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Q and A Banner - #3 (World Records-1)

Thursday, September 1, 2011


"Asking this question is like asking what is the hardest online game to play?"

First of all, there is no such thing as the hardest language since no natural language in the world can ever be the hardest one because children learn them to fluency in just a few years. Icelandic? Japanese? Swahili?  Any average five year old from the countries they are spoken in will show you how easily they communicate in those languages.

If taken literally, the hardest languages for outsiders to learn would be those that are currently unknown by outsiders, for example, Sentinelese.  Sentinelese is completely unattested, and no Sentinelese have had significant contact with outsiders for several centuries, so it cannot be learned anywhere but on North Sentinel Island, India. However, it is illegal for anyone to visit the island, and fishermen accidentally visiting have been killed by the Sentinelese.

However, back to the question at hand - what is the hardest language to learn - is a question that is unrealistic to answer as it cannot be generalized.  For instance, a Korean would find it relatively easy to learn Japanese; a Vietnamese would find it not too hard to learn one of the Chinese languages. For English-speaking people, the easier languages are those that belong to the Indo-European family; however, the further you go from your native language, the more difficult it is. If you are Spanish, then Portuguese is fairly easy (at least, when written). Also, Italian is pretty close, as is Catalan. A Spaniard would find Russian very difficult because of the phonology of that language compared with his own, etc. etc.

Therefore, all languages are difficult in their own respect and mainly depends on the person's native language to begin with.

But if we must choose....

Many languages have been claimed to be the hardest language to learn. Assessments have been used to determine language difficulty based on the ease with which infants learn a language as their first language, and how challenging language is to learn as a second language by older children or adults.

According to AZ Guirora in the Journal of Language Learning, the hardest part of learning a new language is pronunciation, resulting in accents. Accents are caused by transfer between the sounds of the first and second languages of which there are three possibilities.
  1. The second language phonemes are not found in the native language at all. For example, Korean does not have any phonemes corresponding to the English phonemes /f/ or /v/, so they would be completely new to Korean learners of English.
  2. The first language has one of the two contrasting phonemes. For example, Japanese has a /p/ sound as in the English paid, but no /f/ sound as in the English fade. Japanese learners of English need to learn a new phoneme.
  3. The second language phonemes both exist in the native language, but as allophones of the same phoneme. For example, in Japanese, [l] and [r] are allophones so Japanese learners of English need to learn to distinguish these sounds.
It may seem that totally new sounds would be hardest to learn, but actually this is not necessarily the case. These sounds do not always appear to pose significant problems for second language learners, unless they are radically different from classes of sound in the native language. The most difficult phoneme pairs to learn are often allophones of the same phoneme, as in Japanese learning to distinguish between /l/ and /r/.

A study on speech comprehension by German immigrants to the USA and American immigrants to Germany found that native English speakers learning German as adults had a disadvantage on certain grammatical tasks, while they had an advantage in lexical tasks compared to their native German-speaking counterparts learning English.

English As The First Language

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. The Foreign Service Institute notes that Japanese is typically more difficult to learn than other languages in this group.


Click to enlarge!

A few personal points and observations I'd like to mention after reading that chart:

  • I've read on many sites that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn, along with Chinese yet a few of my friends who speak Japanese as a second language, found it an easier language to learn in regards to speaking and listening than other languages they were trying to learn.  "It's easier than Chinese", one friend mentioned.   "Chinese is a tonal language - Japanese is not and the Japanese language have alot of 'loan' words (words borrowed from other languages) that are much easier to decipher than loan words from the Chinese language." 
  • I was surpise German and Hungarian were not included since they take 30 weeks / 750 class hours and  44 weeks/1100 class hours respectively to learn according to The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State which this chart based their findings on.
  • 3 other languages that were considered the most difficult to learn and required 88 weeks/2200 class hours that were not included on this chart:  Mongolian, Taiwanese and Wu!
  • Basque, (spoken in parts of Spain and France), has never been mentioned anywhere on this chart yet I have read on many sites, it is considered to be the most difficult language to learn followed closely by Hungarian which has 35 cases or noun forms with pronounciations even harder than the Asian languages.
  • Although this chart was based upon a native english speaker learning other languages, I think they should have mentioned English somewhere on there as well since learning it can be quite difficult even for a native tongue speaker!  Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and, as a result, today only partly observes the alphabetic principle.  Consequently, this results in rules with many exceptions and ambiguities: Most phonemes in English can be spelled in more than one way, (cat and kit).  Many graphemes in English have multiple pronunciations, that is, same letter or letter-combinations, have different sounds, (the letter “a” in “bath” is not pronounced in the same way of that in “bathe", or the combined letters 'ough' all sound differently in words such as through, though, and thought).  Then we have the homographs - a word or a group of words that share the same written form but have different meanings, (bass – could mean a type of fish OR low, deep voice; bat - piece of sports equipment OR an animal; minute – tiny OR unit of time; wound – past tense of to wind a clock OR an injury - just to name a few).  Some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation, regardless of dialect, (the word tomato - you say tomayto, I say tomahto).  Some words are spelt so differently when compared with their pronunciation – such as tongue and stomach.  I mean I could go on and on. 

In the end, all languages have their own levels of difficulty which makes them all challenging to learn - but it's your level of passion to learn one that makes them easier to learn.
    Any thoughts from my multi-lingual viewers, (friends), to this site are always greatly appreciated!

Let's do our own poll shall we? 

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