Are Some Languages Harder to Learn Than Others?

The typical crazy view in my field, Linguistics, is that no language is harder to learn than any other language. It is true that it depends on where you are coming from. Japanese and Korean speakers find it easy to learn each other’s languages. A Russian can learn Polish fairly easily, and a Faroese can learn Icelandic without major problems. Indians in the Vaupes region of Colombia regularly learn 4-5 of the hardest languages on Earth, often in adulthood. If you come from a language that has familiar features with the language you are trying to learn, the L2 is going to be a lot easier for you. Nevertheless, there do seem to be some languages that are just hard to learn. A language with a greater amount of irregularity and a more complex system would seem to be much harder to learn. Things making a language hard to learn include: multiple inflection classes, noun classifiers (the worst ones have dozens of classifiers), a gender system, especially an unpredictable one, a large phonemic inventory, unusual or many unusual sounds, distinctions between aspirated, non-aspirated and glottalized consonants, voiceless nasals and glides, tones, tone terracing, vowel distinctions in length with up to three grades, breathy-voiced, creaky-voiced, murmured, nasal and semi-voiced vowels, vowel and nasal harmony, unpredictable pitch, accent and stress systems, complex morphophonology,  many different different forms, irregular verbs and nouns, many tenses, voices and aspects,  grammatical honorific systems, articles… a complicated deictic system, many cases, split ergativity,  singular, dual, trial, plural and the like, a difficult orthography, especially one with a poor sound-symbol relationship, logographics, thousands of characters, multiple letters representing the same system, or orthographies were more than 2-3 systems are combined into one. On the other hand, creoles and languages like Indonesian and Malay are said to be very hard to learn as they are greatly simplified. For instance, Indonesian lacks most of the above. Doesn’t it seem obvious that Indonesian is easier to learn thanerror3


5 thoughts on “Are Some Languages Harder to Learn Than Others?”

  1. Language is an interesting thing. 1984 showed us how it can control thoughts, in a way, and I believe recent finings from psychologists are backing that up.
    Isn’t there a language that linguists made up that is supposed to be super easy to learn? Perhaps adopting a specifically designed language for science, politics, etc. would be a good idea. A language for scholars and politicians, even.

  2. Personally I think Sinitic languages are extremely difficult to learn. I personally know 3, Mandarin, Min Nan (my mother tongue) and Cantonese without putting in much effort.
    I learn Min Nan as mother tongue, Mandarin in school, while no one teach me Cantonese. But I grew up listening to Cantonese music and watching Cantonese TV. The key to learn language is child hood immersion.
    Later I start picking up Japanese almost by myself. I think Japanese is easy.
    Human mind is a very much complex thing. I believe we have a lot of hidden potential.

  3. Dear Robert
    It is indeed a crazy view that all languages are equally easy to learn for someone who speaks a totally unrelated language. Can anyone seriously believe that, for a Russian or Chinese, Latin is just as easy as Italian, Icelandic just as easy as Swedish or Dutch just as easy as Afrikaans.
    As I see it, the difficulties of a language can be fourfold: phonetic, grammatical, lexical and orthographic (for written languages). I don’t think that any serious person will dispute that phonetically English is harder than Japanese or that orthographically Spanish is easier than English. Lexically, English isn’t easy either mainly because of its double origin, Latin and Germanic. That’s why we have see and hear but visible and audible. Because of its Latin part, word derivation is often irregular in English. Perceive and perceptible or assume and assumption aren’t the same as child and childish or build and building.
    In English we have about 12 roots with the idea of two in them: two, twenty, twelve, second, double, half, both, dupl-, semi, hemi, bi, di. To a Chinese person, that must be very baffling. There are about 10 ways to spell the sound e in English: e, ea, ee, ei, eo, ey, ae, i, ie, y. The k sound can spelled as c, cc, ch, ck, cq, k, x, q.
    To get back to Dutch and Afrikaans, Dutch has 2 genders but Afrikaans only one. Dutch has about 200 irregular verbs, but Afrikaans only 6. A regular Dutch verb has 6 forms but an Afrikaans one only 2. Afrikaans has 2 tenses fewer than Dutch. Just for those reasons, it should be easier to learn to speak Afrikaans like a native than to do it with Dutch.
    Regards. James

  4. I wonder how ridiculous the first language ever sounded like. Hackta heme danguratihaslay kula eme uhrtasfrohgrati blacamonsukdik effet. Nah…niggers are too stoopid to come up with that.

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