What’s The Hardest Language To Learn?

It’s actually an interesting question. For English speakers anyway, results from the US Army School of Languages in Monterey, California, showed that Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the three hardest.

I believe that Chinese was the worst of all. The main problem with Chinese is that it has an ungodly and unwieldy writing system that is very difficult to learn.

Literate Chinese are supposed to know 3,000 characters. The government has set a goal of 80

Many rural Chinese learned to read and write but then forgot it once they got to be about 40 or so. They are in the fields all day, and they don’t read and write much, so they just forget. There is a good argument out there that the Chinese writing system is so unwieldy that it actually harms Chinese competitiveness and the economy. Economic calculations have actually been made of how much damage this orthographic system costs.

When the Communists took over, they introduced a pinyin system in addition to simplifying the Chinese characters. The simplification was a great idea, but the language was still very hard to read and write. The pinyin Romanization is only one of many that have been introduced over time. I don’t think that any of them have worked out well. It is said that the Chinese language being written enabled ~3,500 Chinese dialects to all speak to each other, but now that everyone is learning Putonghua anyway, why not just write Putonghua in pinyin?

There is a problem with writing the other major Chinese languages using the system designed for Mandarin. It is not so easy to write Cantonese, Min, Hakka,Wu, Xiang and Hui using the Mandarin character set. One problem is that Cantonese for instance has quite a few words that lack Chinese characters. To some extent this is true with the other languages also. Min has a Romanization scheme, but most Min speakers don’t know how to use it. The whole idea of writing something other than Putonghua using the traditional Chinese character set introduces all sorts of minefields.

I believe that alternate character sets or additions to the character sets have been introduced for some of the other languages. Due to tones, it gets hard to write Chinese using a Romanization scheme easily, since you have to put all sorts of diacritics on the letters in the isolating language of Chinese. Something similar is happening with Japanese, which after all uses a character set borrowed from the Chinese.

After the war there were attempts to introduce a Romanization system to Japanese. However, by 1960 or so, Japanese nationalism had returned to Japan, at least to the extent that this Romanization system was seen as a Western imperial affront to the mystical Japanese super-culture. Since then, things have only been on the downswing. Japan actually uses three different kinds of symbol sets, Katakana, Kanji and Haragana. There are Chinese characters mixed into all of this stuff.

Even beyond that, the Japanese language, though not tonal, is mind-bafflingly complex. There are rules, but then there are tons of exceptions to those rules, but the exceptions are not really taught. A native speaker just more or less unconsciously figures out the rules and the exceptions in the course of growing up Japanese.

Anyway, this rule-exception mix is so chaotic and senseless that it’s almost impossible to codify it somehow and then teach it to non-native speakers. The Japanese also have strange concepts like using different counting systems when counting different types of things.

As if speaking it alone were not complicated enough, there is that writing system. Once again, reasonable people have figured out that the convoluted logographics costs the Japanese economy quite a bit per year. But the logographics is seen by the hyperethnocentric Japanese now as a mystical part of their Super-race and Super-culture, and they will not allow anyone to lay hands on it, especially not pesky Western imperialists who occupied their land tried to shove the West down their throats.

The Korean logographic system, Hangul, is actually excellent, and is one of the most logical alphabets ever devised, or so say scholars. It uses a limited character set like English. However, in some way that I am not familiar with, the Korean language is not easy at all for English speakers to learn. Whatever it is, it is not the writing system.

In terms of European languages, Finnish and Hungarian are said to be Godawful languages to learn. British diplomats who were placed all over Europe were notorious for refusing posts in Hungary due to the difficulty in learning the language. Finnish of course is one of the most case-marked major languages on Earth, with 14-15 different cases. Coming from a language like English that does not mark case very much, that must be awfully hard.

In a recent discussion on the Internet, the following languages were thought to be the hardest to learn:

– Navajo – Tsez – !Kung (language family) – Pirahã – Basque – Comanche – Archi – Etruscan – Northwest/Northeast Caucasian (language family) – Aboriginal Australian (language family)

Navajo is a US Amerindian language that is the widest spoken of the Indian languages, with 120,000 speakers. However, there are reportedly over 900 different ways to conjugate a verb! Not to mention 7 different verbal modes, 4 classifier prefixes (whatever those are), 18 kinds of aspect, 25 different kind of verbal pronominal prefixes that mark subject and object at once and verbs that can take up 11 different verbal prefixes at once. Don’t forget hardly any nouns and a universe of verbs – most things we use a noun to describe, Navajo uses a verb – go figure. The famous US code-talkers of WW2 spoke Navajo, but they also threw in non-Navajo code in there in case the Japanese broke the Navajo language of the code. Anyway, by the end of the war, the Japanese had still not figured out the Navajo behind the code language.

Nowadays with computers, I think any linguistically based code could be broken pretty easily by an advanced society with access to linguistic texts and high powered computers.

Kung is a Southwest African Khoisan language family spoken by Bushmen. It is a click-based language, with many of the sounds being made by clicking the tongue into your mouth in various ways. Although I think that click languages are some of our first languages (Think about it, that’s probably the first step to make in making up a language), that doesn’t mean that they are easier to learn.

Those have to be some of the hardest languages around to learn. As the Khoisan are said to have the lowest IQ’s on Earth, IQ cannot possibly be related to complexity of language.

Archi (1,000 speakers) and Tsez (15,000 speakers) are two of these Caucasian languages.

The alphabet of Archi looks daunting enough. Archi supposedly has something like 1.5 million possible noun declensions. Someone tell me how you make a spellchecker for a language like this?

Tsez, with 64 (!) cases, ergative typology, 20 thematic suffixes that are often difficult for even native speakers to use, 4 different, often non-transparent, noun classes, no 3rd person pronouns, 6 different kinds of aspect, 4 different kinds of mood, 18 different kinds of coverbs (Whatever those are), 2 different numeral forms, many different ways of conjugating a verb, many different ways of making up new nouns and verbs, many clitics that can be attached to any form of speech, on and on, is so crazy that it makes you almost glad to hear the language is endangered.

Three of the noun classes cover inanimate objects, so you can see why it is non-transparent.

Comanche is an Amerindian language that was considered by the US military as a code language in WW2 due to its mad complexity before Navajo was chosen for use in the Pacific. However, 17 young Comanche men were chosen as code-talkers on the Western front, and the code was never broken by the master-race brains of the Germans.

Aboriginal Australian languages are also said to be insanely complex, and next to the Khoisan, Aborigines have the second lowest IQ’s on Earth. What this shows us is that language is an essential part of the human tapestry, and you certainly do not need an high IQ to create a wildly complex language that would baffle even many linguists.

It also suggests that !Khoisan and Aborigines, even with IQ’s from 54-62, are not “retarded” in the same way that Westerners with 54-62 IQ’s would be. Complicating matters further, scholars who have worked with the !Khoisan have said that they did not get the impression that these people were unintelligent.

Even more mystifying is that the ancestors of !Khoisan, the Strandwalkers who lived on the beaches of SW Africa some 3,000 years ago, had the largest brains ever recorded in modern people. All the same, they never created Rome either. This suggests that brain size may not be particularly relevant to intelligence and capability of civilization as the White racists insist.

In fact, there seems to be a disconnect between the complexity of a language and the level of civilization of its speakers. The less developed a people are, often the more complex of a language they have. We linguists think that many primitive peoples do not have complicated or busy lives, and they have a lot of time on their hands. They don’t have computers or cell phones to mess around with, so they substitute language.

Humans are inherently highly intelligent – even Aborigines with 62 IQ’s – and they make up insanely complex languages so they can play games with language as a form of creativity and a way to exercise their brains.

As society gets more complex, a complicated language gets more and more in the way of doing things efficiently and even starts to hurt the economy, as the logographic issues of the NE Asians described above suggests.

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47 thoughts on “What’s The Hardest Language To Learn?”

  1. Dear Robert
    The State Department also puts Arabic in category 3, that is, the category of languages that are most difficult to learn for Americans. In category 1 are all the Latin and Germanic languages. The reason why they are in that category has a lot to do with the lexical similarity between English and the Germanic and Latin languages. As to Chinese, if it used Latin script, it probably wouldn’t be a very hard language to learn, except phonetically because of its tones.
    We should not confuse the language with the writing. If you want to speak and understand spoken Mandarin, you could use the Latin alphabet. Chinese grammar has no morphology, and that alone should make it easy. Word formation seems to highly regular. For instance, the Chinese do not have separate words for 11 to 19. It is just ten-one, ten-two, etc. As to the multiples of 10 below 100, they don’t have separate word for that either. It is two ten and three ten instead of twenty and thirty.
    Would Hungarian and Finnish be much harder than French and German for a Japanese, Vietnamese, Arab or Turk? I wonder.
    Regards. James

  2. “As society gets more complex, a complicated language gets more and more in the way of doing things efficiently and even starts to hurt the economy”:
    Hey, when you look at Europe’s non Indo-European isolates and their impossibly difficult languages they don’t seem to be hurt that much.
    For centuries Finnish was seen as an obscure peasant speech both Swedes and Russians looked down at. Now Finland is undisputably among the most advanced nations.
    Spain’s wealthiest region is the Basque country.
    Hungary is currently in dire straits with its currency but still looks like a big success compared to Poland or Romania.
    Some people say that a difficult language keeps immigrants away. Some dare to state that it might be the hidden secret behind the Basque or Finnish performance.

    1. The Basque country is wealthier because it’s closer to centre of Europe (historically easier to trade and good for tourism) and doesn’t have droughts and received a lot of state inversions to create a powerful industry.

  3. Chinese has a bad writing system–I mean, how are you supposed to put 3,000 symbols on a keyboard? you would have to have some sort of drop-down menu or something like that.
    I have heard that Sanskrit is the most difficult.

  4. I’m in the process of learning Chinese now. I probably can recognize around 2,000 characters from memory. Yeah, it takes a long-ass time to get all these damn things into your head. And I’m learning the simplified characters (used in mainland China and Singapore). Once I get these down then I’ll have to work on learning the traditional characters (used in HK, Taiwan, and most overseas communities). Most of the characters are actually the same between simplified and traditional sets, and others change in relatively regular ways.
    Entering Chinese on a computer is pretty simple – you type in pinyin and you get a set of options for the characters you want to display. It’s usually the first option. The software for doing this is very good, and you hardly ever have problems if you type more than one character at once. The only time it can be a headache is if you’re typing just one very common symbol (e.g. “shi”, which must have hundreds of characters corresponding to this sound).
    I agree with the comment above, that Chinese would probably not be considered so hard to learn were it not for its writing system. It would probably be level 3 instead of level 4, down with Thai and the tonal SE Asian languages. That’s still damn hard, but it’s not impossible.
    Japan actually uses three different kinds of symbol sets, Kanjana, Kanji and Haragana. There are Chinese characters mixed into all of this stuff, and they mix all three systems together seemingly at random and in strange ways.
    It’s hiragana, katakana, and kanji actually. Hiragana and katakana are sometimes collectively referred to as “kana”. I have not studied Japanese, but I know that kana are purely phonetic systems, with hiragana used to write words of native Japanese origin and katakana used to write (non-Chinese) foreign loan words, and also for emphasis, like italics in the Roman alphabet. Kanji are Chinese characters. In theory, Japanese could be written entirely without kanji and instantly have a purely phonetic system of writing, from what I understand this is almost never done.
    Korean is supposedly very similar to Japanese grammatically, though the vocabulary is very different. Writing systems aside, I imagine these two languages would be considered more difficult to learn than Chinese, due to the complex grammar and the different degrees of formality required depending on the social status of the speaker and listener. Supposedly Japanese and Korean are quite similar to Turkic languages – I met a native Turkic speaker and polyglot once who said he found Japanese quite easy to learn as the grammar was very similar to his native language.
    I have almost zero knowledge or experience with Arabic, however, and have a hard time imagining why it is considered so hard to learn. I imagine it doesn’t have much to do with its writing system, which does look like a bunch of squiggles to me of course, but which I imagine would start looking like letters very quickly if I actually sat down and tried to study it. Arabic, what gives?

    1. I speak and read Japanese relatively well, and you couldn’t just get rid of the kanji and be left with a functioning phonetic system. Japanese, like Chinese, has a lot of homonyms, because so much vocabulary is (I just learned the term for this!) disyllabic. Getting rid of kanji would be like if every speaker of French, Spanish, and English was suddenly robbed of the implicit knowledge of Latin bases that those languages depend so heavily on – half the language’s meaning would be gone.

      1. David, no matter what may be the amount of homophones in the Japanese language, writing it in a phonetic alphabet couldn’t possibly lead to any more ambiguity than actually speaking it. Do Japanese people draw Kanji in the air while conversing so as to overcome ambiguity because of homophones?
        Out of French, Spanish, and English; Spanish is the one language that diverged from the norm of keeping spelling archaic and redundant so as to preserve the transparency of Latin roots. I dare say Spanish didn’t exactly ‘lose half its meaning’ in the process. And in any case, it’s a comparison of apples and oranges- you’re comparing lexical roots to a writing system.
        There are millions and millions of people in China that can not read a relatively simple news article in their own native language despite being ‘literate’ according to the official definition. I personally don’t think freezing language in formaldehyde at the expense of the most essential of practical parameters is worth it.

  5. Hi my friend
    I speak a language called Tamil. As I learned Tamil from child hood it was not much effort consuming for me and I mean the speaking part. But people who are learning Tamil at age 21, they feel it is effort consuming. The writing part was effort consuming because Tamil has 12 vowels, 18 consonants and one special character, the āytam. The vowels and consonants combine to form 216 compound characters, giving a total of 247 characters.
    Words of Tamil origin occur in other languages. Popular examples in English are cheroot (curuṭṭu meaning “rolled up”), mango (from mangai), mulligatawny (from miḷaku taṉṉir meaning pepper water), pariah (from paraiyar), ginger (from ingi), curry (from kari), and catamaran (from kaṭṭu maram, கட்டு மரம், meaning “bundled logs”)

    1. Greeeting, Arun – I am an English speaker who just returned from Tamil Nadu. My hosts speak Tamil, and I heard it from other sources (e.g., announcements on Kingfisher Airline). I really liked the sounds and wonder what you know of the difficulty learning it? My host also told me the origin of “mulligatawny”. Would you chose Tamil or Hindi if you were going to begin study that would allow you to SPEAK “most widely” (do I speak English?) with businessmen and executives?

    Great post for learning Japanese.
    Japanese is so hard for me. I’ve lived in Japan for 2 years but failed to speak fluently. Now, I’m in China, I’m having an easier time with Mandarin. I wrote a blog post about the difficulties I had learning Japanese over Chinese. TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know if you are interested with link exchange.

  7. Hi…
    Right now I’m a little bit confused about foreign language…and I need some advice..
    I want to learn french language..but french is hardest language to learn, what do you think..cause I speak Indonesian language..
    Thank you..

    1. French is not that hard to learn at all. If you know some English, you can pick up French easier because there are tons of French cognates in English. But see the fellow below who disagrees.

  8. Don’t brush off French so carelessly. It’s not one of the hardest but it’s very difficult. I learned English solely from reading internet with only the basics to work with and it took me only around 2 years to become fluent. I’ve had more than 15 years of French classes, I was always top of my class, yet I still hesitate sometimes. Most French never stop making mistakes in writing because that’s just how hard the language is. Don’t “French is not hard at all” me.

    1. French is not hard at all. I lived in France for 13 months and was speaking within 5 and speaking well within a year. I am constantly told that I speak well and that my accent is perfect. I have a friend that often tells me that she forgets I am not French. The only language that I have ever found simpler was Spanish, which has to be the easiest language on the planet to learn. Arabic is just as easy as French and the “squiggles” are only letters. The most difficult part of learning is to read from right to left. Russian is much more complex than any other language I have learned to date.

      1. Are you serious about Arabic being just as easy as French? I learned both languages at school, and frankly, Arabic is one of the most difficult languages out there. Ok, the “squiggles” are letters, but did you go into the grammar? If you write down the same word, but just change the accent on each letter, you’re looking into a different meaning.
        It is a very rich language.

  9. The brain can consider the languages with similar grammar and syntax as dialects of the same language because you just need to replace the words.
    That is why it is easy for a french speaker to learn a dialect cluster/language that is descended from latin.

  10. This post is the one that actually led me to this blog. I did a google search on what is the most difficult language to learn and I landed on this blog entry. Then started reading other entries about various topics.

  11. This is an interesting topic and one which arouses lots of different opinions. Last year we posted a similar article and so many people commented on it that we decided to create a poll to find out what people think the top hardest languages to learn http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/top-list-of-the-hardest-languages-to-learn are. People can vote for what they find the hardest. Obviously how difficult someone finds a language depends on what their native tongue is, however there are some languages which are perceived as being universally more difficult to learn than others.

  12. Interesting discussion.
    On a small point of fact, Finnish has 14 or 15 cases, depending on whether or not you include the Accusative, not 20-30 as stated. By comparison, Hungarian has 18 cases.
    I have personal experience of trying to learn Estonian, which is closely related to Finnish. Whilst some things are horribly difficult, such as the large number of cases, and complex noun declension, there are some redeeming factors such as relatively simple verb tenses. Very few languages are difficult in every respect!
    My general advice to anyone trying to learn a “difficult” language is to persevere, and immerse yourself as much as possible in the language concerned. It might seem impossible at first, but eventually it will all just fall into place and you’ll be glad you stuck at it.

  13. I love how every aspect of Japanese that is resistant to change is chalked up to feelings of ethnic and racial superiority, but there is no mention that similar attitudes are held by many Chinese, Koreans, Russians, Germans, French, Arabs, and Iranians.
    I guess it just goes to show, just as you can learn a really complex language and still have a low IQ, you can also be a self-proclaimed language expert and still be a complete idiot.

    1. Agreed! The way he wrote about Japanese was pretty strange. What is all the crap about super-culture? Personally, while I find the writing difficult at times, I think it’s a beautiful part of the language, and it would be pretty sad if it had been replaced with a romanized alphabet.
      The writer also doesn’t seem particularly informed about Japanese. The names of the three writing systems are actually kanji, hiragana, and katakana (not sure where kanjana came from!). Additionally, the use of these three in Japanese writing is not random at all, but very logical and easy to see, even for a beginner like me.

  14. How hard is Tagalog to learn, the national language of the Philippines? Compared to Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, etc.

    1. Yah, Robert is dead on. If you know some Spanish, you are on your way to understanding a lot of Tagalog.

  15. Agree that (Mandarin) Chinese is very difficult. Took only one semester–I did well, but ai-ya!–it was more than twice as much work as all my other classes put together.

  16. Mandarin is pretty hard. Script aside, even their pronunciations are difficult to grapple with.
    I’d love to learn Farsi someday and I’m guessing it shouldn’t be too hard for me since it shares a gazillion words in common with Urdu/Hindi. I wonder if Farsi grammar has those annoying gender inflections like Hindi/Urdu do; could you shed some light on this Cyrus?

    1. Nope. No gender in Farsi. Sort of like Spanish without “El” or “La” in it. Hell, Persian doesn’t even have the concept of “the.” What makes it hard for Westerners is the pronunciations, but if you already speak Hindi/Urdu, then no problem.

      1. “What makes it hard for Westerners is the pronunciations”
        The script seems like it would be intimidating at first. Especially if you also intended to familiarize yourself with Tajik too.

        1. The script is a real problem, as it was for all intents and purposes created for a Semitic language, i.e Arabic. No “mid word” vowels. That creates confusion, since Farsi is an Indo-European language, and uses both vowels and constants, very similar to what you see in say Latin. This means a lot of memorization. If anything, a modified Cyrillic script is more appropriate. In places like Tehran, a lot of street signs and such are co-written in Nastaliq(Persian script) and a modified Latin script(Unipars). It is then very easy for any Westerner to read Persian names and terminology.
          As for Tajik, it really doesn’t matter. In reality, 99.9% of anything useful written in Persian is published in Tehran, or some other major Iranian city, and a lot of it is also translated into English. At the very least, the Persian script looks “pretty,” if not as practical…

    2. Learning the pronunciation was so much fun!
      I got hung up on the different grammar (harder to “think” in Chinese) and the fact that it wasn’t an Indo-European language–no cognates! Any other language I studied, there were lots of recognizable bits, but Chinese was completely alien.

      1. Wow! You studied some Mandarin? I knew a lot of people in college that tried that as well, and most like yourself took one or two semesters and called it quits. Way too much work.
        I would imagine Japanese and Korean would be the easier “oriental language” routes to go.

        1. I’ve forgotten most of what little I learned. “Use it or lose it.”
          I imagine it would be very difficult to attempt again, with my middle-aged brain!

  17. What can you tell us (in as much detail as possible) about the difficulty of learning Somali, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Kinyarwanda/Kirundi?

  18. I am American and the only language class I took in school was Spanish. Despite the large number of cases, which is realistically about 11-12 when spoken colloquially, Finnish should only be considered a medium-difficulty language in my opinion. The language is very consistent (meaning irregularities are few). Most of my learning came from reading and translating music.

  19. I soooo love your blog Robert and all the comments are fabulous! I adore language for the sake of study and interest and people and the countries they come from. This post fascinates me because I love to pick apart what makes a language difficult. I think there’s a memory thing vs a completely different way of thinking thing which. For instance it seems many languages such as Hungarian can be difficult because there are so many different cases, etc, ie you need a memory like an elephant to contain so much. Same with languages that have scripts for alphabets, on top of memorising new words, verbs, orders, there is a new alphabet/script to learn or ideograms. Then you have languages that like say Australian aboriginal languages, language is dependent on where you are in space, connections. Sorry its hard for me to say what I’m trying to say but you get the gist. Obviously if you are an English speaker, Romance & Germanic languages are going to be the easiest. I personally think Italian & Spanish are the easiest for me, as the vocab is easy and speaking them is wonderful because they are more ’emotional’ than say Germanic languages (for me anyway) and I love the way they sound. French, another favourite is a little harder not because of the pronunciation, which I agree is less easy, but the grammar seems more complex in some way. Sorry here I am in a language blog and my mind is playing tricks on me, I can’t say what I’m trying to say lol!!
    Then for the English speaker you have many languages that pronunciation is something we just don’t have, like Arabic or even Dutch gutterals or glottal stops which we know but are not a common part of our language. Then click languages which we know how to do but as part of a conversation, heck! But it is all so fascinating to me!
    I feel that the more ‘in touch with nature’ a people are, the more difficult a language for an English speaker because (IMO) we are so removed from the land and nature in general, we don’t think the same way. The way Navajo thinks how objects are connected to each other. English is so simple in so many ways and yet sophisticated!
    I could wax lyrical about this all day! Languages are so so fascinating! Thanks for a fabulous place to wend a while!

  20. I was searching for the most irregular language and stumbled on this discussions and got sucked in. That’s why they call it the worldwide waste of time…
    I think I have the answer. If memory servesm there’s supposedly a West African language in which everything is irregular ( yes, all of it: nouns, verbs, morphology). This seems hard to believe. I was trying to find the name of the language, for a lecture I’m giving, but can’t find it, can’t remember it, and am not sure my memory is even correct.
    It’s clear that this would be the most difficult language to learn, but IS my memory correct? If so, what this language is it? I thought it was Wolof, and Wolof is extremely irregular, but apparently not totally so.

  21. Marc–coming a few months late, but maybe this will jog your memory. The difficult language of West Africa that comes to mind is one with multiple names–Fula, Pular, Pulaar, and Fulfulde–spoken by the Fulani people.
    Also, how is Wolof so irregular? I was under the impression that it isn’t too synthetic, though not as isolating as Mandarin either.

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