As one who is learning Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, I’m aware that the languages I’m choosing to learn are some the hardest languages in the world. At least for those who speak English and other European based languages. However, something I’ve been pondering a lot is whether or not there really is an answer to the question “What’s the hardest language to learn?”
The reason why I think the answer is no is because each foreign language is different and is challenging in different ways. This isn’t to say that all languages are equally difficult to learn. I don’t deny that Chinese is harder for the average English speaker to learn than Spanish. That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m getting at is I think once you start comparing languages in the “hard” category, to a large extent you have to pick your poison.
I’ll use Chinese, Japanese, and my limited knowledge of Arabic to illustrate this point.
If you’re going to learn Chinese, the biggest challenge will be the tones and the writing system. If you don’t say a word with the right tone, you end up saying something else entirely. E.g. Can I kiss you vs. Can I ask you? Pronunciation is very important! Then there’s all the characters you have to memorize. There’s over 80,000 Chinese characters, though you only need to really learn around 10,000 of them to be fluent. “Only 10,000 characters.” LOL
One other challenging part of Chinese is all the idioms you have to learn as well as all the homophones. These idioms don’t make any sense in English, but in Chinese they do. You just have to memorize them and what they mean. As for the homophones, Chinese is really context sensitive with the words for “wet” and “lion” sounding the same. That’s tough to get a hold of.
On the bright side, Chinese grammar is pretty simple and straight forward. There are no verb conjugations and like English, it’s SVO (Subject Verb Object). Plus, Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca of Mainland China and Taiwan, so no matter where you go in the Chinese speaking world, Mandarin will get the job done for you. Though if you want to learn a local/regional dialect (E.g. Cantonese or Shanghainese) go for it!
If you’re going to learn Japanese, the biggest challenge will be the grammar and like Chinese, the writing system. Japanese grammar is pretty complex with verb conjugations as well as having to adjust how you speak based on if it is formal or not formal, if you’re talking to your boss or talking about your boss, etc. That sort of thing. Japanese is also a language isolate, so learning it means you’re learning a language that really can’t be compared to any other language. It’s also SOV (Subject Object Verb) unlike English, which is SVO.
As for the writing system, Japanese uses three different writing systems: Two different alphabets called “Hiragana” and “Katakana” as well as Chinese characters called “Kanji.” The hiragana script is used for words that are native to Japanese, the katakana script is used for loan words that come from outside of Japan (mostly Europe and the United States), and the kanji are used to help add a rhythm and balance to the writing as well as illustrate core concepts. This part is kind of hard to explain, but if you didn’t have kanji in a Japanese sentence, it would make things harder to read. Plus, there’s a huge cultural aspect to this as well that they share with China. But anyways, learning three different writing systems and how they’re supposed to play off each other is no easy task as I’m finding out right now.
On the not so scary side, Japanese doesn’t have tones like Chinese. There’s something called “pitch accent” where you have to raise your pitch a bit with some words, but it’s not a big deal. The point is, no matter how you say a word, regardless of tone, people will understand you. That’s super nice! Also, Japanese has quite a few loan words (Mostly Dutch and English). Enough that they have an entire alphabet (katakana) dedicated to spelling them. These words are super easy to memorize and boost your vocabulary pretty quickly. Also, while there are different dialects in Japan, everyone in Japan understands Standard Japanese perfectly fine.
As for Arabic, what makes Arabic tough from my limited understanding of it is the pronunciation, the writing script, and when you learn Arabic, there’s really two forms of the language you have to learn. The classical (which gives you a base in the language that is used in formal situations like government texts, books, newspapers, etc.) and then the spoken dialect of the region that you want to live in because nobody really speaks in the classical or formal way.
What makes this tough is spoken Arabic isn’t the same everywhere you go in the Arabic speaking world. For example, if you can speak the Arabic spoken in Egypt, that won’t do you much good if you are in Morocco. You’ll only be able to understand people who also know the Egyptian dialect. What’s a tad comforting is there is some overlap between certain dialects, so if you learn two or three major dialects, you should be able to get around just fine. But still, you have to learn the dialects!
On the positive side, Arabic isn’t as foreign as Chinese or Japanese if you know a European language. Arabic has had influence on Spanish and English, so there’s some words that will sound familiar. Also, Arabic uses an alphabetical script. So, while learning a new script is challenging, at least there are only 28 letters as opposed to thousands of characters. Lastly, like Japanese, there are no tones. That’s something to take some comfort in as well.
There are other languages that I could have compared and contrasted as well like Hungarian, Finnish, or Korean but I stuck to three hard languages that I actually know something about, two of which I’m presently learning. I’m curious to get some thoughts from the Cake community on this. What do you think? Is there a hardest language to learn? If so, which one is it? If not, why not?