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What’s the Hardest Language to Learn?


No one can contest that New York City is a very culturally diverse part of the world. Storefront signs, billboards, print ads and media are available in more languages than one can learn in a lifetime. A drugstore in Ridgewood, Queens has a sign with the phrase “We speak” in six languages catering to the multicultural aspect of the zip code: Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Serbian and Romanian. An average monolingual English speaking person could probably recognize the Spanish and Italian because Spanish is a common language learnt in schools and Italian is very similiar.

Fifty years ago in that neighborhood the sign would have included German, and it would have also been easy to understand since German and English are in the same language family. Languages such as these are called mutually intelligible because two speakers from different languages can make sense of what is being said. For example, speakers of Portuguese are able to communicate with speakers of Spanish because of the mutually intelligibility as both are closely related Romance languages.

Likewise, speakers of Swedish and Norwegian and, to some extent, German, can converse with some clarity because they belong to the Germanic languages. Many English words derive from several Germanic and Romance languages, so an English speaker may be able to understand some words but would most definitely understand the writing.

However, if you give the average monolingual speaker of English an attempt at translating a storefront sign in Russian or Chinese they’ll look at you with incredulity. Why is this so? Russian and Chinese belong to two very distinct language groups that don’t follow the Roman alphabet. According to LanguageHelpers.Com “The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters, 11 vowels, 20 consonants and 2 letters which do not have a sound.” From this alone, the Cyrillic alphabet sounds like the most difficult language to learn by an outsider. Chinese, on the other hand, has eight main dialects, and unlike the separate languages discussed earlier that are mutually intelligible, these separate dialects are mutually unintelligible. Someone from South China that speaks Cantonese will not understand someone from the North that speaks Mandarin, although the latter is considered to be the official dialect of China.

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People who emigrate to the U.S. and have difficulty learning English may say that English is the hardest language to learn. Although we have 26 letters in the alphabet with all sounds accounted for, there are still many grammatical rules that other languages do not possess. English is selective about which word to add endings to. We say goat/goats but only use sheep. Ever wonder about that? We also have something called a derivational morpheme.

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in speech sounds. A derivational morpheme is a morpheme that changes the part of speech, whether it be a verb to a noun, adjective to a noun or verb to adjective. Simply put, work is a verb but when you add the ending -er it becomes a noun and thus has an entirely different meaning.

There’s a site where you can share your input about the most difficult language to learn. In the survey, you’re asked to choose from one of the following languages deemed “difficult”: Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Korean, Finnish, Latin, Japanese and German and asked to explain why you think it’s difficult and if you can think of a language that should be included on the list of choices. The survey was first conducted in 2006 and Chinese was concluded to be the most difficult language.

It was agreed that the alphabet was one of thre primary reasons why it was chosen as the most difficult language, but also the tone. Also, consider that each dialect has its own tonal system, so that makes it extra difficult. What do you think is the most difficult language to learn? Feel free to take the survey here.