What’s the hardest language to learn?

I remember the first day of my Hispanic Studies degree, when our head of department brought us all down to earth by reminding us that Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn. Having all worked pretty hard to get there, we were quite offended, but looking back now, I have to admit he may have been right… Spanish follows relatively simple grammatical rules, and once you know the different sounds, you can look at any word, and even if you’ve never seen it before you’ll know how to pronounce it. Of course there are areas of difficulty, like the age-old ‘ser or estar’ debate and (every linguist’s favourite) the subjunctive, but on the whole it isn’t a nightmare to get to grips with.

So that got me thinking: what is the hardest language to learn? Obvious answers that spring to mind are languages like Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, which use a completely different writing system to English and, in the case of the Chinese languages, rely heavily on tone of voice. Changing the way you say a word even fractionally can completely change its meaning – which makes learning the language seem pretty daunting.

Other languages that I’ve been told are really difficult to learn include Finnish and Hungarian, in this case because of their complicated grammar systems.

Of course this is all from an English speaker’s point of view. If I’d been brought up speaking another language then my ideas about which are most difficult would probably be totally different. I’m sure I’d find English quite hard if I weren’t a native speaker.

What do you think? Have you ever learnt a language that was particularly challenging?


3 thoughts on “What’s the hardest language to learn?”

  1. I’ve been told that the only thing harder than English is Asian languages.

    I’ve failed miserably at Spanish, French, and Pig Latin.

    I graduated from HS w/o a language credit.

    However I picked up Klingon pretty quickly and am now a professional translator.

    • That’s interesting – do you think that’s because you had more of a passion for Klingon? I guess a lot of what I’ve said above does depend on more factors than just the language alone. Motivations and personal interest probably make a big difference.

  2. I’ve always loved languages but never been good at picking them up. Reading the Klingon Dictionary by Marc Okrand I thought if I could learn something I really wanted to maybe I could actually learn other languages.

    Picking up the grammar was ok but remembering the words was still a problem. It was only while working with Eurotalk and subsequently Marc I realised where my problem may lay. I am dyslexic and have what I can only describe as name blindness. I just can’t remember names, including my own from time to time. I realsied that my problem with learning languages was probably due to the fact that I was sticking the words in the same part of my memory that I stick names..


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