Hardest language to learn?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Oniw17, May 7, 2007.


Which is the hardest to learn?

  1. Basque

  2. Mandarin

  3. Icelandic

  4. Finnish

  5. Japanese

  6. Arabic

  7. Other

  1. Michael 歌舞伎 Valued Senior Member

    It seems like Xhosa would be difficult because it's tonal and has clicking sounds!

    Speaking Xhosa
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  3. Xylene Valued Senior Member

    The reason Europeans have trouble learning Finnish is that it has a completely different language structure. The ancestors of the Finns were a Turkic tribe who are related to the ancient people of the Urals. Finnish therefore truly belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family.
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  5. Xylene Valued Senior Member

    As far as Amerindian languages go, I have heard that Comanche is considered the most complex.
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    That hypothesis was widely accepted well into the 20th century, but it has since fallen into almost universal disfavor. The telltales that suggested kinship between the Uralic and Altaic language groups are now regarded with suspicion, more likely the effect of a Sprachbund. Not just vocabulary, but phonetic and grammatical paradigms have been found to cross the boundaries between languages that are unrelated, but are spoken in close proximity by people with a strong cultural exchange.

    In any case the identity of the Finnic peoples (including the Estonians and the Sami or "Lapps") seems to have been well established in their current homeland as far back as 10KYA, too long ago for them to be classified as a Turkic tribe. However, from what I've seen of the ongoing DNA research into human migration patterns, the Finns and Magyars are Mongolic peoples like the Turks and their Turkic/Ottoman relatives from Azerbaijan to Xinjiang.

    Their languages may be related, but we're pushing the ten-thousand-year boundary that makes tracing relationships impossible due to the complete turnover of vocabulary, phonetics and grammar. In fact the Nostratic hypothesis (that the technology of language was invented only once and all human languages have a single common ancestor) is quite reasonable, but we have no good way to test it, and perhaps never will.
  8. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    Thank you Fraggle! :thankyou:
  9. superstring01 Moderator

    I hear that Basque is next to impossible for a foreigner to learn. I've tried a few words and phrases and they are utterly alien.

  10. superstring01 Moderator

    I would agree totally. I'm of Anglo-Saxon extraction and I had absolutely NO contact with the Hispanic world when I was young. I took French the first year of high school. But in the summer of 1992 I went to the Barcelona games and from that point on I was hooked on Spanish.

    A year later I moved to Spain, ostensibly for six months, but ended up being 18 months. While the Spanish vocabulary presented me with very little difficulty, the grammar, especially the complexities of the subjunctive mood, I found iritatingly elusive for about the first year. After that point in time--having heard it over and over--I began to understand the difficult variables.

    I found German impossible to grasp--oddly enough--and dropped it quickly. Latin I found immensely easy.

  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I'm sure English is much easier for Germans than German is for anglophones. For them, English is basically Ancient German with a streamlined grammar and a lot of foreign words. But for us, German is some bizarre version of Old English with bewildering paradigms of inflections for verbs, nouns, articles and even adjectives, not to mention Schachtelsätzen, "box clauses" nested one inside the other like Ukrainian dolls. But I think we each find the other language's phonetics fairly difficult.
    That's a surprise and now I'm baffled wondering what aspect of German thwarted you. Latin grammar is even more complex than German grammar, and since we're invariably taught the formal Classical Latin of the great writers, it comes across as rather stilted. German is amusingly earthy... Kraftwagen (power wagon), Fernsprecher, (distant speaker), Kohlenstoff (coal element) for "automobile," "telephone," "carbon."
  12. superstring01 Moderator

    Honestly, I think the biggest turn-off about German was the language itself. The only reason I felt even remotely inclined to learn it is because of my German grandmother and subsequent heritage.

    Latin I was required to study while living in Spain and during my brief stint in France. Nothing motivates a person to learn like loving the subject matter. By no stretch of the imagination am I even remotely proficient in Latin, but I just found that it "stuck" better. Despite Spanish's divergences with it, I do believe that my understanding of Castillian helped me in my understanding of Latin.

  13. Facial Valued Senior Member

    I am surprised at the poll.

    Mandarin is not hard to learn!
  14. Facial Valued Senior Member

    It appears to be reasonable because evidence suggests most humans came from one place, that is, Ethiopia. However, if some completely illiterate people separated off from the main nomadic groups, couldn't they easily start their own language?

    Toba erupted 50,000 years ago and reduced the world human population to the order of thousands of people. Couldn't it be likely that some languages started from scratch then?
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Fer sure. For starters, the majority of the vocabulary of Spanish is of Latin origin, so many of the words are recognizable and easier to remember. And the grammatical paradigms have not diverged too greatly from Latin. Spanish lost the neuter gender and the five-case declension of nouns, but still it retains masculine and feminine, and adjectives have to agree in gender and number with the noun they modify. Its verb paradigm is even truer to Latin, with inflection of the verb by person, number and tense, three conjugations (-ar, -er, -ir), and that bizarre subjunctive mode (with two tenses) that only survives in English in the stilted construction "If I were famous..."
    I agree and have said so many times. Once you get past the phonetics, which are not nearly as daunting as they seem at first encounter, I think Mandarin is one of the easiest languages for English speakers. (But not some of the other Chinese languages like Fujian with its truly daunting phonetics.) Both English and Chinese have streamlined their grammar (Chinese more so), both have a robust word-building facility, and both have a syntax that relies heavily on word order to convey meaning.
    Indeed, but there's no strong evidence that they invented the technology of language at that time. If they did not, there remain two other reasonable hypotheses:
    • 1. After the diaspora one tribe invented language. Like many paradigm-shifting innovations (such as metallurgy, city-building, agriculture and the creation of a multi-species community with dogs, working from recent to ancient), language may have given its inventors such a tremendous advantage that they automatically became the cultural leaders of their region and their language spread with their influence. Most technologies are 99% knowledge and therefore spread rapidly, actually faster than populations can migrate.
    • 2. After the diaspora language was invented in multiple places and times. This was what happened with three of the four paradigm shifts I listed above; only with dogs did the idea spread throughout the world from a single origin (in what is now China around 15KYA). Civilization and metallurgy were invented independently six times, and agriculture arose so prolificly that it's difficult to isolate the places of origin.
    So depending on which of these two entirely reasonable possibilities is the truth, all languages could have a single ancestor. Or they could not.
    Wikipedia says it happened 75KYA, which puts it well before the first migration out of Africa. It's possible that the first language was invented while we all still lived in Africa; if it was the first and only, this supports the Nostratus hypothesis. But we have no way of dismissing the possibility that language was invented later, in multiple locations, once the human population had spread to other continents. And we can't even say for sure that it didn't arise independently in multiple locations in Africa. We have no ability to trace relationships among language families convincingly back beyond a few thousand years because they change too much and lose the traces.

    All we can say with reasonable certainty is that the technology of language is at least roughly ten thousand years old, and even that hypothesis is based on a fair amount of circumstantial evidence.
  16. superstring01 Moderator

    Expound, if you please.

    I find philology to be the second most enthralling subject on Earth (after genetics). Are there any good reads on the history of language for the slightly-more-advanced than casual reader?

  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Cases are to nouns as tenses are to verbs. Latin had five cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and vocative.

    To decline a noun is to inflect it to express its case, number or other properties, just as to conjugate a verb is to inflect it to express its tense, mode, person, number or other properties.

    I don't know Latin well enough to give you the complete paradigm of declension of any noun. But the nominative singular form of many masculine-gender nouns ends in -us and the genitive singular in -i, so "the bull's horn" would be cornus tauri. (And I may have screwed that up completely but even so it's a good illustration of the concept.)

    Note that we have a genitive case in English: "bull's" is the genitive singular of "bull." However, our paradigm of noun declension has collapsed to the point of silliness, since the nominative plural "bulls," the genitive singular "bull's" and the genitive plural "bulls' " all sound alike even if we write them differently.

    We retain a more complete paradigm for the pronouns.
    • Nominative singular: I, thou, he, she, it
    • Genitive singular: my, thy, his, her its
    • Accusative singular: me, thee, him, her, it
    • Nominative plural: we, you, they
    • Genitive plural: our, your, their
    • Accusative plural: us, you, them.
    Note the advanced state of collapse of even this paradigm: there are many duplicates and the second person singular is only used in religious language and by Quakers.

    I know German better than Latin and can do a better job with it. However it only has four cases, and their declension is carried by the accompanying article more than the paradim for nouns, which is also in a state of collapse.
    • Nominative singular: der Haus
    • Genitive singular: des Hauses
    • Dative singular: dem Hause
    • Accusative singular: den Haus
    • Nominative plural: die Häuse
    • Genitive plural: der Häusen
    • Dative plural: den Häusen
    • Accusative plural: die Häuse.
    I may have screwed that up too, I'm a little weak on the plural declensions, but I hope this gives you an idea of what declension is.

    As for the meaning expressed by noun cases: the nominative is the subject of a sentence, the accusative is the direct object of a verb, the dative is the indirect object, and the genitive is the possessive form.

    "The leader of the group gives the boy a dog." Der Führer (nominative) der Gruppe (genitive) gibt dem knabe (dative) einen Hund (accusative). Declensions look silly in a simple sentence because the word order makes the meanings clear, but in a more complex sentence you have the luxury of rearranging the words for emphasis or poetry, and you also get to omit a few prepositions.

    To us anglophones, verb conjugations look just as silly. Our language is relatively free of inflections compared to most Indo-European languages. What they accomplish with inflections we do with more prepositions and a less flexible word order.

    Inflections make a language difficult to learn for people whose native language doesn't use a lot of them. We just don't think in terms of having to adjust the ending of every noun and/or verb and/or adjective for grammatical purposes. In Spanish, every verb has 43 forms (not all of which are unique):
    • Infinitive: amar
    • Present: amo, amas, ama, amamos, amáis, aman
    • Preterit past: amé, amaste, amó, amamos, amasteis, amaron
    • Imperfect past: amaba, amabas, amaba, amábamos, amabais, amaban
    • Future: amaré, amarás, amará, amaremos, amaréis, amarán
    • Conditional: amaría, amarías, amaría, amaríamos, amaríais, amarían
    • Present subjunctive: ame, ames, ame, amemos, améis, amen
    • Past subjunctive: amara, amaras, amara, amáramos, amarais, amaran
    This is one of the reasons English speakers think Spanish is really hard to learn.

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  18. superstring01 Moderator

    An interesting little nugget about Spanish is the dual past subjunctive options.

    For example "Amar" as you presented has the past subjunctive options of:
    amara, amaras, amara, amáramos, amarais, amaran
    But there is a second option:
    amase, amases, amase, amásemos, amasais, amasan

    Neither is "better", "more used" or "preferable" to the other. It's up to the individual speaker. Countries where I've been (Spain, Venezuela, Costa Rica & Mexico to name a few) have no sociological preference. It's an individual choice, though I do tend to here the "ara" ending more than the "ase" ending.

    [For the un-initiated the subjunctive mood (to quote Wiki) "is typically used in dependent clauses to express wishes, commands, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or statements that are contrary to fact at present". It's highly complex and daunting (for an anglophone) on a scale that reaches the unimaginable. I have spent HOURS studying Spanish verbs, especially in the subjunctive mood. Even to this day I keep my copy of "501 Spanish Verbs" on my desk for regular reference and study.]

    For "ir" and "er" verbs (always conjugated using the same pattern, except for irregulars which are refreshingly rare), the options for past subjunctive are equally complex:
    dirigir : to direct
    dirigiera, dirigieras, dirigieras, dirigiéramos, dirigierais, dirigieran
    dirigiese, dirigieses, dirigiese, dirigiésemos, dirigiesais, dirigiesen

    And I haven't even gotten started on the presense of "vos" in Central and South America! Do you know that it's a GROWING trend? It's becoming more and more popular to the point where in Central America, Columbia & Chile where it's actually beginning to be used in the press and TV. In Argentina, Urugray and Paraguay it's been the common form of 2nd person singular several centuries. While living in the Canary Islands, where it began as slang that came from the island El Hierro which had a huge Argentine influx just before the 20th century.

  19. mikenostic Stop pretending you're smart! Registered Senior Member

  20. superstring01 Moderator

    Hey, Fraggle: Any chance you know the history of how two different subjunctive options evolved in Spanish? My friends in Spain just shrug and say, "Eeeeh... yo que sé."

  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    No, I've never been able to figure that out. I too have never met a Spanish-speaker (or anyone else for that matter) who knows the history of the language very well. In Portuguese they only have the -asse, -asses, -esse, -esses form, so even though I don't know Latin I would assume that this series was derived from the Latin inflections. Maybe the -ara, -aras, -iera, -ieras series was some other subjunctive tense (perfect? pluperfect? preterit? )that became an alternative imperfect subjunctive as the complex Latin paradigms collapsed. So the Spaniards kept it and the Portuguese didn't.

    I don't know enough of the other Romance languages to even know whether they have a subjunctive mode we could use for comparison. French grammar is pretty streamlined, especially with the elision of final syllables, so they probably don't have one. Romanian on the other hand is very conservative (it retains noun declensions), so they might. I picked up a little Catalan when I was in Valencia, but not enough to delve that deeply into the grammar.

    Maybe a web search will turn up something. Edit... so far I've learned that Italian has an imperfect subjunctive, I'll report back. Second edit: it's the -assi, -asse, -essi, -esse, -issi, -isse series. Consistent with Portuguese.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2009
  22. HelloKSue Registered Member

    Well, Japanese is way easier for me than any of the others. Japanese is fun to learn! I mean, it was for me, because it involved friends, travel, romance, learning about cultures, making money, having fun, living abroad, changing as a person...Of course if I had done all of these things is Spanish, I would have become fluent much more quickly. As it is, I still bumble along and trip in Spanish and can't make heads or tails out of most of what they are saying on the telenovelas.

    You need to modify your question. "Which language has the most linguistic differences from the point of view of the language learner--in this case, a native English speaker?" Furthermore, you need to break down the various parts of the language such as grammar and pronunciation and vocabulary. For example, a high percentage of loan words or words of common ancestry may aid the learner. Also, tone or sound reduction (or lack thereof) would pose a whole different set of problems. Finally, ease and difficulty of a language has a lot to do with how you learn it. If you are in an environment of native speakers and have significant social relationships with a number of them, the language is going to be a lot easier to learn. Age (child, teenager, young adult, middle-aged adult, older adult) and cultural background are also important. These factors, I believe, far outweigh the absolute ease or difficulty of a language, if that could actually be determined.

    Now, perhaps if we asked a polyglot of all these languages who learned all of them with the same approach at the same age with the same number of helpful and fun friends and teachers in the same kinds of environments, well, then, that person could perhaps tell us the answer.
  23. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Shikata ga nai....

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