What is the most difficult language to learn?

Jun 1, 2011 by

This is one of the most frequent questions I get as a linguist: what is the most difficult language to learn? The short answer: the more the target language is different from the language(s) you already speak, the harder it is to learn. Among the more popular languages, that would make Oriental languages such as Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.), Japanese and Arabic more difficult than European tongues (French, Spanish, German, etc.). But of course if you attempt to learn an Australian Aboriginal language like Dyirbal or an Amazonian language like Piraha, it will be even more difficult.

A quick search online reveals numerous articles and blog posts on this question, such as this one, written by Emma Taylor of the Accreditedonlinecolleges.com or this one from MyLanguages.org. Among the chief difficulties that are mentioned in connection with the “difficult languages” there are three recurrent themes:

  • dialectal differences: these will not affect your learning of the standardized form of the language, which is what is typically taught in most foreign-language classrooms, but will hinder both learning by exposure and the actual use of the learned language. By the way, some of the languages you will find easier to learn, such as Italian and German, have a lot of dialectal variation too!
  • unfamiliar writing system: this will only be a problem if, like most foreign-language learners, you will try to learn the written form of the language alongside the spoken form. But don’t forget that most languages that are really difficult to learn do not have a written form at all.
  • perceived frequency of exceptions to grammatical rules: when foreign-language learners encounter a form that doesn’t fit the rules they’ve been taught in the classroom, they tend to think of it as “native speakers ignoring (or violating) the rules”, whereas in reality the rules are typically more complicated than the classroom presentation will make one believe. On the positive side, though, the exceptional, irregular, “unruly” in language typically involves the more frequent forms (e.g., English irregular verbs include such frequent ones as eat, but not the infrequent ones like discombobulate). So if your learn the few frequent but irregular forms, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

In the next posting, I will consider some of the more specific claims that I have seen made about why it is difficult to learn this or that language. Stay tuned!

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  • Andrew

    But surely Chinese, Japanese and Arabic are equally distant from English as Dyirbal and Piraha? Why do you think Dyirbal and Piraha would be even harder for English-speakers to learn?

  • Thomas W

    Another factor is whether the language takes the majority of its scientific vocabulary from Græco-Latin, Chinese, Arabic or Sanskrit. If you're from Western Europe, you expect a phone to be called something like 'telephone' or a translation thereof (such as 'Fernsprecher'), however in Japanese, it's denwa ('electric speech'). This means that Japanese is a much bigger strain on the memory than for instance Basque for a speaker of a Germanic or Romance language, even if Japanese and Basque are equally dissimilar.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Andrew: Thank you for your comment. The reason I think languages like Piraha and Dyirbal are more difficult is that in addition to the different (exotic, even!) sociocultural aspects of these languages (e.g., language taboos), a foreign-language learner will run into a number of exotic syntactic structures. For example, Dyirbal is syntactically ergative, meaning that not only does its case system follow the ergative alighment, but several syntactic phenomena do as well. Plus it has some ergative splits, anti-passive and other things that an English speakers will need to get used to. But your question highlights another important issue: as with language complexity, there is no objective measure of language difficulty/difference as far as foreign language learning is concerned. How does one compare the exotic click sounds of Xhosa, syntactic ergativity of Dyirbal, etc.? There may even be clear differences across learners: some may better at learning exotic sounds, others — exotic grammar, etc.

    • Also relevant I think to the difficulty of learning a language is the ability for the language learner to get immersed in the target language. The ease at which one immerses themselves in a specific language depends entirely on context of course. But for the vast majority of people today, it would be far easier and more likely to have learning experiences contributed to by the environment with Chinese (with 1 billion+ speakers encouraging its acquisition by others just by speaking it) than Dyirbal.

      It’s a fairly simple point, but one that is relevant I think to your points about the greater difficulty of learning an Aboriginal language. Of course, if the situation while determining difficulty is that the learner is starting with no prior cultural influence to the language and is assumed to be immersed in the culture that speaks it during learning, then this point is no longer relevant.

      • This is a great point, Kevin! The difficulty of immersion (both in cultural and purely logistical terms) certainly plays a role. In practical terms, it means that most languages spoken in the world are not learned by foreigners (and many are not even passed down to the next generation, for economic and cultural reasons).

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Thomas W: Thank you for your comment! You are absolutely right that the "exoticness" of vocabulary would play a role in determining how easy/difficult a given language is to learn.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    As has been pointed out to me by Chris Collins, a linguist who has worked a great deal on languages of West Africa: "In Togo, any speaker of Ewe must know at least three dialects. The village dialect (family and friends from the village), the Lome dialect (the lingua franca) and the standard dialect (Church, as a school subject). These can sometimes be quite distinct phonologically, lexically, syntactically, so that to learn "Ewe" you are really learning three different dialects." It may very well be the case that in areas of high linguistic diversity, such as West Africa, dialectal issues are more crucial to a second-language learner than in other parts of the world, where a standardized language exists.