What is the most difficult language to learn — and why?

Jun 3, 2011 by

As mentioned in the previous posting, there are numerous rankings of “difficult” (and “easy”) languages to learn (note that we are talking about second-language learning here, not acquiring one’s native tongue). Some such rankings are unofficial, like the Accreditedonlinecolleges.com ranking or the ranking at MyLanguages.org; others are official, for example the classification by DLI based on the number of hours needed to achieve a certain level (thanks for Nila Friedberg for sending me the link!).

The top spot in all these ranking is given to Chinese: Accreditedonlinecolleges.com lists Mandarin and Cantonese separately, as #1 and #2; MyLanguages.org lists Chinese at the top spot and the DLI classification includes un-specified “Chinese” in the most difficult group IV, together with Arabic, Japanese and Korean. But what are the main perceived difficulties in learning Chinese (whether Mandarin, Cantonese or another Chinese variety)? In addition to the general themes of an unfamiliar writing system and dialectal variation (expected of a language with about a billion speakers, like Mandarin, or even “smaller” Chinese languages: Cantonese with 52 million speakers; Shanghainese with over 77 million speakers; Taiwanese with over 25 million speakers), Chinese is difficult to learn because of the “exotic” sounds it has and especially its tone system. There are four tones in Mandarin and six tones in Cantonese.

What about learning other East Asian languages, like Japanese or Korean? These too are typically listed at the top of the difficulty ranking. Among the most difficult aspects of Japanese (in addition to its three-part writing system, including kanji, hiragana and katakana) are “an agglutinative vocabulary” and “rigid hierarchical structure of honorifics inextricably tied to Japanese society and culture”. I agree that the rich system of honorifics — markers of esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person — can be difficult to learn because of the cultural knowledge that one needs in order to be able to use these grammatical forms correctly. You will run into this difficulty if you attempt to learn Japanese, Korean or Thai.

But I am not quite sure what the problem is supposed to be about the “agglutinative vocabulary”. In fact, the term “agglutinative” typically refers not to vocabulary but to the morphological system of a language. In an agglutinative language, each affix attached to the root typically expresses one grammatical property, such as gender, number or case, but not all three at once (as would be the case in a fusional language; see below). Multiple affixes can be attached to the root, and when it happens, affixes do not have much effect on each other’s pronunciation or meaning. Other examples of languages that are agglutinative and are thus said to be difficult to learn include Basque, Korean and Hungarian.

Some, though not all, agglutinative languages also have rich systems of case markers, that are used not only to mark such grammatical functions as the subject, object, indirect object, possessor, etc. but also to indicate spatial relations. While some “difficulty rankings” will scare you with statements like “Basque’s complexities … lay in its 24 cases” or “anyone hoping to pick up Hungarian must also completely conquer its whopping 35 cases”, some of these statements overexagerate. The consensus among linguists is that Basque has only 12 cases and Hungarian has only 21 cases. Two of Hungarian’s cousins — Finnish and Estonian — have somewhat “poorer” cases systems (14 cases in Estonian, 15 cases in Finnish), while others have even richer case systems: for example, certain dialects of Komi have up to 27 cases. By the record-holder in terms of the number of cases is a Dagestanian language Tabasaran with its 46 cases!

While it may appear daunting to learn so many cases, in Finno-Ugric languages, such as Finnish or Hungarian, the form of the case morpheme is the same regardless of what noun it attaches to. The situation is quite different in Slavic languages like Russian or Polish, which have fewer cases (for instance, Russian has “mere” six cases), but the forms of the case morphemes differ depending on what noun you attach the case morpheme to (these different types of nouns are known as “declension patterns”, and they are closely related to but not exactly the same as “genders”). For example, the dative (singular) in Russian is -e if it attaches to knig- ‘book’, -u if it attaches to stol- ‘table’ or -i if it attaches to mater- ‘mother’. Thus, instead of learning one set of 15 case affixes in Finnish, for Russian you need to learn three sets of six (i.e., 18) case affixes, as well as to know which affixes to attach to which nouns. Besides, to master the Russian case system you will need to learn the various exceptions, which too are more common in fusional languages like Russian than in agglutinative languages like Finnish. My conclusion: agglutinative languages may be somewhat easier to learn (at least, in terms of the memory load) than fusional languages; the only truly scary thing about agglutinative languages is the term itself!

And what of Arabic? One of chief reasons it lands in one of the top spots in the “difficulty ranking” is the script, which uses different shapes of letters word-initially, -medially and -finally, but has no letters to record vowels. Another difficulty often listed is the dialectal problem; however, most students of Arabic as a foreign language will be learning Modern Standard Arabic rather than one of the 40 or so colloquial varieties, spoken from Morocco to Egypt, from Syria to Iraq and the Persian/Arabic Gulf. Grammatical difficulties one should be prepared to face include the unfamiliar Verb-Subject-Object order (vs. the English Subject-Verb-Object order), dual number (in addition to the familiar singular and plural), three cases and two genders (which, all in all, should be much easier to learn than the Hungarian or Russian case+gender systems) and multiple verbal forms. A really unusual phenomenon that Arabic shares with Hebrew is its non-concatenative morphology. In a non-concatenative language, unlike in more familiar languages such as English, Spanish or Russian, grammatical meaning -– for example, plural number on nouns or past tense on verbs -– is expressed not through adding a suffix to the nominal or verbal root/stem, but through changing the vowels in the stem. Typically, the consonants are part of the noun or verb root, while vowels -– and where they are placed in relation to the consonants of the root -– constitute the “template” (hence, non-concatenative morphology is also known as “root-and-template morphology”).

Finally, one other language that I found in one of those lists of “difficult to learn languages” — to my great surprise — was Icelandic. It is certainly true that “many Icelandic phonemes don’t have exact English equivalents” — remember the difficulties that many American journalists had with that Eyjafjallajökull volcano?! Other perceived difficulties of Icelandic include “its archaic vocabulary” and “complex grammar”. Really? It is true that Icelandic is one of the most conservative North Germanic (i.e., Scandinavian) languages that has kept the old noun declension and verb conjugations, but it is undoubtedly much closer to English and much more similar to it than, say, Chinese, Arabic or Hungarian, which makes it rather easier for an English speaker to learn.

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  • Steven Lubman

    Isn't Icelandic practically identical to Old Norse? I've read that Icelanders can easily read their sagas in the original form. On the other hand, Russian chronicles of 1000 years ago are also pretty comprehensible to contemporary Russian speaker, unlike Old English!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Steven: Thank you for your comment! Icelandic is very concervative but it is not identical to Old Norse, no. As for reading Old Russian manuscripts, I've done that and despite my (not very extensive) knowledge of Old Church Slavonic, I found truly understand Old Russian very difficult. You can get a gist of it (and make many mistakes with it too), but it is about as difficult as reading Old English, I would say!

  • John Cowan

    I think the difficulty of the writing system swamps everything else for Chinese. I'm no good at learning vocabulary (which of course is very different for Chinese, no cognates and only a few borrowings), but I didn't find its grammar at all difficult when presented in Pinyin, as Li & Thompson's Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar does.

    Finnish is somewhat less transparent than you make out, as there are substantial morphophonemic effects. It's pretty easy to figure out what case a word is in, but not so trivial to put a given word into a given case (though no such nightmare as Russian genitive plurals, as in the famous Zoshchenko story).

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John: Thank you for sharing your insights! I agree with you that things are more complicated than I present them (but that's the task of a popularizer, to simplify!). And yet, like you say, Finnish is nowhere as complicated as Russian when it comes to case forms.

    As for Chinese, I can imagine how difficult it would be to learn the Chinese characters, but one can learn just the spoken form of the language, in which case the characters don't matter so much. But the tones still do.

  • Venelina

    I totally agree, Russian turned out to be the hardest of all languages I studied, although my native language is a slavic language too, and though I studied Russian since 5th grade as was with the communist educational system in Bulgaria. Still, I could never be sure if the case endings I am using are right, the declensions are insanely difficult.. I think with 4-6 tones you can train your ear at a certaing point, but those declensions and noun endings you can never learn unless you are dropped in a Russian speaking world for at least a year, I think.. The new writing system usually looks difficult but you acquire it pretty quickly– even the arabic script, I actually studied Urdu script but the idea is pretty much the same. YOu can easily learn to write, that should not be a cirterion. I think Slavic languages like Russian or POlish should be in the lead 🙂

    • Gm1974

      let me join the discussion. I ‘ve personally found Russian relatively easy as I’m a Polish native speaker – unlike Bulgarian speakers I have also some specific historical background – huge parts of current Polish territory used to be a part of the Russian Empire, and thus, Russian has much influenced Polish especially informal, or folk and local versions of the language. The result? – in spite of being against anything russian (including the “enemy’s language’) in the eighties, I’ve acquried it a lot and had no problem with using it recently, but also finding similarities between my grandma’s dialect and Crimea’s citizens tongue 🙂 – this also concerns cases (my granny ued to speak “incorrect” Polish)
      …and this note is REALLY only to show my appreciation to the blog’s authors – I am truly impressed, andclicked on this lil’ RSS button.

      • Thanks! I hope you like the rest of the blog too!

      • bobthechef

        That’s actually not true. Polish borrows surprisingly little from Russian. You will see plenty of words of German, Latin and French origin, in contrast. German had the greatest impact on during the Middle Ages, Latin at roughly the same time and into the Renaissance and French during the 18th century when it was a fashionable language and lingua franca among Europe’s aristocracy. Russian influence is very minimal. If anything, the borrowing moved eastwards.

        • Yes, there were more borrowings from Ukrainian/Belarusian than Russian itself. There’s a difference between borrowing and exposure though, I think there’s been a relatively significant exposure to Russian among Poles in the Soviet period…

          • Beata

            And what would you say about the Russian influence in period 1772-1918 when biggest part of Poland was seized by Russia? For many generations all education, administration etc. was held in Russian. You can still find significant differences between Polish spoken in Warsaw (it was in Russian Partition) and for example Cracow (Austrian) or Poznań (Prussian). And what matters here is not only the amount of loanwords (not so many) but other type of calques, much more impervious and still present in contemporary Polish. Almost all Polish dictionaries are issued in Warsaw after all. Comparing to that the Soviet period made almost no impact…

          • As far as I know there hasn’t been significant lexical (or grammatical, for that matter) influence from Russian in that period. Can you give us some examples of these influences you describe as “more impervious and still present in contemporary Polish”? Thanks.

  • Lane

    You've identified a) script, b) inflection and c) pronunciation (tones and whatnot) as the main components of "hard", and John Cowan points out vocabulary as well. I agree of course that a language that is hard in all three is hard. But I took a lighthearted stab at "the world's hardest language" in a Christmas piece for The Economist by pointing out a "hard" quality that most English speakers don't even know exists (even if they've studied Latin or Russian): evidentiality. So I fingered Tuyuca of the Amazon as "the hardest": tones, agglutination, inclusive and exclusive "we", dozens of noun classes plus evidentiality.


    I imagine trying to compose a sentence in which I have to remember what class the noun (out of 50 or more) belongs to, making sure I don't muff the tones, and making sure that I put the right ending on the verb explaining how I know what I am saying is true. Boggles the mind; I think I could handle any one of these challenges at a time, but all three? DLI would have to invent a new category of difficult if it ever decides America needs to train Tuyuca-speakers…

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Venelina: Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story! It is quite unsurprising that you had such trouble with Russian, because even though Bulgarian is related to Russian, they are quite different, and Bulgarian has lost (or "got rid of"?) cases, which Russian has kept. So no surprises there.

    As for your idea that tones are easier than cases, I beg to differ. As someone who is tone deaf (or almost), I find tones the most difficult thing in the world to learn. But this highlights the point I've made in those two postings: there is no objective measure of difficulty. Different learners may find different things about any given language more or less troubling. The difficulty is in the eye of the learner!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Lane: Thank you for your comment and the link to your take on this issue. I saw other blogs talk about the difficulty of Tiyuca, so they must have copied that bit from you. I do not claim that the aspects I mentioned (dialects, writing system, pronunciation, inflection) comprise an exhaustive list of difficulties. In fact, in a comment to the first posting on this topic, I mentioned Dyirbal with its syntactic complexities. There are probably other types of "curveballs" that make other languages difficult. Of course, the biggest problem is: how do we measure these various types of difficulties against each other? Is Dyirbal more difficult than Tiyuca? Than Chinese? Than Arabic? I can't say there is a way to even start addressing this sort of question.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Lane: Nicely done posting in the Economist. Ubykh is a Northwestern Caucasian language (not Northeastern), and the consonantal richness seems to be typical of all three Caucasian families. Verbs don't decline into cases, nouns do. But overall nice piece, thumbs up!

    • There are actually languages where verbs are declined in cases. The point of doing so is to link sentences together by declining the verbs of auxiliary sentences in a case form that conforms to the logical role of that sentence. The case forms will then be used in stead of conjunctions.

      • Sort of. Except those “verbs” are not really verbs, morphosyntactically. Typically, they’ve been nominalized (though in some cases they can still take complements, subjects, adverbs, etc.). Being nominal morphosyntactically, they naturally appear with case markers. Tatar would be a good example of that. Apparently, this is very common in OV languages.

        • Well, it is common that such verbs carry only a defective verbal morphology and some derivative nominalizing morphem too before case inflections are applied, but that does not necessarily hold for every such language.

          • Do you know any specific examples of such languages?

          • I once read that dravidian verbs can take case suffixes, but I do not remember which specific of the labuages of this group.

          • These are also nominalization, IIRC.

  • Miguel Trina

    Congratulations for your blog. I am writing to you froma Spain. I have a blog, which is about all sort of languages…. It is great to see that apart from me, more people are ineterested in languages. I created my blog three months ago, please it would be great if you could follow my blog, and if you want you can make any comment or correction. my blog´s name is: latorredebabelmtn.blogspot.com

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Miguel: Thank you for your comment and the link to your blog. I am afraid I can't read in Spanish fluently enough, so I won't be able to follow and comment, but thanks anyway. Are you a linguist too?

  • Miguel Trina

    I am just a student of ancient greek, latin, english and german in the highschool. in the future, I would like to become a linguistic… I started the blog three months ago, I am trying to join people who like the languages.

  • Miguel Trina

    From my point of view,the Basque could be one of the most difficult languages in the world. Although it has some loanwords taken from spanish, it is an isolated language, so you cannot look at the Basque language from a ´familiar`point of view. It is the same with korean and japanese. Finally I have studied just a little bit of mandarín chinese, and the grammar is even more simple than the grammar of the germanic languages in Europe. The problem then is clearly the writing, which is really difficult,(you have to learn how to write(or draw) in chinese word by word))
    Finally, the most difficult languages for sure are the ´click languages `or Khoisan languages, which have many sounds(clicks)that cannot even be pronounced…
    SO AS YOU HAVE SAY:The difficulty is in the eye of the learner.

  • Zach Parker

    I saw that article on MyLanguages.org, and I'm glad you wrote about it, because I saw a lot of "facts" that were opinions at best, or false at worst.

    I agree that Chinese has one of the most difficult writing systems to learn because it has far less of a phonetic element than other writing systems. And the vocabulary is not related to English, so the learner doesn't have cognates to rely on. However, This is true of any non-Indo-European language. Furthermore, in many IE languages, while there are cognates, they are so far diverged from English that the learner may have difficulty recognizing them as cognates anyway. I will grant that the tone system does add a level of difficulty for native-IE languages speakers. Mandarin does of course have many "exotic" sounds not familiar to English speakers, but so do almost all other languages. However, Mandarin does have a rather small phonetic inventory, so the Mandarin student doesn't have as many new sounds to learn as a student of, say, ǃXóõ.

    In my experience, languages with "agglutinative vocabulary" are sometimes easier to learn than those with "non-agglutinative vocabulary." The learner can dissect unfamiliar, more complex words and break them down to their smaller components. This gives the learner access to a larger vocabulary without having studied those words previously.

    As for Arabic, it is true that there are up to four different forms of any letter depending on its position in the word. However, the forms aren't so different as to render them entirely unrecognizable. Most of the letters that do change have a fixed number of dots above or below the form. There are three cases, but for the most part they behave like in Finnish and Hungarian, where the case ending doesn't change depending on the noun it modifies.

    As for the fact that "many Icelandic phonemes don't have exact English equivalents," the vast majority of other languages have phonemes that don't have exact English equivalents. Also, the fact that it retains a more conservative vocabulary would mean that it is more similar to its common ancestor with English than many of the other Germanic languages, including Swedish or German (I am not an expert in Germanic languages, but pulling the "archaic vocabulary" card is actually very counter-productive in this case).

    I would say that the hardest languages to learn are the ones that have the following characteristics: they are more different from a learner's native language in terms of vocabulary, grammar, etc; speakers of these languages, as well as learning materials, are harder to come by; and the cultures held by speakers are more closed to outsiders. Thus, one of the most difficult living languages to learn, in my opinion, would be Sentinelese. All trespassers who have gone to North Sentinel Island to make contact with the natives have either been chased out or killed.

    (Sorry for the long comment. I've had a rant to give about this for awhile now.)

  • Laura Brown

    I've found myself wondering where the world's sign languages would be in these rankings. On the one hand (no pun intended), there would be no written language to worry about, but on the other, one would have to learn a new skill of communicating with gestures rather than speech.

  • pkaustin

    You also need to ask: What is the most difficult language to learn for whom? You have been assuming difficult for English speakers perhaps, but Russian may well be less difficult for a Serbian than it is for a Zulu speaker, for example. Chinese may be less difficult for Japanese to learn (since there is some overlap in the writing system) than Diyari (an Australian Aboriginal language) is for Japanese since Diyari has 4 l-sounds and 3 r-sounds, while Japanese doesn't distinguish l and r. To some degree difficulty is relative to the speaker's other language competencies.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @pkaustin: You are absolutely right! As I said, "the difficulty is in the eye of the learner". And if the difficulty = difference, the natural question is difference from what? For the purposes of these posts, I assumed learning by English-speakers (which is what the majority of my readers are, I assume) and I focused on languages most commonly taught in US foreign-language classrooms (as do the rankings I took a stab at). No doubt native speakers of other languages will have different rankings.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Laura Brown: Thank you for your comment! That's an excellent question. I've never seen sign languages compared in difficulty of learning to spoken languages, even though ASL is commonly taught at various levels. Most importantly, your question highlights once again that we do not have an objective metrics of comparison between different areas of language. In general the use of different modality (sign vs. oral) is akin to written vs. spoken form of the language. And sign language will have the same components (of difficulty) as spoken languages: pronunciation (gesture), grammar, etc.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Zach Parker: Thank you for your insightful comment. Looks like we agree on most everything, don't we?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Miguel Trina: Thank you for your comments! Why do you think that click sounds are impossible to pronounce? We actually do use some clicks in English (culture) even tough they are not parts of the speech sound inventory per se. You might want to read more on this here: http://languages-of-the-world.blogspot.com/2010/07/click-away.html

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Miguel Trina: Good luck with your blog!

  • Miguel Trina

    In English you have them, but surely less than the clicks that the khoisan languages do have. But for a person that speaks a language really clear to pronounce(german, spanish, italian, greek and even japanese(neither English nor French)) this little amount of clicks even in English are gonna be really difficult to learn.
    Un saludo

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Miguel: you mention "clear to pronounce" languages, but these are ones that have sounds that are familiar to you from your language. This is again an example of "difficulty in the eye of the learner"…

  • Foreign Languages Made Easy

    Thank you for sharing this is a great post..

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Foreign languages made easy: thank you!

  • Ron

    Another head-scratcher from mylanguages.org: "French is not difficult to acquire since most of its words are also in the English vocabulary." And all this time I've grappled with false cognates!

    I agree that language difficulty is in the eye of the beholder (or student). I studied Japanese some years ago and had more trouble with reading/writing than anything else. The formality system was mostly memorization and while the grammar is supremely difficult I found it fascinating: I thought I was studying Martian.

    PS – My son is studying Arabic and claims to have little trouble with the script. Of course, being a talented artist may have something to do with that ….

    Love the blog, keep posting!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for your comment, Ron!

  • Anonymous

    I am fluent in Polish and Irish, and I used to speak Russian and Icelandic to beat the band, but I am positively surprised that no one mentioned Georgian yet. I haven't been able to learn it in 5 years, but I haven't yet given up. However, I must say that I was deeply impressed by Georgian grammar and phonology. I would never have imagined that human beings could speak such a language – it felt like something intelligent insects from Alpha Centauri might speak. And of course it has its own peculiar alphabet.

    However, there is one redeeming feature: its vocabulary is quite international, and if you hear it spoken, you can probably roughly guess what is being spoken about. It has accommodated the Arabo-Persian loanwords of the East as well as the Graeco-Latin ones of the West.

    – Panu Höglund (Mr.), Turku, Finland.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Dear Panu Höglund:
    I agree with you that Georgian phonology and grammar would cause difficulties to many learners. Still, comparing Georgian speakers to "intelligent insects" is rather offensive, don't you think?
    I guess nobody mentioned Georgian in this connection because Georgian is not a commonly learnt/taught language (in the US).

  • Anonymous

    Still, comparing Georgian speakers to "intelligent insects" is rather offensive, don't you think?

    I extend my deepest regrets to any Georgian who might be reading this. I could have chosen my words better. I find the language interesting and intriguing, but to start with I found it so utterly foreign as to feel like extraterrestrial.

    However, the point is, that I guarantee one thing: if you ever try Georgian, no Indo-European language will feel difficult anymore.

    – Panu

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Panu: I felt that your comment wasn't intended to be offensive, so I didn't delete it (in accordance to my general policy on offensive comments).

  • Anthony

    In some respects, English is a very hard language.

    We have a spelling system handicapped by having 18 fewer letters than phonemes, huge dialectal variation in vowel pronunciation, optional rhoticity, and very many words which are exceptions to the (rather many) rules of spelling. (There's a website out there which claims that merely 35 rules will get you 85% of all English words.) Our spelling is worse than any European language other than French or Gaelic. (And in both of those it is easier to figure out pronunciation from the written word than in English.)

    English many irregular verbs – not as many as German, but more than most languages, and some of those irregulars cause homophones and homographs where the pair aren't in the same tense/conjugation.

    English has eliminated most conjugation/declensions, but at least colloquially, the pronouns and prepositions which replace those functions are also sometimes optional. English also uses "do" in ways which no other languages (except the Celtic languages) do.

    English vocabulary is very large, as almost every simple concept has a French and a German word for it, and often a Latin or Greek word as well. English also has an astounding number of borrow words, which are rarely fully naturalized. Most borrow words keep both their native spelling, and an approximation of their native pronunciation, which adds the spelling rules of 5 or 6 other languages to those necessary to learn the rules of English. Some borrow words even keep some of their native grammar – making plurals, etc., in an approximation of the native rule, rather than the English rule.

    Of course, for a native speaker of American English, the vocabulary differences with other dialects are small, and the pronunciation differences between, say, Ebonics and Strine aren't that awful. But for even a native speaker of French or German, English can be quite the challenge.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Anthony: Thank you for sharing your opinion. Still, I am not sure what you base it on. For example, you claim that English has more irregular verbs than most languages. Why do you say so? English has so little verbal morphology left so how can it compete in this department with say, Russian, Hebrew or even French?

  • Gabcsi

    With all of my respect due to your work, I guess that your statement: "the difficulty is in the eye of the learner" is not completely true, at least not in my case. I'm from Hungary, and some years ago I've tried to learn another finno-ugric language, estonian, but I've failed, maybe the lack of motivation or diligency, doesn't matter. Only the fact that I've found estonian really-really hard, but it's got numerous similarity with hungarian, at least in its grammar. Of course I've learnt other languages (english,norwegian,latvian,etc.), and I have to assure you about I can found them much more easy despite the fact that they don't have any kinship with my native language. But, ofc maybe it's just another one viewpoint. 🙂

    Oh, and btw, if I have a proposal too about "hardest-languages" game, let's see it per continents. In Europe, the hardest one is Basque without any arguement. In Asia, it's nivkh, in Africa one khoisan, and from America one amerindid language, navajo or haida. Even more the latter. 🙂

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Gabcsi: With all due respect, your experience only confirms the claim that the difficulty is in the eye of the beholder/learner: most people would find learning a related language easier…

    As for your game based on continents, what about Australia? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I've still got to say English has got to be one of the most difficult with all it's exeptions and borrowed words, and if I was a native speaker of somewhere else I would probably give up… But people I've talked to have said they've learned by listening, and just hearing the way things are by being here. But to learn it with a course seems close to impossible to me…
    Yet I must disagree with most people thinking that aisan languages are the most difficult, becuase I've found them easiest. Particularly Japanese. It makes sense, and English does not. I find that maybe caucasians are scared by the usage of characters and such, but really, they are very easy to pick up on and memorize.
    But I think it also helps alot if you are interested in the culture and listen to native speakers alot and such.
    And I totally agree that it depends on what the learners native language is.


  • Anonymous

    Oh, and just some other things I forgot to mention on some asian languages:
    It's really easy to learn honorifics in Korean and Japanese. Before I was even studying Japanese I could use them fluently because of things such as reading manga and being involved in the culture. They are in ways similar to English's Mr and Ma'am and such. It's really just a politeness system.
    And as for characters, They also have visual cues in them, just like English's, let's say, "immunization". I know that's not a good example, but we can figure out the meaning by looking at the core of the word which is "immune". If we know what that means and we attatch the rest as we know it, we can figure it out. It's similar with characters because it can be a combination of symbols we already know. English's words can also almost be considered characters by the way we read it. "Hi, enve thgouh all teh wrods aer seplled icorrenctly, can you sltil udsternand me?" We read faster than we speak, so when we skim over words, we're accually just seeing the shape of them and know what they are instantly. Korean's use of alphebet is this way, too.

    Please excuse any naïveity, I'm only fourteen. (:


    • z0ltan

      I agree. English is one of those languages that is easy to learn upto an intermediate level, but extremely difficult to master, unlike a lot of these so-called “tough” languages.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Carissa: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and keep reading and learning!

  • Anonymous

    Hello Friend,
    Chinese is the hardest language to learn, possibly influenced by the thought of learning Chinese characters, and the pronunciation of Chinese does appear to be very difficult for foreign learners. Different cultures and individuals from those cultures will find different languages more difficult..

    Learning Chinese Mandarin

  • MattOKC

    I think Anishinaabemowin (the language of the Chippewa, or Ojibway, Native Americans) is overlooked on these lists. Some scholars consider it BY FAR to be the most difficult language, easily surpassing the ones named in the article. Here’s a sample: Miin-aan baash kimini-sij-i-gan bitooyin sij-i-gan-i bukwayszhiigan
    = “blueberry pie.”

  • Ha Rima

    i just want to add something about Arabic and the order of the sentence 
    it is possible to order the sentence as you can like English or french but not like Japanese for example 
     i think that the biggest difficulty about Arabic is how to pronounce many characters that you can not find them in English or Spanish 
    about plural and singular stuff i think that is easy because there rules and of course rules makes every thing easy 
    arabic is rich language im talking here about  lot of words for example to say girl in Arabic you can say
    fatat or
    and all those have mostly same meanings i mean here that you do’nt need to memorize all of those 
    and i tell you like an arabic person lot of words i have knew just watching tv or hearing othor arabs saying them 
    and last 
    i say about the arabic local language is close to standard arabic 
    1.if you want to study arabic just to learn or to have the possibility to read and understand coran it ‘s  enaught for you standard one 
    2.if you ‘ll live in Arabic countries there is 2 possibilities 
    1north african Arabic is deffernet a little bit from middle east arabic … African Arabic contains lot of french or Spanish words it can arrive to 30 percent ”’here i mean what people talk ”and this to learn just to understand people and countries are Algeria Tunisia Morocco 
    2.middle east Arabic is near to standard Arabic and you can learn it easily if live a little bit with them 
    and here i can tell you about my experience i’m algerian ..and syrian arabic is deffernt a little bit of myine but i can understand it and talk it just like syrians and this just of tv 

  • Anonymous

    Couple of things: Ancient languages are mostly overlooked here. And yet it is a curious feature of linguistic evolution that the trend (e.g., in the case of the IE languages) is often from complex to simpler.
    Some features in assessing the difficulty of languages that have been discussed here: 
    1) Writing system. I know Greek and Sanskrit. The Greek alphabet can be learned in a day if you know the Latin one, Devanagari takes weeks, but isn’t really hard—very far, certainly, from the hardest aspect of the language. I do not know any languages (like Mandarin) that use ideograms.
    2) Tones. Being ignorant of any languages of the far East I can’t add anything more to what others have said, but what others have said leads me to believe that this is a major hurdle for native speakers of non-Eastern languages.
    3) Size of vocabulary. English is often cited as one of the hardest to learn in this connection owing to its complex heritage; among ancient languages (that I know) Sanskrit is notable for having a very large vocabulary.
    4) Analytic ↔ Synthetic. Languages classified as synthetic tend to be highly inflected: nouns have many cases with distinct forms to match, verbs have many moods and tenses with associated forms. The dual is a number used in Sanskrit, archaic Greek, Gothic, etc. Where used, 33% more forms (roughly) need to be memorized.
    5) Sandhi. Originally applied to Sanskrit (where it is ubiquitous) sandhi refers to euphonic changes that result when certain sounds occur in sequence, and is now applied to analogous changes in other languages. There are hundreds of such changes in Sanskrit, a formidable challenge facing students of the language from the outset.
    6) Accent / pronunciation. Enough has been said on this subject, I’ll only add that the nasal sounds in French, and its R sound, seems especially difficult for non-native speakers to acquire.
    7) Orthography. The pronunciation of English often bears scant resemblance to its spelling, Einstein spent the second half of his life in American and was repeatedly defeated in his efforts to learn English because of its chaotic  orthography. Now, Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a linguist, but still a pretty smart guy…
    8) Stylistic sophistication. Perhaps this falls outside the purview of discussion here but I’m not sure it should. Sanskrit is harder to learn than Greek, but samples of classical Greek are harder to read because authors such as Thucydides and Demosthenes developed a highly ornate, hypotactic style with great use of subordination and a multitude of rhetorical tropes. The same holds true of Latin if we consider, for example, the periodic style of Cicero in his orations or the elliptic expressions in Persius. English is comparable in this regard, poets like Shakespeare, Byron, and Browning can be hard even for native speakers to understand.

    Some other linguistic features that affect how hard a language can be for a non-native speaker I will merely list: 
    The degree to which a language is idiomatic, i.e., employs expressions that have to be learned on a case-by-case basis and whose meaning cannot be inferred from familiarity with the individual words alone. French has always seemed to me more than commonly idiomatic.
    Particles. Usually one-syllable words that connect sentences and clarify their logical connection, they may also communicate nuances of meaning that can be hard to convey in translation. In IE languages they usually appear second in the sentence. The prevalence of particles, often in combination, is one of the most notable characteristics of ancient Greek and one of the hardest to master.

  • Hakan

     Turkish language is the most difficult

  • Hendrik du Plessis

    I am in Botswana and I am studying the Qgoo language and I don’t think it is possible for any language on earth to be more difficult than the Qgoo language. It is a tone language in the extreme and has got 85 different click combinations and 120 letters in their alphabet.

    • As difficult as it may sound, it’s not unfound in other languages as well (e.g. how many “letters” in the Chinese writing system?)… Different languages are difficult in different ways…

  • every language has his own character. and I think every language in The world is more difficult to learn it. as recommendation for the diversity in Language, try to see about Bugis Language with its alphabetic named “Lontara”. It’s one language in South Sulawesi. Find this or many site on internet. or come to my site.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you!

  •  Yes, fusional languages are much harder to learn than agglutinative ones. This statement is witnessed by students of Russians, who were observed by their roommates, the students of Korean at DLIFLC. And the former students of Russian, who are studying Arabic now, just laughing at other Arabic students, telling them that after Russian studies, Arabic seems to be so easy!

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Oh but what about the pronunciation of pharyngeal consonants in Arabic? And the script?

      • MargaritaO

        The pharyngeal consonants turned out to be much easier to learn than

        the Russian opposition of the velar and palatal consonants.

        And to learn the script, several hours are enough. The students are

        supplied with Tab laptops to transfer their Arabic handwriting into

        computer fonts — very helpful, indeed, to learn decent Arabic

        handwriting skills.

        • I suppose there would be a lot of subjectivity involved here.

  • MargaritaO

    The stupid disqus.com does not log me in!
    Does not like my favorite Camino browser!

  • Ze do Rock

    For native english speakers, icelandic is doubtlessly the most difficult language – among the germanic languages. It has cases like in german, and they are more difficult than in german, but then german has the typical international words like president, television and cigarettes, while icelandic sticks to a strictly germanic vocabulary. But of course icelandic is easier to lern than hungarian, russian or chinese. At least for anglos, because at least half the vocabulary (the germanic vocabulary in english) is offen similar.

    What would intrest me would be to know what the most difficult languages ar for humanity as a whole. But i guess it would be an immense effort in time and money to find it out. One possibility would be to make a scale from 0 to 10 (0 absolutely no problem, 10 a nitemare) for eech feeld: pronunciation (japanese maybe 2, spanish 3, german maybe 6, english 7, chinese 10 – provided thare is no language that is mor difficult than chinese in this area), spelling/pronunciation correspondence (in japanese yu’d hav to make an avrage from kanji (10), katagana and hiragana (maybe 1 and 1), spanish 1, german 4, english 7, chinese 10), grammar (in japanese it would be realy hard to say, on one hand the grammar is simple but then the honorifics… – spanish 3, german 7, english 1, chinese 1 or eeven 0). and then recognizable vocabbulary, etc.

    Of corse recognizable vocabbulary would be difrent depending on the annalist, and one would need at leest 20 annalists/test persons from all over the world, and the problem would be that yu would hav to get peeple who just speek thare own language… and then the question of how this teem should be composed – if the number of annalists should reflect the number of speekers, one should hav 200 times mor chinese annalists than catalanian, and then korean would be certanly eesier than say french… on the uther hand, if yu hav one catalanian and one chinese annalist, french wil be maybe eesier, altho it is eesier for the few catalanians but not for the mor than one billion chinese (korean shares sum vocabbulary with chinese, i guess the koreans imported it).

    Anuther possibility would be to giv an eesy, a meedium eesy and a difficult text of say 5 pages eech to be ritten, spoken, and understood, explaning evrything that can be explaned (exceptions just count as mistakes) and count all the mistakes the test person makes and all the explanations the person needs. Something like the principle of “how many hours study a person needs to acquire a minimal level of proficiency”. I just wonder if the proficiency measures was the same for all languages (if this is possible at all)… and then thare would be still the problem what would be defined as “half mistake”: most foreigners say /E/ for the short english A (he was et home), and most people understand what is meant, so should we consider it as a full mistake or just a half mistake? Or what about the A in ‘father’, which most foreigners pronounce with their flat A /a/, while the anglos pronounce it as a round /A/ – most people even dont notice the difference, so should it be counted as a half mistake? I gess that if we count those as full mistakes, there is very little proficiency in english amung non native english speakers…

    • Interesting idea, but I am afraid it would be too difficult to implement…

      • Ze do Rock

         i’m afraid too…

        by the way, i got curius about your name and vizzited your site ware u explain your name. i thought it wud be sumthing like latvian or lithuanian… but of corse: perel + tsvaig. nice name, indeed…

        hey, maybe u have some fun reading my travvel blog in europan, a constructed language where the words are chosen mathematicaly: http://zedorock.net/blog/?cat=9. the numbers: un-do(s)-tri(s)-fo(r)-pet(a)-seis-sede(m)-oit(o)-nain(e)-ti-sto-mile-milion. the letters in parenthesis apeer or disapeer depending on wether the next letter is a vowel or a consonant. 

  • Well, Icelandic is highly irregular, even worse than Russian, and because of a lot umlaut and ablaut, it is partly nonconcatenative. Being Scandinavian, I can understand much of the Icelandic language, but learning to speak it correctly is another matter.

  • Stucko

    The problem with these rankings is that they ignore most of the languages, they end up comparing the “typical” languages, namely Japanese, Chinese, Russian, German, Arabic, some more “exotic” like Hungarian or Thai but what about click tongues in Africa, or Amerindian languages with their evidentials and all those terms tied to their own cultural milieu? If we exclude so many language families (let’s not forget than only in Papua New Guinea there are hundreds of languages) then we can not talk about “the most difficult language of the world (for English speakers, of course)” but the most difficult language out of the popular bunch. It’s like inviting a select group of 20 countries to an olympiad to decide who are the best athletes of the world.

    • Jelle Zijlstra

      It struck me that some online listings I found of “difficult languages” were mostly “non-Indo-European languages the writer had heard of”. Surely non-Indo-European languages are harder, but it would be unlikely that the most difficult ones would also be the most well-known. On the other hand, these languages probably won’t use as difficult a writing system as Chinese or Japanese.

  • Icelandic has 4 cases, but has the same or worse difficulties with declensions and genders as Russian.

  • Pingback: On Simple Languages and Simple-Minded Conclusions - Languages Of The World | Languages Of The World()

  • ganadharmabhasa

    English is still a difficult language to native Korean speakers in terms of spelling, phonology, and grammar. Speaking Japanese on the other hand is way too easy for Korean speakers (except writing).

  • Bruce Humes

    I’m a bit surprised about how this discussion seems to be lumping all four major aspects of language-use — speaking, listening, reading and writing — into one. I’ve studied 7 languages and only mastered 2 besides my mother tongue, but it seems obvious to me that that many languages are fairly easy in certain aspects, and very difficult in others.

    Take Chinese, in which I am now very fluent. Unquestionably, writing is very difficult to master because there is no “alphabet” per se and each character must be memorized. But reading is markedly easier because it is a passive activity, i.e., one need only recognize a character, and per se, there is no need to be able to write it. University-level reading requires the ability to “recognize” 10,000 characters, and I have reached that level; but I can only write perhaps 1,000 by hand, i.e., without a dictionary or help from a computer program.

    I would argue that the difficulties of mastering spoken Chinese are much overstated, by the Chinese themselves and perhaps also by those who have mastered it and wish to make it sound incredibly arduous. There are two simple reasons why it’s fairly easy to master basic speech: 1) A vocabulary of less than 1,000 syllables is definitely enough to deal with basic daily life. Yes, you have to use each word creatively and frequently, but you can be very understandable with that tiny set of building blocks; and 2) Only 1/5 or so of the Chinese population speaks “standard” Chinese. The rest make errors every time they open their mouths, because their accent in Mandarin — the sound itself and the tone — is strongly impacted by the dialect they speak at home. And yet, most everyone knows what they mean most of the time! So how is that? Because their syntax is largely correct, and because Chinese speakers are quite used to mind-blowingly bad accents . . .

    That means that persistent foreigners can speak passable, and often quite decent Chinese, within a year. Accent on “persistent.” The one thing they must do is be prepared to “lose face” as they learn. There will be a lot of giggling and even guffawing among native speakers as you struggle . . .

    To summarize: Learning to write Chinese is very, very difficult. But I would argue that reading it — particularly with all sorts of apps nowadays — is much easier, and speaking it fluently (tho’ not terribly accurately) is also much easier than rumored.

    For me then, there IS no answer to “which language is the hardest to learn.” Much depends on whether you want to write, read, speak or listen, and of course, which mother tongue you begin with . . .