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li-river Seeing as I’m known as a “Sino-triumphalist” anyway why not go the full nine yards and learn the language? That is what I’m doing (c. 300-500 汉字 to date) and here are my thoughts so far.

1. Tones. In stark contrast to every major European language, Chinese pronunciation is based on tones. Four of them: one that stays high, one that rises high, one that dips then rises high, and one that falls sharply (there’s also a neutral tone). Very confusing at first, though I’m sure Vietnamese is worse.

2. Hanzi. The written language is based on hieroglyphs, each of which represent an idea or concept that can either stand alone or be combined to form a word. Some of these can be pretty inventive, e.g. a computer 电脑 is composed of the characters for electricity and brain; or to take an older example, a conscience 良心 is literally a “good heart.” A panda is a “big bear-cat” (大熊猫).

The characters themselves can be full of meaning. E.g. the heart (心) plays a big role in many related concepts, such as interesting, lit. “has meaning” (有意思) or “read aloud” presumably with ‘all your heart’ (念).

Or to give a fundamental example take “your honorable name” (贵姓). The first symbol, honorable, has a conchie shell in the bottom half; in ancient times, they were used as currency, and seeing as “honorable people” were those with many conchie shells, hence the character (this association of wealth with honor is intrinsic to all cultures; consider, for instance, богатый (rich person) and a богатырь (hero)). The second symbol, name, combines the characters for woman (女) and the interrelated concepts of life, birth, and livelihood (生); one possible explanation put forth is that ancient China was matrimonial, and names passed down the mother’s side. The Hanzi “to rule” (治) is intimately connected with the idea of managing water, as indicated by the radical for water at the left. These examples can be multiplied indefinitely; suffice to say, the etymology is fascinating.

In the vast majority of cases, the meanings aren’t clear and you have to invent your own if you want to stand a chance of remembering the Hanzi. Random example – the character for Korea (韩国). Being the geopolitics freak that I am, I remembered the first symbol by imagining the top as the North and the bottom as the South. On the left side of 韩, the two sides are separated by a minefield; on the right side, the curl on the southern side indicates that South Korea is the stronger of the two. Of course, after this remembering the symbol for the game of go, or wéiqí (围棋) as it is known in Chinese, became much easier; the left symbol represented a battleground, e.g. like that of the Korean peninsula, but confined to a square board.

I might be weird that way but associating hanzi with something edgy or mildly degenerate can be more effective. E.g., take the character for “want” (要); the lower half can be associated with “wanting” a woman (女). This in turn can make the first character for “pretty” (漂亮) much easier to remember, as the top part of 要 is the same as the top part of 漂. It also has a water radical, so you imagine that woman as a water nymph. The “measure word” (more on that later) for class periods is 节; the symbol at the top of it stands for grass, and can be memorized by thinking about how much you’d rather be smoking it than going to class.

3. Grammar. Is very easy. Almost baby speak. No real past or future tense; perfectly valid to say “Next Thursday I go to play pool.” No gender; even “he” and “she” sound the same, though the Hanzi are slightly different (他, 她). No dative or genitive or objective or those other cases they torture you with in German or Latin (or Russian, for that matter, though never having had a formal Russian education I was lucky enough to escape that). That said usage of the element that indicates completion (了) can get quite tricky when forming complicated sentences. Also, though there are no plurals, when you want to specify a quantity of something, you have to add what is called a “measure word”, so, for example, if you want to say three pens you say 三枝笔, which is the character for three (三), followed by the measure word (枝), followed by pen (笔). There are different measure words for different objects; in this case, 枝 is the general measure word for long and inflexible objects. This can make life difficult, though thankfully in most cases the measure word 个 is standard and will suffice. Nonetheless, grammar is probably an order of magnitude easier than English (let alone Russian or Japanese). It is an incredibly direct and straightforward language.

4. I largely agree with David Moser’s Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, but I think that he exaggerates a lot. In particular, in today’s technological society there are a lot of IT tools that easen the problems he identifies.

  • Pleco is an app for the iPhone (and coming soon for Droid – can’t wait) that is really, really cool. You point you phone’s camera at a character, be it on paper or on a computer screen, and it translates it for you and gives it to you in pinyin. A must have if you go to China.
  • Perapera-kun (Mozilla) and Zhongwen (Chrome) are popup dictionaries; hover your mouse over a character in your browser, and pinyin and definitions come up. As David correctly points out using a paper dictionary is very frustrating.
  • Our bustest bud Google Translate.
  • You have to pay a small monthly fee for it, but Skritter is really useful for assembling lists of Hanzi and studying them. There is an option in the aforementioned Zhongwen program to automatically add words that you look up with it to Skritter with a single press of a key button.
  • You should, obviously, install a program that converts pinyin (the Latinized script) into Hanzi. Windows has it as an add-on.
  • IN ADDITION: Commentator Glossy below also recommends Zhongwen etymology dictionary and Anki flash cards.

5. There is a big debate on the efficacy of Simplified vs. Traditional characters. I’m a firm supporter of Simplified because it is much easier, shorter, and – Traditionalist propaganda to the contrary – in many cases simply more logical. Granted, there are a few changes in Simplified that were idiotic and destructive. For instance, the character for love is 爱, missing out the heart radical that is in the Traditional 愛. This kind of removes the whole point. And 電, with its rain symbol at the top (i.e. associated with thunder, lightning) is a better character for electricity than the Simplified 电. But a few cases like this aside, Simplified is better.

6. Some weird cultural quirks. The word for comrade (同志) has gone from being a standard form of address in the 1950′s to only being used by a few elderly stalwarts and formal Communist Party rhetoric… and the country’s emerging LGBT community! Mao wouldn’t be happy. Apparently, a “red book” (红书) now denotes pornography; I don’t if that has any Maoist connotations. For a man “to eat tofu” is to take advantage of his female friends, so guys, don’t run around being cheesy.

EDIT 7/7: An additional observation. Because of the simplicity of the grammar, Chinese often feels like slang to speakers used to more formalized languages; i.e. slang such as ebonics. A good example is Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn (好久不见), which literally means “Long time no see.” Apparently it made its way into Anglo slang through Chinese immigrants in San Francisco…

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Knowing a second language is a highly desirable trait in today’s world, especially if your work or hobbies have an international focus. But for most people, learning languages is an arduous undertaking, constituting a big investment of intellectual resources. The best advice is to learn something you enjoy or gives you meaning, as by far the biggest challenge in learning any language is maintaining the motivation to keep studying and improving month after month. But if you’re one of those who have difficulties choosing, perhaps this list will help. I rank the languages based on their global importance (demography; economic & political influence), ease of learning, and personal usefulness (e.g. good tourist destinations; are in demand).

1. English is first, without competition. It is the world’s lingua franca, with people from different non-Anglophone countries frequently using it to communicate among themselves. About a third of the world’s population understands it to some extent. Almost all international business, academic, and diplomatic discourse is held in the language of Shakespeare. In many European countries, it is now hard to hold down high-paying professional jobs without some command of this language. Fortunately, English is relatively easy to learn.

2. Español is arguably the second most desirable language, at least for Americans. It will facilitate communications with Spanish-speaking citizens (especially in the south), as well as enrich travels in Latin America or Spain. It is a UN language. But best of all, the language of Cervantes, Borges, and 700 million other people is by far the easiest to learn on this list.

3. 中文 is the language of the country that is trending to become the next global superpower. China has 1.3 billion people, the world’s biggest industrial economy, and a multi-millennial cultural heritage. It is a UN language. Out of the Chinese languages, I unreservedly recommend Mandarin, as it’s both the official language and dominant in most of the country (and is now displacing Cantonese in the south). Speaking Chinese is relatively easy, once you get over the tones – though that is quite important, seeing as getting the pitch wrong could make you confuse your mother for a horse. The grammar is very simple. But the writing system, based on hieroglyphs (or characters), is fiendishly complex, to the extent that even many Chinese themselves never fully master it. See Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser.

4. Русский is spoken by about 250 million people in Eurasia, as well as many older people in East-Central Europe. The Russian language also boasts the world’s second largest repository of scientific and technical literature. One can indulge in the literary achievements of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or benefit from Russia’s (re)emergence as a major energy and business power. It is a UN language. It is a relatively hard language, with a grammar that is complex, but logical and consistent; it is probably the easiest of the “hard” languages.

5. العربية is the language of the Arab world, with perhaps 400 million speakers, and is the holy language of the Koran. In recent years, the importance of Arabic to the global discourse on energy and security has become very significant. Speakers are now in demand and well compensated, though whether this will last is another question. Most of the culture of Classical Europe was preserved in Arabic texts, as were the theories of many medieval philosophers, such as Averroes and Ibn Khaldun. It is a UN language. Featuring a hard writing system and very complex grammar, Arabic is a very difficult language to learn, probably the third most difficult (after Chinese and Japanese) on this list. Adding to your woes, Arabic dialects vary substantially.

6. Français plays a major historical role, as it was the European lingua franca prior to English. It remains the second international language, with 130 million native or bilingual speakers. About half of those are in France, and another half is spread out across West Africa and the Maghreb. French is also a hugely influential language in the European Union, which has its capital in francophone Brussels. In the North American continent, it is spoken in Quebec and parts of the American South. That said, unless you’re a diplomat, EU bureaucrat, or existentialist philosopher, knowing French is far less useful than it was fifty years ago. It is relatively easy, similar to English.

7. Português is fast becoming an increasingly attractive choice because of the emergence of Brazil as a major economic and resource power. Learning it will differentiate you from the multitudes who learn Spanish. Spoken by 200 million people. It’s trickier than Spanish, but no harder than English or French.

8. 日本語 is the language of Japan, which remains a major economic power (if one that is being steadily eclipsed). Spoken by 130 million people. Very hard language, with complex grammar and a panoply of honorifics that change based on gender, situation, and social status. Fun anecdote from Japanese acquaintance: since Japanese girls are attracted to white foreign males who are studying the language there, those “unfortunates” end up speaking like girls. Arguably, harder than Chinese. See Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese by John Pasden.

9. Türkçe is the language of the foremost Middle East power, with similar dialects spoken across Turkic Central Asia. Spoken by about 100 million people, it is perhaps easier than commonly thought (hence the reason it makes the list).

10. Deutsch is the language of Mitteleuropa, and a useful one to know for Europeans and aficionados of 20th century history. It is also a solid business language, due to German exports and economic prominence in the Eurozone. Since most young Germans know English, and with the Vaterland in demographic decline, the German language is likely to continue falling in prominence. Spoken by 100 million people. It is similar to English in ease of learning, with a harder grammar, but more logical structure.

The major contenders that didn’t make the list include:

  • Korean is relatively important, but has limited potential for further growth in global influence, not to mention being almost as hard as Japanese or Chinese. Has only 70 million speakers.
  • Italian and Polish are two other major European countries, but don’t have any special international significance.
  • Hindi would have made the list, as the official language of India, except for the fact that in practice Indians mostly use local languages or English to communicate among themselves.
  • Farsi is a cool language to know for Middle East specialists.

Rating Languages

Since I have a bit of a mania for quantizing things… In the following table, I rate each language for:

  • Influence / 10 – Approximately, what kind of economic, demographic, cultural, historical, and prospective influence does said language have at the global level?
  • Usefulness / 10 – How useful is said language for getting jobs, standing out of the crowd, exploiting new economic opportunities, having fun in cool touristy places, etc? Note that having a large number of English speakers actually undermines a country’s rating here (because then it’s not as important to know their language), which is one of several reasons why, say, French scores higher than German.
  • Hardness / 4 – Rough estimation. For the “1″ languages, it takes about one year to become fully fluent; about 2-3 years for the “2″ languages”; about 5 years for the “3″ languages; and 10 or more years for the “4″ languages (many foreigners never manage to achieve native level mastery).

The Language Utility Index (LUI) is calculated by Influence * Usefulness / Hardness.

Language Influence Useful? Hardness LUI
English 10 10 2 50
Spanish 4 6 1 24
Chinese 6 8 4 12
Russian 6 4 3 8
Arabic 4 4 4 4
Portuguese 3 3 2 4.5
French 4 4 2 8
Japanese 3 3 4 2.25
Turkish 2 2 3 1.33
German 3 2 2 3

Additional links of possible interest

Robert Lindsay’s series: What’s The Hardest Language To Learn?, More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Indo-European Languages, More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Non-Indo-European Languages. BTW, Robert is an intriguing and counter-intuitive thinker in general, with many interesting thoughts on fields as diverse as Marxism, linguistics, the Jews, and race and IQ.

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months by Tim Ferriss, and Simple guide to speaking foreign languages by Zen Habits.

Fluent in 3 months is a blog dedicated to the science of learning languages fast.

The Lazy Glossophiliac has an unscientific comparison of Russian, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.

Fluent Historian is a new blog by Natalie (previously at Birdbrain) with many personal anecdotes about learning Russian. Zsuzsi’s Playground is a blog in a similar vein.

Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.