How hard is your language?

When I was growing up, I would often hear phrases like “They say English is the most difficult language in the world.” Nowadays you hear this same statement said about Mandarin, Arabic and Russian, in fact, some speakers of these global languages almost say it with pride. But what makes a language difficult, who finds it difficult and why? Is it how many words it has? How difficult it is for people to pronounce them? Is it because the alphabet has thousands of characters? Or is it because there is not much content out there or few people to speak it with?

Language can be structured, consistent and logical, especially if it is a synthetic language like Esperanto, but generally speaking, (boom, boom) languages are an absolute free for all, and I see many Darwinian concepts at work when it comes to how they grow, change and die. Every language borrows words from others, has grammatical rules that seem critical but get continuously broken and whose sounds change ever so slightly (or radically sometimes) with each subsequent generation. A measure of difficulty that I would often use when learning languages is a concept called “inflection.” Inflection makes itself known in many ways, for example, pronouns changing from “I” to “me” or “we” to “us”, verbs changing form, depending which person did what and when (conjugation). And the infamous noun gender found in German, French and pretty much every other Indo-European language. But even this is a poor measure because there are languages like Chinese which are not inflected in this way but possess other demons to torment foreign language learners such as tones and what many people consider to be a ridiculous amount of written characters. The Japanese actually try to limit their non-phonetic characters to 2,136, they are aptly named the “Joyo Kanji” translated as the “used Kanji.” But do you think they only use these? …Nope!

So what is the hardest language in the world?

Simple answer… all of them! For example Swedish is difficult for a native Chinese speaker but easy for English or German Natives, Arabic is torturous for French speakers but easy for Hebrew speakers. Language, like colour, is a spectrum, when does a dialect become a distinct language? Is like asking when does green become blue? If you want to try this kind of question out, ask a bunch of people what colour a tennis ball is. To labour the point, I speak Dutch, and when I hear Afrikaans I understand about 70-80% of what is said, Swedes and Danes often talk to each in their native languages without any more than that experienced by someone from New Orleans speaking English with someone from Glasgow.

However, for those who don’t like vague, neutral answers like mine, the difficulty of the language to an individual can be measured with these questions.

  • Does this language harbour stuff that you want to know about? E.g. Japanese and great Animé or the French with their poems about broken hearts, walking on bridges and along canals < this is a joke 😉
  • Can you get exposure to it? E.g. non-Anglophones getting waterboarded by the English language via pop-culture and business, or your city having a decent Chinatown to immerse yourself in.
  • Do you have the discipline to do a little bit of practice most days of the week?

If you answer yes to all three, it is an easy language, if no to all three then it is a hard language. Because from my experience, pointless inflection and decadent alphabets are no barrier if it is yes to the above, it is just a matter of persistence.

I would love to hear people’s thoughts on this so feel free to comment away. *Except if you want to mandate that your language the hardest, I guarantee there is a minority group or indigenous people somewhere speaking a way more inflected, tongue-twisty one.

Image from Inidam