What is the hardest language to learn and other questions from my followers

what is the hardest language to learn - LingQ

What is the hardest language to learn? It’s a question I’m asked often on my YouTube channel and blog. Here I provide the answer to this question, and others that followers have asked me recently.

What is the hardest language to learn?

It depends. Obviously, the more similar a new language is to a language that you already know, the easier it’s going to be. Chinese has nothing in common with English, and so it was difficult for me 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.

But 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. People would reply to me in English. Sure, I might understand and speak Spanish very well, but I couldn’t really understand them very well in Portuguese, and couldn’t say much in the language. Actually, it was a fair amount of work to get used to Portuguese. Learning similar languages gives you an advantage, but it is still a fair amount of work.

I had 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.

Motivation is also a major factor affecting difficulty. If you are very motivated to learn a language you will overcome other difficulties. A language which might be easier, but which you are not motivated to learn, will become difficult.

Why do you learn new languages rather than work on ones that you don’t yet speak as well as you would like?

To me, learning about another country and another language is an advantage which outweighs the disadvantage of not being able to spend enough time with those languages where I want to improve.

Can you study more than one language at a time?

I don’t recommend it. I find that I need to concentrate on one at a time. However, if you are far enough along in two languages you could work on two of them at the same time. It is really a matter of what you want to do. Try it out and see what works for you.

What is the biggest mistake when learning a difficult language?

One of the main reasons that people don’t become fluent is that they stay with beginner material for too long. You can read the blog post I wrote on the topic.

How often do you read or listen to the same content?

As a beginner, I’ll tend to read and listen quite often. I listen and don’t understand, then I read and listen again, and read again. It could be four, five, six, 10 times. Not necessarily staying with one, but maybe doing lessons one, two, three, four, five and then going  back to lessons one, two, three, four, five again.

As soon as I get to where I can start to understand more I tend to move on, even if I don’t fully understand. I am reviewing all of the vocabulary while I read new lessons. These new words just show up in different contexts. I see that I have met them before because once I’ve saved them they’re in yellow at LingQ.  

What about learning a dialect of a language or a related language? Does it help or hinder?

Well, what’s a dialect? Is Portuguese a dialect of Spanish? Is Cantonese a dialect of Mandarin? You could argue that Cantonese has many more speakers than most world languages.

Studying a closely related language enriches your hold on a language you already know; you’re covering some of the same vocabulary. Even now, I go from studying Russian to Czech and Ukrainian and I’m reinforcing my grasp on the fundamental way Slavic languages operate. I think it’s well worth it and it doesn’t hurt you.

Do cultural barriers make a language more difficult to learn?

No, not at all. Having exposed myself to 15 or 16 different cultures, I’m always impressed by how fundamentally similar all human beings are. You learn about the culture through the language, but it’s not a barrier as long as you’re interested. In Japan some people worry that if they don’t get the politeness level right they might offend someone. I find that it is hard to offend people just by using their language incorrectly. I don’t worry about cultural barriers at all. I just try to learn the language and use it when I can, without worrying.

You’ve covered reading, listening and speaking in a previous post, but how do you write? How do you approach it? How is it different as you go through different levels in the language?

Writing is tremendously powerful as a way to learn. I don’t have the discipline to do it now. I did a lot of writing when I learned French, because I was a student in France for three years and we had to write all of our exams in the language. When I studied Chinese for eight-nine months full time, I had to write, and writing is tremendously powerful.

The main benefit of writing is in the very fact that you write. You’re forcing your brain to think about words. You might be looking things up, so you put a degree of preparation and a degree of thoroughness into your writing that you can’t do while speaking. It helps prepare you for speaking, so it’s obviously a great thing to do if you have the motivation and the patience to do it. I learn for fun now, so I don’t bother writing.

The benefit is not primarily because someone is going to correct your writing. The benefit comes from that the fact that you write, and the more you write the better you get. It’s fine if people correct you. If they don’t correct you, that’s fine too. You’ll eventually start to notice most of your mistakes.

It’s important to know lots of words, but why do some language learners and polyglots constantly insist that you only need to know X words to do just fine in the language?

People talk about learning one word a day or even until you reach your goals. But in my experience it’s best to just enjoy reading and listening. If I don’t understand when reading or listening to podcasts, it’s not because of the grammar, it’s because I don’t know the key words. I also find that when I speak to native speakers, it doesn’t help if I can say a few simple things in the language if I don’t understand what they’re saying.

If I’m out with people and they’re chatting and I don’t understand what they’re talking about, if I watch a movie and I don’t understand the plot, what’s lacking, typically, is the words. So I don’t understand why some people say you only need a few words; it has not been my experience. My experience has been that you need a lot of words. Now, other people may have a different experience.

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What has been the hardest language to learn for you? Are you still working toward reaching your goals?

To learn languages like I do, check out LingQ.com. Also Subscribe to my YouTube channel for more tips and motivation for language learning!

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7 comments on “What is the hardest language to learn and other questions from my followers

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. 🙂

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