Which language is the hardest?
I think this is just a required question when talking to a polyglot. Everyone is interested in it. It’s just a fun question to ask. Of course, for people trying to learn another language, this is not an effective question to ask. The question we should be asking is “What would be the best language for me to learn? ” as 1. I think basing a choice off of difficulty alone is counter productive and 2. what makes a language hard for one person won’t make it hard for someone else. Now I won’t be talking about which language you should learn, but I will talk about what makes some languages harder than others.
So then what does make a language hard? Usually it is related to comparisons between your native tongue/other languages you speak and the target language.
Some languages share a lot of cognates with other languages. Meaning there are words that sound almost the same in two languages, the difference seeming to be which accent you use to speak that word. This means there are a bunch of words that you can rapidly learn. This gives you a huge advantage.
Some languages also have words that look similar but may not be pronounced the same. Even though I have very little Spanish under my belt, I find that I can read an article in Spanish and understand a decent amount of it, only needing to look up words for specific details.
This next point is a little difficult to explain, so bear with me. Some languages have sound systems that sound similar to our own. For example, someone who speaks English will be able to learn French more easily because the words in French somewhat resemble how words in English look and sound. For example if I showed an English speaker the French word “saisir,” they might not know how to pronounce it, but it doesn’t really look intimidating to them.
Now compare that to Chinese where the words are essentially one syllable chunks. We put multiple syllables in English words, but lots of words are just one syllable in Chinese, or even two syllable which are comprised of two one syllable words that have a meaning similar to the word. If I showed an English speaker the Chinese word 感謝, they wouldn’t even begin to know how to say it. It already looks scary. Now if I show them them the romanization gănxiè, it’s not as scary as the characters, but still looks very strange. It has accent marks that most wouldn’t understand and ‘xie’ isn’t a letter combination we are used to. Combine this with the fact that then you have to factor in tones to say the word correctly, it gets becomes a lot to remember for one word. Now do this for every vocab word you need to know for a conversation.
Now I know I’m relating a lot of my experience to learning Chinese and teaching English to Chinese speakers, but this I thought was really interesting. In English, we have instances where one word carries a variety of meaning over different contexts. I can say that my coffee is warm, the temperature outside is warm, that a person is very warm towards strangers, and even that the words someone is speaking are very warm. I can use all these words to convey a nice feeling or a comfortable temperature.
In Chinese this is not the case. For each of these instances, Chinese uses a different word. They might be similar but if you don’t use the right word, you either get weird looks from people or misunderstanding. So for me I have to learn several words, which feels inconvenient for me. For Chinese speakers, they have to get used to using one word for a variety of contexts as they would worry that by saying that person “spoke with warm words” that the words have a higher temperature than normal.
I can also say to this is one reason why humor can be hard to translate or not work at all.
Not all languages are created equal when it comes to grammar and sentence structure. If you speak a language like English or Spanish where the word order is pretty fixed, then you may have trouble learning a language like Russian where the order can switch a bit, but endings are added to the words to show what part of speech they are.
The word order in those languages is also usually Subject Verb Object (SVO), so learning a language like Japanese where the order is Subject Object Verb (SOV) might take some getting used to. Just one of the many things to think about. Now of course, some grammar will be easier for you to learn than others, which means some languages will be easier than others because of that.
So What’s the hardest?
I say the hardest language is usually the one that is the least resemblance of your own. I hear most people say the hardest is the first one. I have to disagree. Learning French was much easier for me than Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. Learning Japanese was also easier for me than Chinese despite learning Japanese before Chinese.
Maybe you will have a different experience, but just out of the few languages I learned, I have to admit that Chinese was the hardest and that is the language I’ve been learning the most recently, and I’ve been immersed in the language 24/7 for over a year. There’s just so many nuances to the language.
So there you have it. The answer to the hardest language is “it depends.” And now you know why. Hopefully that answers the question. I found most things in life don’t necessarily have a set definitive answer. Usually it all depends on the person and circumstances.
What was the hardest language for you to learn?