist in our language, as is the case for the letter ع.

The most efficient method to allow you—with some work—to pronounce the Arabic alphabet is to concentrate on two things:

  1. Listen to the sounds: carefully listen to the pronunciation of the Arabic letters in order to properly distinguish each letter and to not confuse them (such as with the pronunciation of ذ and ز).
  2. Work on correctly pronouncing all the letters of the Arabic alphabet. To do this, study the position of the tongue and mouth when each letter is pronounced.

Another method consists of dividing the Arabic alphabet in function of where they fall in the following categories:

Learning arabic, study arabic, learn arabic for free, how to start studying arabic, arabic alphabet

The Arabic Alphabet

  • Letters that are pronounced lightly (such as ت [ta], س  [si], ك   [ka] ,  ذ [dha]) and those with a stronger pronunciation (such as Sa, with its “s” pronounced like the English word “sun”, ت  [ta] and ق  [qa], which is pronounced by pressing the throat, as opposed to the letter “ka”, of which sound originates from the mouth).
  • The letters that can be attached to the right and the left, and those that can only be attached to the right. They are the following: أ [alif], د  [da], ذ [dha], ر  [raa] (rolled r), ز [zayn] and و [waw].
  • Changing letters, and fixed letters. In Arabic, some letters change depending on whether they are at the end of a word or not, and some don’t change no matter where they are found in a word.

I couldn’t advise you to do pronunciation exercises enough. They will be of great help to reproduce the correct sounds of the Arabic language which are nonexistent in the English language.

Learning The Arabic Alphabet in Its Traditional Order

I highly recommend you not to learn the Arabic alphabet in its traditional order. This can especially help you avoid amalgamates and other possible confusions between the letters with similar shapes and transcriptions but with different sounds. It’s only once you’ve learned all the letters of the Arabic alphabet that you could learn them in their traditional order.

One more things: its important for each letter to be written properly so they can be readable, and written correctly and at a normal pace.

A Few More Tips

Here are some tips and tricks for optimally learning this beautiful language:

  • Learning arabic, study arabic, learn arabic for free, how to start studying arabic, arabic alphabetDon’t just learn its rules: learning should be contextualized. Learn things that can easily be used in a practical context such as when at work or shopping.
  • Once again, make sure you do vocalization exercises of words, phrases or entire texts. This will help you properly and quickly express yourself.
  • Learning Arabic must be dynamic! It’s very important to include enjoyable activities, such as games, to better assimilate the language.

About The Author

This article was written by Salim Kecir, a coach/tutor of the Arabic language for more than 15 years. He is also an author of books for learning Arabic, which you can find here (in French only). He also woks on almodaris.com, teaching Arabic to students of all ages and levels.

Why Arabic is not as hard as you think

Why Arabic is not as hard as you think

Arabic is surrounded by myths. Here are just a few:

“The script is impossibly difficult, like hieroglyphics.”

Not true. It has an alphabet of 28 letters. Letters are joined up. There are actually only 5 basic shapes. Writing goes clockwise (except for one letter – Hamza), from right to left, which for many people is easier than writing left to right as it involves pushing the pen, not pulling it.

“Arabic has too many exotic sounds, impossible to learn for foreigners.”

Not true. There are only two or three sounds which are not found in English and these can be learned easily through imitation.

“Arabic has an enormous vocabulary: 400 words for a camel, 200 for a lion, etc.”

Not true. Ancient poetry has a very complex and varied vocabulary. But the vocabulary of Modern Standard Arabic is no more complex than the vocabulary of any other modern language.

“Arabic grammar is impossibly complicated.”

Not true. Its verb system is quite easy. For example, there are just two tenses – past and non-past.

Easy Verb conjugation

If you’ve ever thinked (sorry, thought) about it, English and the other common European languages teached (sorry, taught) in school, are full of irregular verbs. That’s why really young kids will say things like “he hited me” – they haven’t got hold of the idea yet that in English, we don’t always form the past participle using the –ed ending. Arabic has nothing of the sort. The verb conjugation table is bigger than English (with singular, dual, plural, masculine and feminine categories), but once you’ve learned the table for one verb, you’re done. There are indeed a category of verbs called “weak”, which are sometimes thought of as irregular, but in fact each group of weak verbs (e.g. hollow verbs, defective verbs) follow a completely regular pattern, which is tweaked slightly from the basic verb conjugation table.

Learn one word, get dozens more free

Being a Semitic language, Arabic has a derivation system, whereby from a single root (defined as a three-letter combination), you can derive a whole array of related meanings. So from the root ‘a-l-m we get the verbs ‘alima (to know), ‘allama(to teach),a’lama (to inform),ta’allama (to learn), ista’lama (to inquire). Furthermore, the way each of these verbs is related to the basic root ‘a-l-m also helps with vocabulary acquisition. So whereas ‘alima (to know) is the simple form verb, ‘allama (to teach) is a 2nd form verb (the middle root letter l is doubled), and we use the 2nd form for causation. So literally ‘allama means to cause someone to know, and therefore to teach. Similarly, ta’allama (to learn) is the 5th form, which is a reflexive of the 2nd form. So ta’allama literally means to cause yourself to know, and therefore to learn. And again ista’lama (to inquire) is the 10th form, which is used for requests. So ta’allama literally means to request to know, and therefore to inquire.

Easy Pronunciation

Although learning Arabic involves learning an entirely new alphabet, once learned, you can benefit from the fact that (1) Arabic is written phonetically, so every word is spelled exactly as it sounds, and (2) there is no correct intonation to learn in Arabic (which in English would have to be read “there is no correct intonation to learn in Arabic”), as all syllables are equally stressed. Arabic certainly has its fair share of challenges but you might find that it’s a whole lot easier to understand and get along with than you had thought.

Choose your own word order

The World Atlas of Language Structures estimates that around 35% of languages have a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order, like English, (e.g. The dog chased the cat), 41% have an SOV order (The dog the cat chased), and only 7% have a VSO order (Chased the dog the cat). Although the standard word order in an Arabic verbal sentence is VSO, making it part of this minority, in fact word order in Arabic is very flexible. You can stick to VSO, or you can make it the same as English, SVO. Although this has subtle rhetorical differences in Classical Arabic, in Modern Standard Arabic the two word orders are equivalent.

The European Influence

Arabic is divided into Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA – used in the media, modern writing etc.) and the various geographical dialects (e.g. Egyptian Arabic). Most Arabic students start their Arabic education by learning MSA, and then expand to the other forms if necessary. Although the basic grammar of MSA is identical to Classical Arabic, it has been significantly influenced by translation works from European languages. As such, a number of phrases and connectors, not to mention vocabulary, have entered the language, making it significantly easier to communicate. For example, the verb to lie in Classical Arabic is transitive (so we get constructions like he lied his friend). In MSA, due to the influence of English and French, in both of which the verb to lie is intransitive (i.e. he lied to his friend), the verb is now used intransitively in MSA too. Although this has purists up in arms, if your goal is to learn MSA, this undoubtedly makes things easier.


How Difficult Is It to Learn Arabic?

According to the British Council, Arabic is on its way up. Although it has long been a favourite among students looking to get a hang of a more exotic language, learning Arabic has been becoming more popular over the recent years. This is understandable – in addition to packing some serious cultural and historical punch, Arabic is also the language spoken in oil-rich Gulf countries, and in parts of Africa that are quickly becoming the world’s quickest expanding markets. All of this provides great economic incentives for learning this beautiful, yet puzzling language.

For those of us contemplating jumping head first into studying Arabic, we’ve compiled this guide to provide some overview and insight into the process.

Introduction to Arabic

Arabic is a notoriously difficult language to categorise. The widely held belief is that it actually comprises of a wide-ranging group of dialects pulled together under this one category. The fact that, linguistically speaking, it is impossible to determine which separates a language from a dialect, makes “Arabic” a somewhat loose term. In addition to the dozens of spoken dialects, Arabic also refers to the Modern Standard Arabic – this is the “official” form which is used in literature and formal speech, although thanks to its relations to the ancient Classic Arabic, MSA sounds a bit archaic and artificial by now.

The differences in understanding what makes Arabic, well, Arabic is also the reason why it’s difficult to determine its number of speakers. If all different spoken dialects of Arabic are pulled under this one umbrella term, the estimates are that there can be around 422 million native and non-native speakers, making it one of the five most widely spoken languages. In addition, Arabic is also the de facto religious language for the 1.6 billion Muslims.

Why Arabic Is Considered Difficult

Arabic is a frequent visitor on lists about the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. The language learning communities are filled with anxious Arabic learnersventing about the tough task of becoming fluent in Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute estimates about 2,200 hours (or 88 weeks or almost 2 years) of study time to achieve general proficiency.

The most often-cited reasons for labelling Arabic as difficult is simply because it contains rather little in common with the European language families. Belonging to theAfroasiatic language family, Arabic has had a path of development distinctly different from the big European languages. Although, since Arabic was the language of science during the Middle Ages, there are words that have crossed over to the global speak from that era.

The aspects of Arabic that can seem the most foreign to native English speakers are the fact that reading and writing happens from right to left – the opposite direction to English, the existence of a completely different alphabet and its rather unusual sounds which have no equivalent in English. To further complicate things, vowels are omitted from written Arabic (I mean, srsly?!) which can complicate understanding when first learning the language.

But It’s Not All Bad

Although Arabic does definitely present some rather unique difficulties, it still isn’t the most difficult language on the planet. Mostly because there is no such thing. The trick to learning any language is to start making your own connections to what you’re learning and simply enjoy the process.

Since Arabic differs so much from location to location, it might benefit to also change your approach to learning it depending on your goal. If you simply want to pick up some conversational Arabic for your trip, simply start by learning some colloquial Arabic of your destination country. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive overview – start by learning Modern Standard Arabic and widening your understanding of the local dialects from there. Dr. Aaron Ralby argues that learning Arabic should be viewed as not learning one, but several related languages – much like studying French, Spanish, and Portuguese which all stem from the same origins. This might also put the task in better perspective.

Although learning Arabic has been thought to be incredibly difficult, this notoriety comes down to being, at worst, based on myth or, at best, over exaggerated. In the end, it’s your own attitude and context that make the most difference in learning a language.

If you’re still doubting, this page will give you some reasons why learning Arabic is a great idea.

Learning German – how hard is it really?

Learning German – how hard is it really?

Learning German together is fun, says Gisela Breuker. This language teacher at the Goethe-Institut in Bonn explains exactly what happens in a language class and reveals a few tricks to help you build your language skills even outside classes.

Interview with language teacher Gisela Breuker at the Goethe-Institut in Bonn

Why should professionals moving to Germany learn German? How important is the language?
The German language is the entry ticket to German culture. If you’re unable to speak the language, you can’t really immerse yourself in the culture. It’s not just about having conversations while out shopping. You really need to be able to express your feelings, to communicate and to say things in a distinguished manner.

What is the first thing you teach beginners?
We start off by speaking. I come into the room and say “Guten Tag”. Then I’m happy if someone responds by saying “Guten Tag”. We then continue with “Guten Tag, ich heiße…” and “ich komme aus…”. After two lessons, the participants can introduce themselves and say what they do for a living. They are also able to respond: “Wie geht es Ihnen?” “Danke, gut. Und Ihnen?” Then they can start making conversation with others.

That really gives them a sense of achievement: The participants go home knowing that they are able to introduce themselves and respond when someone starts talking to them. Moving from not speaking to speaking – it’s a great learning achievement, especially in the courses at A1 level. I have a lot or respect for these students, because they put enormous effort in.

How many participants are there in your courses?
In my courses, there are up to 16 participants from many different countries. We practise listening, speaking, reading, grammar and pronunciation in all of the courses, no matter what level. The courses take five hours per day, and we try to motivate participants on an ongoing basis. They spend a lot of time moving around the room, they create their own content, they react. The work with cards, CDs and a textbook. We try to use many different teaching methods. Sometimes our students forget all about the time, since we approach them in many different ways over five hours.

We also go outside. I might take my students to a museum about German history, for example. I also assign research tasks, for example about bread. As the students work on these tasks, they learn many new words; they might go into a bakery and complete different tasks. Then they come back, tell us about their experiences and write a short essay. Together, this ends up as a package, which makes the participants feel like they are taking something home with them: They might have learned something about bread, they know new words, and they know where to go the next day if they want to buy bread. That’s “German” in itself.

How long does it take before students can find their way round everyday life in Germany?
After a four-week beginners’ A1 course, I can have a cup of coffee with my students and we can talk about everyday matters. At level B2, they’ll have completed seven or eight courses. Then you can take entry exams at universities or start a job.

When is the best time to start learning German?
If you have the opportunity, it might be best to start learning German while still in your home country. It makes things easier if you know the alphabet at least. Students who have learned foreign languages before have many advantages. They’re familiar with the shock of having to learn every word from scratch. Students from Asian or Arabic countries have often completed a pre-course already, which is really helpful.

Are there techniques or tricks for learning German more quickly?
We do try to work those out.  There a people who say “show me a picture, and I’ll understand what you mean.” Others might say, “I need to hear you.” Again others might say, “show me the word.” We try to accommodate these preferences. We teach techniques that might help students learn new words and practise pronunciation at home. We have a media centre, and we have young people who help our students get to know German culture.

Our courses are called “Deutsch lernen, Deutschland kennenlernen.” We try and introduce our participants to German culture, too. We don’t do that in the classroom only. We also encourage them to go and buy a cup of coffee at a kiosk, to experience “real” communication. I might set that kind of task as homework. The next day, I’m really happy when my students say, “I managed to get my coffee.”

Beyond courses, what else can students do to improve their German?
I often tell my students who’ve been here for a bit longer that a lot of communication in Germany takes place in clubs and associations. If they have a hobby, like playing a musical instrument, it’s easier for them to integrate into this kind of social network. A lot of young people also do sports, they join a gym and go on dates. That’s what real communication is about – they don’t need us for that.

Are there areas where it’s particularly difficult to speak German?
Well, Germans really like to speak English. A lot of my students tell me that they get answers in English when they speak to someone in clear and slow German.

What is the difference between learning German in group lessons compared to one-to-one tuition?
Many people want to go to university here, they want to stay here and build up their lives – and they want to learn as much as they can as quickly as possible. For that purposes, language courses are best. One-to-one tuition is more expensive, too. However, there are people who don’t have time to spend five hours in a German course every day. These kind of people might choose flexible classes in the evenings, and ideally their employer might pay for them.


The Real Skinny on Whether or Not German Is Easy to Learn

That’s the answer you might hear from a German who finds it easy to learn English, or any other language for that matter.

In fact, from my travels to Munich and Berlin, it seems like most Germans already know how to speak English by the time they’re walking around in grade school.

But what about the other way around?

Is German easy to learn if you’re a native English speaker? What about if you hail from a country that speaks primarily Spanish, Italian or French?

This is the big question that everyone wants to ask before setting out on the journey of learning a new language. It’s understandable, since you’ll want a challenge, but it can be frustrating to study for a year or two and realize that you’ve gotten nowhere near fluency.

Now, if you’re new to the German language, you’ve probably seen some books with absolutely insane-looking words. There’s also a chance you’ve checked out movies and TV shows with dialogue that moves fast and aggressively to the point that you’d rather just sip a beer and wolf down a bratwurst to get your German fix.

Heck, the Germans are known for stringing together long compound words that look more like sentences:

  • Freundschaftsbezeigungen (demonstrations of friendship)
  • Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (insurance companies providing legal protection)
  • Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit)
  • Hochgeschwindigkeitsbahnsystem (high-speed rail system)
  • Löschwassereinspeisung (fire hydrant)

Whoa! Those words have lots of letters. Imagine pronouncing something like that just to talk about the speed limit.

There’s no reason to worry, however, because I’m just scaring you a bit for fun. You won’t use most of the longer words in everyday conversation, and once you start to realize that these words are easy to break down (because they are just a bunch of smaller words mashed together) German isn’t all that bad.

Therefore, we encourage you to keep reading for a full analysis of what challenges you can expect while learning German. At the same time, we’ll outline some of the easier areas that will make you a German pro in no time.

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

 

Factors That Come into Play When Judging German Learning Difficulty

As with all languages, you can generally locate a handful of factors that make the language learning difficult. For Japanese, the alphabet is completely unique, while the English language is known for generating completely random words for complex items instead of just making more understandable compound words, which languages like German focus on.

So, what factors are going to affect your progress? We have a few questions to prepare you:

  • Have you learned a language in the past? If so, you know that training to become fluent in a new language is no cake walk. However, you’ve already trained your brain to absorb language-related information, understand new grammar and memorize bunches of new vocabulary.
  • Did you successfully gain fluency in that language? If you gained fluency, German shouldn’t be that tough for you. If not, consider making a list of the elements that caused you to have trouble with the last language.
  • Have you learned through classes or on your own? Depending on your past learning tactics, decide the ways in which you learn quickest. That way, German will come easier to you. For example, some people just can’t retain information unless they go to classes. Others get bored with classes and need the freedom to explore on their own.
  • Are you a native English speaker? If so, beginner and intermediate German will look more like English as you practice. The two languages are fairly similar, but the more advanced you get, the farther they move apart.
  • Do you live near or know people who speak German? Can you speak to them on a regular basis? This is the strongest way to figure out whether or not you’re going to have a hard time with German. If you have someone to speak with every day or every week, you should be good. If not, your chances of having difficulty increase that much more. That being said, you can always find someone online.

    The Big Question: Is German Easy to Learn?

    This is the big question, and it doesn’t have a simple answer.

    The German language can be easy to learn, but it depends on your commitment and a few other factors. Apart from that, you can consider the difficult and easy linguistic areas in German that we’ve outlined below. As talked about above, English is related, but that’s not going to bring you all the way to German fluency.

    Tricky Parts of the German Language to Watch Out For

    Whether you pick up a textbook, go to a class or learn German naturally through FluentU videos, you’ll see similar guides, exercises and chapters to touch on. Some will stink, others will be a breeze. So, what parts of German do many people struggle with?

    • Verb conjugations. Verb conjugations are super fun once you get the hang of them, but if you don’t have any experience with languages that have conjugations (i.e., French, Spanish, etc.) it’s a bit intimidating at first. This basically means that the verb spellings and pronunciations are going to change based on the subject and tense.
    • Irregular and regular verbs. You must be able to distinguish between the two and remember which of them are used most frequently. For the most part, you’ll need to rely on rote memorization to commit to memory which verbs are the irregular ones.
    • The fact that noun genders are completely random, which makes many words tough. Each noun can be either masculine, feminine or neuter, and most of them don’t follow any rules. So, you typically have to remember genders for each noun.
    • German still uses four grammatical cases: Nominativ, Genitiv, Dativ and Accusativ. A noun’s case is determined by its function in a sentence. As an example, a Nominativ noun is the subject and it’s completing the action.

    Easier Parts of Learning the German Language

    Now it’s time to look forward to the simple stuff!

    Although mastering one of the challenging areas above feels really good, it’s nice to take breaks with some of the easier parts of learning the German language. What can you expect?

    • The overall verb conjugation can be confusing at first, but the pattern is consistent, so it’s generally easy to learn.
    • Irregular verbs only have irregular conjugations when used with du (you, familiar) and er/sie/es (he/she/it), giving you a nice pattern to remember.
    • Verbs like sein and haben are used quite a bit, so you’ll remember them quickly.
    • Many nouns genders follow patterns. So you should be fine with the majority of articles before nouns.

    Study Strategies That Make Learning German Easier

    If you’re looking to make German easier to learn, you have to put in the work and maybe even invest a little money. Here are some strategies for simplifying your learning.

    • Classes. German classes are best when you’re jumping to a new level, like from beginner to intermediate. Investing in classes, or simply taking them for free online, at the beginning of your German learning process gives you structure that often really pays off in the long term. However, if you had to skip one area of learning, it would most definitely be in-person classes. DW.com is great for online classes and you can search on Google for more options.
    • Tutoring. Pay for tutoring to keep you on a consistent schedule. It’s not necessarily going to make you fluent, but it allows for tons of speaking time which you otherwise might not get. Plus, your tutor will correct pronunciations that you mess up along the way—but don’t worry, mistakes like this are all part of the process. You’ll also get to interact with a native speaker (if you’ve chosen a native tutor, which you should). Several sites connect you with tutors, but we like the Verbling option.
    • Self-training. This is your best bet, since immersing yourself needs to be done at all times. Train while at work, school, home and while out with friends. Every time you’ve got a spare moment or find your mind wandering, give your brain a little bit of German input or try thinking in German.
    • FluentU. You’re here, so it’s obvious you’ve found some sort of value in the FluentU interface! And that’s great because FluentU complements areas like classes and tutoring, giving you more real-world content like videos and music. Not to mention, it allows for quickly jumping around the media to test yourself and review vocabulary.

     

    So, uh, did that answer your question?

    Is German easy to learn?

    I think a better question, in the end, is whether or not it’s fun to learn, because that’s a guaranteed yes—and if you love the learning process, it will never get too hard for you!

    You’re going to encounter challenges and super easy spots in the German language, and that’s what makes it so intriguing. There will be ups and downs, and you’ve got to love them all.

    Enjoy the ride!

How Hard Is It to Learn Russian?

How Hard Is It to Learn Russian?

The dreaded Russian language, with its complicated alphabet and impossible-sounding pronunciation, has long had a reputation of being an incredibly complex language to learn. Yet, over 250 million manage to learn it as babies and speak it as a native language. So, what’s their secret? Is Russian somehow in their blood? Or is it still possible to wrap your head around this mystical language and become fluent even as an adult?

In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at how easy or difficult it might be to become more-or-less fluent in Russian.

A Quick Introduction to Russian

Russian is one of the three members of East Slavic languages (the others being Belarusian and Ukrainian). It’s spoken as an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and is also common throughout the former Eastern Bloc. With over 140 million native speakers, it’s also the biggest language in Europe.

What most obviously sets it apart from other European languages, is the fact that Russian does not use the Latin alphabet. Instead, theRussian alphabet in the Cyrillic script is used. This, combined with the existence of “soft” and “hard” sounds has given Russian the infamy as being a very difficult language. Indeed, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) classifies Russian as a Category IV language and estimates it would take an English-speaker around 1,100 hours to learn.

But, before we give up even before trying, let’s see if this reputation is earned.

Don’t Believe in Estimates, Focus on Your Goals

Let’s start by disagreeing with the FSI. They get it wrong on so many levels. Yes, Russian might have a different alphabet and, as they put it, “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” but that’s not necessarily what makes a language difficult. What makes a language difficult is a wrong approach to learning it and a lack of motivation.

Don’t get me wrong – obviously, it will be easier for a German speaker to learn Dutch, or a Portuguese speaker to learn Spanish since these languages already have quite a few aspects in common. But don’t let that deter you. In the right environment and with the right technique, anybody can learn any language.

And Russian is no different. Despite the complicated-looking alphabet, there are aspects of the language that can be a lot easier to grasp than English. Let’s focus on a few factors that make Russian simple.

The Russian Alphabet Is Phonetic

Unlike English, which can have near-impossible pronunciation rules (or lack thereof), Russian is pronounced exactly how it is written. Even if the writing happens in a different script. So, the dreaded Russian alphabet is not as complicated as it first looks.

You can first take a calming breath, and then see that the Russian alphabet already has quite a few letters that you are familiar with. О, К, and А, to name a few, will be exactly the same as they are in English. There are other letters that look the same as English ones but have different sounds – for example, В, Н, and У. In all honesty, that does still leave you quite a bit to learn. But it’s still an alphabet. And, even better, it’s a phonetic alphabet – once you’ve learned the new letters, you will know exactly how each is pronounced in every word they appear in.

There are still, of course, foreign looking letters in the alphabet and sounds that English-speakers need to get used to (Ж, Ц, Ч, Ш, and Щ) but all of that is not nearly as scary as it first looks.

Clear Rules Make Learning Russian Easy

Additionally, Russian has a refreshingly simple and rigid system of rules. Once you get your head around them, Russian rules apply to almost all instances. Compare that to German, for example, where every rule can have almost as many exceptions.

Let’s take the example of genders in Russian words. Like in French, Spanish, and German, each noun has a gender – either feminine, masculine, or neutral, in this case. But, unlike in the other languages, in Russian it is very simple to determine the right gender for most given words – you just have to look at the last letter of any word. Creating plurals is also very rule-based and simple to learn.

Again, this doesn’t mean that learning all of these different grammar rules will be a walk in the park but, at least once you’ve learned them, they will actually help you (unlike some “helpful” rules in English, for example).

Grammatical Cases Can Be Confusing but Helpful

Another reason why Russian is often described as very difficult is the existence of grammatical cases in the language. This usually frightens a lot of English-speakers simply because English has mostly lost its cases. And sure, if you’ve never had contact with grammatical cases before, they can be a bit daunting. But luckily Russian doesn’t even use that many cases – there’s only six, compared to 15 in Finnish and 18 in Hungarian.

While English mostly uses prepositions to fill the role of a grammatical case, in Russian you would change the end of the noun depending on its role in the sentence.

Although this can be confusing at first, once you’ve learned how to use cases, you will realise it’s actually a great way to quickly grasp what is being said. Cases quickly reveal what the relationship between the noun and the verb is. Much unlike prepositions which can, in longer sentences, become rather clumsy and awkward to use.

The Verdict – Russian Is Challenging but Learnable

Although there are quite a few aspects to learning Russian that English speakers are simply not accustomed to – like the new alphabet, grammatical cases, and gendered words – with the right attitude and motivation, it is as simple of a language as any other to learn.

While Russian might not be so closely related to English as German or Dutch, meaning there are a few more challenges to get over, it is not what you’re learning, but how you’re learning it, that’s important. The cold, hard fact is that your approach to learning will almost definitely be the biggest determinator of your success or failure. You can choose to focus on the difficulties that Russian presents (let’s be honest, there are a couple) or, alternatively, break the task down into smaller bite-size chunks and make learning fun and easy for yourself.


10 Reasons Why The Russian Language Isn’t That Difficult

Today I’m going to convince you that Russian is actually far easier to learn than you’ve been led to believe.

It’s not (or at least doesn’t have to be) a near-impossible undertaking.

A year or so ago I moved to a small town in Russia and lived immersed in the language having learned almost nothing before arriving.

I kept hearing about how difficult Russian is to learn up until that point but my experience there said something very different.

Within 5 months I was communicating comfortably in Russian, befriending many new people and lived for several more months in Italy with my new Russian girlfriend at the time (who could only speak Russian).

And just a few months ago I was able to use Russian extensively during my stay in Georgia.

Russian is no more challenging than any other language I’ve attempted.

The truth is:

Wrong learning approaches make easy tasks unnecessarilychallenging.

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The Foreign Service Institute (FSI for short) places Russian into one its highest categories in terms of its relative difficulty for native English speakers (in other words one of the most challenging major languages).

But as I said regarding Arabic a while back, the FSI gets it wrong and the difficulty level primarily depends on the way the language is approached.

It’s also dependant upon your attitude!

Keep convincing yourself that Russian is insanely difficult and it willbe insanely difficult.

So let’s get started on why Russian’s easier than you think.

NOTE: Before I go any further, make sure to sign up with your email at the bottom of this post and select Russian for more Russian content delivered straight to your inbox.

 

Reason 1: The alphabet is actually very easy to learn

Let’s start with the most obvious one.

The strange letters.

To the unititiated, Russian looks pretty intimidating yet also oddly familiar.

You see a bunch of letters that look just like regular old English letters (plus tweaked or inverted English letters) but in actual fact many of them represent something completely different.

H isn’t a H and P isn’t a P. 🙂

Cyrillic is very similar to (and mostly derived from) Greek which shares a common origin with our own alphabet. Just as I mentioned in my Semitic languages article, all these languages originally came from Phoenician, so even today you can see very close resemblances in many letters.

As a general rule, of all the letters in the Russian alphabet these are the ones that you should not have any trouble with:

Аа

Бб

Дд (almost looks like a capital ‘D’ with two feet)

Ее

Зз (looks like the cursive ‘Z’ in English (assuming you learned cursive in school that is))

Кк

Мм

Оо

Сс (‘S’ sound in Russian. Sometimes the letter ‘C’ is pronounced the same way in English)

Тт

These are the letters that you should be able to identify almostimmediately and not have to worry about when learning Russian.

That leaves us with another 23 letters to learn.

If you studied math in high school (or Greek by chance), you won’t have too much trouble identifying these either:

Гг (the Greek letter gamma (‘G’ sound))

Пп (pi. Who doesn’t know pi? (‘P’ sound))

Фф (phi. (‘F’ sound)

Лл (very closely resembles the Greek ‘L’ lambda)

These symbols are universally recognizable.

So there are 19 unusual letters remaining for native English speakers.

Here’s where a bit of creativity with memory hooks and image association come in handy helping you to remember them.

These are some of the little hooks I used to remember these letters when I was learning. Associate sounds and text with your own images and hooks that help you remember:

Image association examples:

Чч looks like an upside down CHair (‘CH’ sound).

Жж looks like two top and two bottom teeth touching together just like they almost do when you pronounce it (‘ZH’ sound).

Memory hook examples:

Little b (Бб) = actually B.

Big b (Вв), actually V.

Ya, that R is backward.” (Яя)

Уу is a ‘U’ sound. The letter ‘U’ is pronounced ‘Yu’.

Be creative about it.

The trickiest two letters of all for English speakers learning Russian are technically not even real letters. They’re two signifiers/markers:

Ъъ – hard sign

Ьь – soft sign

They don’t make any sound on their own.

All they do is signify whether or not the consonant before them is pronounced soft or hard (palatalized or not).

The temptation at this point is to say ‘what the?’ and feel overwhelmed but I’m going to make a really important suggestion here (I’m sure a lot of Russian vets and teachers will argue with me here):

Ignore them until you’re past the beginner stage.

Just focus on listening and repeating.

As long as your learning material comes with clear audio so you can hear exactly how words are pronounced then that’s all you need to focus on. Trying to make sense of written explanations on pronunciation mechanics will confuse you and waste time better spent practicing what you hear.

Over time and with use, you’ll develop an ear for the differences and the hard and soft markers will make sense.

See my next point.

 

Reason 2: Russian pronunciation only becomes difficult when textbooks overcomplicate it

For goodness sake, learn pronunciation by imitation of what youhear (applies to every language).

Not by reading instructions!

When I first attempted (and failed) Russian many years ago, I made the common mistake of trying to learn pronunciation by following pronunciation guides.

Reading how to speak properly (eye roll).

You need to be able to hear (and imitate) language.

Most textbooks start with a lot of technical blather about things like ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ consonants. For example:

мат is pronounced as you would expect it to in English (mat).

мать has a signifier on the end of it which means it’s a little different (more like matye).

But explaining the process behind this just overwhelms people and is utterly meaningless to the average learner.

Yes, when reading Russian you’ll need to be aware of them (because they’re used a lot) but unless you’re a linguist studying Russian phonetics then you simply do not need to try to get your head around phonetic technicalities.

Remember: Phonetic changes happen in every languageincluding English.

They’re a natural phenomenon.

The only difference is that Russians actually point out certain phonetic changes by including ь or ъ in writing. Russian is no more difficult to pronounce than any other language.

I’m convinced that if people would spend more time just listening to native speaker dialogue and repeating what they hear, there’d be so much less confusion!

Other common areas of trouble for English speaking Russian learners are Ы (which is just basically a combination of U+I) andР (rolled ‘R’).

I offer the same advice that I would to people who struggle with guttural sounds in Arabic:

The more you do it, the better you get at it (aka practice!).

By the way, if you get pronunciation wrong in the beginning then people aren’t going to crucify you for it.

For the first month or so in Russia, I was pronouncing вы as veeinstead of vui.

People understood me just fine.

After lots of usage, it improved and now I say it the right way.

So keep at it.

 

Reason 3: Russians EXPECT you to speak Russian and rarely if ever resort to English in Russia

This is an amazingly good thing.

The problem with a lot of overseas language immersion these days is that so many people already speak English and will try to accommodate you as a visitor.

It’s good for tourists who aren’t learning the language but bad for language learners.

One thing I found out very quickly in Russia however is that their society generally expects you as an outsider to assimilate and learn Russian. Finding people outside of the tourist spots in Moscow who speak English by default is an almost impossible mission.

You need Russian to get by.

For this reason, when I first moved to a smaller town I had no choice but to learn Russian quickly to live there.

It was essential.

The few times I was out and asked people “Do you speak English?” actually got me some very unappreciative stares so I learned fast that if I needed things done, it was Russian or nothing.

This ‘deep end immersion’ factor makes learning Russian a heck of a lot easier than many other languages.

 

Reason 4: There’s an abundance of cognate words in Russian

Russian actually has more English cognates than most other languages outside Europe.

These are words that look/sound very similar and have the same meaning.

Here are just a few common examples:

центр (tsenter) – center

студент (student) – student

класс (klas) – class

иде́я (ideya) – idea

проект (prayekt) – project

но́мер (nomer) – number

фильм (film) – film

ю́мор (yumor) – humor

сестра́ (sestra) + брат (brat) – sister + brother

вода́ (voda) – water

Of course there are some false friends too (words that appear to be cognates but have different (or related) meanings).

For example:

костюм (kostyum) – suit

магазин (magazin) – shop

фабрика (fabrika) – factory

Cognates can give you a huge leg-up when learning another language and thankfully Russian has many of them.

 

Reason 5: Long words aren’t tough if you see them as just compounded words and syllables

This goes with my other pronunciation point.

Russian, like German, has some really long words (including compounds) that look impossible to pronounce at first glance.

But they’re simple if you just carve them up into smaller pieces. For example:

Здравствуйте = hello/greeting

Obviously this is the first word that most people learn since it’s the most common greeting. It also feels like a tongue twister to a newbie.

But if you break it into two halves like so:

вуйте

Здравст

It’s a lot easier to say the two smaller pieces.

Practice the smaller pieces over and over until you’ve got it and then say them together.

This is especially helpful when adjusting to the consonant clusters (words with 3 or 4 consonants all together – e.g. Здр+авствуйте).

 

Reason 6: There’s no shortage of excellent Russian learning material

Thankfully there’s plenty of great Russian material to learn from – both free and paid.

Free sites like Russian For Everyone, RussianLessons.net andMaster Russian have been really helpful to me when I’ve needed clarity on certain points.

RT.com also has handy section for starting on Russian.

There are two YouTube channels I love – incidentally both calledEasy Russian (here and here).

As always, italki is the place to go for Skype Russian lessons. It’s incredibly cheap and the closest thing to actually being in Russia.

Rocket Russian is the best paid online course for learning the language. The natural dialogues and speech recognition are its strongest features.

When I was in Russia, I used Glossika’s Russian course andRapid Russian MP3’s every morning. I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful both of these paid resources were for helping me pick up Russian quickly.

There are plenty of great books on Russian out there but two I’ll mention that I’ve found helpful are Shaum’s Russian Grammar(as a clear reference book) and The Everything Learning Russian Book (a simple, not-too-dense course book).

If you’ve got other suggestions for resources you’ve used, please share them in the comment section below.

 

Reason 7: See noun cases as a blessing rather than a curse

Noun cases are probably the most-complained-about aspect of learning Russian.

They’re certainly not unique to Russian but among English speaking learners it seems to be the area that causes the most confusion.

This is because in English, we don’t clearly indicate noun cases by affixing anything to the noun. For example:

“This book is good.” – nominative

“I read the book.” – accusative

“The book’s cover.” – genitive

“On the book.” – prepositional

“With a book.” – instrumental

“I gave the book a review.” – dative

In each one of these sentences, ‘book’ takes on a very different role. We write it exactly the same way in each instance even though it’s not the same.

In Russian, it’s different.

‘Book’ has different endings based on the role it plays in each sentence (and different again for plural forms):

книг-а

книг-у

книг-и

книг-е

книг-ой

книг-е

As I often say, if you approach this with a traditional, grammar-first learning style, it will be immensely challenging.

And tedious as hell.

But I’ll give you another way to look at it.

Firstly, if you look back at the English examples above you’ll see that in most of them the noun case is actually indicated by a word or ‘s’ suffix.

E.g. “The book’s cover/The cover of the book.”

We know that ‘book’ is genitive here because we see ‘s’ or the word ‘of’.

So start to think of it like this: bookof

Likewise for the other cases: bookis, bookwith, bookon, etc.

That’s basically what’s happening with Russian noun case suffixes. For English, we use a separate word altogether but in Russian it’s a suffix. You only think it’s completely foreign to English but it’s not.

Noun cases are also blessings in disguise.

I’ve had many different situations where I’m conversing with Russians and I don’t fully understand what’s being said but the noun case gives away the meaning and context.

Hearing the case ending helps me figure out what’s being said.

It’s also immensely helpful in this regard when the noun is the first word in the sentence which kind of preps you for what’s coming (e.g. if you hear книг-у first then you know that whatever’s coming next involves something being done to a book).

Most importantly:

Freely and unashamedly use the wrong cases.

If you shut up because you’re afraid or unable to use the correct noun cases then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.

You need to make tonnes of mistakes and not be shy about it.

Even if you only know the nominative case then I advise you to use it in every possible context you can as often as you can.

I did this constantly in Russia and over time I began to adjustand use the correct cases naturally (either (a) because I was corrected often or (b) because I was exposed repeatedly to correct forms in conversation). I’m still far from perfect but so much better through frequent use.

But you won’t be exposed to correct forms in conversation if you don’t actually put yourself there to begin with!

 

Reason 8: Learn verbs of motion individually AND contextually and they’re easy

When I first started, I was pulling my hair out over Russian verbs of motion.

But that’s because I approached them the wrong way (and textbooks overcomplicated them).

Take the verb ‘to go’ for instance which technically doesn’t exist in Russian the same way we understand it in English.

Russian verbs of motion imply the ‘method’ or ‘kind’ of movement (e.g. going on foot, flying, going by some form of transport, climbing, etc.).

The two most confusing are (were for me) ‘to go on foot’ (Ходить/Идти) and ‘to go by transport’ (Ездить/Ехать).

There’s an indefinite/multidirectional form (Ходить/Ездить) and a definite/unidirectional form (Идти/Ехать) of both.

That means that for verbs of motion, there are 2 separate sets of conjugation rules you need to memorize just to be able to communicate correctly (since ‘to go’ is one of the most foundational verbs in any language).

Sounds confusing as hell, right?

Well it is if you try to learn it this way!

But let’s look at it the simple way:

Suppose instead that you’re dealing with two separate wordsand instead of memorizing two conjugation tables and struggling to remember which one to use, you learn the verbs incontextual chunks.

So instead of seeing Ходить and Идти as two forms of the same word, see them as two completely distinct words andonly as they relate to real situations.

Practice and apply them in context so they stick and become real-world applicable.

For example:

Я иду в школу

I’m walking to (definitively) the school (i.e. right now).

Я хожу в школу

I walk to the school (e.g. often, every day).

Instead of trying to get your head around an entire set of conjugation rules and when to use them, take one or two simple real-world applications like this and use them constantly until they become habit.

One other note on verb prefixes:

Russian attaches prefixes to verbs to indicate direction of motion. For example:

выходить = вы+ходить (to go out)

приходить = при+ходить (to come/arrive)

This is actually incredibly easy if you treat prefixes as if they’re individual words just like we do in English.

For example, in English we say “go around”, “go out, “go across”, etc.

Just think of Russian like this: “aroundgo”, “outgo”, “acrossgo”.

Simple.

 

Reason 9: There are many features of Russian that are comparatively very easy compared to other languages

There are many other features of the Russian language that make life easy for new learners.

Here are just a few in no particular order:

  • Word order is flexible. Although sentences usually follow the S-V-O structure, they make perfect sense in other orders too.
  • You don’t have to worry about the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense. You are beautiful is simply you beautiful.
  • Questions are formed by simply changing the intonation of regular statements (e.g. Мы смотрим телевизор -> Мы смотрим телевизор?). Easy!
  • To make verbs, nouns and adjectives negative you simply say не before it.
  • There are no definite or indefinite articles in Russian!(a/an, the)

Instead of talking about all the ‘difficult‘ aspects of Russian grammar, focus on what’s actually easy compared to other languages.

This will positively affect your attitude and attitude is everything in language learning! 🙂

 

Reason 10: Russians are some of the most enthusiastic people when it comes to sharing their language and culture

Russians are fiercely proud of their culture and language.

I love this about them.

I’ve found that the reception I’ve received from people when they see I’m trying to assimilate and learn their language is extremely positive and encouraging.

People want to help you succeed.

Getting back to one of my original points up top about Russians not resorting to English: my experience with Russian (which differed greatly in comparison to places like Korea and Egypt) showed me that for Russians, the world does not revolve around the Anglosphere.

In many parts of the non-English speaking world, people strive to learn English not just for career but so that they can adapt tous.

Being in Russia really feels like being in another world or dimension at times – one where English dominance never existed.

Granted, I’m sure that this is largely a result of politics and the Soviet Union being isolationist for so long but in terms of language immersion, it’s a really refreshing thing to experience.

Almost everywhere you go, you need to adapt to them.

As I’ve said before, ordinary Russian people are so warm and hospitable, especially when they see how much you respect and appreciate their language and culture.

How difficult is it to learn Chinese compared to other languages?

My parents are Chinese immigrants, so it might seem like I have an unfairly rosy view of Chinese, but my knowledge of written Chinese and spoken Mandarin was attained through the torture that is known as Chinese school. I feel comfortable in saying that my experience with written Chinese is about the same as any other Westerner who is taking Chinese classes. I have a slightly easier time with Mandarin than most other people would, since I speak Shanghainese at home with my parents, but Mandarin has four tones, Shanghainese has only two, and my ex thinks I’m tone-deaf, so I feel qualified to consider myself a novice to Mandarin as well. Chinese dialects are often quite different from one another though, and knowing one dialect is not guaranteed to ensure you comprehend another. My sister-in-law is from a different province, and it’s been a huge source of arguments at home. My brother wants my parents to speak Mandarin, because she can’t understand us at all. My father speaks another third dialect that my mother cannot understand at all. So, I have a slight edge from knowing one dialect, but it’s really quite slight.

There’s a difference between being able to speak Chinese and being able to read it. The former is pretty easy. Chinese has no articles, no plurals, and no verb conjugation. Phrasing every sentence with SVO syntax is good enough to make yourself understood. It requires a much higher degree of self-consciousness to go from Chinese to English.

For example, if you want to indicate a sentence is in the subjunctive mood in English, you would have to say something like, “If I were you, I wouldn’t have said that.”

Whereas in Mandarin, the verbs “were” and “have said” would remain uninflected. Having to remember to conjugate verbs all the time is an enormous cognitive drain for those not used to it, especially since English is chock full of irregular verbs (e.g. “to wake” and “woke”, “to be” and “is, were, are, will be”…it’s maddening). It is, in my opinion, far more difficult than the tonality, which is tricky, sure, but not earth-shatteringly difficult. If you’re not tone-deaf, you’ll be fine. Like I said, my native dialect has only two tones, but even now, when I speak a bit of Mandarin, I produce the four correct tones automatically.

I don’t think the written language is as bad as that article makes it sound. It’s true that Chinese ideographs are not phonetic, but there are multiple little radicals that make up each ideograph that recur frequently throughout the written language. You can use them to figure out what the word means the same way you would use prefixes, suffixes, and word roots in an Indo-European language, even if you don’t know how to pronounce it.

As for the crap about needing to know the classical language–jeez, my mom doesn’t know any of that and I’m preeeeetty sure her Mandarin is better than that guy’s. I asked her once what the meaning of this poem I’d been forced to memorize was. It had been written sometime during the Tang Dynasty. She didn’t know. Your knowledge of classical Chinese needs to encompass common proverbs and stories–but that’s not any different than Americans having to know that George Washington was too honest to ever lie, or what it means for the cat to get out of the bag. The author’s spiel about the classical language handicap is like telling a Mexican that if they wanna be real Americans, they’re gonna have to be able to read The Canterbury Tales, untranslated. BS BS BS.

The article is dumb mostly because the author forgets one really important point–languages come in families. He makes it sound like there’s a problem with Chinese itself, and there really isn’t. From the perspective of a Chinese speaker, English looks about as bad as Chinese does to English speakers. English speakers just don’t think of other Romance or Germanic languages as being unusually difficult because these languages are all related. He, or she, is also likely forgetting that when learning other European languages, a lot of word roots are shared in common with English. Building your vocabulary in Spanish is very easy for an English speaker. I just took a look at the Spanish BBC page, and I see this sentence:

La misteriosa muerte del hombre por el que lloró Putin y cuya hija le disputa ahora la presidencia de Rusia

I never studied Spanish, but I can guess that “misteriosa” means “mystery,” “muerte” means “death” (thanks to knowing the root “mort-” means “death” from words like “mortician,” “post-mortem”), “disputa” means “disputes”, and “presidencia” is “president.” English speakers attacking Chinese lose that vocabulary advantage. This is why Swahili is very difficult for English speakers, incidentally—Swahili has very logical, simple grammar that is a real joy to study, and hardly any irregular verb conjugations and the written language never diverges from the spoken language the way you do with dumb English words like “though” and “cough,” but English speakers cannot rely on having any shared word roots at all.

Chinese isn’t inherently hard, as the millions and millions of little Chinese-speaking babies ought to prove to anyone with the least bit of sense. It’s just rather far removed from a Westerner’s normal linguistic experience. If the author had been born and raised speaking some other tonal language with ideographs, he’d have written a bitchy and histrionic article about English and its impossible spellings, and how dumb it is you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway.

So yeah, a lot of things about Chinese suck, mostly with the written language, but getting up to speed at a useable level isn’t too bad. I’m not trying to claim you can learn it in six months; I’m just saying that it’s not inherently difficult, and acting like it is is very Anglo-centric.

Edit: so there’s dictionary lookup contests in China. So what? If that’s masochistic, so are spelling contests in America and verb conjugation contests (!) in France. All human languages suck in their own special, wonderful diverse ways.


The main reason Chinese is perceived as a “hard” language is that the most difficult parts of Chinese hit you on day one.

Think about the first word you learn: 你好. To be able to get decent “hello” out you’ll have to:

  1. Learn about a new English-looking but not-really-English alphabet called Pinyin.
  2. Get a grip on Chinese pronunciation.
  3. Understand what tones are and that 你好 has two third tones.
  4. Further understand that these two third tones have a tone change, rendering them as 2-3 in speech but not in the pinyin
  5. Come to terms with these squiggly seemingly-random looking lines that are the characters.

Boom. That’s Day 1. Surprise!

Compare this with, say, French. By the end of day 1 of French you’ve probably picked up a couple of words, can faltering pronounce them and be understood and maybe even understand a little of what is being said to you in return.

European languages has (relatively) similar pronunciations, similar alphabets and similar vocabularies (ie. “hotel”) that we can grab as frames of reference.

In the case of a European language the difficulty really starts to kick in a little later. Depending on the language it may be case endings, verb conjugation, word construction, tenses, plurals, gender or, if you are learning Finnish, all of the above (I say only half in jest…).

With a European language the hard parts hit you a little later. By this point you are maybe reaching pre-intermediate or intermediate level and you are invested. You’ve put in a year of work or so and resign yourself to just grinding through verb endings until they become automatic.

With Chinese, because the difficulty is so front loaded, you aren’t invested. Thus, when hit by a wall of difficulty in the first couple of weeks, you have a decision to make.

  1. Stick it out. Hope that Chinese gets a little more comprehensible after a month or so.
  2. Give up. Throw your hands in the air and declare (All together now!) that Chinese is “too damn hard” and that no non-native could ever be expected to learn Chinese.

Sadly, without a proper reason for learning Chinese, without a goal that to stubbornly head towards, most people simply give up.

They take the Blue Pill.

To save face after giving up these people join the ranks of other failed Chinese students and start telling people that Chinese is “too hard”. Nonsense.

Once you get past the difficulty hump at the beginning of learning Chinese the language becomes much simpler. There is a logic to Chinese that does not exist in European languages. Once you start to see this logic everything snaps into place very quickly.

The problem is that in the first few weeks it’s impossible to see the woods from the trees. There’s too much information to assimilate and no way to start to grasp the logic and patterns that Chinese is full of. Instead you tread water just trying to survive.

Get past this though and you realize that most parts of Chinese are easy. Gendered nouns? Pft. Plurals. Easy. Changes verb tenses. No problem. Case endings. What? Creating new words. Beautifully logical.

As a language Chinese is beautifully constructed. It’s parsimonious and simple, in a fantastic way. But you need to get through the difficulty hump at the beginning to start to see the beauty.

How to actively do this? I’ve recorded a whole set of lessons about the best way to start off in Chinese (Blog article[1] and Videos[2]) but here’s the gist:

  1. Get a grip on pronunciation and pinyin.
  2. Then overlay with tones
  3. Start speaking ASAP via a free language exchange app like HelloTalk
  4. Integrate some listening via Pimsleur/Michel Thomas or one of the many free audio courses at Open Culture

Once you have basic communication down THEN AND ONLY THEN worry about the characters.

Dealing with the Chinese characters at the same time as a foreign pronunciation system and a tonal system is too much. Instead learn each sub-skill one at a time and start to overlay them gradually. Otherwise you’ll burn out.

The characters are the next “hard” part of Chinese. However, once you understand their logic and stop using old fashioned techniques to learn them they cease to be difficult. Instead they are merely time consuming!

The logic of characters is vitally important and is rarely if ever taught. Did you know that 90% of characters actually have some form of clue not only to their meaning but also about how to pronounce them?

When I realized this my mind was blown. Knowing this allows you to look at a bunch of new characters and guess how to say them out loud. If there’s maybe one or two characters in a sentence that you don’t know then you can guess using this knowledge and generally you’ll be understood. Magic!

These characters are the sound-meaning characters and they make up 90%+ of the language. Unfortunately they aren’t visually interesting like the pictograph/ideographs which make for graphically pleasing books like Chineasy. The problem with these “looks-like-a” characters is that they only make up 50-10% of the language. The rest is the un-sexy but super useful sound-meaning characters.

Here’s about 30 minutes of me ranting on about how amazing the sound-meaning characters are.[3]

The sound-meaning characters are one example of how knowing about the language helps you speed up character acquisition.

The other way to speed up character (and word) acquisition is to use more modern learning techniques. Traditionally (ie. at Chinese schools) the way to learn characters is to damn well write them out so many times that they will eventually stick.

That method is fine if you are a Chinese kid growing up in China. You have decades of schooling ahead and lots more homework time. A time-intensive method is fine for kids.

For adults though these methods are mind-killers. Sitting down to write out 你好 50 times after lesson 1 is nobody’s idea of fun. Again, having students do this in their first week of learning Chinese is going to cause more people to quit. And for good reason!

Nowadays we have much better methods for learning the characters. Once again I go into this in WAY more detail on the blog (and in this ~7 hour Chinese character video course[4], my magnum opus!) but here’s an outline:

  1. Break down the character into its constituent components. (Pleco dictionary has a built-in decomposition function).
  2. Use the components to create a memory-aid; tell a story using the pieces. Hook the meaning and pronunciation of the character into this story. I personally use colours to signify the tones but there are lots of ways to use memory-aids to learn meaning, pronunciation and tones.
  3. Add your new character + mnemonic to a flashcard or (preferably) into a Spaced Repetition System like Anki or, my preference, Pleco.
  4. Review the new content using Spaced Repetition. If you get something wrong don’t just tap Wrong but re-learn the character (break it down and create a new mnemonic if necessary).
  5. Each week remove a certain amount of material from the SRS and write Sentences of the Week. Make short sentences from the characters/words you now recognize on sight. Use Lang-8 to get the sentences corrected. Add the sentences into you flashcards/SRS as “grammar cards” to help you understand the structure of the language.
  6. Use your Sentences of the Week in conversation using iTalki or HelloTalk or face-to-face. I prefer HelloTalk because it is so low-friction. You need to remove any barriers that would stop you from communicating regularly.
  7. During Usage make note of new content you want to learn. This could be corrections to your existing sentences or completely random language nuggets you want to capture.
  8. Loop the new material from Usage back to Step 1 above. Run through a similar process of breaking down, creating memory-aids, using SRS, writing sentences and then communicating.
  9. Repeat.

Using a method like this (or indeed any method except rote-learning grinding out of vocabulary lists by writing out characters hundreds of times) can help you learn the characters and words you need fast.

When I was learning Chinese I hit 75-100 characters a day using this system, with 90% recall a week later. That was 2 hours of study a day which is likely more than most people will have to dedicate. That said, if you don’t have much time to study it is even more important to have a decent character learning system in place. Otherwise it will take years and years to become literate – and chances are you’ll give up during the process!

So, in answer to your question:

  1. For a native English speaker the first few weeks/months of Chinese are more difficult than other foreign languages BUT once you cross that difficulty hump Chinese in many ways becomes easier.
  2. Learning the characters is time consuming rather than difficulty per se BUT even then there are ways to make the process much more efficient and, dare I say it, fun.

At the end of the day though the difficulty of a language is never a good reason to start or not start learning a language.

If you have a really good reason for wanting to learn a language then you’ll blow through the difficult parts no problem – they’ll be small bumps that you’ll drive straight over in your rush to get to your goal.

If you don’t have a good reason for learning Chinese though then these small bumps will take on Grand Canyon sized proportions. “I want to learn Chinese for economic reasons” or some similarly weak reason just won’t hack it when you hit rough patches.

This is the same for anything that is worthwhile doing. Worthwhile stuff takes time, effort, passion and willpower.

PS. Don’t worry about the dictionary lookup competitions. Chinese people, like everyone else sensible, use electronic dictionaries nowadays.


It require some sort of extra knowledge, how to start learning Chinese. For example: it’s not easy to start with the charaters at all… To make sure you are studying Chinese effectively and efficiently, you firstly have to ask yourself the question: what study method in general works best for me:

  • private class/teacher
  • visuals
  • audio/listening
  • video
  • learning by doing,
  • etc

Below you will find some ways, which you can use to study Chinese, in order to improve your Listening, Reading and Writing skills. Take firstly in consideratoin what works best for you.

If you are good in memorizing text, you might have a good chance starting with Flashcards and Chinese characters

If you like to learn via video, it’s good to start with more visual learning video’s online on youtube, or even wacht simple Chinese childeren learning tools or watching video clips.

And if audio or chinese podcasts work well for you, than and repeating the sentences, you might go looking for some good audio teaching materials.

If a traditional school class is your thing! Go for an online or offline program!

Depending on how serious you are, I would recommend the following if you are just beginner and not that serious:

AUDIO TRACKS OR PODCASTS

This is for sure the best way to start learning Chinese! It’s doable, and you will find this complicated language is not that complicated as you thought it was.

Pimsleur is a good one! You will see result very fast within the same week
(as long as you practice at least 30 mins a day)

FLASHCARDS

“Offline” FLASHCARDS: Easy to print and start practicing immediately.

HSK flashcards online http://www.hskflashcards.com/ Great for online Flashcards, also for HSK. You can make them by yourself. Or you download the below mentioned Flashcard packs.

ONLINE LEARNING TOOLS
eChineseLearning.com Online tutoring service, suitable for additional classes online.

More serious…

HANYU SHUIPING KAOSHI (HSK)

If you are serious, it’s often a good idea to create your own deadline, by applying for a Chinese exam and working towards this. Every month you have the opportunity to follow it. They will examine your writing, reading and listening skills.

Download a Chinese Language Survival Packages, such as this one.
They include large set of Chinese characters (Chinese vocabulary according HSK level), example HSK exams, example practicing sentences, pinyin pronunciation, etc.

HSK Official Test Exams you can find them online. Make sure you will download those who are including audio tracks and answers!

Hanban http://www.chinesetest.cn/
Hanban is also providing tests online and a free self-evaluation software for HSK 1–6.

HSK official vocabulary books http://www.amazon.cn/
HSK vocabulary ,you may buy some book on synonyms for example

HSK Academy online
HSK vocabulary words in hanzi, pinyin, audio

So many options available to learn the Chinese language nowadays! We recommend experimenting with several kinds of learning materials. Flashcards work well, also practicing audio tracks which you can find online!

Good luck with preparations!


It think this is really subjective, but generally tough but possible for anyone. I’ve met some polyglots who struggled with Chinese (mostly because they didn’t put the work in) and people with severe mental disabilities who’ve excelled at it (because they put the work in). It depends on how closely your target language resembles the tones, sounds and grammar of Mandarin. It also depends on the learner’s aptitude tones, memorization of words, listening, memorization of characters, ability to focus and work, and grammar. The individual’s aptitude for each of these factors is different and make for a different experience. In general it takes a lot of work, but doesn’t require a quantum leap conceptually and is totally possible for non Chinese people.

The Tones
“Surmountable” but easier for some than others. Are you a singer or musician? Are you good at imitation and detecting subtle differences in speach? Then this will be easier. Some people are “tone deaf” and have a really hard time with this part, even after extensive training. In general though learning the tones is not as bad as people thing but takes some practice.

The Grammar
Chinese grammar is easy for English speakers, more difficult for Japanese speakers. In general it’s much easier than European languages. Sentences are usually Subject–> Verb–>Object (“I go store”). No verb conjugations, no gender, no particles. There are some structures that have to be memorized and a couple of unique grammar items unique to Chinese, but these have clear rules and just take practice. Grammar is an area I struggled with in Spanish, and I’m sure I’d find Japanese agonizing with it’s different grammar and respect classes for each word.

The Words (in Pinyin)
Not too bad, a couple of tricky sounds depending on your native language, but definitely doable. Lots of homonyms which can be confusing, even for native Mandarin speakers. Chinese sentences often don’t have a lot of context, and with the homonyms can require additional information (so for example the characters for “he,” “she,” and “it” are distinct, but when spoken sound exactly the same). Nothing too tricky here though, but it makes it difficult to just “pick up.”

The Characters
This is not so much tricky as it is a memorization game. However memorizing the characters gets easier over time as one gets used to the shapes. It also depends on the approach, starting with the radicals or the building blocks of the characters (how to write them, their meaning) can make learning the characters much easier. A character might first look like a ornate collection of 20 lines, but if one knows the radicals, that same character becomes three radicals put together to form one character.

However this still take a lot of time, and finding a new character gives very little indication of how it is pronounced (the radicals contain hints however as Jane explains in the above answer). But memorizing them is a memorization game and mostly comes down to the capacity of the learner to work and practice.

I feel Chinese was really tough for the first 300 words and the corresponding grammar. Learning the tones and becoming accustomed to the characters took some time. After that steep first step though, it becomes easier, still tough though, but not as tough as the article makes it out. Depends on the time and effort of the student more than mental capabilities.

The foreigners I know who are fluent in Mandarin–all of them–worked at it, but gained definite fluency.

This is just my perspective based on my own experience studying the language for ten years.


It’s useful to keep in mind that Pinyin is a web site dedicated to promoting the cause of phonetic writing of Chinese instead of its current writing system. So of course it will make a case that Chinese is an unimaginably difficult language to learn—and furthermore that it would become so much easier to learn, if the Chinese would only make the supreme sacrifice and transition to phonetic writing like (most of) the rest of the world.

There’s some value in that viewpoint (though not, I think, to the extent that they make it), but it means that everything they say about the difficulty of learning Chinese has to be taken with a grain of salt, because they have that axe to grind.

All that being said, I do think Chinese is difficult for native English speakers to learn, more than other European languages at other rate, which is what most English-speaking students have on hand to compare Chinese to. I wouldn’t necessarily trust this site at face value, but its general observations about the challenges of learning different languages ring true. By their estimation, it takes about four times as long to learn Mandarin (say) as it does to learn something like Spanish or French.

The reason behind this isn’t complicated: Chinese is just much more different from English than any of those languages are:

  • First, and most noticeable, are those characters. Many foreign students are drawn to Chinese in large part because of those characters. They seem so mystical! Even if one knows better, there’s a thought in the back of the mind that the strangeness of the characters conceals some deeper connection they have to meaning. After a week or two of struggling with them, though, most students are just focused on memorizing them.
  • Second in importance are the tones. Chinese, in any of its dialects*, has a fairly limited inventory of syllables if you neglect its tones. One of the drawbacks of pinyin is that it treats tones as second-class citizens; they are written as diacriticals on the main vowel, rather than as a direct feature of the spelling. For instance, in pinyin, the character 馬, meaning “horse,” is written mǎ. The character 罵, meaning “scold,” is written mà. Worse yet, in many contexts, the tones are left off the spelling altogether! The former Taiwanese President, 馬英九, often had his name represented as Ma Yingjiu (pinyin) or its variant Ma Ying-jeou. Of course, in context, it is obvious who it is, but still, the tones have been ignored completely.

    One could be forgiven for thinking that to first order, these two characters are interchangeably pronounced. Nevertheless, it is untrue; except in puns, tones are essential. The former character is pronounced with a long gradually declining pitch, followed by a very quick, barely noticeable uptick at the end. The latter character is pronounced with a very short and sharp downward pitch contour, almost like an exclamation. If the difference between these is ignored, the sense of the character is totally lost. Because it is something English lacks, it is very difficult for English speakers to pick up.

    This distinction, by the way, is something that the older romanization scheme known as 國語羅馬字 Gwoyeu Romatzyh attempted to make clear: Those two characters would have been written as maa and mah. (Unfortunately, this scheme, though accurate in its representation of spoken Mandarin, was judged to be too complex to be effective.)

  • Beyond the characters and the tones, Chinese grammar works on different principles than those of Western European languages. Even English, which mostly has lost its conjugations, still retains number (plural versus singular), tense, voice, etc. Chinese, for the most part, does not have these properties. In fact, for a long time, Chinese was thought by some to have no grammar at all! What it doesn’t have, really, is morphology, in the form of an inflection system to represent things like number and tense.

    Furthermore, word order is rather dramatically different between Chinese and English. For instance, relative clauses are typically placed after the thing they modify in English, but typically before the thing they modify in Chinese. So if we were to say, in English,

    I like the car he picked out.

    the phrase “he picked out” modifies (specifies) “the car,” and comes after it. In Chinese, that would be expressed as

    我喜歡他選的那部車子。
    [literally, “I like he chose that car.”]

    with the phrase 他選的 “he picked out” modifying (specifying) 那部車子 “that car,” and coming before it. Ignoring constructions like this produces ungrammatical sentences that take effort for a native speaker to decipher. It means that one cannot speak Chinese by thinking of the corresponding English sentence and progressing along phrase by phrase and translating as one goes. One has to conceive of the sentence differently from the start.

These differences conspire to make Chinese more than “just another foreign language.” It’s very appealing to think that way in a kind of theoretical, “spherical cow” way, but in practice, it’s just harder.


*“Dialects” is a somewhat misleading term, but it is the most common one. The main issue is that it connotes variation in phonetics in otherwise mutually intelligible tongues. In fact, Chinese has something like seven major dialects (of which Mandarin is by far the dominant one in terms of geographical coverage and number of speakers), most of which are mutually unintelligible. For that matter, some of them comprise sub-dialects, as it were, that are themselves mutually unintelligible. Nonetheless, the Chinese themselves tend to view the language as a somewhat loosely unified whole. The question of the status of Chinese as a language is a complicated one.


Chinese is deceptively easy and hard depending on your viewpoint. For basic communication probably not so hard. For true fluency really quite possibly the hardest language in the world.

  • Chinese isn’t hard to speak, especially Mandarin. Grammar is easy. Pinyin is helpful. Pronunciation and tones surmountable.
  • Computers and smartphones have really helped things sooooo much. I used to have to look up characters by strokes in a paper dictionary just 7 years ago.
  • Problems come up when you meet real people who don’t speak standard Mandarin, which is more than you would think. A lot of people over 40 don’t really speak comprehensible Mandarin. I’ve met the parents of many of my friends and students and couldn’t understand much of what they said even though they were located in Mandarin based areas like Shandong and Sichuan. You get inverted tones and mangled consonants.
  • True Chinese dialects are basically different languages, and much much harder to boot . I dare someone to find me a foreign born native level speaker in any of the main Wu, Min, Yue dialects.
  • The writing system is ridiculous with two versions depending on whether you’re on the Mainland or not. I learned the simplified and now back in the States everyone uses Traditional. Argh.
  • Being literate in Chinese is long and difficult. The written language is very different than the everyday spoken language. A lot of it requires cultural and historical reference learning.

Generally, how hard a specific target language for any particular person depends on a number of factors, including sociocultural and individual factors.

Coming from a Western background however, Chinese might seem especially difficult. Here are a number of reasons that I think are critical.

1. The writing system or Hanzi
An online survey that we have conducted shows that unsurprisingly, Chinese characters are the hardest part of learning Chinese. If you have a western language background, you will most probably never have had to deal with a similar system. The difficulty stems from two different sources: First, the characters themselves seem to be abstract, complicated and there are tons of them. Second, it is very hard to connect either the meaning or the pronunciation just by looking at the character.

Luckily, there might be an answer to just this problem.

First of all, it is indeed only necessary to study around 200 components that repeatedly appear in all of the 3000 characters used in everyday life. Think of it as a Lego system.

After you have mastered the components, all you have to do is to try and establish links between the components and the characters formed. You can find some more explanation and additional information in this article:Mandarin Chinese Handbook: 9 Essential Chinese Character Tips

Second, there are also approaches where you can not only reduce the number of characters you have to learn, but those methods also give you the necessary bridges to connect character, meaning and pronunciation. In the example below, the technique of visualization is used to show the meaning for the characters

In fact, with the right method, learning Hanzi can become really intuitive as most character are built with really logical systems. Learn more about the right method here.

2. Tones
Coming from a Western background, tones are another thing you probably have to familiarize yourself with. Chinese has five tones and the meaning of words may change dramatically when pronounced with the wrong tone.

A funny example that I experienced while studying in China: 大便 (dàbiàn ) which contains twice the fourth tone means “shit” while 答辩 (dábiàn) in which the first character has the second tone means to answer or defend a thesis. This difference explains my friend’s statement that she had to take a shit in 3 month.

The good thing about tones is, although they are important, people will nevertheless understand you even if you use the wrong tones because of the context of the conversation.

3. Pronunciation
This one is not as hard as one might think when first listening to Chinese. In fact, many of the pronunciations are similar to for example the German pronunciations. Difficulties exist especially in pronouncing “Zhang“, “Chang“, “Qiang” or between “zi” and “ci“. To get these right, you will probably need the help of a native speaker who can give you some precise guidance.

4. Grammar
Now this is the best part about Chinese. The grammar is in fact really simple: For example Chinese verbs always stay the same and do not change with tenses. Same goes for nouns which in a lot of languages change depending in which case you are using them.

In Chinese for example, to express past tense, generally you simply add a “了” to the sentence and if you want to say something in plural, simply add “们” to your pronoun. So while “我” means “I”, “我们” means “We”.

A Chinese specialty and probably one of the most difficult things about Chinese grammar are measure words. In Chinese, you cannot simply say three (三) books (书), but rather you have to say 三书. The difficulty with measure words is that different nouns go with different measure words. But as a beginner, you can generally substitute all of them with 个 (even I do it).

5. Conclusion

As with everything else, with the right strategy and determination, you can definitely succeed. My co-founder managed to reached HSK 6 (the highest level in Chinese proficiency for foreigners) after living for one year in Shanghai and using a certain learning strategy.

We have managed to implement this strategy into a new kind of Chinese learning app. If you would like to find out more, you can check out our homepage at Zizzle and have a look at our blog!

Good Luck!


A little context- when I was at high school I studied Japanese. I was at the bottom of the class for 5 years straight. I showed little to no talent for language learning, and actually flunked a few years completely (but they let you keep going in NZ, yay).

Then university, and time for a change. After 0.5 years of studying Mandarin at university, I could barely say anything, I struggled with even the most basic sentences and got very, very nervous. If a native speaker spoke to me, I totally froze and couldn’t understand a word unless it was a teacher speaking slowly and clearly with vocab I knew well.

After 1.5 years it was so easy for me to speak Mandarin that I didn’t even have to show up to class get all A’s. This was in my university in China during exchange, with a class full of people who had been learning for years and many were already familiar with a character-based writing system.

So what happened in between?

I won’t go through the technical reasons why/why not Chinese (I’m assuming you mean Mandarin) might be difficult to learn, but let me tell you to what point I got by when, and what I did to get there.

During those first 6 months of studying at uni I learnt a lot, although most of what I learnt had nothing to do with Mandarin vocab, grammar, characters etc.

Instead, I learnt how to learn.

There are so many great resources out there that will teach you how to pick things up quickly and easily. I’ll list a few of them below, but first, the philosophy that triggered all of this- Tim Ferris. I can’t remember where I read it (4-Hour Work Week maybe?), but pretty much it teaches you how to break down big challenges into component tasks.

So, to go over a few of the lessons I learnt that allowed me to accelerate my learning.

Listening- ChinesePod. A baby spends 99% of it’s life listening, and only then does it try to speak. It’s important to have something to listen to that is similar to your learning level, that is accurate, and challenging. I found repeating the sentences after the hosts very helpful. ChinesePod ticks all the boxes. Also, they’re fun and have a good community.

Speaking- Speaking is essential for adult language learning as it’ll give you immediate pay off for what you’ve learnt. Seeing native speakers understand what you’re saying, even if it’s asking where the toilet is with good tones, is immensely rewarding. Btw, going to China is the best way to do this.

Tones and Pinyin-

Although part of Listening and Speaking, I cannot stress enough how important it is to get the basics down. If you spend a lot of time getting these two things down, you’re Mandarin learning experience will be magnitudes easier than those around you trying to learn. Good tones and pinyin and hard to find in non-native speakers- be the exception and reap the benefits.

Reading-

Reading and writing are hard slogs to begin with going from English, but once you have a foundation it’s a lot of fun. The satisfaction of catching yourself reading what was previously alien scribble is not something I’d experienced before. Use Memrise and other tools (see Writing below) to fast track your learning.

Writing-

Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try to learn a character by rote. It’s near impossible. I know so many people who try the “tried and true” method of rote learning with nothing to show for it. My guiding philosophy was always to make things easier by getting the foundations down, so with writing learn the component parts of the characters (there’s only ~240 radicals, not 1000s like there are of individual characters).

Grammar-

Rejoice, Chinese grammar is pretty basic. Learning Chinese makes me happy that I already know English. Still very important though, but this is more to do with vocab and it’d proper usage than “grammar”.

Getting your phone kitted out with all the right gear for the above points is really important too. Pleco is your best friend when learning Mandarin, for example, but also get a good Mandarin input keyboard to practise on.

Conclusion-

Nothing is inherently difficult if you have the right tools and base knowledge, and Mandarin is no exception (although the Chinese love to think that their language is unlearnable, so don’t ever tell them you think it’s easy!)

Motivation also plays a huge part, which is why going to China to learn is so important. Nothing will motivate you more than having no friends or connections in a foreign country, to learn their language!


The answer is that for most learners, it is practically impossible, and for a few people it’s relatively easy. Some people take five years living in China and studying every day before they can have conversations. But some gifted students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at the Middlebury summer intensive program – considered the best 1st level Chinese program in the world – reach conversational fluency in little over a month. There are students out there who can talk politics after five months, read newspapers after six, and I know Sinologists who studied for a year and a half and had the skills needed to do sophisticated PhD research in History. I know a Sinology student who mastered modern Mandarin and Classical Chinese in five years and is pursuing a PhD in classical Chinese studies from one of the world’s top schools.

What did they have in common? Good teachers, good pedagogy, immersion, motivation, and prior records of academic excellence. This enabled them to “crack the code” of learning Chinese and master the language quickly.

Once you reach the advanced level of Chinese, it becomes much easier. If you are reading a medicine journal, the word “Cirrhosis” explains itself as “liver-hardening-disease” and “diabetes” as “sugar-urination-disease”. Characters are the roots of Chinese words, and there are just about 3,500 characters to learn to cover 99% of Chinese (and 4,700 for everything).  Most words are similarly self-explanatory. In English a learner is still fighting to learn new word roots and fix their numerous grammatical errors at this level. In Chinese, words explain themselves and the grammar and pronunciation system is limited enough that fossilization doesn’t become an issue.

Most who do approach Mandarin fail. I believe there’s a few reasons for this. First, the initial learning curve is almost vertical. You need to learn lots of very difficult pronunciation and tons of characters all at once. This is overwhelming to learners. A native Mandarin speaker will know 5,000 characters and 50,000 – 100,000 lemmas (words), a ratio of 10:1 to 20:1. But in your first four years of Mandarin, you’ll need to learn 3,000 characters to go with maybe 5,000 words. And a character takes much longer to learn than a word. The end result is that after 4 years of college Mandarin, your vocabulary size compares with that of a 5 year-old. This is the average learner.

That is not to say English is much easier. The University of Hong Kong did a study on Hong Kong students at age 18 – the best educated in English anywhere in China – and after around 10 years of instruction, the average student had a vocabulary of just 3,000 words.

So the end result is that the Mandarin learning curve starts very flat and then should turn into something like a rocket.

The next section addresses why people stumble with Mandarin, and gives some pointers to students on how to address these issues.

———-

You will not learn enough vocabulary from your classes relative to the characters you know. A third-year Mandarin student, if he really wants to learn, should start tuning into those cheesy romance shows they show in Chinese with subtitles. Follow those subtitles closely and look at each of the characters and how they form words. You’ll pick up a ton of words doing that, very quickly. Mandarin requires a ton of additional exposure and immersion, but if you have it, vocabulary will grow exponentially. The textbook won’t be enough.

The second big reason Mandarin learners fail is that they get to China in their 3rd or 4th year of Chinese for a year abroad… And everyone speaks to them in English. The Chinese students want to learn English, and outnumber you 100,000 to one.  A few people do language exchanges.  A really small minority of them actually achieve 100% immersion. To some natives, the idea that someone would want to speak Mandarin all the time in China seems ludicrous. Some other people feel you are a resource, and as a friend, you should make this resource available.

There was a study of a prestigious Chinese Master’s program in Nanjing that said students, after 2 years, moved up only one level in proficiency, from ILR 3 to 3+. The study suggested a probable reason was the Master’s students said they almost never spoke Chinese with the locals. So many students spent big bucks learning Chinese for two years and went home empty handed after vast opportunity and tuition costs.

Here is point two of advice for Chinese students going to China. You will arrive in China, outnumbered by Chinese students 100,000 to 1. Your mission is to learn the hardest language on earth, according to many. To succeed you should plan on using Chinese all day, every day, for the entire day. You will find many people just want to speak English with you, many people will refuse to speak English, responding every time in Chinese. Many people will pressure you into exchanging English for Chinese, as if speaking Mandarin with you were a commodity not to be given away for free. You might even feel like you are having a battle with some people to speak Chinese.

Don’t give up. There are 100,000 students for every one of you and statistically many of them will not care whether they learn English from you. They will want to be your friend just like any other friend. Many of these people will be unaware that people will try to get you to be their English learning resource. Once I made one such friend and he invited me to a welcome party event at the University. I told him almost everyone I’d meet would try to speak English with me, even stubbornly. He didn’t believe it – if someone’s speaking Chinese with you, then how hard is it to speak Chinese, he said? When we got there, not only did it happen, but so many people stopped by to practice English with me that it obstructed the hallways and the ushers had to tell people to move inside. My friend spent the whole time laughing hysterically, rolling on the floor.

There’s a silver lining here. Older people will treat you normally, speaking Chinese with you just like anyone else. But for now

The Peace Corps. sends people to China to teach English. There are many people who feel that they are in need of this kind of humanitarian aid. Joining the Peace Corps to donate your time to teaching English in China is a great experience. If you are going to China to study abroad, you should realize you are not in the peace corps, it’s not what you’re there for. Before Africa’s economy took off, USAID Engineers would go to Africa and be accosted by crowds of people begging for food. But they have one job: build bridges. Their job is not to go around buying bags of food to hand out to people on the street. Likewise, in the above situation I was accosted by a huge crowd of people trying to practice English with me.

If you are attending a Chinese program, your one job is to learn Chinese.  Assume you’re a scholarship student studying directly with the university. The Chinese government pays a lot of money for you to learn Chinese.According to the MOE financial data, the raw disbursement to you as a scholarship student is higher than the average ANNUAL wage in Shanghai or Beijing. There are teachers devoting their whole lives to get people like you to learn Chinese. Many programs tell their students to never speak English and study 14 hours a day.  These people were dead serious about the hard work expected. Like the USAID engineer, other people are investing in you.

Is Mandarin easy or hard to learn? It depends on how you approach it and the kind of immersion you get. Some people work hard for a decade and get to the same place others get after just a year. If you’re interested, I recommend learning some to see if it works out for you, and if so, you can decide to continue.