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I am a native Chinese speaker, and it was an excruciating journey for me to learn English. My personal belief is that the reason lies in the linguistics, namely the Chinese language may be somewhat isolated in the language family, and there are few modern languages closed to Chinese. So for a native Chinese speaker, I think it would be equally painful to learn any foreign languages. Japanese and Korean sound just as exotic to me as Swedish and Finnish. Those Kanji in Japanese are of limited help.

I also have great sympathy to my ethnic Chinese friends learning Chinese as a foreign language, because honestly I struggle with Chinese even as a native speaker. (more often than I should, sigh...)

In my opinion, linguistically speaking, Chinese language is like an isolated city where native speaker is struggling to learn the "outside" while the non-native speaker is struggling to learn the "inside". This is in contrary to the native speakers of Italian and Spanish, where reportedly they can understand each other about 80% without any learning.

This brings to my question. Let's take English as an example, because of its prevalent use around the world nowadays. Is it more difficult for a native Chinese speaker to learn English as a foreign language, or is it more difficult for a native English speaker to learn Chinese as a foreign language? I am not expecting a definite answer, since it is not possible to conduct a quantitative experiment in this regard (let a person to go from native-Chinese to foreign-English, and let the same person to go from native-English to foreign-Chinese, this is not possible in a foreseeable future). But I welcome any relevant discussions and thoughts.

Many thanks.

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I think it depends on what aspect of the language you're talking about.

For reading and writing, English, being a primarily phonetic written language (albeit very irregular), seems to be easier to learn than Chinese. You can see the syllables written out and compare that with other words you already know. You can guess how to write something based on how it sounds. Chinese, on the other hand, while you may be able to guess some meanings and phonetics based on radicals, largely depends on memorizing large quantities of characters. I think most people would agree it's extremely difficult for a native English speaker to become proficient in written Chinese.

For spoken language, there's a few different aspects to consider:

  • Pronunciation – English has a large range of sounds that native speakers are used to making. Chinese has a more limited set, somewhere around 400 common syllables. In this sense, I've found that it's slightly easier for English speakers to find the muscles necessary to form Chinese sounds (while still of course very hard). For some Chinese friends I know, there are certain sounds that seem almost unattainable in English (initial r's, diphthongs, etc).
  • Communication and grammatical accuracy – English grammar is extremely complex, because it's really just a mashup of different languages, so there's hardly any consistency. Chinese grammar is much more standardized, and without the need for verb conjugation, I think in this sense it's easier.
  • Idioms, slang, and "sounding fluent" – This is one big area I think Chinese gets the prize for difficulty. The history behind four-character idioms is like a mountain that gets bigger as you climb it, not to mention regional slang and dialects. The wealth of media available in English, on the other hand, means Chinese speakers can pick up a lot of slang just by being present online. In addition, because English is used by so many different countries, it's a lot more forgiving in the range of what people will accept as correct or understandable.

It's certainly hard to truly quantify, and I would say it's very hard in both directions, but there are some aspects that might be easier one way than the other.

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