Is There a Language That Is Almost Impossible to Learn Without Growing Up with It?

A question was recently asked on Quora. Here is my answer.

Hello, I recently talked to a Westerner who is learning Min Nan, which is a Sinitic language often called a dialect of Chinese. He already speaks Mandarin, but he told me Min Nan if vastly harder than Mandarin. At age 35, he was studying it 2 hours a day, and at some point, he hit a wall, and he didn’t seem to be making any progress. He kept adding more study hours to the day  – four hours, six hours – with little effect. Finally when he was studying it for eight hours a day, he started making some good progress. I believe he said contour tones and tone sandhi were the major roadblocks.

Min Nan speakers say that even Cantonese is easier than Min Nan, and Cantonese is deadly hard. They also say that Min Nan tones are so hard that no one who did not learn Min Nan growing up gets anywhere near native fluency.

Cantonese is a similar language that is very difficult. It is much harder than Mandarin, and many native Mandarin speakers say they tried to learn Cantonese and gave up on it because it was too hard. Cantonese has 9 tones. The general consensus among Chinese is that Cantonese is much harder to learn than Mandarin.

Basque is said to be very hard to learn unless you grow up with it. There is a joke that the Devil spent seven years trying to learn Basque, and he only learned how to say Hello and Goodbye.

Navajo would also be murderously hard. Even Navajo children struggle quite a bit learning Navajo. When they show up at school at age 5-6, they are still struggling with Navajo. There are reports that Navajo children don’t seem to get Navajo well until maybe age 12.

Korean is a surprise, but apparently it is very hard to learn well. A native Korean speaker told me that Korean is so hard that no Korean speaker ever speaks it with 100% accuracy, and everyone makes errors.

As another respondent pointed out, Japanese is also quite notorious, and most Westerners get nowhere near native fluency.

Czech is also hard. Even most Czech speakers never get Czech all the way. They have TV contests in Czechoslovakia where they try to stump native speakers with hard forms in the language. If you can last 30 minutes without making even one error, you win. I think only two men have been able to do it, but one was a non-native speaker! Czech also has a strange r sound found only in one other language on Earth. It is said that no native speaker ever gets this phoneme quite right.

Piraja is also very hard as another respondent pointed out. Only two non-natives have ever been able to speak Piraha with any fluency. When Daniel Everett went to study the language, he found a number of reports from priests who had tried to learn Piraha since the early 1800’s, and only one had succeeded. The others tried to learn but gave up because they said it was too hard.

Tsez, spoken in the Caucasus, is also murderously hard. Every verb can have tens of thousands of possible forms. Reports say that even native speakers make regular errors when speaking Tsez.

9 thoughts on “Is There a Language That Is Almost Impossible to Learn Without Growing Up with It?”

  1. Dear Robert

    if a language has 9 tones, as Cantonese has according to you, then it should be very hard to master its pronunciation after a certain age, but it doesn’t mean that it also difficult lexically or grammatically. Very few people learn to pronounce a language like a native if they start to learn it after the age of 18. That is also true for nearly all speakers of English as a second language. My English pronunciation is certainly not like that of a native. Especially words that end with a consonant cluster containing a th are very hard for me, such as births or rhythms.

    If most native speakers of a language make mistakes, then maybe the rules are too strict and made by traditionalist pedants. A Brazilian writer once said that a Brazilian who doesn’t make grammatical mistakes isn’t a real Brazilian. He has a point, because there are some rules of Portuguese grammar in Brazil which do not reflect the actual Portuguese spoken by Brazilians but the language spoken by educated Portuguese in the 19th century. If everybody does it every day, then it isn’t a mistake, whatever the grammar books say.

    Regards. James

  2. What language is this? 🙂

    In the projects, Jamal (who is short, skinny and kinda smart) is having a confrontation with Tyrone (who is a large and obese niggapotamus and a bit dumb as well) over a bag of crack rock and a cheap (but VERY attractive) prostitute.

    Tyrone: “You gotta be kidding me, bitch! I am all jonesing for this shit right here like a kid in a candy store when all of a sudden, some rhesus monkey from down the block tries to run up my quality time!”
    Jamal: “Shove a sock in it, fool! This be my quality time and I am the one who’s gonna chuck it in her! Get anywhere near her and my crack rock, and you’ll be lying bernie in a pool of your own blood and cellulite!”
    Tyrone: “laughs hysterically You!? Some half pint threatening to blast a gat on me?! Where’s yo gat anyway? laughs some more All bark and no bite! puts on spiked brass knuckles
    Jamal: “You one stupid ass nigga, you know! Glad I got my spazz by my side! Jamal quickly pulls out his shotgun from underneath his trenchcoat(where Tyrone doesn’t notice it) and points it at Tyrone Now who’s all bark and no bite now, BITCH!”
    Tyrone: soils his pants and runs home crying
    Jamal: takes the crack rock
    Jamal: (to the girl) Alright baby, now let’s go back to my place and hit the sack. I’ve got everything you want and everything you need.

  3. It is not possible to make true mistakes in one’s own language until an adult person is retarded or has a brain injury. When people say that everybody make errors while speaking their native language they mean that there is a literary standard which somewhat different from a spoken language and the native speakers of that oral spoken language often do not fully master usually arbitrary but strict rules of the literary standard. That is there are Standard Korean and Standard Czech which are artificial in many ways and one has to learn it along with one’s native oral variety. This is usually called “diglossia”. With Arabic this diglossia is more prominent and obvious. When an Arab says that Arabic is difficult and nobody knows it perfectly and everybody makes mistakes he is speaking about Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). In fact, for example, an Egyptian Arab hardly makes any mistakes in his native Masri Arabic dialect (better to call it a language different from MSA).

    1. Probably not all that easy. Not sure how easy it would be if you knew an Amerindian language related to Navajo like Hopi or Apache. But Hopi is one of the most confounded languages of all time. Try to read a grammar of Hopi. It doesn’t even make sense. And the linguist who wrote probably can’t really figure out Hopi either. No one can figure out languages like that.

      1. Hopi is not related to Navajo (Hopi is Uto-Aztecan and very deeply rooted in the Southwest, but Navajo is Athabaskan and thus derived from a language family from Southwest Canada), but Apache is very close to Navajo (I believe they only really split around 500 years ago—possibly less, soon after their common ancestor had arrived in the Southwest from the north), so I wouldn’t be surprised in there was a good amount of mutual intelligibility between them.

        1. Since Navajo/Apache only diverged from their S.W. Canadian ancestor around 1200-1500 ad, speakers of Canadian Athabaskan (which is in Northwest as well as Southwest Canada) should have an easier time learning Navajo also (as well as might speakers of some languages in the broader Na-Dene family that includes Athabaskan).

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