What Languages Do Mandarin and Arabic Speakers Find Difficult to Learn?

Article in partnership with Day Translations.

Sometimes the comments section of an article can be an interesting place to research a topic. Although it’s often advisable to avoid the comments section as it can be a breeding ground for toxic negativity and worse, when it is appropriately moderated it can be eye-opening and give an opportunity to learn something new. Let’s face it, it’s like doing a focus group on the cheap, or, to be more precise, for free.

Comments from Mandaring and Arabic Speakers

While browsing through the UK news website The Guardian I came across a question from a reader in the Notes and Queries section. This section is dedicated to questions and answers from readers on a broad range of topics. Readers share thoughts and offer solutions or simply opinions.

A question about which languages native Mandarin and Arabic speakers found most difficult to learn attracted more than 400 answers.

Answers from the Public

First of all, The Guardian moderator picked what they believed were the best answers from the pool, including a reply from a teacher who was relaying from their own experience teaching international students in Germany. They said the students struggled with the German language and its variations for nouns, articles and verbs, which can be confusing and time-consuming to memorise.

Another reply from a teacher of Finnish related that Arabic and Chinese speakers found Finnish to be extra challenging for a multitude of reasons. Arabic speakers for example only use three vowels while Finnish has several vowels, while Chinese speakers find pronuncing Finnish words difficult and learning Finnish cases.

Interestingly, even though the initial question was very clear and limited to a very specific situation and to native speakers of two specific languages in order to understand their challenge. The answers soon started veering off topic, with each reader relaying their own personal experience of either learning or teaching various languages, which sometimes were not even related to those mentioned in the original question.

For example, there was a lengthy discussion in the comments about pronunciation of different words in various languages with quite a few references to learning English as a foreign language.

Then there was an interesting point being shared about the ability to learn a foreign language, referencing to research stating that it’s best for children to learn a second language before they turn 10, then with a subsequent window of opportunity for learning a language fluently and to mother tongue standard until the ages 17 and 18.

Anecdotal evidence was also brought to the discussion with some commenters saying that native Arabic and Mandarin speakers do struggle with the English language for different reasons, from pronunciation and grammar challenges (for example, learning irregular verbs by heart) to the subtleties of English words meanings, context and humour. Adding to all these facts and factoids were the opinions of those who also found English as a second language confusing when moving to English-speaking countries where colloquialisms, spelling mistakes and general speech errors tend to be confusing if you have been studying English grammar, sentence construction and spelling at school.

There seemed to be a high degree of consensus that English could be one of the hardest languages not only for the reasons explained above, but also for all the variations in the use of verbs such as the verb “to get” which can assume different meanings according to the preposition that accompanies it, such as “get up”, “get in”, “get on” etc.

In other news, still in the comments section, someone also reported that they found learning Vietnamese extremely difficult as the language changes across regions in the country, making it more challenging to learn than Mandarin and Arabic. Similarly, Cherokee and Navajo languages in the United States have complex rules which are mostly unwritten. This was also an asset for the US military as it used the Navajo language for coded communications; similarly, the UN has used Gaelic for coded communications of strategic information in the past.

All Languages Have Their Challenges

It seems that, whichever language you approach as a second language, you will always find some aspects more difficult than others, from the pronunciation to memorising different verbs and conjugations, as well as grammar, spelling and alphabet. Then, there is the whole issue of memorising so much information, only to then be confronted with colloquialisms and other expressions of every day life that do not reflect many grammar rules.