The most difficult language?

Posted on: 16. Januar 2013

Here comes a new blog entry by the current WORLD TEXT intern! As translators and interpreters work with many languages every day, I’ve been wondering – what’s the most difficult one?

My research shows – you just can`t tell. It depends on who you are, what your mother language is, what languages you already know, how you study a language, and so on.

There are many “top language lists” on the internet, and people are leading heated discussions.

The language I often, almost always, find on these lists, is Chinese. Of course – their writing system and the immense number of Kanji impresses most people. But what about the rest? Grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary…? Of course, for us Europeans, Asian languages are interesting and exotic. But when you’re Japanese for example, it’s not that hard to learn Chinese, as far as the writing system is concerned, because it’s the same. However, the Kanji differ in meaning and the Japanese writing system also includes Kana.

The languages also often mentioned are the Slavic ones. They’re difficult indeed. But it’s not all about a different alphabet. I suppose grammar and pronunciation aren’t so easy either.

Chinese and Russian come to your mind quickly, but what about Finnish or Icelandic? They’re said to be pretty hard to learn as well. African, Arabic, Korean, Hindi, …

…or Polish. I found something interesting on the internet:

Number “two” (2):

English, Spanish, Dutch: 1 form (two, dos, twee)

Portuguese: 2 forms (dois/duas) – depending on gender (2 – masculine & feminine)

Croatian: 7 forms (dva, dvije, dvoje, dvojica, dvojice, dvojici, dvojicu) – depending on gender (3-masculine, feminine, and neuter) and case in one specific form.

Polish: 17 forms. Depends on gender (3), case for all forms. Pretty much all these forms occur in regular speech (6-11 less often than the others) – 1. dwa 2. dwie 3. dwoje 4. dwóch (or dwu) 5. dwaj 6. dwiema 7. dwom (or dwóm) 8. dwoma 9. dwojga 10. dwojgu 11. dwojgiem 12. dwójka 13. dwójki 14. dwójkę 15. dwójką 16. dwójce 17. dwójko

The language that’s often forgotten is English. Just because a lot of people speak it, doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Many people could perfect their English.

What also irritates me is that many people say, certain languages are very easy to learn. “No problem, go to site XY and you can learn it online in a few months!” No! You can learn the basics, but not the entire language. It needs many YEARS to be good at a language. By the way, those “easy” languages mentioned are Spanish, Italian (and sometimes even French). I think that’s not true at all. If you’re one of those “quick online learners”, listen to…an agitated Spanish soccer player and tell me what he says. Or listen to one of François Hollande’s speeches; do you understand all the idioms, the political terms? Or isn’t it as easy as you thought after all?

One more thing I’d like to say. Some people boast of “knowing” so many languages. “I can speak Spanish, French, Italian, Greek… also Chinese… and I know what “How are you” means in Russian and Swedish.” I think they only have a basic knowledge of most of the languages they “know”, so if this is the case, I’m not impressed, rather annoyed. I know many people, we all know many people, who live and work in our country, but who are from abroad/have a different native language. They “only” know “our” language and their mother tongue, but they can speak both perfectly, they communicate at work, talk with clients, have to deal with complaints and misunderstandings, they go to the doctor, to the bank, they offer us their help… this is much more impressive, don’t you think?


8 Antworten to "The most difficult language?"

Great post. I always find myself irritated when I hear someone proclaim X to be the hardest language in the world, as if it were a simple fact (often, as you say, a language like Chinese). Then I find myself repeating like a broken record some of the arguments you made above. I learned Russian at school, which gets a lot of responses about how difficult that must’ve been, but getting your head around a different alphabet only takes a few weeks, otherwise it’s much more regular than a language like Polish. But I think you’re right that the mother tongue plays a major role. Learning German as an English speaker is a much easier prospect than learning a non-Indo-European language: once you’ve got your head around basic verb forms and sentence structure, you can soon pick up a lot of vocabulary. Still, I’ll be making mistakes with der/die/das till I die!

And there’s definitely more respect due to all those people who manage to learn English, for many it’s an easy enough language to get started in, but only gets more difficult the more precisely you want to express yourself.

Thank you, Fips. I noticed that there aren’t so many people who leave their comments on this blog 😦
How good is your Russian?
You always have to exercise and repeat, otherwise you quickly forget a lot, right?
Oh yes, German articles are not so easy; I think one of the most difficult things in German are the four cases. But I know that there are languages having more cases than four…

Yeah, it’s a shame there aren’t more comments on here. I guess if the same articles appeared on Facebook there’d be plenty of ‚likes‘.

As for my Russian, sadly pretty much all melted away. It was at a reasonable level until I had to concentrate on learning German, and it was then a case of ‚one in, one out‘. Maybe one day I’ll find opportunity to learn it again some day.

How’s the internship treating you?

Hi. Hmm I guess almost no one knows this blog here 😦
I see… yes, concentrating on two languages at the same time is hard. Ah German! Which language is more difficult for you, Russian or German? 🙂
I’m enjoying my internship, thanks! Though many people have been sick recently, so I have to do more (copmlicated) tasks; but that’s good, not like the typical „copying and coffee making“ 🙂

Sounds good! Shall have to consider applying for an internship there myself one day. Currently planning to start a translation course in Germersheim with German and Polish.

As for the more difficult language, given English is my mother tongue I’d have to say Russian, though as I said it’s all pretty much evaporated by now. And Polish adds a layer on top, by having enough exceptions and extra little idiosyncracies! Maybe I should reconsider my choice of languages…

(And you probably couldn’t reply because of a maximum depth for threaded comments…)

Oh yes, why not?? There have been many interns from abroad doing an internship here; mostly from the UK or France. And you’re multilingual as well, I think you’d fit perfectly.
…See! Polish, woah.. I’m thinking of that „2 example“ I posted above… I do like your choice of languages, challenging oneself is always good.
Germersheim is pretty far from Schwerin (where WORLD TEXT is), let me see.. about 7 hours :O My home town is 6 hours away 🙂

Well, thats a hard question to answer. Easy is it when the language belongs to the same family (like Italian, Spanish, Portugese). Else it becomes gradually more difficult.

Thank you for the comments and likes, Zyriacus, finally this blog is getting busier 🙂

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