If I had a dollar for every time someone started gabbing about what the easiest or most difficult language to learn is I’d be a regular Scrooge McDuck.
Typically I’d tell you that there is no hardest language and that it’s all subjective and based on your motivation and the similarity of your target language to those you already know.
But that’s no longer the case. I’ve finally discovered what is undeniably the single most difficult language to learn on the planet, and I highly recommend that you don’t try to learn it.
Drum roll please…
Tucked away in the Northeastern Indian Ocean in the Eastern part of the Bay of Bengal rests a little archipelago known as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. You may have heard of it.
Most of the Andamans are territory of India with a small section belonging to nearby Myanmar. These idyllic islands have been home to relatively isolated groups of humans for tens of thousands of years but were largely uncontacted until the late 19th century.
It is there that our language woes may forever lie.
The Northern section of the island group is home to a little sandy rock known as North Sentinel Island and if you wish to take on the world’s hardest language it is here that your adventure will begin. If you want to learn North Sentinelese you’re going to have quite the epic journey ahead of you, fraught with actual life threatening peril and uncertainty.
And possibly sharks.
But if you’re truly determined to master what is likely to be the world’s most dangerous language to learn, you may achieve glory previously unknown to linguists, anthropologists or those guys at Duolingo.
The first barrier you would face on your quest to learn Sentinelese is the fact that going there in the first place is illegal.
The islands are overseen by the Indian navy and the Sentinelese people are a scheduled tribe. A scheduled tribe is a term used for a politically protected group. It’s more complicated than that but you get the idea.
It’s basically a wildlife preserve for people.
So let’s pretend that you do somehow manage to slip past the navy in a stealthy little watercraft or dinghy. North Sentinel Island is surrounded by a delightful little coral reef, making it rather difficult to approach even if illegality isn’t an issue.
It can be – and has been – done with a sufficiently small boat, but you’d still have to be pretty damn careful. If you’re very determined, however, to conquer the world’s most difficult language I’m sure you’ll find a way to pass this natural, living barrier.
Hopefully you don’t encounter any sharks. Mandarin might seem like a very difficult language to learn, but there are no sharks.
The landing party
That wasn’t so hard was it? Now you’ve only got to find some people and start learning!
Thing is, they’ll probably find you first. Convenient except for the whole bit where they’re probably going to try to kill you with spears, fill you with arrows or maybe just run away into the jungle and disappear.
Good luck studying Sentinelese grammar sitting on a beach.
The North Sentinelese people are referred to as an “uncontacted tribe” for a reason. They don’t really appreciate visitors and have been known to assault surveillance craft that come too close.
Technically, they have been contacted several times since the island was first visited in the late 19th century, though very few of these could really be called a “successful interaction”. I doubt very much that your attempts will be any different.
But hey, who knows…
About the Sentinelese Language
The truth is that we know essentially nothing concrete about the Sentinelese people or their language. It is possible, if not highly likely, that Sentinelese is a member of the Ongan language family.
Ongan is comprised of the Jarawa and Önge languages as well as the now extinct Jangil language.
The Ongan language family is indigenous to the Andaman Islands and is not related to the Great Andamanese family – also endemic to the islands.
For now though, Sentinelese’ relationship to other languages is unknown. It could be its own tongue – existing alone as a language isolate. It could belong the Ongan family, or it could be something totally different. There is really isn’t much to suggest that the Sentinelese people have had any sort of interaction with other tribes in the archipelago and little evidence that they ever leave the island.
The only census data we have regarding the population of North Sentinal Island is the rough estimate taken of their village via helicopter from quite a distance away. Nobody really knows with any certainty how many people live on the island, but it is believed to be fewer than 500 individuals, perhaps as few as 100.
Interestingly enough, I would not personally classify Sentinelese as an endangered language despite having a very, very low speaker count.
As I mention in this article, for a language to be endangered it needs to be threatened by the prevalence of another language, the lack of education among the younger generations or a forced assimilation with a greater population’s culture.
As Sentinel Island is isolated and largely uncontacted, its language is more or less safely ensconced by its coral and legal barriers and is unlikely to be in any significant danger any time soon.
The first documented attempt to contact the Sentinelese people was in 1875 by the British who landed on the island and abducted a few of the natives. They returned with them to the mainland and attempted to show them the error of their ways in the way only the British Empire could have.
The Brits tried to shower them with gifts and then repatriate them to the island, hoping to sew the seeds of good relations between the Sentinelese and their British overlords.
No further contact seems to have taken place until India began a series of investigations during the 20th century in order to establish a relationship with the tribe. The Indian government repeatedly visited the island, leaving gifts of food or other items, once again in an attempt to win the favor of the natives.
Peaceful contact was made in the 90s when anthropologists were able to finally land on the island and exchange gifts in person, interacting with the – albeit hesitant – locals in a display of human solidarity for at least a brief time.
In 2004, following the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Indian military flew a helicopter over the island to ensure that the Sentinelese people were still alive and kicking.
They were, and they responded to the magical flying contraption by firing arrows at it.
More recently, in 2006, fishermen who became stranded near Sentinel Island were killed by the tribesmen. Clearly relations between the Sentinelese and outsiders still aren’t exactly smooth, so I still wouldn’t recommend going there.
You can check out the video below for more on how the Sentinelese interacted with anthropologists peacefully.
Forget about grammar. Don’t worry about conjugations. Abandon attempts to find a mobile dictionary for your iPhone. The Sentinelese language literally has the fewest learning resources available. This, coupled with the fact that they could literally kill you and leave your body in the ocean to be gobbled by fish, cements Sentinelese as what I believe to be the most difficult language to learn on the planet.
But if you’re motivated enough to visit the island and learn that language, by all means go for it . If you survive you’d certainly make history and become a linguistic treasure. Who said the age of adventure is dead?
LATG is not responsible for accidental or intentional death, dismemberment, arrest or loss of property resulting from foolhardy attempts to learn this language. This article will not protect you from lawsuits and it should not be taken as legitimate advice.
LATG is not responsible for death or dismemberment resulting from attempts to learn this language. Click To Tweet
I highly recommend not attempting to visit or contact the North Sentinelese people in any way, shape or form.
Furthermore, we should all respect this tribe’s wishes to be left alone. There aren’t many examples of hunter gatherer societies left on Earth, and fewer still that maintain their isolation without interference from the outside world.
But if you’re truly determined, you have the right motivation and a properly fitted suit of armor, I’m sure you’ll find a way.
So go! Go forth and learn!
And watch out for the sharks.
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