If you ask a westerner living in Asia what the most difficult thing to cope with is, 80 percent of the time, the answer you will be given is “language.” While language learning and using Asian languages is still one of the biggest concerns of many Europeans, Asian students and professionals in the West find it equally difficult to master the languages required to fit in. What is it that makes it so difficult for people from one hemisphere to learn the language of the other? In today’s Simply CSOFT, we will explore the differences between Asian and European languages.
To start with, the use of alphabet differs greatly between Asian and European languages. While languages like Mandarin and Cantonese use a logographic system, most European languages can be pronounced and spelled out with variations of the 26-letter Roman alphabet. Many western learners of Mandarin find it discouraging when—after a month of study—they still cannot read or comprehend a single sentence. This is because in logographic systems, symbols represent the words themselves—radically different from modern European languages. Younger Asian languages like Korean, however, use alphabet called hangul, which can be written horizontally or vertically and is much easier for westerners to learn. The use of alphabets makes learning English easier for Korean or Japanese native speakers.
Aside from obvious structural and written differences, the nuances of phonology can be the biggest headache for those learning a new language. While the concept of “tones” in Mandarin and Cantonese seems to be impossible to remember and execute for European language speakers, Asian students also struggle with written western phonics such as /θ/ in different European languages. This is exacerbated by the different syllable stressing systems and the different pronunciations of letters in different languages. While “land” is pronounced “lando” in Japanese, “football” is naturally pronounced as “footbon” in Thai. While many foreigners have to stretch their face muscles to pronounce “zh, ch, sh” in Chinese, very few people can tell the difference between the Korean consonants ㅈ(j), ㅉ(jj) and ㅊ(ch).
If the challenges provided by pronunciation and written styles weren’t enough, the grammatical disparities between Asian and European languages can confuse even the most linguistically talented people. Not only do languages like Japanese, Mandarin and Korean not use articles or tense changes, but Asian languages also rarely assign gender to objects and verbs. Potentially perplexing grammatical features of European languages include the use of subject verb agreement, the active voice, and the pluralization of words. This means common linguistic pitfalls such as forgetting what gender a table is in Spanish, and being confused at the lack of need to conjugate verbs in Mandarin.
Although these characteristics and distinct features make language learning from the other hemisphere more problematic, they are also what make the languages extremely interesting and rewarding to learn. If I, as a native Mandarin speaker, can offer a few words of advice, I would say: find and conquer the biggest difference between your native tongue and your target language, then all it takes is practice and a little determination.
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