The hardest language to learn
During my latest trip to the United States, I met up with a friend I’d not seen in years. We met at a sushi restaurant her fiancé wanted to try. This was the first time I met her fiancé and he impressed me when he ordered in Japanese.
I asked him a few questions:
- When did you live in Japan – never
- Where you there recently – no
- Have you ever been there – no
- Are you going – no
- Do you have Japanese friends – no
- Are you in school – no
Hmm, his fiancé, my friend, is not Japanese so this stumped me. Why was he learning Japanese?
His answer? Because it’s the hardest language to learn. I can respect an answer like that. But, is it the hardest language to learn?
The hardest languages to learn
And that, of course, got me to thinking. I already know that he is correct, Japanese is the most difficult language to learn, more on that later. What I wanted to know is what are the second and third most difficult languages to learn?
There are two ways to look at this question of how hard or easy it is to learn any given language:
- How hard is a language to learn given your native language? That is what language is most difficult for a native English speaker as compared to, say, a native Chinese speaker?
- What are the absolute most difficult languages to learn regardless of your native language?
These are very different questions. For example, German is easier to learn for an English speaker than Lao. This is because German is structured more closely to English and sounds similar to English compared to Lao. Take a look,
- Mein Name ist John
- ຊື່ຂອງຂ້າພະເຈົ້າແມ່ນ John
I’ll bet you know which is German and which is Lao. If you are a native English speaker, I’ll bet you can even read and understand the German.
Even putting Lao into Latin letters it is still really different than English:
- su khongkhaphachaoaemn John
But I’ve heard from my Thai friends, colleagues, and students that they can understand a little Lao because it is so close to Thai. German, however, is difficult for them.
The most difficult language for English speakers
The first question is interesting but does not bring about any real surprises. If you are a native English speaker then languages further from English in terms of grammar and sounds are the most difficult. What are those languages? According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn are,
- Cantonese (Chinese)
- Mandarin (Chinese)
The FSI lists Japanese as the most difficult of the difficult for native English speakers.
I don’t think this list holds any surprises. Although I found Mandarin easier to learn and understand than Thai. Thai is listed just below Mandarin on the FSI’s ‘difficulty’ list. For full disclosure, the FSI only rates languages taught at the FSI so this is not a comprehensive list.
The absolute hardest language to learn
Question number 2, what is the most difficult language to learn regardless of your native language, is a little harder to answer. After all, how do you go about researching this question without the bias of the native language?
To answer questions number 1 all that needs to be done is track how long it takes native English speaking students to learn each language on average and you have an answer. You could do the same research tracking native Swahili speakers to see which languages are the hardest and easiest to learn for them to learn.
The only way to determine the hardest language to learn regardless of native language that I can think of is to track people that have no never learned a language and therefore, don’t have a native language bias. Then see which language takes them the longest to learn on average. The only people who have never learned a language are, of course, babies.
It turns out that the language it takes the longest for babies to learn is Japanese. I only know this because a colleague of a professor friend of mine conducted the research and my friend told me about it.
Other difficult languages
What are the 2nd and 3rd most difficult languages? For question number 1 those languages according to FSI are,
- Cantonese (Chinese)
- Mandarin (Chinee)
But I don’t know if anyone of these is more difficult than the others.
To answer question number 2, which are the second and third most difficult, I don’t know. I’ve spent some time researching it and found no hard answers. I’ll message my professor friend and see if he can shed some light on the issue.