A Difficult Language or a Difficult Culture?

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm


By Antonio Graceffo


Ask most English native speakers to name the hardest languages to learn and they would probably mention Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. Spanish and Italian are generally considered to be easy to learn.


According to data published by the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC, a US Government organization which translates intelligence data.), Spanish and Italian would be considered category one, or the easiest languages to learn, requiring only 575-600 class hours. Russian, for all of the inherent difficulties would only be considered a category two language, which means 1,100 class hours. Chinese and Arabic, on the other hand would be considered category three. This means 2,200 class hours.


NVTC considers Chinese exactly twice as difficult as Russian.


Many linguists believe that it is culture, not necessarily the nuts and bolts of a language that make it difficult to learn.


During my undergraduate studies in foreign language, I took Russian as an elective. The first few lessons we spent learning the Cyrillic alphabet. For most of us, this was the first time we ever learned a language which didn’t use the Latin alphabet. At that time, I was a specialist in western European languages and had no idea that I was going to some day be learning Chinese, Korean, Khmer, and Thai.


For language students majoring in Spanish or French, apart from the new alphabet being problematic, Russian grammar threw everyone for a loop. The word order was often completely different than English. Russian also had six grammatical cases. That meant there were six forms for each noun, depending if it was a subject, direct object, indirect object, and three other options which English doesn’t really have. For example, you would say, “She is Anna,” but, “I see Annu,” plus four more variations of the name Anna, depending on her role in the sentence.


In spite of all of these grammatical or functional issues associated with learning Russian, I still found Russian easier to learn than Khmer or Chinese. Clearly the Chinese writing system is a huge gulf to overcome, but even foreigners who opt not to learn the writing system, instead concentrating on listening and speaking, don’t become fluent faster. Some experts say that the cultural gulf between the learner and the target language is the biggest obstacle one needs to overcome to become fluent. Russia is very different than Brooklyn. Actually, it is very different than the part of Brooklyn I live in, but probably pretty similar to Brighton Beach, which is now called Little Odessa. China and Cambodia, on the other hand are extremely different than any neighborhood in Brooklyn.


To be fluent, or even conversant, you have to not only know the words, but know how to combine them in such a way that would be meaningful for the listener. While Russia has a history which is different from England, Western Europe, or the Untied States, the basic foundation of their society, thinking, philosophy, science, and mathematics can be traced back to Greece and Rome, the same as in the English speaking world.


When you come to Asia, you find that what we could consider linear thinking, logical argument, building a case one brick at a time and arriving at a conclusion just don’t exist. This isn’t to suggest that Asian people behave irrationally, but just to say that what they consider logic and what you consider logic might be dramatically different. When two people’s viewpoints differ by too high of a degree, no matter how well they speak each other’s language, they completely can’t understand each other.


Once, my employer, in Taiwan, asked me if I had practiced Kung Fu that day. I answered, “No, I didn’t practice today. I had five hard days of training and I need to give my leg a break, because I have a knee injury.” I had had an accident a few months earlier, which my employer knew about, and I was still receiving physical therapy on my knee. The physical therapy was being administered by a doctor, who my employer recommended me to, and the employer asked every day about my recovery. So, he clearly knew about the injury.


“Oh, you don’t like Kung Fu anymore. I can understand that.” Surmised my employer.


“No, I like it. But I trained five days in a row. Now, I want to rest one or two days, and then start training again.”


“Yes, because you are too busy. You are teaching and learning Chinese. Obviously, you can’t study Kung Fu anymore.”


“That is not what I am saying. I have a knee injury, and I need to just be careful not to over-train.”


“Yes, because you are old, and your students need to prepare their English exams, so you want to quit Kung Fu. It is OK.”


We just went on and on, in circles, with me explaining and re-explaining that I had injured my leg and wanted to train carefully, so as not to re-injure it. This misunderstanding or this frustration would happen to someone who spoke Chinese perfectly.


It wasn’t that the employer misheard me or when I said “My knee is injured,” because of my bad pronunciation, he thought I said, “I don’t like Kung Fu anymore.” That wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t linguistic at all. In Chinese culture, a middle aged man wouldn’t be practicing kung fu five times a week. A person with a college education and a job wouldn’t be focusing so much time and energy on combat sports. In my employer’s logical mind, I wouldn’t even be doing Kung fu in the first place. So, all he heard was that I was quitting, which was a logical conclusion for him.


I have issues with my weight and periodically go on a no-carbs diet, where I don’t eat anything before 11:00 AM and I cut out all carbohydrates and sugar. In Thailand, my teachers were constantly telling me how fat I was.


In Thai culture, saying someone is fat is actually a kind of compliment. It means you are rich, and you don’t have to work, and you can afford a lot of food. But I hate being fat, and I hate being made fun of.


I was several days into my diet, which my teachers knew about, when one of them brought a rice dish for our class to sample.


“Thank you, but I can’t eat rice because of my diet, and I also don’t eat before eleven o’clock.” I reminded my teacher.

“Oh, you don’t like Thai food.” She responded.

“I like Thai food. In fact, I love Thai food. That’s why I got so fat. But as you know, I am on a diet, and I can’t eat rice or eat anything before eleven o’clock.”

When the assistant teacher entered the classroom, she asked, “Why isn’t Antonio eating?”

My teacher answered, “He feels sick today.”


Again, I never said I was sick. There was not one word in my explanation that could have been confused for the word sick. The problem was cultural, not linguistic. In Thai culture you would never refuse food. Obesity is a fairly new, although growing, concept in Thailand which only effects a small percentage of people in Bangkok. The idea of willfully refusing food wouldn’t enter many people’s minds, particularly if they are rural dwellers or recent migrants to the big city. The only logical reason for not eating would be because you have no food, or because you are ill.


So, my teacher heard, although I never said, that I was ill.


The problem exists on both sides of the fence.


When I was studying in Spain, my host mother told me that her son and daughter-in-law were coming to visit, along with their new-born baby. The host mother said proudly, “They are brining my grandson.” 


“How nice.” I said.


“My grandson.” She said again, as if I hadn’t heard the first time.


“Yes, it is nice to have family.” I answered. From the expectant look on her face, I knew I was missing something, but what was it?


“He is a boy.” She stressed.


“Yes, that was implied when you used the word “grandson.” I wanted to say. Then it hit me. In Spanish culture, having given birth to a boy baby suddenly raised the status of the daughter-in-law in grandmother’s eyes. And having a grandson, rather than a granddaughter, fulfilled the hopes and dreams of the grandmother.


“You are very lucky.” I said.


The host mother smiled. “Yes, very lucky. The baby is a boy.”


Most linguists would agree that learning the vocabulary and grammar is not enough to make one fluent. We also need to learn usage. But understanding the culture is a significant, if not the largest part, of learning usage. For this reason, Arabic, Chinese, Khmer, or Thai may be harder to master than say Russian or Polish, where the cultural differences may be less. Another important point may be that true fluency could never be achieved in a classroom. It could only be achieved by having significant and varied experiences in the culture of the country whose language you are studying. As a foreigner, it is often difficult to find these type of immersion opportunities.


I think you could learn more about a culture by working in the grocery store, helping with the harvest on a rice farm, or serving as a crewman on a fishing boat than you could studying in an international program at a university.


So, I guess my advice to anyone who wants to master Chinese or any category three language is, study hard on the books for 2,200 hours, then drop out of school and get a job on a construction site. Marry, buy a house, raise a family, and change jobs often. After only a lifetime, you may reach near fluency.

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on

His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.


His website is

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Contact Antonio:


Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.


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  1. These are all different forms of martial arts. The UFC has become extremely big over time. Mixed Martial Arts has overtaken boxing in terms of tickets being sold.I would like to know your opinion on this

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