Changing China

Giant on the move

Chinese … it’s easy

March 12, 2008


It’s a piece of cake. In fact, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi says Chinese is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn.

“Otherwise,” Yang reasoned at today’s National People’s Congress, “it’s hard to explain why 1.3 billion have chosen it as their mother tongue.” (Thanks to Danwei for the Xinhua link.)

Right, said the foreigner who took his first Chinese lesson 16 years ago and is still learning.

Maybe Yang meant Chinese was easy to learn for kids growing up immersed in the language (although he did encourage reporters and others to take up the language). Maybe he meant it was easy for Japanese people to learn because some things are written the same way in both languages, with characters. Perhaps Yang knew that prospective Korean and Vietnamese students of Chinese, too, would benefit from the many words in those two tongues that came from China and still sound vaguely similar.


Or maybe Yang, who happens to speak excellent English and enjoys a cup of tea, was just joking. (Was his statement even logical? And people don’t choose their mother tongue, do they?)

According to the U.S. National Virtual Translation Center Mandarin is a Catrgory III language, which is deemed exceptionally difficult for native English speakers. Others in the category are Cantonese (another Chinese dialect), Arabic, Japanese and Korean. That’s two of the top five.

Some aspects of Chinese are vexing — the tones, the writing system and the syntax, to name a few. To be fair, though, other aspects of Chinese support Yang’s case, like the fact that there are no conjugations, no declensions, no inflections and there are a relatively limited number of phonemes in use (if you subtract the tones).

I suppose whether or not a language is “easy to learn” is relative. Which reminds me… Have you heard the one about the job applicant who put on his resume that he knew every language but Greek? The sceptical interviewer tested him on Arabic and he failed. Then Chinese, and he failed again. Then tossed him a softball question in French, and the applicant failed again to demonstrate that he could speak French. When the interviewer asked him what gives, he replied: “It’s all Greek to me.”
 Photos by Jason Lee and Nir Elias


From the point of view of an American whose been studying Chinese for one year, and living in Beijing for two months, I can attest it’s not too hard. I already have to double check if the people behind me are speaking chinese or english. The romance languages have many words where you have to memorize where the emphasis is, but chinese just has four basic pronunciation (five if you include neutral tone).

Posted by Jordan Weiner | Report as abusive

I tried to learn chinese and found it to be really tough. I did learn to say hello, goodbye, and I want a beer, but that’s about it. And I have a college degree.

Posted by Republicus Maximus | Report as abusive

This statement just proves the Chinese politicians make stupid comments…..just like ours.

Posted by Duffy | Report as abusive

Well, as a Chinese, I admit that Chinese character is difficult.


Japanese is actually in the same language family with Korean and it is very difficult for the Chinese, although some writtern words are the same and vice versa.

Posted by Beijinger | Report as abusive

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