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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