So if you’re good at simple visual memorization, you’ll probably do fine at Chinese. Not so much for the other languages on this list, which all involve horrible, horrible conjugations. Conjugations refer to the alterations of a verb according to number, tense, gender and a whole lot of other stuff, and are hated by anyone who has ever tried studying a foreign language in order to impress an attractive exchange student.
For a good introduction to conjugations, this is an Arabic verb chart:
Once you stop shaking in fear, note the focus on masculine and feminine. Arabic, like many European languages, has two genders for its nouns, even the non-human ones. For example, ‘sun’ in Arabic is a feminine word, and so the verb connected to it must be feminine. Also, any adjectives relating to gendered words (like the ‘bright’ in ‘bright sun’) must change to a feminine form. On top of all this, Arabic also has the extremely rare dual form, which means that you have to learn a new plural based on whether you have one falafel, two falafels, or a whole damn bunch of falafels.
But learning plurals is easy, right? After all, in English we usually just stick an ‘s’ on the end of words. In Arabic, not so much. Like many Semitic languages, Arabic has issues with vowels. It seems to think they’re not real, and can be changed around whenever you feel like it.
So Arabic has something called a ‘broken plural’, where the ‘real’ part of the word (the consonants) remains the same while vowels are shuffled around, pretty much at random:
Walad (boy) – Awlad (boys); Kitaab (book) – Kutub (books)
On top of all this, there are two forms of Arabic, classic and modern. The former being what you’ll see in books, the latter what you’ll have to use if you ever wake up from a hangover and find yourself in central Baghdad. So the Arabic you learn at school? Probably won’t sound anything like what you hear on the street when you’re desperately trying to find your way to the Green Zone.
As you probably know, the Chinese language is relatively unique in that it doesn’t use an alphabet. Instead, every word is given its own separate character. You’ll need to be able to recognize about 4000 in order to gain a reasonable fluency in reading Chinese, but all in all there are well over forty seven thousand.
This remarkable system means that there are even characters to depict people making random grunting sounds and saying ‘uh’. Yes, really.
Still, Chinese goes on the bottom of this list because the grammar is relatively simple. Once you have shut yourself up in your house for four years learning all those characters, the grammar will come pretty easily.
There’s one more hurdle though: the tones. Even if you succeed in throttling your English-speaking mouth through all the weird new sounds you have to learn, you still have to deal with the fact that Chinese word meanings are influenced according to whether the word is spoken with a rising, falling, rising then falling, or ‘high level’ tone.
Do you consider yourself tone deaf? Maybe it’s better for you to stick to another language then, before you mix up your risings and fallings and end up insulting the mother of a member of the Chinese Communist Party.
- - Japanese: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_pte2XO66Nwg/SVKDHbYSFkI/AAAAAAAADGs/0kVxGLmIFHA/s400/anime%2Bfan.jpg http://www.monkeyheaven.com/monkeyvids_nipponsports.jpg http://img223.imageshack.us/img223/3553/japanxj6.jpg
- - Russian: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3469/3194210184_0619b3a551.jpg
- - Arabic: http://i40.tinypic.com/24w848l.jpg http://stungeonstudios.com/fantasyc/unicorn.jpg
- - Chinese: http://www.pinyin.info/news_photos/lucky_stroke_count.gif