When I was researching for last week’s Pop Quiz, I came across this article from the Economist, subtitled “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.” The author examines different ways that languages can be difficult. For instance, English spelling is pretty irregular, but French “gives it a run for it’s money” – no one who has ever studied French would argue for a one-to-one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. Latin and Greek get a nod for being much more highly inflected than English (remember that scene from Monty Python?) Then there are difficult sounds, such as the Scottish “ch”, the German umlaut, or the “much more exotic vowels” of Chinese. (I would like to point out here that he’s getting “vowels” and “tones” mixed up in his discussion – tones are of course difficult for nonnative speakers, but they’re linguistically a separate issue than vowels, strictly speaking – see the discussion here if you’re interested.) The author also lists languages with difficult consonant inventories, such as Ubykh with its purported 78 distinct consonants, and of course my favorite, the languages with a glorious array of click consonants. There are languages with complex morphology, for instance marking for not only gender, number, and case, but also noun class; there are agglutinating languages such as Turkish, where single words can contain dozens of syllables as the morphemes pile up.
I bring this up because I am curious as to what each of you would say makes a language “difficult,” in terms of learning them as non-native speakers. I have a strong suspicion it depends on each person’s unique skills and personality. Some people have a musical ear and can pick up pitch and tone much easier than others. Some people are analytical and can sense, and then use, complex grammatical patterns, while the rest of us scratch our heads. I also imagine it has a lot to do with your native language(s) and with your previous language learning experience. The author of the Economist article notes that “Languages tend to get ‘harder’ the farther one moves from English and its relatives,” which seems like a fairly intuitive rule of thumb for monolingual Anglophones. But if you grew up in a bilingual English/Tamil household, that could strongly affect what you find “difficult” about learning a third language. And if you’ve already taken some courses in, say, Arabic, the intricacies of related languages like Hebrew are probably a lot less daunting.
The author of this article selected Tuyuca as the “hardest language,” mostly as a consequence of its detailed and complex system of marking verbs for evidentiality – in Tuyuca, you have to add a bit at the end of each verb to indicate how you came to know the information you are sharing in the sentence (did you see it yourself? did someone tell you about it?) That’s certainly a lot to deal with every time you utter a sentence, especially if you’ve never had to do it before. But does that make it the hardest?
What qualities do you find the most difficult about a language? What’s the most difficult language you’ve tried studying? What features do you find aren’t so difficult for you, that might present problems for other people?
I’d like to write more about difficulty in language learning, but first I wanted to get your thoughts!
Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams. See About for details.