The more widely spoken a language is, the simpler it tends to be; on the other hand, less spoken languages often tend to be more complex. This is why some people say that learning Mandarin Chinese is relatively easy.
In the view of linguists, major languages like English and Chinese are considered relatively simple. Take Chinese as an example, its vocabulary lacks complex tense variations; the appropriate verb is used directly without any changes, and tense is indicated by adding time-related words in sentences where it is needed. For instance, the sentence “我去超市” (I am going to the supermarket) doesn’t reveal the tense, but with the addition of certain words, like “我一会儿去超市” (I will go to the supermarket in a little while) or “我刚去了超市” (I just went to the supermarket), the intended tense becomes clear. This is a rather straightforward approach.
However, in a remote region of Peru, there is a small tribe where expressing tense is quite complicated. For instance, to indicate an event happened an hour ago, a day ago, a month ago, or a year ago, they need to use four different tenses! Learning such a language can be an incredibly challenging and overwhelming task. This is not an isolated phenomenon; many languages spoken in the Amazon rainforest or the jungles of New Guinea by various tribes exhibit complexities far beyond common imagination.
Linguists have observed that the more widely spoken a language is, such as English and Chinese, the more it relies on word order and context to convey meaning. On the other hand, less spoken minority languages rely more on adding prefixes, suffixes, or other intricate grammatical changes to verbs to express meaning. In short, major languages tend to be simpler, while minority languages tend to be more complex.
Why do some people say that learning Mandarin Chinese is relatively easy?
Shedding Baggage Speeds Spread
American linguists collected over 2,000 languages from around the world and conducted research on their morphological changes. They discovered that many functional elements in grammar are actually redundant. For example, in English, the “s” at the end of “the two boys” is unnecessary because “two” already indicates more than one boy. Adding the “s” to represent multiple individuals becomes superfluous. The smaller the language group, the more of these redundant linguistic baggage it tends to have.
Thus, linguists envisioned that when people learn languages other than their mother tongue, it is best to minimize the use of such linguistic baggage. Complex morphological changes can be quite cumbersome for adults learning a foreign language. While children with strong language learning abilities may benefit from complex morphological changes as they can infer the meaning of utterances, for instance, a child may not know the exact number represented by “two,” but when they hear the word “boys” with an added “s,” they understand that more than one boy is being referred to. However, when a language spreads to broader regions and larger populations due to military or cultural invasions, the first wave of individuals learning the second language is often composed of adults who tend to simplify the dominant language. This process of simplification, over years and months, modifies the original language and causes some of the fine grammatical baggage of the dominant language to be lost.
The continuous expansion of dominant languages has led to their simplification over time.
One can imagine that Chinese has also undergone a process of transitioning from complexity to simplicity. While we admire the conciseness of Classical Chinese when reading it, it is important to note that it was primarily a written language and not the spoken language of ancient times. Moreover, the causative usage in Classical Chinese indicates that ancient Chinese people used nouns as verbs, which is more complex than modern Chinese. The prevalence of numerous homophones in ancient texts also suggests that the complexity of spoken language at that time was greater than it is today. Modern Chinese has become much simpler compared to the past. For instance, during the Han Dynasty, Chinese had many tones, but today, it has evolved into a four-tone system. The extensive use of particles like “之乎者也” in ancient Chinese has also mostly disappeared in modern times.
Throughout history, China has experienced cycles of division and reunification, with many ethnic groups entering the Central Plains. As these groups learned Chinese, they simplified many of its complex grammatical details. The local Han Chinese, in turn, gradually accepted this “improved” form of Chinese in their interactions with these foreign ethnicities.
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