In China many people speak only one language. Like the English they have difficulty in learning other languages because their own language is adequate for their needs. Everyone around them speaks the same language and they have a rich and old literature to refer to. Like the English, the Chinese just speak their own language more loudly when they are not understood. English and Chinese speakers alike may reflect though, that if they learn Spanish they will have access to the three most widely used languages on the planet.
Spanish is one of a family known as the Romance languages. Other Romance tongues are French, Portuguese and Italian. They are all descended from Latin which is a highly inflected language, and are inflected themselves. English is also inflected and influenced by Latin but it is a Germanic language.
This means that words change their meaning and grammatical functions by the addition of morphemes. These are bits of a word that change meaning without having meaning themselves. For example, the addition of the letter s means that a noun becomes plural.
Because English is also an inflected language this would not be such a problem for an English speaker but the Chinese speaker would have more difficulty. Mandarin is a tonal language and meaning is conveyed by one of four tones applied to the ways in which words are pronounced. These are sometimes called tonal inflections but they are different to the grammatical inflections of romance languages. The Chinese learner would be at some disadvantage.
An English person learning any romance language would soon recognize many words that are derived from Latin. They permeate the languages and contribute their own connotations. This will not be the case for the Chinese learner.
His vocal apparatus will have been making sounds quite foreign since infancy. Many sounds are made at the front of the mouth, using the lips. Consequently, pronunciation will be a problem for the Chinese speaker but easier for the English person. However, both learners may have difficulties with following the speed at which people talk.
The verb ‘to be’ is used in both English and Spanish, but in the latter there are actually two forms of this verb. The verb ‘estar’ is used for more temporary states and ‘ser’ tends to be used for more permanent things. This will be something that might confuse the English learner. To the Chinese learner the whole problem of the verb ‘be’ will be seen in a different light. He will not be inclined to inflect any verbs but will tend to use them in a static way. In English he will tend to say: ‘I go shop’ and not ‘I’m going shopping’.
Writing in Chinese is a daunting prospect for foreigners. A whole new system of characters has to be learned. For the Chinese person writing will involve learning the alphabet from scratch. However, the English learner will escape this whole imposition and be able to call upon his early learning education.
Given the relative difficulties facing Chinese and English people who wish to learn Spanish it seems that the English learner is at a huge advantage. In theory it should come so easily to him through a language course because his mother tongue and the target language have so much in common. However, having mastered the intricacies of is own language the Chinese learner might be up to anything.