More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Non-Indo-European Languages

Caution: This post is very long. It runs to 200 pages on the Net. Updated January 17, 2016.

This is a continuation of the earlier post. I split it up into two parts because it had gotten too long.

The post refers to which languages are the hardest for English speakers to learn, though to some extent, the ratings are applicable across languages. Most Chinese speakers would recognize Spanish as being an easy language, despite its alien nature. And even most Chinese, Navajo, Poles or Czechs acknowledge that their languages are hard to learn. To a certain extent, difficulty is independent of linguistic starting point. Some languages are just harder than others, and that’s all there is to it.

Method, Results and Conclusion. See here.

In this case, 73 non-IE languages were examined.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very  difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = 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.

Northeast Caucasian, Northwest Caucasian and Kartvelian

Of course the Caucasian languages like Tsez, Tabasaran, Georgian, Chechen, Ingush, Abkhaz and Circassian are some of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.

Chechen and Circassian are rated 6, hardest of all.

Northeast Caucasian

NE Caucasian languages have the uvulars and ejectives of Georgian in addition to pharyngeals, lateral fricatives, and other strangeness. They have noun classes like the Bantu languages (but usually fewer). Nevertheless, they have noun class agreement markers on verbs on adjectives. One thing NE Caucasian has is lots of case. Some languages have 40+ cases. They are built from the ground up via two forms – one a spatial form such as in, on or around and the other a directional motion form such as to, from, through or at.

Tsezic

Tsez has 64-126 different cases, making it by far the most complex case system on Earth! It is one of the few languages on Earth that has two genitive cases – Genitive 1 (-s) and Genitive 2 (-z). Genitive 1 is used when the genitive’s head noun is in absolutive case and Genitive 2 is used when the genitive’s head noun is in any other case. It also has four noun classes. It is said that even native speakers have a hard time picking up the correct inflection to use sometimes.

In Tsez, you need to know a lot Tsez grammar to communicate at a basic level. The sentence:

English: I like your mother.

Tsez: Дāьр деби энийу йетих. (Dǟr debi eniyu yetix.)

In order to speak that sentence in Tsez, you need to know:

• the words themselves (word order is not as important)
• that the verb -eti- requires the subject to be in the dative/lative case and the object to be in the absolutive
• the noun class for eniyu (class II)
• the dative/lative form of di (I), which is dǟr
• the genitive 1 form of mi (you), which is debi
• the congruence prefix y- that corresponds to the noun class of the absolutive argument of the phrase, in this case mother
• the present tense ending for vowel-final verbs -x

Tsez is rated 6, hardest of all.

Lezgic
Archi

Archi has an extremely complex phonology and one of the most complicated grammars on Earth. The extreme fusional aspects and the verbal morphology are what make the grammar so difficult. Every verb root has 1,502,839 possible forms! It is also an ergative language, but there is irregularity in its ergative system.

Some verbs take the typical ergative/absolutive case (absolutive for the subject of an intransitive very and ergative for the subject of a transitive verb – where the direct object would be in absolutive). In others the subject is in dative rather than the expected ergative/absolutive case. These are usually verbs of perception like love/want, hear, see, feel, and be bored. For instance, the verb:

-эти- = to love/want must have its subject in dative case instead of the expected absolutive or ergative case.

Among non-click languages, Archi has one of the largest consonant inventories, with only the extinct Ubykh having more. There are 26 vowels and between 76 and 82 consonants, depending on the analysis. Five of the six vowels can occur in five varieties: short, pharyngealized, high tone, long (with high tone), and pharyngealized with high tone.

It has many unusual phonemes, including contrasts between several voiceless velar lateral fricatives, voiceless and ejective velar lateral affricates and a voiced velar lateral fricative. The voiceless velar lateral fricative ʟ̝̊, the voiced velar lateral fricative ʟ̝, and the corresponding voiceless and ejective affricates k͡ʟ̝̊ and k͡ʟ̝̊ʼ are extremely unusual sounds, as velar fricatives are not typically laterals.

There are 15 cases, 10 regular cases, five spatial cases and five directional cases. The Spatial cases are Inessive (in), Intrative (between), superessive (above), Subessive (below) and Pertingent (against). The directional cases are Essive (as), Elative (out of), Lative (to/into), Allative (onto), Terminative (specifies a limit) and Translative (indicates change).

There are four noun classes:

I Male human
II Female human
III All insects, some animates, and some inanimates
IV Abstracts, some animates, and some inanimates that can only be seen via verbal agreement

Archi is rated 6, hardest of all.

Samur
Eastern Samur
Lezgi–Aghul–Tabasaran

Tabasaran is rated the 3rd most complex grammar in the world, with 48 different noun cases.

Tabasaran is rated 6, hardest of all.

Nakh
Vainakh

Ingush has a very difficult phonology, an extremely complex grammar, and furthermore, is extremely irregular. Ingush also has a proximate/obviate distinction and is the only language in the region that has this feature. Ingush along with Chechen both have a closed class of verbs, an unusual feature in the world’s languages. New verbs are formed by adding a noun to the verb do:

shootdo gun

Ingush is rated 6, hardest of all.

Kartvelian
Karto-Zan

One problem with Georgian is the strange alphabet: ქართულია ერთ ერთი რთული ენა. It also has lots of glottal stops that are hard for many foreigners to speak; consonant clusters can be huge – up to eight consonants stuck together (CCCCCCCCVC)- and many consonant sounds are strange. In addition, there are uvulars and ejectives. Georgian is one of the hardest languages on Earth to pronounce. It regularly makes it onto craziest phonologies lists.

Its grammar is exceedingly complex. Georgian is both highly agglutinative and highly irregular, which is the worst of two worlds. Other agglutinative languages such as Turkish and Finnish at least have the benefit of being highly regular. The verbs in particular seem nearly random with no pattern to them at all. The system of argument and tense marking on the verb is exceedingly complex, with tense, aspect, mood on the verb, person and number marking for the subject, and direct and indirect objects.

Although it is an ergative language, the ergative (or active-stative case marking as it is called) oddly enough is only used in the aorist and perfect tenses where the agent in the sentence receives a different case, while the aorist also masquerades as imperative. In the present, there is standard nominative-accusative marking. A single verb can have up to 12 different parts, similar to Polish, and there are six cases and six tenses.

Georgian also features something called polypersonal agreement, a highly complex type of morphological feature that is often associated with polysynthetic languages and to a lesser extent with ergativity.

In a polypersonal language, the verb has agreement morphemes attached to it dealing with one or more of the verbs arguments (usually up to four arguments). In a non polypersonal language like English, the verb either shows no agreement or agrees with only one of its arguments, usually the subject. Whereas in a polypersonal language, the verb agrees with one or more of the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, the beneficiary of the verb, etc. The polypersonal marking may be obligatory or optional.

In Georgian, the polypersonal morphemes appear as either suffixes or prefixes, depending on the verb class and the person, number, aspect and tense of the verb. The affixes also modify each other phonologically when they are next to each other. In the Georgian system, the polypersonal affixes convey subject, direct object, indirect object, genitive, locative and causative meanings.

g-mal-av-en = they hide you
g-i-mal-av-en
= they hide it from you

mal (to hide) is the verb, and the other four forms are polypersonal affixes.

In the case below,

xelebi ga-m-i-tsiv-d-a = My hands got cold.

xelebi means hands. The m marker indicates genitive or my. With intransitive verbs, Georgian often omits my before the subject and instead puts the genitive onto the verb to indicate possession.

Georgian verbs of motion focus on deixis, whether the goal of the motion is towards the speaker or the hearer. You use a particle to signify who the motion is heading towards. If it heading towards neither of you, you use no deixis marker. You specify the path taken to reach the goal through the use or prefixes called preverbs, similar to “verbal case.” These come after the deixis marker:

up             a-
out            ga-
in             sha-
down into      cha-
across/through garda-
thither        mi-
away           c’a-
or down        da-

Hence:

up towards me = amo-. The deixis marker is mo- and up is a-

On the plus side, Georgian has borrowed a great deal of Latinate foreign vocabulary, so that will help anyone coming from a Latinate or Latinate-heavy language background.

Georgian is rated 5, extremely difficult.

Northwest Caucasian

All NW Caucasian languages are characterized by a very small number of vowels (usually only two or three) combined with a vast consonant inventory, the largest consonant inventories on Earth. Almost any consonant can be plain, labialized or palatalized. This is apparently the result of an historical process whereby many vowels were lost and their various features became assigned to consonants. For instance, palatalized consonants may have come from Ci sequences and labialized consonants may have come from Cu sequences.

The grammars of these languages are complex. Unlike the NE Caucasian languages, they have simple noun systems, usually with only a handful of cases.

However, they have some of the complex verbal systems on Earth. These are some of the most synthetic languages in the Old World. Often the entire syntax of the sentence is contained within the verb. All verbs are marked with ergative, absolutive and direct object morphemes in addition to various applicative affixes.

These are akin to what some might call “verbal case.” For instance, in applicative voice systems, applicatives may take forms such as comitative, locative, instrumental, benefactive and malefactive. These roles are similar to the case system in nouns – even the names are the same. So you can see why some call this “verbal case.”

NW Caucasian verbs can be marked for aspect (whether something is momentous, continuous or habitual), mood (if something is certain, likely, desired, potential, or unreal). Other affixes can shape the verb in an adverbial sense, to express pity, excess or emphasis.

Like NE Caucasian, they are also ergative.

NW Caucasian makes it onto a lot of craziest language lists.

These are some of the strangest sounding languages on Earth. Of all of these languages, Abaza has the most consonants. Here is a video in the Abaza language.

Ubykh

Ubykh, a Caucasian language of Turkey, is now extinct, but there is one second language speaker, a linguist who is said to have taught himself the language. It has more consonants than any non-click language on Earth – 84 consonant sounds in all. Furthermore, the phonemic inventory allows some very strange consonant clusters.

Ubykh has many rare consonant sounds. is only also found in two of Ubykh’s relatives, Abkhaz and Abaza and in two other languages, both in the Brazilian Amazon. The pharyngealized labiodental voiced fricative  does not exist in any other language. It often makes it onto weirdest phonologies lists. Ubykh also got a very high score on a study of the weirdest languages on Earth.

Combine that with only two vowel sounds and a highly complex grammar, and you have one tough language.

In addition, Ubykh is both agglutinative and polysynthetic, ergative and has polypersonal agreement:

Aχʲazbatʂʾaʁawdətʷaajlafaqʾajtʾmadaχ!
If only you had not been able to make him take it all out from under me again for them…

There are an incredible 16 morphemes in that nine syllable word.

Ubykh has only four case systems on its nouns, but much case function has shifted over to the verb via preverbs and determinants. It is these preverbs and determinants that make Ubykh monstrously complex. The following are some of the directional preverbs:

  • above and touching
  • above and not touching
  • below and touching
  • below and not touching
  • at the side of
  • through a space
  • through solid matter
  • on a flat horizontal surface
  • on a non-horizontal or vertical surface
  • in a homogeneous mass
  • towards
  • in an upward direction
  • in a downward direction
  • into a tubular space
  • into an enclosed space

There are also some preverbal forms that indicate deixis:

j-  = towards the speaker

Others can indicate ideas that would take up whole phrases in English:

jtɕʷʼaa- = on the Earth, in the Earth

ʁadja ajtɕʷʼaanaaɬqʼa
They buried his body.
(Lit. They put his body in the earth.)

faa– = out of, into or with regard to a fire.

Amdʒan zatʃətʃaqʲa faastχʷən.
I take a brand out of the fire.

Morphemes may be as small as a single phoneme:

wantʷaan
They give you to him.

w – 2nd singular absolutive
a – 3rd singular dative
n – 3rd ergative
– to give
aa – ergative plural
n – present tense

Adverbial suffixes are attached to words to form meanings that are often formed by aspects or tenses in other languages:

asfəpχaI need to drink it.
asfəfan
I can drink it.
asfəɡʲan
I drink it all the time.
asfəlan
I am drinking it all up.
asfətɕʷan
I drink it too much.
asfaajən
I drink it again.

Nouns and verbs can transform into each other. Any noun can turn into a stative verb:

məzəchild

səməzəjtʼ
I was a child.
(Lit. I child-waschild-was is a verb – to be a child.)

By the same token, many verbs can become nouns via the use of a nominal affix:

qʼato say

səqʼa
what I say
– (Lit. That which I saymy speech, my words, my language, my orders, etc.

Number is marked on the verb via a verbal suffix and is only marked on the noun in the ergative case.

However, it does lack the convoluted case systems of the Caucasian languages next door and there is no grammatical gender.

Ubykh is rated 6, hardest of all.

Abkhaz-Abazin

Abkhaz is an extremely difficult language to learn. Each basic consonant has eight different positions of articulation in the mouth. Imagine how difficult that would be for an Abkhaz child with a speech impediment. Abkhaz seems to put agreement markers on just about everything in the language. Abkhaz makes it onto many craziest language lists, and it recently got a very high score on a weirdest language study.

Abkhaz is rated 6, hardest of all.

Burushaski

Burushaski is often thought to be a language isolate, related to no other languages, however, I think it is Dene-Caucasian. It is spoken in the Himalaya Mountains of far northern Pakistan in an area called the Hunza. It’s verb conjugation is complex, it has a lot of inflections, there are complicated ways of making sentences depending on many factors, and it is an ergative language, which is hard to learn for speakers of non-ergative languages. In addition, there are very few to no cognates for the vocabulary.

Burushaski is rated 6, hardest of all.

American Indian Languages

American Indian languages are also notoriously difficult, though few try to learn them in the US anyway. In the rest of the continent, they are still learned by millions in many different nations. You almost really need to learn these as a kid. It’s going to be quite hard for an adult to get full competence in them.

One problem with these languages is the multiplicity of verb forms. For instance, the standard paradigm for the overwhelming number of regular English verbs is a maximum of five forms:

steal
steals
stealing
stole
stolen

Many Amerindian languages have over 1,000 forms of each verb in the language.

Kootenai

Yet the Salishans (see below) always considered the neighboring language Kootenai to be too hard to learn. Kootenai also has a distinction between proximate/obviate along with direct/inverse alignment, probably from contact with Algonquian.

However, the Kootenai direct/inverse system is less complex than Algonquian’s, as it is present only in the 3rd person. Kootenai also has a very strange feature in that they have particles that look like subject pronouns, but these go outside of the full noun phrase. This is a very rare feature in the world’s languages. Kootenai scored very high on a weirdest language survey.

Kootenai is an isolate spoken in Idaho by 100 people.

Kootenai is rated 6, hardest of all.

Yuchi

Yuchi is a language isolate spoken in the Southern US. They were originally located in Eastern Tennessee and were part of the Creek Confederacy at one time. Yuchi is nearly extinct, with only five remaining speakers.

Yuchi has noun genders or classes based on three distinctions of position: standing, sitting or lying. All nouns are either standing, sitting or lying. Trees are standing, and rivers are lying, for instance. It it is taller than it is wide, it is standing. It if is  wider than it is tall, it is lying.

If it is about as about as wide as it is tall, it is sitting. All nouns are one of these three genders, but you can change the gender for humorous or poetic effect. A linguist once asked a group of female speakers whether a penis was standing, sitting or lying. After lots of giggles, they said the default was sitting, but you could say it was standing or lying for poetic effect.

Also all Yuchi pronouns must make a distinction between age (older or younger than the speaker) and ethnicity (Yuchi or non-Yuchi).

Yuchi gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Dene-Yeniseian
Na-Dene
Athabascan-Eyak
Tlingit

Tlingit is probably one of the hardest, if not the hardest, language in the world. Tlingit is analyzed as partly synthetic, partly agglutinative, and sometimes polysynthetic. It has not only suffixes and prefixes, but it also has infixes or affixes in the middle of words.

‘eechto pick

All prefixes must be in proper order for the word to work.

tuyakaoonagadagaxayaeecheen.
I am usually picking, on purpose, a long object through the hole while standing on a table.

tuyakaoonagootxayaeecheen.
I am usually being forced to pick a long object through the hole while standing on a table.

tuyaoonagootxawa’eecheen.
I am usually being picking the edible long object through the hole while standing on a table.

Tlingit has a pretty unusual phonology. For one thing, it is the only language on Earth with no l. This despite the fact that it has five other laterals: dl (), tl (tɬʰ), tl’ (tɬʼ), l (ɬ) and l’ (ɬʼ). The tɬʼ and ɬʼ sounds are rare in the world’s languages. ɬʼ  is only found in the wild NW Caucasian languages. It also has two labialized glottal consonants, ʔʷ and hw ().

Tlingit gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Athabascan
Southern

Navajo has long, short and nasal vowels, a tone system and a grammar totally unlike anything in Indo-European. A stem of only four letters or so can take enough affixes to fill a whole line of text.

Navajo is a polysynthetic language. In polysynthetic languages, very long words can denote an entire sentence, and it’s quite hard to take the word apart into its parts and figure out exactly what they mean and how they go together. The long words are created because polysynthetic languages have an amazing amount of morphological richness. They put many morpheme together to create a word out of what might be a sentence in a non-polysynthetic language.

Some Navajo dictionaries have thousands of entries of verbs only, with no nouns. Many adjectives have no direct translation into Navajo. Instead, verbs are used as adjectives. A verb has no particular form like in English – to walk. Instead, it assumes various forms depending on whether or not the action is completed, incomplete, in progress, repeated, habitual, one time only, instantaneous, or simply desired. These are called aspects. Navajo must have one of the most complex aspect systems of any language:

The Primary aspects:

Momentaneous – punctually (takes place at one point in time)
Continuative – an indefinite span of time & movement with a specified direction
Durative – over an indefinite span of time, non-locomotive uninterrupted continuum
Repetitive – a continuum of repeated acts or connected series of acts
Conclusive – like durative but in perfective terminates with static sequel
Semelfactive – a single act in a repetitive series of acts
Distributive – a distributive manipulation of objects or performance of actions
Diversative – a movement distributed among things (similar to distributive)
Reversative – results in directional change
Conative – an attempted action
Transitional – a shift from one state to another
Cursive – progression in a line through time/space (only progressive mode)

The subaspects:

Completive – an event/action simply takes place (similar to the aorist tense)
Terminative – a stopping of an action
Stative – sequentially durative and static
Inceptive – beginning of an action
Terminal – an inherently terminal action
Prolongative – an arrested beginning or ending of an action
Seriative – an interconnected series of successive separate & distinct acts
Inchoative – a focus on the beginning of a non-locomotion action
Reversionary – a return to a previous state/location
Semeliterative – a single repetition of an event/action

The tense system is almost as wild as the aspectual system.

For instance, the verb ndideesh means to pick up or to lift up. But it varies depending on what you are picking up:

ndideeshtiilto pick up a slender stiff object (key, pole)
ndideeshleel
to pick up a slender flexible object (branch, rope)
ndideesh’aal
to pick up a roundish or bulky object (bottle, rock)
ndideeshgheel
to pick up a compact and heavy object (bundle, pack)
ndideeshjol
to pick up a non-compact or diffuse object (wool, hay)
ndideeshteel
to pick up something animate (child, dog)
ndideeshnil
to pick up a few small objects (a couple of berries, nuts)
ndideeshjih
to pick up a large number of small objects (a pile of berries, nuts)
ndideeshtsos
to pick up something flexible and flat (blanket, piece of paper)
ndideeshjil
to pick up something I carry on my back
ndideeshkaal
to pick up anything in a vessel
ndideeshtloh
to pick up mushy matter (mud).

But picking up is only one way of handling the 12 different consistencies. One can also bring, take, hang up, keep, carry around, turn over, etc. objects. There are about 28 different verbs one can use for handling objects. If we multiply these verbs by the consistencies, there are over 300 different verbs used just for handling objects.

In Navajo textbooks, there are conjugation tables for inflecting words, but it’s pretty hard to find a pattern there. One of the most frustrating things about Navajo is that every little morpheme you add to a word seems to change everything else around it, even in both directions.

Navajo is said to have a very difficult system for counting numerals.

There is also a noun classifier system with more than a dozen classifiers that affect inflection. This is quite a few classifiers even for a noun classifier language and is similar to African languages like Zulu. In addition, it has the strange direct/inverse system.

To add insult to injury, Navajo is an ergative language.

Navajo also has an honorifics or politeness system similar to Japanese or Korean.

Navajo also has the odd feature where the word niinaabecause can be analyzed as a verb.

X áhóót’įįd biniinaa…
Because X happened…

Shiniinaa sits’il.
It broke into pieces because of me.

In the latter sentence, the only way we know that 1st singular was involved in because of the person marking on niinaa.

There are 25 different kinds of pronominal prefixes that can be piled onto one another before a verb base.

Navajo has a very strange feature called animacy, where nouns take certain verbs according to their rank in the hierarchy of animation which is a sort of a ranking based on how alive something is. Humans and lightning are at the top, children and large animals are next and abstractions are at the bottom.

All in all, Navajo, even compared to other polysynthetic languages, has some of the most incredibly complicated polysynthetic morphology of any language. On craziest grammar and craziest language lists, Navajo is typically listed.

It is even said that Navajo children have a hard time learning Navajo as compared to children learning other languages, but Navajo kids definitely learn the language. Similarly with Hopi below, even linguists find even the best Navajo grammars difficult or even impossible to understand.

However, Navajo is quite regular, a common feature in Amerindian languages.

Navajo is rated 6, hardest of all.

Northern

Slavey, a Na-Dene language of Canada, is hard to learn. It is similar to Navajo and Apache. Verbs take up to 15 different prefixes. All Athabascan languages have wild verbal systems. It also uses a completely different alphabet, a syllabic one designed for Canadian Indians.

Slavey is rated 6, hardest of all.

Haida

Haida is often thought to be a Na-Dene language, but proof of its status is lacking. If it is Na-Dene, it is the most distant member of the family. Haida is in the competition for the most complicated language on Earth, with 70 different suffixes.

Haida is rated 6, hardest of all.

Salishan

The Salishan languages spoken in the Northwest have a long reputation for being hard to learn, in part because of long strings of consonants, in one case 11 consonants long. Salish languages are the only languages on Earth that allow words without sonorants.

Many of the vowels and consonants are not present in most of the world’s widely spoken languages. The Salish languages are, like Chukchi, polysynthetic. Some translations treat all Salish words are either verbs or phrases. Some say that Salish languages do not contain nouns, though this is controversial. The verbal system of Salish languages is absurdly complex.

All Salishan languages are rated rated 6, hardest of all.

Nuxálk (Bella Coola)

Nuxálk is a notoriously difficult Salishan Amerindian language spoken in British Colombia. It is famous for having some really wild words and even sentences that don’t seem to have any vowels in them at all. For instance:

xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓  (xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ in IPA)
He had a bunchberry plant.

sxs
seal fat

Here are some more odd words and sentences:

smnmnmuuc
mute

Nuyamłamkis timantx tisyuttx ʔułtimnastx.
The father sang the song to his son.

Musis tiʔimmllkītx taq̓lsxʷt̓aχ.
The boy felt that rope.

However, this word is not typically used by speakers and by no means do most words consist of all consonants. The language sounds odd when spoken. It has been described as “whispering while chewing on a granola bar” (see the video sample under Montana Salish below).

These wild consonant clusters are even crazier than the ones in Ubykh and NW Caucasian. In fact, the nutty consonant clusters in Salish and causing a debate in linguistics about whether or not the syllable is even a universal phenomenon in language as some Salish words and phrases appear to lack syllables. Some Berber dialects have raised similar questions about the syllable.

Nuxálk makes it onto lists of the craziest phonologies on Earth.

Nuxálk is rated 6, hardest of all.

Interior Salish
Southern

Montana Salish is said to be just as hard to learn as Nuxálk . Spokane (Montana Salish) has combining and independent forms with the same meaning:

spim’cnmouth
-cin
mouth

Montana Salish makes it onto a lot of craziest grammars lists.

This link shows an elder on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, Steven Smallsalmon, speaking Montana Salish. He also leads classes in the language. This is probably one of the strangest sounding languages on Earth.

Montana Salish is rated 6, hardest of all.

Central

Straits Salish has an aspectual distinction between persistent and nonpersistent. Persistent means the activity continues after its inception as a state. The persistent morpheme is . The result is similar to English:

figure out – nonpersistent
know – persistent

look at – nonpersistent
watch – persistent

take – nonpersistent
hold – persistent

is referred to as a “parasitic morpheme” and only occurs in stem that has an underlying ə which serves as a “host” for the morpheme.

How strange.

The Saanich dialect of Straits Salish is often listed in the rogue’s gallery of craziest grammars on Earth. The writing system is often listed as one of the worst out there. In addition, Saanich makes it onto craziest grammars lists for the parasitic morphemes and for having no distinction between nouns and verbs!

Straits Salish gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Halkomelem, spoken by 570 people around Vancouver, British Colombia, is widely considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. In Halkomelem, many verbs have an orientation towards water. You can’t just say, She went home. You have say how she was going home in relation to nearby bodies of water. So depending on where she was walking home in relation to the nearest river, you would say:

She was farther away from the water and going home.
She was coming home in the direction away from the water.
She was walking parallel to the flow of the water downstream.
She was walking parallel to the flow of the water upstream.

Halkomelem gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Lushootseed

Lushootseed is said to be just as hard to learn as Nuxálk. Lushootseed is one of the few languages on Earth that has no nasals at all, except in special registers like baby talk and the archaic speech of mythological figures. It also has laryngealized glides and nasals: w ̰ , m̥ ̰ , and n̥ ̰ .

Lushootseed is rated 6, hardest of all.

Iroquoian

All Iroquoian languages are extremely difficult, but Athabaskan is probably even harder. Siouan languages may be equal to Iroquoian in difficulty.

Compare the same phrases in Tlingit (Athabaskan) and and  Cherokee (Iroquoian).

Tlingit:

kutíkusa‘áatIt’s cold outside.
kutíkuta‘áat
It’s cold right now.

In Tlingit, you can add or modify affixes at the beginning as prefixes, in the middle as infixes and at the end as suffixes. In the above example, you changed a part of the word within the clause itself.

Cherokee:

doyáditlv uyvtlvIt is cold outside. (Lit. Outside it is cold)
ka uyvtlv It is cold now. (Lit. Now it is cold.)

As you can see, Cherokee is easier.

Cherokee

Cherokee is very hard to learn. In addition to everything else, it has a completely different alphabet. It’s polysynthetic, to make matters worse. It is possible to write a Cherokee sentence that somehow lacks a verb. There are five categories of verb classifiers. Verbs needing classifiers must use one. Each regular verb can have an incredible 21,262 inflected forms! All verbs contain a verb root, a pronominal prefix, a modal suffix and an aspect suffix. In addition, verbs inflect for singular, plural and also dual. For instance:

ᎠᎸᎢᎭ   a'lv'íha 

You have 126 different forms:
ᎬᏯᎸᎢᎭ  gvyalv'iha     I tie you up
ᏕᎬᏯᎸᎢᎭ degvyalviha  I'm tying you up
ᏥᏯᎸᎢᎭ  jiyalv'ha        I tie him up
ᎦᎸᎢᎭ                          I tie it
ᏍᏓᏯᎸᎢᎭ sdayalv'iha  I tie you (dual)
ᎢᏨᏯᎢᎭ  ijvyalv'iha    I tie you (pl)
ᎦᏥᏯᎸᎢᎭ gajiyalv'iha  I tie them (animate)
ᏕᎦᎸᎢᎭ                        I tie them up (inanimate)
ᏍᏆᎸᎢᎭ  squahlv'iha    You tie me
ᎯᏯᎸᎢᎭ  hiyalv'iha     You're tying him
ᎭᏢᎢᎭ   hatlv'iha         You tie it
ᏍᎩᎾᎸᎢᎭ skinalv'iha    You're tying me and him
ᎪᎩᎾᏢᎢᎭ goginatlv'iha  They tie me and him etc.

Let us look at another form:

to see

I see myself           gadagotia
I see you                gvgohtia
I see him/               tsigotia
I see it                    tsigotia
I see you two          advgotia
I see you (plural)    istvgotia
I see them (live)    gatsigotia
I see them (things) detsigotia

You see me                     sgigotia
You see yourself              hadagotia
You see him/her              higo(h)tia
You see it                        higotia
You see another and me  sginigotia
You see others and me    isgigotia
You see them (living)      dehigotia
You see them (living)      gahigotia
You see them (things)     detsigotia

He/she sees me                    agigotia
He/she sees you                   tsagotia
He/she sees you                   atsigotia
He/she sees him/her            agotia
He/she sees himself/herself  adagotia
He/she sees you + me          ginigotia
He/she sees you two             sdigotia
He/she sees another + me    oginigotia
He she sees us (them + me) otsigotia
He/she sees you (plural)       itsigotia
He/she sees them                 dagotia

You and I see him/her/it                igigotia
You and I see ourselves                 edadotia
You and I see one another             denadagotia/dosdadagotia
You and I see them (living)           genigotia
You and I see them (living or not) denigotia

You two see me                           sgninigotia
You two see him/her/it                 esdigotia
You two see yourselves                sdadagotia
You two see us (another and me) sginigotia
You two see them                        desdigotia

Another and I see you             sdvgotia
Another and I see him/her       osdigotia
Another and I see it                 osdigotia
Another and I see you-two      sdvgotia
Another and I see ourselves    dosdadagotia
Another and I see you (plural) itsvgotia
Another and I see them           dosdigotia

You (plural) see me        isgigoti
You (plural) see him/her etsigoti

They see me                    gvgigotia
They see you                   getsagotia
They see him/her             anigoti
They see you and me       geginigoti
They see you two             gesdigoti
They see another and me gegigotia/gogenigoti
They see you (plural)       getsigoti
They see them                 danagotia
They see themselves       anadagoti

I will see datsigoi
I saw      agigohvi

He/she will see dvgohi
He/she             sawugohvi

Number is marked for inclusive vs. exclusive and there is a dual. 3rd person plural is marked for animate/inanimate. Verbs take different object forms depending on if the object is solid/alive/indefinite shape/flexible. This is similar to the Navajo system.

Cherokee also has lexical tone, with complex rules about how tones may combine with each other. Tone is not marked in the orthography. The phonology is noted for somehow not having any labial consonants.

However, Cherokee is very regular. It has only three irregular verbs. It is just that there are many complex rules.

Cherokee is rated 5.5, close to most difficult of all.

Iroquoian
Northern Iroquoian
Five Nations-Huronian-Susquehannock
Huronian
Huron-Petun

Wyandot, a dormant language that has been extinct for about 50 years, has some unbelievably complex structures. Let us look at one of them. Wyandot is the only language on Earth that allows negative sentences that somehow do not contain a negative morpheme. Wyandot makes it onto craziest grammars lists. (To be continued).

Siouan-Catawban
Siouan
Mississippi Valley-Ohio Valley Siouan
Mississippi Valley Siouan
Dakota

Lakota and other Siouan languages may well be as convoluted as Iroquoian. In Lakota, all adjectives are expressed as verbs. Something similar is seen in Nahuatl.

Ógle sápe kiŋ mak’ú.
The shirt it is black he gave it to me.
He gave me the black shirt.

In the above, it is black is a stative verb and serves as an adjective.

Ógle kiŋ sabyá mak’ú.
Shirt the blackly he gave it to me.
He gave me the black shirt. (Lit. He gave me the shirt blackly.)

Bkackly is an adverb serving as an adjective above.

Lakota gets a 5.5 rating, hardest of all.

Algic
Algonquian

All Algonquian languages have distinctions between animate/inanimate nouns, in addition to having proximate/obviate and direct/inverse distinctions. However, most languages that have proximate/obviate and direct/inverse distinctions are not as difficult as Algonquian.

Proximate/obviative is a way of marking the 3rd person in discourse. It distinguishes between an important 3rd person (proximate) and a more peripheral 3rd person (obviative). Animate nouns and possessor nouns tend to be marked proximate while inanimate nouns and possessed nouns tend to be marked obviative.

Direct/inverse is a way of marking discourse in terms of saliency, topicality or animacy. Whether one noun ranks higher than another in terms of saliency, topicality or animacy means that that nouns ranks higher in terms of person hierarchy. It is used only in transitive clauses. When the subject has a higher ranking than the object, the direct form is used. When the object has a higher ranking than the object, the inverse form is used.

Central Algonquian
Cree-Montagnais

Cree is very hard to learn. It are written in a variety of different ways with different alphabets and syllabic systems, complicating matters even further. The syllabic alphabet has many problems and is often listed as one of the worst scripts out there. They are both polysynthetic and have long, short and nasal vowels and aspirated and unaspirated voiceless consonants. Words are divided into metrical feet, the rules for determining stress placement in words are quite complex and there is lots of irregularity. Vowels fall out a lot, or syncopate, within words.

Cree adds noun classifiers to the mix, and both nouns and verbs are marked as animate or inanimate. In addition, verbs are marked for transitive and intransitive. In addition, verbs get different affixes depending on whether they occur in main or subordinate clauses.

Cree is rated 6, hardest of all.

Ojibwa-Patowatomi

Ojibwa is said to be about as hard to learn as Cree as it is very similar.

Ojibwa is rated 6, hardest of all.

Plains Algonquian
Cheyenne

Cheyenne is well-known for being a hard Amerindian language to learn. Like many polysynthetic languages, it can have very long words.

Náohkêsáa’oné’seómepêhévetsêhésto’anéhe.
I truly don’t know Cheyenne very well.

However, Cheyenne is quite regular, but has so many complex rules that it is hard to figure them all out.

Cheyenne is rated 6, hardest of all.

Arapahoan

Arapaho has a strange phonology. It lacks phonemic low vowels. The vowel system consists of i, ɨ~,u, ɛ, and ɔ, with no low phonemic vowels. Each vowel also has a corresponding long version. In addition, there are four diphthongs, ei, ou, oe and ie, several triphthongs, eii, oee, and ouu, as well as extended sequences of vowels such as eee with stress on either the first or the last vowel in the combination. Long vowels of various types are common:

Héétbih’ínkúútiinoo.
I will turn out the lights.

Honoosóó’.
It is raining.

There is a pitch accent system with normal, high and allophonic falling tones. Arapaho words also undergo some very wild sound changes.

Arapaho is rated 6, hardest of all.

Gros Ventre has a similar phonological system and similar elaborate sound changes as Arapaho.

Gros Ventre is rated 5, hardest of all.

Caddoan
Northern
Wichita

Wichita has many strange phonological traits. It has only one nasal. Labials are rare and appear in only two roots. It also may have only three vowels, i, e, and a, with only height as a distinction. Such a restricted vertical vowel distribution is only found in NW Caucasian and the Papuan Ndu languages. There is apparently a three-way contrast in vowel length – regular, long and extra-long.

This is only found in Mixe and Estonian. There are some interesting tenses. Perfect tense means that an act has been carried out. The strange intentive tense means that one hopes or hoped to to carry out an act. The habitual tense means one regularly engages in the activity, not that one is doing so at the moment.

Long consonant clusters are permitted.

kskhaːɾʔa

nahiʔinckskih
while sleeping

There are many cases where a CVɁ sequence has been reduced to due to loss of the vowel, resulting in odd words such as:

ki·sɁ
bone

Word order is ordered in accordance with novelty or importance.

hira:wisɁiha:s kiyari:ce:hire:
Our ancestors God put us on this Earth.

weɁe hira:rɁ tiɁi na:kirih
God put our ancestors on this Earth.

In the sentence above, “our ancestors” is actually the subject, so it makes sense that it comes first.

Wichita has inclusive and exclusive 3rd person plural and has singular, dual and plural. There is an evidential system where if you say you know something, you must say how you know it – whether it is personal knowledge or hearsay.

Wichita gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Hokan
Tequislatecan
Coastal Chantal

Huamelutec or Lowland Oaxaca Chantal has the odd glottalized fricatives , , ɬʼ and as its only glottalized consonants. They alternate with plain f, s, l and x. , ɬʼ and are extremely rare in the world’s languages, usually only found in 2-3 other languages, often in NW Caucasian. occurs only in one other language – Tlingit. is slightly more common, occurring five other languages including Tlingit. In other languages, these odd sounds derived from sequences of consonant + q: Cq -> Cʔ -> glottalized fricative.

Sentence structure is odd:

Hit the ball the man.
Hit the man the ball.
The man hit the ball.

All mean the same thing.

Huamelutec gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Karok

Karok is a language isolate spoken by a few dozen people in northern California. The last native speaker recently died, however, there are ~80 who have varying levels of L2 fluency.

In Karok, you can use a suffix for different types of containment – fire, water or a solid.

pa:θ-kirih
throw into a fire

pa:θ-kurih
throw into water

pa:θ-ruprih
throw through a solid

The suffixes are unrelated to the words for fire, water and solid.

Karok gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.

Uto-Aztecan
Northern

Hopi is so difficult that even grammars describing the language are almost impossible to understand. For instance, Hopi has two different words for and depending on whether the noun phrase containing the word and is nominative or accusative.

Hopi is rated 6, hardest of all.

Southern Uto-Aztecan
Corachol-Aztecan
Core Nahua
Nahuatl

In Nahuatl, most adjectives are simply stative verbs. Hence:

Umntu omde waya eTenochtitlan.
The man he is tall went to Tenochtitlan.
The tall man went to Tenochtitlan.

He is tall is a stative verb in the above.

Nahuatl gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Numic
Central Numic

Comanche is legendary for being one of the hardest Indian languages of all to learn. Reasons are unknown, but all Amerindian languages are quite difficult. I doubt if Comanche is harder than other Numic languages.

Bizarrely enough, Comanche has very strange sounds called voiceless vowels, which seems to be an oxymoron, as vowels would seem to be inherently voiced. English has something akin to voiceless vowels in the words particular and peculiar, where the bolded vowels act something akin to a voiceless vowel.

Comanche was used for a while by the codespeakers in World War 2 – not all codespeakers were Navajos. Comanche was specifically chosen because it was hard to figure out. The Japanese were never able to break the Comanche code.

Comanche is rated 6, hardest of all.

Oto-Manguean
Western Oto-Mangue
Oto-Pame-Chinantecan
Chinantecan

Chinantec, an Indian language of southwest Mexico, is very hard for non-Chinantecs to learn. The tone system is maddeningly complex, and the syntax and morphology are very intricate.

Chinantec is rated 6, hardest of all.

Popolocan
Mazatecan
Lowland Valley
Southern

Jalapa Mazatec has distinctions between modal, creaky, breathy-voiced vowels along with nasal versions of those three. It also has creaky consonants and voiceless nasals. It has three tones, low, mid and high. Combining the tones results in various contour tones. In addition, it has a 3-way distinction in vowel length. Whistled speech is also possible. It has a phonemic distinction between “ballistic” and “controlled” syllables which is only present on Oto-Manguean.

Ballistic (short)
warm
nīˑntū
slippery
tsǣ
guava
hų̄
you plural

Controlled (half-long)
sūˑblue
nīˑntūˑ
needle
tsǣˑ
full
hų̄ˑ
– six

Jalapa Mazatec is rated 6, hardest of all.

Maipurean
Northern
Upper Amazon
Eastern Nawiki

Tariana is a very difficult language mostly because of the unbelievable amount of information it crams into its morphology and syntax. This is mostly because it is an Arawakan language that has been heavily influenced by neighboring Tucanoan languages, with the result that it has many of the grammatical categories and particles present in both families.

This stems from the widespread bilingualism in the Vaupes Basin of Colombia, where many people grow up bilingual from childhood and often become multilingual by adulthood. Learning up to five different languages is common. Code-switching was frowned upon and anyone using a word from Language Y while speaking Language X would get laughed at. Hence the various languages tended to borrow features from each other quite easily.

For instance, Tariana has both a noun classifier system and a gender system. Noun classifiers and gender are sometimes subsumed under the single category of “noun classifiers.” Yet Tariana has both, presumably from its relationship to two completely different language families. So in Tariana is not unusual to get both demonstratives and verbs marked for both gender and noun classifier. Tariana borrowed such things as serialized perception verbs and the dubitative marker from Tucano.

In addition, Tariana has some very odd sounds, including aspirated nasals mh (), nh (n̺ʰ) and ñh (ɲʰ) and an aspirated w () of all things. They seem to be actually aspirated, not just partially devoiced as many voiceless nasals and liquids are.

Tariana gets 6, hardest of all.

Huitotoan
Proto-Bora-Muinane

Bora, a Wintotoan language spoken in Peru and Colombia near the border between the two countries, has a mind-boggling 350 different noun classes. The noun classifier system is actually highly productive and is often used to create new nouns. New nouns can be created very easily, and their meanings are often semantically transparent. In some noun classifier systems, classifiers can be stacked one upon the other. In these cases, typically the last one is used for agreement purposes.

Bora also is a tonal language, but it has only two tones. In addition, nearly all consonantal phonemes have phonemic aspirated and palatalized counterparts. The agreement structure in the language is also quite convoluted. The classifier system effectively replaces much derivational morphology on the noun and noun compounding processes that other languages use to expand the meanings of nominals.

Bora gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Tucanoan
Eastern Tucanoan
Bará-Tuyuka

Tuyuca is a Tucanoan language spoken in by 450 people in the department of Vaupés in Colombia. An article in The Economist magazine concluded that it was the hardest language on Earth to learn.

It has a simple sound system, but it’s agglutinative, and agglutinative languages are pretty hard. For instance, hóabãsiriga means I don’t know how to write. It has two forms of 1st person plural, I and you (inclusive) and I and the others (exclusive). It has between 50-140 noun classes, including strange ones like bark that does not cling closely to a tree, which can be extended to mean baggy trousers or wet plywood that has begun to fall apart.

Like Yamana, a nearly extinct Amerindian language of Chile, Tuyuca marks for evidentiality, that is, how it is that you know something. For instance:

Diga ape-wi. = The boy played soccer. (I saw him playing).
Diga ape-hiyi.
= The boy played soccer. (I assume he was playing soccer, though I did not see it firsthand).

Evidential marking is obligatory on all Tuyuca verbs and it forces you to think about how you know whatever it is you know.

Tuyuca definitely gets a 6 rating!

Central Tucanoan

Cubeo, a language spoken in the Vaupes of Colombia, has a small closed class of adjective roots similar to Juǀʼhoan below:

ɨrabig/large
kɨhĩ
small
bãbã
new/young
bɨkɨ
old/great
bẽa
good/beautiful
ãbẽ
bad/ugly

However, verbs can function as adjectives, and the adjective roots can either turn into nouns themselves or they can take the inflections of either nouns or verbs. Wild!

Similar to how the grammar of Tariana has been influenced by Tucano languages, the grammar of Tucanoan Cubeo has been influenced by neighboring Arawakan languages. The grammar has been described as either SOV or OVS. That would mean that the following:

The man the ball hit.
The ball hit the man.

Mean the same things. OVS languages are quite rare.

Morphemes belong to one of four classes:

  1. Nasal (many roots, as well as suffixes like -xã  = associative)
  2. Oral (many roots, as well as suffixes like -pe  = similarity, -du = frustrative)
  3. Unmarked (only suffixes, e.g. -re  = in/direct object)
  4. Oral/Nasal (some roots and some suffixes) /bãˈkaxa-/(mãˈkaxa-) – to defecate and -kebã = suppose

Just by looking at any given consonant-initial suffix, it is impossible to determine which of the first three categories it belongs to. They must be learned one by one.

Cubeo has nasal assimilation, common to many Amazonian languages. In some of these, nasalization is best analyzed at the syllable level – some syllables are nasal and others are not.

dĩ-bI-ko
/dĩ-bĩ-ko/
nĩmĩko
She recently went.

The underlying form dĩ-bI-ko is realized on the surface as nĩmĩko. The ĩ in dĩ-bI-ko nasalizes the d, the b, and the I on either side of it, so nasal spreading works in both directions. However, it is blocked from the third syllable because k is part of a class of non-nasalizable consonants.

Pretty difficult language.

Cuneo gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Carib
Waiwai

Hixkaryána is famous for being the only language on Earth to have basic OVS (Object-Verb-Subject) word order.

The sentence Toto yonoye kamara, or The man ate the jaguar, actually means The jaguar ate the man.

Toto yonoye kamara
Lit. The man ate the jaguar.
Gloss: The jaguar ate the man.

Grammatical suffixes attached to the end of the verb mark not only number but also aspect, mood and tense.

Hixkaryána gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Nambikwaran
Mamaindê

This is actually a series of closely related languages as opposed to one language, but the Southern Nambikwara language is the most well-known of the family, with 1,200 speakers in the Brazilian Amazon.

Phonology is complex. Consonants distinguish between aspirated, plain and glottalized, common in the Americas. There are strange sounds like prestopped nasals glottalized fricatives. There are nasal vowels and three different tones. All vowels except one have both nasal, creaky-voiced and nasal-creaky counterparts, for a total of 19 vowels.

The grammar is polysynthetic with a complex evidential system.

Reportedly, Nambikwara children do not pick up the language fully until age 10 or so, one of the latest recorded ages for full competence. Nambikwara is sometimes said to be the hardest language on Earth to learn, but it has some competition.

Nambikwara definitely gets a 6 rating, hardest of all!

Muran

Pirahã is a language isolate spoken in the Brazilian Amazon. Recent writings by Daniel Everett indicate that not only is this one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn, but it is also one of the weirdest languages on Earth. It is monumentally complex in nearly every way imaginable. It is commonly listed on the rogue’s gallery of craziest languages and phonologies on Earth.

It has the smallest phonemic inventory on Earth with only seven consonants, three vowels and either two or three tones. Everett recently wrote a paper about it after spending many years with them. Previous missionaries who had spent time with the Pirahã generally failed to learn the language because it was too hard to learn. It took Everett a very long time, but he finally learned it well.

Many of Everett’s claims about Pirahã are astounding: whistled speech, no system for counting, very few Portuguese loans (they deliberately refuse to use Portuguese loans) evidence for the Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis, and evidence that it violates some of Noam Chomsky’s purported language universals such as embedding. It also has the t͡ʙ̥ sound – a bilabially trilled postdental affricate which is only found in two other languages, both in the Brazilian Amazon – Oro Win and Wari’.

Initially, Everett never heard the sound, but they got to know him better, they started to make it more often. Everett believes that they were ridiculed by other groups when they made the odd sound.

Pirahã has the simplest kinship system in any language – there is only word for both mother and father, and the Pirahã do not have any words for anyone other than direct biological relatives.

Pirahã may have only two numerals, or it may lack a numeral system altogether.

Pirahã does not distinguish between singular and plural person. This is highly unusual. The language may have borrowed its entire pronoun set from the Tupian languages Nheengatu and Tenarim, groups the Pirahã had formerly been in contact with. This may be one of the only attested case of the borrowing of a complete pronoun set.

There are mandatory evidentiality markers that must be used in Pirahã discourse. Speakers must say how they know something, whether they saw it themselves, whether it was hearsay or whether they inferred it circumstantially.

There are various strange moods – the desiderative (desire to perform an action) and two types of frustrative – frustration in starting an action (inchoative/incompletive) and frustration in completing an action (causative/incompletive). There are others: immediate/intentive (you are going to do something now/you intend to do it in the future)

There are many verbal aspects: perfect/imperfect (completed/incomplete) telic/atelic (reaching a goal/not reaching a goal), continuative (continuing), repetitive (iterative), and beginning an action (inchoative).

Each Pirahã verb has 262,144 possible forms, or possibly in the many millions, depending on which analysis you use.

The future tense is divided into future/somewhere and future/elsewhere. The past tense is divided into plain past and immediate past.

Pirahã has a closed class of only 90 verb roots, an incredibly small number. But these roots can be combined together to form compound verbs, a much larger category. Here is one example of three verbs strung together to form a compound verb:

xig ab op
take turn go
bring back, You take something away, you turn around, and you go back to where you got it to return it.

There are no abstract color terms in Pirahã. There are only two words for colors, one for light and one for dark. The only other languages with this restricted of a color sense are in Papua New Guinea. The other color terms are not really color terms, but are more descriptive – red is translated as like blood.

Pirahã can be whistled, hummed or encoded into music. Consonants and vowels can be omitted altogether and meaning conveyed instead via variations in stress, pitch and rhythm. Mothers teach the language to children by repeating musical patterns.

Pirahã may well be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.

Pirahã gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Quechuan

Quechua (actually a large group of languages and not a single language at all) is one of the easiest Amerindian languages to learn. Quechua is a classic example of a highly regular grammar with few exceptions. Its agglutinative system is more straightforward than even that of Turkish. The phonology is dead simple.

On the down side, there is a lot of dialectal divergence (these are actually separate languages and not dialects) and a lack of learning materials. Some say that Quechua speakers spend their whole lives learning the language.

Quechua has inconsistent orthographies. There is a fight between those who prefer a Spanish-based orthography and those who prefer a more phonemic one. Also there is an argument over whether to use the Ayacucho language or the Cuzco language as a base.

Quechua has a difficult feature known as evidential marking. This marker indicates the source of the speaker’s knowledge and how sure they are about the statement.

-mi expresses personal knowledge:

Tayta Wayllaqawaqa chufirmi.
Mr. Huayllacahua is a driver. (I know it for a fact.)

-si expresses hearsay knowledge:

Tayta Wayllaqawaqa chufirsi.
Mr. Huayllacahua is a driver (or so I’ve heard).

chá expresses strong possibility:

Tayta Wayllaqawaqa chufirchá.
Mr. Huayllacahua is a driver (most likely).

Quechua is rated 4, very difficult.

Aymaran
Aymara

Aymara has some of the wildest morphophonology out there. Morpheme-final vowel deletion is present in the language as a morphophonological process, and it is dependent on a set of highly complex phonological, morphological and syntactic rules (Kim 2013).

For instance, there are three types of suffixes: dominant, recessive and a 3rd class is neither dominant nor recessive. If a stem ends in a vowel, dominant suffixes delete the vowel but recessive suffixes allow the vowel to remain. The third class either deletes or retains the vowel on the stem depending on how many vowels are in the stem. If the root has two vowels, the vowel is retained. If it has three vowels, the vowel is deleted.

Although all of this seems quite odd, Finnish has something similar going on, if not a lot worse.

Nevertheless, Aymara is still said to be a very easy language to learn. The Guinness Book of World Records claims it is almost as easy to learn as Esperanto.

Aymara gets a 2 rating, very easy to learn.

Australian

Australian Aborigine languages are some of the hardest languages on Earth to learn, like Amerindian or Caucasian languages. Some Australian languages have phonemic contrasts that few other languages have, such as apico-dental, lamino-dental, apico-post-alveolar, and lamino-postalveolar cononals.

Australian languages tend to be mixed ergative. Ordinary nouns are ergative-absolutive, but 1st and 2nd person pronouns are nominative-accusative. One language has a three way agent-patient-experiencer distinction in the 1st person pronoun. Australian pronouns typically have singular, plural and dual forms along with inclusive and exclusive 1st plural. In some sentences, they have what is known as double case agreement which is rare in the world’s languages:

I gave a spear to my father.
I gave a spear mine-to father’s-to.

Both elements of the phrase my father are in both dative and genitive.

However, Aboriginal languages do have the plus of being very regular.

All Australian languages are rated 6, most difficult of all.

Tor-Kwerba
Orya-Tor
Tor

Berik is a Tor-Orya language spoken in Indonesian colony of Irian Jaya in New Guinea.

Verbs take many strange endings, in many cases mandatory ones, that indicate what time of day something happened, among other things.

TelbenerHe drinks in the evening.

Where a verb takes an object, it will not only be marked for time of day but for the size of the object.

KitobanaHe gives three large objects to a man in the sunlight.

Verbs may also be marked for where the action takes place in reference to the speaker.

GwerantenaTo place a large object in a low place nearby.

Berik is rated 6, hardest of all.

Trans New Guinea
Madang
Croisilles
Gum

Amele is the world’s most complex language as far as verb forms go, with 69,000 finitive and 860 infinitive forms.

Amele is rated 6, hardest of all.

Torricelli
Wapei
Valman

Valman is a bizarre case where the word and that connects two nouns is actually a verb of all things and is marked with the first noun as subject and the second noun as object.

John (subject) and Mary (object)

John is marked as subject for some reason, and Mary is marked as object, and the and word shows subject agreement with John and object agreement with Mary.

Valman gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Afroasiatic
Semitic

Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew are notoriously difficult to learn, and Arabic (especially MSA) tops many language learners’ lists as the hardest language they have ever attempted to learn. Although Semitic verbs are notoriously complex, the verbal system does have some advantages especially as compared to IE languages like Slavic. Unlike Slavic, Semitic verbs are not inflected for mood and there is no perfect or imperfect.

Central
South
Arabic

Arabic has some very irregular manners of noun declension, even in the plural. For instance, the word girls changes in an unpredictable way when you say one girl, two girls and three girls, and there are two different ways to say two girls depending on context. Two girls is marked with the dual, but different dual forms can be used. All languages with duals are relatively difficult for most speakers that lack a dual in their native language. However, the dual is predictable from the singular, so one might argue that you only need to learn how to say one girl and three girls.

Further, it is full of irregular plurals similar to octopus and octopi in English, whereas these forms are rare in English. With any given word, there might be 20 different possible ways to pluralize it, and there is no way to know which of the 20 paradigms to use with that word, and further, there is no way to generalize a plural pattern from a singular pattern. In addition, many words have 2-3 ways of pluralizing them. Some messy Arab plurals:

kalb -> kilaab
qalb
-> quluub
maktab
-> makaatib
taalib
-> tullaab
balad
-> buldaan

When you say I love you to a man, you say it one way, and when you say it to a woman, you say it another way. On and on.

The Arabic writing system is exceeding difficult and is more of the hardest to use of any on Earth. Soft vowels are omitted. You have to learn where to insert missing vowels, where to double consonants and which vowels to skip in the script. There are 28 different symbols in the alphabet and four different ways to write each symbol depending on its place in the word.

Consonants are written in different ways depending on where they appear in a word. An h is written differently at the beginning of a word than at the end of a word. However, one simple aspect of it is that the medial form is always the same as the initial form. You need to learn not only Arabic words but also the grammar to read Arabic.

Pronouns attach themselves to roots, and there are many different verb conjugation paradigms which simply have to be memorized. For instance, if a verb has a و, a ي, or a ء  in its root, you need to memorize the patters of the derivations, and that is a good chunk of the conjugations right there. The system for measuring quantities is extremely confusing.

The grammar has many odd rules that seem senseless. Unfortunately, most rules have exceptions, and it seems that the exceptions are more common than the rules themselves. Many people, including native speakers, complain about Arabic grammar.

Arabic does have case, but the system is rather simple.

The laryngeals, uvulars and glottalized sounds are hard for many foreigners to make and nearly impossible for them to get right. The ha’(ح ), qa (ق ) and غ sounds and the glottal stop in initial position give a lot of learners headaches.

Arabic is at least as idiomatic as French or English, so it order to speak it right you have to learn all of the expressionistic nuances.

One of the worst problems with Arabic is the dialects, which in many cases are separate languages altogether. If you learn Arabic, you often have to learn one of the dialects along with classical Arabic. All Arabic speakers speak both an Arabic dialect and Classical Arabic.

In some Arabic as a foreign language classes, even after 1 1/2 years, not one student could yet make a complete and proper sentence that was not memorized.

Adding weight to the commonly held belief that Arabic is hard to learn is research done in Germany in 2005 which showed that Turkish children learn their language at age 2-3, German children at age 4-5, but Arabic kids did not get Arabic until age 12.

Arabic has complex verbal agreement with the subject, masculine and feminine gender in nouns and adjectives, head-initial syntax and a serious restriction to forming compounds. If you come from a language that has similar nature, Arabic may be easier for you than it is for so many others. Its 3 vowel system makes for easy vowels.

MSA Arabic is rated 5, extremely difficult.

Arabic dialects are often somewhat easier to learn than MSA Arabic. At least in Lebanese and Egyptian Arabic, the very difficult q’ sound has been turned into a hamza or glottal stop which is an easier sound to make. Compared to MSA Arabic, the dialectal words tend to be shorter and easier to pronounce.

To attain anywhere near native speaker competency in Egyptian Arabic, you probably need to live in Egypt for 10 years, but Arabic speakers say that few if any second language learners ever come close to native competency. There is a huge vocabulary, and most words have a wealth of possible meanings.

Egyptian Arabic is rated 4.5, very to extremely difficult.

Moroccan Arabic is said to be particularly difficult, with much vowel elision in triconsonantal stems. In addition, all dialectal Arabic is plagued by irrational writing systems.

Moroccan Arabic is rated 4.5, very to extremely difficult.

Maltese is a strange language, basically a Maghrebi Arabic language (similar to Moroccan or Tunisian Arabic) that has very heavy influence from non-Arabic tongues. It shares the problem of Gaelic that often words look one way and are pronounced another.

It has the common Semitic problem of difficult plurals. Although many plurals use common plural endings (-i, -iet, -ijiet, -at), others simply form the plural by having their last vowel dropped or adding an s (English borrowing). There’s no pattern, and you simply have to memorize which ones act which way. Maltese permits the consonant cluster spt, which is surely hard to pronounce.

On the other hand, Maltese has quite a few IE loans from Italian, Sicilian, Spanish, French and increasingly English. If you have knowledge of Romance languages, Maltese is going to be easier than most Arabic dialects.

Maltese is rated 4, very difficult.

South
Canaanite

Hebrew is hard to learn according to a number of Israelis. Part of the problem may be the abjad writing system, which often leaves out vowels which must simply be remembered. Also, other than borrowings, the vocabulary is Afroasiatic, hence mostly unknown to speakers of IE languages. There are also difficult consonants as in Arabic such as pharyngeals and uvulars.

The het or glottal h is particularly hard to make. However, most modern Israelis no longer make the het sound or a’ain sounds. Instead, they pronounce the het like the chaf sound and the a’ain like an alef. Almost all Ashkenazi Israeli Jews no longer use the het or a’ain sounds. But most Jews who came from Arab countries (often older people) still use the sound, and some of their children do (Dorani 2013).

Hebrew has complex morphophonological rules. The letters p, b, t, d, k and g change to v, f, dh, th, kh and gh in certain situations. In some environments, pharyngeals change the nature of the vowels around them. The prefix ve-, which means and, is pronounced differently when it precedes certain letters. Hebrew is also quite irregular.

Hebrew has quite a few voices, including active, passive, intensive, intensive passive, etc. It also has a number of tenses such as present, past and the odd juissive.

Hebrew also has two different noun classes. There are also many suffixes and quite a few prefixes that can be attached to verbs and nouns.

Even most native Hebrew speakers do not speak Hebrew correctly by a long shot.

Quite a few say Hebrew is as hard to learn as MSA or perhaps even harder, but this is controversial.

Hebrew gets a 5 rating for extremely difficult.

Berber
Northern
Atlas

Berber languages are considered to be very hard to learn. Worse, there are very few language learning resources available.

Tamazight allows doubled consonants at the beginning of a word! How can you possibly make that sound?

Tamazight gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

In Tachelhit , words like this are possible:

tkkststt
You took it off.

tfktstt
You gave it.

In addition, there are words which contain only one or two consonants:

ɡ
be

ks
feed on

Tachelhit gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

South
Ethiopian
South
Transversal
Amharic–Argobba
Amharic

Amharic is said to be a very hard language to learn. It is quite complex, and its sentence structures seem strange even to speakers of other Semitic languages. Hebrew speakers say they have a hard time with this language.

There are a multitude of rules which almost seem ridiculous in their complexity, there are numerous conjugation patterns, objects are suffixed to the verb, the alphabet has 274 letters, and the pronunciation seems strange. However, if you already know Hebrew or Arabic, it will be a lot easier. The hardest part of all is the verbal system, as with any Semitic language. It is easier than Arabic.

Amharic gets a 4.5 rating, very hard to extremely hard.

Cushitic
East Cushitic

Dahalo is legendary for having some of the wildest consonant phonology on Earth. It has all four airstream mechanisms found in languages: ejectives, implosives, clicks and normal pulmonic sounds. There are both glottal and epiglottal stops and fricatives and laminal and apical stops.

There is also a strange series of nasal clicks and are both glottalized and plain. Some of these clicks are also labialized. It has both voiced and unvoiced prenasalized stops and affricates, and some of the stops are also labialized. There is a weird palatal lateral ejective. There are three different lateral fricatives, including a labialized and palatalized one, and one lateral approximant. It contrasts alveolar and palatal lateral affricates and fricatives, the only language on Earth to do this.

The Dahalo are former elephant hunting hunter gatherers who live in southern Kenya. It is believed that at one time they spoke a language like Sandawe or Hadza, but they switched over to Cushitic at some point. The clicks are thought to be substratum from a time when Dahalo was a Sandawe-Hadza type language.

Dahalo gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Somali

Somali has one of the strangest proposition systems on Earth. It actually has no real prepositions at all. Instead it has preverbal particles and possessives that serve as prepositions.

Here is how possessives serve as prepositions:

habeennimada horteeda
the night her front
before nightfall

kulaylka dartiisa
the heat his reason
because of the heat

Here we have the use of a preverbal particle serving as a preposition:

kú ríd shandádda
Into put the suitcase.
Put it into the suitcase.

Somali combines four “prepositions” with four deictic particles to form its prepositions.

There are four basic “prepositions”:

to
in
from
with

These combine with a four different deictic particles:

toward the speaker
away from the speaker
toward each other
away from each other

Hence you put the “prepositions” and the deictic particles together in various ways. Both tend to go in front of and close to the verb:

Nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.
…well-the rope with-from towards-me I-raised.
I pulled the man out of the well with a rope.

Way inoogá warrámi jireen.
They us-to-about news gave.
They used to give us news about it.

Prepositions are the hardest part of the Somali language for the learner.

Somali deals with verbs of motion via deixis in a similar way that Georgian does. One reference point is the speaker and the other is any other entities discussed. Verbs of motion are formed using adverbs. Entities may move:

towards each other    wada
away from each other  kala
towards the speaker   so
away from the speaker si

Hence:

kala durka separate
si gal     go in (away from the speaker)
so gal     come in (toward the speaker)

Somali lacks orthographic consistency. There are four different orthographic systems in use – the Wadaad Arabic script, the Osmanya Ethiopic script, the Borama script and the Latin Somali alphabet, the current system.

All of the difficult sounds of Arabic are also present in Somali, another Semitic language – the alef, the ha, the qaf and the kha. There are long and short vowels.  There is a retroflex d, the same sound found in South Indian languages. Somali also has 2 tones – high and low. For some reason, Somali tends to make it onto craziest phonologies lists.

Somali pluralization makes no sense and must be memorized. There are seven different plurals, and there is no clue in the singular that tells you what form to use in the plural. See here:

Republication:

áf  (language) -> afaf

Suffixation:

hoóyo (mother) -> hoyoóyin

áabbe -> aabayaal

Note the tone shifts in all three of the plurals above.

There are four cases, absolutive, nominative, genitive and vocative. Despite the presences of absolutive and nominative cases, Somali is not an ergative language. Absolutive case is the basic case of the noun, and nominative is the case given to the noun when a verb follows in the sentence. There are different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned previously or not (similar to the articles a and the in English). The absolutive and nominative are marked not only on the noun but also on the article that precedes it.

In terms of difficulty, Somali is much harder than Persian and probably about as difficult as Arabic.

Somali gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Dravidian
Southern
Tamil-Kannada
Tamil-Kodagu
Tamil-Malayalam
Malayalam

Malayalam, a Dravidian language of India, was has been cited as the hardest language to learn by an language foundation, but the citation is obscure and hard to verify.

Malayalam words are often even hard to look up in a Malayalam dictionary.

For instance, adiyAnkaLAkkikkoNDirikkukayumANello is a word in Malayalam. It means something like I, your servant, am sitting and mixing s.t. (which is why I cannot do what you are asking of me). The part in parentheses is an example of the type of sentence where it might be used.

The above word is composed of many different morphemes, including conjunctions and other affixes, with sandhi going on with some of them so they are eroded away from their basic forms. There doesn’t seem to be any way to look that word up or to write a Malayalam dictionary that lists all the possible forms, including forms like the word above. It would probably be way too huge of a book. However, all agglutinative languages are made up of affixes, and if you know the affixes, it is not particularly hard to parse the word apart.

Malayalam is said to be very hard to pronounce correctly.

Further, few foreigners even try to learn Malayalam, so Malayalam speakers, like the French, might not listen to you and might make fun of you if your Malayalam is not native sounding.

However, Malayalam has the advantage of having many pedagogic materials available for language learning such as audio-visual material and subtitled videos.

Malayalam is rated 5, extremely difficult.

Tamil

Tamil, a Dravidian language is hard, but probably not as difficult as Malayalam is. Tamil has an incredible 247 characters in its alphabet. Nevertheless, most of those are consonant-vowel combinations, so it is almost more of a syllabary than an alphabet. Going by what would traditionally be considered alphabetic symbols, there are probably only 72 real symbols in the alphabet. Nevertheless, Tamil probably has one of the easier Indic scripts as Tamil has fewer characters than other scripts due to its lack of aspiration. Compare to Devanagari’s over 1,000 characters.

But no Indic script is easy. A problem with Tamil is that all of the characters seem to look alike. It is even worse than Devanagari in that regard. However, the more rounded scripts such as Kannada, Sinhala, Telegu and Malayalam have that problem to a worse degree. Tamil has a few sharp corners in the characters that helps to disambiguate them.

In addition, as with other languages, words are written one way and pronounced another. However, there are claims that the difficulty of Tamil’s diglossia is overrated.

Tamil has two different registers for written and spoken speech, but the differences are not large, so this problem is exaggerated. Both Tamil and Malayalam are spoken very fast and have extremely complicated, nearly impenetrable scripts. If Westerners try to speak a Dravidian language in south India, more often than not the Dravidian speaker will simply address them in English rather than try to accommodate them.

Tamil has the odd evidential mood, similar to Bulgarian.

However, on the plus side, the language does seem to be very logical and regular, almost like German in that regard. In addition, there are a lot of language learning materials for Tamil.

Tamil is rated 4, very difficult.

Altaic
Korean

Most agree that Korean is a hard language to learn.

The alphabet, Hangul at least is reasonable; in fact, it is quite elegant. But there are four different Romanizations- Lukoff, Yale, Horne, and McCune-Reischauer – which is preposterous. It’s best to just blow off the Romanizations and dive straight into Hangul. This way you can learn a Romanization later, and you won’t mess up your Hangul with spelling errors, as can occur if you go from Romanization to Hangul.

Hangul can be learned very quickly, but learning to read Korean books and newspapers fast is another matter altogether because you really need to know the hanja or Chinese character that are used in addition to the Hangul. After World War 2, the Koreas decided to officially get rid of their Chinese characters, but in practice this was not successful. With the use of Chinese characters in Korean, you can be a lot more precise in terms what you are trying to communicate.

Bizarrely, there are two different numeral sets used, but one is derived from Chinese so it should be familiar to Chinese, Japanese or Thai speakers who use similar or identical systems.

Korean has a wealth of homonyms, and this is one of the tricky aspects of the language. Any given combination of a couple of characters can have multiple meanings. Japanese has a similar problem with homonyms, but at least with Japanese you have the benefit of kanji to help you tell the homonyms apart. With Korean Hangul, you get no such advantage.

Similarly, there seem to be many ways to say the same thing in Korean. The learner will feel when people are using all of these different ways of saying the same thing that they are actually saying something different each time, but that is not the case.

One problem is that the bp, j, ch, t and d are pronounced differently than their English counterparts. The consonants, the pachim system and the morphing consonants at the end of the word that slide into the next word make Korean harder to pronounce than any major European language. Korean has a similar problem with Japanese, that is, if you mess up one vowel in sentence, you render it incomprehensible.

The vocabulary is very difficult for an English speaker who does not have knowledge of either Japanese or Chinese. On the other hand, Japanese or Chinese will help you a lot with Korean.

Korean is agglutinative and has a subject-topic discourse structure, and the logic of these systems is difficult for English speakers to understand. In addition, there are hundreds of ways of conjugating any given verb based on tense, mood, age or seniority. Adjectives also decline and take hundreds of different suffixes.

Meanwhile, Korean has an honorific system that is even wackier than that of Japanese. A single sentence can be said in three different ways depending on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. However, the younger generation is not using the honorifics so much, and a foreigner isn’t expected to know the honorific system anyway.

Maybe 60% of the words are based on Chinese words, but unfortunately, much of this Chinese-based vocabulary intersects with Japanese versions of Chinese words in a confusing way.

Speakers of Korean can learn Japanese fairly easily. Korean seems to be a more difficult language to learn than Japanese. There are maybe twice as many particles as in Japanese, the grammar is dramatically more difficult and the verbs are quite a bit harder. The phonemic inventory in Korean is also larger and includes such oddities as double consonants.

Korean is rated by language professors as being one of the hardest languages to learn.

Korean is rated 5, extremely hard.

Japonic

Japanese also uses a symbolic alphabet, but the symbols themselves are sometime undecipherable in that even Japanese speakers will sometimes encounter written Japanese and will say that they don’t know how to pronounce it. I don’t mean that they mispronounce it; that would make sense. I mean they don’t have the slightest clue how to say the word! This problem is essentially nonexistent in a language like English.

The Japanese orthography is one of the most difficult to use of any orthography.

There are over 2,000 frequently used characters in three different symbolic alphabets that are frequently mixed together in confusing ways. Due to the large number of frequently used symbols, it’s said that even Japanese adults learn a new symbol a day a ways into adulthood.

The Japanese writing system is probably crazier than the Chinese writing system and it often makes it onto lists of worst orthographies. The very idea of writing an agglutinative language in a combination of two syllabaries and an ideography seems wacky right off the bat. Japanese borrowed Chinese characters. But then they gave each character several pronunciations, and in some cases as many as 24. Next they made two syllabaries using another set of characters, then over the next millennia came up with all sorts of contradictory and often senseless rules about when to use the syllabaries and when to use the character set. Later on they added a Romanization to make things even worse.

Chinese uses 5-6,000 characters regularly, while Japanese only uses around 2,000. But in Chinese, each character has only one or maybe two pronunciations. In Japanese, there are complicated rules about when and how to combine the hiragana with the characters. These rules are so hard that many native speakers still have problems with them. There are also personal and place names (proper nouns) which are given completely arbitrary pronunciations often totally at odds with the usual pronunciation of the character.

There are some writers, typically of literature, who deliberately choose to use kanji that even Japanese people cannot read. For instance, Ryuu  Murakami  uses the odd symbols 擽る、, 轢く、and 憑ける.

The Japanese system is made up of three different systems: the katakana and hiragana (the kana) and the kanji, similar to the hanzi used in Chinese. Chinese has at least 85,000 hanzi. The number of kanji is much less than that, but kanji often have more than one meaning in contrast to hanzi.

After WW2, Japan decided to simplify its language. They both simplified and reduced the number of Chinese characters used, and they unified the written and spoken language, which previously had been different.

Speaking Japanese is not as difficult as everyone says, and many say it’s fairly easy. However, there is a problem similar to English in that one word can be pronounced in multiple ways, like read and read in English.

A common problem is that a perfectly grammatically correct sentence uttered by a Japanese language learner, while perfectly correct, is still not acceptable by Japanese speakers because “we just don’t say it that way.” The Japanese speaker often cannot tell why the unacceptable sentence you uttered is not ok. On the other hand, this problem may be common to more languages than Japanese.

There is also a class of Japanese called “honorifics” or “keigo” that is quite hard to master. Honorifics are meant to show respect and to indicate one’s place or status in the social hierarchy. These typically effect verbs but can also affect particles and prefixes. They are usually formed by archaic or highly irregular verbs. However, there are both regular and irregular honorific forms. Furthermore, there are five different levels of honorifics. Honorifics vary depending on who you are and who you are talking to. In addition, gender comes into play.

Although it is true the Japanese young people are said to not understand the intricacies of keigo, it is still expected that they know how to speak this well. Consequently, many young Japanese will opt out of certain conversations because they feel that their keigo is not very good. Books explaining how to use keigo properly have been big sellers among young people in Japan in recent years as young people try to appear classy, refined or cultured.

In addition, Japanese born overseas (especially in the US), while often learning Japanese pretty well, typically have a very poor understanding of keigo. Instead of embarrassing themselves by not using keigo or using it wrong, these Japanese speakers often prefer to speak in English to Japanese people rather than bother with keigo-less Japanese. Overcorrection in keigo is also a problem when hypercorrection leads to someone making errors in keigo due to “trying to hard.” This looks like phony or insincere politeness and is often worse than not using keigo at all.

One wild thing about Japanese is counting forms. You actually use different numeral sets depending on what it is you are counting! There are dozens of different ways of counting things which involve the use of a complex numerical noun classifier system.

Japanese grammar is often said to be simple, but that does not appear to be the case on closer examination. Particles are especially vexing. Verbs engage in all sorts of wild behavior, and adverbs often act like verbs. Nouns can act like adjectives and adverbs. Meanwhile, honorifics change the behavior of all words. There are particles like ha and ga that have many different meanings. One problem is that all noun modifiers, even phrases, must precede the nouns they are modifying.

It’s often said that Japanese has no case, but this is not true. Actually, there are seven cases in Japanese. The aforementioned ga is a clitic meaning nominative, made is terminative case, -no is genitive and -o is accusative.

In this sentence:

The plane that was supposed to arrive at midnight, but which had been delayed by bad weather, finally arrived at 1 AM.

Everything underlined must precede the noun plane:

Was supposed to arrive at midnight, but had been delayed by bad weather, the plane finally arrived at 1 AM.

One of the main problems with Japanese grammar is that it is going to seem to so different from the sort of grammar and English speaker is likely to be used to.

Speaking Japanese is one thing, but reading and writing it is a whole new ballgame. It’s perfectly possible to know the meaning of every kanji and the meaning of every word in a sentence, but you still can’t figure out the meaning of the sentence because you can’t figure out how the sentence is stuck together in such a way as to create meaning.

The real problem is that the Japanese you learn in class is one thing, and the Japanese of the street is another. One problem is that in street Japanese, the subject is typically not stated in a sentence. Instead it is inferred through such things as honorific terms or the choice of words you used in the sentence. Probably no one goes crazier on negatives than the Japanese. Particularly in academic writing, triple and quadruple negatives are common, and can be quite confusing.

Yet there are problems with the agglutinative nature of Japanese. It’s a completely different syntactic structure than English. Often if you translate a sentence from Japanese to English it will just look like a meaningless jumble of words.

However, Japanese grammar has the advantage of being quite regular. For instance, there are only four frequently used irregular verbs.

Like Chinese, the nouns are not marked for number or gender. However, while Chinese is forgiving of errors, if you mess up one vowel in a Japanese sentence, you may end up with incomprehension.

Although many Japanese learners feel it’s fairly easy to learn, surveys of language professors continue to rate Japanese as one of the hardest languages to learn. A study by the US Navy concluded that the hardest language the corpsmen had to learn in the course of service was Japanese. However, it’s generally agreed that Japanese is easier to learn than Korean. Japanese speakers are able to learn Korean pretty easily.

Japanese is rated 5, extremely hard.

Classical Japanese is much harder to read than Modern Japanese. Though you can get by with much less kanji when reading the modern language, you will need a minimum knowledge of 3,000 kanji for reading Classical Japanese, and that’s using a dictionary. There are only about 500-1,000 frequently used characters, but there are countless other words that will come up in your reading especially say special words used in the Imperial Court. Many words have more than one meaning, and unless you know this, you will be lost. 東宮(とうぐう) for instance means Eastern Palace. However, it also means Crown Prince because his residence was to the east of the Emperor’s.

The movie The Seven Samurai (set in the late 1500’s) seems to use some sort of Classical Japanese, or at least Classical vocabulary and syntax with modern pronunciation. Japanese language learners say they can’t understand a word of the archaic Japanese used in this movie.

Classical Japanese gets 5.5, nearly hardest of all.

Turkic
Oghuz
Western Oghuz

Turkish is often considered to be hard to learn, and it’s rated one of the hardest in surveys of language teachers, however, it’s probably easier than its reputation made it out to be. It is agglutinative, so you can have one long word where in English you might have a sentence of shorter words. One word is

Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?
Were you one of those people whom we could not turn into a Czechoslovakian?

Many words have more than one meaning. However, the agglutination is very regular in that each particle of meaning has its own morpheme and falls into an exact place in the word. See here:

göz            eye
göz-lük        glasses
göz-lük-çü     optician
göz-lük-çü-lük the business of an optician

Nevertheless, agglutination means that you can always create new words or add new parts to words, and for this reason even a lot of Turkish adults have problems with their language.

There is no verb to be, which is hard for many foreigners. Instead, the concept is wrapped onto the subject of the sentence as a -dim or -im suffix. Turkish is an imagery-heavy language, and if you try to translate straight from a dictionary, it often won’t make sense.

However, the suffixation in Turkish, along with the vowel harmony, are both precise. Nevertheless, many words have irregular vowel harmony. The rules for making plurals are very regular, with no exceptions (the only exceptions are in foreign loans). In Turkish, incredible as it sounds, you can make a plural out of anything, even a word like what, who or blood. However, there is some irregularity in the strengthening of adjectives, and the forms are not predictable and must be memorized.

Turkish is a language of precision in other ways. For instance, there are eight different forms of subjunctive mood that describe various degrees of uncertainty that one has about what one is talking about. This relates to the evidentiality discussed under Tuyuca above, and Turkish has an evidential form similar to Tamil and Bulgarian. On Turkish news, verbs are generally marked with miş, which means that the announcer believes it to be true though he has not seen it firsthand. The particle miş is interesting because this evidential form is coded into the tense system, which is an unusual use of evidentiality.

The Roman alphabet and almost mathematically precise grammar really help out. Turkish lacks gender and has but a single irregular verb – olmak. Nevertheless, there are many verbal forms. However, this is controversial and it depends on how you define grammatical irregularity. There is some strangeness in some of the verb paradigms, but it is argued that these oddities are rule-based. The aorist tense is said to have irregularity.

There is some irregular morphophonology, but not much. The oblique relative clauses have complex morphosyntax. Turkish has two completely different ways of making relative clauses, one of which may have been borrowed from Persian. There are many gerunds for verbs, and these have many different uses. At the end of the day, Turkish grammar is not as regular or as simple as it is made out to be.

Words are pronounced nearly the same as they are written. A suggestion that Turkish may be easier to learn that many think is the research that shows that Turkish children learn attain basic grammatical mastery of Turkish at age 2-3, as compared to 4-5 for German and 12 for Arabic. The research was conducted in Germany in 2005.

In addition, Turkish has a phonetic orthography.

However, Turkish is hard for an English speaker to learn for a variety of reasons. It is agglutinative like Japanese, and all agglutinative languages are difficult for English speakers to learn. As in Japanese, you start your Turkish sentence the way you would end your English sentence. As in the Japanese example above, the subordinate clause must precede the subject, whereas in English, the subordinate clause must follow the subject. The italicized phrase below is a subordinate clause.

In English, we say, “I hope that he will be on time.”

In Turkish, the sentence would read, “That he will be on time I hope.”

Turkish vowels are unusual to speakers of IE languages, and Turkish learners say the vowels are hard to make or even tell apart from one another.

Turkish is rated 3.5, harder than average to learn.

Uralic

Finno-Ugric

One test of the difficulty of any language is how much of the grammar you must know in order to express yourself on a basic level. On this basis, Finno-Ugric languages are complicated because you need to know quite a bit more grammar to communicate on a basic level in them than in say, German.

Finnic
Northern

Finnish is very hard to learn, and even long-time learners often still have problems with it. Famous polyglot Barry Farber said it was one of the hardest languages he learned. You have to know exactly which grammatical forms to use where in a sentence. In addition, Finnish has 15 cases in the singular and 16 in the plural. This is hard to learn for speakers coming from a language with little or no case.

For instance,
talothe house

Cases:

talon        house's
taloasome    of the house
taloksiinto  as the house
talossain    the house
talostafrom  inside the house
talooninto   the house
talollaon    to the house
taloltafrom  beside the house
talolleto    the house
taloistafrom the houses
taloissa     in the houses

It gets much worse than that. This web page shows that the noun kauppashop can have 2,253 forms.

A simple adjective + noun type of noun phrase of two words can be conjugated in up to 100 different ways.

Adjectives and nouns belong to 20 different classes. The rules governing their case declension depend on what class the substantive is in.

As with Hungarian, words can be very long. For instance:

lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas
non-commissioned officer cadet learning to be an assistant mechanic for airplane jet engines

Like Turkish, Finnish agglutination is very regular. Each bit of information has its own morpheme and has an exact place in the word.

Like Turkish, Finnish has vowel harmony, but the vowel harmony is very regular like that of Turkish. Unlike Turkish or Hungarian, consonant gradation forms a major part of Finnish morphology. In order to form a sentence in Finnish, you will need to learn about verb types, cases and consonant gradation, and it can take a while to get your mind around those things.

Finnish, oddly enough, always puts the stress on the first syllable. Finnish vowels will be hard to pronounce for most foreigners.

However, Finnish has the advantage of being pronounced precisely as it is written. This is also part of the problem though, because if you don’t say it just right, the meaning changes. So, similarly with Polish, when you mangle their language, you will only achieve incomprehension. Whereas with say English, if a foreigner mangles the language, you can often winnow some sense out of it.

However, despite that fact that written Finnish can be easily pronounced, when learning Finnish, as in Korean, it is as if you must learn two different languages – the written language and the spoken language. A better way to put it is that there is “one language for writing and another for speaking.” You use different forms whether conversing or putting something on paper.

Some pronunciation is difficult. The the contrast between short and long vowels and consonants is particularly troublesome. Check out these minimal pairs:

sydämellä
sydämmellä

jollekin
jollekkin

A problem for the English speaker coming to Finnish would be the vocabulary, which is alien to the speaker of an IE language. Finnish language learners often find themselves looking up over half the words they encounter. Obviously, this slows down reading quite a bit!

In the grammar, the partitive case and potential tense can be difficult. Here is an example of how Finnish verb tenses combine with various cases to form words:

I A-Infinitive
Base form mennä

II E-Infinitive
Active inessive    mennessä
Active instructive mennen
Passive inessive   mentäessä

III MA-Infinitive
Inessive            menemässä
Elative             menemästä
Illative            menemään
Adessive            menemällä
Abessive            menemättä
Active instructive  menemän
Passive instructive mentämän

Verbs in Finnish

Finnish verbs are very regular. The irregular verbs can almost be counted on one hand:

juosta
käydä
olla
nähdä
tehdä

and a few others. In fact, on the plus side, Finnish in general is very regular.

One easy aspect of Finnish is the way you can build many forms from a base root:

kirj-

kirjabook
kirje
letter
kirjoittaa
to write
kirjailija
writer

As in many Asian languages, there are no masculine or feminine pronouns, and there is no grammatical gender. The numeral system is quite simple compared to other languages. Finnish has a complete lack of consonant clusters. In addition, the phonology is fairly simple.

Finnish is rated 5, extremely hard to learn.

Southern

Estonian has similar difficulties as Finnish, since they are closely related. However, Estonian is more irregular than Finnish. In particular, the very regular agglutination system described in Finnish seems to have gone awry in Estonian. Estonian has 14 cases, including strange cases such as the abessive, adessive, elative and inessive. On the other hand, all of these cases can simply be analyzed as the genitive case plus a single unvarying suffix for each case. In addition, there is no gender, so the only things you have to worry about when forming cases are singular and plural.

Estonian has a strange mood form called the quotative, often translated as “reported speech.”

tema onhe/she/it is

tema olevatit’s rumored that he/she/it is or he/she/it is said to be

This mood is often used in newspaper reporting and is also used for gossip.

Estonian has an astounding 25 diphthongs. It also has three different varieties of vowel length, which is strange in the world’s languages. There are short, vowels and extra-long vowels and consonants.

linalinen – short n
linna
the town’s – long n, written as nn
`linna
into the town – extra-long n, not written out!

There are differences in the pronunciation of the three forms above, but in rapid speech, they are hard to hear, though native speakers can make them out. Difficulties are further compounded in that extra-long sonorants (m, n, ng, l, and r) and vowels and are not written out. All in all, phonemic length can be a problem in Estonian, and foreigners never seem to get it completely down.

Estonian pronunciation is not very difficult, though the õ sound can cause problems. However, Estonian has completely lost the vowel harmony system it inherited from Finnish, resulting in words that seem very hard to pronounce.

At least in written form, Estonian is not as complex as Finnish. Estonian can be seen as an abbreviated and modernized form of Finnish. The grammar is also like a simplified version of Finnish grammar and may be much easier to learn.

Estonian is rated 4.5, very to extremely difficult.

Sami
Eastern

Skolt Sami‘s Latinization is often listed as one of the worst Latinizations around. The rest of the language is quite similar to, and as difficult as, Finnish.

Skolt Sami gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Ugric
Hungarian

It’s widely agreed that Hungarian is one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. Even language professors agree. The British Diplomatic Corps did a study of the languages that its diplomats commonly had to learn and concluded that Hungarian was the hardest. Hungarian grammar is maddeningly complex, and Hungarian is often listed on craziest grammar lists. For one thing, there are many different forms for a single word via word modification. This enables the speaker to make his intended meaning very precise. Looking at nouns, there are about 257 different forms per noun.

Hungarian is said to have from 24-35 different cases (there are charts available showing 31 cases), but the actual number may only be 18. Nearly everything in Hungarian is inflected, similar to Lithuanian or Czech. Similar to Georgian and Basque, Hungarian has the polypersonal agreement, albeit to a lesser degree than those two languages. There are many irregularities in inflections, and even Hungarians have to learn how to spell all of these in school and have a hard time learning this.

The case distinctions alone can create many different words out of one base form. For the word house, we end up with 31 different words using case forms:

házbainto the house
házban
in the house
házból
from [within] the house
házra
onto the house
házon
on the house
házról
off [from] the house
házhoz
to the house
házíg
until/up to the house
háznál
at the house
háztól
[away] from the house
házzá
– Translative case, where the house is the end product of a transformation, such as They turned the cave into a house.
házként
as the house, which could be used if you acted in your capacity as a house or disguised yourself as one. He dressed up as a house for Halloween.
házért
for the house, specifically things done on its behalf or done to get the house. They spent a lot of time fixing things up (for the house).
házul
– Essive-modal case. Something like “house-ly” or in the way/manner of a house. The tent served as a house (in a house-ly fashion).

And we do have some basic cases:

ház – Nominative. The house is down the street.
házat
– Accusative. The ball hit the house.
háznak
– Dative. The man gave the house to Mary.
házzal
– Similar to instrumental, but more similar to English with. Refers to both instruments and companions.

The genitive takes 12 different declensions, depending on person and number:

házammy house
házaim
my houses
házad
your house
házaid
your houses
háza
his/her/its house
házai
his/her/its houses
házunk
our house
házaink
our houses
házatok
your house
házaitok
your house
házuk
their house
házaik
their houses
egyház
church, as in the Catholic Church. (Literally one-house)

In addition, the genitive suffixes to the possession, which is not how the genitive works in IE.

emberman/person
ház
house
a(z)
the

az ember házathe man’s house (Lit. the man house-his)
a házammy house (Lit. the house-my)
a házadyour house (Lit. the house-your)

There are also very long words such as this:

megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért…
for your (you all possessive) repeated pretensions at being impossible to desecrate

Being an agglutinative language, that word is made up of many small parts of words, or morphemes. That word means something like

The preposition is stuck onto the word in this language, and this will seem strange to speakers of languages with free prepositions.

Hungarian is full of synonyms, similar to English.

For instance, there are 78 different words that mean to move: halad, jár, megy, dülöngél, lépdel, botorkál, kódorog, sétál , andalog, rohan, csörtet, üget, lohol, fut, átvág, vágtat, tipeg, libeg, biceg, poroszkál, vágtázik, somfordál , bóklászik, szedi a lábát, kitér, elszökken, betér , botladozik, őgyeleg, slattyog, bandukol, lófrál, szalad, vánszorog, kószál, kullog, baktat, koslat, kaptat, császkál, totyog, suhan, robog, rohan, kocog, cselleng, csatangol, beslisszol, elinal, elillan, bitangol, lopakodik, sompolyog, lapul, elkotródik, settenkedik, sündörög, eltérül, elódalog, kóborol, lézeng, ődöng, csavarog, lődörög, elvándorol , tekereg, kóvályog, ténfereg, özönlik, tódul, vonul, hömpölyög, ömlik, surran, oson, lépeget, mozog and mozgolódik .

Only about five of those terms are archaic and seldom used, the rest are in current use. However, to be a fair, a Hungarian native speaker might only recognize half of those words.

In addition, while most languages have names for countries that are pretty easy to figure out, in Hungarian even languages of nations are hard because they have changed the names so much. Italy becomes Olazorszag, Germany becomes Nemetzorsag, etc.

As in Russian and Serbo-Croatian, word order is relatively free in Hungarian. It is not completely free as some say but rather is it governed by a set of rules. The problem is that as you reorder the word order in a sentence, you say the same thing but the meaning changes slightly in terms of nuance. Further, there are quite a few dialects in Hungarian. Native speakers can pretty much understand them, but foreigners often have a lot of problems. Accent is very difficult in Hungarian due to the bewildering number of rules used to determine accent. In addition, there are exceptions to all of these rules. Nevertheless, Hungarian is probably more regular than Polish.

Hungarian spelling is also very strange for non-Hungarians, but at least the orthography is phonetic. Nevertheless, the orthography often makes it onto worst orthographies lists.

Hungarian phonetics is also strange. One of the problems with Hungarian phonetics is vowel harmony. Since you stick morphemes together to make a word, the vowels that you have used in the first part of the word will influence the vowels that you will use to make up the morphemes that occur later in the word. The vowel harmony gives Hungarian a “singing effect” when it is spoken. The ty, ny, sz, zs, dzs, dz, ly, cs and gy sounds are hard for many foreigners to make. The á, é, ó, ö, ő, ú, ü, ű, and í vowel sounds are not found in English.

Verbs are marked for object (indefinite, definite and person/number), subject (person and number) tense (past, present and future), mood (indicative, conditional and imperative), and aspect (frequency, potentiality, factitiveness, and reflexiveness.

Elmentegettethetnélek.
I could make others save you occasionally (on a disk).

Verbs change depending on whether the object is definite or indefinite.

Olvasok könyvet.
I read a book.
(indefinite object)

Olvasom a könvyet.
I read the book.
(definite object)

As noted in the introduction to the Finno-Ugric section, you need to know quite a bit of Hungarian grammar to be able to express yourself on a basic level. For instance, in order to say:

I like your sister.

you will need to understand the following Hungarian forms:

  1. verb conjugation and definite or indefinite forms
  2. possessive suffixes
  3. case
  4. how to combine possessive suffixes with case
  5. word order
  6. explicit pronouns
  7. articles

It’s hard to say, but Hungarian is probably harder to learn than even the hardest Slavic languages like Czech, Serbo-Croatian and Polish. At any rate, it is generally agreed that Hungarian grammar is more complicated than Slavic grammar, which is pretty impressive as Slavic grammar is quite a beast.

Hungarian is rated 5, extremely hard to learn.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Mandarin

It’s fairly easy to learn to speak Mandarin at a basic level, though the tones can be tough. This is because the grammar is very simple – short words, no case, gender, verb inflections or tense. But with Japanese, you can keep learning, and with Chinese, you often tend to hit a wall, often because the syntactic structure is so strangely different from English (isolating).

Actually, the grammar is harder than it seems. At first it seems simple, like a simplified English. No word is capable of declension, and there is no tense, case, and number, nor are there articles. But the simplicity makes it difficult. No tense means there is no easy way to mark time in a sentence. Furthermore, tense is not as easy as it seems. Sure, there are no verb conjugations, but instead you must learn some particles and special word orders that are used to mark tense. Mandarin has 12 different adverbs for which there is no good English translation.

Once you start digging into Chinese, there is a complex layer under all the surface simplicity. There is such things as aspect, serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, a strange form called the detrimental passive, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange stuff. Verb complements can be baffling, especially potential and directional complements. The 把, 是 and 的 constructions can be very hard to understand.

The topic-prominence is interesting in that only a few major languages have topic-comment syntax, and most of those are Oriental languages with a lot of Chinese borrowing. Topicalization is not marked morphologically.

There are sentences where the entire meaning changes with the addition of a single character. Chinese sentences are SVO (Subject -Verb – Object) at their base, but that is a bit of an illusion. A sentence that causes you to discuss time duration makes you repeat the verb after the direct object – SVOVT (T= time phrase). In the case of topicalization, sentences can have the structure of OSV (Object – Subject – Verb). Relative clauses and all subordinate clauses come before the noun they modify. In other words:

English: The man who always wore red walked into the room.
Chinese: Who always wore red the man walked into the room.

The relative clause in the sentences above is marked in bold.

In Chinese, the prepositional phrase comes between the subject and the verb:

English: The man hit the ball into the yard.
Chinese: The man into the yard hit the ball.

The prepositional phrase is bolded in the sentences above.

In Chinese, adjectives are actually stative verbs as in Nahuatl and Lakota.

那个热菜很好吃。
Nàgè rède cài hěnhǎochī.
The it is hot food is good to eat.
The hot food is delicious.

The symbol turns food hot into food it is hot, an attributive verb. means something like to be.

There are dozens of words called particles which shade the meaning of a sentence ever so slightly.

Chinese phonology is not as easy as some say. There are way too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same. There is a distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants. There is also the presence of odd retroflex consonants.

Chinese orthography is probably the most hardest orthography of any language. The alphabet uses symbols, so it’s not even a real alphabet. There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more, but you only need to know about 3-5,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.

In addition, the characters have not been changed in 3,000 years, and the alphabet is at least somewhat phonetic, so we run into a serious problem of lack of a spelling reform.

The Communists tried to simplify the system (simplified Mandarin) but instead of making the connections between the phonetic aspects of character more sensible by decreasing their number and increasing their regularity (they did do this somewhat but not enough), they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol typically without dealing with the phonetic aspect of all. The simplification did not work well, so now you have a mixture of two different types of written Chinese – simplified and traditional.

In addition to all of this, Chinese borrowed a lot from the Japanese symbolic alphabet a full 1,000 years after it had already been developed and had not undergone a spelling reform, adding insult to injury.

Even leaving the characters aside, the stylistic and literary constraints required to write Chinese in an eloquent or formal (literary) manner would make your head swim. And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese prose. It’s as if it’s written in a different language – actually, it is technically a different language similar to Middle English or Old English. However, few Middle English or Old English texts are read anymore, and Classical Chinese is still widely read.

However, the orthography is at least consistent. 90% of characters have only one reading. Once you learn the character, you generally know the meaning in any context.

Writing the characters is even harder than reading them. One wrong dot or wrong line either completely changes the meaning or turns the symbol into nonsense.

It’s a real problem when you encounter a symbol you don’t know because there is no way to sound out the word. You are really and truly lost and screwed. There is a clue at the right side of the symbol, but it is not always accurate.You need to learn quite a bit of vocabulary just to speak simple sentences.

Similarly, a dictionary is not necessarily helpful when trying to read Chinese. You can have a Chinese sentence in front of you along with a dictionary, and the sentence still might not make sense even after looking it up in the dictionary.

Some Chinese Muslims write Chinese using an Arabic script. This is often considered to be one of the worst orthographies of all.

The tones are often quite difficult for a Westerner to pick up. If you mess up the tones, you have said a completely different word. Often foreigners who know their tones well nevertheless do not say them correctly, and hence, they say one word when they mean another. However, compared to other tone systems around the world, the tonal system in Chinese is comparatively easy.

A major problem with Chinese is homonyms. To some extent, this is true in many tonal languages. Since Chinese uses short words and is disyllabic, there is a limited repertoire of sounds that can be used. At a certain point, all of the sounds are used up, and you are into the realm of homophones.

Tonal distinctions are one way that monosyllabic and disyllabic languages attempt to deal with the homophone problem, but it’s not good enough, since Chinese still has many homophones, and meaning is often discerned by context, stress, rhythm and intonation. Chinese, like French and English, is heavily idiomatic.

It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms (classifiers) to count different things, like Japanese.

There is zero common vocabulary between English and Chinese, so you need to learn a whole new set of lexical forms.

In addition, nouns often show relatedness or hierarchy. For instance, in English, you can simply say my brother or my sister, but in Chinese, you cannot do this. You have to indicate whether you are speaking of an older or younger sibling.

mei meiyounger sister
jie jie
older sister
ge ge
older brother
di di
younger brother

Mandarin scored very high on a weirdest languages study.

On the positive side, Chinese grammar is fairly regular and word derivation, compound words are sensible and the meaning can be determined by looking at the word. In other languages, compound words are not necessarily so obvious.

Many agree that Chinese is the hardest to learn of all of the major languages. A recent survey of language professors rated Chinese as the hardest language on Earth to learn.

Mandarin gets a 5.5 rating for nearly hardest of all.

However, Cantonese is even harder to learn than Mandarin. Cantonese has eight tones to Mandarin’s four, and in addition, they continue to use a lot of the older traditional Chinese characters that were superseded when China moved to a simplified script in 1949. Furthermore, since non-Mandarin characters are not standardized, Cantonese cannot be written down as it is spoken.

In addition, Cantonese has verbal aspect, possibly up to 20 different varieties. Modal particles are difficult in Cantonese. Clusters of up to the 3 sentence final particles are very common. 我食咗飯 and 我食咗飯架啦喎 are both grammatical for I have had a meal, but the particles add the meaning of I have already had a meal, answering a question or even to imply I have had a meal, so I don’t need to eat anymore.

Cantonese gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

Min Nan is also said to be harder to learn than Mandarin, as it has a more complex tone system, with five tones on three different levels. Even many Taiwanese natives don’t seem to get it right these days, as it is falling out of favor, and many fewer children are being raised speaking it than before.

Min Nan gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

A recent 15 year survey out of Fudan University utilizing both the departments of Linguistics and Anthropology looked at 579 different languages in 91 linguistic families in order to try to find the most complicated language in the world. The result was that a Wu language dialect (or perhaps a separate language) in the Fengxian district of southern Shanghai (Dônđän Wu) was the most phonologically complex language of all, with 20 separate vowels (Wang 2012). The nearest competitor was Norwegian with 16 vowels.

Dônđän Wu gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

Classical Chinese is still read by many Chinese people and Chinese language learners. Unless you have a very good grasp on modern Chinese, classical Chinese will be completely wasted on you. Classical Chinese is much harder to read than reading modern Chinese.

Classical Chinese covers an era extending over 3,000 years, and to attain a reading fluency in this language, you need to be familiar with all of the characters used during this period along with all of the literature of the period so you can understand all the allusions. Even with a knowledge of Classical Chinese, you need to read it in context. If you are good at Classical Chinese and someone throws you a random section of it, it will take you a good amount of time to figure it out unless you know context.

The language is much more to the point than Modern Chinese, but this is not as good as it sounds. This simplicity leaves a room for ambiguity, and context plays an important role. A joke about some obscure historical or literary anecdote will be lost you unless you know what it refers to. For reading modern Chinese, you will need at least 5,000 characters, but even then, you will still need a dictionary. With Classical Chinese, there are no lower limits on the number of characters you need to know. The sky is the limit.

Classical Chinese gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Tibeto-Burman
Qiangic
Northern
Qiang

In Quiang, a language of Sichuan Province in China, not only are there rhotic vowels, which are present in only 1% of the world’s languages, but there is also rhoticity harmony, where a non-rhotic vowel in a morpheme becomes rhotic when it is followed by a morpheme with a rhotic vowel.

ʀuɑ +e˞ > ʀuɑ˞kʰ
me
+ w ˞> mw

Rhotic vowels are found in US English – Unstressed ɚ: standard, dinner, Lincolnshire, editor, measure, martyr.

Qiang also has a very bad romanization, so bad that the Qiang will not even use it. Voiced consonants are written by adding a vowel to the symbol for the voiceless consonant. It has long and short vowels, but these are not represented in the system.

Qiang gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Western Tibeto-Burman
Bodish
Central Bodish
Central

Tibetan probably has one of the least rational orthographies of any language. The orthography has not changed in ~1,000 years while the language has gone through all sorts of changes. A langauge learner in Tibet can get by using phonetic spelling. The problem comes when you try to spell using the Classical Alphabet. For instance:

Srong rtsan Sgam po (written)
soŋtsɛn ɡampo (spoken)

bsgrubs (written)

d`up (spoken)

While the orthography is etymological and completely outdated, it is quite predictable.

Tibetan gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Southern

Dzongka, the official language of Bhutan, has some pretty wild phonology, in addition to having the Tibetan writing system, this time using Bhutanese forms of the Tibetan script.

It contrasts all of the following: s, , ʰs, ʰsʰ, ts, ʰts, tsʰ, z, ʱz, dz, ʱdz, ⁿsʰ, ᵐtsʰ, ⁿtsʰ, ⁿdz, ᵖts, ᵖtsʰ, ᵖtsʷʰ, and ᶲs, and in addition it has four tones, but there is no single word that is distinguished by tone only. On top of that, there are 22 different vowels.

Dzongka gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Austroasiatic
Mon-Khmer
Vietic

Vietnamese is also hard to learn because to an outsider, the tones seem hard to tell apart. Therefore, foreigners often make themselves difficult to understand by not getting the tone precisely correct. It also has “creaky-voiced” tones, which are very hard for foreigners to get a grasp on.

Vietnamese grammar is fairly simple, and reading Vietnamese is pretty easy once you figure out the tone marks. Words are short as in Chinese. However, the simple grammar is relative, as you can have 25 or more forms just for I, the 1st person singular pronoun. In addition, the Latin orthography is said to be quite bad. It was invented by missionaries a few centuries ago, and it has never made much sense.

Vietnamese gets 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Mon-Khmer
Khmer

Khmer has a reputation for being hard to learn. I understand that it has one of the most complex honorifics systems of any language on Earth. Over a dozen different words mean to carry depending on what one is carrying. There are several different words for slave depending on who owned the slave and what the slave did. There are 28-30 different vowels, including sets of long and short vowels and long and short diphthongs. The vowel system is so complicated that there isn’t even agreement on exactly what it looks like. Khmer learners, especially speakers of IE languages, often have a hard time producing or even distinguishing these vowels.

Speaking it is not so bad, but reading and writing it is pretty difficult. For instance, you can put up to five different symbols together in one complex symbol. The orthographic script is even worse than the Thai one. There are actually rules to this mess, but no one seems to know who they are.

Khmer gets a  4.5 rating, very to extremely hard.

Bahnaric
North Bahnaric
West
Sedang-Todrah
Sedang

Sedang, a language of Vietnam, has the highest number of vowel sounds of any language on Earth, at 55 distinct vowel sounds.

Sedang gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Hmong-Mien
Hmongic
Chuanqiandian

Hmong is widely spoken in this part of California, but it’s not easy to learn. There are eight tones, and they are not easy to figure out. It’s not obviously related to any other major language but the obscure Mien.

It has some very strange consonants called voiceless nasals. We have them in English as allophones – the m in small is voiceless, but in Hmong, they put them at the front of words – the m in the word Hmong is voiceless. These can be very hard to pronounce.

The romanization is widely criticized for being a lousy one, but the Hmong use it anyway.

Hmong gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Austro-Tai
Austronesian
Tsouic

Tsou is a Taiwanese aborigine language spoken by about 2,000 people in Taiwan. It has the odd feature whereby the underlying glides y and w turn into or surface as non-syllabic mid vowels e̯ and o̯ in certain contexts:

jo~joskɨ -> e̯oˈe̯oskɨ  -= fishes

Tsou is also ergative like most Formosan languages. Tsou is the only language in the world that has no prepositions or anything that looks like a preposition. Instead it uses nouns and verbs in the place of prepositions. Tsou allows more potential consonant clusters than most other languages. About 1/2 of all possible CC clusters are allowed.

Tsou has an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the 1st person plural and a very strange visible and non-visible distinction in the 3rd person singular and plural. Both adjectives and adverbs can turn into verbs and are marked for voice in the same way that verbs are. Verbs are extensively marked for voice. Nouns are marked for a variety of odd cases, often referring to perception, (visible/invisible) person, and place deixis.

‘e –               visible and near speaker
si/ta –           visible and near hearer
ta –               visible but away from speaker
‘o/to –           invisible and far away, or newly introduced to discourse
na/no ~ ne – non-identifiable and non-referential (often when scanning a class of elements)

Tsou gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Malayo-Polynesian
Malayo-Chamic
Malayic
Malay

Bahasa Indonesia is an easy language to learn. For one thing, the grammar is dead simple. There are only a handful of prefixes, only two of which might be seen as inflectional. There are also several suffixes. Verbs are not marked for tense at all. And the sound system of these languages, in common with Austronesian in general, is one of the simplest on Earth, with only two dozen phonemes. Bahasa Indonesia has few homonyms, homophones, homographs, or heteronyms. Words in general have only one meaning.

Though the orthography is not completely phonetic, it only has a small number of nonphonetic exceptions. The orthography is one of the easiest on Earth to use.

The system for converting words into either nouns or verbs is regular. To make a plural, you simply repeat a word, so instead of saying pencils, you say pencil pencil.

Bahasa Indonesia gets a 1.5 rating, extremely easy to learn.

Malay is only easy if you learn the standard spoken form or one of the creoles. Learning the literary language is quite a bit more difficult. However, the Jawi script, which is Malay written in Arabic script, is often considered to be perfectly awful.

Malay get a 2 rating for moderately easy.

Philippine
Greater Central Philippine
Central Philippine
Tagalog

However, Tagalog is much harder than Malay or Indonesian. Compared to many European languages, Tagalog syntax, morphology and semantics are often quite different. Also, Tagalog is typically spoken very fast. Unlike Malay, verbs conjugate quite a bit in Tagalog. The main idea of Tagalog grammar is something called focus. Once you figure that out, the language gets pretty easy, but until you understand that concept, you are going to have a hard time.

Everything is affixed in Tagalog.

However, articles and creation of adjectives from nouns is very easy.

Compare:

gandabeauty (noun)
magandabeautiful (adjective)

Tagalog gets a 4 rating, very difficult.

Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian
Eastern Malayo-Polynesian
Oceanic
Central-Eastern Oceanic
Remote Oceanic
Central Pacific
East Fijian-Polynesian
Polynesian
Nuclear
East
Central
Tahitic

Maori and other Polynesian languages have a reputation for being quite easy to learn. The main problem for English speakers is that the sentence structure is backwards compared to English. In addition, macrons can cause problems.

One problem with Maori is dialects. The dialects are so diverse that this means that there are multiple words for the same thing. Swiss German has a similar issue, with up to 50 words for each common household item (nearly every major dialect has its own word for common objects):

ngongi, noni, koki, waiwater
whiri
, rarangi, hiri –  to plait, to twist, to weave
pai
, maitaigood
tu
, , tutehu, mātikato stand
mau
, mouto hold
pau
, pouto be exhausted
ika
, tohorāwhale
ika
, ngohifish
kāwei
, kāwailine
ori
, kori, keukeu, koukou, neke, nukuto move
haere
, hara, here, horo, whanoto go, to come
hara
, hapa, to be wrong
kōrerorero
, wānanga, rūnangato discuss
tohunga
, tahungapriest
matikuku
, maikukufinger nail
kanohi
, konohi, mata, whatu, kamo, karueye, face

Entire Maori sentences can be written with vowels only.

E uu aau?
Are yours firm?

I uaa ai.
It rained as usual.

I ui au ‘i auau aau?’
E uaua!
It will be difficult/hard/heavy!

On the plus side, the pronunciation is simple, and there is no gender. The language is as regular as Japanese. No Polynesian language has more than 16 sounds, and they all lack tones. They all have five vowels, which can be either long or short. A consonant must be followed by a vowel, so there are no consonant clusters. All consonants are easy to pronounce.

Maori gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

Marquesic

Hawaiian is a pretty easy language to learn. It is easy to pronounce, has a simple alphabet, lacks complex morphology and has a fairly simple syntax.

Hawaiian gets a 2 rating, very easy to learn.

North and Central Vanuatu
East Santo
North

Sakao is a very strange langauge spoken by 4,000 people in Vanuatu.  It is very strange. It is a polysynthetic Austronesian language, which is very weird. It allows extreme consonant clusters. Sakao has an incredible seven degrees of deixis. The language has an amazing four persons: singular, dual, paucal and plural. The neighboring language Tomoko has singular, dual, trial and plural. The trial form is very odd. Sakao’s paucal derived from Tomato’s trial:

jørðœl
they, from three to ten

jørðœl løn
the five of them
(Literally, they three, five)

All nouns are always in the singular except for kinship forms and demonstratives, which only display the plural:

ðjœɣmy mother/aunt -> rðjœɣmy aunts

walðyɣmy child -> raalðyɣmy children

It has a number of nouns that are said to be “inalienably possessed”, that is, whenever they occur, they must be possessed by some possessor. These often take highly irregular inflections:

Sakao 	  English
œsɨŋœ-ɣ   my mouth
œsɨŋœ-m   thy mouth
ɔsɨŋɔ-n   his/her/its mouth
œsœŋ-...  ...'s mouth	

uly-ɣ 	  my hair
uly-m 	  thy hair
ulœ-n 	  his/her/its hair
nøl-...   ...'s hair

Here, mouth is either œsɨŋœ-, ɔsɨŋɔ- or œsœŋ-, and hair is either uly-, ulœ- or nøl-

Sakao, strangely enough, may not even have syllables in the way that we normally think of them. If it does have syllables at all, they would appear to be at least a vowel optionally  surrounded by any number of consonants.

i (V)
thou

Mhɛrtpr.
(CCVCCCC)
Having sung and stopped singing thou kept silent.

Sakao has a suffix -in that makes an intransitive verb transitive and makes a transitive verb ditransitive. Ditransitive verbs can take two arguments – a direct object and an instrumental.

Mɨjilɨn amas ara./Mɨjilɨn ara amas.
He kills the pig with the club
/He kills with the club the pig.

Sakao polysynthesis allows compound verbs, each one having its own instrument or object:

Mɔssɔnɛshɔβrɨn aða ɛðɛ.
He-shooting-fish-kept-on-walking with-a-bow the-sea.
He walked along the sea shooting the fish with a bow.

Sakao gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Central-Eastern Oceanic
Southeast Solomonic
Malaita–San Cristobal
Malaita
Northern Malaita

Kwaio is an Austronesian language spoken in the Solomon Islands. It has four different forms of number to mark pronouns – not only the usual singular and plural, but also the rarer dual and the very rare paucal. In addition, there is an inclusive/exclusive contrast in the non-singular forms.

For instance:

1 dual inclusive (you and I)
1 dual exclusive (I and someone else, not you)

1 paucal inclusive (you, I and a few others)
1 paucal exclusive (I and a few others)

1 plural inclusive (I, you and many others)
1 plural exclusive (I and many others)

Pretty wild!

Kwaio gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Greater Barito
East Barito
Malagasy

Malagasy, the official language of Madagascar, has a reputation for being even easier to learn than Indonesian or Malay.

Malagasy gets a 1 rating, easiest of all to learn.

Tai-Kadai
Kam-Tai
Tai
Southwestern

Thai is a pretty hard language to learn. There are 75 symbols in the strange script, there are no spaces between words in the script, and vowels can come before, after, above or below consonants in any given syllable. There seem to be many different glyphs for every consonant, but the different glyphs for the same consonant will sometimes change the sound of the neighboring vowel. The orthography is as insensible as that of English since centuries have gone by with no spelling reforms, in fact, Thai has not changed its system in 1000 years. The wild card of having tone thrown in adds to the insanity.

Consonant pronunciations vary depending on the location of the syllable in the word – for instance, s can change to t. There are many vowels which are spoken but not written. There are many consonants that are pronounced the same – for instance, there are six different t‘s, not counting the s‘s that turn into t‘s. The Thai script is definitely one of the most difficult phonetic scripts. Nevertheless, the Thai script is easier to learn than the Japanese or Chinese character sets. In spite of all of that, the syntax is simple, like Chinese.

There are five tones, including a neutral tone. Tones are determined by a variety of complex things, including a combination of tone marks, the class of consonants, if the syllable ends in a sonorant or a stop and what the tone of the preceding syllable was. Tone marking in the orthography is quite complex.

The vowels are different than in many languages, and there are some unusual diphthongs: eua, euai, aui and uu. There is a contrast between aspirated and unaspirated consonants.

There is a system of noun classifiers for counting various things, similar to Japanese. In addition, common to many Asian languages, there is a complicated honorifics system.

On the plus side, Thai is a regular language, with few exceptions to the rules. However, the rules are quite complex. The syntax is about as complex as that of Chinese, and the grammar is dead simple.

Thai gets a 5 rating, hardest of all to learn.

Lao is very similar to Thai, in fact it is identical to a Thai language spoken by 16 million people in northeast Thailand called Northeastern Thai. The Lao script is similar to Thai, but it has fewer letters so there is somewhat less confusion.

Lao gets a 4.5 rating, very to extremely hard to learn.

Kam-Sui

The Kam languages of the Dong people in southwest China were rated by the Fudan University study referenced above under Wu as the 2nd most phonologically complex on Earth (Wang 2012). There are 32 stem initial consonants, including oddities like , tɕʰ, , pʲʰ, ɕ, , kʷʰ, ŋʷ, tʃʰ, tsʰ. Note the many contrasts between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless consonants, including bilabial palatalized stops, labialized velar stops, and alveolar affricates. There are an incredible 64 different syllable finals, and 14 others that occur only in Chinese loans.

There are an astounding 15 different tones, nine in open syllables and six in checked syllables (entering tones). Main tones are high, high rising, high falling, low, low rising, low falling, mid, dipping and peaking. When they speak, it sounds as if they are singing.

Kam gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Kra
Paha

According to the Fudan University study quoted above, Buyang in the 3rd most phonologically complex language in the world. Buyang is a cluster of 4 related languages spoken by 1,900 people in Yunnan Province, China. Buyang has a completely wild consonant inventory.

It has a full set of both voiced and voiceless plain and aspirated stops, including voiceless uvulars. The contrast between aspirated and plain voiced stops is peculiar. The stop series also has distinctions between palatalized and rounded stops throughout the series. It has a labialized voiceless palatal fricative and a voiceless dental aspirated lateral, unusual sounds. It has four different voiceless aspirated nasals. It has voiceless y and w, more odd sounds. It also has plain and labialized palatal glides.

That is one heck of a wild phonology.

Buyang gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Niger-Kordofanian
Niger-Congo
Atlantic–Congo
Kwa
Nyo
Ga-Dangme

The African Bantu language Ga has a bad reputation for being a tough nut to crack. It is spoken in Ghana by about 600,000 people. It has two tones and engages in a strange behavior called tone terracing that is common to many West African languages. There is a phonemic distinction between three different types of vowel length. All vowels have 3 different lengths – short, long and extra long. It also has many sounds that are not in any Western languages.

Ga gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Potou-Tano
Tano
Central Bia
Northern

Anyi is a language spoken by 610,000 people in Côte d’Ivoire.  It is relatively straightforward as far as African languages go. Probably the hardest part about the language is that it is tonal, and it does have two tones. The phonology does have the unusual +-ATR contrast which will seem very odd. ATR stands for advanced tongue root, so the language has a contrast between vowels with an advanced tongue root and without one. However, the grammar is pretty regular. There are few confusing phonological processes.

Anyi has a simple tense system, with only present, past and future. There is no aspect, mood or voice marking, and it lacks the noun class systems so common in many African languages. It has a plural marker, but it is often optional.

The syntax does have serial verbs, which will seem odd to Westerners. It distinguishes between relative clauses marked with and subordinate clauses marked with .

Anyi gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

Volta-Congo
Benue-Congo
Bantoid
Southern
Narrow Bantu
Central
M
Nyika-Safwa

Ndali is a Bantu language with 150,000 speakers spoken in Malawi and Tanzania. It has many strange tense forms. For instance, in the past tense:

Past tense A: He went just now.
Past tense B: He went sometime earlier today.
Past tense C: He went yesterday.
Past tense D: He went sometime before yesterday.

Future tense is marked similarly:

Future tense A: He’s going to go right away.
Future tense B: He’s going to go sometime later today.
Future tense C: He’s going to go tomorrow.
Future tense D: He’s going to go sometime after tomorrow.

Ndali gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

S
Nguni

Xhosa, a language of South Africa, is quite difficult, with up to nine click sounds. Clicks only exist in one language outside of Africa – the Australian language Damin – and are extremely difficult to learn. Even native speakers mess up the clicks sometimes. Nelson Mandela said he had problems making some of the click sounds in Xhosa. The phonemics in general of Xhosa are pretty wild.

Xhosa gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Zulu and Ndebele also have these impossible click sounds. However, outside of click sounds, the phonology of Nguni languages is straightforward. All Nguni languages are agglutinative. These languages also make plurals by changing the prefix of the noun, and the manner varies according the noun class. If you want to look up a word in the dictionary, first of all you need to discard the prefix. For instance, in Ndebele,

riverumfula
rivers
imifula, but

stoneilitshe
stones
–  amatsheyet

treeisihlahla
trees
izihlahla

Ndebele gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.

Zulu has pitch accent, tones and clicks. There are nine different pitch accents, four tones and three clicks, but each click can be pronounced in five different ways. However, tones are not marked in writing, so it’s hard to figure out when to use them. Zulu also has depressor consonants, which lower the tone in the vowel in the following syllable. In addition, Zulu has multiple gender – 15 different genders. And some nouns behave like verbs. It also has 12 different noun classes, but 90% of words are part of a group of only three of those classes.

Zulu gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

G
Swahili

For unknown reasons, Swahili is generally considered to be an easy language to learn. The US military ranks it 1, with the easiest of all languages to learn. This seems to be the typical perception. Why Swahili is so easy to learn, I am not sure. It’s a trade language, and trade languages are often fairly easy to learn. There’s also a lot of controversy about whether or not Swahili can be considered a creole, but that has not been proven. For the moment, the reasons why Swahili is so easy to learn will have to remain mysterious.

On the down side, Swahili has many noun classes, but they have the benefit of being more or less logical.

Swahili gets a 2 rating, moderately easy.

Khoisan
Southern Africa
Southern
Hua

!Xóõ (Taa), spoken by only 4,200 Bushmen in Botswana and Namibia, is a notoriously difficult Khoisan language replete with the notoriously impossible to comprehend click sounds. Taa has anywhere from 130 to 164 consonants, the largest phonemic inventory of any language. Of this vast wealth of sounds, there are anywhere from 30-64 different click sounds. There are five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. Speakers develop a lump on their larynx from making the click sounds.

In addition, there are four types of vowels: plain, pharyngealized, breathy-voiced and strident. On top of that, there are four tones. Taa appears on many lists of the wildest phonologies and craziest languages period on Earth.

Taa gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Northern

Ju|’hoan, a Khoisan language spoken by 5,000 people in Botswana, has one of the wildest phonological inventories on Earth. The voiced aspirated consonants – sb͡pʰd͡tʰ , d͡tsʰ , d͡tʃʰ , ɡ͡kʰ , and ᶢǃʰ  – are particularly odd. Some question whether these segments actually exist and say that they are instead spoken with a “breathy-voice.” However, voiced aspirated consonants do appear to be real. In addition, Ju|’hoan has a closed class of only 17 adjectives since descriptive functions are done by verbs. They are the following:

female
male
other
(those remaining)
other (strange)
true
old
new
a certain
each
all
some

the numbers one through four

Ju|’hoan scored very high on a study of the weirdest languages on Earth.

Ju|’hoan gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Eskimo-Aleut
Eskimo
Inuit-Inupiaq

Inuktitut is extremely hard to learn. Inuktitut is polysynthetic-agglutinative, and roots can take many suffixes, in some cases up to 700. Verbs have 63 forms of the present indicative, and conjugation involves 252 different inflections. Inuktitut has the complicated polypersonal agreement system discussed under Georgian above and Basque below. In a typical long Inuktitut text, 92% of words will occur only once. This is quite different from English and many other languages where certain words occur very frequently or at least frequently. Certain fully inflected verbs can be analyzed both as verbs and as nouns. Words can be very long.

Inuktituusuungutsialaarungnanngittuaraaluuvunga.
I truly don’t know how to speak Inuktitut very well.

You may need to analyze up to 10 different bits of information in order to figure out a single word. However, the affixation is all via suffixes (there are no prefixes or infixes) and the suffixation is extremely regular.

Inuktitut is also rated one by linguists one of the hardest languages on Earth to pronounce. Inuktitut may be as hard to learn as Navajo.

Inuktitut is rated 6, hardest of all.

Kalaallisut (Western Greenlandic) is very closely related to Inuktitut. Look at this sentence:

Aliikusersuillammassuaanerartassagaluarpaalli…
However, they will say that he is a great entertainer, but …

That word is composed of 12 separate morphemes. A single word can conceptualize what could be an entire sentence in a non-polysynthetic language.

Kalaallisut is rated 6, hardest of all.

Chukotko-Kamchatkan
Northern
Chukot

Chukchi is a polysynthetic, agglutinating and incorporating language and is often listed as one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.

Təmeyŋəlevtpəγtərkən.
I have a fierce headache.

There are five morphemes in that word, and there are three lexical morphemes (nouns or adjectives) incorporated in that word: meyŋgreat, levthead, and pəγtache.

Chukchi gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

Basque

Basque, of course, is just a wild language altogether. There is an old saying that the Devil tried to learn Basque, but after seven years, he only learned how to say Hello and Goodbye. Many Basques, including some of the most ardent Basque nationalists, tried to learn Basque as adults. Some of them succeeded, but a very large number of them failed. Based on the number that failed, it does seem that Basque is harder for an adult to learn as an L2 than many other languages are. Basque grammar is maddeningly complex and it often makes it onto craziest grammars and craziest language lists.

There are 11 cases, and each one takes four different forms. The verbs are quite complex. This is because it is an ergative language, so verbs vary according to the number of subjects and the number of objects and if any third person is involved.

This is the same polypersonal agreement system that Georgian has above. Basque’s polypersonal system is a polysynthetic system consisting of two verb types – synthetic and analytical. Only a few verbs use the synthetic form.

Three of Basque’s cases – the absolutive (intransitive verb case), the ergative (intransitive verb case) and the dative – can be marked via affixes to the verb. In Basque, only present simple and past simple synthetic tenses take polypersonal affixes.

The analytical forms are composed of more than one word, while the synthetic forms are all one word. The analytic verbs are built via the synthetic verbs izanbe, ukanhave and egindo.

Synthetic:

d-akar-ki-o-gu = We bring it to him/her. The verb is ekarribring.
z-erama-zki-gu-te-n = They took them to us. The verb is eramantake

Analytic:

Ekarriko d-i-o-gu = We’ll bring it to him/her. Literally: We will have-bring it to him/her. The analytic verb is built from ukanhave.

Eraman d-ieza-zki-gu-ke-te = They can take them to us. Literally: They can be taking them to us. The analytic verb is built from izanbe.

Most of the analytic verbs require an auxiliary which carries all sorts of information that is often carried on verbs in other languages – tense, mood, sometimes gender and person for subject, object and indirect object.

Jaten naiz.
Eat I-am-doing.
I am eating.

Jaten nintekeen.
Eat I-was-able-to.
I could eat.

Eman geniezazkiake.
Give we-might-have-them-to-you-male.
We might have given them to you.

In the above, naiz, nintekeen and geniezazkiake are auxiliaries. There are actually 2,640 different forms of these auxiliaries!

A language with ergative morphosyntax in Europe is quite a strange thing, and Basque is the only one of its kind. The ergative itself is quite unusual:

Gizona etorri da.The man has arrived.
Gizonak mutila ikusi du.
The man saw the boy.

gizonman
mutil
boy
-a
= the

The noun gizon takes a different form whether it is the subject of a transitive or intransitive verb. The first sentence is in absolutive case (unmarked) while the second sentence is in the ergative case (marked by the morpheme -k). If you come from a non-ergative IE language, the concept of ergativity itself is difficult enough to conceptualize, much less trying to actually learn an ergative language. Consequently, any ergative language will automatically be more difficult than a non-ergative one for all speakers of IE languages.

Ergativity also works with pronouns.  There are four basic systems:

Nor:           verb has subject only
Nor-Nork:          "    subj. + direct complement
Nor-Nori:          "    subj. + indirect comp.
Nor-Nori-Nork:     "    subj. + indir. + dir. comps.

Some call Basque the most consistently ergative language on Earth.

If you don’t grow up speaking Basque, it’s hard to attain native speaker competence. It’s quite a bit easier to write in Basque than to speak it.

Nevertheless, Basque verbs are quite regular. There are only a few irregularities in conjugations and they have phonetic explanations. In fact, the entire language is quite regular. In addition, most words above the intermediate level are borrowings from large languages, so once you reach intermediate Basque, the rest is not that hard. In addition, pronunciation is straightforward.

Basque is rated 5.5, nearly hardest of all.

References

Dorani, Yakir. Hebrew speaker, Israel. August 2013. Personal communication.

Hewitt, B. G.. 2005. Georgian: A Learner’s Grammar, p. 29.

Kim, Yuni. December 16, 2003. Vowel Elision and the Morphophonology of Dominance in Aymara. UC Berkeley.

Kirk, John William Carnegie. 1905. A Grammar of the Somali Language: With Examples in Prose and Verse and an Account of the Yibir and Midgan Dialects, pp. 73-74.

Rogers, Jean H. 1978. Differential Focusing in Ojibwa Conjunct Verbs: On Circumstances, Participants, and Events. International Journal of American Linguistics 44: 167-179.

Wang, Chuan-Chao et al. 2012. Comment on ”Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa.” Science 335:657.

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94 Comments

Filed under !Xóõ, Afroasiatic, Algonquian, Altaic, Arabic, Austro-Asiatic, Austro-Tai, Austronesian, Bahasa Indonesian, Bakjalukasha, Bantu, Basque, Cantonese, Cherokee, Chinantec, Chinese language, Chukchi, Chukotko-Kamchatkan, Cree, Dene-Yenisien, Descriptive, Dravidian, Eskimo-Aleut, Finnic, Finnish, Finno-Ugric Languages, Hebrew, Hmong, Hmong-Mien, Hopi, Hungarian, Inuktitut, Iriquoian, Isolates, Japanese, Japonic, Khmer, Khoisan, Kootenai, Korean language, Language Families, Language Learning, Language Samples, Linguistics, Malayalam, Malayo-Polynesian, Malaysian, Maltese, Mandarin, Maori, Min Nan, Mon-Khmer, Na-Dene, Navajo, NE Caucasian, Nguni, Niger-Congo, Niger-Kordofanian, Nuxálk, Oghuz, Ojibwa, Oto-Manguean, Paleosiberian, Philippine, Quechua, Quechuan, Salishan, Semitic, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Slavey, Tabasaran, Tai-Kadai, Tamil, Tsez, Turkic, Turkish, Ugric, Vietnamese, Xhosa, Yamana

94 responses to “More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Non-Indo-European Languages

  1. Uncle Milton

    Hebrew is said to be hard to learn, but I am not sure why. Part of the problem may be the writing system, which leaves out vowels if I am not mistaken.

    Hebrew basically uses diacritics for vowels:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niqqud

  2. Barai Pashtun

    Very informative. I am very much interested in linguistics and pieces like this are pretty useful to me.

    It’d be interesting to know the rating of Pashto, my native language. Some people say it is difficult to learn but almost every non-Pashtun in our city knows it and can speak it as well, despite the fact that it is not a lingua franca here. But due to some sounds that you cannot find in the surrounding languages, it is very easy to tell a non-native speaker from a native one.

    I’ve heard that some British soldiers serving in Helmand Afghanistan have also learnt a fair amount of Pashto and can easily communicate with the locals which can certainly be very helpful for their security as well; as a Pashtun will have an entirely different impression of you if you talk to him in Pashto than in any other language. He will certainly see you as a friend if he hears you speaking his language. The result of the Anglo-Afghan wars might have been different, had the British tried this tactic in the 19th century.

    • Wade in MO

      “Some people say it is difficult to learn but almost every non-Pashtun in our city knows it and can speak it as well, despite the fact that it is not a lingua franca here”

      Do you live in Afghanistan or Pakistan? Are the other people in your town speakers of Dari, Tajik, or another persian dialect? Pashtun is supposed to be relatively closely related to them isn’t it.

  3. Formiko

    Cherokee isn’t that hard to learn ( or most other Amerindian languages). There are very few irregularities at all. There are just a lot of specific rules!

  4. Neqitan

    Impressive list, you don’t usually see language families from Africa and the New World appearing in lists of “hardest to learn” languages, or lists of languages by difficulty.

    I have lots of issues with what you’ve written here though…
    1. This is a list about which languages are the most difficult for English speakers… Spanish is a whole other issue for speakers of Cantonese for example, while Mandarin might be much better to grasp for them…

    2. I would like you to do more research on Amerindian languages… It’s not that Comanche is incredibly hard “for unknown reasons”, but rather its grammar and syntax are completely alien to an English speaker, and materials are neither easy to get nor as “friendly” compared to the materials you can get for Spanish. Also, contrast its opportunities of usage with other languages’ and how it rates as an employability skill, both of which are usually key motivators for students of languages.

    3. About your comment on Quechua, all speakers of all languages spend all their lives learning more and more about their language. You can’t say you know everything about English, can you? Neither I can for my own mother tongue…

    4. I really wonder to what extent is Indonesian’s grammar “easy”, so to deserve a difficulty of one… (I don’t have any experience with the language though…) Tagalog is not ergative-absolutive. Instead it has quite a special way to mark the core arguments. More here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austronesian_alignment

    5. In Arabic the dual is completely predictable from the singular. So you can say that you only have to learn how to say one girl and three girls.

    6. There is no need to say that some languages are as idiomatic as others… That suggests there’re languages that are “more” idiomatic as others… All languages are equal in this regard.

    7. There’s actually an infinite number of Chinese characters, taking on account historical usages and variants. 85 000 is quite a poor figure. You need much more than 3 000 characters to be profficient in Chinese. The only Chinese I can think of that would know less than 1 000 characters are either Chinese-Americans with little interest in learning to write Chinese, or Chinese people living in China who haven’t been able to receive education… Chinese is also largely disyllabic, not monosyllabic, and they also use stress, rhythm and intonation along with context to differentiate words in full sentences.

    8. Cantonese and Min Nan speakers don’t “throw” (WTH!?) traditional characters in their writing. Please read more on the PRC’s simplification process of Chinese characters. It’s Hong Kong and Taiwan who just will not accept using them (for obvious reasons…).

    9. What do you mean with Chuckchi being one of “the few polysynthetic languages”? A polysynthetic typology is characteristic of many Amerindian language families.

    10. It would have been cool if you had included dead languages like Classical Latin, Old English, Sanskrit, Classical Nahuatl, or Medieval French.

    • Hi thx for this.

      I addressed most of your issues in an edit.

      Sanskrit is dealt with in the IE post. Old English was said to be quite hard to learn. Latin is not so easy either, but I don’t think it’s as hard as Finnish or Polish.

  5. Hashi

    I don’t really think you know what you’re talking about. It seems to be mostly opinion based. I like how you say Estonian is less regular than Finnish, as a learner of Estonian it’s not so. Also, Swedish 1? Maori 5? I don’t think so. Maori has given me less of a headache than Swedish. Perhaps you need to do a little bit more research?

    • untmdsprt

      I agree this post is probably more of an opinion than anything else. I’m currently learning Japanese and the only thing difficult is to find a native Japanese that will speak to you in Japanese and not switch to English and keep it there. As far as the grammar, it seems like Japanese is a whole lot easier than English is. In my opinion it sounds like the American Indian languages would be a lot harder to learn.

      I will say that Japanese people assume their language is difficult for me even though they make way more mistakes in English than I do in Japanese. They seem like they’re either brainwashed, an island mentality or possibly a hive (collective) mind in thinking that foreigners can’t learn their language. I’ve taught at the jr and sr high schools, and students can’t think for themselves and need a group discussion just to be able to answer a simple question like “what is your favorite color?”

      I think the hardest language to learn is the one you have no interest in. I’ve known a lot of people who have to learn English just because the government tells them to or their parents. They find it extremely boring, waste of my time teaching them, and they suck at it.

      • Joon

        1. They cringe when they hear broken Japanese. (i.e. you are bad at Japanese and you are oblivious)
        2. Courtesy. Make the other person comfortable enough.
        3. What a good way to practice English!
        4. Yes. NE Asians think Westerners are stupid… despite history.

    • Gary B

      Late reply but I was browsing this website and wanted to add to it. I know Estonian and Finnish (I have taught both and studied at the University of Turku). Estonian is indeed less regular than Finnish. As for Swedish and Maori, why are you learning them too? Sounds like you’ll never end up learning any of them well enough to comment on them.

  6. Michael Porter

    By the 11th Century Old English had evolved into an uncanny pre-echo of the modern language, but it still remained something that a present day speaker can only make sense of with difficulty. I quote from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066: “On thissum yeare com harold ure cyng… to westmynstere for tham eostran. Thehim waes gesythd that willem bastard wolde hider this londe gewynnen. He gegaedrade swa miceln landhere y sciphere swa nanman her on londe ere ne see.”

    Then came the ‘great vowel change’ of the Middle Ages and the modern language was born. What I can’t understand was how English could transform itself, virtually overnight, and in an age before mass-communication, into something new that was used across the length and breadth of the country. By what weird process did Lancastrians and Kentishmen both stop using the word ‘onswar’ (where the w is pronounced) and start using the word ‘answer’ (where it is not)? They were never likely to hear each other speak, and the changes weren’t brought about by the education system either, because the dominant language was still Norman French.

  7. Alan Draheim

    You really overstate the difficulty of the Arabic alphabet, and your statement that each letter has four different forms is misleading. In fact, there are only about 16 basic shapes which are differentiated by the addition of one, two, or three dots above or below. Additionally, with the exception of the [h], the medial form is identical to the initial. Your complaint that there are many scripts really makes no sense either — the Roman alphabet also has tons of different type styles. The alphabet used in English, for that matter, actually does have four different forms for each letter — print, handwriting, lower case, and upper case, and I’ve heard no complaints that those different forms add to the complexity of English.

    • Wade in MO

      “The alphabet used in English, for that matter, actually does have four different forms for each letter — print, handwriting, lower case, and upper case, and I’ve heard no complaints that those different forms add to the complexity of English.”

      Robert, while this guy is talking about scripts for english, do you know if the study of the braile alphabet of english is considered a legitimate topic of study for linguists?

      Also, do you know if linguists study american sign language in itself or compared to other english based sign languages?

  8. slyreference

    Just a couple of comments:

    1. Something you should know about Minnan: they don’t have as many tones as you think. They actually retain syllable final consonants, and syllables that uses the same tone with and without a final consonant are given different tones. Don’t ask me why, but there you go. Minnan likely has about 5 tones on three levels. Cantonese seems to have a similar problem, but I haven’t studied it so I can’t say for sure.

    2. You seem to have listed a lot of languages as having a complexity of 5, but some are specifically pointed out as being more difficult than others that are also 5s (Cantonese/Minnan>Mandarin). So have you given a thought to making a list of the 5s and trying to figure out a more refined grouping for those, even if just a top half and bottom half?

  9. Je

    Really? Turkish is only 2 but Finnish is 5?

  10. wim

    There isn’t a language such as “Nguni”. Rather, Nguni is a group of languages, comprising Xhosa, Zula and Ndebele (which are described above) and others.

    I don’t think these languages quite deserve a 5. Apart from the clicks, their pronunciation is fairly simple and clear(the same 5 basic vowels as Spanish). Grammar is agglutunative, but fairly simple. The class system is something to get used to. It is like grammatical gender of Indo-European languages, except there are about 12, rather than two or three.

    That said these classes are extremely simple and regular. Also 90% of words belong to three or so classes.

    Overall a very interesting article, though!! thanks

  11. Matthew

    LOL @ Malayalam…..I’m a native speaker and even I could not understand what that word was.

  12. humayun

    You are right Turkish is an easy language but I think Arabic too should has 3 stars as it is a very simple and regular languages with no agglutinativity nor cases (3 cases exist only in the formal arabic) and also similar word order as english besides it is enough to learn 1 single lexical root to guess all derived words wich is not the case of languages such as french and english (such thing arabic is a grammatical language while english and french are rather lexical ones with the derived words lacking ,most of times, a logical connection with a single root)
    for example from the arabic root nr=>nur (light), nar (fire) and from the root rH=>riH (wind), ruH(soul), arwaH(ghost),raiHa(odor),raH(goes away),rayHan(basil plant),aryaH(air) as you can see all those words while are connected to the same root in Arabic (grammatical language) they are not in English where even if it is true that some of the aforementionned words are loans from Latin (odor), Greek (air) and French(basil) but the pure English cognates-of those words-too are not connected to the same single lexical stem(respectively smell,loft[basil lacks an english cognate]).

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  14. Lila

    Finnish one of the hardest languages to learn? I’ve heard this many times and most of my countrymen somehow pride themselves upon this myth, but Finnish is not an especially difficult language – at least to master it on a reasonable level. Why worry about all the possibilities of making things complicated when all that matters is that you can communicate in an understandable way? And I’ve heard so many foreigners succeeding in that in Finnish too.

    Personally I think languages are much more than just intellectual jigsaw puzzles. We need them and use them to get in touch with other people, that’s all.

    • I think there might be something to it. I asked a Finnish guy once to do translations for me and he said he could not do it because he only had a high school diploma and he did not feel that he could write Finnish in the high quality way that it ought to be written in publication. I have had Poles make similar statements to me.

      Sure you can write or speak in a good enough way to communicate whatever you want to, but in order to write the language in an excellent, grammatical proper to the book way, it might not be so easy. I am told that Polish is so hard that they actually have TV contests in which they test people on esoteric aspects of the language to see who can speak it best. And it’s not so easy to win the contests either. I am also told that Czechs and Poles make mistakes all the time in their native languages by not speaking them in the prescriptive manner.

  15. tulio

    Why does it get so much harder to learn a new language as you age?

  16. x

    i think you have got your rating for the Maori language wrong. Maori is a pretty straightforward language, the pronounciation is easy, no masculine or feminine. The main problems with people learning Maori is that compared to english the sentence structure is backwards, and the presence of macrons.

  17. Frank Draper

    Your comments regarding Arabic are generally true. However, the REAL difficulty in Arabic which wasn’t mentioned, is that you really have to learn 2 languages – the spoken and the written (or formal) before one can say he “knows” Arabic. Egyptian Arabic is quite different from Syrian Arabic, for instance (although they are mutually intellgible.) However, Moroccan Arabic is as different as Portuguese is from Italian. Everyone grows up speaking a dialect but then has to learn the “formal” (which is used in newspapers and on TV and the media). Several sounds are nearly impossible for a non-native to get right….ever (although that’s true of many languages).
    =================
    The widespread belief that Spanish is notoriously easy really has to be qualified. As we all know, how simple a language is to learn really depends on what your mother tongue is. I have several Arab friends who lived in Spain for several years and found the language “impossible” to learn, although they get by in English ok. Plus, I have met many Americans who speak near native French, German and even Russian, but I have yet to meet an American (or other foreigner) who can really reach that level in Spanish……the supposedly simply “sounds” of Spanish are very difficult to get just right even thought they get the grammar right. Jackie Kennedy, for example, spoke excellent French, but when she started to speak in Spanish, whew…….that accent was thick.

  18. MAK JUN YEEN

    Most trading languages are easy to learn but not all. English is a trading language but its grammar is quite difficult to grasp. learning to speak it is quite difficult to non natives , to read and write even harder.

    There is misconception that Malay is easy. Malay-Indonesian is easy in so far as if you use the standard spoken language or the creole form of the language. Native speakers of Malay are used to having their language mangled and used by various speakers. The standard literary register can be a struggled for westerners.

  19. MikkoAP

    I’m finnish and i don’t think the finnish language is necessarily that difficult to learn, since i’ve heard foreigners from many different linguistic backgrounds (germanic, slavic, etc.) learn to speak it quite well. They do still make some grammatical mistakes, but then so do many finns. And that’s probably true for all languages: most natives don’t speak their language perfectly often not even close.

    Part of the reason for why some languages get such a high difficulty rating is that there are very few foreigners with any kind of motive to learn them, finnish being one of them.
    The difficulty rating that, say, mandarin chinese gets probably reflects the real difficulty much better since there are lots of non-native speakers studying it at any given time.

  20. Sych

    I studied the Turkish language, and my guess is that Turkish definitely deserves being put into the ‘4’ category: the Roman script and the math-like regular grammar are okay, but the syntax is weird, strikingly close to that of Japanese. Quite often you start your Turkish sentence with what you would finish your English sentence with, and what you wrote about the underlined passages being put before the sentence subject is also equally true for Turkish.

    As a result, it is not so hard for a grown-up Indo-European language speaker to grasp the general idea of the language, but it is hard and takes time and effort to master it fully.

  21. Sundar

    How come one is able to rate the language which he does not know to read/write? Children belong to different races who are brought up in US find English easy. Same children in Japan find Japanese easy. Why English became popular is for 2 reasons #1. More publications_Science/Art/… #2. British colonialism. You must be aware that next to English and Mandarin, Tamil websites comes third. Word processing is easier than English.

  22. Robert Berger

    I recently had a chance to hear Circassian on you tube, and it’s without a doubt the weirdest-sounding language I’ve ever heard . It’s filled with hissing,rasping,gurgling, whistling and buzzing sounds , and is unbelievably guttural .
    My niece, who is a speech therapist, heard the you tube example and said it sounded like a cross between Arabic and Russian !
    Chechen is also weird, and sounds like a tape of someone speaking a language running backward !

  23. Tamás

    – megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért.= is correct, this is the possible longest hungarian word
    – töredezettségmentesítőtleníttethetetlenségtelenítőtlenkedhetnétek – there is no such hungarian word, it does not mean anything
    – Italy becomes Olazorszag, Germany becomes Nemetzorsag, etc. – Olaszország, Németország

    Greetings from Hungary!
    T.

  24. Chad

    “Hmong is widely spoken in this part of California,..”

    …California!?

  25. Ria

    Dying light blonde hair reddish blonde or strawberry blonde is as difficult as learning Finnish and Hungarian. Dying dark brown or medium brown hair pale blonde or platinum blonde without bleaching it is as difficult as learning Polish. But dying light brown or dark blonde hair reddish blonde or strawberry blonde is as easy as learning Spanish and Italian.

  26. Dr. J

    Turkish is easy language to learn because there aren’t any exception. The important point of Turkish language is suffixes and their vowel harmony in sentences. But it can be very difficult to catch and recognize suffixes for learners in speaking.

  27. R.

    This is a great set of posts–you bring to the attention of the online language-learning community a lot of tongues that the Foreign Service Institute rankings typically don’t take into account.

    At times the links provided don’t quite work. For example, the statement that “you can have 25 or more forms just for I, the 1st person singular pronoun” can be sourced to this message on page 6 rather than the link you have now. Or, you comment of the Ghanian language of Ga that it “has two tones and engages in a strange behavior called tone terracing that is common to many West African languages” and “also has many sounds that are not in any Western languages”. Page 14 of the thread you cite has a mention of Ga but doesn’t describe those details at all; a Google search for the following string didn’t turn up anything, unfortunately: “site:http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php ga+ghana”.

    In some cases I would like to ask for more detail:

    – What makes Arabic so idiomatic, by comparison to other languages? Do you mean Modern Standard Arabic or local varieties?

    – How would the “dialects” be ranked by level of difficulty, for English speakers (1) starting on Egyptian, Levantine, Iraqi, Khaliji, or Maghrebi as their second language, or (2) picking up one of the “dialects” after studying Modern Standard Arabic?

    – Could you explain in more depth how some of Korean’s “[unusually pronounced] consonants” are articulated, how “the pachim system” works, and what “the morphing consonants at the end of the word that slide into the next word” look like in practice?

    – You write, “Compared to many European languages, Tagalog syntax, morphology and semantics are often quite different.” Though one example of derivation is provided, no others are offered to show how radically divergent Tagalog is in terms of morphology and syntax.

    – What makes Chechen so difficult?–It’s better known than, say, Tabasaran, but you say far less about it.

    – What are some of the twelve elements of a Georgian verb? How is the language so irregular?

    – You write that “Haida is in the competition for the most complicated language on Earth, with 70 different suffixes”. But learning such a list couldn’t be that difficult–is this language highly irregular too? Does Haida use sandhi?

    – Could you add some examples from Ojibwa and Cree demonstrating their morphological complexity, including their use of syncope?

    – With the Quechua languages, there aren’t any examples of the grammatical complexity, though this factor led you to note, “some say that Quechua speakers spend their whole lives learning the language”. Could you find some illustrations from the major varieties, e.g., Cuzco?

    And there are important languages that are missing from your posts:

    – What happened to the most important Mexican indigenous tongues, Nahuatl and the Mayan family?

    – Where did the other branches of the Afro-Asiatic family go? (1) Berber, (2) Hausa, and (3) Somali and Oromo are all important languages, with several million speakers to tens of millions of such, in (1) north, (2) west, and (3) east Africa, respectively. Amharic and Tigrinya, Semitic like Arabic, would also seem to merit attention.

    – How difficult are the other Turkic languages–e.g., Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Turkmen, Uyghur, Uzbek–in comparison to Turkish?

    – What became of other key languages of the Bantu group, such as Kikongo, Lingala, Kinyarwanda/Kirundi, Chichewa/Chinyanja, and Shona?

    – Finally, how about other, non-Bantu but still Niger-Congo, languages? Pular/Pulaar/Fulfulde, Yoruba, Igbo, Bambara/Djoula/Mandinka, Akan, and Wolof are all important in west Africa. The language varieties of the Fulani have about fifteen million speakers scattered throughout the region, from Guinea to Sudan. Wolof is the most popular language after French in Senegal, and it’s used there by millions of speakers of varying ethnicities.

    • I can’t answer most of your questions right now, but I will look up some of those languages you asked me about.

      For Arabic, you always learn Standard Arabic first, then you go on to the dialects, if ever.

  28. “One of the worst problems with Arabic is the dialects, which in many cases are separate languages altogether.”

    I remember this one Lebanese linguist professor promoting his book on TV who wanted to convince his viewers that there are no Arabic dialects, but Arabic sub languages.

    Nobody believed him, until he recited a poem in classical Arabic which everyone understood, then recited the same poem in Moroccan, Iraqi, Lebanese, Egyptian, making it worse by selecting region specific words, and no one understood what he was saying.

    “Adding weight to the commonly held belief that Arabic is hard to learn is research done in Germany in 2005 which showed that Turkish children learn their language at age 2-3, German children at age 4-5, but Arabic kids did not get Arabic until age 12.”

    If foreigners have a hard time making glottal sounds, its just as worst for kids, getting the glottal pronunciation and grammar wrong but improves post puberty.

    • I have a post on Arabic that takes the Ethnologue classification of many different Arabic languages and tries to deal with them. In some cases, I split them even more. In others, I left joined one or more together.

      I understand that even within Arab “languages,” they sometimes can’t understand each other. I hear that some Palestinian and Lebanese dialects and not understood by other Palestinians and Lebanese.

  29. Noah

    The Malayalam is crazy. I’m still learning, but from the information I’ve gotten from a native, it can roughly translate to “I, your servant, am sitting and mixing (which is why I cannot do what you are asking of me)”. The part in parenthesis is more an example of the kind of situation in which this sentence may be employed. This is very interesting as, usually, such a sentence would have been broken up into multiple words. However, Malayalam, as is the case with all Dravidian languages, is a highly agglutinative language, so this might be possible.

  30. Renjith

    My mother tongue is Malayalam. I never heard that word which is mentioned as example. It’s wrong. Malayalam is the most difficult language because it has lots of alphabets so that we can pronounce any sound.

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  32. yekanath

    What about other two main dravidian languages namely Kannada and telugu arent the toughest languages of the world

  33. For speaker of any kind of Chinese language, Japanese and Korean are not difficult. I have managed to pick up Japanese to a very high functional level, and most of it self study.

    I have seen “non-Chopstick” people trying very hard to learn Japanese, and not able to have a meaningful functional level, even after many hours of studies.

    Korean, Japanese and Chinese (probably Vietnamese) think that we can pick up one another language fairly easily.

  34. My God! I’m proud of a native speaker of Malayalam (a Dravidian language)….! I make a lot of errors when I speak and write but in comparison with my friends I make very little errors…!

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  38. Reblogged this on elijahlarmstrong and commented:
    Great old stuff from Robert Lindsay.

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  57. I do not dear to say which language is the hardest to learn, but a language is not necessarily hard only because it has many flectional forms. The following points matter:

    – Complexity of phonetics – many phonerms and long strings of consonants or vowels after each other.

    – Regularity of inflection and derivation

    – Regularity of syntax

    – Regularity of spelling

    – Distinctness and ambiguities in the semantics

    The hardest language to learn is not necessarily the hardest language to use when first learned.

    The Chinese writing involves so much work to learn, that i rather would begin learning Navajo than Chinese, so Chinese scores high solely because of the spelling system.

  58. John

    I can speak Thai and Lao on almost a native speaker fluency level and I have been exposed to Hmong and Khmer and I have to say that all of these languages have the exact same grammar (or very similar)

  59. Isa Ibn Atman

    I am a native speaker of Tamil (father) and Malayalam (mother), and a foreign Language and Linguistics enthusiast. I’ve live in Tamil Nadu and speak malayalam at home (and i consider myself as Tamil). Its true that Malayalam pronunciation & accent is difficult even for other Dravidians. This is especially due to the frequent occurrence of NASAL geminates (labial, dental, alveolar, palatal, retroflex, velar). Dental nasal consonant is almost absent in other dravidian languages (Tamil having lost it recently). Dental, Palatal and velar nasal geminates, and also the distinction between dental, alveolar and retroflex plosives – especially seem difficult for other dravidians.

    But apart from that, Malayalam being a descendant of classical tamil, is strikingly similar to Tamil in its grammar. But malayalam has lost its personal conjugations and so the verb does not agree with the subject. But Tamil verbs agree with the subjects (even the third person rational masculine, rational feminine, rational respect, irrational — all of these take different endings). As these personal endings have to be maintained irrespective of the tense, Tamil edges over malayalam in grammar difficulty.

    Other aspects in both the languages are:
    Retroflexes are “pure” (sub-apical palatal) and frequently occur; a few comments made by foreigners when they hear our languages are: “you people sound like a stone put into an empty tin and shaken forecefully”; or “your engine needs some oil and overhauling”.

    Both the languages have inclusive & exclusive “we”;

    The past tense is not regular – there are 7 different ways to form it – and “which” verb falls into “which” of these 7 groups has to be learnt through experience.

    The scripts are not syllabaries – they are “abugida”. You learn the vowels and consonants, and for “consonant+vowel” combinations, instead of the vowel following the consonant, just add a symbol (which represents the vowel) to the consonant.
    So Tamil has 12 vowels characters (5 short, 5 long, 2 diphthongs), 19 consonants char., and 16 symbols (some vowels take more than 1 symbol).
    Malayalam has 12 vowel characters (5 short, 5 long, 2 diphthongs), 39 consonant char., 18+symbols (the vowel “u” and “u:” take many irregular symbols. Apart from that Malayalam takes a lot of “consonant+consonant+vowel” combinations.
    To compare, Devanagari (Hindi script) has: 10 vowels characters (3 short, 5 long, 2 diphthongs), 35 consonants char., and 15 symbols. In the “consonant+consonant+vowel” combinations of Hindi, the first consonant just cuts into half. (SO, THE 1000 characters for hindi, as mentioned in this article, is simply misleading, and faaaaar from the truth.)

    Conclusion:
    Tamil grammar is more difficult than Malayalam.
    Malayalam pronunciation is more difficult than Tamil.
    Malayalam scripts is the most difficult in India (Khmer of cambodia is more difficult than malayalam in the abugida category) – yet these scripts can be mastered within just a week or two (UNLIKE CHINESE).

    Difficulty rating: Dravidian Languages will fall under “4” – as they are in no way near to the languages of the Caucasus.

  60. Isa Ibn Atman

    Dative construction is common in dravidian languages too (i.e. the subjects taking dative case when its an experiencing verb)… These includes verbs like to know, to see, to hear, to like, to want etc….

  61. Jan

    The caucassian languages really seem to be incredibly hard. About Georgian it´s said that archieving fluency in it for a western european would be close to impossible

    • I would agree with that for sure about Georgian.

      • robert berger

        Circassian seems to me far more difficult than Georgian , which is a piece of cake by comparison . The pronunciation alone is staggeringly difficult because of its incredible vaeity of different consonant phonemes.   It’s also the weirdest-sounding language I’ve ever heard . It seems like a language from another planet , filled with  hissing, rasping, gurgling , coughing , and buzzing sounds .  I’ve been listenign to examples or it on youtube ; absolutely fascinating to hear !  

  62. k

    What do you expect from a Jew?

  63. Moviestar

    As for me, I am a native German speaker and speak already English and Spanish fluently as well as I am profficient in Polish. (I can understand that Polish is difficult for most foreigners, but I have no problems with it). When I also speak Polish fluently (I think in 2 years this could be the case) I want to learn Hungarian and one language more, as well as I want to learn speaking Latin (in school I have only learned to translate Latin texts).
    So, I want learn to speak at least 7 languages fluently.

  64. chinyanja chewa chichewa is not that difficult the 12 noun cases are a pain I dated a malawian know the language and culture very well. Xhosa and Zulu are similiar to Chichewa but they include clicks and only eight noun cases. Arabic’s alphabet is very easy to learn but try learning plurals and verb conjugations. Chinese is not as impossible as people make it out to be the approach I used is to learn the 100 basic characters in basic fields, combine them with compound and then form composite characters. the Xhosa and Zulu clicks are only three q,x,c and they are not really bad. I find it strange that NelsoN mandela had a hard time with it (tata madiba in traditional Xhosa) my native Russian is the hardest because of our outrageously arbitrary declention system. I had no idea Quechua is a group of languages or that Inuktitut was so hard their syllabary system looks so simple!

  65. bang

    Malayalam words are often even hard to look up in a Malayalam dictionary.

    For instance, adiyAnkaLAkkikkoNDirikkukayumANello is a word in Malayalam

    Well, you can’t look up “going” in the dictionary either, you are expected to know that going is a form of go, using a suffix. Agglutinative languages have more suffixes for situations that would be handled with separate words in English, but once you know the suffixes, it’s pretty easy to split the word.

    I would guess that adiyAn could be written separately or joined with sandhi, and the root of the next word is kala which can be looked up in the dictionary, and ello is an “is it not” word that could be written separately. I actually don’t know Malayalam but I didn’t find it hard to parse.

    As for Tamil, the letters are fewer than in other Indic languages because there is no aspiration. I think the rounder scripts like Malayalam, Sinhala, Telugu, Kannada have more of the “all look alike” problem, Tamil has a few sharp corners to help disambiguate.

    “Tamil has two completely different registers for written and spoken speech.” is untrue. Speech elides verb endings in different ways, and there are a small number of lexical differences, but “completely different” is a gross exaggeration.

    People may or may not cringe at your speaking Malayalam or Tamil with a terrible accent, but the advantage for students is that there is a huge amount of audio/visual material, subtitled video, pedagogic materials and so on.

  66. Jan

    I beliefe a 6 Rating for Basque is a bit to high! As you already said, the language is generally quite regular and also pronountion a fairly simple. It also uses the Latin Alphabet and has got many Latin based loan words. Some Basque nationalists managed to learn it fluently or at least quite probably in adult age, so it´s clearly not impossible to learn. But nevertheless it´s still extremely difficult. I would say a 5,5 (nearly hardest of all) could be correct!

  67. Janmovie

    You have written how insanely hard Hungarian is, but you didn´t mention it´s possitive sides! It is generally a quite regular language with only few exceptions (though the rules itself may be highly complex) and it is also said to be a very logical language. It has 18-35 cases (depends on the definition) but most of them are just like prepositions in English. Is “Budapesten” really more difficult than “in Budapest”? I don´t think so. In slawic languages such as Russian, Polish and Czech you have to change the word (for example in Krakow is w Krakowie (Polish) from Krakow means z Krakowa, the nominative form is Krakow, Poland in Locative is “Polsce” instead of “Polska” ), In Hungarian you usually only ad a suffix to the word. This can be a bit strange for English speakers, but not really complicated. But there will be a reason that Hungarian is still said to be one of the world´s hardest languages

  68. Janmovie

    On the first sight Finnish doesn´t seem to be an extremely hard language, but People who have studied both, Finnish and Hungarian say that Finnish is as difficult as Hungarian, or perheps even more…

  69. great post. i found learning a dead language with a completely unrelated writing system to be the most difficult –Egyptian hieroglyphs, Akkadian cuneiform, Luwian hieroglyphs, Mayan. so irregular, so different, and no conversation practice!

  70. ryan

    The Finnish “a” and “ä” sounds are NOT hard to distinguish at all.

  71. Pingback: Is Hebrew hard to learn? | Lingua.ly Blog

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