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    • 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? 

    • I would say after being around nationals - Icelandic and Finnish, then probably Lithuanian, and if you want a non-language, language...Cockney Rhyming Slang

      I had five customers from Iceland, born and bred and still lived there, all of them claimed at over 40 years of age they didn't speak the language fluently and could still get caught out.

      ...but IMO it all depends what your native tongue is in regards to other languages you can learn, at what level and with what amount of ease

    • I would say after being around nationals - Icelandic. I had five customers from Iceland, born and bred and still lived there, all of them claimed at over 40 years of age they didn't speak the language fluently and could still get caught out.

      This is why I am so in awe of Daniel Tammet—he learned to speak Icelandic fluently in a week!

      Tagging @Chris

    • I think fluent is one of those words that doesn't necessarily mean what people think it means. People tend to think of it meaning you are able to speak about and understand anything in a language without help. And if that were the definition, nobody would truly be fluent because there are so many words no one can know all of them. So where do you draw the line? English has something like 170,000 words and the average English speaker knows more like 20,000 if I remember correctly.

      But the definition of fluent is actually just to be able to express yourself easily and articulately. So if you can express yourself in a conversational manner and you can do it easily, does that make you fluent? I think fluency is a personal thing. Everyone has their own standard. In a hypothetical situation, say two people have identical ability in a language. That subset of vocabulary may be more than enough for one person, given the interests and conversations they have while it's insufficient for the other. People often called me fluent (pera pera) in Japan, but I was really only fluent in the limited range of things I talked to people about every day. I would have been completely lost if the topic shifted to anything related to government, for example. There were a lot of things I knew I couldn't talk about, so I didn't consider myself fluent. But I heard someone suggest that when you get to the point that circumlocution becomes normal and easy for you, you could call yourself fluent. Everybody has lexical gaps, but if you can talk your way around them they don't really matter.

    • ...but IMO it all depends what your native tongue is in regards to other languages you can learn, at what level and with what amount of ease

      Absolutely. In Japan the Chinese and Koreans tend to have much less trouble learning Japanese than pretty much anyone else. The Chinese have a huge advantage when it comes to reading and writing. It is actually possible to read Chinese as classical Japanese.

      The Foreign Service Institute has done lots of study on language teaching and difficulty. They help ambassadors learn the languages of the countries they'll be working in. They have rankings for how much study time it takes for an English speaker to become proficient in reading, writing, and speaking a foreign language to a 3/5 level, 5 being native speaker ability. They say that about 2,200 hours of study is required for category 5 languages (all the languages @slamdunk406 mentioned) and that Japanese is usually more difficult than the others.

      If you want to see the list in a different form this is a good page.

      Hiragana and Katakana are technically called syllabaries not alphabets, due to the fact that with the exception of n, consonants can't be separated from vowels. But that's pretty much my only little niggle with what you said above.

    • What makes Icelandic hard is they don’t really have words for a lot of modern stuff. They just kinda make it up as they go along. If that makes sense. And yes, Cockney Rhyming Slang is insane!

    • The history of Chinese characters is super interesting. They used to be used in Korean and Vietnamese as well. Now, it’s really only Japanese that still uses them. Though sometimes Korean newspapers will use the characters a bit. Shows you the influence China/Chinese has had on the Asian world both linguistically and culturally.

    • Yeah, your native language will probably always feel more natural in most cases. But that wasn't really what I was getting at. My point was that being fluent doesn't necessarily mean you have the ability of a native-speaker. And it also isn't necessarily the same for everyone.

    • that's an interesting mix, do you find you are creating a certain accent in either? The reason I ask is I was taking French lessons for a long time, as I was looking to travel in West Africa.

      That never happened due to civil unrest so i decided to go to Central America instead and started Spanish lessons.

      My Spanish teacher said to me one day, "do you realise you speak Spanish with a French accent"...which is a little twisted because I'm English BTW

    • Interesting. I was once talking to a woman in Japan over the intercom that most homes have, so she couldn't see me. She thought I was Korean, but was surprised to find out I'm American.

    • Thats funny, I spent some time in South Korea and in Seoul stayed with an American family, the wife introduced herself and said "you probably recognise my voice", I looked at her a little bemused.

      She continued, "you came in on the train from the airport, its my voice that is playing I do the voice over for all the stops in English and Korean."

      To me they sounded like two totally different people, tones, pitches, everything, I would have never guessed it was the same person speaking in both languages

    • You might look at a book called Fluent Forever. If you have a library card you might be able to check out a digital copy of it. It's written by an opera singer. It's basically a compilation of all the tips he's used to learn the various languages for the songs he's had to perform.

      If you are interested in Japanese (or even if you're not) I recommend looking into Japanese In A Year. He documented his study of Japanese for a year using the Fluent Forever methods starting from scratch.

    • I’m able to keep my accents separate from each other. However, with Chinese, there is a difference between the north China accent and south China accent. I kinda have a mix of both in terms of my vocab and pronunciation. Kinda weird, haha

    • YouTube + grammar book. That’s my method. Mostly YouTube, but having a grammar book is a must. One thing I’ll do is pick a theme and repeat it. Like with Japanese, I’m doing days of the week, months, dates, and also family terms. I just watch the same videos over and over again. With Chinese, I haven’t really had a theme for a while as I’ve kinda been doing more of a freestyle thing on YouTube, but even then I’ll watch the same set of videos again and again and again. But picking a theme and watching the same videos over and over is a major key, I feel.

    • An example, for the sake of context: I’m a native English speaker who learned French, Spanish, German and Latin at school. Personally, I found Spanish to be the hardest to learn, but was that due to an inherent difficulty in the language or the fact that it was an intensive, one-year course rather than a longer period of study? Or was it simply that the Spanish teacher’s style was different from those of the other language teachers’ methods? 

      Later, when I learned Portuguese, I found it relatively easy. Would I have found it harder without having had that initial grounding in both Spanish and Latin? Or if English wasn’t my native tongue?

      Such questions demonstrate the complexity of naming a single language as the most difficult to learn. However, they are not the only considerations. Some languages are hard to learn due to their sheer inaccessibility. If you want to learn to speak a language that has fewer than 100 speakers, such as Sarcee or Potawatomi, you’re not going to find classes at your local adult education centre or even online. Many such languages have no dictionaries and, indeed, no written form, making them very hard to access and therefore to learn, before any grammatical considerations are even considered. 

      Check this one out: