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Russian VS Mandarin Chinese – Which One Is Harder?!

Welcome to our friendly language showdown! Russian and Mandarin Chinese are two of the world's most widely spoken languages, each representing significant cultural and political spheres. But which one is harder to learn? As a trilingual family living in England, speaking both Russian and Mandarin at home, we've decided to put these two languages to the ultimate test. And who better to judge than our kids? Let's dive into this entertaining and informative contest!

Round 1: Pronunciation

Chinese pronunciation is a tonal rollercoaster!

Imagine saying "ma, ma, ma, ma" (watch my video to hear this!) – in Mandarin, these syllables can mean four completely different things: mum, flax, horse, and to scold. My husband, who claims his ear has been "stepped on by a bear" (a Russian idiom for being tone-deaf), can't hear the difference. Plus, words like "mai" and "mai" mean "to buy" and "to sell" – mixing those up could be a stock market disaster!

As a former Mandarin teacher, I've seen countless students struggle with sounds like zhi, chi, shi, z, c, s, j, q, and x.

Even native speakers, especially from Southern China, often pronounce zh, chi, and shi as z, c, and s. And don't get me started on "qi" (pronounced "chee") and "xi" (pronounced "shee") – even Apple's Dictation calls President Xi Jinping "President Eleven Jinping"! (In this case, it's because it somehow interprets "Xi" as Roman numerals!)

Now, let’s talk Russian. Ever tried saying "Взбрызнуть" (vzbryznut), meaning "to sprinkle"? It’s a mouthful of consonants! Russian words often feel like they have too many consonants and not enough vowels, making them tongue-twisters.

Another example is "Достопримечательность" (dostoprimechatelnost), meaning a landmark or tourist attraction. It’s seven syllables long compared to Chinese "mingsheng" or "mingshengguji," which have only two and four syllables, respectively.

So round one is... a tie!

Round 2: Grammar

Russian grammar can be a nightmare. I remember proudly posting my first Russian sentence on Facebook: "Ya lublu maya koshka" (I love my cat).

But the first comment corrected me: "Ya lublu mayu koshku" or even better, "svayu koshku."

Russian grammar involves cases (padezhi) that change noun endings based on their role in the sentence. There are six cases, and they apply to adjectives and numbers too, creating endless possibilities for mistakes!

Verbs in Russian also conjugate based on the subject. For example, "to love" in Russian changes from "ya lublu" (I love) to "ti lubish" (you love), and so on. And don’t even get me started on verbs of motion, which change based on whether you’re walking or driving, going one way or back and forth. It’s a total minefield!

Chinese grammar, on the other hand, is simpler but can be confusing. There’s no singular or plural – "zuotian wo qu kan pengyou" 昨天我去看朋友了 could mean "I went to see a friend" or "friends." The subject is often omitted, and the use of measure words (like "yi tou niu" for cows 一头牛 and "yi pi ma" 一匹马 for horses) adds another layer of complexity.

So, the winner of round 2 is... Russian!

Round 3: Writing System

Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which has 33 letters compared to 26 in English. It looks daunting but can be learned quickly. I learned it in an hour at 23, with my husband’s not-so-expert help. Once you know the alphabet, you can read any Russian word, even if pronouncing it correctly is another challenge.

Chinese writing is a different beast. To be literate, you need to know around 3,000 unique characters, each with its own pronunciation and meaning. There’s no alphabet – each character must be memorized independently. While Pinyin (romanized spelling) helps, it’s just a stepping stone to reading real Chinese.

So, the winner of Round 3 is... Chinese!

The Surprising Truth

So, the final result is… a draw!

The truth is, the difficulty of learning a language depends on you, the learner. Your native language plays a huge role. Russian grammatical cases might feel like climbing Everest to me, but for a Serbian, it might be a manageable jog. Similarly, tones in Chinese are hard for European language speakers but easier for those who speak other tonal languages.

Even the infamous Chinese writing system isn’t equally hard for everyone. Japanese speakers already know many Chinese characters. So, no language is inherently more difficult – it all depends on your background and perspective.

Our Kids' Verdict

To wrap up, let’s hear from our kids - watch the video to see first-hand for yourself! But my daughter thinks RUSSIAN is harder. My son simply said, "DUNNO."


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