Note: Bizarrely enough, the PC headcases have accused this post, a Linguistics post of all things, of racism. See here for my position statement on racism.
Caution: This post is very long! It runs to 88 pages on the Web.
We did a post on this earlier, but it looks like we only scratched the surface. There are many of webpages on this topic, and one could read about the subject for a long time, but after a while, things start getting repetitive.
This post is very good. There are more in various places on the Web.
For starters, before we do our own analysis, let’s look at what some other people came up with. This post is very good. They did a survey, and the post describes the results of the survey.
According to the survey, the nine hardest languages to learn overall were Mandarin, Hungarian, Finnish, Polish, Arabic, Hindi, Icelandic, German and Swedish.
The eight hardest languages to speak (or to pronounce correctly, specifically) were French, Mandarin, Polish, Korean, Hungarian, Arabic, Basque and Hindi.
The nine hardest languages to write were Arabic, Mandarin, Polish, French, Serbo-Croatian, Japanese, Russian, Basque and English.
How does that survey line up with the facts? Surveys are just opinions of L2 learners, and carry variant validity. For starters, let’s throw Swedish off the list altogether, as it actually seems to be a pretty easy language to learn. It’s interesting that some people find it hard, but the weight of the evidence suggests that more folks find it easy than difficult.
Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and Russian of course use different alphabets and this is why they were rated as hard to write.
Method. A literature survey, combined with interviews of various L2 language learners was conducted. In addition, 100 years of surveys on the question by language instructors was reviewed. The US military’s School of Languages in Monterey’s ratings system for difficulty of learning various languages was analyzed.
Results were collated in an impressionistic manner along a majority rules line in order to form final opinions. For example, a minority said that Portuguese or Spanish were very hard to learn, but the consensus view was that they were quite easy. In this case, the minority opinion was rejected and the consensus view was adopted. The work received a tremendous amount of criticism after publication, and many changes were made to the text.
Clearly, such a project will necessarily be more impressionistic than scientific. Scientific tests of the relative difficulty of learning different languages will have to await the development of algorithms specifically designed to measure such things. And even then, surely there will be legions of “We can’t prove anything” naysayers, as this is the heyday of the “We can’t prove anything” School of Physics Envy in Linguistics.
One common criticism was that, “In Linguistics, the standard view is that there is no such thing as an easy or difficult language to learn. All languages are equally difficult or easy to learn.” Unless we are talking about children learning an L1 (and even then that’s a dubious assertion) this statement was rejected as simply untrue and exemplar of the sort of soft science (“We can’t prove anything about anything”) mushiness that has overtaken Linguistics in recent years.
Sociolinguistics and Applied Linguistics have long been nearly ruined by soft science mushiness, and in recent years, soft science “We can’t prove anything” muddleheadedness has overtaken Historical Linguistics in a horrible way. Bizarrely enough, this epidemic of Physics Envy has been clouded, as one might suspect, in claims of rigorous application of the scientific method.
But hard sciences prove things all the time. Whenever a field claims that almost nothing in the field is provable, you’re heading in the realms of Politically Correct soft science Humanities brain mush.
Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.
Ratings. Languages were rated 1-5, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very to extremely difficult, 5 = most difficult of all.
Time needed. Time needed to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer.
Conclusion. The soft science, Politically Correct mush-speak from the swamps of Sociolinguistics currently in vogue, “All languages are equally difficult or easy for any adult to learn,” was rejected. The results of this study indicate that languages to indeed differ dramatically in how difficult they are for L2 learners.
Indian languages like Kashmiri, Hindi and especially Sanskrit are quite hard, and Sanskrit is legendary for its extreme complexity. Sanskrit grammar is very complicated. There are 8 cases. Sinhala is also difficult.
The Hindi script is quite opaque to Westerners, some of whom say that Chinese script is easier. You speak one way if you are talking to a man or a woman, and you also need to take into account whether you as speaker are male or female. In addition, Hindi has many long words.
Sanskrit is legendary for its difficulty. It has script that goes on for long sequences in which many small individual words may be buried. You have to take apart the sequences to find the small words. However, the words are further masked by tone sandhi running everything together. Once you tease the sandhi apart, you have to deal with hundreds of compound characters in the script. Once you do those two things, you are left with eight cases, nine declensions, dual number and other fun things.
Hindi is rated 3, moderately difficult.
Kashmiri and Sinhala are rated 4, extremely difficult.
Sanskrit is rated 5, the most difficult of all.
Persian is easier to learn than its reputation, as some say this is a difficult language to learn. In truth, it’s difficulty is only average. On the plus side, Persian has a very simple grammar. It has no grammatical gender, no case, no articles and adjectives never change form. It is a quite easy language to learn at the entry level, but it is much harder to learn at the advanced level, say Sufi poetry, due to difficulty in untangling subtleties of meaning.
Persian only gets a 3 rating as average to moderately difficult.
French is pretty easy to learn at a simple level, but it’s not easy to get to an advanced level. For instance, the language is full of idioms, many more than your average language, and it’s often hard to figure them out. French has a grammar that is neither simple nor difficult; that, combined with a syntax is pretty straightforward and a Latin alphabet make it pretty easy to learn for most Westerners.
One problem is pronunciation. There are many nasal vowels, similar to Portuguese. The eu, u and all of the nasal vowels can be Hell for the learner. There is also a strange uvular r. The orthography is also difficult, since there are many sounds that are written but no longer pronounced, as in English. Also similar to English, orthography does not line up with pronunciation. For instance, there are 13 different ways to spell the o sound: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö.
In addition, spoken French and written French can be quite different. Spoken French uses words such as fouture and on which you might never see in written French.
The English language, having no Language Committee, at least has an excuse for the frequently irrational nature of its spelling.
The French have no excuse, since they have a committee that is set up in part to keep the language as orthographically irrational as possible. One of their passions is refusing to change the spelling of words even as pronunciation changes, which is the opposite of what occurs in any sane spelling reform. So French is, like English, frozen in time.
Furthermore, to make matters worse, the French are almost as prickly about writing properly as they are about speaking properly, and you know how they are about foreigners mangling their language.
A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than English. Verbs change much more, and it has grammatical gender.
French is one of the toughest languages to learn in the Romance family. A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than Italian in that French children do not learn to write French properly until age 12-13, six years after Italian children.
This is due to the illogical nature of French spelling discussed above such that the spelling of many French words must be memorized as opposed to applying a general sound-symbol correspondence rule. In addition, French uses both acute and grave accents – `´.
French gets a 3 rating for average to moderately difficult.
Italian is said to be easy to learn, especially if you speak a Romance language or English, but learning to order a pizza and really mastering it are two different things. Foreigners usually do not learn Italian at anywhere near a native level.
For instance, Italian has three types of tenses, simple tenses, compound tenses, and indefinite tenses. There are also various moods that combine to take tense forms – four subjunctive moods, two conditional moods, two gerund moods, two infinite moods, two participle moods and one imperative mood.
There are eight tenses in the indicative mood – recent past, remote pluperfect, recent pluperfect, preterite (remote past), imperfect, present, future, future perfect. There are four tenses in the subjunctive mood – present, imperfect, preterite and pluperfect. There are two tenses in the conditional mood – present and preterite.
There is only one tense in the imperative mood – present. Gerund, participle and infinite moods all take only present and perfect tenses. Altogether, using these mood-tense combinations, any Italian verb can decline in up to 21 different ways.
Italian has many irregular verbs. There are many combinations just to make articles and preposition,s and there are 600 irregular verbs with all sorts of different irregularities. Nevertheless, it is a Romance language, and Romance has gotten rid of most of its irregularity. The Slavic languages are much more irregular than Romance.
Counterintuitively, some Italian words are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. There are many different ways to say the – il, i, lo, gli , l’ (masculine); la, le, l’ (feminine). Few Italians even write Italian 100% correctly. A problem with Italian is that meaning is inferred via intonation. If you mess up the intonation of your utterance, you’re screwed and will not be understood. However, there is no case in Italian, as in all of Romance.
Italian is still easier to learn than French, for evidence see the research that shows Italian children learning to write Italian properly by age 6, 6-7 years ahead of French children. This is because Italian orthography is quite sensible and coherent, with good sound-symbol correspondence.
Italian gets a 2 rating, moderately easy to average.
Surprisingly enough, Romanian is said to be one of the harder Romance languages to speak or write properly. Even Romanians often get it wrong. One strange thing about Romanian is that the articles are attached to the noun as suffixes. In all the rest of Romance, articles are free words that precede the noun. English: telephone and the telephone; Romanian: telefon and telefonul. Romanian is harder to learn than Spanish or Italian, and possibly harder than French. It has considerable Slavic influence.
Romanian gets a 3 rating as average to moderately hard to learn.
Spanish is often said to be one of the easiest languages to learn, though this is somewhat controversial. Personally, I’ve been learning it off and on since age six and I still have problems, though Spanish speakers say my Spanish is good, but Hispanophones, unlike the French, are generous about these things.
It’s quite logical, though the verbs do decline a lot with tense and number, and there are many irregular verbs, similar to French. Compare English declensions to Spanish declensions of the verb to read.
pudísteis haber leído
hubiéremos ó hubiésemos leído
Nevertheless, Romance grammar is much more regular than, say, Polish, as Romance has junked most of the irregularity. Spanish has the good grace to lack case, spelling is a piece of cake, and words are spoken just as they are written. Nevertheless, Hispanophones say that few foreigners end up speaking like natives.
Rated 1 as easiest of all.
Portuguese, like Spanish, is also very easy to learn, though Portuguese pronunciation is harder due to the unusual vowels such as nasal diphthongs and the strange palatal lateral ʎ, which many English speakers will mistake for an l.
Portuguese gets a 1 rating, easiest of all.
Greek is a difficult language to learn, and it’s rated the second hardest language to learn by language professors. It’s easy to learn to speak simply, but it’s quite hard to get it down like a native. It’s the rare second language learner who attains native competence. Greek grammar is dead simple, but there are problems with writing Greek. Like English, the spelling doesn’t seem to make sense, and you have to memorize many words. Further, there is the unusual alphabet.
Greek gets a 4 rating, extremely difficult to learn.
Classic Greek is worse, with a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, a pitch accent system and a truly convoluted system of noun and verb inflection.
Classic Greek gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.
People often say that English is easy to learn, but that is deceptive. For one thing, English has anywhere from 500,000-1 million words (said to be twice as much as any other language – but there are claims that Dutch and Arabic each have 4 million words), the number increases by the day; furthermore, most people don’t understand more than 50,000. Yet they only use 5,000 at most.
Actually, the average American or Brit uses a mere 2,500 words. As we might expect, our cultivated Continentals in Europe, such as Spaniards and French, probably have twice the regular vocabulary of English speakers and far more colloquial expressions.
In addition, verbal phrases or phrasal verbs are a nightmare. In many cases, phrasal verbs can have more than 10 different antagonistic meanings.
Get down and party down – to have fun and party, yet get down on the floor – to lie prone and remain there. Are you down? – are you ready to do something. Pat down – to frisk. Take down – to tackle. Cook down – to reduce the liquid content in a cooked item. Run down - to run over something, to review a list or to attack someone verbally for a long time. Play down – to de-emphasize. Write down – to write on a sheet of paper, but write up – to write in any form, usually a long piece.
Drink up and drink down mean roughly the same thing, as do slip up and slip down. Light up – to torch. Mess up, slip up – to fail. Cook up – to prepare a meal. Vacuum up – to vacuum. Wash up – to wash. Brush up – to go over a previously learned skill. Bone up – to study hard. Play up – to dramatize. Read up – to read intensively as in studying. Stay up – to not go to bed. Come up – to approach closely, to occur suddenly or to overflow. Patch up – to put together a broken thing or relationship.
Make up – to make amends, to apply cosmetics to one’s face or to invent a story. Burn up – burn completely or to be made very angry, burn down – reduce s.t. to ashes, like a structure. Turn up – to increase volume or to appear suddenly somewhere. Run up – to tally a big bill or approach s.t. quickly. Dry up – to dessicate. Take up - to develop a new skill, to bring something to a higher elevation, to cook something at a high heat to where it is assimilated. Blow up – to explode.
Dress up – to dress oneself in formal attire. Shake up – to upset a paradigm, to upset emotionally. Hit up - to visit someone casually or to ask for a favor or gift, usually small amounts of money. Wake up – to awaken. Stir up – stir rapidly, upset a calm surrounding or scene or upset a paradigm. Cheer up – to elevate one’s mood. Talk up – to try to convince someone of something by discussing it dramatically and intensively.
Chat up – to talk casually with a goal in mind, usually seduction or at least flirtation. Hang up – to place on a hanger or a wall, to end a phone call. Trip up – to stumble mentally over s.t. confusing. Mop up – mop a floor or finish off the remains of an enemy army or finalize a military operation. Clean up – to make an area thoroughly tidy. Pick up – to grasp an object and lift it higher, to seduce someone sexually or to acquire a new skill, usually rapidly.
Put up – to hang, to tolerate, often grudgingly, or to put forward a new image. Tear up – to shred. Ring up – to telephone someone. Cut up – to shred or to make jokes, often of a slapstick variety. Meet up – to meet someone or a group for a get meeting or date of some sort. Start up – to initialize an engine or a program, to open a new business to go back to something that had been terminated previously, often a fight; a recrudescence. Crank up - elevate the volume.
Rev up – to turn the RPM’s higher on a stationary engine. Shoot up – to inject, usually illegal drugs, or to fire many projectiles into a place with a gun. Drum up – to charge someone with wrongdoing, usually criminal, usually by a state actor, usually for false reasons.
Kiss up – to mend a relationship after a fight. Wait up – to ask other parties to wait for someone who is coming in a hurry. Whip up – to cook a meal quickly or for winds to blow wildly. Touch up – to apply the final aspects of a work nearly finished.
Suck up – to ingratiate oneself, often in an obsequious fashion. Stop up – to block the flow of liquids with some object(s). Suit up – to get dressed in a uniform, often for athletics. Pass up - to miss an opportunity, often a good one. Pop up – for s.t. to appear suddenly, often out of nowhere.
Own up – to confess to one’s sins under pressure and reluctantly. Live up – to enjoy life. Lighten up – to reduce the downcast or hostile seriousness of the mood of a person or setting. Knock up – to impregnate. Beat up – to defeat someone thoroughly in a violent physical fight.
Listen up – imperative – to order someone to pay attention, often with threats of aggression if they don’t comply. Man up – to elevate oneself to manly behaviors when one is slacking and behaving in an unmanly fashion. Lock up – to lock securely, often locking various locks, or to imprison, or for an object or computer program to be frozen or jammed and unable to function. Mix up – to confuse, or to disarrange contents in a scattered fashion so that it does not resemble the original.
Measure up – in a competition, for an entity to match the competition. Mark up – to raise the price of s.t. Move up – to elevate the status of a person or entity in competition with other entities- to move up in the world. Hook up – to have a casual sexual encounter or to meet casually for a social encounter, often in a public place; also to connect together a mechanical devise or plug something in.
Hurry up - imperative, usually an order to quit delaying and join the general group or another person in some activity, often when they are leaving to go to another place. Face up – to quit avoiding your problems and meet them head on. End up – to arrive at some destination after a long winding, often convoluted journey either in space or in time. Clear up – for a storm to dissipate, for a rash to go away, for a confusing matter to become understandable.
Close up – to close, also to end business hours for a public business. Cheer up – to change from a downcast mood to a more positive one. Curl up – to rest in a curled body position, either alone or with another being. Crack up – to laugh, often heartily. Back up – to go in reverse, often in a vehicle, or to go back over something previously dealt with that was poorly understood in order to understand it better. Bruise up – to receive multiple bruises, often serious ones.
Break up – to break into various pieces, or to end a relationship, either personal or between entitles, also to split a large entity, like a large company or a state. Build up – to build intensively in an area, such as a town or city, from a previously less well-developed state. Buy up – to buy all or most all of something. Catch up – to reach a person or group that one had lagged behind earlier, or to take care of things, often hobbies, that had been put off by lack of time.
Do up – apply makeup to someone, often elaborately. Dream up – to imagine a creative notion, often an elaborate one. Drive up – to drive towards something, and then stop, or to raise the price of something by buying it intensively. Feel up – to grope someone sexually. Get up – to awaken or rise from a prone position. Give up – to surrender, in war or a contest, or to stop doing something trying or unpleasant that is yielding poor results, or to die, as in give up the ghost.
Grow up – to attain an age or maturity or to act like a mature person, often imperative. Hold up – to delay, to ask someone ahead of you to wait, often imperative. Keep up – to maintain on a par with the competition without falling behind. Lay up – to be sidelined due to illness or injury for a time. Let up – to ease off of someone or something, for a storm to dissipate, to stop attacking someone or s.t.
Pay up – to pay, usually a debt, often imperative to demand payment of a debt, to pay all of what one owes so you don’t owe anymore. Rise up – for an oppressed group to arouse and fight back against their oppressors. Run up – to spend a lot of money, often foolishly. Show up – to appear somewhere, often unexpectedly. Shut up – to silence, often imperative, fighting words. Sit up – to sit upright.
Speak up – to begin speaking after listening for a while, often imperative, a request for a silent person to say what they wish to say. Take up – to cohabit with someone – She has taken up with him. Think up – to conjure up a plan, often an elaborate or creative one. Throw up - to vomit. Bid up – to raise the price of something, usually at an auction, by calling out higher and higher bids. Be up – to be in a waking state after having slept. “I’ve been up for three hours.”
There are figures of speech and idioms everywhere (some estimate that up to 20% of casual English speech is idiomatic), and it seems impossible to learn them all. In fact, few second language learners get all the idioms down pat.
The spelling is insane and hardly follows any rules at all. The English spelling system in some ways is frozen at about 1500 or so. The pronunciation has changed but the spelling has not. Careful studies have shown that English-speaking children take longer to read than children speaking other languages (Finnish, Greek and various Romance and other Germanic languages) due to the difficulty of the spelling system. Romance languages were easier to read than Germanic ones.
This may be why English speakers are more likely to be diagnosed dyslexic than speakers of other languages. The dyslexia still exists if you speak a language with good sound-symbol correspondence, but it’s covered up so much by the ease of the orthography that it seems invisible and the person can often function well. But for a dyslexic, trying to read English is like walking into a minefield.
The rules governing the use of the indefinite, definite and zero article are opaque and possibly don’t even exist. There are synonyms for almost every word in a sentence, and the various shades of meaning can be difficult to discern. In addition, quite a few words have many different meanings. There are strange situations like read and read, which are pronounced differently and mean two different things.
However, English verbs generally have few forms in their normal paradigm of regular verbs. In this arrangement, there are only five forms of the verb in general use with the overwhelming majority of verbs:
present except 3rd singular steal
3rd person singular steals
Even a language like Spanish has many more basic forms than that.
There are quite a few dialects – over 100 have been recorded in London alone. Letters can make many different sounds, a consequence of the insane spelling system. English prepositions are notoriously hard, and few second language learners get them down right because they seem to obey no discernible rules.
While English seems simple at first – past tense is easy, little or no case, no grammatical gender, little mood, etc. – that can be quite deceptive. In European countries like Croatia, it’s hard to find a person who speaks English with even close to native speaker competence.
The problem with English is that it’s a mess! There are languages with very easy grammatical rules like Indonesian and languages with very hard grammatical rules like Arabic. English is one of those languages that is a total mess. There are rules, but there are exceptions everywhere and exceptions to the exceptions. Grammatically, it’s disaster area. It’s hard to know where to start.
However, it is often said that English has no grammatical rules. Even native speakers make this comment because that is how English seems due to its highly irregular nature. Most English native speakers, even highly educated ones, can’t name one English grammatical rule. Just to show you that English does have rules though, I will list some of them.
*Indicates an ungrammatical form.
Adjectives appear before the noun in noun phrases. Small dogs barked. *Dogs small barked.
Adjectives are numerically invariant – the small dog, the small dogs, The dog is small. The dogs are small.
Intensifiers appear before both attributive and predicative adjectives. The very small dog barked. *The small very dog barked. The dog was very small. *The dog was small very.
Attributive adjectives can have complements. The dog was scared. The dog was scared of cats. But predicative adjectives cannot. The scared dog barked. *The scared of cats dog barked.
Articles, quantifiers, etc. appear before the adjective (and any
intensifier) in a noun phrase. The very small dog barked. *Very the small dog barked. *Very small the dog barked. Every very small dog barked. *Very every small dog barked. *Very small every dog barked.
Relative clauses appear after the noun in a noun phrase. The dog that barked. *The that barked dog.
The progressive verb form is the bare form with the suffix -ing, even for the most irregular verbs in the language – being, having, doing; *wasing, *aring, *aming.
The infinitive verb form is to followed by the bare form, even for the most irregular verbs in the language – to be, to have, to do; *to was, *to are, *to am.
The imperative verb form is the bare form, even for the most irregular verb in the language. Be! Have! Do! *Was! *Are! *Am!
All 1st person present, 2nd person present, and plural present verb forms are equivalent to the bare form, except for to be.
All past tense verb forms of a given verb are the same regardless of person and number, except for to be.
Question inversion is optional. You are leaving? Are you leaving? But when inversion does occur in a wh-question, a wh-phrase is required to be fronted. You’re seeing what? What are you seeing? *Are you seeing what?
Wh-fronting is required to affect an entire noun phrase, not just the wh-word. You are going to which Italian restaurant? Which Italian restaurant are you going to? *Which are you going to Italian restaurant? *Which Italian are you going to restaurant? *Which restaurant are you going to Italian?
Wh-fronting only happens once, never more. What are you buying from which store? Which store are you buying what from? *What which store are you buying from? *Which store what are you buying from?
The choice of auxiliary verb in compound past sentences does not depend on the choice of main verb. I have eaten. I have arrived. *I am eaten. *I am arrived. cf. French. J’ai mangé. Je suis arrivé.
English can be seen as an inverted pyramid in terms of ease of learning. The basics are easy, but it gets a lot more difficult as you progress in your learning.
Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, English only gets a 2 rating as moderately easy to average, mostly because it is relatively easy to speak it well enough to be more or less understandable most of the time.
German’s status is controversial. It’s long been considered hard to learn, but many learn it fairly easily. Pronunciation is straightforward, but there are some problems with the müde, the Ach, and the two ch sounds in Geschichte.
Although the first one is really an sch instead of a ch, English speakers lack an sch, so they will just see that as a ch. Further, there are specific rules about when to use the ss (or sz as Germans say) or hard s. The r in German is quite strange, and of common languages, only French has a similar r.
There are six different forms of the depending on the noun case – der , die, das, den, dem and des – but 16 different slots to put the six forms in, and the gender system is irrational. In a more basic sense and similar to Danish, there are three basic forms of the: der, die and das. Each one goes with a particular noun, and it’s not very clear what the rules are.
One problem with German syntax is that the verb, verbs or parts of verbs doesn’t occur until the end of the sentence.
German also has Schachtelsätze, box clauses, which are like clauses piled into other clauses. The syntax is very rigid but at least very regular. In addition, subclauses use SOV word order . German case is also quite regular. The case exceptions can be almost counted on one hand.
An example of German case (and case in general) is here: The leader of the group gives the boy a dog. In German, the sentence is case marked with the four different German cases: Der Führer (nominative) der Gruppe (genitive) gibt dem Jungen (dative) einen Hund (accusative).
There are three genders, masculine, feminine and neutral. Yet female – (das Weib) is neutral, and petticoat is masculine! Any given noun inflects into the four cases and the three genders. Furthermore, the genders change between masculine and feminine in the same noun for no logical reason.
Phonology also changes strangely as the number of the noun changes – Haus – house is singular – Haeuser – houses, is plural with umlaut. But to change the noun to a diminutive, you add -chen – Haueschen, which is singular, yet has the umlaut of the plural.
German also has a vast vocabulary, the fourth largest in the world. This is either positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. Language learners often complain about learning languages with huge vocabularies, but as a native English speaker, I’m happy to speak a language with a million words. There’s a word for just about everything you want to say about anything, and then some!
On the plus side, word formation is quite regular. Pollution is Umweltverschmutzung. It consists, logically, of two words, Umwelt and Verschmutzung, which mean environment and dirtying. In English, you have three words, environment, dirtying and pollution, the third one, the combination of the first two, has no relation to its semantic roots in the first two words.
Nevertheless, this has its problems, since it’s not simple to figure out how the words are stuck together into bigger words, and meanings of morphemes can take years to figure out.
Learning German can be seen as a pyramid. It is very difficult to grasp the basics, but once you do that, it gets increasingly easy as the language follows relatively simple rules and many words are created from other words via compound words, prefixes and suffixes.
On the plus side, German is not very inflected, and the inflection that it does take is more regular than many other languages. Furthermore, German orthography is phonetic, and there are no silent letters.
German gets a 3 rating, average to moderately difficult.
Icelandic is very hard to learn, much harder than Norwegian, German or Swedish. Part of the problem is pronunciation. The grammar is harder than German grammar, and there are almost no Latin-based words in it. The vocabulary is quite archaic.
There are four cases – nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative – as in German, and there are many exceptions to the case rules, or “quirky case,” as it is called. Verbs are modified for tense, person and number, as in many other IE languages (this is almost gone from English).
Icelandic also modifies verbs for voice – active, passive and medial. Furthermore, there are four different kinds of verbs – strong, weak, reduplicating and irregular, with several conjugation categories in each division. Many verbs just have to be memorized.
Icelandic gets a 5 rating, hardest of all to learn.
Faroese is said to be even harder to learn than Icelandic, with some very strange vowels not found in other North Germanic languages.
Faroese gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.
Norwegian and Swedish are both easy to learn, and Norwegian is sometimes touted as the easiest language on Earth to learn. This is confusing because Danish is described below as a more difficult language to learn, and critics say that Danish and Norwegian are the same, so they should have equal difficulty. But only one Norwegian writing system is almost the same as Danish the Danish writing system.
Danish pronunciation is quite a bit different from Norwegian, and this is where the problems come in.
Nevertheless, Norwegian dialects can be a problem. Foreigners get off the plane having learned a bit of Norwegian and are immediately struck by the strangeness of the multiplicity of dialects, which for the most part are easy for Norwegians to understand, but can be hard for foreigners. There is also the problematic en and et alternation, as discussed with Danish.
Swedish does have the disadvantage of having hundreds of irregular verbs. Swedish also has some difficult phonemes, especially vowels. since Swedish has nine vowels, not including diphthongs. Pronunciation of the ö and å (and sometimes ä, which has different sounds) can be difficult . Words can take either an -en or an -ett ending, and there don’t seem to be any rules about which one to use. The same word can have a number of different meanings.
Swedish can be compared to a tube in terms of ease of learning. The basics are harder to learn than in English, but instead of getting more difficult as one progresses as in English, the difficulty of Swedish stays more or less the same from basics to the most complicated.
But learning to speak Swedish is easy enough compared to other languages. Where Swedish gets difficult is learning how to write it, since the spelling seems illogical, like in English.
Swedish and Norwegian get 1 ratings, very easy to learn.
Danish is a harder language to learn than one might think. It’s not that hard to read or even write, but it’s quite hard to speak. However, like English, Danish has a non-phonetic orthography, so this can be problematic.
For one, there are a huge number of dialects. Denmark is a group of cool to cold islands (depending on the season) with a freezing cold ocean in between them. People generally stayed on their islands and didn’t move around much. Each island has its own dialect, and the dialects can be quite baffling for second language learners. There are eight major dialects, and countless minor ones subsumed under them.
In addition, there are d words where the d is silent and other d words where it is pronounced, and though the rules are straightforward, it’s often hard for foreigners. The d in hund is silent, for instance.
There are three strange vowels that are not in English, represented by the letters æ, ø and å. Two of them (one each) are also present in Swedish and Icelandic, but most foreigners have problems with them.
One advantage of all of the Scandinavian languages is that their basic vocabulary is fairly limited. This is in contrast to Chinese, where you have to learn a lot of vocabulary just to converse at a basic level.
As with Maltese and Gaelic, there is little correlation between how a Danish word is written and how it is pronounced. Pronunciation of Danish is difficult. Speech is very fast and comes out in a continuous stream that elides entire words. Vowels in the middle and at the end of words are seldom expressed.
There are nine vowel characters, and each one can be pronounced in five or six different ways. There is also a strange phonetic element called a stød, which is a very short pause slightly before the vowel(s) in a word. This element is very hard for foreigners to get right. Just about any word has at least four meanings, and can serve as noun, verb, adjective or adverb.
Suggesting that Danish may be harder to learn than Swedish or Norwegian, it’s said that Danish children speak later than Swedish or Norwegian children. One study comparing Danish children to Croatian tots found that the Croat children had learned over twice as many words by 15 months as the Danes. According to the study:
The University of Southern Denmark study shows that at 15 months, the average Danish toddler has mastered just 80 words, whereas a Croatian tot of the same age has a vocabulary of up to 200 terms.
[...] According to the study, the primary reason Danish children lag behind in language comprehension is because single words are difficult to extract from Danish’s slurring together of words in sentences. Danish is also one of the languages with the most vowel sounds, which leads to a ‘mushier’ pronunciation of words in everyday conversation.
Danish gets a 3 rating, average to moderately hard to learn.
Dutch is harder to learn than English due to the large number of rules used in both speaking and writing. The Dutch say that few foreigners learn to speak Dutch well. Part of the problem is that some words have no meaning at all in isolation (meaning is only derived via a phrase or sentence). Word order is somewhat difficult, as foreigners often seem to get the relatively lax Dutch rules about word order wrong in long sentences.
Dutch gets a 3 rating, average to moderately hard to learn.
Any Gaelic language is tough. Irish students take Irish for 13 years, and some take French for five years. These students typically know French better than Irish. There are inflections for the inflections of the inflections, a convoluted aspiration system, and no words for yes or no. The system of initial consonant mutation is quite baffling.
Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are also very hard to learn, some say harder than Irish, although Welsh has no case compared to Irish’s two cases. And the Welsh has a mere five irregular verbs. Gaelic languages are harder to learn than German or Russian. Both Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are written with non-phonetic spelling that is even more convoluted and irrational than English.
Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Irish get 5 ratings, hardest of all.
An obscure branch of Indo-European, Armenian, is very hard to learn. Armenian is a difficult language in terms of grammar and phonetics, not to mention the very odd alphabet.
Rated 5, hardest of all.
Albanian is another obscure branch of Indo-European. Similarly to Gaelic, Albanian is even harder to learn than either German or Russian. Albanian may be even harder to learn than Polish.
Rated 5, hardest of all.
Czech and Slovak are notoriously hard to learn; in fact, all Slavic languages are. Language professors rate the Slavic languages the third hardest to learn on Earth. Czech is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the hardest language to learn.
It’s sometimes said that even Czechs never learn to speak their language correctly, and there is actually some truth to that. They spend nine years in school studying Czech grammar, but some rules are learned only at university. Immigrants never seem to learn Czech well.
Czech is full of exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions. It is said that there are more exceptions than there are rules.
Czech has seven cases in singular and seven more cases in plural for nouns, for a total of 59 different “modes” of declension. There are also words that swing back and forth between “modes.” Adjectives and pronouns also have seven cases in the singular and plural. There are lots of exceptions, too.
There are six genders, three in the singular and three in the plural. Verbs also decline. When you put all that together, each noun can decline in 59 different ways. Further, these 59 different types of nouns each have 14 different forms depending on case.
The verbs have both perfective and imperfective and have 45 different conjugation patterns.
Truth is that almost every word in the language is subject to declension.
One of the problems with Czech is that not only nouns but also verbs take gender, but they only do so in the past tense. In addition, Czech has a complicated aspect system that is often quite irregular and simply must be memorized to be learned. This conjugation is fairly regular:
viděl continuous past – he saw
uviděl punctual – once he suddenly saw
vídával repetitive – he used to see (somebody/something) repeatedly
Others are less regular:
jedl continuous – he ate
snědl, ujedl, pojedl, dojedl – he ate it all up
ujedl has the slightly different meaning of he ate a bit of it
pojedl has the slightly different meaning of he finished eating
jídával repetitive – he used to eat repeatedly
As with other Slavic languages like Russian, it has the added problem of fairly loose word order. In addition, there are significant differences between casual and formal speech.
Slovak is said to be even harder than Czech, but that’s a tough call. These two languages are the only ones with seven cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, locative, dative, instrumental and vocative). There is also a hard and soft i which is hard to figure out.
The suffixes on nouns and verbs change all the time in strange ways. It’s also full of words that don’t seem to have vowels. There are some difficult consonants such as š, č, ť, ž, ľ, ď, dz, dž, ĺ and ŕ.
Some say that Slovak is even harder than Polish, but, it’s probably a toss-up between Czech/Slovak and Polish.
Czech and Slovak both get 5 ratings, hardest of all.
Polish is similar to Czech and Slovak in having words that seem to have no vowels, but in Polish at least there are invisible vowels. That’s not so obviously the case with Czech. Nevertheless, try these sentences: Strč prst skrz krk or Mlž pln skvrn zlvh. Or these: Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie. Wyindywidualizowaliśmy się z rozentuzjazmowanego tłumu.
I and y, s and z, je and ě alternate at the ends of some words, but the rules governing when to do this, if they exist, don’t seem sensible. The letters ř and ť are very hard to pronounce, and the ř exists in no other language. There are nasal vowels as in Portuguese. The ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, sz, cz, dz, dź, dż sounds are hard for foreigners to make. There are sounds that it is even hard for native speakers to make, as they require a lot tongue movements.
Polish written to spoken pronunciation makes little sense, as in English – h and ch are one sound, and ó, u and ł are one sound. Polish orthography, while being regular, is very complex.
Further, native speakers speak so fast it’s hard for non-natives to understand them. Due to the consonant-ridden nature of Polish, it is harder to pronounce than most Asian languages. Listening comprehension is made difficult by all of the sh and ch like sounds. Furthermore, since few foreigners learn Polish, Poles are not used to hearing their language mangled by second-language learners. Therefore, foreigners’ Polish will seldom be understood.
Polish grammar is much more difficult than Russian grammar.
Polish has seven cases, and case declension is very irregular, unlike German. It also has seven genders, five in the singular and two in the plural. The genders of nouns cause the adjectives modifying them to inflect differently.
matka mother (female gender)
ojciec father (male gender)
dziecko child (neuter gender)
brzydki - ugly
brzydka matka ugly mother
brzydki ojciec ugly father
brzydkie dziecko ugly child
brzydkie matki ugly mothers
brzydcy ojcowie ugly fathers
brzydkie dzieci ugly children
Gender even effects verbs.
I ate (female speaker) – Ja zjadłam
I ate (male speaker) – Ja zjadłem
I killed – zabiłem/zabiłam
We killed – zabiliśmy/zabiłyśmy
They killed – zabili/zabiły
There are two different forms of the verb kill depending on whether the 1st person singular and plural and 2nd person plural killers are males or females.
kupować - to buy
Singular Simple Past Imperfect
I (f.) kupiłam kupowałam
I (m.) kupiłem kupowałem
you (f.) kupiłaś kupowałaś
you (m.) kupiłeś kupowałeś
he kupił kupował
she kupiła kupowała
it kupiło kupowało
we (f.) kupiłyśmy kupowałyśmy
we (m.) kupiliśmy kupowaliśmy
you (f.) kupiłyście kupowałyścieyou
you (m.) kupiliście kupowaliście
they (f.) kupiły kupowały
they (m.) kupili kupowali
The verb above forms an incredible 28 different forms in the perfect and imperfect past tense alone.
In addition, there is an animate-inanimate distinction in gender. Look at some words:
hat – kapelusz
computer – komputer
dog – pies
student – uczen
All are masculine gender, but computer and hat are inanimate and student and dog are animate, so they inflect differently.
I see a new hat – Widze nowy kapelusz
I see a new student – Widze nowego ucznia .
Notice how the now- form changed.
For instance, English has one word for the genitive case of the 1st person singular – my. In Polish, depending on the context, you can have the following 11 forms, and actually there are even more than 11:
English has one word for the number 2 – two. Polish has 21 words for two (however, only 5-6 of them are in common use):
Polish, like Hungarian and Finnish, can also have very long word. For instance, pięćsetdwadzieściajedenmiliardówdwieścieczterdzieścisiedemmiloionów-trzystaosiemdzisiątpięćtysięcyczterystadziewięćdziesięciopięcioletni is a word in Polish (There is no dash in the word – I was just dividing the line).
A single noun can change in many ways and take many different forms. Compare przyjaciel – friend
who is my friend przyjaciel przyjaciele
who is not my friend przyjaciela przyjaciół
friend who I give s.t. to przyjacielowi przyjaciołom
friend who I see przyjaciela przyjaciół
friend who I go with z przyajcielem z przyjaciółmi
friend who I dream of o przyjacielu o przyjaciołach
Oh my friend! Przyajcielu! Przyjaciele!
There are 12 different forms of the noun friend above.
Polish has perfective and imperfective verbs, but that is the least of the problem. The problem is that each verb is in effect a separate verb altogether, instead of just being conjugated differently. The verb to see has two completely different verbs in Polish: widziec and zobaczyc . Widziałem – I saw (repeatedly in the past, like I saw the sun come up every morning). Zobaczyłem – I saw (only once; I saw the sun come up yesterday).
This is not a tense difference – the very verbs themselves are different! So for every verb in the language, you effectively have to learn two different verbs.
In addition, the future perfect and future imperfect often conjugate completely differently, though the past forms usually conjugate in the same way – note the -em endings above. There is no present perfect as in English, since in Polish the action must be completed, and you can’t be doing something at this precise moment and at the same time have just finished doing it. 95% of verbs have these maddening dual forms, but for 5% of verbs that lack a perfective version, you only have one form.
Plurals change based on number. In English, the plural of telephone is telephones, whether you have two or 1000 of them. In Polish, you use different words depending on how many phones you have: two, three or four telefony, but five telefonów. Sometimes, this radically changes the word, as in hands: four ręce, but five rąk.
It’s often said that one of the advantages of Polish is that there are only three tenses, but this is not really case, as there are at least eight tenses:
Indicative – grac – to play.
Present – gram – I play
Past – gralem – I played
Conditional – gralbym – I would play
Future – będę grać – I will play
Continuous future – będę grał – I will be playing
Perfective future – bogram – Implies you will finish the action – I will have played
Perfective conditional – pogralbym – I would have played
There is also an aspectual distinction made when referring to the past. Different forms are used based on whether or not the action has been completed.
In addition, like Serbo-Croatian, Polish can use multiple negation in a sentence. You can use up to five negatives in a perfectly grammatical sentence: Nikt nikomu nigdy nic nie powiedzia – Nobody ever said anything to anyone.
Whereas in English we use one word for go no matter what mode of transportation we are using to get from one place to another, in Polish, you use different verbs if you are going by foot, by car, by plane, by boat or by other means of transportation.
Like Russian, there are multiple different ways to say the same thing in Polish. In English, you can say Ann has a cat, but you can’t mix the words up and mean the same thing. In Polish you can say Ann has a cat five different ways:
Ania ma kota
Kota ma Ania
Ma Ania kota
Kota Ania ma
Ma kota Ania.
The first one is the most common, but the other five can certainly be used.
A major problem with Polish grammar is that it is not regular at all. There are probably more exceptions than there are rules. Even more importantly, what rules there are so complex and numerous that it is hard to figure them all out.
It is said English-speaking children reach full adult competency in the language (reading, writing, speaking, spelling) at age 12. Polish children do not reach this milestone until age 16. Even adult Poles make a lot of mistakes in speaking and writing Polish properly. However, most Poles are quite proud of their difficult language (though a few hate it), and even take pride in its difficult nature.
On the positive side, in Polish, the stress is fixed, there are no short or long vowels or vowel harmony, there are no tones and it uses a Latin alphabet.
Polish gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.
It’s controversial whether Bulgarian is an easy or hard language to learn, but the truth is it probably has average difficulty. Though it is close to Russian, there are Russians who have been living there for 20 years and still can’t understand it well. It has few cases compared to the rest of Slavic – only three, but no Western Slavic language is easy to learn.
Mood is very complicated. There are different ways to say the same idea depending on how you know of the event. If you know about it historically, you mark the sentence with a particular mood. If you doubt the event, you mark with another mood.
If you know it historically but doubt it, you use yet another mood. And there are more than that. These forms are rare in world languages. One is Yamana, a Patagonian language that has only one speaker left. Bulgarian is probably the easiest Slavic language to learn.
Bulgarian gets a 3 rating, average to moderately hard to learn.
Slovenian is also a very hard language to learn, probably on a par with Serbo-Croatian. It has three number distinctions, singular, dual and plural. It’s the only European language that has retained the dual. In addition, there are six cases. There are 18 different declensions of the word son, but five of them are identical, so there are really only 13 different forms.
Singular Dual Plural
1. Sin Sina Sini
2. Sina Sinov Sinov
3. Sinu Sinovoma Sinovom
4. Sina Sinova Sinove
5. O sinu O sinovoma O sinovih
6. S sinom Z sinovoma Z sini
There are seven different ways that nouns decline depending on gender, but there are exceptions to all of the gender rules.
Slovenian gets a 5 rating, hardest of all to learn.
Serbo-Croatian, similar to Czech, has seven cases in the singular and seven in the plural, plus there are several different declensions. There 15 different types of declensions: seven tenses, three genders, three moods and two aspects. Whereas English has one word for the number 2 – two, Serbo-Croatian has 17 words.
Case abbreviations below:
N = NAV – nominative, accusative, vocative
G = Genitive
D = Dative
I = Instrumental
Masculine inanimate gender
D L I dvama
D L I dvema
D L I dvoma
Masculine animate gender
D L dvojici
D L dvojci
The grammar is incredibly complex. There are imperfective and perfective verbs, but when you try to figure out how to build one from the other, it seems irregular. This is the hardest part of Serbo-Croatian grammar, and foreigners not familiar with other Slavic tongues usually never get it right.
As in English, there are many different ways to say the same thing. Pronouns are so rarely used that some learners are surprised that they exist, since pronimalization is marked on the verb as person and number. Word order is almost free or at least seems arbitrary, similar to Russian.
Serbo-Croatian, like Lithuanian, has pitch accent – low-rising, low-falling, short-rising and short-falling. It’s not the same as tone, but it’s similar. In addition to the pitch accent differentiating words, you also have an accented syllable somewhere in the word, which as in English, is unmarked.
And when the word conjugates or declines, the pitch accent jumps around in the word to another syllable and even changes its type in unpredictable ways. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get this pitch-accent right.
However, Serbo-Croatian does benefit from a phonetic orthography. The “hard” ch sound is written č, while the “soft” ch sound is written ć.
Serbo-Croatian is probably not quite as hard as Polish, but it’s harder than Russian.
Serbo-Croatian gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.
People are divided on the difficulty of Russian, but language teachers say it’s one of the hardest to learn. Even after a couple of years of study, some learners find it hard to speak even a simple sentence correctly.
It has seven cases, but the grammar is fairly easy for a Slavic language. The problem comes with the variability in pronunciation. The adjectives and endings can be difficult. In addition, Russian has gender and lots of declinations. The adjectives change form if the nouns they describe have different endings. Adjectives also take case somehow. Verbs have different forms depending on the pronouns that precede them.
Word order is pretty free. For instance, you can say I love you by saying I love you, You love I, Love you I, I you love, Love I you and You I love.
Pronunciation is strange, with one vowel that is between an ü and i. Many consonants are quite strange, and every consonant has a palatalized counterpart, which will be difficult to speakers whose languages lack phonemic palatalized consonants. Stress is quite difficult in Russian since it seems arbitrary and does not appear to follow obvious rules: дóма – at home, but домá – buildings. One problem is that accent, generally not written out, changes the way the vowel is pronounced.
Like German, Russian builds morphemes into larger words. Again like German, this is worse than it sounds since the rules are not so obvious. In addition, there is the strange Cyrillic alphabet, which is nevertheless easier than Arabic or Chinese. Russian also uses prepositions to combine with verbs to form the nightmare of phrasal verbs, but whereas English puts the preposition after the verb, Russian puts it in front of the verb.
On the plus side, while Russian grammar has what seems like an avalanche of rules, those rules have few exceptions.
Russian gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.
Lithuanian, an archaic Indo-European Baltic tongue, is extremely difficult to learn. There are many dialects, which is interesting for such a small country, and the grammar is very difficult, with many rules. There is grammatical gender for nouns, and in addition, even numerals have gender in all cases. The language is heavily inflectional such that you can almost speak without using prepositions.
A single verb has 13 participial forms, and that is just using masculine gender for the participles. You can also add feminine forms to that verb. There are five classes of verbs and five modes of declension for nouns. However, Lithuanian tense is quite regular. You only need to remember infinitive, 3rd person present and 3rd person past, and after that, all of the conjugations are regular.
There are two genders, but telling them apart is easier than in German where you often have to memorize which noun takes which gender. Lithuanian is similar to Spanish in that the ending will often give you a hint about which gender the noun takes.
Here is an example of the sort of convolutions you have to go through to attach the adjective good to a noun.
geras – good
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative geras geri gera geros
Genitive gero gerų geros gerų
Dative geram geriems gerai geroms
Accusative gerą gerus gerą geras
Instrumental geru gerais gera geromis
Locative gerame geruose geroje gerose
Furthermore, while it does not have lexical tone per se, it does have pitch accent – there are three different pitches, which sound like tones but are not tones. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get the accent right, and the accents tend to move around a lot across words during declension/conjugation such that the rules are opaque if they exist at all. Often you need a dictionary to figure out where the accent should be on a word. Lithuanian pronunciation is also difficult.
Try these words and phrases: šalna, šąla šiandien, ačiū už skanią vakarienę, pasikiškiakopūsteliaudamasis , ūkis, malūnas, čežėti šiauduose.
Or this paragraph: Labas, kaip šiandien sekasi? Aš esu iš Lietuvos, kur gyvenu visą savo gyvenimą. Lietuvių kalba yra sunkiausia iš visų pasaulyje. Ačiū už dėmesį .
Lithuanian is an archaic IE language that has preserved a lot of forms that the others have lost.
In spite of all of that, picking up the basics of Lithuanian may be easier than it seems, and while foreigners usually never get the pitch-accent down, the actual rules are fairly sensible. All in all, Lithuanian may not be as difficult as it appears at first. Also, Lithuanian is very phonetic, words are pronounced how they are spelled.
Learning Lithuanian is similar to learning Latin. If you’ve been able to learn Latin, Lithuanian should not be too hard. Some languages that are similar to English, like Norwegian and Dutch, can be learned to a certain extent simply by learning words and ignoring grammar. I know Spanish and have been able to learn a fair amount of Portuguese, French and Italian without learning a bit of grammar in any of them.
Lithuanian won’t work that way because due to case, base words change form all the time, so it will seem like you are always running into new words, when it fact it’s the same base word declining in various case forms. There’s no shortcut with Latin and Lithuanian. You need to learn the case grammar first, or little of it will make sense.
Lithuanian gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.
Latvian is another Baltic language that is somewhat similar to Lithuanian. It’s also hard to learn. Try this: Sveiki, esmu no Latvijas, un mūsu valoda ir skanīga, skaista un ar ļoti sarežģītu gramatisko sistēmu. Latvian and Lithuanian are definitely harder to learn than Russian. They both have aspects like in Russian but have more cases than Russian, plus a lot more irregular verbs.
Some say that the Baltic languages are even harder to learn than the hardest Slavic languages like Polish, Czech and Serbo-Croatian, but I’m not sure if that’s true, especially for Polish.
Latvian gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.
- Seymour, Philip H. K., Aro, Mikko, Erskine, Jane M. and the COST Action A8 Network. 2003. Foundation Literacy Acquisition in European Orthographies. British Journal of Psychology 94:143–174.