The "Hardest language to learn"

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The "Hardest language to learn"

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Nov 10, 2014, 9:24 pm

Nov 10, 2014, 10:25 pm

My immediate thought was, Hardest for who? For English language speakers? As many of the comments point out Polish is not that hard to learn for those whose first language is a related Slavic language such as Czech, Slovak, Croatian, or Ukrainian, Russian.

Nov 11, 2014, 1:46 am

The person who wrote that needs to learn English.

Nov 11, 2014, 2:03 am

It's an interesting empirical question. But you can't really get the right data, as the people who learn a language are self-selecting.

My guess is that the hardest for English speakers are tone languages—starting with the six-tone ones. Polish comes WAY down the list.

Nov 11, 2014, 2:26 am

The usual linguistic answer is that babies seem to cope equally well with all of them.

For adults a lot of the question is what you are learning the language for. Reading academic articles requires a different set of skills than ordering food in a restaurant. Talking to teenagers at a sports event is different again. Being able to do one of those well doesn't mean that you can handle the others.

Another aspect is how correct the target language expects outsiders to be. Some language communities are pleased that someone is trying. Others object to their language being mangled.

Nov 11, 2014, 2:41 am

"Some people cocooned in innocence, go around parroting linguistic relative difficulty ranks by looking at a list created in the ivory towers. This list might be based on the number of hours required to achieve a degree of fluency, or intermediate conversation in a language, in an academic environment of teaching, in contrast to most people in the real world. This simplistic one variable model is simply wrong.
Formula for difficulty in a language = O*(G+V+(w*.1)+(A*2.0)+S+V(1.5))"

Sounds like he has it figured out.

For myself, I struggle with any language, even English, which is my L1

Nov 11, 2014, 2:34 pm

I thought it was Basque, but what do I know?

Nov 11, 2014, 2:52 pm

I have heard both Finnish and Basque proposed as the most difficult to learn but I think Sentinelese might be impossible to learn due to the hostile response of the Sentinelese to any contact with the outside world.

Nov 11, 2014, 10:21 pm

>8 Taphophile13: Not impossible; get the right research budget, and it should be possible to seed the island with bots with microphones and wifi that could transmit the information off the island.

Which also brings up the candidates for the list. There's a lot of languages harder to learn then Sentinelese, given that we do have tiny microtransmitters but no time machines. Whatever language uses Linear A, if it's not Greek, is a great example of something we have a corpus of but no idea what it means.

There's maybe seven or so world languages that combined would get you just about anywhere; English, Chinese, French, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian off the top of my head. (The argument being instead of learning Polish or Finnish, the person you're communicating with or one of their coworkers can communicate in English, French or Russian.) There's maybe a hundred national languages (and a handful of major non-national languages) that knowledge of would let you comfortably communicate with about anyone in the civilized world in a language they're fluent in. There's "Teach Yourself" books for around 70 languages, as per our series page.

At no point are you going to really need to know Basque unless you're a linguist or trying to talk down a mad ETA bomber*, so a practical list isn't going to mention it. That would neatly exclude all the languages with limited or no corpus or dictionary, or non-speakers not having any experience in it. The really interesting question--and much more testable--is which of the languages that people commonly learn that is the hardest.

One of my friends is still grumpy that when he went into the Defense Language Institute that he tested at the highest level, putting him in the Korean program instead of the Russia program. DLI lists Modern Standard Arabic, Arabic - Levantine, Arabic - Iraqi, Chinese, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Pashto as their hardest languages.**

* In all fairness to the ETA, they've observed their latest cease-fire and have offered to disband; perhaps a mad ex-ETA bomber.


Nov 11, 2014, 10:31 pm

I agree with Tim about tonal languages.

I also think Arabic has an undeserved reputation for difficulty because the standard textbook used in the US is so bad.

Nov 11, 2014, 10:45 pm

Arabic does have the problem of having lots of dialects, and a formal version that's diverged.

Nov 11, 2014, 11:11 pm

I believe Chinese Mandarin is one of the hardest foreign languages to master.

Different tonal sounds of the same word have a different definition.

Spanish is a most popular choice to learn as a foreign language for English speakers. It is a phonetic language, which means that words are pronounced as they are written as in the English language.

Nov 11, 2014, 11:30 pm

>11 timspalding: But the DLI was still listing them as hardest even when considering them as separate languages.

Editado: Nov 12, 2014, 12:37 am

>11 timspalding: Arabic also has a high entry bar, much like Chinese and Japanese, with its script. I flipped through a book on the Arabic script at the library once; at the start, I said "this isn't as bad as I thought"; towards the end, I said "yes, yes, it was". Script probably shouldn't turn off anyone dedicated to learning a language, but it's still intimidating.

Editado: Nov 12, 2014, 1:58 am

I'm really glad I have tried to learn languages with other scripts. The experience is useful every Tuesday listening to first and second graders reading.

How come this ___ kid can't keep b and d separate?
How come this ____adult isn't sure of whether that is ח or ת?

How come s/he is sounding out satt when we just had it three lines up?
Why do I have to sound out נפשי every time it shows up in the psalm I've been working on for the past week?

It takes a lot of practice. Which, of course, is why the school wants me there every week.

Nov 12, 2014, 2:28 am ( ) is one of my favorite Latin alphabets ever, a linguistic alphabet for Sioux that used d, p and d rotated 180, and both s and s rotated 180. Thankfully it never escaped into the wild.

Nov 12, 2014, 3:07 am

I think someone didn't think that through.

Jan 26, 2015, 10:04 am

After over 40 years in Italy and a non English speaking husband I've decided that speaking Italian correctly is the hardest language of all.

Jul 8, 2015, 5:21 am


Jul 12, 2015, 10:01 pm

In defense of Polish as a difficult language — when I was a student in Vienna, Polish was the consensus pick, among the international students I met, as the most difficult language to learn. Some spoke of Polish with awe.

One of my flatmates was an Iranian refugee struggling to master English and a bare minimum of German. The Iranian consul was contemptuous of her difficulties. He pointed out that he himself was now mastering Polish, which everyone knows is much more difficult than English or German.