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”. Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng 跟天书一样 meaning “It’s like heavenly script.”
There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.
Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?
I’ve toyed off & on for years with the idea of trying to pick up a bit of Chinese, if only to be able to at least say the “hellos”, “please”, “thank you”, “bye”, and order off a menu, which is a plenty good starting place for most foreign languages & foreign travel.
But the whole tonality aspect of the language completely throws me off balance. To my ear, I’m hearing & saying the same thing as the Chinese speaker, but because tone & emphasis has meaning in Chinese, I find it nearly impossible to get right.
Turns out though, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.