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:

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

  1. TheMatt says:

    You know, I agree that Chinese and Japanese are hard, but the fact that they are so different can be a good thing. But when you look at, say, Inuktitut, Islenska, or Finnish. The Latin alphabet can suck you in… (Of course, Inuktitut has the syllabary, but it’s the language itself that can get you.)

    And if you count writing, languages like Vai with it’s very unique syllabary or Sanskrit with it’s bazillions of conjuncts are nearly as bad.

  2. Thomas Maska says:

    I am studying some Arabic in my spare time, and I am really quite captivated by what my book calls “the three-consonant concepts” Like “D-R-S” is a common concept for anything having to do with learning. So “Dars” could be a lesson, and any other word using the “D-R-S” can be considered having something to do with education. Is this correct? If so, then how does one tell words apart from others in Arabic, when it is only written with consonants? Wouldn’t “D-R-S” always just appear as “D-R-S”? The variations would not be visible… I don’t know… Which is why I ask : )

  3. TJ says:

    well well … mz new conlang is based on the 3-letters concept as well 🙂
    We differentiate between the meanings of the words and verbs by the diacteristics (and we usually don’t use them except for emphasizing or when we try to elaborate a meaning from another when it is possible that that would happen!).
    for D-R-S here are list of words that can have this root:
    daras = studied (he)
    yadros = studies (he)
    sayadros = he will study
    Diraasah = study (noun)
    Madrasah = school
    Modarris = teacher (male)
    Modarrisah = teacher (female)
    Madaaris = schools (plural)

    Notice that Modarrisah and Madrasah when written in arabic they have the same writing and same letters but from the context we understand what the writer meant ! .. or if someone is afraid that we wouldn’t understand directly what he meant, then he can put “shadda” on the “R” to denote “modaRRisah” for example! but mainly we do understand from the context anyway 🙂

  4. Weili says:

    Thanks for a very objective view on difficulty of learning a language.

    I often get frustrated at English speakers who simply say “Chinese/Japanese is hard, period!” I would be thinking, “Yes, for you maybe.”

    Being a native Chinese speaker, I found learning Japanese and Korean quite easy, at least easier than when I learned English, which was a hellish experience.

    Point is, as Simon said, the difficulty of learning a language depends most on how different it is from your native language.

    BTW, now that I am fluent in English, I picked up Spanish pretty quickly too, something that would’ve been unthinkable when I only spoke Chinese.

  5. TJ says:

    I’ve noticed that one of the mistakes that language learners do (and i did that before) that we model and compare the language we are learning with something else, especially English. The point is not everything is like English and English is not like everything else. If you are learning German it might be useful to compare it to your English skills, because both are Germanic languages, but still it is not so completely comparable between the two! So I think it is better to accept a language as a whole new body of culture and not something derived or compared to something else, and yet for the process of memorizing we can compare maybe to other things that we know!!
    Yet when I tried to learn some Irish Gaelic, I was comparing the words that I learn with my English, and I’ve found out that Irish has lot of idioms that I don’t understand, but in fact later on I found out that they were not idioms, they are simply the language itself and I was mistaken to compare it to English! Just an example of weird (for English speakers maybe) expressions in Irish: an ghrian san ghealach (literally: the sun in the moon), this expression in fact means “day by day” and this is the usual way to say it. I found it in one of Enya’s songs, “deora ar mo chroí.”

  6. Weili says:

    TJ – It’s just human nature to view things subjectively. This is why when learning, seeing, encountering… etc. anything new, people tend to compare it to what they already know. I find that when keeping an open mind though, it makes learning a language MUCH easier. I personally believe the reason why children tend to learn languages much faster than adults is because they keep an open mind, they just take everything in as something completely new. This helped a great deal when I tried to learn Vietnamese. 🙂

  7. Polly says:

    When learning a new language the natural instinct is to equate the foreign words to one’s own native words, e.g. car = el coche, house = Das Haus, etc. When I read a new word in another language I get myself in the habit of thinking directly of the object or action that it describes. e.g. when I heard/ read the Russian word for house for the first time, “Dom,” I pictured my home or a typical child’s drawing of a house – a square with a triangle roof and chimney. Then, when I try to think of the word later, I don’t have to go through the extra layer of translating from L2 to L1.

    My guess would be that inflected languages are very hard to learn for Chinese speakers. I would guess that, maybe for some, it might be the first time they ever had to think about the FUNCTION of a word in a sentence, rather than it’s location. (I know very little about non-Indoeuropean languages.) It’s certainly true of native English speakers where the case system has completely disappeared from the language except for a few pronouns.

  8. Delano says:

    Living in South Africa, and having many Afrikaans friends and family, it would seem like English is considerably tricky to master for those who don’t speak it as a first language. My Afrikaans friends tend to struggle with English’s irregularities, inconsistencies and strange spelling. For example, concepts like the difference and context between “was” and “were” or “affect” and “effect” are tough for them. They are also tough to explain, even though I, as a L1 English speaker, understand it perfectly.

    It would seem English ranks high as one of the most difficult languages to learn, but native speakers don’t realise it. It’s all relative, it seems.

  9. Polly says:

    Delano – I always thought of Dutch as being close enough to English as to give one a distinct advantage in going from one to the other. Is Afrikaans considered a dialect of Dutch? They look similar. English lacks the strong, guttural “Kh” sound, though.

    Yes, like French, English seems to retain archaic spelling that, perhaps, represented the pronounciation faithfully centuries ago, but now just confuses us.
    I still see L1 English speakers confuse “affect” with “effect” even in official publications, sometimes. And, of course, virtually no one in the U.S. seems to remember the difference between “was” and “were” except grammarians. It seems easy enough. No cases to learn, only one variant for verb conjugation: 3rd person sing..

    We also tend to forget how tough English is to learn as a second language because everyone else in the world seems to know it. So, we just naturally assume it must be an easy language. It’s a sign of the pervasiveness of American pop-culture and business influence…and Britain’s influence, too, from the days of the empire.

  10. Weili says:

    Even many American college students (adults too!) confuse words like affect/effect, your/you’re, there/their… etc.

  11. Polly says:

    I wonder if these sort of errors are common in all countries and languages.

  12. Thomas Maska says:

    TJ, I too am creating a conlang (I have been for some time now) based on the consonant-concepts concept… But seeing as I did not understand Arabic grammar very well (I still do not… It’s on the list though – right after Greek) I could not get it to work very well. My newer version of it, which is Olorexh on Omniglot, uses only a dual consonant-concept system and has an odd mixture of Romantic grammar and what I could glean from my feeble studies of Arabic. It works quite well, but is unlike anything I have worked with before. Arabic constantly intruiges me… I wonder if you could take a look at Romanabic again. I would love to improve it but I do not know anyone who can speak or read arabic to tell me where I am wrong or just off. : )

  13. Benjamin says:

    I think these mistakes happen in nearly every language that has homophones, although I think English might be more vulnerable to them than other languages, because of the big spelling chaos.
    Of course, Chinese has a lot more homphones than English, but it should be much more difficult to write a wrong character with the same pronunciation than it is to write “their” instead of “there”. 😉

    As for the question if English is an easy language to learn: I’d say that its grammar is much easier than the grammar of most other European languages, due to the (nearly) missing inflections, and I, as a German, haven’t found it too hard to learn.
    What bugs me is the spelling. It’s just a big chaos which probably will never be reformed, because it is so wide-spread all over the world and in so many countries and because it’s pronunciation differs everywhere. How would you reform that? Different spelling in every English-speaking country?

    Recently there are two things I wonder at:
    Why aren’t there diacritics in English, though they have so many different vowels? Nearly every language has some dots or tildes combined with some letters.
    And why didn’t the spelling change according to the pronunciation? Of course, spelling is not immediatelly adjusted to pronunciation, but the present English spelling represents the pronunciation of 1400! (I’ve just read that somewhere) Time enough for some changes!

    Actually you shouldn’t mind about spelling to much or you’ll end up like Don Quijote/Quixote… I guess I’m already surrounded by those wind mills… 😉

  14. TJ says:

    >> Thomas Maska: well Arabic grammar is indeed tough even for us. For us, the main problem lies in the teaching method AND that they teach us the grammar used for literature and not only the normal one. Maybe one of the difficulties also is the plurals, arabic has lot of irregular plurals. But believe it or not, in Irish Gaelic, one woman is called “bean” but womEn are called “mná.” This same concept is applied in Arabic! A Woman is called “Mar’ah” and the plural for it is completely different word, “Nisaa'”!
    Maybe one more thing to know about Arabic that among all semitic languages it is the only one that has a grammar specificied for “2 persons.” In most of the languages if you count something from 2 and up, you just use the plural, but in Arabic the plural is used for 3 and up. The single has its own case and the double or dual has its own case. Just a simple example here (for masculine case):
    you: ant
    both of you: antomaa
    you (plural): antom

    he: howa
    both of them: homaa
    they: hom

    It is indeed a long story! but maybe the good thing it is flexible somehow concerning the beginning of the sentence … you can begin with a verb or a noun …. look to the bright side!! 😀
    I will take a look at Romanabic. But in my case, I was mainly looking for the semitic sounding of the conlang rather than the grammar, so for this reason I tried to make it as simple as possible (I hope!). Where are the points that you need to check exactly? (but hey I’m still not so good in the grammar of my own mother tongue!!).

  15. Thomas Maska says:

    Tj, Basically… Does it work? I created one or two symbols and tried my best to use the IPA to make it more seamless, but I cannot be sure.

  16. TJ says:

    Well, there are some sounds in Arabic (and I mean standard Arabic) that are not represented by the IPA. This is what I’ve been told by some IPA teacher in some emails. He didn’t say that directly but he told me that the IPA for Arabic (the standardized IPA used to teach Arabic) is based mainly on palestinian and (if I can say) the laventine (right?) dialects. These dialects don’t have some of the sounds that are originally in Arabic. For this reason it seems hard to assign every letter in Arabic a definite IPA character. These letters I couldn’t find or couldn’t see any representation for them in IPA:

    Usually they assign for them something like cedilla-S (for the last one) or dotted-S, and/or dotted-Z (for the first and second) but this is not true at all. Just to see the gap, The first letter I typed is has plosive sound (but keeping the air inside the mouth somehow) .. so when they assign a dotted-Z for this letter they are telling you this is a fricative sound (S and Z are fricatives or made by friction of air inside the mouth or by teeth), so this is a wide gap in meaning and in pronunciation. One other example is the 3rd letter I typed, it is plosive sound like T but harder and the position of the tip of the tongue is a bit farther behind the upper ridge. In IPA usually they represent this letter with a dotted-T or a hooked-T, which is a retroflex plosive (meaning you have to curve your tongue) and again this is not true!

    Also, maybe it is good to notice that Arabic has no much vowels. Mainly short and long, but there is no amalgam of vowels like A and E and so (like in hebrew for example). Vowels in Arabic are either small A or long A, or small I or long I (like in sit and seek), and small O or long O (like in moon). While speaking sometimes the speaker tend to change the vowel lil bit and add to it a bit of “a” or “e” so it would sound something like “lOAn” or “lAke” and this happens mainly in the dialects and not in the standard Arabic and originally the standard Arabic has no special diacterics or symbols for such type of vowels.

    In your Romanabic, the symbol you’ve used for “p” is already used in some countries in central asia as “V” (and we use it some times here when we want to write something non-Arabic and has V in it). The “p” is written usually (in persian and other asian languages) as a “B” with 3 dots below (but this letter is not in Arabic originally). For the sound of “G” (in the letter Gid) actually persian use the letter “kaf” with a bar on it (and we use it also when we write something out of arabic or something in our dialect). The letter “ngad” is the letter I was talking about above and it is usually represented by dotted-Z or cedilla-Z. Same thing goes for “zhayen.” Notice however that the letter “kaf” is used for the sound of “K” only in Arabic and for the sound of “Q” we use another letter, and that is “Fa” with 2 dots above, but in case you intend to use this script for English, I think it works fine because no such sound exists in English. The vowels I think are composed of invented symbols right? Mainly in Arabic we don’t have vowel carriers.
    Gee … seems I talked too much here…hope no one got a headache!! 🙂
    I can barely open my eyes and look for the bed now so I better hit that submit button ……IF ONLY I CAN REACH IT!!!

  17. Thomas Maska says:

    Tj, the vowel carrier that I used actually comes from Psalter.

  18. TJ says:

    Really? … do they use a vowel carrier? or you adopted some character to be a vowel carrier?

  19. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Concerning the original topic, I am currently studying Welsh, and I find that the key difficulties are not pronouncing “u” as in “loot”, and also dealing with the word order of different types of sentences. Other than that, I’d say the language is quite easy to learn.

  20. TJ says:

    Joseph what about the mutations?
    I really find it hard to check out a welsh word in my dictionary because, unlike irish, they just replace the initial letter with the one after mutation as far as I know. In Irish usually the “true” beginning of the word is marked in capital letter or if it is aspirated you can tell that simply by removing the “H”!

  21. Simon says:

    TJ – if you look up mutated words in the Welsh dictionary at http://www.bbc.co.uk/learnwelsh it usually finds the unmutated word for you.

  22. Thomas Maska says:

    Tj, I used the Psalter H for my vowel carrier.

  23. TJ says:

    Thank you guys! 🙂

  24. Adam says:

    TJ –

    I just thought I’d add that Hebrew also has a dual plural, similar to Arabic. Only in Hebrew the dual form can only be used with words the come in pairs or have a duality about them: hands, pants, bicycle, etc. Sometimes the same word can have a regular plural and a dual plural:




    I also studied Arabic thinking it would be easy for me since I already knew Hebrew. The 3 consonant root was familar to me as well as the different verb paradigms, plus there are many cognates. But the phonology was very different because Modern Hebrew phonology is Europeanized. Also, Arabic grammar was similar, but more complex. Finally, Arabic has many dialects, and modern (Israeli) Hebrew is only about a hundred years old, so it really doesn’t have any regional variation yet. Suffice it to say that I didn’t get very far in Arabic, but I’m not giving up yet 🙂

  25. TJ says:

    Good luck my friend!! for me, I wouldn’t study Arabic in schools again ever! But I would like to read the old poems (not those new ones that even don’t rhyme).
    I heard that modern Hebrew, in addition to the European influence, was mainly based on the Hebrew spoken by jews in Iran to some extent.

    This story about Hebrew reminds me of a incident happened to me here in my work place in Kuwait University. I studied here and graduated from here and I’ve been studying Physics with Geology as a minor. Most of the Geology students hated me really for various reasons! and most of them knew that I liked and listened to Hebrew songs a lot that senselessly I would walk and sing a song for Eyal Golan or write it down (with predicted spelling!) during a boring lecture…
    After graduation and while I was getting some coffee from a vending machine a group of girls suddenly started to talk up loud speaking about Hebrew songs and one was saying to the other: I couldn’t memorize that Hebrew song, it’s hard!! and the other one would answer her in same manner as to mock at me ….. I pretended that I didn’t hear anything and said to myself: For God’s own sake in heaven and earth who is mentioned in the 3 holy books!!! YOU CAN BARELY SPELL YOUR NAMES IN ARABIC EVEN!!! (and I mean it … some students here reached this academic level still can’t write correctly either in English or Arabic, how???? I don’t know!!)

  26. Adam says:

    I’m not aware of an Iranian Jewish connection to spoken Hebrew, but I can see the similarities. For example, in Hebrew, the word *and* is a prefix, which is pronounced “ve-“, and I think it’s the same pronunciation in Farsi. (It’s a cognate of the arabic prefix, “wa-“).

    The European connection comes from Eliezar Ben-Yehuda, who was the linguist who revived Hebrew in the 1880s. I think his European accent (French, I think), was the basis for modern Hebrew pronunciation.

    I really like Arabic pronunciation (especially the letters Hah and Ain), and if modern Hebrew preserved all of the same consonants as Arabic, there would be far fewer homonyms (osher spelled with an alef means “happiness” and osher spelled with an ayin means “riches”, but both are pronounced as if they begin with alef).

    Writing Arabic to me was also an extreme challenge. For one thing, the dialect I learned (the dialect used in Israel, Syria, and Palestine) had more vowels than Arabic writing could accomodate. I didn’t have any way to differenciate “o” from “u” in my notes. Also, I couldn’t hear the difference between the four emphatic consonants and their regular counterparts, so I constantly misspelled them! But then again, I have that same problem in Hebrew, because the emphatic consontants tet and tzadi are no longer pronounced emphatically!


    (P.S. Just as an aside, many Hebrew curse words were borrowed directly from Arabic, so I already knew how to swear) 🙂 much to the dismay of my teachers!!

  27. Thomas Maska says:

    I have often wondered, how was Hebrew “revived” and is it really the same language spoken by the ancient Israelis?

  28. Adam says:

    I’m not an expert, but here’s what I know.

    Hebrew was revived by a man named Eliezar Ben-Yehuda (1858 – 1922). I think he was from Lithuania, and immigrated to Israel (then called Palestine) in 1881. He set up Hebrew-only schools, wrote the first Modern Hebrew dictionary, and he and his wife raised their son as the first native speaker of Hebrew in about 2500 years.

    He and his wife (who was from Russia) both invented new vocabulary using the 8000 or so words from the Hebrew Bible. They used ancient roots to create modern words. For example, they took the word tzelem (image) and created the word tzilum (photo). They took foreign words and “hebraicized” them: kevel was borrowed from English, and means “cable”. People from biblical times would not understand these words, just as Muslims from the Seventh Century would not understand the Arabic word for “cinema”.

    I should note that Eliezar Ben-Yehuda didn’t really revive Hebrew single-handedly, because at the time, 50% of all adult Jewish men could understand biblical Hebrew almost fluently.

    It is definitely not the exact same language spoken by the ancient Israelites, but it’s close, and I’ve been told that an Israeli child is able to read and understand biblical Hebrew by age 9 or 10. I think biblical Hebrew (Hebrew from about 3300 years ago) is closer to Modern Hebrew than Shakespearean English is to 21st Century English.

    The pronunciation is purely modern and obviously no one knows exactly how ancient Hebrew sounded. I believe that ancient Hebrew probably sounded more like Arabic. The modern Pronunciation sounds to me like a cross between French (because of the guttural “r”) and Germanic languages (because of the “ch”).

    I studied biblical Hebrew in college, and it seemed to me to be a literary or poetic version of Modern Hebrew.

  29. TJ says:

    >> Adam: that’s why I hate to write my own dialect … because the vowels are different but in standard Arabic the vowels are fewer and strict!
    Just an example for the word “color” in different dialects:
    Standard Arabic: law-n
    Egyptian: loon
    Kuwaiti: loan (exactly like loan in english)
    lebanese people might tend to nasalize the N more than usual in their dialect but as far as I know the vowel is same as in standard arabic.

    One another simple example is the definitive article “Al” “ال” ….. in standard arabic is AL …. but mostly in all dialects we say it “il” like in italian or like “EL” in spanish!

    I think in modern linguistical sciences they usually call every dialect a language by itself (and I read in some site once that even the english spoken by indians with the flipped R and D and T is considered a language by itself) ….. but my convintion about them is that they are not languages because they are done by people trying to speak another language for example ….. or because (like in our case) it is done by people that got affected by external influences and yet changed the vowels system WHILE their original language is still alive in their media and writing …. for these reasons I myself can’t say dialects are languages by themselves (and consequently I don’t to write them down …. officially let’s say!)

  30. Thomas Maska says:

    I am considering studying Hebrew. Is it very difficult to master, comming from an English background?

  31. TJ says:

    If you mean the sounds, then I guess you can say them the European way. If you mean the grammar well … I think it is easier than Arabic. So, if you tried studying Arabic already logically I would say it is somehow but not completely easy for you! 🙂

  32. Adam says:

    I think Hebrew is moderately difficult for English speakers. A Jewish person who learns to read it at age 7 or 8, will have a slight advantage, but not much.

    The hard parts: The grammar is very different from English. It has masculine and feminine nouns, and adjectives and verbs have to agree with the noun in gender and number. The writing is difficult. Verbs have complicated conjugations (almost as complicated as Arabic). Some feminine nouns take the masculine plural suffix, and vice versa. There is no verb “to be” in the present tense, and “to have” is expressed very differently than in English.

    The easy parts: the basic sentence structure is similar to English (subject-verb-object). Questions are simple (you just change the intonation). Verbs only have past, present, and future (no subjunctive) and the future tense is very regular. There are no case endings, no indefinite article, and the only foreign sounds would be [x], [R] and [ts]. You can argue that there are a few other foreign sounds, such as [l] but they are not too different from English. Also, there are basically 5 vowels, and none are foreign to English speakers.

    One advantage of learning Hebrew is that it is an extremely “taught” language. Teaching techniques are highly developed: because of large immigration to Israel throughout the 20th Centrury, more than 50% of the population of Israel either speaks Hebrew as a 2nd language or is the child of someone who speaks hebrew as a 2nd language.

    A saying I once heard in Israel goes: “Hebrew is the only mother tongue in which the mother learns it from her children.”

  33. TJ says:

    מי שתרח בשבת…יוכל בשבת 🙂

  34. Thomas Maska says:

    I began Hebrew yesterday and I already am enjoying it very much!

  35. Alke says:

    i’ve studied arabic and can attest it is hard. but what i’m interested in is, can anyone tell me what kind of an advantage i would have studying (modern) hebrew if i already know some arabic? i’ve noted there are many similar word roots, especially for religious word categories, geography and the like, and as i understand it there are quite a few grammar similarities too. but would that help me much?

  36. Adam says:

    Alke: The only advantage you would have, is that you would probably learn Hebrew faster if you already knew Arabic. The language school I went to was the only school in Israel that not only admitted Palestinian students, they also integrated them with Israel and foreign students. I was amazed at how fast my Palestinian friends picked up Hebrew. Some of them became almost fluent within 1 month. (If you were referring to practical advantages, then I’m not sure, but I would think knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic could get you a good job with the U.S. or British governments.

    Thomas: Good luck in your studies!!

    TJ: אני לא מכיר את הביטוי הזה

  37. Polly says:

    Adam – Sounds like you get two languages for the price of one. I wonder does it work the other way? Are native speakers of Hebrew able to learn Arabic more easily?
    I wonder if there’s a phenomenon where knowing L1 makes it easier to learn L2 but NOT VICE-VERSA. Perhaps, German -> English, but not English to German?

  38. Adam says:

    Polly: You are exactly right! In my experience, it doen’t work the same way for Hebrew speakers. Native Hebrew speakers struggle with Arabic almost as much as native English speakers do. I took Arabic classes in Israel. All of my other classmates were native speakers of Hebrew. I was amazed at how difficult they found it. (I struggled too, but I was near the top of the class).

    The Hebrew speakers had a lot of trouble with the Arabic sounds…especially the short vowels and emphatic consonants. They also struggled with the grammar and false cognates. Also, they consistently mispronounced approximate cognates, using the Hebrew pronunciation (which was something I didn’t do). For example, “person” is “ben-adám” in Hebrew and “béni-ádam” in Arabic. The Hebrew speakers all pronounced it with the Hebrew stress pattern.

    I think one reason for the difficulty is that the Israelis in my class were only exposed to English and French in public school, so all of their language learning skills are in regard to European language. Another reason is that Arabic grammar is just more complex.

    I realize that there may have been some hostility toward the culture of the target language, but I don’t think that was a factor in language learning, since there was the same hostility on the part of the Arabic speakers learning Hebrew, and yet the Arabic speakers learned Hebrew extremely quickly. (And in any case, I observed that underlying hostility faded after the first week of each month, after all the students got to know each other. At the end of each 1-month course, people were hugging and kissing each other goodbye. It makes me think about the power of language learning, and how much of another culture and people you can understand afterward.)

  39. Polly says:

    Adam – Thanks for confirming my guess. It’s not completely surprising from what I’ve heard about Arabic. It only took a month, eh? That’s wonderful! Hmmm…perhaps we have a road-map for peace in there somewhere?

    It’s hard for one who’s interested in languages to harbor long-lasting animosity toward foreigners. How can a person love a language and hate the people speaking it?
    Though, naturally, this wouldn’t necessarily apply to those who speak a lang. for purely pragmatic reasons, e.g. terrorists, spies, those on whom a language is imposed, etc.

  40. Adam says:

    I think the most difficult language to learn would be the language of your enemy. I Think back to all my language teachers and remember how they were passionate about the culture of the language, and how they tried to pass that passion on to me. How would a teacher pass that on if the students and/or the teacher detested the culture of the target language.

    The easiest languages for me to learn were the ones I was in love with. The hardest ones were the ones I had no personal connection to. I think that’s the answer. The more you want the language, the easier it is to learn.

  41. renato figueiredo says:

    I’m Brazilian. I really love to learn languages. I already speak, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Esperanto and Swedish. Nowadays I’m trying to learn Chinese (simplified), Russian and German. I think written Chinese is really difficult for whom live in Occident, but for me, I prefer to learn Chinese than German with its separated verbs and (in past) putting the main verb at the end of a sentence. You must read or listen all sentence to know if a person is talking in present or past. I think all languages has its own difficulties (alphabets, cases, if it is SVO, VSO, OSV sistem. The most important for we who love languages is never quit in trying to leran a new language. By the way, I saw the site of Michingan University, with the ranking of difficult languages. I would like to see one with the top easiest languages.

  42. Alke says:

    adam: no, i was referring to language advantages. and your reply was very helpful — alf shukr.

  43. Sam says:

    I don’t have a very good ear for tone, and that makes Mandarin a much more difficult language for me to learn. When I was in graduate school I tried to learn Mandarin because of a friendship with a student from Taiwan. I tried to get him to help me, but he decided that I was hopeless.

    I struggled with Russian as an undergraduate student, and I mentioned my experiences years later to a student at the university where I work. She said that Russian was easy. I said that of course it was easy for her; she’s Bulgarian.

  44. Stefan Westergård says:

    Dear Simon, I was looking for an official ranking list over how easy/difficult the worlds main languages are, and got a hit on your interesting blog. I still wonder however if you or anybody else knows about some kind of official/scientific ranking like this? Thanks in advance. Sincerely, Stefan

  45. Simon says:

    Stefan – I don’t know of any official/scientific ranking of the world’s languages. The point of this post was that how easy or difficult a language is to you depends on which language(s) you already know. Therefore you can’t rank languages in terms of difficulty. However, there seems to be fairly general agreement that the most difficult languages to learn to read and write are Japanese and Chinese.

  46. Stefan Westergård says:

    Hello Simon, thanks for your reply.

    Now I have spent some months learning chinese (as my 11th language) and I must say it is absolutely fascinating.

    Interestingly, the grammar is the most simple I´ve ever come across! (maybe together with the Malay language).

    Then of course it takes time to learn to read and write the signs, but with this time and dedication it is fully doable. Then as back-up is the Pin-Yin phonetic writing, which could help in many situations.

    I have tested my understanding and speaking (with a very limited vocabulary of course) with a chinese colleague, and it works, and that is after only 7-8 weeks of study, 30-40 minutes/day or less.

    Probably I am helped by previous language learnings and also having a musical ear, but my conclusion is all the same that with dedication, fascination and with that a strong interest, chinese seems to be very overcomable to learn, also for a person like me with no previous experience in this type of language.

    Best regards,

  47. Mohammad says:

    I really liked the discussion, although I didn’t read it all, I’m also interested in learning languages, but yet I just know Arabic and English.

    Well, I first want to comment on what Adam said, I really liked that you are learning Arabic, especially that I was planning to learn Hebrew, and regarding the difficulties in learning languages I just quote from Weili the concept of “open-mind”. I also liked the example that you said about the meaning of “person” because the meaning that you mentioned can be used as a meaning of “person” in addition to other words like “insan”, “shakhs”. But the one the you mentioned is very nice, because literally it means: “son-of-adam”, because “Adam” is the father of all people, but not you Adam 😉

    But I really wish to learn Aramaic, which is the language spoken by the Christ, I have no idea if there still people speaking this language or at least I want to know a place or a reference to learn from if any.

    Thomas Maska: I want to answer your question “…how does one tell words apart from others in Arabic?…”.
    I want to take the same example that you said “D-R-S”, and let me add to what TJ said:

    dars: lesson (but also sometimes we use the word Hissa which comes from the root H-S-S)
    dares: student (but we also use Taleb which comes from the root T-L-B and this one is more commonly used to say a general thing about a student, while dares is usually used when you want to emphysize that you have studied specific thing or in a specific time)
    madrasah: school (but Jame’a is university from the root J-M-A)
    modarres teacher – male (but also Mo’aallem is used and comes from the root A-L-M)

    My personal advice, although I have no experience in teaching Arabic, but I have personal experiance with people who I know, I think Arabic is a language that becomes easier when you learn grammer, I mean it becomes easier even to learn vocabulary, and I believe that Arabic, unlike many other languages, is better to learn the grammer then live between Arab, because if you don’t know the grammer and you don’t know how words are derived, you will keep making mistakes, and that what the illiterated old people sometimes do.

    let me give you an example:
    modarres & mo’aallem both mean: teacher.
    When you learn this rule: when you add to any root “MO” in the begining, and “A” after the first letter, double the second letter, and add “E” before the last letter, then the result will be a noun called “ism-mafoul “that is described as following:it’s a noun that indicates the person who lets another one do something.
    let’s take D-R-S; which means “learn” so moDaRreS is the person who let you learn, which makes sense for a teacher.
    for A-L-M; which means “know” so mo’AaLleM is the person who let you know, which also makes sense for a teacher, speacially when knowing the usage of the verb know.

    I wish you a good luck, and sorry for the long text

  48. Jacika says:

    Yes, agree. Mandarin Chinese tone is really difficult for me to learn at the very beginning. But sometime later, I found a good way to overcome. That is Practice More.
    In fact, when you learn a strange language, you have to practice much more than similar languages, such as French, Spanish…
    I have to spend a lot of time practicing speaking everyday. I like to practice mandarin with volunteers freely everyday on Beijing Chinese School.
    When you repeat many times, it is really not difficult to remember Chinese tones. In fact, you do not need to remember tone. When you speak more, you can use just like your mother language.

  49. Nidal says:

    well im a native arabic speaker ,and i think that arabic is realy a very hard language to learn ….but not impossible , i think soeaking is easier than reading and writing ……writing in particular is very hard to learn because of the vowles …its complicated in arabic ….for example the word office in english means maktab in arabic …but when you write it you must forget about the vowel (a) …in arabic its written like this (mktb) but in arabic fonts ofcource.and thats a very simple example ,generally in arabic you speak in a way which is quit different than how you write ….but as i said learning to speak arabic is much easier believe me ,but in the same time its harder than spanish or italian ,and even french …but not harder than russian.

    arabic language learning will qualify you to learn other languages easier than english natives or any other europian native.why?well the arabic language inclueds all the letters of other languages except the letter v,so when you learn arabic (not necessary to be a native arabic speaker and believe me you cant ), but let us say master 60% of the arabic language and you will find it easy to learn other languages , specialy spanish ,italian ,and german.

    on the other hand the biggest problem you will face , is that there is different accents in the arab world …the original arabic is almost dead ,except in reading and writing its comletely their, accent is just spoken between people.if anyone wants to learn arabic from its own people i advice coming to jordan ,its almost the closest accent to mother arabic .for me as an arabic native i became good in spanish in almost 6 months with 3 cources, i speak good and write better than im writing to you now in english ,thats why i encourage you to learn arabic before switching to other languages.and please dont be frustrated because i always say arabic is hard ..all i ment is that arabic needs more effort and alot of practice.

  50. Ali says:

    Dongba language – one hieroglyph can mean a word, sentence, phrase, paragraph

    Piraha – no numbers, no recursion, no tense, 8 consonants, 5 vowels, tonal, can be sung, whistled, hummed, or said

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