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What are the easiest and the most difficult languages in the world?
Thread poster: Paul Dixon

Melissa Mann  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 20:37
Member (2009)
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Klick languages / tonal languages Jun 23, 2009

If you are considering languages as spoken (not just written) then, for all nearly atonal or barely-tonal speakers out there (read: most European languages/the Americas), anything that is tonal (like Chinese) or glottal (like the click languages of Africa) or that use parts of the throat we can't even conceive would be the biggest challenges.

Also the hardest to learn languages are the ones where resources are slim. I doubt there are many "Teach Yourself Wolof" courses out there. Difficulty is also tied to accessiblilty...


 

Adam Łobatiuk  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 01:37
Member (2009)
English to Polish
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Czech vs Polish Jun 23, 2009

Tomas Mosler wrote:

Williamson wrote:

Hungarian, Basque, Finnish, Estonian, Polish.


Hm, is Polish more difficult than Czech, you say?


Polish may have more endings (e.g. genders in the plural). Plus it has the soft s, c, z vs. sh, tsh, zh pairs of consonants. But then the Czech long vs shot vowels or no vowels at all (vlk) are quite a challenge

Still, both Czech and Polish or Slovak should be easier than Russian to many learners, because our stress is fixed and we use the Latin alphabet. Russian, however, is more popular, so there are more books and other material to learn from.


 

Sara Senft  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:37
Spanish to English
+ ...
"mujer" is a feminine noun Jun 23, 2009

Actually, Jack, the Spanish word for "woman" is a feminine noun.

Fortunately, the gender system in Spanish is fairly consistent.

Jack Doughty wrote:

Someone mentioned the neuter das Mädchen in German. Note also than the Russian word for man, мужчина, is feminine in form, and the Spanish word for woman, mujer, is masculine in form.


 

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:37
Member (2000)
Russian to English
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I know mujer is actually feminine Jun 23, 2009

My point was only that the form of the word itself is masculine. Similarly, the Russian мужчина takes masculine-form adjectives. But das Mädchen takes neuter forms, like referring to a girl a "it" rather than "she". And the French for a sentry is la sentinelle, so the sentry as a pronoun becomes a she, though much more likely to be a man.

 

Riccardo Schiaffino  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:37
Member (2003)
English to Italian
+ ...
So he should have deployed them to Georgia, instead? Jun 23, 2009

Marcus Malabad wrote:

Try your hand at the Georgian ergative and you'll be humbled. Mastering grammar basically boils down to remembering rules and exceptions to rules. The principal difficulty I think lies more in phonology. Three or four contiguous consonants, for example, aren't very rare in Georgian. There are even extreme examples of 6 or 8 contiguous consonants (mts'k'rivi, gvprtskvni). Try that, English speaker!



I thought highly of President Clinton for deploying vowels to Bosnia, but it now looks like he should have deployed them to Georgia instead

[Edited at 2009-06-23 23:18 GMT]


 

Özden Arıkan  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 01:37
Member
English to Turkish
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OT: it girl Jun 26, 2009

Jack Doughty wrote:

My point was only that the form of the word itself is masculine. Similarly, the Russian мужчина takes masculine-form adjectives. But das Mädchen takes neuter forms, like referring to a girl a "it" rather than "she". And the French for a sentry is la sentinelle, so the sentry as a pronoun becomes a she, though much more likely to be a man.


I'm definitely not in a position to comment on German grammar, Jack, but I think that 'das Mädchen' is not an exception (or weirdness), grammatically speaking. It's a diminutive and all diminutives are neuter in German (someone please correct me if I'm wrong). Same should be true for 'das Fräulein.'

As for the main topic, I think the easiest language is your mother tongue; the hardest is the language you strive to learn way past age 40 and while trying to make a living fighting two other languages all day long. But there are days I feel that the easiest is my source and the toughest is my target (native) language. It all depends...


 

Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 01:37
Member
Spanish to English
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Long histories complicate the picture Jun 27, 2009

Sara Senft wrote:

Actually, Jack, the Spanish word for "woman" is a feminine noun.


There are two words in Latin for "woman". "Femina" gives you "femenino" as well as "femme" and "hembra". But "mulier", "mulieris", specifically applying to women, belongs to the third declension and behaves differently; apart from "mujer" it also yields "moglie".


 

chica nueva
Local time: 11:37
Chinese to English
Language reforms, good dictionaries, romanisation have all helped to make Chinese easier to learn Jun 27, 2009

Niraja Nanjundan wrote:
Now I know why people in Western countries seem to prefer learning Chinese and Japanese to Indian languages, even though India is economically and strategically one of the very important Asian countries! I suppose we also spoil things by speaking so much English!


Hello Niraja

Re: Chinese, and its ease of learning by Westerners, language reforms in the PRC last century have made it much easier for everyone to learn the script than it was 100 years ago IMO. Good dictionaries and the advent of word processing using pinyin (romanised) input are also big pluses.

( As to popularity, Chinese is an official language of the UN, and, as you may know, its study is being promoted through the Confucius Institutes in many countries, as part of China's cultural diplomacy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucius_Institute )

(You are right. I think we Anglo-Westerners in particular may regard India as an English-speaking country, part of the old British Commonwealth - old friends in fact.

And, in this part of the world, some of the push to learn Japanese and Chinese will have come from trade considerations, I am sure. Yet, India's star is certainly rising here, I have to say. It will be interesting to see how things develop, trade and businesswise.

As you can perhaps imagine, I meet Indians in daily life from time to time, especially from Fiji, but also from the Subcontinent. )

Lesley


 

conejo  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:37
Member (2003)
Japanese to English
+ ...
Chinese languages are the hardest Jul 1, 2009

My vote for hardest language would be Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.). This is because:
1. The tonal system is difficult to pronounce, understand, and remember, and if you get the tones wrong, you come out saying gibberish or something that makes absolutely no sense.
2. There is the added complication of having 2 systems of writing: the simplified Chinese characters and the traditional Chinese characters, which is like having to learn 2 sets of Chinese characters altogether.

And I speak as someone who already knows thousands of Chinese characters, albeit from Japanese, and who has studied Mandarin to some extent. Knowing Japanese does not really help that much in Chinese languages... it only helps you to be able to read some things, and gives no help whatsoever in pronunciation or listening comprehension.

The second-hardest language would be Japanese, because of the Chinese characters, ambiguousness of the language, complicated forms of politeness, and how different the culture generally is from most other cultures.

The easiest language... I think that is whatever language is the closest to your native language. If you are a native Spanish speaker Portuguese or Italian might be the easiest, and that sort of thing.


 

Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 01:37
Italian to English
Classical languages are enriching Jul 1, 2009

Parrot wrote:

There are two words in Latin for "woman". "Femina" gives you "femenino" as well as "femme" and "hembra". But "mulier", "mulieris", specifically applying to women, belongs to the third declension and behaves differently; apart from "mujer" it also yields "moglie".



Parrot is right to point out the diachronic dimension of language. This is even better represented in Greek, whose earliest written form is at least 3,500 years old.

Quite apart from the trivia of grammar and syntax, classical languages pose genuine conceptual challenges since their frame of intellectual reference clashes, often flamboyantly, with the cultural givens of modern learners.

It is also useful to remember that Ancient Greek, like Chinese and many other oriental languages, was a tonal language (modern Greek is a stress-accented language like English but the ancient tongue had musical accents; the acute, grave and circumflex diacritical marks, subsequently used in other modern European tongues, were invented by Greek grammarians in pre-Christian Alexandria to help non-Greek-speaking learners to read Homer correctly).

The study of classical poetry, and particularly how Latin poets adapted the alien but culturally dominant Greek dactylic hexameter of epic poetry to their own stress-accented language, stimulates an awareness of prosody that can easily be extended to other languages.

Finally the classical rhetoric of Demosthenes, Cicero and Quintilian underpins much of modern literary, and hence translation, theory.

Any language tends to look easy if you project your own cultural givens onto it, which is what students quite naturally tend to do. A knowledge of ancient languages, acquired sufficiently early, can however help to maintain the "assumption of otherness" that is necessary to appreciate foreign languages to the full, and to translate them successfully.

FWIW

Giles

[Edited for arithmetic at 2009-07-02 05:58 GMT]

[Edited at 2009-07-02 05:58 GMT]


missdutch
 

chica nueva
Local time: 11:37
Chinese to English
Japanese and English are the most difficult languages (?) Jul 2, 2009

conejo wrote:
My vote for hardest language would be Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.). This is because:
1. The tonal system is difficult to pronounce, understand, and remember, and if you get the tones wrong, you come out saying gibberish or something that makes absolutely no sense.
2. There is the added complication of having 2 systems of writing: the simplified Chinese characters and the traditional Chinese characters, which is like having to learn 2 sets of Chinese characters altogether.


Hello conejo

I beg to disagree a little for Mandarin. Re pronunciation, as someone said, there are only 4 (or 5) tones, which probably makes it easier to pronounce than Cantonese (which has 9, I believe). However, I agree, I have found that 'memorising the tones' for the words takes effort and practice. Also, re the script, once you know one script IMO reading both scripts is possible. (Anyhow, with a bit of work it was possible for me to pass the Naati in both forms of the script ... there are keys in the dictionaries to help).

I read somewhere that Japanese and English are the most difficult languages ...

Lesley


 

chica nueva
Local time: 11:37
Chinese to English
(according to the British Foreign Office) Hungarian is the most difficult, followed by Japanese ... Jul 3, 2009

lai an wrote:

I read somewhere that Japanese and English are the most difficult languages ...

Lesley


http://www.usingenglish.com/articles/which-most-difficult-language.html
... the British Foreign Office has looked at the languages that diplomats and other embassy staff have to learn ... The second hardest is Japanese, which probably comes as no surprise to many, but the language that they have found to be the most difficult to learn is Hungarian ...


 

Taija Hyvönen
Finland
Local time: 02:37
Member (2008)
English to Finnish
+ ...
Difficulty depends on who you ask Jul 3, 2009

The more different from your native language it is and the less you already know languages related to it, the more difficult it is. Every language has its difficult and easy sides and pretty much anything very different from anything you already know is likely to pose a problem.

The reputation of Finnish as a difficult language is due to the fact that it is mostly studied by people whose native languages are not related to it in any way, and it is unlikely that they already know languages already related to it. For me, Arabic and Chinese have been the most peculiar, then again Hungarian was not especially tough.

Among Indo-European languages, I will steer clear of further contact with Latin and German.


 

Raf Uzar
Poland
Local time: 01:37
Polish to English
Easiest language is... Jul 3, 2009

This blog post is pretty interesting:
http://transubstantiation.wordpress.com/2009/01/10/worlds-easiest-language/
but what I found MOST interesting were the fascinating comments...


 

Jennifer Gordon Taylor  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:37
Member (2008)
Czech to English
+ ...
Isn't it all subjective? Jul 3, 2009

Adam Łobatiuk wrote:

Tomas Mosler wrote:

Williamson wrote:

Hungarian, Basque, Finnish, Estonian, Polish.


Hm, is Polish more difficult than Czech, you say?


Polish may have more endings (e.g. genders in the plural). Plus it has the soft s, c, z vs. sh, tsh, zh pairs of consonants. But then the Czech long vs shot vowels or no vowels at all (vlk) are quite a challenge

Still, both Czech and Polish or Slovak should be easier than Russian to many learners, because our stress is fixed and we use the Latin alphabet. Russian, however, is more popular, so there are more books and other material to learn from.


I studied Russian, Czech and Polish at university.

Russian was my least favourite because I could never quite get my head round the lack of the verb 'to be'. People would always ask me how I coped with the different alphabet, but I really don't think that is what made it difficult!

However, since I'd been attempting to learn Russian for a long time (in high school too), when I started Czech, it all seemed to make a lot of sense and things kind of fell into place. Odd, since a lot of foreigners who've struggled with it believe Czech to be one of the hardest languages.

And when I took a year of Polish I became confused once again. For me it was harder (though maybe there wasn't enough room left in my head for it!) and I didn't like to deal with the hard vs. soft sounds less prevalent in Czech.

I graduated 9 years ago and I've only started to study a new language in the last couple of years - Portuguese. This is far more difficult for me to deal with, yet it's supposedly one of the easiest languages. I think the reason behind this is that my head is so used to a different style of foreign language, and I'm having to readjust the way I think! I'm also out of practice when it comes to formal study, and even just opening my Teach Yourself book gets more difficult as the days go by!

To sum up, I think difficulty is all about how you learn the foreign language in the first place (taught, self-taught, TV, etc.), along with the overall decrepitude of your brain!


 
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