A Look at the Kam Languages

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages 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. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker 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. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Kam languages in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.


The Kam languages people are three closely related languages – Northern Dong, Southern Dong and Cao Miao. They are spoken by 1.5 million Dong people in southwest China and by a tiny population in a single village in Northern Vietnam. These languages 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.

The Kam languages get a 6 rating, hardest of all to learn.


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


Filed under Applied, Asia, China, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Regional, Tai-Kadai

4 responses to “A Look at the Kam Languages

  1. Spamby

    Robert, I’m interested in learning some more Tai-Kadai languages. I’m a native speaker of two, Thai and Lao, so would this be easy for me?

    • Oh gosh I have no idea man. For sure you could learn more Thai languages. I know a woman who speaks Southern Thai right now. It’s spoken down around Phuket. It’s not fully intelligible with Standard Thai, but it has millions of speakers down in the south.

      Thai and Lao are fairly close but they are not mutually intelligible. However, Lao and Northeastern Thai spoken in Isan are pretty much one and the same language.

      I am not sure how far apart the Tai-Kadai languages are from each other. But whatever you do, I would not try to learn this insane Kam language, which is actually a series of languages I believe.

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