Have you ever wondered which language is easier to learn, Arabic or Chinese?
I often argued with a fellow Chinese language teacher and a language professional on whose language is easier to learn.
Honestly none of us is qualified to answer that question because we are native speakers who may be biased towards our respective languages which we learned at a very early stage in our lives.
We have seen what some students struggle with but we can’t fully understand the challenges simply because we lack a learner’s perspective.
I did some research and interacted with students from online Arabic and Chinese learning communities to benefit from their candid and anonymous input.
I went over the comments, tallied the responses and selected the difficulties that were cited repeatedly by students who were studying either Mandarin or Arabic or both.
For simplicity purposes, I placed the identified challenges into the categories of grammar, pronunciation, parts of speech, writing system, and language variants.
What is most difficult about learning Chinese?
Responses did not list Chinese grammar as too difficult , particularly in the context of comparing the difficulties of learning Mandarin and Arabic.
In fact, students who had the chance to study and gain exposure to the two languages stated that Chinese grammar is pretty straight forward.
..Chinese grammar is quite simple (eg no gender, plural can be formed just by adding ‘many’ eg many cars),” wrote a student who was studying Mandarin Chinese after taking some introductory courses.
The biggest complaint among learners of Chinese , most of whom have a background in European languages, was mastering the word tones.
Because Chinese is a tonal language, the same syllable can be pronounced with different tones to express different meanings.
These homonyms are quite difficult to understand for students, affecting their listening comprehension skills. For instance, it can be challenging for learners to differentiate between Qi, Zhi and Xi.
Similarly, students face difficulty with using the tonal words in their oral expression. “After a year and a half of studies, I doubt I’ll ever reach the point where I can reliably execute tones more than 50% of the time,” wrote one of the students.
“No doubt the hardest part for me, “ he added.
Parts of speech:
In light of this comparison, I didn’t see any complaints about this part regarding Mandarin. In most cases, terms in Mandarin are taken from one part of speech to another without making modifications. The same cannot be said about Arabic, as we will demonstrate below.
Most responses and comments described learning the Mandarin Chinese script as extremely difficult.
Mandarin writing system consists of forming meanings by changing or adding to character roots. It is also said that you need to memorize at least 4000 Chinese characters if you want to read a newspaper.
Memorizing all the strokes of the characters without changing them for other ones that look very familiar.
One student wrote, “ There are so many characters to learn with certain stroke orders and the tones of PinYin are my absolute worst nightmare.”
This criterion has to do with whether there are too many varieties of the language that can make it difficult for learners to speak with a wide array of native speakers.
I didn’t see any complaints regarding this aspect of Chinese aside from mentioning the existence of multiple dialects including Cantonese.
Although Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible and both sound totally different, Mandarin variant is hugely dominant nowadays that speakers of Cantonese also speak Mandarin as a second language.
This means you can get by with Mandarin Chinese in most parts of the country, including parts where a majority of the speakers have Contonese as their first language. Mandarin is the main language of business and the official language of government in China.
What is most difficult about learning Arabic?
The challenging part of learning Arabic in my opinion is grammar.
Most students commented about the difficulty of Arabic grammar. Words in Arabic are made up of root consonants and vowels. To change the meaning, you need to place the vowels following a set of patterns. Verb conjugation, word order, gender, dual and plural forms follow their own rules as well.
While gender forms exist in languages, others such as dual plural as a concept does not exist in many languages and could initially be hard to learn and master for many learners of Arabic as a foreign language.
“Arabic grammar is very difficult to master even for native speakers(genders, singular/plural/double, very conjugation etc..”
I have to agree with this comment. It is true that Modern Standard Arabic grammar can be difficult to grasp fully even for native speakers.
The most common complaint about pronunciation difficulty in Arabic cited around half a dozen of sounds that are unique to Arabic from the perspective of speakers of English and European languages.
These sounds include the following Arabic letters /خ/ /ح/ /غ/ /ض/ /ظ/ /ط/ /ق/ .
Because learners never uttered these sounds in their native tongue, they are required to spend considerable time and effort to practice articulating them. It could be a daunting task in the early learning stage.
Parts of speech:
When it comes to Arabic, this part overlaps with the grammar section. Most cited cases of difficulty have to do with the changes Arabic words undergo to serve different functions in a sentence. Nouns and verbs , for instance, can share the same root (consonants) but acquire different vowels. The same word can change its morphology depending on its role in the sentence such as subject vs object.
The rules that govern the transformation patterns can be a bit challenging to new learners.
Surprisingly although the Arabic script is completely different and may seem intimidating to those who are not familiar with Arabic, it didn’t appear to cause major difficulties to Arabic learners.
This may be explained by the fact that the number of Alphabets in Modern Standard Arabic is close to that of Western languages, unlike Mandarin. However, a few noted how the Arabic letters change form depending on their position within a word.
Still, learners exposed to the two languages found the Arabic script much more manageable than Mandarin.
Arabic is easier to write.
Comparing it to Chinese writing, one student wrote, “MSA , with its 28 alphabetic letters, will not pose a real problem for anyone to learn.”
There is consensus among the comments that this is a difficulty factor in learning to communicate in Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is a form of the language that is highly structured and generally used in TV and radio newscasts, newspapers and official communication. However, that is not what native speakers use to communicate in their daily lives.
Native speakers use dozens of colloquial dialects or variants that vary by country or even province inside the same country.
If you travel to the Arab world and try to communicate in MSA, not everyone will be able to speak it and you may have difficulty understanding their colloquial dialect. Therefore, it is always recommended to start learning a dialect after you reach advanced beginner level in MSA if you intend to interact with the locals in informal settings.
“What is even harder is that people don’t speak in the written language: Modern Standard Arabic, but in dialects. And there are hardly any learning materials for dialects and the ones that exist are all pretty much useless.”
It is worth noting that this comparison was mainly based on feedback and opinion of learners of Chinese and Arabic. There is nothing scientific about it. In addition, the language learning of every student is different based on individual abilities and the favorable and unfavorable factors applicable to each.
After analyzing the quantity and quality of the input provided by these students on four language learning communities present on two popular online platforms, I came to the following conclusion:
- When it comes to grammar, both languages present challenges to learners with English or western languages backgrounds. However, Arabic is grammatically more difficult than Chinese.
- As for pronunciation, Arabic and Mandarin have nothing in common with western languages, which adds to the peculiar difficulties of each. Yet, Chinese is slightly more difficult than Arabic.
- In regards to parts of speech, Arabic is more complex than Chinese.
- Although the script of the two languages is very foreign to western languages, Mandarin Chinese is significantly harder than the Arabic writing system due to the complexity and multitude of its characters.
- As for variation, I would say Arabic is a lot harder than Mandarin with the presence of dozens of dialects in the Arab world and the gap that exists between MSA and the colloquial dialects.
What does this mean?
It is important to note that both languages are among the most difficult languages for speakers from western Europe and North America. Language experts at the US Foreign Service Institute place both languages in category 5 of “super hard languages” along with Japanese and Korean.
They determined that reaching an intermediate level of reading and speaking in these languages typically requires 88 weeks of training, equivalent to 2200 hours of studying.
There are various variables that can determine a learner’s success in learning one language over the other. A motivated and an interested student has higher chances of learning faster and staying committed. So, in which culture are you more interested? That may help you decide on the language you’d like to learn.
An auditory student can have an easier time picking up a tonal language like Mandarin Chinese. Auditory students are better at conceptualizing what they hear. Conversely, a tone-deaf learner will struggle with it.
An analytical student who’s quick at picking up patterns and rules will certainly thrive in learning Arabic and can even enjoy studying Arabic grammar. Mastering the roots system and word forms basically opens all the keys to Arabic learning.
The quality of instruction is also another key factor in the success of learning a foreign language, particularly a difficult one such as Arabic or Chinese. It is important to pick the right learning platform or institution for your learning journey for optimal results.