The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, "Hard for whom? After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine.When little Chinese kids go through the "terrible twos", it's Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean.(Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese.At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.Everyone's heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom "It's Greek to me" and search for equivalent idioms in all the world's languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language.(For example, the French have the expression "C'est du chinois", "It's Chinese", i.e., "It's incomprehensible".Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.1 If you don't believe this, just ask a Chinese person.
I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole.I mean hard for me -- and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on.So part of what I'm contending is that Chinese is hard compared to ...well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle.
What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard in absolute terms.