When I was 15 I remember my English grammar teacher in high school in the United States explaining various grammatical concepts such as the colon and semi-colon (a distinction most of us natives still don’t fully grasp). When the class began to struggle he would say very reassuringly not to worry, that we’d get it eventually and that “this is part of why English is the hardest language to learn!
Upon beginning university all students we required to take basic writing classes, which primarily served to underscore the weaknesses of our secondary school writing education.
When students struggled the (also very supportive) professors would tell us again, very reassuringly, “this is part of why English is the hardest language to learn…”
But it’s not the hardest language to learn
Sorry guys, it’s not even close to being the hardest language to learn. So which language really does take the cake and prove itself to be the pinnacle of linguistic adversity? Well lets see.
There are Khoisan languages in Africa that communicate using a system of click consonants that you probably can’t even make with your mouth.
Japanese has three different writing systems that look essentially like mumbo jumbo to anyone who isn’t familiar with Asian languages (as most of the readers of this blog are not).
There’s this rare language in Tibet that actually uses color as part of its writing system. Which is possibly the coolest literary concept anyone has ever come up with, ever, and sounds pretty hard to wrap one’s head around.
Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian (All Finno-Ugric languages totally unrelated to our dear, beloved Indo European family) have a ridiculous number of grammatical cases ranging from 14 to 18 to maybe even 30 depending on who you ask.
Certain Inuit peoples in Northern Canada as well as various Siberian cultures, among others, use something called overtone vocalization, also known as throat singing. This is usually used in song, but the point remains that these languages sound pretty friggan brutal to me and come fully equipped with linguistic variables that many of us don’t even know exist.
These people can do some pretty crazy stuff with their voices and their communications systems and to me they kind of make English sound pathetically easy by comparison.
And really, do you honestly think that out the of 6,500-7,000(ish) languages on the planet that yours is actually the hardest? Don’t make me laugh.
But that’s just the thing…
The difficulty of a language is in the eye and mind of the learner as well as prior experience with other languages.
You struggled to learn Mandarin because it’s ridiculously different from everything you’ve ever learned in your Western education, and that’s okay.
Those unfamiliar with the wild and reckless abandon with which English incorporates and then bastardizes the language and grammar of pretty much every other European language ever is not exactly easy for speakers of Balinese either.
The ease or lack thereof of a language that you’re learning comes from what you already know. As previously mentioned, languages can do some pretty whacky things. Things you can’t really fathom if you’ve never experienced a similar language.
A huge part of language learning is in the execution.
If you’re using the wrong systems, or your instruction is sub-par, or you’re just not having enough fun and find yourself losing motivation. You’re not going to get far and every step that you take towards proficiency feels like slogging through a swamp with cinder blocks strapped to your feet and a hippopotamus on your back.
If you aren’t connecting with the language it isn’t going to connect with you. When I started learning Korean in 2013 I was met with failure before I even knew what was happening. This was due in part to my unfamiliarity with Asian languages and writing systems, but mostly just because I just wasn’t that into it.
You can read more about what I learned about motivation by failing at Korean here.
Many of us have adopted our perceptions of which languages will be the hardest for us based on statistics from various organizations – particularly in the case of Americans, the US State Department.
The State Department has issued media in the past stating its feelings and findings regarding the “most” and “least” difficult languages. Naturally it ranks Spanish and French near the bottom and Arabic and Chinese much higher up the list.
However it fails to properly communicate that these languages’ difficulties are once again, highly subjective. It doesn’t go into much detail about how it chose these languages and of course it totally leaves out such factors as interest, time and experience with learning languages.
It also makes the assumption that all Americans are monolingual English speakers.
It’s easy to look at lists like this and become discouraged by what you see. It’s also easy to become discouraged when someone tells you that Spanish is a really easy language to learn for an English speaker or discourages you from pursuing Thai because it ranks much higher on some vague government difficulty scale.
Back to the issue at hand…
We all think our language is the hardest, particularly English speakers.
As English speakers we grew up learning the crazy grammar “rules”. We were raised with the reassurance that every time we were confused about the proper usage of a semi colon or butchered the spelling of a word that doesn’t make any sense that “it’s okay, English is harder than any other language, you’re doing fine!”
Perhaps these are meant to be words of encouragement but they’re downright false and I worry that they may be giving those of us who attempt to learn other languages a false sense of security.
Being a native English speaker I know that I was raised with the notion that my language was the hardest in the world. I also wasn’t aware at that point in my life that there were thousands of languages out there or that I would one day become obsessed with studying them.
It’s hard to continue making sweeping generalizations about language when everyone says something different.
I’ve met and worked with hundreds of learners of English over the years, some of whom take to the language with ease and others who even after years of study are barely able to communicate the most basic of needs.
I’ve been told that “English is so easy!” by Italians and then “English is so hard and doesn’t make any sense!” from, yeah, other Italians.
So at the end of the day, which language is really the hardest language to learn? That’s up to you.
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