Which languages are the most difficult to learn?

This question was posed in one the emails I received today. I managed to find some information about the relative difficulty of learning particular languages for English speakers, but not for speakers of other languages.

The difficulty of learning a particular language depends on which language(s) you already know. Each language presents you with a different set of challenges, including differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, spelling and writing system. Generally the more differences there are, the harder a language is to learn, though there isn’t necessarily a simple correlation between interlingual distance and the difficulty learning.

Most people seem to think that Japanese and Chinese (any variety) are very difficult languages to learn. Having studied both I can confirm this. When learning these languages, the biggest challenge you face is reading and writing them.

Chinese grammar is straightforward; the pronunciation is not too difficult, though the tones take a lot of getting used to. It takes quite a long time to build up enough vocabulary to be to have more than a basic conversation, but the more words you learn, the easier it gets to learn new ones. Most of the vocabulary is constructed from native roots and there are very few foreign loanwords.

Japanese grammar is more complex than Chinese, though a less complex than most European languages, apart from the intricate politeness registers. Japanese pronunciation causes few difficulties, though the irregular intonation is quite a challenge. Japanese vocabulary is a mixture of native words and words borrowed from other languages, particularly Chinese and English. The English loanwords are all changed to fit Japanese phonology, and are often abbreviated and combined with native and/or words from Chinese. As a result, they are difficult to recognise as words that were originally English.

The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, classifies the languages they teach into four groups based on the number of hours of instruction (English-speaking) students need to attain a certain level of proficiency. In this scheme, the most difficult languages are Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. For more details, see:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~wbaxter/howhard.html

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54 Responses to Which languages are the most difficult to learn?

  1. Ali says:

    There’s an African language (forget the name) that uses a color alphabet; would be hard for those who cannot see or are colorblind.

  2. marek says:

    greetings,

    I would just like to say that for me as Slovak the easiest language to master was undoubtedly russian. When I speak it, I can think the same way as I do when speaking slovak. That is sth I cannot do when I for example speak english. On the other hand, I have a hard time learning french which I think is the most difficult language.

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  4. Bengt says:

    The most difficult foreign language that you will ever learn is your first one. It’s with that language, whatever it may be, that you have to deal with a different grammar, pronunciation, cultural interface, and lexicon for the first time. No language is inherently easier or more difficult to learn – children learning their first language can attest to that by being pretty much fluent by the time they turn five. That being said, there are always aspects of any language that are easier or more difficult for a second language learner to master. Take English, for example. Many native speakers of English say English is easy to learn, but forget the countless hours spent in school learning how to spell. Different studies say, on average, that it takes a natives speaker about seven years to be able to write error-free in English. Imagine the time it might take for a person learning English as a second language to master the spelling system. English also has a large phonological inventory – there are a lot of sounds in English and some of these sounds, such as the “th” in “this”, occur comparatively rarely in the other languages of the world. However, some aspects of English grammar, namely the English present tense, are quite simple when compared with other languages. Finnish is considered to be a very difficult language to learn (for English speaker). Yet, when Finnish is examined a little more closely, it is revealed that again, like English, there are aspects of Finnish that are difficult to learn and master and aspects of it that are simple to acquire. Finnsh uses its case system in a manner that is very different from Indo-European (and other language families). The form of words can also change quite drastically, depending on what endings are combined with them, and getting a feel for the changes can take a very long time to master. However, the Finnish phonological system is quite simple, when compared to other languages and its written form is very phonological – there are no silent letters or letters that are pronounced many different ways. There is no gender in Finnish, so having to remember whether an noun is masculine, feminine, or even neuter, is not a problem that comes up when learning it. A strategy that can help when learning a foreign language is to point out not what is difficult, but what is easy. It’s very easy to get discouraged by what seems an insurmountable challenge when learning a foreign language. Keeping those challenges in check with those aspects that you’ve determined to be simple in terms of learning that language will help you maintain a realistic perspective. This is slightly off topic, but remember that nobody ever totally, completely masters any language – not even his or her native langauge. We’re always learning new words, new ways to phrase ideas, and new aspects of even our native language. Second languages are no exception. Remember it’s the journey and not the destination and even if you don’t become a native-like speaker of a second language, native speakers do appreciate your effort and are more often than not willing to help you overcome those difficult aspects of their language.