Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's the Hardest Language to Learn?

One of the thousands of annoying things I hear people say regularly has the general form of "[insert language] is the hardest language to learn in the world." Or alternatively "[language x] is way harder/easier than [language y]." While I can understand why people make these statements, they are problematic, for several reasons.

Languages of the world are not inherently more or less difficult or complicated than others. Certainly some languages have different ways of dealing with various figures of syntax or orthography; whether these conventions are "easy" or "difficult" is relative.

How difficult a language is depends entirely upon the individual trying to learn said language. Whatever language(s) you speak natively will dictate your perspective on what is difficult and what is easy, based on how similar the new language is to your own. I hear English speakers frequently claim that Chinese is "the hardest language to learn." For a native English speaker, Chinese is very foreign. Obviously there will be very little common ground, especially lexically, as the two languages are entirely unrelated. Chinese also has a character writing system rather than an alphabet, and they use several different phonological tones to change the meaning of syllables. All of these things are extremely foreign to an English speaker, and so learning Chinese would be a difficult undertaking. On the other hand, Chinese is basically an uninflected language; it doesn't generally require "conjugating" a verb or "declining" a noun or adjective. It is also classified as an SVO (subject, verb, object) language, just as English is, meaning that generally words go in the same order in both languages; the verb at least comes before the direct object.

Let's look at two other languages: German and French. Which one is "harder" to learn for an English speaker? Again, it really depends on the similarities of each of those languages to English. English and German are both Germanic languages, meaning that they had the same ancestor language a very long time ago. Frenchis a Romance language, related to Latin but unrelated to English unless you go all the way back to Indo-European a very, very long time ago. Indeed all three of these languages are related eventually, but German and English split off much more recently.

So, which is easier? German should be easier, as it's more closely related. English, however, has changed fairly dramatically in the last millennium, particularly after 1066 when the Normans and French conquered England. After that happened, English was strongly influenced by French and began to change dramatically. This is one of the reasons why Old English (not Shakespeare, folks, I mean Beowulf, Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum) is completely incomprehensible to modern English speakers. Because of this historical event, English (unlike German) became much more like a Romance language in its syntax.

Comparing specific linguistic features, English has lost many things which German still has, like gender and case inflections. German also has a different word order, although it's difficult to classify it in S-V-O terms because the order changes depending on the type of clause. Generally the verb is postponed to second or last, but the other constituents can come in different places. English and French are both SVO languages, and neither one has case inflection. French does still preserve the masculine and feminine genders, and all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives inflect for gender. To answer the original question, learning French may actually be a less daunting task than German to an English speaker, even though English is a Germanic language.

One of my favorite examples is Persian and Arabic. Which would be harder to learn? Most people think that they're the same, or at least very similar. They're not! Even though Iran and Iraq border each other, their languages are completely unrelated! Arabic is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew, but Persian is actually part of the Indo-European language family, meaning that it has a common ancestor with English. Because they've been in such close contact for so long, Arabic and Persian do share many similarities and have even exchanged a lot of vocabulary. They have similar writing systems as well (whence comes the misconception that they're related, I assume). To show that they're unrelated, look at the word brother in both languages: sheqyeq (Arabic) and berader in Persian. Which one looks familiar? Both languages would present a challenge for English speakers grammatically; with Persian, however, there will be discernible connections with some words.

What about English? I've often heard people say that our language is "the hardest to learn in the world." English certainly can seem very complicated at times. A lot of our verbs have irregular past tense and/or perfect passive participle forms, and we tend to ignore pronunciation "rules" pretty frequently. In some ways though, English is a very simple language. We don't have any grammatical gender, and words don't inflect for case (with the exception of personal pronouns - compare he/him and she/her.) We also have very little morphology; generally nouns get pluralized with s or es; only the 3rd person singular verb form gets an inflectional ending: I run, you run, he runs, we run, you run, they run. Compare English with a heavily inflected language like Latin, or Finnish, and English seems fairly simple. 

Chinese is probably an easy choice for making statements about language difficulty because it has a billion or so speakers and is highly visible in the world. There are some crazy other languages out there that do crazy things. Languages with ergative case systems, like Basque, an isolate in parts of Spain and France and Dyirbal, which is a language literally spoken by 5 guys in a tribe in Australia, treat subjects and objects completely differently from so-called "accusative" languages like English. Yupik languages, spoken by native Eskimos in Alaska, are agglutinating or poly-synthetic and basically pile a whole bunch of bound-morpheme suffixes onto one root to make one giant word that expresses a whole sentence.

To put a point on all of this, basically I'm just trying to demonstrate that any statement made about the difficulty of language is relative, dependent on the existing knowledge of the person making the statement. What may be difficult for an English speaker to learn may be relatively simple for someone else who speaks a more closely-related language. The world is full of completely different ways of communicating. If you do some digging, you'll find many that you never knew existed, which express ideas in completely different ways. It's quite an eye-opening experience.

[I found an organization which actually classifies how difficult other languages would be for an English speaker to learn. Check out page 28 of this pdf. Note that French would be easier than German, likewise Persian easier than Arabic.]

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