A Non-Anglocentric Language Tier System?

How difficult is it to learn a foreign language? Well it depends on what you speak and what you want to learn. To a native English speaker, some are quite obvious. German, French, Swedish and Norwegian all rank on the bottom of the difficulty pyramid, while Chinese, Japanese and Korean are usually found at the summit of Mount Difficulty. This begs the question, if you are not a native English speaker, how will these difficulties change? Many of these difficulty tier systems rely on language proximity, grammar, phonology and morphology to show how difficult one can expect to learn the language. It serves as a soft guide and does not correlate to the true language learning experience. But anyways, I will present to you, my idea of a Sinocentric tier system, a language learning difficulty tier system for native Mandarin Chinese speakers.

1. Easy

At this tier one would find Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Cambodian, Tibetan and Burmese. Cantonese would come out as the easiest among the lot, as it shares the same writing system, but with additional characters, and pretty much some of its grammar with Mandarin Chinese. A common characteristic of languages in this tier is the isolating type of grammar, where there are no suffixes added to the end of the word to change its meaning. Instead, additional words are added as markers to give the meaning. Most of these languages are tonal languages, which Mandarin Chinese speakers may find easy to manage.

2. Not so Easy

Here we would see more diverse languages like English, Japanese and Korean coming into play. English has limited case systems and the suffixes are quite minimal, providing a smooth learning curve for native Chinese speakers. Pronunciation would be a challenge for them though, as “th” and “v” sounds are all but existent in Chinese. Also, one would have to deal with more vowels, syllable combinations and consonant clusters, all of which are foreign to the native Chinese speaker.

Japanese and Korean have borrowed a significant number of words from Chinese, and Japanese still adopts a modified Chinese script called the kanji. These provide sufficient leverage for the native Chinese speaker to learn as the learning curve to learn how to write these characters is drastically reduced. The main challenge here would be the grammar, as it involves way more suffixes than English has to offer.

We would also see the other Germanic languages making an appearance here, like German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. These languages build more complex words by forming word compounds, as with Chinese (computer in Chinese literally is “electric brain”). Swedish, Norwegian and Danish may seem simpler to learn compared to Dutch and German as their verbs do not conjugate based on number and person, and they have an absence of case endings other than the possessive one. German would be the most difficult to learn in this comparison as it has four cases and verbs, like Dutch, conjugate based on number and person, in addition to tense and mood. The main challenge for learning these languages is more on the stress system, as Chinese is among the least stress based system, while these languages lie on the more stress based side. Pronunciation might also pose an issue, especially with learners of Danish.

3. Getting more difficult

This tier would see the introduction of the Romance languages and also, Slavic languages. Within this tier, the Romance languages would take the easier subtier and the Slavic languages would take the more difficult subtier. As we assume that the native Chinese speaker is only exposed to the Chinese script, both alphabets would take an almost equal amount of time to learn.

The Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian have more complex grammars in terms of tense. To these languages, what is not a tense? These languages, except French, feature a pro-drop system, where the pronoun is dropped when it is followed by a verb. That is because the verb has six different endings depending on the person and number, and each have a distinct pronunciation. French, on the other hand, is a language where half the letters are silent, or more rather, influence the pronunciation of other letters. The six different endings are apparent only in texts, but not so in daily speech. Thus, it is not a pro-drop system. A common feature to get used to would be the subjunctive mood, as it is absent in Chinese, and it may confuse the learner when they just started.

The Slavic languages like Russian, Serbian, Polish and Croatian have more complex grammars in terms of noun cases and conjugation. Their phonology may also pose a challenge to learners as they may have to get used to unusual consonant clusters, and for learners of Czech, they would have to learn the fluid consonants which may replace vowels (“Strč prst skrz krk” is one of the more famous tongue twisters that demonstrate this property). Nouns here have three genders and six or seven cases. Conjugating them would prove difficult, and this is especially the case for Polish.

Hindi may make an appearance here, but on the lower end in this subtier. Hindi has an alphasyllabary to get used to, but has a neat and regular pronunciation. Verbs here, depending on tense, may conjugate based on number and person, or number and gender. It also features a nominative-accusative and an absolutive-ergative system, and separate rules apply as to when to use which system. The main challenge here would be getting used to the numbers, as unlike Chinese, with a neat system of counting, Hindi has no fixed system in the numbers 1-100. This could mean memorising 100 different words for the first 100 numbers. But after that, it starts getting regular.

4. Difficult

This tier would see the Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic as they are known for their unusual method of constructing words from a basic root, as a root consists of a set of bare consonants, usually three, and they are fitted into a discontinuous pattern to form new words. Verbs in Arabic are conjugated based on tense, number, person and gender, thus presenting about a dozen different ways one could conjugate a verb for just a single tense. Another thing to get used to is also the pharyngealised consonants in Arabic and Hebrew. Both languages also feature the abjad, where vowels are omitted in most texts, leaving them to be interpreted from the context. Amharic, however, has an alphasyllabary, packed with about 200 or so different characters which represent syllables.

Dravidian languages of South India would also make their appearance here as their eight noun cases and other relevant conjugations may pose a steady challenge to the learner. These languages include Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. They also feature more retroflex consonants to get used to.

Swahili would be placed here as well due to it having more consonants foreign to Chinese phonology, especially the implosive and prenasalised ones. Syllabic consonants also arise in this language, as in msumari “nail”. Swahili also boasts its own fair share of noun classes, numbering at least a dozen. Each noun class has its own conjugation for other stuff, and it is also interesting to note that the subject and object may be conjugated around one verb so “I like you” in Swahili would end up as one word nakupenda. This maybe pose challenges to the native Chinese speaker, alongside a more difficult phonology and noun classifications.

5. Very Difficult

The apex of this sinocentric language learning difficulty pyramid is dominated by one language family — the Finno-Ugric language family. Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian take the spot for their grammatical complexities, as well as their tendency to contain more than just a couple suffixes. Finnish and Hungarian are also known for their use of vowel harmony, and Finnish and Estonian are known for consonant gradation, where consonants are altered depending on the ending. Knowing which ending and whether or not to grade a consonant would prove to be a steady challenge to the learner, especially with at least a dozen different noun cases to manage. Nouns in Finnish and Estonian also take up anywhere up to four different forms, and each form is used for different case endings. Hungarian verbs would be among the main obstacles, as they are known to have many different conjugation patterns. All in all, these languages, known for their many suffixes and conjugations, earn the top spot in the hardest languages to learn for the Chinese speaker.

This is the latest sinocentric language tier system, let me know how to improve this tier system to create a better guideline for our Chinese-speaking language learning enthusiasts!

2 thoughts on “A Non-Anglocentric Language Tier System?

  1. I would argue Northwest Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) wouldn’t fall on the same tier with Ethiopian Semitic languages (Amharic, Tigre, etc.) because we have more complex grammatical systems and our phonology is generally seen as more confusing, but also the South Arabian languages in their own right are something else entirely. Even I, a Semitic-speaker, find their consonant phonology exceedingly difficult and their vowel harmony utterly confusing. But that’s just me. I’d place the Outer South Ethiopian Semitic languages at the top difficulty though, their morphophonology is absolutely ridiculous, even to an Ethiopian Semitic-speaker. Plus some of the traits like nasalization of vowels and the existence of palatal stops also make things very difficult for someone who speaks even a Northern Ethiopian Semitic language like myself.

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  2. Pingback: Icelandic is not as difficult as you think. Here’s why | The Language Closet

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