The Hardest Language

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There are a lot of articles as well as casual talks about which language is more difficult than the other. Linguists know that all languages are equally complex since children learn their native language at the same rate no matter what language that might be. So, when we talk about the difficulty of a language, we mean which language is hard to learn for an adult.

Let’s see which is the hardest according Mark Biernat: Hardest language to learn

Biernat  claims that Polish is the hardest language because it has 7 cases and 7 genders. The latter is not true because Polish only has 3 genders. Then he goes on to say that “the average English speaker is fluent in their language at the age of 12, in contrast, the average Polish speaker is fluent in their language after age of 16.” This is completely untrue as we know that all languages are learnt by children at the same rate.

The next category contains the Finno-Ugric group (Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian), although he calls them simply Ugric which is only Hungarian. This is nitpicking though, it doesn’t influence their difficulty. The reason why they are so hard according to Mark is the “countless noun cases” they have.

The simply “hard” languages, Russian, Ukrainian and Arabic (although just a challenging contender) have a different writing system than Latin. Just because of that, these languages aren’t necessarily hard since “it is really the pronunciation and how societies use the language that influences ranking.” I do agree that orthography plays very little role in the difficulty of a language.

Although the languages in the previous category were not that hard because of their orthography, this next group – fairly hard – contains languages such as Chinese and Japanese that are only hard because of their script: “No cases, no genders, no tenses, no verb changes, short words, very easy grammar, however, writing is hard.”

Then there are the average, easy and ‘basic to hard’ categories with English being the only one in the latter. Easy and average languages are Spanish, French, German, and Italian: “People I know pick these up no problem, even accountants and technical people rather than humanistic language people” says the author. Some of the reasons why they are so easy include: “lots of tenses, but not used and moderate grammar”, “only four cases and like five exceptions”, “no cases or gender”.

Biernat has a nice formula as well to calculate the difficulty of a language. It is in itself extremely hard to quantify each variable in his formula let alone state that there is an absolute hardest language. I do not, however, want to talk about the correctness of the formula or how he came up with it. What strikes me the most is when considering grammar, he only takes conjugation, cases, gender (i.e: inflections) and tenses into account and forgets about syntax, the structure of sentence formation.

If we only consider inflections, we will arrive at the conclusion that English and Chinese are very easy languages because you don’t need to conjugate verbs and there are no or very few cases. What we forget is that if one language is easy in terms of a thing, it will be hard with regards to another. English syntax is very elaborate and while Hungarian (very hard group) has only 3 tenses, English has a lot more among which the subtle differences can be learnt for a lifetime.

For the untrained eye, of course, verb conjugations and morphemes in general are way more apparent than syntactic complexity, so that is why people think that these make a hard language, whereas their absence makes for an easy one.

If you want to choose a language to learn and you want to base your choice on the difficulty of the language, just think which languages are closely-related to yours. Those will be the easiest to learn and the ones that are distantly-related or not related at all will be the most difficult ones. For a Russian speaker, Polish is significantly easier than English. Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian are difficult for all speakers because they are not related to any other European language, they are not in the Indo-European language family. Similarly, for speakers of these languages, all the Indo-European languages will be difficult.

The one thing that is certain is that your competence of any language you speak can be improved on, so start learning and enjoy!

 

Sources:

http://seas3.elte.hu/delg/publications/modern_talking/nemet.html

http://www.nyest.hu/hirek/ismet-a-legnehezebb-nyelvrol

http://people.mokk.bme.hu/~tron/kalman_tron_bevezetes_07.pdf

http://www.nytud.hu/archiv/nadasdy/bevnyelvtud.html

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