Welcome to Mark's chinese blog
It's great to have you visit.
In this blog I am going to offer random comments, at no particular level, aimed at helping and encouraging fellow learners of the language. That language, by the way, is Mandarin Chinese, using simplified characters. This language has many names in Chinese, such as Putonghua, or Common Language.
So, a topic to get us started: is Chinese difficult?
You may look on this as a question in the form of, Is the Pope a Catholic, etc., but in fact the answer is equally Yes and No. The No part is more surprising and interesting than the Yes part. So, boring part first.
Chinese is a language totally alien to the English speaker. There is no common vocabulary to help out, and no connection to Latin or other Indo-European languages. This, of course, is an important part of the attraction, and certainly counts as one of my reasons for choosing to learn it. And while getting the pronunciation of the consonants and vowels (called Initials and Finals in the context of Chinese) approximately right is not too hard, there are many pitfalls, and getting them exactly right is quite a challenge. Then, of course, we have the notorious Tones. Surprisingly, most of the world's languages are tonal in some way or degree, English being in a minority in this respect. I will, naturally, have more to say on these questions in due course.
Then there is the rather staggering fact that written Chinese is not based on an alphabet; it is a non-phonetic language in a radical sense (as opposed to the weak sense of 'non-phonetic' whereby English tends to depart from an essentially phonetic basis, giving rise to the curious concept of 'spelling').
Instead, every word is represented by a character, or a combination of two or sometimes more characters, so that the written form of every new word has to be learned as a unique pictorial form. Estimates vary as to how many characters must be learned to attain literacy, but one estimate (from the Asia Foundation) is between three and four thousand. It is a vague number, because each new character learned, as full literacy is approached, tends to be used less and less often.
I'm just getting serious about learning all those pesky characters properly, and while it's fun, it's also a long haul. For me, it's the hard part. I'm not personally phased by tones, or other aspects of pronunciation, or by word order. It's trying to remember all those little pictures, as my ability to remember stuff declines with age.
However, Chinese has its easy aspects as well. Foremost is the glorious fact that verbs are absolutely never conjugated. I be, you be, they be, yesterday he be, tomorrow she will be. And other parts of speech have no cases (which is also somewhat true in English).
Hence, irregular verbs, and even the regular ones, and grammatical cases as found in European languages such as German, Czech, Hungarian, etc. are seriously alien aspects of language, from the Chinese point of view. In this way, they have it harder than we do.
Where a language is not conjugated or inflected, there will be a corresponding reliance on word order. And part of the case for saying that in some ways Chinese is not difficult, is that English, because the use of cases has been largely and increasingly abandoned, tends to share this reliance on word order. Where a language is heavily inflected, with consistent use of cases (such as nominative, objective, and dative), sentence construction tends to be relatively independent of word order. Something to watch out for in Chinese studies is the correct word order for various grammatical constructions. There is a certain similarity to English with a basic Subject - Verb - Object form, but beyond that, the Chinese way of ordering sentences tends to be both specific and idiosyncratic.
So actually, while the importance of word order in general might be a plus, getting used to Chinese word order might be seen as a minus (unless you're like me).
An absolutely vital aid to the English learner is the romanised form of written Chinese called pinyin. This system offers a bridge to the pictorial script, and considerably eases the difficulty of learning vocabulary. It also offers an insidious temptation to cut out the proper script altogether, a policy actually pursued, for example, in Chinese for Dummies.
No Chinese examples in this introductory post, but there will be.
I am a native English speaker, having a lot of fun learning Chinese. I think (and hope) I have a certain knack for understanding what the language is about, so that I might be able to offer something your usual Chinese class does not.