What Is The Hardest Language To Learn?

What Is The Hardest Language To Learn?

Obviously, the more similar a new language is to a language that you already know, the easier it’s going to be.

 

Mandarin Chinese has nothing in common with English, and so, for me, it was difficult to learn. Russian was difficult, but Czech was easier. Knowing Russian and Czech then made it easier to learn Ukrainian and Polish. It’s all a matter of how related the language is to a language you already know.

 

Similar Languages Are Not Necessarily A Cake Walk

I can remember going to Portugal for the first time. I already spoke Spanish and had put some time into learning Portuguese. Still I couldn’t really use the language. The Portuguese people I met sensed this and they would reply to me in English. Sure, I might understand and speak Spanish well, but I couldn’t really understand very well what people were saying to me in Portuguese, and I couldn’t say much in the language.

 

My first attempt to learn Portuguese, before we had Portuguese at LingQ, had not been successful. I used a Living Language starter book, and listened to and read the many largely unconnected phrases that were to be found in the course, but they didn’t really sink in. I also bought a book with examples of the words and phrases in Portuguese that were different from Spanish. But all of that didn’t work for me.

 

What Is The Hardest Language To Learn?

In my second effort at Portuguese I focused on comprehensible input, lots of listening and reading, using more complete contexts, content of interest to me. In this way my brain got used to the language. I listened to hours and hours of podcasts on interesting subjects both from Portugal, from such sites like RTP , and from Brazil from sites such as Audio Globo.

 

Of course, I first had to work quite hard at LingQ, using podcasts like Cafe Brasil, which we have available on LingQ, and where I can listen to the podcast and read it and save words and phrases. I needed to spend time doing this before I could really understand these other podcasts which had no transcripts. In other words, going from Spanish to Portuguese was not a slam dunk, not without effort on my part.

 

I had another difficulty going from Spanish to Portuguese. I was reluctant to move from Spanish pronunciation to Portuguese pronunciation. I was kind of half pronouncing the Portuguese word the way it would be pronounced in Spanish. For a long time, I wouldn’t let go of the comfort of my Spanish pronunciation. This had to happen gradually, naturally without me really noticing. That is why input, lots of input, is the most effective way to learn any language, even closely related languages.

 

What makes a language difficult?

Motivation is a major factor affecting difficulty. If you are very motivated to learn a language you will overcome many difficulties. A language which might be easy in some ways, but which you are not motivated to learn, will become difficult.

 

However there are objective considerations that make some languages more difficult.

 

1. Writing system

I find that it is always easier for me to learn a language written in the Latin alphabet. I am so used to reading that alphabet, I just feel more comfortable with it.

 

No matter how much I read in related alphabets like Cyrillic or Greek, it is always a little more of a challenge. This is not just at first, but as I continue reading and learning, there is just a little more resistance, always. Needless to say, Korean, Japanese Kana, Arabic, Hebrew and finally Chinese characters are even greater obstacles to the learner who is not used to them.

 

What Is The Hardest Language To Learn?

Reading is such an important part of language acquisition, at least for me, that the greater resistance of a new writing system usually means that the language takes more time to learn. I stress “time”. I don’t think that a new writing system introduces a greater degree of difficulty. It just means that the learning progress will be slower.

 

2. Vocabulary

The less common vocabulary, the fewer words and expressions that you recognize from other languages, the more difficult the language will be.

 

Spanish to Portuguese, where the vocabulary is close to 90% identifiably similar, will be easier than English to Japanese, needless to say.

 

3. Grammar

It has been my experience that the Slavic languages, for example, with case endings, verb aspects, and a unique way of treating verbs of motion, are inherently more complicated, grammatically, than Mandarin or even Japanese.

 

This creates difficulties since you have to try to remember the correct endings, or start to sense the correct verb aspect, and to do this naturally, while speaking. It takes a lot of input, and a lot of time to get there. These problems do not exist in Mandarin.

 

4. Pronunciation

The only aspect of pronunciation which I think is intrinsically difficult is intonation or tones in tonal languages.

 

Here again, it is just a matter of time, lots of listening, lots of practice, lots of trial and error. But make no mistake, there are lots of speakers of non-tonal languages who achieve a high degree of accuracy in speaking tonal languages.

 

5. Politeness

What Is The Hardest Language To Learn?

In all languages there are differences between polite language, more gentle language, and rough language.

 

Some languages, especially Japanese and Korean, have marked differences of speech depending on the social relationship between speakers. This can seem difficult at first, but my experience with Japanese was that if I tried to stay neutral, avoiding either rough casual speech, or overly polite speech, I slowly, just through exposure, found myself hitting the appropriate politeness level more and more.

 

It is not something that learners should fear. Native speakers don’t really expect the non-native to get the politeness right, especially at the beginning. If the learner is at all attentive to the language, he or she will naturally acquire these language habits.

 

***

 

So in the end, more than anything, it is our motivation, and the time we put in that will determine how easy we find a language. In that regard, the availability of compelling content, things of interest to listen to and read, can be crucial to how difficult we find a language, and how successful we are.

 

Want to learn a language from content you love? 

 

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9 comments on “What Is The Hardest Language To Learn?

Vik

Bonjour Steve !
Et qu’est-ce que vous pensez du hongrois? Connaissez-vous cette langue ? Mon mari est belge et il ne se débrouille pas avec ma langue maternelle (pourtant on vit en Hongrie) ! 😀
Bien à Vous,
Viktória

JP

Hello Steve!

This is quite unrelated to this blog post, however I would like to hear your thoughts regarding bilingual children. I’m a Finn living in Japan now for 7 years, I’m married to a lovely Japanese woman and we have our first child on the way. I’m of course happier than I have ever been but I find myself pondering the question whether I should speak to my child in my own native language Finnish or just stick to Japanese which I consider myself fluent in.
Of course the child, being a japanese citizen will be speaking Japanese as native language however I would like for him/her to be able to communicate with my side of the family who only speak Finnish and little Swedish, my parents already somewhat “disappointed” that I didn’t end up marrying a nice Finnish girl – the thought of not being able to speak to their grandchild must be devastating for them. Getting my parents to learn Japanese just isn’t going to happen and I have accepted that.
As much as I love the idea of me and my child having our own little secret language, there are a couple things that bug me about it. First of all, forcing a language on a child for somewhat selfish reasons doesn’t quite sit right with me. I think language should come with natural interest and ideally I would love for the child to decide on their own whether to learn a language or not. Second issue is that Finnish is hardly the most useful language in the world, with 6 million native speakers it’s not really in competition for the next worldwide lingua franca. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this little predicament of mine.

Anyway, thank you Steve for all the content you provide and for being an inspiration.

– JP

    Parker Hays

    Hi JP!

    I am not Steve, but I do very strongly believe that you should speak Finnish to your son/daughter. I hardly think you could consider it “forcing” a language on a child. Children have such an ease in language learning that it is almost unfair NOT to speak to them in more than one language. Bilingualism is something very sought after; it would be an incredible advantage in his/her life as an adult (even if they are embarrassed/don’t like speaking it as a child, you’ll be thanked later). Also, it is very important to your side of the family to be able to communicate with your child which I believe is a very important aspect of a child’s life. And obviously in addition you would get your own little secret language together :).

    Parker

    Hi JP,

    Interesting question. I have a friend, Tetsu Yung who is teaching his kids 5 languages on the principle of one language one person, OLOP. He is from Taiwan, has a Japanese mother and Chinese father. He went to high school in Quebec and traveled in South America. He speaks 5 languages. His parents live with him in Quebec. His father and he speak Chinese to their children, his mother and wife (Japanese) speak Japanese to the kids. The eldest , 4 years old, goes to French day school, and they have a Mexican au pair. They pracatice OLOP and as a r esult the oldest child speaks 4 languages and 5 if you include the English he picks up from videos etc. I think Tetsu would be very keen to talk to you and share his views and experience. Can I forward our correspondence and your email address to Tetsu? Steve

    Rajinder

    Giving a child or any person the gift of a language is a wonderful thing. Not only will your child be able to communicate with your family, which is an absolute must in my book but there are proven cognitive benefits to learning a second language that neuroscientists and psychologists are just beginning to understand. There is nothing lost by sharing Finnish with your child, only a lot of positives I think. Who knows, maybe he or she will want to go live in Finland one day and if you do not teach them, they will be like” awww dad, why didn’t you teach me Finnish when I was younger” (apparently it’s really really hard for people to learn too). Good country with good hockey players : ) All the best to you and your lovely family!!!

Jwan Jwen

I don’t like white user interface.
White color make my eyes hurt quickly !

Black UI is much better for long term learning for eyes’ health.

Shady

Hey, so I am a polyglot as I am learning 49 languages and fluent in 5 of them, I think that being a polyglot is not a hard thing at all, for me if you love something then, you can do it. I learn for example:- German-French-Spanish-Italian-Irish-Turkish-Swedish-Norwegian-Danish-Finnish-Hebrew-Yiddish-Chinese-Dutch-Portuguese-Esperanto-Ukrainian-Russian-Polish-Vietnamese-Welsh-Basque-Japanese-Korean-Greek-Hungarian-Romanian-Icelandic-Catalan-Thai-Mongolian-Bavarian-Latin-Croatian- Lithuanian-Serbian-Slovene-Slovak-Faroese-Czech- Belarusian-Macedonian-Bulgarian-Galician-Greenlandic-Estonian-Luxembourgish-Latvian-Scottish Gallic. I love these languages and I learn all the 49 languages every week, 7 languages a day (6h a day). So, what I found is that the hardest language I found is the Hungarian, as it has a lot of cases about 35 I think, everyone says the Chinese is the hardest language, but I think it was very easy for me, it was like a piece of cake, When I learned Russian, It was very easy to learn Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Belarusian and so on. That’s my opinion as a polyglot. 🙂

Name *Richard Tessier

Gamarjoba, Steve (Hello, in Georgian)
I don’t think there is any such thing as THE hardest language to learn, since it always depends on what your native language (or other languages you may know very well) is. But my vote for ONE of the hardest languages to learn would be Georgian (and other kartvelian languages, of which there are four), which is apparently unrelated to any other languages; while you can absorb the grammar of almost any language by listening, reading, comparaing with translations, etc., such is not the case with Georgian, the reason being that the roots of words, which forms the basis of families of words, does not work like it does in other languages; instead of basically being at the beginning of the word, it is sometimes at the begininng, sometimes in the middle, plus it sometimes changes completely so you dont recognize what part of a word is the ”root”. Mind you, even in European languages, some elements (mostly derived from Greek or Latin) are sometimes added to the root so the root itself is no longuer the first element of the word, but in Georgian, it’s all kinds of words that are added to the root and make it difficult to recognize as such.
Wonder if anyone here has ever tried their hand on that language.

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