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World's greatest polyglot say's Mandarin is the hardest language in the world

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Luobot
Fazah, who can learn 3,000 words in two to three months, said Mandarin was the hardest language to learn because of the vast number of idiograms.

That's an amazing story. The part he found hardest was, of course, characters, so that makes me feel much better. It will take him a full 7 years before "he can learn the rest of the world's estimated 3,000 dialects." Yup, I feel much better. :)

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roddy

That article dates from the mid-nineties, so he should be finished by now.

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imron

And this thread on the same forum is even longer, and casts even more doubts about his ability.

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liuzhou
the world's estimated 3,000 dialects.

There are more than that in this city, I'm sure! :wink:

Ethnologue lists 6,912 languages, never mind dialects.

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ABCinChina

After sifting through the threads, it seemed like some people claimed the guy went on a TV show and failed to even understand what basic questions people were asking him. Yet, others have defended the man and said that he was really on the Guinness Book of World Records. I even saw a Wikipedia article with his name Ziad Fazah but I'm not able to access it right now. So it may be impossible to know that many languages fluently even if you are an autistic savant.

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Lu

That thread is an epos, worth reading through!

Seems there are a lot of holes in the story of this man, but he definitely has a point when he says Mandarin is very difficult :-)

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cwmccabe

ABCinChina, here's a Feb 2nd 2008 copy of the Wikipedia article:

Ziad Youssef Fazah (born June 10, 1954 in Monrovia, Liberia) is a polyglot who has at least some notions of almost 60 languages. He has proved this in several television shows, where he successfully has communicated with native speakers of a large number of foreign languages.[1] He was considered the world's greatest polyglot (greatest living linguist) by the 1993 UK edition of the Guinness Book of Records.

Mr. Fazah does not use all of his languages on a regular basis. As can be expected, his fluency is higher in certain languages that he has more contact with (Portuguese, Arabic, German, French, English, Spanish, etc.) and limited in languages that he has hardly spoken in years (Cambodian, Dzongkha, Finnish, etc.). Before being submitted to a televised language test he asks to be told which languages he will be required to speak and the general topics that will be discussed. After about a week of preparation Mr. Fazah feels confident speaking on television in any of his languages.[1]

Raised in Lebanon, he has lived in Brazil since the 1970s, where he works as a private teacher of languages in Rio de Janeiro.

List of Fazah's languages from the cover of one of his books:

Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azeri, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Dzongkha, English, Fijian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Lao, Malagasy, Malay, Mandarin, Mongolian, Nepali, Norwegian, Papiamento, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Singapore Colloquial English, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tajik, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese and Wu.[2]

(Fazah is usually quoted to speak 58 languages. The list above gives only 57, but the book cover also mentions "Bhutanese" which is another name for Dzongkha.)

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gato

Interesting that though he lives in South America, the list of languages he supposedly speaks doesn't include any indigenous languages of the Americas.

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Lu

According to the tale, he learned all these languages when he was in his teens, well before he moved to South America. That would explain it. Incidentally, what languages are spoken in Liberia? It doesn't seem to be on the list.

There's a phone number of the man somewhere in that epic 40+ pages thread, anyone here care to phone him to test his Chinese?

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liuzhou

A wikipedia page is hardly an authority. He could have written it himself. In all the wikipedia languages. :wink:

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Madot

I can't claim to be a polyglot, but I am a native English speaker with native-like fluency in Italian and French as well as a decent knowledge of Spanish and some German along with 35 years experience teaching these languages. They all came SO easily to me. Mandarin is DEFINITELY the hardest. Has anyone ever claimed that some particular language was harder? Which one???

Mado

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gato
Incidentally, what languages are spoken in Liberia? It doesn't seem to be on the list.

Liberia was founded by returning U.S. slaves. There is no mention that he speaks Kpelle, Bassa, Mano, or Dan.

http://www.mongabay.com/indigenous_ethnicities/languages/countries/Liberia.html

English is the official language of Liberia. Pidgin-English, Kpelle, Bassa, Mano, Dan are other languages spoken on a regular basis in Liberia.

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atitarev
I can't claim to be a polyglot, but I am a native English speaker with native-like fluency in Italian and French as well as a decent knowledge of Spanish and some German along with 35 years experience teaching these languages. They all came SO easily to me. Mandarin is DEFINITELY the hardest. Has anyone ever claimed that some particular language was harder? Which one???

Mado

Hi Mado, When I studied languages at Uni in Ukraine, I just kept adding European languages to my collection (native Russian) - German, English, Czech, French, Polish. Later Swedish, Norwegian, some Finnish. I didn't achieve fluency but I used all these languages when I lived/travelled in Europe.

I only worked with German, English and Polish and of course Russian, so got really rusty in others. Even my German and Polish are not as good as they used to be. Well, if you don't use, you lose it. :)

Asian languages are a different story, if you have no background. I find Chinese, Japanese and Arabic the hardest but very interesting.

As for the African languages, they are not too difficult because they don't have a lot of written history. For example, Swahili is considered the 1st (the easiest) level of difficulty - about 4 times less time is required to achieve fluency than for level 4 (4 languages belong here: the 3 I mentioned + Korean; I don't agree about Korean, it has become much simpler since the Chinese characters were abandoned and word boundaries were added).

So, I don't think there are harder languages than Chinese but Japanese and Arabic are comparably difficult, IMHO.

1. Japanese uses actively only about 2,000 Chinese characters, which have multiple readings, which are often unpredictable.

E.g. 煙草 means "tobacco" it uses the same characters as Chinese (yāncǎo) but the word is pronounced "tabako" (from Portuguese).

煙 has the following possible readings:

[On] en

[Kun] kemu(ru) kemuri kemu(i )

草 has the following possible readings:

[On] sou

[Kun] kusa kusa- -gusa

As you can see "tabako" doesn't make sense here.

There are many things that make Japanese easier, though. The same word can be written as タバコ in Katakana.

2. Arabic has a very complex grammar. Making words in plural, conjugating verbs follows patterns, which are not predictable but have to memorised. Arabic script doesn't write short vowels and long vowels can also be read as semivowels, so the spelling is similar in difficulty to English, only it's not so hard to spell the word you know but to read you need to know, which vowels to insert or not insert or which consonant has to be geminated (doubled). In many aspects, Arabic is much harder than Chinese, diglossia is much more of an issue for a learner, than Chinese.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_grammar

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%60rab

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harakat

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yonglin
.... They all came SO easily to me. ....

Uhm... Ever reflected upon the fact that all of those languages are very closely related, and have many shared features with respect to grammar and vocabulary?

For native speakers of Indo-european languages, Chinese is almost definitely more difficult to pick up than other Indo-european languages.However, it's not like complaining about how difficult Chinese is will make it any easier to learn, or the process any quicker. Actually, I think that if you keep telling yourself how difficult Chinese is all the time, then you will create a kind of mental bloc and progress very slowly for this reason alone. In fact, I have encountered this attitude in students and teachers alike (for instance, I happen to have a Chinese teacher at my university here who teaches very slowly, seemingly because she believes that foreigners just can't pick it up any more quickly).

Although vocabulary and character learning in Chinese is probably quite an obstacle for most western learners, the fact that other aspects of the language are fairly straightforward is very rarely emphasised. For instance, Chinese grammar is really quite easy (at least for English-speakers, maybe not for Korean-speakers), and I dare say that although I've been learning Chinese for about 1.5 years only, I make extremely few grammatical mistakes. I will make many mistakes regarding word choice, collocation of words, etc., as well as an occassional tone mistake, but Chinese grammar is just a bit plain and very logical (most of the time). For me, learning Chinese grammar was much less of an issue than learning English grammar, for example.

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gato
For instance, Chinese grammar is really quite easy (at least for English-speakers, maybe not for Korean-speakers), and I dare say that although I've been learning Chinese for about 1.5 years only, I make extremely few grammatical mistakes.

It gets harder as you advance, though. Even native Chinese have a hard time when writing complex sentences. It often shows up in translation of foreign materials (with the typical multiple subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases) into Chinese. A poor translator will often come up with some thing that doesn't read like like Chinese at all, or just unreadable, period. It may not be strictly a grammar question, but it's grammar-related.

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rezaf

As far as I know Arabic is more difficult than Mandarin. More than half of the words that we Iranians use in Farsi are Arabic but still I find Arabic more difficult than Mandarin.

Let's say way more difficult!!!!!:lol:

I don't think that they are comparable!

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calibre2001

The difficulty of Arab is analogous to the pre-Mandarin chinese era was a family of closely related languages (or dialects) with a common written unspoken form (Classical chinese).

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atitarev
The difficulty of Arab is analogous to the pre-Mandarin Chinese era was a family of closely related languages (or dialects) with a common written unspoken form (Classical Chinese).

That's true. + The shortage of resources for the language, which is not actually spoken. But I actually meant the standard language itself or any given spoken dialect is very difficult. The trilateral roots, from which you make new words or new forms, using the root letters, make it hard to use dictionary based on this system. You have to extract the root, throwing away non-root letters and find any possible weak roots. This part makes Arabic heaps more difficult than Chinese as Mandarin never Chinese sounds inside the word, even for English, it's not so common: mouse/mice, foot/feet, study/student.

This page give only a few examples of plural forms patterns.

http://www.mesiti.it/arabic/wiki/wiki.asp?db=WikiAsp&o=BrokenPluralPatterns

Some plural examples with pronunciation in brackets just to demonstrate the changes inside the words:

Singular noun Root Plural noun Used pattern

بَيْت /bayt/ "house" بيت بُيُوت /buyūt/ "houses" فُعُول /fuعūl/

سُوق /sūq/ "market" سوق أسْوَاق /aswāq/ "markets" أفْعَال /afعāl/

مِفْتَاح /miftāḥ/ "key" فتح مَفَاتِيحُ /mafātīḥu/ "keys" مَفَاعِيلُ /mafāعilu/ [1]

غُرْفة /ġurfa/ "room" غرف غُرَف /ġuraf/ "rooms" فُعَل /fuعal/

رَحُل /rağul/ "man" رجل رِجَال /riğāl/ "men" فِعَال /fiعāl/

If you can't see the Arabic letters, patterns usually use 3 Arabic consonants f - ` - l

(` stands for the guttural `ayn ع - a difficult sound from both European or East Asian point of view)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_pharyngeal_fricative

As I said before, if you know how to speak Arabic, writing it is not very hard (just skip the short vowels and follow some rules) but in order to read it, you need to know the language (you have to insert those unwritten vowels, skip them or double the consonant).

مدتة madina (m + d + n + ah (ta' marbouta)

مدن mudun (m + d + n) Theoretically, this word could also be read madan, madana, midini, maddun, mudann, madn, midn, mudn, maddin, middun, mudna, etc., etc.

As far as I know Arabic is more difficult than Mandarin. More than half of the words that we Iranians use in Farsi are Arabic but still I find Arabic more difficult than Mandarin.

Let's say way more difficult!!!!!

I don't think that they are comparable!

Yes, Mandarin and standard Arabic are both very difficult but in different ways.

On the positive side, any, even a very difficult language is much easier to learn when you have those resources, you learn it in the proper environment with lots of exposure and help.

Although vocabulary and character learning in Chinese is probably quite an obstacle for most western learners, the fact that other aspects of the language are fairly straightforward is very rarely emphasised. For instance, Chinese grammar is really quite easy.

It's because this obstacle is long overcome, now everyone is having hard time learning the characters. :mrgreen:

Another feature of Chinese, which makes it very difficult, IMO, is the shortness and similarity of words, which make me struggle to understand the context of Chinese spoken out loud.

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