A Look at the Vietnamese and Khmer Languages

From here.
Vietnamese and Khmer, two languages of SE Asia, are quite hard for an English speaker to learn for a variety of reasons. We take a look at those two languages here.


Vietnamese is hard to learn because to an outsider, the tones seem hard to tell apart. Therefore, foreigners often make themselves difficult to understand by not getting the tone precisely correct. It also has “creaky-voiced” tones, which are very hard for foreigners to get a grasp on. Vietnamese grammar is fairly simple, and reading Vietnamese is pretty easy once you figure out the tone marks. Words are short as in Chinese. However, the simple grammar is relative, as you can have 25 or more forms just for I, the 1st person singular pronoun.
Vietnamese gets a 5 rating, extremely hard of all.

Eastern Mon-Khmer

Khmer has a reputation for being hard to learn. I understand that it has one of the most complex honorifics systems of any language on Earth. Over a dozen different words mean to carry depending on what one is carrying. There are several different words for slave depending on who owned the slave and what the slave did. There are 28-30 different vowels, including sets of long and short vowels and long and short diphthongs. The vowel system is so complicated that there isn’t even agreement on exactly what it looks like. Khmer learners, especially speakers of IE languages, often have a hard time producing or even distinguishing these vowels.
Speaking it is not so bad, but reading and writing it is difficult. For instance, you can put up to five different symbols together in one complex symbol. The orthographic script is even worse in that sense than the Thai script. There are actually rules to this mess, but no one seems to know what they are.
Khmer gets a 4 rating, very hard.

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0 thoughts on “A Look at the Vietnamese and Khmer Languages”

  1. do you realize this site listed more than a dozen or so languages
    Russian gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    Korean gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    Hebrew gets gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    Chinese gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    Arabic gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    Japanese gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    Vietnamese gets 5 rating, hardest of all.
    “Khmer gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.”
    typically “hardest of all” means ranking languages in terms of difficulty, and single the most difficult language is designated ” hardest of all.”
    the languages that don’t get this are languages close to English like Spanish and Norwegian and German
    why not just every language unrelated to English
    “gets 5 rating, hardest of all.”
    many of your posts like Khmer and Vietnamese don’t list age of mastery by the child as an indicator of difficulty and mastery

    1. A number of languages unrelated to English got less than 5, but the number is not large. Most languages unrelated to English are going to be so different that they will get high ratings. And I hardly ever find anything saying that these languages are easy. Some non-IE languages have gotten 1’s, 2’s, 3’s and 4’s and in between ratings.
      I wanted to go all the way up to 6, and I really need to to be honest, but that will complicate things quite a bit for me so I will keep it at 5 for now.
      If it’s not related to English, you may have a hard time with it!

    2. Russian didn’t get a 5. I think it got a 4. Go back and look.
      5 means maximum difficulty and that applies to a lot of non-IE languages.
      If someone can present me with some evidence that any of these non-IE languages deserve less than 5’s, I am all ears.

  2. it’s not rating it 5 I object to, it’s that so many languages
    “Inuktitut is rated 5, hardest of all.”
    ” hardest of all languages” loses meaning when it describes so many languages.
    only 1 language can be labeled “hardest of all languages”
    which makes me curious as to which naturally and ethnically spoken extant language is indeed “hardest of all languages”

    1. There are a number of them that are typically listed as hardest of all, and Inuktitut is often on those lists!
      I don’t agree that there should be only one language with a 5 rating.

      1. I’m not saying there should be only one language with a 5 rating, only that there’s only one language that qualifies as “hardest of all”
        5 should be characterized as “very difficult”

  3. Khmer is tonal…? I thought it was non-tonal like most Austro-Asiatic languages, excluding the Vietic and Palaungic languages.

  4. Khmer is not a tonal language. It’s alphabet is phonetic and the meaning of a word may change depending on how and where you emphasize the accent but meaning doesn’t change in relation to pitch or tone. Since it’s not a tonal language and the total Khmer lexicon is comparatively small to others, most linguists would not list Khmer as a level 5 language. I believe the FBI’s language program lists khmer as a level 4 language but I read that online a while ago and I don’t have a reputable source……..& I’m too lazy to google it but I’d bet most language learning organizations would list Khmer as a level 4.

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