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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.