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What is the Hardest Language to Learn?

What is the hardest language to learn?A very common question among people who are tinkering with the idea of studying a new language is What is the hardest language to learn?  As I wrote in response to the question What is the easiest language to learn, the difficulty of a language depends largely on you and what your native language is.

Difference From Your Native Language

If your native language is English click here. If your native language is Korean then Japanese is definitely not the hardest language, because it is so grammatically and conceptually similar to Korean. If you speak French, then Spanish is definitely not the hardest language because the two languages are closely related and members of the same Romance language family. Basically, the more different the language is from your own, the harder it will be.

Difference From Other Languages You Know

If you already speak a language other than your native language, then a language related to that one probably wouldn`t be the most difficult for you. A language with a lot of concepts and linugistic features that you have never encountered before would be more difficult.

Complexity of the Language

The complexity of the language is another factor. Some languages require more vocabulary for daily functioning, some languages require you to make lots of syntactical changes in different contexts, some require you to make phonological changes in different contents, some languages have very distinct registers, and some languages have very complex writing systems.  It`s hard to say which language is objectively the most complex, and I may be biased as a native speaker, but two examples of complex languages are Japanese and Arabic.

 

Japanese

Japanese languageJapanese has a complicated writing system using four different types of characters including ideographic kanji (Chinese characters). Even if you are only interested in learning to speak the language and not read it, it is very difficult to be fluent in Japanese without knowing kanji because they form a large amount of the vocabulary and many words composed of kanji sound exactly the same. You distinguish such homonyms by mentally referencing the kanji you know. And kanji are not always pronounced the same way, it depends on the context, with some kanji having 5 or more different “readings”.

Japanese vocabulary is also very complex because there are often numerous distinct compound words which correspond to a single word in many other languages. This is partly because of the use of kanji to form compound words, whereas in another language like English you would probably use one main word and add a modifier to change the meaning slightly. Japanese culture is also very different from most others in the world, and the culture is a big part of the language, so the way of communicating ideas in Japanese can be very different than non-Japanese people are used to. But it`s Kanji that really makes learning Japanese a time-consuming challenge for many people.

Arabic

egypt-flagArabic is often considered a complex language because of its phonology which contains some sounds rarely found outside of the Semitic language family, and because of its mysterious cursive alphabet. In reality those are not what makes Arabic complicated. What makes it so complicated is diglossia, using two different versions of the language for different purposes. Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of Arabic countries, and is virtually identical to the language of the Muslim holy book the Qur`an, which was written around 1500 years ago. But the Arabic spoken in daily life has evolved quite a lot over those 1500 years, meaning that second language learners have to learn two different languages: Modern Standard Arabic, plus a spoken dialect. There is great variation amongst dialects as well, meaning that second language learners also need to learn strategies of blending Modern Standard Arabic with their dialect of choice in order to communicate both naturally but also in a way that`s understandable for speakers of other dialects. To learn a single Arabic dialect is not really complex. But to become fluent in Arabic in a way that you can communicate with speakers from various countries, takes an impressive amount of time and effort.

The Various Factors

Which language would be the hardest for you to learn, depends on how different the language is from your native language and other languages you know, as well as the complexity of the language. There is no definite answer that applies to all learners.

See also: What is the Easiest Language to Learn For English Speakers? (this also discusses the hardest)

  • Lawrence Kearley-Hall

    Try learning Korean…..good luck.

  • LangFocus

    Grammar wise it seems very close to Japanese, but the phonology is quite a bit more complex.

    The modern writing system is really easy to learn. I learned it in a few hours. I haven`t studied much Korean though.

  • Joshua Yamashita

    As a native Japanese born and raised in Japan (Tokai area), it was an amazing dicovery that I found Samuel Martin’s Japanese grammar and conversation textbook in my university’s library. All the texts are prepared by typewriting with a few diacritics added to ordinary English key layout, I guess.

    Later, I also found FSI related vernacular language textbooks, including Thai, Hebrew, Cantonese, French and Portuguese etc.

    Now communication devices and IT infrastructures encourage more people to study Japanese or Arabic because the scripts and input methods are already built-in as default or easily accessible online.

    The 21st century has arrived, but it is not so fantastic and futuristic as I expected in my childhood. Yet definitely, communication devices I saw Captain Kirk holding in his hand is available to us. Klingon characters are incorporated into Unicode. When will we have “Scotty, please beam me up”?

  • LangFocus

    Hi Joshua. Yes, definitely. I think that the internet has also given rise to a lot of digital learning resources for those languages that make them very accessible. For example, drilling kanji with a smartphone application is easier than carrying around thousands of physical flashcards.

    Yeah, Smartphones with Skype/Facetime are something out of the Sci-Fi movies I used to watch as a kid. But the internet is something nobody ever imagined.

  • Nugstu

    For me, what makes Japanese difficult (apart from grammar, of course) is that the language is conceptually very different compared to Indo-European languages and that makes is very challenging. Japanese sees the world from a different perspective and that is evident in the words and expressions the language uses to express emotions, opinions, ideas, etc. For example, associating the expression なければならない with the idea of “to have to do” is difficult at first because the Japanese expresion is not explicit and quite far-fetched conceptually. Japanese is full of (conceptually) tricky expressions like this and this makes progress slow because it is a whole new world you are discovering that has almost no parallels with Indo-European languages and many times those expression donpt seem to make sense from our perspective. And we haven’t discussed particles yet.