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Chinese is a ‘super-hard language,’ but also one of the most important

By Curtis Stone (People's Daily Online)    10:12, November 07, 2017

What are the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn? According to the U.S. State Department, Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Japanese, and Korean are “super-hard languages,” which means Chinese is exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn.

The US State Department categorizes foreign languages according to the time required for a native English speaker to learn them. For example, Chinese is classified as a Category IV language, or a “super-hard language,” because it takes about 88 weeks (or about 1.7 years) to achieve general proficiency. Chinese is also a “priority language,” which means it is of critical importance to US foreign policy and difficult to find people who can speak it.

Why are they so difficult to learn?

Learning a super-hard language is hard, even with resources and support. According to an inspection report of State’s Foreign Service Institute, the overall success rate for beginner students in the super-hard category was 68% for FY 2011 and 63% for FY 2012. More than one-third of the students did not succeed.

What makes these languages so hard to learn? Both Japanese and Chinese have thousands of characters to memorize, Arabic has less vowels than English and almost no words similar to European languages, and the Korean alphabet, known as Hangul or Hangeul, is hailed as one of the most logical writing systems in the world and its sentence structure and grammar are challenging.

For example, Korean uses a subject-object-verb sentence structure to express things, while English uses a subject-verb-object sentence structure. So, in Korean you should say “I lunch eat” rather than “I eat lunch.”

Learning a language has a lot of benefits

Learning a new language is time-consuming and laborious, but its benefits go far beyond merely facilitating international travel and ordering food in foreign restaurants. Studies show that learning a new language can improve cognitive functions, help stave off dementia, boost memory, and improve concentration and attention.

In addition, it can also change the way we look at the world. Researchers have found that language can shape the way we think, how we see ourselves, and even the way we perceive colors. In Chinese, for example, asking someone if he or she has eaten expresses concern for their well-being. It is a polite way of asking how they are doing.

Lastly, language helps bring us together. Who could forget the moment when US President Donald Trump’s granddaughter Arabella showed off her Mandarin-speaking skills in honor of President Xi Jinping and Madame Peng Liyuan’s official visit to the United States in April 2017? There are currently 400,000 Americans learning Mandarin Chinese, according to the US-China Strong Foundation, and one million American students could be studying Mandarin Chinese by 2020. “If our countries are going to do more together around the world, then speaking each other’s language, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start,” former US President Barack Obama said in a joint press conference in September 2015 with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Mandarin Chinese might be a “super-hard language” to learn, but learning Chinese is the best way to understand China.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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