Category Archives: Descriptive

The Critical Period Hypothesis in Linguistics

Evidence is increasing that children are born with a natural facility to pick up language of any type. The Critical Period hypothesis is very controversial in Linguistics, but it seems to be true as any person on the street might tell you based on sheer logic, intuition and observation.

The Critical Period begins to close after age 7. After that, it is hard to get full native speaker competence in the language. It closes almost completely between the ages of 14-18. It may get worse after age 18. I worked with Hmong English language learners. Hmong do not enroll their older members in these classes because the Hmong believe that after age 40, it’s too late to learn a foreign language. There may be something to this folk wisdom.

The Critical Period may be thought of as a window for language learning.

It is akin to a window for sight that is present in a species of blind cave fish. If the fish is exposed to light before a certain age, the fish will develop sight. After that age, if you expose the fish to light, it will be too late for it to see and it will remain blind. It is as if a window opens in the fishes’ brain.

The window asks the question, “Is there light here?” and looks for a Yes or No answer. If the answer is Yes, then the area of the brain is given over to sight and the fish can see.

If the answer is No, then the window is left open for a bit looking for light to see by. If there is no light present over this period of time, the brain assumes that there is no light in this environment, and therefore, it’s a waste of brain space to leave this area open to vision when there is nothing to see. So the window closes and the part of the brain given to vision is shut down for vision and opened up to be used for other things.

Keep in mind that if you leave the vision area open your whole life in a dark environment, that part of the brain is wasted when it could be used for other tasks. It makes more sense to shut down the vision part of the brain and open it up to some other use.

In the same way, a window opens up in humans asking, “Is there any language in this environment?” Answer Yes or No.

If  Yes, the window stays open for a period early in life long enough to learn language, then it begins to shut down as language has already been learned and there’s no need to keep the window open anymore, so it is shut down and the part of the brain that is used for learning language is apparently given over to other things.

If the answer is “No, there is no language in this world”, then there is no need to keep the window open your whole life looking for something that is not even there. So the window begins to shut down after age 7, and that part of the brain is simply shut down for language and given over to other things. Research has shown that deaf people given cochlear implants at say age 32, when then were able to hear, were still not able to develop native speaker competence in language.

Other evidence comes from pidgins and creoles.

A pidgin is a language that develops when speakers of various languages are thrown together, usually as immigrants to a new place  where they are all working together. Hawaii is a famous case as Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, etc. were all thrown together as workers on sugar cane plantations around 100 years ago. Since none of them could understand each other and they needed to communicate to each other in the fields, a pidgin based on all of the languages spoken develops.

The pidgin is a language invented by adults whose language window has effectively shut down, and hence it is not a fully developed language and is impoverished in many ways.

The pidgin is then spoken to the children to pidgin speakers. The young children hear the pidgin, and using their language window, expand upon it somehow and miraculously create a full language out of it with all of the features of a fully developed and complete language, as good as English, German or any other. A creole is a real language, not a fake language or half language. So in this sense, children are vastly more intelligent than their elders!

In the field of Linguistics, the Critical Period is very controversial, though the evidence for its existence is overwhelming. This is because linguists are in the business of teaching foreign languages often to folks who are older than 7 years old and even more often to those over 18 years old. They don’t want to believe that their students will never reach full native speaker competence in the language they are learning. This would be a blow to their language teacher egos.

So in ESL classes, you spend many hours learning all these bullshit theories about why kids learn language so well and adults not so well. All of these are crap environmental and psychological theories that have nothing to do with the facts at hand, notably the Critical Period.

In the larger sense,  as a social science, they are opposed to any genetic or neurological explanations for anything at all, and they want to believe that everything is environmental. So we get into the Nature Nurture debate once again and enter into the realm of Physics Envy.

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Filed under Applied, Descriptive, Language Learning, Linguistics, Psychology, Sociolinguistics

Afrikaans and English Redux

A friend of mine who runs a site on Germanic culture and linguistics links to an old article of mine, Is Afrikaans Close to English?. He adds at the end a several paragraph explanation of the question and possible answers to it, delving into Germanic linguistic history, Old English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Faroese, Old Swedish, Swedish and Danish. One thing he makes clear is that Afrikaans is presently one of the least inflected of the Germanic languages – it has lost most of its inflection and is almost turning into an analytic language.

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Filed under Afrikaans, Descriptive, Dutch, English language, Germanic, Indo-European, Language Families, Linguistics

Dual Pronouns

Repost from the old site.

We do not have dual pronouns in English anymore, and they have dropped out of my most other European languages too, but they are still found in some languages, including American Indian languages. In these languages there is a contrast in number between singular, dual and plural pronouns:

Maori

3rd singular ia    (he/she)
3rd dual     rāua  (they two)
3rd plural   rātou (they 3 or more)

A California Amerindian language I worked on, Chukchansi Yokuts, had four different dual pronouns.

Yokuts has four – 1st person singular inclusive (you and I), 1st person singular exclusive (he and I – but not you), 2nd person singular (you two), and third person singular (them two).

1 dual inc "you and I" includes hearer
1 dual exc "he and I"  excludes hearer
2 dual     "you two"
3 dual     "those two/they two"

1sg inclusive includes the hearer, and 1sg exclusive excludes the hearer. We can also look at this through a schematic. In the chart below, S stands for Speaker, H stands for Hearer and O stands for Other.

1 dual inc "you and I"          S + H
1 dual exc "he and I (not you)" S + O
2 dual     "you two"            H
3 dual     "those two"          O

Only a few languages have 2nd person inclusive and exclusive pronouns:

2pl inc "you guys I'm talking to"
2pl exc "you and your buddies not here"

Schematically, this looks like this:

2pl inc H + H
2pl exc H + O

English sort of has inclusive and exclusive 1st person, but it is not marked grammatically. Compare:

1pl inclusive: “Remember when we all went to the beach?” This sentence, through the use of “we all”, often includes the hearer.

1pl exclusive: “I went to Rob’s house and we went to the beach.” This sentence, configured the way it is, tends to exclude the hearer. This is because you would hardly be telling a hearer a story as if they had never heard it, if they had actually been a part of the action.

There are a few languages in which you can almost have 2 S’s, or two speakers, but not really. In a few cases, the “respectful” form in inclusive-exclusive languages can be a “inclusive singular”. It’s almost as if the speaker were trying to worm his way into the hearer’s skin.

1sg inc         "you and I" includes hearer
1sg exc         "he and I"  excludes hearer
1sg inc respect "you and I as one"

But in general, there cannot be an S + S in any human language. This is because in general there can be only one S, one speaker. Except at the Presidential Debates when everyone is interrupting everyone else.

Although we can picture a case where you and I are speaking to a crowd, or maybe to an individual. Say you and I show up to give a heart to heart talk with an errant person we know. It’s almost as if we are speaking as one, but it can never truly be an S + S. This is because even though we are dressing them down almost as one entity, we are still discrete individuals, both of independent minds.

The only way there could really be an S + S relationship is if you and I went to dress down the errant person, but I had you under mind control at the time. This would be the only case in which you can actually have “two speakers acting as one”. The Bush Administration, where there are no discrete individuals with independent minds, just different manifestations of a single Borg, may be the first known case.

As a stretch, you and I could tell the errant person in chorus that we hate them. Possibly then we would have an S + S relationship, but that would be a stretch.

Nice little discussion of dual pronouns here. They are found in Austronesian languages in Polynesia, Micronesia, the Philippines and New Guinea; in Saami, Khanty, Mansi, Nenets in Finno-Ugric, the language family that includes Finnish; in Inuktitut, an Eskimo language; and in Arabic and Amerindian languages.

They used to be present in many older versions of Indo-European languages – Old German, Old English, Avestan, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Old Norse, Gothic and Old Church Slavonic – but they have mostly gone out.

The dual only exists in Slovene and Upper and Lower Sorbian anymore. A Slovene commented on a blog, “Yes, we are the only European language left with a dual, but it doesn’t do us any good, and we are tired of hearing about it.” It’s almost gone from Lithuanian, Icelandic and Russian, where it has an archaic or humorous flavor. There are still a few relict forms in Bavarian.

The dual seems like it is one of the first forms to go out as a language modernizes. It stays on in lesser spoken languages where people have a lot of time on their hands and use language as a source of creativity and mental exercise. As a society modernizes and urbanizes, people want to say things in the quickest way possible, so languages become less and less complicated.

Contrary to White Nationalists who insist that primitive folks have primitive languages, the languages spoken by more primitive peoples are not necessarily primitive at all, and the most civilized folks have the most broken-down languages.

The most complicated languages of all are spoken by often “low-IQ” types like Aborigines, Papuans, Africans, Amerindians, Inuit, and also in tribes high up in the Caucasus. Surely IQ correlates with all sorts of stuff, but complexity of language is not one of them.

They aren’t rushed for time and they live simple, agricultural or hunter-gatherer lives, so these “low IQ” people play with language and its complexity as a form of fun and mental challenge, sort of like the way we play chess or Scrabble.

As you can see from the discussion and examples above, Linguistics is an interesting field, going beyond mere language into the philosophy of the human mind itself. That is why Noam Chomsky is Chair of something called the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy and MIT.

This particular post was in the sub-discipline of Semantics, which is one of my favorite subfields. The famed S.I. Hayakawa, California politician, was a professor of Semantics.

Others are Phonology (study of important sounds), Phonetics (study of speech sounds), Morphology (study of parts of words), Syntax (study of the rules of language and parts of speech at the sentence level), Sociolinguistics (sociology and linguistics), Anthropological Linguistics (anthropology and linguistics) and Historical Linguistics (reconstruction and analysis of the evolution of languages).

Others include Semantics (study of the meaning of words), Pragmatics (study of the intersection between social rules and behavior and language), Discourse Analysis (analysis of human discourse at the narrative level), Computational Linguistics (intersection of computing and linguistics) and Bilingualism (subfield of sociolinguistics – has to do with acquisition of and use of more than one language).

There are also subfields called Applied Linguistics (linguistics in a work-type format, such as teaching second language, work with hearing-impaired or people with language disorders) and Field (or Descriptive) Linguistics (language fieldwork, especially with small and endangered languages – how to record, take notes, transcribe, make dictionaries, alphabets, phrase books, language programs)

We also have Neurolinguistics (the study of language and the brain), Psycholinguistics (the study of language and psychological processes), Developmental Linguistics (mostly the study of language acquisition by children), Evolutionary Linguistics (the study of how language developed in man), Clinical Linguistics (the study of language and speech pathology) and Biolinguistics (study of language use in animals).

Others are Ethnolinguistics (the intersection of culture, thought and language), Linguistic Anthropology (study of man through the languages he uses), Cognitive Linguistics (the study of language as a cognitive process), Etymology (the evolution of words) and Stylistics (the study of language in context).

My favorites are Historical Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, Field Linguistics, Semantics , Sociolinguistics, Bilingualism, Morphology and to some extent Phonology (though it is starting to leave me behind). Syntax is perfectly horrible.

References

Brichoux, Robert. 1977.Semantic components of pronoun systems: Subanon and Samoan.‭ Studies in Philippine Linguistics 1(1): 163-65.

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Filed under Aborigines, Amerindians, Anthropology, Applied, Austro-Tai, Austronesian, Blacks, Descriptive, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Inuit, Language Families, Language Learning, Language Samples, Linguistics, Multilingualism, Papuans, Philosophy, Race/Ethnicity, Reposts From The Old Site, Semantics, Sociolinguistics

Tiki-Tiki Has 250 Words?

Repost from the old site.

Forget it.

Via Marilyn Vos Savant in Parade Magazine, we are told that Tiki-Tiki, otherwise known as Sranan Togo, a creole with 100,000 native speakers and many more second languages speakers on Suriname, has the smallest vocabulary of any known language – with only 250 words. This claim is credulously repeated elsewhere on the Net.

It is true that Internet dictionaries of Tiki-Tiki do show few words, possibly as few as several hundred. The SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) page says that Sranan Togo has maybe 3,000-4,000 words, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of words for major world languages (Vos Savant notes that English has the largest vocabulary at 250,000).

Many of those English words are neologisms, that is, new words that are being created on the fly, especially on places like the Internet. I actually think that English has more than 250,000 words, but I can’t prove it. As slang and whatnot proliferates in a widely spoken language, it gets pretty darn hard to count up all the words, much less write them all down.

There are other ways to create words, so it is not really so true to say that certain languages have low vocabularies. For instance, many languages spoken by small tribes have an almost endless productive variety of features for word production. In some (or perhaps many) such languages, roots can be manipulated almost endlessly to create new words to describe just about anything.

Nouns can turn into adjectives, adverbs and verbs and verbs can turn into nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Adding morphological particles onto existing roots creates a process whereby one root could possibly create up to 1000 or so new words if one is creative enough.

This potential is lost in much of the nonsense about “primitive” versus “advanced” languages, a distinction that hardly exists anyway. The truth is that the most insanely maddening languages on Earth, languages so crazy that brilliant linguists are still trying to figure them out, are spoken in general by the world’s most primitive and backwards peoples.

As a language gets bigger and used more by a civilization, it gets stupidified more and more as it loses its complexity. The reason is that people need to be on time and earn a paycheck. They need to say things quickly, make the sale or hang up the cellphone, and get to work on time.

In a more primitive situation, people are hunter-gatherers or they are laid-back agriculturalists who just take it easy and tend their fields all day. Despite blatherings of IQ theorists, even primitive humans are highly intelligent beings. We can prove this by looking at the insanely brilliant languages they have constructed all by their own selves.

We think that people get bored in these primitive settings, as their high intellect is not stimulated enough. One of the things these tribes do to stimulate their high intelligence is to play games with languages. This is why you such wildly complicated languages in such places. Much of this complexity is superfluous (noun markers, case endings, etc.) and can easily be jettisoned if one wishes to become a multitasking metrosexual.

Anyway, I did some quick research on Sranan Togo and found this paper. Creoles are intensively studied by linguists for a variety of reasons. As part of this paper, the authors used a German-language dictionary of Early Sranan Togo, Neger-Englisches Wörterbuch , completed in 1783 by Christian Ludwig Schumann. This dictionary contains 2,391 types and 17,731 tokens.

Types and tokens are often used in creole literature because it gets hard to figure out what exactly is a word in a creole language. Types and tokens is a semantic distinction derived from philosophy. Briefly, a type is a generic and a token is a specific instance of that generic. For instance, tree would be a type and maple tree would be a token. Waterfall would be a type and Vernal Falls would be a token. Man would be a type and Jesus would be a token.

So in 1783, an early version of this creole already had 20,122 words. It must only have increased its vocabulary since then. I’m calling bullshit on this 250 words line.

A creole is different from a pidgin. A pidgin is often created by immigrants to a new country where none of them understand each other.

Early immigrants to Hawaii created some pidgins. Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Koreans, etc. were all thrown together on sugar and pineapple plantations and no one could understand each other. English was the main language. The immigrants took English, I believe, and then layered onto it parts of their native languages and finally created a pidgin that they could all understand.

A pidgin is a mess, since it is a language made by adults, and due to brain constraints, adults cannot create a functional language out of thin air on the fly. The pidgin is then spoken to the adults’ kids, who pick it up as a first language. But kids are little language-creating genius machines, and they somehow take this messed-up pidgin and transform into a full-fledged language, a creole, by expanding it in a variety of important ways.

The creole is then transmitted to kids again, and soon the pidgin dies and everyone is speaking creole. It took some time for us to figure out what was really going on here, but we are pretty confident that kids are indeed expanding the pidgin and turning it into a creole. A guy named Derek Bickerton at the University of Hawaii has done some great work in this area.

I actually bought and tried to read Bickerton’s Language and Species, but I only got 40% of the way through it. Some of this stuff gets pretty intense. I don’t want to say ponderous, but pretty soon you have the book down on the desk and both of your hands are wrapped over your head Praying Mantis-like, bent down over the book, as you try to suck the concepts into your humiliated mind.

In Suriname, actually formerly Dutch Guyana, Sranan Togo is the mother tongue of some 100,000 descendants of former slaves brought to the country. It has also become a lingua franca for other ethnicities in the place, including speakers of Hindustani, Amerindian, Javanese, Dutch, and Chinese tongues.

Like all of the Guyanas, there is quite a fine mess of ethnicities in Suriname, and I think they have been breeding together for a while such that race is becoming a bit of an afterthought.

As another aside, although Vos Savant, in addition to being a hottie, is quite brilliant and is even smarter than I am, it is not true that she has the highest IQ on Earth, or that her IQ is 220 or whatever. She got that score at age 10 or so. There are others who have gotten sky high scores at that age.

At a young age, IQ is computed by looking at how the young person’s mind compares to older peoples minds. In adults, we do not compute it that way, and adult scores are never as high as the same kids’ score. In Vos Savant and other extremely high-IQ kids, their IQ’s have seen considerable regression in adulthood, but they are still sky-high.

Glad to see she’s getting a paycheck just by being smart. Wish I could.

References

Braun, Maria and Plag, Ingo. (2002). How Transparent is Creole Morphology? A Study of Early Sranan Word-Formation. University of Siegen, Germany. Yearbook of Morphology 2002. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Schumann, Christian Ludwig. (1783). Neger-Englisches Wörterbuch. Editio Tertia. Paramaribo.

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Filed under Americas, Descriptive, English language, Intelligence, Language Families, Latin America, Linguistics, Psychology, Reposts From The Old Site, Semantics, South America, Suriname, Tiki-Tiki

A Look At the Venetian and Friulian Languages

Repost from the old site.

Here we will compare Friulian and Venetian with Italian. The Friulian language is spoken in northeastern Italy. Among Friulian speakers, the language is affectionately known as Marilenghe and is best known from the Udine, the main town of the Friulian zone. It has 794,000 speakers and is in pretty good shape.

There is a close relationship with Ladin and Romansch. Most speakers also speak Standard Italian. In regions of Slovenia bordering Friuli, almost everyone speaks Friulian as a second or third language. Friulian is closer to French than to Italian. Friulian language edition of Wikipedia.

Friulian was in decline from the mid-60’s until the end of the 90’s when an entire generation was not taught to children. This generation now has a receptive but not a productive competence in the language. It has lost 18% of its speakers since 1989, and since 1981, there has been a 20% decline in people speaking it to the children. Nevertheless, there has been something of a comeback since it was protected by law in the late 90’s. There is one FM station that broadcasts only in Friulian and another station that broadcasts partly. There is only 15 minutes a week on TV in Friulian. There is one monthly magazine. All of these initiatives are private.

This is in contrast to Switzerland, where minority languages are promoted. Since Mussolini, Italy has had a policy to get rid of minority languages in favor of Italian. Only 20 schools have started teaching Friulian, and Italian is used as the vernacular. In Udine, about 40% of street signs are bilingual Friulian and Italian.

This paper analyzes the legal status of Friulian and feels that it is lacking, although a landmark law was passed in Italy in 1999. This law was very controversial, and public opinion in Italy continues to be that regional languages should all give way to Italian.

Venetian is said to be a dialect of the Italian language, but it is actually a completely separate language related more to French than Italian. It is spoken mostly in northeastern Italy in Venice, Trieste and other areas by 2,280,387 people, but the number may actually be up to 3 million. Venetian Wikipedia is here. There is television, radio and magazines in Venetian.

Venetian still lacks a unified orthography, so people just write it however they pronounce their local dialect. That Venetian is closer to French, Catalan, Portuguese and Spanish than to Italian seems outrageous to many people, but apparently it is based on structural similarities. Much of the Italian similarity is probably due to borrowing.

The Venetian cause has been taken up by Northern Italian separatists and has unfortunately become associated with fascist movements. This is ironic since Mussolini tried to stamp out Venetian. Various idiotic ethnic nationalist myths have arisen – that Northern Italians are Celtic (more White) and that Venetian is some kind of Celtic language.

There was a Celtic language spoken in the area some 1,800 years ago, but it has not left much trace on the languages of today. North Italians are not Celtic and Venetian has no relation to Celtic. Venetian is close to the northern Italian languages Piedmontese, Ligurian, Western Lombard , Eastern Lombard and Emiliano-Romagnolo.

The debate over regional languages being “dialects of Italian” was cemented by Mussolini’s fascism, which tried to wipe out all regional languages. This feeling is still widespread in Italy today. However, speakers of regional languages refer to such a mindset as “that of the Roman Empire” and those who promote it as fascists.

My English translation is a free literary translation and is not literal or word for word at all. It translates the text into the best possible literary English.

Central (Udine) Friulian

Copiis

Il puar biāt al ą copiāt il Siōr
par dīj: “O soi come tč”:
ma il Siōr nol ą copiāt.

Magari chel biāt j ą vuadagnāt,
ma i fīs, daspņ, cetant ąno pajāt
no savint jéssi sé?

Il lōr destin al č, savéso quāl?

Copie de brute copie origjnāl!

Eastern/Coastal (Triestino) Venetian

Copie

Il sempio il gą copią il Sior
par dir “Mi son come ti”
ma il Sior no’l gą copią.

Forsi quel sempio xč divegnudo sior,
ma i fioi, dopo, quanto i gą pagą par
non saver come xe stado?

Savč vł qual xč il loro destin?

copie dela bruta copia original!

Notes: Both Friulian and Venetian are structurally separate languages. It’s very difficult to write in Friulian, and very few people know how to do it properly. Venetian is easier to write, and more speakers are able to write it.

Friulian ā is a long a.

Venetian x is the same as English z

Venetian ł resembles the “lh” sound. This sound does not occur in English.

Standard Italian

Il poveretto voleva copiare il Signore
per dire: “Io sono come te’,
ma il Signore non ha copiato.

Forse quel poveretto ha guadagnato
ma i figli, dopo, quanto hanno pagato
non sapendo cosa ?

Sapete qual’č il loro destino?

Essere copia dell’originale brutta copia!

Notes: 

Poveretto: povero di mente: simpleminded fellow.
Signore: educated, gentleman.
Guadagnato: learned something, got wiser.
Pagato: to pay in a moral, education way, to “learn your lesson.”

English

The simple man tried to copy the gentleman
so he could say, “I’m just like you”,
but the gentleman could not be copied.

Now, maybe that simple man learned a thing or two,
but how much would his sons, later on, have
to pay for not knowing a thing?

The sons’ destiny?

To be a copy of the original rude copy.

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Is Afrikaans Close to English?

Cruising around the Net researching my piece on the Dutch languages, I read up on Afrikaans quite a bit. Afrikaans is the language, very close to Dutch, spoken in South Africa. It seems to be a Dutch dialect from a few centuries ago. It’s rather close to Flemish, and of course it is close to Dutch. It is often described as a simplified Dutch, and some Dutch speakers feel it almost resembles Dutch “baby-talk” or child speech. There are theories that Afrikaans is a creole (a simplified form of a language) but these seem to be discarded, though it does have influences from other languages, especially English and various African languages.

A number of English speakers on the Net said that as an English speaker, they could either communicate or almost communicate with Afrikaans speakers, each using their own language. I decided to test that out by listening to the “De La Rey” video above. There were English subtitles, but I turned my head away so I could not read them and just listened to the song trying to figure out English words.

If you listen to it with the subtitles up there, you can see a lot of cognates, but when we talk to other humans, we don’t get subtitles floating over each other’s heads so we can understand better.

I could hardly understand one single word of the Afrikaans speech in this song. I got Transvaal, but that’s just a place name, and your average uneducated American would never pick that up. I also got flammen, and I thought that might be flame. Close, it’s fire. The idea that Afrikaans and English are the slightest bit intelligible in spoken form is not supported.

Anyway, it’s a cool song. You might as well check it out. It’s banned in South Africa, though there’s nothing racist about the song. It talks about the Boer War, in which the Afrikaans speaking Boers fought against the British military around 1904 or so.

Your more educated White nationalists around the world love this war for some reason. I’m not really up on what the war was all about – apparently an anti-colonial rebellion? Anyway, this Boer War is an integral part of the South African legendary history of their time in this land, hence this song is part of their heritage. Where these Blacks think it’s racist, I don’t understand.

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Phrasal Verbs – A Nightmare for English Language Learners

Despite the idiot linguists who say that all languages are equally difficult or easy to learn, it’s clear that some languages are harder to learn than others. One of the maddening things about English is phrasal verbs – in most cases, foreigners never completely get the phrasal verbs and continue to have problems with them.

Let us look only at the preposition up combined with various verbs to form a dizzying array of phrasal verbs with widely varying meanings, meanings of which are not always clear and often have little to do with the base verb to which up has attached itself. I assume this list is by no means exhaustive, but I had to stop sometime.

Up combines to form 104 different phrasal verbs that has significantly different meanings from what one might expect. I did not include many phrasal verbs with up in which the meaning is fairly clear – buckle up, pack up, fill up, etc. Note that in many cases, the phrasal verb has more than one meaning and the meanings at times are quite variant. Feel free to add your own, if you can think of any!

Drink up and drink down mean roughly the same thing, as do slip up and slip down. Light up – to torch. Mess up, slip up – to fail.  Walk up, run up, creep up, crawl up, sneak up – various ways to approach s.t.. Cook up – to prepare a meal. Brush up – to go over a previously learned skill. Bone up – to study hard. Play up – to dramatize. Read up – to read intensively as in studying. Stay up – to not go to bed. Come up – to approach closely, to occur suddenly or to overflow. Patch up – to put together a broken thing or relationship.

Make up – to make amends, to apply cosmetics to one’s face or to invent a story. Burn up – burn completely or to be made very angry, burn down – reduce s.t. to ashes, like a structure. Turn up – to increase volume or to appear suddenly somewhere. Run up – to tally a big bill. Dry up – to dessicate. Take up – to develop a new skill, to bring something to a higher elevation, to cook something at a high heat to where it is assimilated. Blow up – to explode.

Dress up – to dress oneself in formal attire. Shake up – to upset a paradigm, to upset emotionally. Hit up – to visit someone casually or to ask for a favor or gift, usually small amounts of money. Wake up – to awaken. Stir up – stir rapidly, upset a calm surrounding or scene or upset a paradigm. Cheer up – to elevate one’s mood. Talk up – to try to convince someone of something by discussing it dramatically and intensively.

Chat up – to talk casually with a goal in mind, usually seduction or at least flirtation. Hang up – to place on a hanger or a wall, to end a phone call. Trip up – to stumble mentally over s.t. confusing. Mop up – to finish off the remains of an enemy army or finalize a military operation. Clean up – to make an area thoroughly tidy. Pick up – to grasp an object and lift it higher, to seduce someone sexually or to acquire a new skill, usually rapidly.

Put up – to hang, to tolerate, often grudgingly, or to put forward a new image. Tear up – to shred. Ring up – to telephone someone. Cut up – to shred or to make jokes, often of a slapstick variety. Meet up – to meet someone or a group for a get meeting or date of some sort. Start up – to initialize an engine or a program, to open a new business to go back to something that had been terminated previously, often a fight; a recrudescence. Crank up – elevate the volume.

Shoot up – to inject, usually illegal drugs, or to fire many projectiles into a place with a gun. Drum up – to charge someone with wrongdoing, usually criminal, usually by a state actor, usually for false reasons. Kiss up – to mend a relationship after a fight. Wait up – to ask other parties to wait for someone who is coming in a hurry. Whip up – to cook a meal quickly or for winds to blow wildly. Touch up – to apply the final aspects of a work nearly finished.

Suck up – to ingratiate oneself, often in an obsequious fashion. Stop up – to block the flow of liquids with some object(s). Suit up – to get dressed in a uniform, often for athletics. Pass up – to miss an opportunity, often a good one. Pop up – for s.t. to appear suddenly, often out of nowhere. Own up – to confess to one’s sins under pressure and reluctantly. Live up – to enjoy life. Lighten up – to reduce the downcast or hostile seriousness of the mood of a person or setting. Knock up – to impregnate. Beat up – to defeat someone thoroughly in a violent physical fight.

Listen up – imperative – to order someone to pay attention, often with threats of aggression if they don’t comply. Man up – to elevate oneself to manly behaviors when one is slacking and behaving in an unmanly fashion. Lock up – to lock securely, often locking various locks, or to imprison, or for an object or computer program to be frozen or jammed and unable to function. Mix up – to confuse, or to disarrange contents in a scattered fashion so that it does not resemble the original.

Measure up – in a competition, for an entity to match the competition. Mark up – to raise the price of s.t. Move up – to elevate the status of a person or entity in competition with other entities- to move up in the world. Hook up – to have a casual sexual encounter or to meet casually for a social encounter, often in a public place; also to connect together a mechanical devise or plug something in.

Hurry up – imperative, usually an order to quit delaying and join the general group or another person in some activity, often when they are leaving to go to another place. Face up – to quit avoiding your problems and meet them head on. End up – to arrive at some destination after a long winding, often convoluted journey either in space or in time. Clear up – for a storm to dissipate, for a rash to go away, for a confusing matter to become understandable.

Close up – to close, also to end business hours for a public business. Cheer up – to change from a downcast mood to a more positive one. Curl up – to rest in a curled body position, either alone or with another being. Crack up – to laugh, often heartily. Back up – to go in reverse, often in a vehicle, or to go back over something previously dealt with that was poorly understood in order to understand it better. Bruise up – to receive multiple bruises, often serious ones.

Break up – to break into various pieces, or to end a relationship, either personal or between entitles, also to split a large entity, like a large company or a state. Build up – to build intensively in an area, such as a town or city, from a previously less well-developed state. Buy up – to buy all or most all of something. Catch up – to reach a person or group that one had lagged behind earlier, or to take care of things, often hobbies, that had been put off by lack of time.

Do up – apply makeup to someone, often elaborately. Dream up – to imagine a creative notion, often an elaborate one. Drive up – to drive towards something, and then stop, or to raise the price of something by buying it intensively. Feel up – to grope someone sexually. Get up – to awaken or rise from a prone position. Give up – to surrender, in war or a contest, or to stop doing something trying or unpleasant that is yielding poor results, or to die, as in give up the ghost.

Grow up – to attain an age or maturity or to act like a mature person, often imperative. Hold up – to delay, to ask someone ahead of you to wait, often imperative, or to rob in a public place with a gun – He held up the liquor store. Keep up – to maintain on a par with the competition without falling behind. Lay up – to be sidelined due to illness or injury for a time. Let up – to ease off of someone or something, for a storm to dissipate, to stop attacking someone or s.t.

Pay up – to pay, usually a debt, often imperative to demand payment of a debt, to pay all of what one owes so you don’t owe anymore. Rise up – for an oppressed group to arouse and fight back against their oppressors. Run up – to spend a lot of money, often foolishly. Show up – to appear somewhere, often unexpectedly. Shut up – to silence, often imperative, fighting words. Sit up – to sit upright.

Speak up – to begin speaking after listening for a while, often imperative, a request for a silent person to say what they wish to say. Take up – to cohabit with someone – She has taken up with him. Think up – to conjure up a plan, often an elaborate or creative one. Throw up – to vomit. Bid up – to raise the price of something, usually at an auction, by calling out higher and higher bids. Be up – to be in a waking state after having slept. “I’ve been up for three hours.”

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Filed under Applied, Descriptive, English language, Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Language Learning, Language Samples, Linguistics, Semantics

Why Did I Get a Degree in This Hokey Field Anyway?

About the title, I received a Masters Degree in Linguistics (ESL option) from a California state university in 1994. I actually publish in the field even though I do not have a PhD. A paper of mine just made it through two separate peer reviews, including one that had some of the top people in the field (they have Wikipedia pages). A version translated to a foreign language will appear soon in a quality academic Linguistics journal, and then a very long (80 pages) version with maps that I and an artist also created will be published in a volume of a 4-5 part Linguistics book series. Both will be published in the Near East. I also sit on the review board of a refereed academic Linguistics journal, also out of the Near East.

I am friends with some fairly big names in the field (or at least in some subfields), and I talk to them occasionally.

The more time you spend talking to linguists, the more you start thinking that the whole field is stark raving bonkers. Many questions that you could ask ordinary Joe Blow on the street about linguistics, he could give you a straightforward, commonsensical answer that “most everyone knows,” that is, in all probability, correct.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the nerdy eggheads in the ivory tower are going to disagree with you and tell you that you are wrong. So the eggheads know what the Average Joe does not? Nope. Average Joe knows what he’s talking about. The eggheads have their heads up their overdegreed hinds, as is so often the case.

This is so much the case in the soft sciences, and Linguistics is one of the softest of the soft sciences.

If you going to degree in Humanities, you may as well degree in Literature or English or something like that. Those fields don’t pretend to be scientific. You get a degree, and then you write papers on Keats or Byron or whoever, and none of it’s very controversial. No one is pretending to be a scientist. It’s all just a bunch of opinion. Was DH Lawrence a great writer? Who knows? Some say he was, some say he wasn’t. The reputations of these guys go back and forth, but no one analyzing this stuff ever pretends to be a scientist.

The soft sciences are so much worse. In the hard sciences we can actually prove things, and generally there isn’t a lot of debate going on one way or the other at least once something gets proven. You either proved it or you don’t, and that’s that. If you prove it, fine, most folks agree. If you don’t, fine, most folks agree there too. Sure, there is a lot of debate about things that are not proven yet, but no one ever says that something is not provable or can never be proven!

The soft sciences are a bunch of the silliest, most PC eggheads you can imagine running about screaming, “We can’t prove it! We can’t prove it! We can’t prove it!” Hardly anything can ever be proven in the soft sciences (except their politicized PC theories of the day, which, truth be told, can’t be proven either), and the soft sciences are ecstatic about this.

Whenever we can more or less prove something real and not PC-nothingness, the soft science field usually degenerates into an insane argument about whether or not it was really proven.

Truth is that most of these fields are jokes. Sociology, Psychology, African-American Studies, Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Linguistics, Pedagogy, Queer Studies – it all gets more and more useless. Even Political Science has some serious weaknesses.

Economics has long been a black hole of theory. They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing.

Just to give you an example from Economics, the idiocy and madness that just blew up the whole US economy and screwed the whole rest of the world happened because people in the US were following the latest and greatest economic theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.

If you go to Economics School, you get taught that Chicago School is now the proven way that Economics works, and following Chicago School theory will make everything all groovy. No it won’t. It will blow up the whole economy.

But even after the blowup, the Chicago School crowd went on like nothing had happened, fitting the facts to the theory instead of otherwise. Turns out that Friedmanite Economics had worked just fine, and the reason for the blowup was that the economy had not been not allowed to go full bore Friedmanite enough.

Actually, it was evil government that blew up the economy. Or the niggers*. Or the spics*. Or the spics and the niggers. Or something. Or whatever. Even when their theories blow up in their faces, they still go on blissfully asserting how great they work.

Let’s look at Sociology. According to Marxist political science, now transplanted to liberalism and Cultural Marxism/Cultural Left/Political Correctness (pick your term) at large, the reason that, say, Blacks and Hispanics lag behind in many areas, or  – have excessive pathologies in others, is due to racism. The entire society accepts this as fact. Yet never is it even examined.

Who says that the problems of these groups are due to racism? Prove it. They have never proven that all of these problems are due to racism. But they don’t have to. That’s soft science.

For Blacks in particular, they have a number of problematic issues specific to their group. What’s the cause of these problems? Slavery! They was enslaved! How long ago? Long ago. 150 years ago. And all of the problems of Blacks today are caused by this nebulous “legacy of slavery.” Everyone accepts this. Huge government programs are set up to combat this mysterious legacy. Can we prove it? Of course not.

Is the Third World messed up? Sure it is. And why is that? Say, because of the humans who live in the Third World? Logical answer, no? It turns out that it’s because they got colonized some time ago. Dey done got colonized! Can we prove that colonization did them in? Of course not. But we don’t need to. We’re social scientists!

Let’s look at some areas of Linguistics that Joe Blow accepts, but eggheads don’t.

Most of the linguists’ assertions below were taken from the newsgroup sci.lang, where some of the most annoying linguist jackasses on Earth hang out. Nevertheless a number of the linguists who infest that site are very well-known in the field, and some even have Wikipedia entries. Others have authored well-known books in the field. Others are highly regarded Linguistics professors. I will highlight all of the sci.lang assertions with a footnote.

Joe Blow will tell you that some languages are relatively harder to learn for say, an English-speaking L2 learner, and others are easier to learn. Some of the harder languages for an English L2 learner, many folks would agree on, might be Hungarian, Polish, Finnish and Mandarin.

Linguists don’t agree.1 2 To them, easy and difficult languages are not definable, and therefore any language is as easy to learn as any other. Polish, Finnish and Mandarin, instead of being the mind-bogglers everyone knows they are, are actually no more difficult to learn than say any other language. Or maybe they are the hardest of all. Or maybe they are in between. Or this or that.  Or whatever.

It turns out Tsez is just as easy to learn as Malay! Who knew? Or wait, maybe it isn’t. Or maybe it is. Or maybe we can’t prove that. Or maybe we can’t prove anything.

Most people agree that kids learn languages much better than adults. In fact, we’ve proven that there’s a Critical Period for learning languages, with the window starting to close after age 7, then finally closing around age 14-18. The period is apparently neurological. That this period exists is patently obvious to anyone awake and thinking.

The whole time I was getting my degree, most of my professor-fools insisted that there was no Critical Period. Adults could get a language just as easy as any kid.2 Well, why don’t they then? The reasons were not neurological but psychological.2

They had a whole laundry list of ridiculous reasons why adults do more poorly at this. There’s some preposterous device called the “affective filter” that effects adults but not kids somehow. Adults have all this anxiety about learning languages, yet kids, for some bizarre reason, do not. The lame theories went on and on.2 I actually had to study very hard to learn all this nonsense and regurgitate it back at the idiots who were teaching it to me.

The reason Linguistics refused to accept a Critical Period is because linguists are often in the business of teaching adults languages or if not, they are busy teaching people how to be language teachers. EFL and ESL degrees are offered only by Linguistics Departments, or at least that’s where I got mine. All of my ESL teachers were professors in the Linguistics Department. All of the major ESL theorists are linguists. None are nonlinguists. Saying adults are never going to get as good as kids screws up the whole project, so they lie and say it’s not true.

Ask anyone – are some languages more complicated than others? Are some complex and some maybe simpler, less involved and less insanely convoluted and difficult? Joe Blow says sure.

A simple test case would be verbs. English has five verb forms – steal steals stole stealing stolen. Many Amerindian languages have over 1,000 forms for each and every verb. That right there implies some increased complexity and difficulty.

Turns out linguists say that all languages are equally complex or equally simple, and anyway, we can’t define simple or complex, so the whole argument is moot.1 2 Navajo’s as straightforward as Esperanto.

Most educated folks will tell you that some languages are more regular than others, the others being more irregular.

Turns out it’s not true, the linguists tell us. All languages are equally regular or irregular, and anyway, there’s no way to define “regular” or “irregular”.1

Well, don’t languages have rules, and the degree to which they follow the rules indicates their regularity, and the degree to which they don’t indicates their irregularity? Joe Blow says sure.

Nope! Not according to the linguists!

Turns out there is no way to define “rules.” Further, there is no way to define “exceptions” either. No such thing as rules, no such thing as exceptions. There are no languages that have many complex rules but are regular and others that have few rules but are irregular. There are no languages that are exception-ridden because we can’t define exception.1 I guess all languages are equally rule-governed or exceptional!

Is it possible that, as languages become widely spoken, they start to simplify, as English has lost most of its case, almost all of its subjunctive, the dative pronoun “whom”, merged four 2nd person pronouns into two and has seen “It is I” constructions fall out, among many other things? I would argue that as speakers get more modern and civilized, there is a need to get your point across as quickly as possible, time being money in a fast-paced society and all.

Whereas, more primitive hunter-gatherers spend much of their time sitting around, and, being highly intelligent, are bored. So possibly they enjoy using their often frighteningly complex language as a way of exercising their minds and being creative. This was what one of my professors taught me anyway. At the very least, it’s an interesting theory, and it makes sense intuitively.

Nope, apparently not. It’s not possible for a language to simplify because I guess we can’t define the blasted word or something. Anyway, who says the above is a simplification process? (I do.) It could well be that the language is getting more and more complicated, no? 2 (No, I don’t think so.) Who says primitive languages are often insanely complex? (I do, for one.) Define complexity. Define simplicity.1 You can see where this is going.

Few Americans are versed on the subject, but there has been a lot of research in recent years setting out an excellent case that the Chinese and Japanese writing systems are unnecessarily complex, convoluted and difficult, that they are hard to learn and take much longer to learn than alphabetical forms, that it is hard to add new foreign loan words in a character based system, and that as society becomes more technical, they become more and more of a hindrance.

A number of these researchers suggest that these crazy writing systems are actually economically harming these countries.

Well! This theory is just not PC! You see, in Linguistics, you can’t be all evil and White and stuff and go around dissing other folks’ (non-Whites) precious ‘lil languages. In the case above, this is just evil White racism attacking those poor Asiatic rice eaters.3 Turns out my field says that there are no good or bad writing systems; they’re all just fine for whatever folks are using them.3 Isn’t that dumb?

Ask your average Joe, what’s a dialect and what’s a language?

“Well,” he says. “California English and Massachusetts English are dialects, and Mandarin and Spanish are languages.”

Sure.

Nope! The linguist eggheads have decided that there is no such thing as a dialect and no such thing as a language.1 If you ask any linguist or consult any linguistic textbook on the language/dialect question, you will hear this retarded statement. There is no way to determine linguistically what is a language and what is a dialect. The difference is sociological and political, not linguistic.1 2Then you will get some silly examples like the Chinese “dialects” (really the Chinese “dialects” are more like 2,000 separate languages) and the stupid divisions of Shtokavian in the Balkans. Then you get the ridiculous Weinreich quote about armadas and lects.

So there are no linguistic definitions for the terms dialect and language. It’s all political.1 2 So, really, Spanish and Mandarin could really be dialects of one language, but California English and Massachusetts English could possibly be separate languages, as far apart as Ket and Warlpiri. Because, uh, you know, it’s all, like, political and stuff, dude.

Suppose we say that at a certain degree of structural differentiation, you have two separate languages. Nope, no can do. Define degree of difference. How will you measure it? Impossible.1

Suppose we say at X% mutual intelligibility and above, we have a dialect, and at Y% mutual intelligibility and below, we have a language? Nope, sorry, no go. We can’t define mutual intelligibility, and furthermore, we can’t measure it.1

But we have measurements that we’ve been testing and refining for 50 years now.

Sorry, do not pass go. Who says they really work? Prove that they really work. Who says they are reliable? Prove it, prove it, prove it.1

Further, there is no way to define mutual intelligibility, and since MI measures are measures of intelligibility of some lect, apparently we can’t measure intelligibility either! Because individual variation and lying and bilingual learning and other nonsense.1

The notion that we cannot measure listener intelligibility of lects leads to some interesting conclusions. So if I say I have 100% intelligibility of English, that’s not a meaningful statement. Hell, it could well be 0%. I’m just fantasizing that I’m understanding everyone around me; really I don’t understand a word anyone says. And if I say I have 0% intelligibility of Chinese, that’s not measurable either. I could very well have 100%, and I could easily go live in Shanghai tomorrow, and maybe I just don’t know it.

Are you starting to see some insipid patterns in this splendiferous array of over-educated, egghead, useless junk theory that digests down to an endless fog bank where nothing much at all can be discerned?

Why did I even waste my time getting a degree in this useless field full of mumbo-jumbo speaking propeller-head fools? Looking at the theoretical state of our field, I don’t think that your average citizen should listen to a single thing that linguists say about anything. We don’t seem to have anything intelligent to say to your average person about language or much of anything else for that matter.

At the end of the day, the blue collar rednecks are redeemed. They’ve always scorned domehead nerds in university offices who talk in riddles and seem to not know anything about anything when it comes down to it.

“Want to know the answer to a simple question?” the redneck rhetorically asks. “Ask Joe Blow on the street.”

Don’t ask some pointy-headed egghead who probably doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.

*Used sardonically

1From the well-regarded and famous linguists on sci.lang.

2A commonly held belief in the field.

3A major book came out 10-20 years ago suggesting that the Asian character based systems, Chinese in particular, were inefficient, unnecessarily complex and led to incomplete learning. The book also suggested that nations using these systems were being harmed economically. This book was completely destroyed by the PC Cultural Left types who overwhelming infest the field of Linguistics. Which is really too bad, as I think he had some good points.

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Filed under Applied, Cultural Marxists, Descriptive, Dialectology, Idiots, Language Learning, Linguistics, Lunatics, Scum, Sociolinguistics

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

Caution: This post is very long! It runs to 184 pages on the Web. Updated November 25, 2016.

This post will deal with how hard it is for English speakers to learn other IE languages. The English section will necessarily deal with how hard it is for non-English speakers to learn English, and as such will be less scientific. Nevertheless, there are certain things about English that tend to cause problems for many, such as phrasal verbs.

We did a post on this earlier, but it looks like we only scratched the surface. There are many webpages on this topic, and one could read about the subject for a long time, but after a while, things start getting repetitive.

This post is very good. There are more in various places on the Web.

For starters, before we do our own analysis, let’s look at what some other people came up with. This post is very good. They did a survey, and the post describes the results of the survey.

According to the survey, the nine hardest languages to learn overall were Mandarin, Hungarian, Finnish, Polish, Arabic, Hindi, Icelandic, German and Swedish.

The eight hardest languages to speak (or to pronounce correctly, specifically) were French, Mandarin, Polish, Korean, Hungarian, Arabic, Basque and Hindi.

The nine hardest languages to write were Arabic, Mandarin, Polish, French, Serbo-Croatian, Japanese, Russian, Basque and English.

How does that survey line up with the facts? Surveys are just opinions of L2 learners, and carry variant validity. For starters, let’s throw Swedish off the list altogether, as it actually seems to be a pretty easy language to learn. It’s interesting that some people find it hard, but the weight of the evidence suggests that more folks find it easy than difficult.

Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and Russian of course use different alphabets and this is why they were rated as hard to write.

Method. 42 IE languages were examined. A literature survey, combined with interviews of various L2 language learners was conducted. In addition, 100 years of surveys on the question by language instructors was reviewed. The US military’s School of Languages in Monterey’s ratings system for difficulty of learning various languages was analyzed.

Results were collated in an impressionistic manner along a majority rules line in order to form final opinions. For example, a minority said that Portuguese or Spanish were very hard to learn, but the consensus view was that they were quite easy. In this case, the minority opinion was rejected, and the consensus view was adopted. The work received a tremendous amount of criticism, often hostile to very hostile, after publication, and many changes were made to the text.

Clearly, such a project will necessarily be more impressionistic than scientific. Scientific tests of the relative difficulty of learning different languages will have to await the development of algorithms specifically designed to measure such things. And even then, surely there will be legions of “We can’t prove anything” naysayers, as this is the heyday of the “We can’t prove anything” School of Physics Envy in Linguistics.

One common criticism was, “In Linguistics, the standard view is that there is no such thing as an easy or difficult language to learn. All languages are equally difficult or easy to learn.” Unless we are talking about children learning an L1 (and even then that’s a dubious assertion), this statement was rejected as simply untrue and exemplar of the sort of soft science (“We can’t prove anything about anything”) mushiness that has overtaken Linguistics in recent years.

Sociolinguistics and Applied Linguistics have long been nearly ruined by soft science mushiness, and in recent years, soft science “We can’t prove anything” muddleheadedness has overtaken Historical Linguistics in a horrible way. Bizarrely enough, this epidemic of Physics Envy has been clouded, as one might suspect, in claims of rigorous application of the scientific method.

But hard sciences prove things all the time. Whenever a field claims that almost nothing in the field is provable, you’re heading in the realms of Politically Correct soft science Humanities brain mush.

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

Ratings. Languages were rated 1-5 based on difficulty for an English speaker, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = most difficult of all.

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.

Conclusion. The soft science, Politically Correct mush-speak from the swamps of Sociolinguistics currently in vogue, “All languages are equally difficult or easy for any adult to learn,” was rejected. The results of this study indicate that languages to indeed differ dramatically in how difficult they are for L2 English language learners.

Indo-European

Indo-Iranian

Indo-Aryan

Ind0-Ayran languages like Kashmiri, Hindi and especially Sanskrit are quite hard, and Sanskrit is legendary for its extreme complexity.

Central Zone
Western Hindi
Hindustani
Khariboli

The Hindi script is quite opaque to Westerners, some of whom say that Chinese script is easier. You speak one way if you are talking to a man or a woman, and you also need to take into account whether you as speaker are male or female. Gender is also as prominent as in Spanish; you have to remember whether any given noun is masculine or feminine.Hindi is definitely an IE language by its rich system of gender, case and number inflection.

The most difficult aspects of Hindi are the pronunciation and the case system. In addition, Hindi is split ergative, and not only that, but it actually has a tripartite ergative system, and the ergativity is split by tense like in Persian.

The distinction between aspirated/unaspirated and alveolar/retroflex consonants is hard for many to make. There is a four-way distinction ion the t and d sounds with aspirated/unaspirated dental and aspirated/unaspirated retroflex t‘s and d‘s. The are three different r sounds – one that sounds like the English r and two retroflex r‘s that are quite hard to make or even distinguish, especially at the end of a word. Hindi also has nasalized vowels.

If you come from a language that has case, Hindi’s case system will not be overly difficult.

In addition, there is a completely separate word for each number from 1-100, which seems unnecessarily complicated.

However, Hindi has a number of cognates with English. I am not sure if they are Indic loans into English or they share a common root going back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

loot plunder/destroy, English loot.
mausaum
season/weather, English equivalent is monsoon
toofan
storm, English equiv. typhoon
kammarban
d – something tied around the waist, English equiv. cummerbund
badnaam
– literally bad name, means bad reputation. These are both cognates to the English words bad and name.
bangalaahouse, English equiv. bungalow
jangal
jungle
pandit
priest, English equiv. pundit

Nevertheless, Hindi typically gets a high score in ratings of difficult languages to learn. Based on this high score across multiple surveys, we will give it a relatively high rating.

Hindi is rated 4, very hard to learn.

Punjabi is probably harder than any other Indic language in terms of phonology because it uses tones. It’s like Hindi with tones. It has either two or three tones: high or high-falling, low or low-rising and possibly a neutral or mid tone. It is very odd for an IE language to have tones.

Punjabi is rated 4.5, very difficult.

Eastern Zone
Assamese–Bengali

Bengali is similar to Hindi, but it lacks grammatical gender, and that fact alone is said to make it much easier to learn. Bengali speak tend to make stereotypical gender errors when speaking in Hindi. Nevertheless, it uses the Sanskrit alphabet, and that alone makes it hard to read and write.

Bengali is rated 3.5, harder than average to learn.

Northern Zone
Eastern Pahari

Nepali is a very difficult language to learn as it has a complex grammar. It has case not for nouns themselves but for clause constituents. It has tense, aspect, and voice. Nepali has an unbelievable 11 noun classes or genders, and affixes on the verb mark the gender, number and person of the subject. It even has split ergativity, strange for an IE language.

Nepali has the odd feature, like Japanese, of having verbs have completely different positive and negative forms.

~ hoina (I am ~ I am not)
chas ~ chainas (you (intimate) are ~ you are not)
bolchu ~ boldina (I speak ~ I don’t speak)

Note the extreme differences on the conjugation of the present tense of the verb to be between 1 singular and 2 familiar singular. They look nothing like each other at all.

Adjectives decline in peculiar way. There is an inflection on adjectives that means “qualified.” So can say this by either inflecting the adjective:

dublo ~ dublai (tall ~ quite tall)
hoco ~ hocai (short ~ rather short)
rāmro ~ rāmrai (nice ~ nice enough)

or by putting the invariant qualifying adverb in front of the adjective:

ali dubloquite tall
ali hocorather short
ali rāmronice enough

Nepali gets a 4.5 rating, very difficult.

Northwestern Zone

Sinhalese-Maldivian

Sinhala is also difficult but it is probably easier than most other languages in the region.

Sinhala is rated 3, average difficulty.

Sanskrit

Sanskrit is legendary for its difficulty. It has script that goes on for long sequences in which many small individual words may be buried. You have to take apart the sequences to find the small words. However, the words are further masked by tone sandhi running everything together. Once you tease the sandhi apart, you have to deal with hundreds of compound characters in the script. Once you do those two things, you are left with eight cases, nine declensions, dual number and other fun things.

Even native speakers tend to make grammatical mistakes are admit that parts of the grammar are fiendishly difficult. There are many grammatical features that are rarely or never found in any other language. Noun declension is based on the letter than the noun ends in, for instance, nouns that end in a, e or u all decline differently. There are three genders for nouns, and those all decline differently also. Each noun has eight cases and three numbers (singular, dual and plural) so there are 24 different forms for each noun. Counting the different combinations of endings and genders (all subsumed into a sort of noun class system) there are 20 different “noun classes.”

Combining the “noun classes” with the three genders, you end up with 1,440 different regular forms that nouns can take. To make matters worse, some of the cases have different forms themselves. And there are some exceptions to these rules. The I and you pronouns decline differently, but pronouns are simple compared to nouns.

For the verbs, each verb had exist in 10 different forms of tense or mood (one from Vedic Sanskrit is no longer used). There are six tenses and four moods. The six tenses are: one present tense, two future tenses and three past tenses. The moods are: imperative, dubitive (expresses uncertainty), optative (expresses hope or offers a benediction) and a form that expresses the concept if only, then… There are two different conjugations based on who is the beneficiary of the action, you or others. There are ten different classes of verbs, each of which conjugates differently. Additionally, each verb has a different form in the singular, dual and plural and in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons.

Once you get past all of that, you are ready to take on the really difficult parts of the language, participles, noun derivatives and agglutination, each of which is far more complicated than the above. To add insult to injury, Sanskrit has pitch accent.

Nevertheless, the language is so mathematically precise and regular that some have said it is a perfect language for computer programming. There may not be a single irregularity in the whole language.

Sanskrit is rated 5, extremely difficult.

Indo-Iranian
Iranian
Western Iranian
Southwestern Iranian

Iranian

Persian is easier to learn than its reputation, as some say this is a difficult language to learn. In truth, it’s difficulty is only average, and it is one of the easier IE languages to learn. On the plus side, Persian has a very simple grammar and it is quite regular. It has no grammatical gender, no case, no articles, and adjectives never change form. Its noun system is as easy as that of English. The verbal system is a bit harder than English’s, but it is still much easier than that of even the Romance languages. The phonology is very simple.

On the down side, you will have to learn Arabic script. There are many lexical borrowings from Arabic which have no semantic equivalents in Persian.

English: two (native English word) ~ double (Latin borrowing)
Note the semantic transparency in the Latin borrowing.

Persian: do (native Persian word) ~ tasneyat (Arabic borrowing)
Note the utter lack of semantic correlation in the Arabic borrowing.

Some morphology was borrowed as well:

ketābbook
kotobxānah
library (has an Arabic broken plural)

It is a quite easy language to learn at the entry level, but it is much harder to learn at the advanced level, say Sufi poetry, due to difficulty in untangling subtleties of meaning.

Persian gets a 3 rating as average difficulty.

Northwestern Iranian
Kurdish

Kurdish is about as hard to learn as Persian, but it has the added difficulty of pharyngeals, which are very hard for English speakers to make. Like Persian, it is no gender or case, and it also has a tense split ergative system.

Kurdish gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

Eastern Iranian
Northeastern

Ossetian is a strange Iranian language that has somehow developed ejectives due to proximity of Caucasian languages which had them. An IE language with ejectives? How odd.

Ossetian gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

Indo-European
Romance
Italo-Western
Italo-Dalmatian

Italian is said to be easy to learn, especially if you speak a Romance language or English, but learning to order a pizza and really mastering it are two different things. Foreigners usually do not learn Italian at anywhere near a native level.

For instance, Italian has three types of tenses – simple, compound, and indefinite.

There are also various moods that combine to take tense forms – four subjunctive moods, two conditional moods, two gerund moods, two infinite moods, two participle moods and one imperative mood.

There are eight tenses in the indicative mood – recent past, remote pluperfect, recent pluperfect, preterite (remote past), imperfect, present, future, future perfect. There are four tenses in the subjunctive mood – present, imperfect, preterite and pluperfect. There are two tenses in the conditional mood – present and preterite. There is only one tense in the imperative mood – present. Gerund, participle and infinite moods all take only present and perfect tenses.

Altogether, using these mood-tense combinations, any Italian verb can decline in up to 21 different ways. However, the truth is that most Italians have little understanding of many of these tenses and moods. They do not know how to use them correctly. Hence they are often only used by the most educated people. So an Italian learner does not really need to learn all of these tenses and moods.

Italian has many irregular verbs. There are 600 irregular verbs with all sorts of different irregularities. Nevertheless, it is a Romance language, and Romance has gotten rid of most of its irregularity. The Slavic languages are much more irregular than Romance.

Counterintuitively, some Italian words are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. There are many different ways to say the:

Masculine:

il
i
lo
gli
l’

Feminine:

la
le
l’

Few Italians even write Italian 100% correctly. However, there is no case in Italian, as in all of Romance with the exception of Romanian.

Italian is still easier to learn than French – for evidence see the research that shows Italian children learning to write Italian properly by age six, 6-7 years ahead of French children. This is because Italian orthography is quite sensible and coherent, with good sound-symbol correspondence. Nevertheless, the orthography is not as transparent as Spanish’s.

In a similar sense, Italian changes the meaning of verbs via addition of a verbal prefix:

scrivere
ascrivere
descrivere
prescrivere

mettere
smettere
permettere
sottomettere

porre
proporre

portare
supportare

In these cases, you create completely new verbs via the addition of the verbal prefix to the base. Without the prefix, it is a completely different verb.

Like German and French, Italian forms the auxiliary tense with two different words: avere and essere. This dual auxiliary system is more difficult than French’s and much more difficult than German’s.

Italian is somewhat harder to learn than Spanish or Portuguese but not dramatically so. Italian has more irregularities than those two and has different ways of forming plurals, including two different ways of forming plurals that can mean different things depending on the context. This is a leftover from the peculiarities of the Latin neutral gender. The rules about when plurals end in -io or -e are opaque.

In addition, Italian pronouns and verbs are more difficult than in Spanish. Grammar rules in Spanish are simpler and seem more sensible than in Italian. Italian has the pronominal adverbs ne and se. Their use is not at all intuitive, however, they can be learned with a bit of practice.

Italian pronunciation is a straightforward, but the ce and ci sounds can be problematic. The only sounds that will give you trouble are r, gl and gn.

Italian gets a 3.5 rating, average difficulty.

Often thought to be an Italian dialect, Neapolitan is actually a full language all of its own. In Italy, there is the Neapolitan language and Neapolitan Italian, which is a dialect or “accent” of Italian. Many Italians speak with a Neapolitan accent, and it is easy for non-Neapolitans to understand. However, the Neapolitan language is a a full blown language and is nearly incomprehensible to even speakers of Standard Italian.Neapolitan is said to be easier than Standard Italian. Unlike Italian, Neapolitan conjugation and the vocative are both quite simple and any irregularities that exist seem to follow definite patters.

Neapolitan gets a 2.5 rating, fairly easy.

Western Romance
Gallo-Romance
Oïl
French

French is pretty easy to learn at a simple level, but it’s not easy to get to an advanced level. For instance, the language is full of idioms, many more than your average language, and it’s often hard to figure them out.

One problem is pronunciation. There are many nasal vowels, similar to Portuguese. The eu, u and all of the nasal vowels can be Hell for the learner. There is also a strange uvular r. The dictionary does not necessarily help you, as the pronunciation stated in the dictionary is often at odds with what you will find on the street.

There are phenomena called élision, liaison and enchainement, which is similar to sandhi in which vowels elide between words in fast speech. There are actually rules for this sort of thing, but the rules are complicated, and at any rate, for liaisons at least, they are either obligatory, permitted or forbidden depending on the nature of the words being run together, and it is hard to remember which category various word combinations fall under.

The orthography is also difficult since there are many sounds that are written but no longer pronounced, as in English. Also similar to English, orthography does not line up with pronunciation. For instance, there are 13 different ways to spell the o sound: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö.

In addition, spoken French and written French can be quite different. Spoken French uses words and phrases such as c’est foututhe job will not be done, and on which you might never see in written French.

The English language, having no Language Committee, at least has an excuse for the frequently irrational nature of its spelling.

The French have no excuse, since they have a committee that is set up in part to keep the language as orthographically irrational as possible. One of their passions is refusing to change the spelling of words even as pronunciation changes, which is the opposite of what occurs in any sane spelling reform. So French is, like English, frozen in time, and each one has probably gone as long as the other with no spelling reform.

Furthermore, to make matters worse, the French are almost as prickly about writing properly as they are about speaking properly, and you know how they are about foreigners mangling their language.

Despite the many problems of French orthography, there are actually some rules running under the whole mess, and it is quite a bit more sensible than English orthography, which is much more chaotic.

French has a language committee that is always inventing new native French words to keep out the flood of English loans. They have a website up with an official French dictionary showing the proper native coinages to use. Another one for computer technology only is here.

On the plus side, French has a grammar that is neither simple nor difficult; that, combined with a syntax is pretty straightforward and a Latin alphabet make it relatively easy to learn for most Westerners. In addition, the English speaker will probably find more instantly recognizable cognates in French than in any other language.

A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than English. Verbs change much more, and it has grammatical gender. There are 15 tenses in the verb, 18 if you include the pluperfect and the Conditional Perfect 2 (now used only in Literary French) and the past imperative (now rarely used). That is quite a few tenses to learn, but Spanish and Portuguese have similar situations.

A good case can be made that French is harder to learn than Italian in that French children do not learn to write French properly until age 12-13, six years after Italian children.

Its grammar is much more complicated than Spanish’s. Although the subjunctive is more difficult in Spanish than in French, French is much more irregular. Like German, there are two different ways to form the auxiliary tense to have. In addition, French uses particles like y and en that complicate the grammar quite a bit.

French is one of the toughest languages to learn in the Romance family.  In many Internet threads about the hardest language to learn, many language learners list French as their most problematic language.

This is due to the illogical nature of French spelling discussed above such that the spelling of many French words must be memorized as opposed to applying a general sound-symbol correspondence rule. In addition, French uses both acute and grave accents – `´.

French gets a 3.5 rating for more than average difficulty.

Ibero-Romance
West-Iberian
Castilian

Spanish is often said to be one of the easiest languages to learn, though this is somewhat controversial. Personally, I’ve been learning it off and on since age six, and I still have problems, though Spanish speakers say my Spanish is good, but Hispanophones, unlike the French, are generous about these things.

It’s quite logical, though the verbs do decline a lot with tense and number, and there are many irregular verbs, similar to French.

Compare English declensions to Spanish declensions of the verb to read.

English

I read
He reads

Spanish

Yo leo
Tu lees
El lee
Nosotros leemos
Vosotros leéis
Ellos leen
leí
leeré
leería
leyese
leyésemos
leyéseis
¿leísteis?
leyéremos
leeréis
pudísteis haber leído
hubiéremos ó hubiésemos leído

Nevertheless, Romance grammar is much more regular than, say, Polish, as Romance has junked most of the irregularity. Spanish has the good grace to lack case, spelling is a piece of cake, and words are spoken just as they are written. However, there is a sort of case left over in the sense that one uses different pronouns when referring to the direct object (accusative) or indirect object (dative).

Spanish is probably the most regular of the Romance languages, surely more regular than French or Portuguese, and probably more regular than Italian or Romanian. Pluralization is very regular compared to say Italian. There are generally only two plurals, -s and -es, and the rules about when to use one or the other are straightforward. There is only one irregular plural:

hipérbaton -> hipérbatos

This is in reference to a literary figure and you would never use this form in day to day speech.

The trilled r in Spanish often hard for language learners to make.

There is a distinction in the verb to be with two different forms, ser and estar. Non-native speakers almost never learn the use these forms as well as a native speaker. The subjunctive is also difficult in Spanish, and L2 learners often struggle with it after decades of learning.

Spanish pronunciation is fairly straightforward, but there are some sounds that cause problems for learners: j, ll, ñ, g, and r.

One good thing about Spanish is Spanish speakers are generally grateful if you can speak any of their language at all, and are very tolerant of mistakes in L2 Spanish speakers.

Spanish is considered to be easier to learn for English speakers than many other languages, including German. This is because Spanish sentences follow English sentence structure more than German sentences do. Compared to other Romance languages, Spanish one of the easiest to learn. It is quite a bit easier than French, moderately easier than Literary Portuguese, and somewhat easier than Italian.

Nevertheless, Hispanophones say that few foreigners end up speaking like natives. Part of the reason for this is that Spanish is very idiomatic and the various forms of the subjunctive make for a wide range of nuance in expression. Even native speakers make many mistakes when using the subjunctive in conditional sentences. The dialects do differ quite a bit more than most people say they do. The dialects in Latin America and Spain are quite different, and in Latin America, the Argentine and Dominican dialects are very divergent.

Spanish gets rated 2.5, fairly easy.

Galician-Portuguese

Portuguese, like Spanish, is also very easy to learn, though Portuguese pronunciation is harder due to the unusual vowels such as nasal diphthongs and the strange palatal lateral ʎ, which many English speakers will mistake for an l.

Of the nasal diphthongs, ão is the hardest to make. In addition, Brazilian (Br) Portuguese has an r that sounds like an h, and l that sounds like a w and a d that sounds like a j, but only some of the time! Fortunately, in European (Eu) Portuguese, all of these sounds sound as you would expect them to.

Portuguese has two r sounds, a tapped r (ɾ) that is often misconceived as a trilled r (present in some British and Irish English dialects) and an uvular r (ʁ) which is truly difficult to make. However, this is the typical r sound found in French, German, Danish and Hebrew, so if you have a background in one of those languages, this should be an easy sound.  L2 learners not only have a hard time making them but also mix them up sometimes.

You can run many vowels together in Portuguese and still make a coherent sentence. See here:

É o a ou o b? [Euaoube]
Is it (is your answer) a or b?

That utterance turns an entire sentence into a single verb via run-on vowels, five of them in a row.

Most Portuguese speakers say that Portuguese is harder to learn than Spanish, especially the variety spoken in Portugal. Eu Portuguese elides many vowels and has more sounds per symbol than Br Portuguese does. Portuguese has both nasal and oral vowels, while Spanish has only oral values. In addition, Portuguese has 12 vowel phonemes to Spanish’s five.

Portuguese has also retained the archaic subjunctive future which has been lost in many Romance languages.

Try this sentence: When I am President, I will change the law.

In Spanish, one uses the future tense as in English:

Cuando yo soy presidente, voy a cambiar la ley.

In Portuguese, you use the subjunctive future, lost in all modern Romance languages and lacking in English:

Quando eu for presidente, vou mudar a lei. – literally, When I may be President, I will possibly change the law.

The future subjunctive causes a lot of problems for Portuguese learners and is one of the main ways that it is harder than Spanish.

There is a form called the personal infinitive in Eu Portuguese in which the infinitive is actually inflected that also causes a lot of problems for Portuguese learners.

Personal infinitive:

para eu cantar      for me to sing
para tu cantares    for you to sing
para el cantar      for him to sing
para nos cantarmos  for us to sing
para eles cantarem  for them to sing

Some sentences with the personal infinitive:

Ficamos em casa do Joao ao irmos ao Porto.
We are staying at John’s when we go to Porto.

Comprei-te um livro para o leres.
I bought you a book for you to read.

In addition, when making the present perfect in Spanish, it is fairly easy with the use have + participle as in English.

Compare I have worked.

In Spanish:

Yo he trabajado.

In Portuguese, there is no perfect to have nor is there any participle, instead, present perfect is formed via a conjugation that varies among verbs:

Eu trabalhei – because Eu hei trabalhado makes no sense in Portuguese.

Portuguese still uses the pluperfect tense quite a bit, a tense that gone out or is heading out of most IE languages. The pluperfect is used a lot less now in Br Portuguese, but it is still very widely used in Eu Portuguese. The pluperfect is used to discuss a past action that took place before another past action. An English translation might be:

He had already gone by the time she showed up.

The italicized part would be the equivalent to the pluperfect in English.

O pássaro voara quando o gato pulou sobre ele para tentar comê-lo.
The bird had (already) flown away when the cat jumped over it trying to eat it.

Even Br Portuguese has its difficulties centering around diglossia. It is written in 1700’s Eu Portuguese, but in speech, the Brazilian vernacular is used. Hence:

I love you

Amo-te or Amo-o [standard, written]
Eu te amo or Eu amo você  [spoken]

We saw them

Vimo-los [standard, written]
A gente viu eles  [spoken]

Even Eu Portuguese native speakers often make mistakes in Portuguese grammar when speaking. Young people writing today in Portuguese are said to be notorious for not writing or speaking it properly. The pronunciation is so complicated and difficult that even foreigners residing in Portugal for a decade never seem to get it quite right. In addition, Portuguese grammar is unimaginably complicated. There are probably more exceptions than there are rules, and even native speakers have issues with Portuguese grammar.

Portuguese gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

Eastern Romance

Surprisingly enough, Romanian is said to be one of the harder Romance languages to speak or write properly. Even Romanians often get it wrong. One strange thing about Romanian is that the articles are attached to the noun as suffixes. In all the rest of Romance, articles are free words that precede the noun.

English  telephone the telephone
Romanian telefon   telefonul

Romanian is the only Romance language with case. There are five cases – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, vocative – but vocative is not often use, and the other four cases combine as two cases: nominative/accusative and dative/genitive merge as single cases.

Nominative-Accusative aeroportul
Genitive-Dative       aeroportului

The genitive is hard for foreigners to learn as is the formation of plurals. The ending changes for no apparent reason when you pluralize a noun and there are also sound changes:

brad (singular)
brazi (plural)

Many native speakers have problems with plurals and some of the declensions. Unlike the rest of Romance which has only two genders, masculine and feminine, Romanian has three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter (the neuter is retained from Latin). However, neuter gender is realized on the surface as masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, unlike languages such as Russian where neuter gender is an entirely different gender.

The pronunciation is not terribly difficult, but it is hard to learn at first. For some odd reason, the Latinization is considered to be terrible.

Romanian is harder to learn than Spanish or Italian and possibly harder than French. However, you can have odd sentences with nothing but vowels as in Maori.

Aia-i oaia ei, o iau eu?
That’s her sheep, should I take it?

It may have the most difficult grammar in Romance. Romanian has considerable Slavic influence and this will make it harder for the English speaker to learn than other Romance languages.

Romanian gets a 3.5 rating, more than average difficulty.

Germanic
West Germanic
Anglo–Frisian
Anglic

People often say that English is easy to learn, but that is deceptive. For one thing, English has anywhere from 500,000-1 million words (said to be twice as much as any other language – but there are claims that Dutch and Arabic each have 4 million words), and the number increases by the day. Furthermore, most people don’t understand more than 50,000, and a majority might only understand 30,000 words. Yet your average person only uses 5,000 at most.

Actually, the average American or Brit uses a mere 2,500 words. As we might expect, our cultivated Continentals in Europe, such as Spaniards and French, probably have twice the regular vocabulary of English speakers and far more colloquial expressions.

In addition, verbal phrases or phrasal verbs are a nightmare. Phrasal verbs are probably left over from “separable verbs” in German. In most of the rest of IE, these become affixes as in Latin Latin cum-, ad-, pro-, in-, ex-, etc.. In many cases, phrasal verbs can have more than 10 different antagonistic meanings.

Here is a list of 123 phrasal verbs using the preposition up after a verb:

Back up – to go in reverse, often in a vehicle, or to go back over something previously dealt with that was poorly understood in order to understand it better.
Be up – to be in a waking state after having slept. I’ve been up for three hours. Also to be ready to do something challenging. Are you up for it?
Beat up
– to defeat someone thoroughly in a violent physical fight.
Bid up – to raise the price of something, usually at an auction, by calling out higher and higher bids.
Blow up – to explode an explosive or for a social situation to become violent and volatile.
Bone up – to study hard.
Book up – all of the booking seats have been filled for some entertainment or excursion.
Bottle up – to contain feelings until they are at the point of exploding.
Break up – to break into various pieces, or to end a relationship, either personal or between entitles, also to split a large entity, like a large company or a state.
Bruise up – to receive multiple bruises, often serious ones.
Brush up – to go over a previously learned skill.
Build up – to build intensively in an area, such as a town or city, from a previously less well-developed state.
Burn up – burn completely or to be made very angry.
Bust up – to burst out in laughter.
Buy up – to buy all or most all of something.
Call up – to telephone someone. Or to be ordered to appear in the military. The army called up all males aged 18-21 and ordered them to show up at the nearest recruiting office.
Catch up
– to reach a person or group that one had lagged behind earlier, or to take care of things, often hobbies, that had been put off by lack of time.
Chat up – to talk casually with a goal in mind, usually seduction or at least flirtation.
Cheer up – to change from a downcast mood to a more positive one.
Chop up – to cut into many, often small, pieces.
Clam up – to become very quiet suddenly and not say a thing.
Clean up – to make an area thoroughly tidy or to win completely and thoroughly.
Clear up – for a storm to dissipate, for a rash to go away, for a confusing matter to become understandable.
Close up – to close, also to end business hours for a public business.
Come up – to approach closely, to occur suddenly or to overflow.
Cook up – to prepare a meal or to configure a plan, often of a sly, ingenious or devious nature. They cooked up a scheme to swindle the boss.
Crack up
– to laugh, often heartily or to fall apart emotionally.
Crank up – elevate the volume.
Crawl up – to crawl inside something.
Curl up – to rest in a curled body position, either alone or with another being.
Cut up – to shred or to make jokes, often of a slapstick variety.
Do up – apply makeup to someone, often elaborately.
Dream up – to imagine a creative notion, often an elaborate one.
Dress up – to dress oneself in formal attire.
Drive up – to drive towards something and then stop, or to raise the price of something by buying it intensively.
Drum up – to charge someone with wrongdoing, usually criminal, usually by a state actor, usually for false reasons.
Dry up – to dessicate.
Eat up – implies eating something ravenously or finishing the entire meal without leaving anything left.
End up – to arrive at some destination after a long winding, often convoluted journey either in space or in time.
Face up – to quit avoiding your problems and meet them head on.
Feel up – to grope someone sexually.
Get up – to awaken or rise from a prone position.
Give up – to surrender, in war or a contest, or to stop doing something trying or unpleasant that is yielding poor results, or to die, as in give up the ghost.
Grow up – to attain an age or maturity or to act like a mature person, often imperative.
Hang up – to place on a hanger or a wall, to end a phone call.
Hike up – to pull your clothes up when they are drifting down on your body.
Hit up – to visit someone casually or to ask for a favor or gift, usually small amounts of money.
Hold up – to delay, to ask someone ahead of you to wait, often imperative. Also a robbery, usually with a gun and a masked robber.
Hook up – to have a casual sexual encounter or to meet casually for a social encounter, often in a public place; also to connect together a mechanical devise or plug something in.
Hurry up – imperative, usually an order to quit delaying and join the general group or another person in some activity, often when they are leaving to go to another place.
Keep up – to maintain on a par with the competition without falling behind.
Kiss up – to mend a relationship after a fight.
Knock up – to impregnate.
Lay up – to be sidelined due to illness or injury for a time.
Let up – to ease off of someone or something, for a storm to dissipate, to stop attacking someone or s.t.
Lick up – to consume all of a liquid.
Light up – to set s.t. on fire or to smile suddenly and broadly.
Lighten up – to reduce the downcast or hostile seriousness of the mood of a person or setting.
Listen up – imperative – to order someone to pay attention, often with threats of aggression if they don’t comply.
Live up – to enjoy life.
Lock up – to lock securely, often locking various locks, or to imprison, or for an object or computer program to be frozen or jammed and unable to function.
Look up – to search for an item of information in some sort of a database, such as a phone book or dictionary. Also to admire someone.
Make up – to make amends, to apply cosmetics to one’s face or to invent a story.
Man up – to elevate oneself to manly behaviors when one is slacking and behaving in an unmanly fashion.
Mark up – to raise the price of s.t.
Measure up – in a competition, for an entity to match the competition.
Meet up – to meet someone or a group for a get meeting or date of some sort.
Mess up – to fail or to confuse and disarrange s.t. so much that it is bad need or reparation.
Mix up – to confuse, or to disarrange contents in a scattered fashion so that it does not resemble the original.
Mop up – mop a floor or finish off the remains of an enemy army or finalize a military operation.
Move up – to elevate the status of a person or entity in competition with other entities- to move up in the world.
Open up – when a person has been silent about something for a long time, as if holding a secret, finally reveals the secret and begins talking.
Own up – to confess to one’s sins under pressure and reluctantly.
Pass up – to miss an opportunity, often a good one.
Patch up – to put together a broken thing or relationship.
Pay up – to pay, usually a debt, often imperative to demand payment of a debt, to pay all of what one owes so you don’t owe anymore.
Pick up – to grasp an object and lift it higher, to seduce someone sexually or to acquire a new skill, usually rapidly.
Play up – to dramatize.
Pop up – for s.t. to appear suddenly, often out of nowhere.
Put up – to hang, to tolerate, often grudgingly, or to put forward a new image.
Read up – to read intensively as in studying.
Rev up – to turn the RPM’s higher on a stationary engine.
Ring up – to telephone someone or to charge someone on a cash register.
Rise up – for an oppressed group to arouse and fight back against their oppressors.
Roll up – to roll s.t. into a ball, to drive up to someone in a vehicle or to arrest all the members of an illegal group. The police rolled up that Mafia cell quickly.
Run up
– to tally a big bill, often foolishly or approach s.t. quickly.
Shake up – to upset a paradigm, to upset emotionally.
Shape up – usually imperative command ordering someone who is disorganized or slovenly to live life in a more orderly and proper fashion.
Shoot up – to inject, usually illegal drugs, or to fire many projectiles into a place with a gun.
Show up – to appear somewhere, often unexpectedly.
Shut up – to silence, often imperative, fighting words.
Sit up – to sit upright.
Slip up – to fail.
Speak up – to begin speaking after listening for a while, often imperative, a request for a silent person to say what they wish to say.
Spit up – to vomit, usually describing a child vomiting up its food.
Stand up – to go from a sitting position to a standing one quickly.
Start up – to initialize an engine or a program, to open a new business to go back to something that had been terminated previously, often a fight; a recrudescence.
Stay up – to not go to bed.
Stick up – to rob someone, usually a street robbery with a weapon, generally a gun.
Stir up – stir rapidly, upset a calm surrounding or scene or upset a paradigm.
Stop up – to block the flow of liquids with some object(s).
Straighten up – to go from living a dissolute or criminal life to a clean, law abiding one.
Suck up – to ingratiate oneself, often in an obsequious fashion.
Suit up – to get dressed in a uniform, often for athletics.
Sweep up – to arrest all the members of an illegal group, often a criminal gang.
Take up – to cohabit with someone – She has taken up with him. Or to develop a new skill, to bring something to a higher elevation, to cook something at a high heat to where it is assimilated.
Talk up – to try to convince someone of something by discussing it dramatically and intensively.
Tear up – to shred.
Think up – to conjure up a plan, often an elaborate or creative one.
Throw up – to vomit.
Touch up – to apply the final aspects of a work nearly finished.
Trip up – to stumble mentally over s.t. confusing.
Turn up – to increase volume or to appear suddenly somewhere.
Vacuum up – to vacuum.
Use up – to finish s.t. completely so there is no more left.
Wait up – to ask other parties to wait for someone who is coming in a hurry.
Wake up – to awaken.
Walk up – to approach someone or something.
Wash up – to wash.
Whip up – to cook a meal quickly or for winds to blow wildly.
Work up – to exercise heavily, until you sweat to work up a sweat. Or to generate s.t. a report or s.t. of that nature done rather hurriedly in a seat of the pants and unplanned fashion. We quickly worked up a formula for dealing with the matter.
Wrap up
– To finish something up, often something that is taking too long. Come on, let us wrap this up and getting it over with. Also, to bring to a conclusion that ties the ends together. The story wraps up with a scene where they all get together and sing a song.
Write up
– often to write a report of reprimand or a violation. The officer wrote him for having no tail lights.

Here are  phrasal verbs using the preposition down:

Back down – to retreat from a challenge or a threat.
Be down  – to be ready to ready to do something daring, often s.t. bad, illegal or dangerous, such as a fight or a crime. Are you down?
Blow down – to knock something down via a strong wind.
Break down – to take anything apart in order to reveal its component parts.
Burn down
– reduce s.t. to ashes, like a structure.
Chop down – to fell a tree with an ax.
Clamp down – to harshly police something bad in order to reduce its incidence, especially s.t. that had been ignored in the past.
Climb down – to retract a poorly made statement.
Cook down – to reduce the liquid content in a cooked item.
Crack down – To police harshly against people doing bad things.
Cut down – to fell a tree by any means or to reduce the incidence of anything, especially something bad.
Drink down – to consume all of s.t.
Drive down – to harshly bring down the price of something, often through brutal means. Investors drove down the price of the stock after the company’s latest product failed badly.
Dress down – to deliberately dress more poorly than expected, often as a trendy fashion statement.
Get down – to have fun and party, or to lie prone and remain there or to reduce something to bare essentials. Get down on the floor or Getting down to brass tacks, how can we possibly explain this anomaly other than in this particular manner?
Hang down – to let one’s hair fall down in front of one’s eyes or to hang s.t. often a banner, from a building or structure.
Hike down – to lower one’s pants. The gangsters hike their pants down to look tough.
Hold down – to hold someone or s.t. on the floor so they cannot rise or get up.
Keep down – to prevent a group, often a repressed group, from achieving via oppression by a ruling group. The Whites are keeping us Black people down.
Kick down – Drug slang meaning to contribute your drugs to a group drug stash so others can consume them with you, to share your drugs with others. Often used in a challenging sense.
Knock down – to hit or strike something so hard that it falls to the ground or collapses.
Let down – to be discouraged by something one had high hopes for.
Live down – to recover from a humiliating experience. After he was publicly humiliated, he was never able to live down his rejection by the people.
Look down – to regard someone in a negative or condemnatory way from a the point of a superior person.
Mark down – to discount the price of s.t., often significantly.
Party down – to have fun and party
Pass down – to leave s.t. of value to someone as an inheritance after a death or to inherit a saying or custom via one’s ancestors through time. It was passed down through the generations.
Pat down – to frisk.
Pay down – to reduce a bill, often a large bill, by making payments, often significant payments. We are slowly paying down that bill.
Play down – to reduce the significance of s.t. often s.t. negative, often in order to deceive people into thinking s.t. is better than it really is.
Put down – to criticize someone in a condescending way as a superior person, to insult.
Play down – to deemphasize.
Rip down – to tear s.t. off of a wall such as a sheet or poster.
Run down – to run over something or someone with a vehicle, to review a list or to attack someone verbally for a long time.
Set down – to postulate a set of rules for something.
Shake down – to rob someone purely through the use of verbal or nonphysical force or power.
Shoot down – to shoot at a flying object like a plane, hitting it so it crashes to the ground or to reject harshly a proposal.
Shut down – to close operations of an entity.
Speak down – to talk to someone in a condescending way from the point of view of a superior person.
Take down – to demolish s.t. like a building, to tackle someone, or to raid and arrest many members of an illegal organization.
Talk down – to speak to someone in an insulting manner as if one was superior or to mollify a very angry person to keep them from causing future damage. The police were able to talk down the shooter until he laid down his fun and set the hostages free.
Tear down – to demolish or destroy someone verbally or to destroy s.t. by mechanical means.
Throw down – to throw money or tokens into the pile in the center when gambling.
Turn down – to reduce the volume of something or to reject an offer.
Write down – to write on a sheet of paper

There are figures of speech and idioms everywhere (some estimate that up to 20% of casual English speech is idiomatic), and it seems impossible to learn them all. In fact, few second language learners get all the idioms down pat.

The spelling is insane and hardly follows any rules at all. The English spelling system in some ways is frozen at about the year 1500 or so. The pronunciation has changed but the spelling has not. Careful studies have shown that English-speaking children take longer to read than children speaking other languages (Finnish, Greek and various Romance and other Germanic languages) due to the difficulty of the spelling system. Romance languages were easier to read than Germanic ones.

This may be why English speakers are more likely to be diagnosed dyslexic than speakers of other languages. The dyslexia still exists if you speak a language with good sound-symbol correspondence, but it’s covered up so much by the ease of the orthography that it seems invisible, and the person can often function well. But for a dyslexic, trying to read English is like walking into a minefield.

Letters can make many different sounds, a consequence of the insane spelling system. A single sound can be spelled in many different ways: e can be spelled e, ea, ee, ei, eo, ey, ae, i, ie, and y. The k sound can spelled as c, cc, ch, ck, k, x, and q.

The rules governing the use of the indefinite, definite and zero article are opaque and possibly don’t even exist. There are synonyms for almost every word in a sentence, and the various shades of meaning can be difficult to discern. In addition, quite a few words have many different meanings. There are strange situations like read and read, which are pronounced differently and mean two different things.

English word derivation is difficult to get your mind around because of the dual origins of the English language in both Latin/French and German.

See and hear and perceptible and audible mean the same thing, but the first pair is derived from German, and the second pair is derived from Latin.

English word derivation is irregular due for the same reason:

assumeassumption (Latin)
childchildish (German)
buildbuilding (German)

In English we have at least 12 roots with the idea of two in them:

two
twenty
twelve
second
double
dual
twin
pair
half
both
dupl-
semi-
hemi
bi-
di-

However, English regular verbs generally have only a few forms in their normal paradigm. In this arrangement, there are only five forms of the verb in general use for the overwhelming majority of verbs:

present except 3rd singular  steal
3rd person singular          steals
progressive                  stealing
past                         stole
perfect                      stolen

Even a language like Spanish has many more basic forms than that. However, coming from an inflected language, the marking of only the 3rd singular and not marking anything else may seem odd.

The complicated part of English verbs is not their inflection – minimal as it is – but instead lies in the large number of irregular verbs.

There is also the oddity of the 2nd person being the same in both the singular and the plural – you. Some dialects such as US Southern English do mark the plural – you all or y’all.

English prepositions are notoriously hard, and few second language learners get them down right because they seem to obey no discernible rules.

One problem that English learners complain of is differential uses of have.

  1. Perfect tense. I have done it.
  2. Deontic (must). I have to do it.
  3. Causative. I had it done.

While English seems simple at first – past tense is easy, there is little or no case, no grammatical gender, little mood, etc., that can be quite deceptive. In European countries like Croatia, it’s hard to find a person who speaks English with even close to native speaker competence.

There are quite a few English dialects – over 100 have been recorded in London alone.

The problem with English is that it’s a mess! There are languages with very easy grammatical rules like Indonesian and languages with very hard grammatical rules like Arabic. English is one of those languages that is simply chaotic. There are rules, but there are exceptions everywhere and exceptions to the exceptions. Grammatically, it’s disaster area. It’s hard to know where to start.

However, it is often said that English has no grammatical rules. Even native speakers make this comment because that is how English seems due to its highly irregular nature. Most English native speakers, even highly educated ones, can’t name one English grammatical rule. Just to show you that English does have rules though, I will list some of them.

*Indicates an ungrammatical form.

Adjectives appear before the noun in noun phrases:

Small dogs barked.
*Dogs small barked.

Adjectives are numerically invariant:

the small dog
the small dogs
The dog is small.
The dogs are small.

Intensifiers appear before both attributive and predicative adjectives:

The very small dog barked.
*The small very dog barked.

The dog was very small.
*The dog was small very.

Attributive adjectives can have complements:

The dog was scared.
The dog was scared of cats.

But predicative adjectives cannot:

The scared dog barked.
*The scared of cats dog barked.

Articles, quantifiers, etc. appear before the adjective (and any intensifier) in a noun phrase:

The very small dog barked.
*Very the small dog barked.
*Very small the dog barked.

Every very small dog barked.
*Very every small dog barked.
*Very small every dog barked.

Relative clauses appear after the noun in a noun phrase:

The dog that barked.
*The that barked dog.

The progressive verb form is the bare form with the suffix -ing, even for the most irregular verbs in the language:

being
having
doing

*wasing
*aring
*aming

The infinitive verb form is to followed by the bare form, even for the most irregular verbs in the language:

to be
to have
to do

*to was
*to are
*to am.

The imperative verb form is the bare form, even for the most irregular verb in the language:

Be!
Have!
Do!

*Was!
*Are!
*Am!

All 1st person present, 2nd person present, and plural present verb forms are equivalent to the bare form, except for to be.

All past tense verb forms of a given verb are the same regardless of person and number, except for to be.

Question inversion is optional:

You are leaving?
Are you leaving?

But when inversion does occur in a wh-question, a wh-phrase is required to be fronted:

You’re seeing what?
What are you seeing?

*Are you seeing what?

Wh-fronting is required to affect an entire noun phrase, not just the wh-word:

You are going to which Italian restaurant?
Which Italian restaurant are you going to?

*Which are you going to Italian restaurant?
*Which Italian are you going to restaurant?
*Which restaurant are you going to Italian?

Wh-fronting only happens once, never more:

What are you buying from which store
Which store are you buying what from?

*What which store are you buying from?
*Which store what are you buying from?

The choice of auxiliary verb in compound past sentences does not depend on the choice of main verb:

I have eaten.
I have arrived.

*I am eaten.
*I am arrived.

cf. French

J’ai mangé.
Je suis arrivé.

English can be seen as an inverted pyramid in terms of ease of learning. The basics are easy, but it gets a lot more difficult as you progress in your learning.

While it is relatively easy to speak it well enough to be more or less understandable most of the time, speaking it correctly is often not possible for a foreigner even after 20 years of regular use.

English only gets a 2.5 rating , somewhat difficult.

High German

German’s status is controversial. It’s long been considered hard to learn, but many learn it fairly easily.

Pronunciation is straightforward, but there are some problems with the müde, the Ach, and the two ch sounds in Geschichte. Although the first one is really an sch instead of a ch, English speakers lack an sch, so they will just see that as a ch. Further, there are specific rules about when to use the ss (or sz as Germans say) or hard s. The r in German is a quite strange ʁ, and of common languages, only French has a similar r. The çχ and ‘ü sounds can be hard to make. Consonant clusters like Herkunftswörterbuch or Herbstpflanze can be be difficult. German permits the hard to pronounce shp and shtr consonant clusters. Of the vowels, ö and ü seem to cause the most problems.

German grammar is quite complex. It recently scored as one of the weirdest languages in Europe on a study, and it also makes it onto worst grammars lists. The main problem is that everything is irregular. Nouns, plurals, determiners, adjectives, superlatives, verbs, participles – they are all irregular. It seems that everything in the language is irregular.

There are six different forms of the depending on the noun case:

der
die
das
den
dem
des

but 16 different slots to put the six forms in, and the gender system is irrational. In a more basic sense and similar to Danish, there are three basic forms of the:

der
die
das

Each one goes with a particular noun, and it’s not very clear what the rules are.

One problem with German syntax is that the verb, verbs or parts of verbs doesn’t occur until the end of the sentence. This sentence structure is known as V2 syntax, and it is quite alien for English speakers. There are verbal prefixes, and they can be modified in all sorts of ways that change meanings in a subtle manner. There are dozens of different declension types for verbs, similar to Russian and Irish. There are also quite a few irregular verbs that do not fit into any of the paradigms.

German also has Schachtelsätze, box clauses, which are like clauses piled into other clauses. In addition, subclauses use SOV word order. Whereas in Romance languages you can often throw words together into a sentence and still be understood if not grammatical, in German, you must learn the sentence structure – it is mandatory and there is no way around it. The syntax is very rigid but at least very regular.

German case is also quite regular. The case exceptions can be almost counted on one hand. However, look at the verb:

helfenhelp

in which the direct object is in dative rather than the expected absolutive.

An example of German case (and case in general) is here:

The leader of the group gives the boy a dog.

In German, the sentence is case marked with the four different German cases:

Der Führer (nominative)
der Gruppe
(genitive)
gibt dem Jungen (dative)
einen Hund (accusative).

There are three genders, masculine, feminine and neutral. Yet it is difficult to tell which gender any particular noun is based on looking at it, for instance, petticoat is masculine! Any given noun inflects via the four cases and the three genders. Furthermore, the genders change between masculine and feminine in the same noun for no logical reason. Gender seems to be one of the main problems that German learners have with the language. Figuring out which word gets which gender must simply be memorized as there are no good clues.

Phonology also changes strangely as the number of the noun changes:

Haushouse (singular)
Haeuserhouses (plural with umlaut)

But to change the noun to a diminutive, you add -chen:

Haueschen – little house (singular, yet has the umlaut of the plural)

This is part of a general pattern in Germanic languages of roots changing the vowel as verbs, adjectives and nouns with common roots change from one into the other. For instance, in English we have the following vowel changes in these transformed roots:

foul filth
tell tale
long length
full fill
hot  heat
do   does

Much of this has gone out of English, but it is still very common in German. Dutch is in between English and German.

German:

For sick, we have:

krank      sick
kränker    sicker
kränklich  sickly
krankhaft  pathological
kranken an to suffer from
kränken    to hurt
kränkeln   to be ailing
erkranken  to fall ill

For good, we have:

gut     good
Güte    goodness
Gut     a good
Güter   goods
gütig   kind
gütlich amicable

German also has a complicated preposition system.

German also has a vast vocabulary, the fourth largest in the world. This is either positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. Language learners often complain about learning languages with huge vocabularies, but as a native English speaker, I’m happy to speak a language with a million words. There’s a word for just about everything you want to say about anything, and then some!

On the plus side, word formation is quite regular.

Pollution is Umweltverschmutzung. It consists, logically, of two words, Umwelt and Verschmutzung, which mean environment and dirtying.

In English, you have three words, environment, dirtying and pollution, the third one, the combination of the first two, has no relation to its semantic roots in the first two words.

Nevertheless, this has its problems, since it’s not simple to figure out how the words are stuck together into bigger words, and meanings of morphemes can take years to figure out.

German has phrasal verbs as in English, but the meaning is often somewhat clear if you take the morphemes apart and look at their literal meanings. For instance:

vorschlagento suggest parses out to er schlägt vorto hit forth

whereas in English you have phrasal verbs like to get over with which even when separated out, don’t make sense literally.

German, like French and Italian, has two auxiliary tenses – habe and bin. However, their use is quite predictable and the tenses are not inflected so the dual auxiliary is easier in German than in French or especially Italian.

Reading German is actually much easier than speaking it, since to speak it correctly, you need to memorize not only genders but also adjectives and articles.

German is not very inflected, and the inflection that it does take is more regular than many other languages. Furthermore, German orthography is phonetic, and there are no silent letters.

German, like Dutch, is being flooded with English loans. While this helpful to the English speaker, others worry that the language is at risk of turning into English.

Learning German can be seen as a pyramid. It is very difficult to grasp the basics, but once you do that, it gets increasingly easy as the language follows relatively simple rules and many words are created from other words via compound words, prefixes and suffixes.

Rating German is hard to do. It doesn’t seem to deserve to a very high rating, but it makes a lot of people’s “hardest language you ever tried to learn” list for various reasons.

German gets a 3.5 rating, moderately difficult.

Low Franconian
Dutch

While Dutch syntax is no more difficult than English syntax, Dutch is still harder to learn than English due to the large number of rules used in both speaking and writing. The Dutch say that few foreigners learn to speak Dutch well. Part of the problem is that some words have no meaning at all in isolation (meaning is only derived via a phrase or sentence). Word order is somewhat difficult because it is quite rigid. In particular, there are complex and very strange rules about the order of verbs in verbal clusters. It helps if you know German as the rule order is similar, but Dutch word order is harder than German word order. Foreigners often seem to get the relatively lax Dutch rules about word order wrong in long sentences.

Verbs can be difficult. For instance, there are no verbs get and move. Instead, get and move each have about a dozen different verbs in Dutch. A regular Dutch verb has six different forms.

Dutch spelling is difficult, and most Dutch people cannot even spell Dutch correctly. There are only two genders – common and neuter – as opposed to three in German – feminine, neuter and masculine. In Dutch, the masculine and feminine merged in the common gender. But most Dutch speakers cannot tell you the gender of any individual word, in part because there are few if any clues to the gender of any given noun.

There are remnants of the three gender system in that the Dutch still use masculine/feminine for some nouns. In the Netherlands now, most Dutch speakers are simply using masculine (common) for most nouns other than things that are obviously feminine like the words mother and sister.

However, in Belgium, where people speak Flemish, not Dutch, most people still know the genders of words. Not only that but the 3-gender system with masculine, feminine and neuter remains in place in Flemish. In addition, in Flemish, the definite article still makes an obvious distinction between masculine and feminine, so it is easy to figure out the gender of a noun:

ne man, nen boom, nen ezel, nen banaan (masculine)
een vrouw, een koe, een wolk, een peer (feminine)

In addition, most Dutch speakers cannot tell you what pronoun to use in the 3rd person singular when conjugating a verb.

This is because there are two different systems in use for conjugating the 3sing.

The basic paradigm is:


hij      he
zij (ze) she
het      it

System 1
male persons    hij
female persons  zij
neuter words    het
animals         hij, unless noun = neuter
objects         hij, "       "
abstractions    zij, "       "
substances      hij, "       "

System 2
male persons      hij
female persons    zij
all animals       hij
all objects       hij
all abstractions  zij
all substances    het

For instance, melk is a common noun. Under system 1, it would be hij. But under system 2, it would be het because it is a substance.

The er word is tricky in Dutch. Sometimes it is translated as English there, but more often then not it is simply not translated in English translations because there is no good translation for it. There are two definite articles, de and het, and they are easily confused.

Dutch has something called modal particles, the meanings of which are quite obscure.

Some say Dutch is irregular, but the truth is that more than Dutch has a multitude of very complex rules, rules that are so complicated that is hard to even figure them out, much less understand them. Nevertheless, Dutch has 200 irregular verbs.

In some respects, Dutch is a more difficult language than English. For instance, in English, one can simply say:

The tree is in the garden.

But in Dutch (and also in German) you can’t say that. You have to be more specific. What is the tree doing in the garden? Is it standing there? Is it lying on the grass? You have to say not only that the tree is in the garden, but what it is doing there.

In Dutch, you need to say:

Daar ligt een boom in de tuin.
The tree is standing in the garden.

Daar ligt een boom in de tuin.
The tree is lying in the garden.

Dutch pronunciation is pretty easy, but the ui, euij, au, ou, eeuw and uu sounds can be hard to make. Dutch speakers say only Germans learn to pronounce the ui correctly.

Dutch was listed as one of the top weirdest languages in Europe in a recent study.

Dutch is almost being buried in a flood of English loans. While this helps the English speaker, others worry that the Dutch nature of the language is at risk.

Dutch seems to be easier to learn than German. Dutch has fewer cases, thus fewer articles and and adjective endings. There are two main ways of pluralizing in Dutch: adding -‘s and adding -en. Unfortunately, in German, things are much more complex than that. Dutch has only two genders (and maybe just a trace of a third) but German definitely has three genders. Verb conjugation is quite similar in both languages, but it is a bit easier in Dutch. Word order is the same: complex in both languages. Both languages are equally complex in terms of pronunciation. Both have the difficult ø and y vowels.

Dutch gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

Afrikaans is just Dutch simplified.

Where Dutch has 200 irregular verbs, Afrikaans has only six. A Dutch verb has six different forms, but Afrikaans has only two. Afrikaans has two fewer tense than Dutch. Dutch has two genders, and Afrikaans has only one. Surely Afrikaans ought to be easier to learn than Dutch.

Afrikaans gets a 2 rating, very easy to learn.

North Germanic
West Scandinavian

Icelandic is very hard to learn, much harder than Norwegian, German or Swedish. Part of the problem is pronunciation. The grammar is harder than German grammar, and there are almost no Latin-based words in it. The vocabulary is quite archaic. Modern loans are typically translated into Icelandic equivalents rather than borrowed fully into Icelandic.

There are four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive – as in German – and there are many exceptions to the case rules, or “quirky case,” as it is called. In quirky case, case can be marked on verbs, prepositions and and adjectives. The noun morphology system is highly irregular. Articles can be postfixed and inflected and added to the noun. In fact, Icelandic in general is highly irregular, not just the nouns.

Verbs are modified for tense, mood, person and number, as in many other IE languages (this is almost gone from English). There are up to ten tenses, but most of these are formed with auxiliaries as in English. Icelandic also modifies verbs for voice – active, passive and medial. Furthermore, there are four different kinds of verbs – strong, weak, reduplicating and irregular, with several conjugation categories in each division.  Many verbs just have to be memorized.

Adjectives decline in an astounding 130 different ways, but many of these forms are the same.

The language is generally SVO, but since there is so much case-marking, in poetry all possibilities – SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS – are allowed. There is also something odd called “long distance reflexives,” which I do not understand.

In addition, Icelandic has the typical Scandinavian problem of a nutty orthography.

Icelandic verbs are very regular but the sounds change so much, especially the vowels, that the whole situation gets confusing pretty fast. In addition, there are three different verbal paradigms depending on the ending of the verb:

-er
-ir
-re

Icelandic verbs are commonly cited as some of the hardest verb systems around, at least in Europe. Even Icelandic people say their own verbs are difficult.

Icelandic has a voiceless lateral l. This can be a hard sound to make for many learners, especially in the middle of a word. In addition, there are two alveolar trills (the rolled r sound in Spanish), and one of them is voiced while the other is voiceless. Learners say they have problems with both of these sounds. In addition to voiceless l‘s and r‘s, Icelandic also has four voiceless nasals – , , ɲ̊, and ŋ̊ – the n, m, ny (as in Spanish nina), and ng sounds.

There are also contrasts between aspirated and nonaspirated stops including the odd palatal stops and c. In addition, there is a strange voiceless palatal fricative ç (similar to the h in English huge). In addition, Icelandic has a hard to pronounce four consonant cluster strj- that occurs at the beginning of a word.

Icelandic does have the advantage of being one of the few major languages with no significant dialects, so this is a plus. Icelandic has been separated from the rest of Scandinavian for 1,100 years. Icelandic is spoken over a significant region, much of which has inhabited places separated by large expanses of uninhabitable land such as impassable glaciers, volcanoes, lava flows,  geysers and almost no food. How Icelandic managed to not develop dialects in this situation is mysterious.

Icelandic has traditionally been considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn.

Icelandic gets a 5 rating, extremely difficult to learn.

Faroese is said to be even harder to learn than Icelandic, with some very strange vowels not found in other North Germanic languages.

Faroese has strong, weak and irregular verbs. It also has a strange supine tense.

The Faroese orthography is as irrational as Icelandic’s. There are so many rules to learn to be able to write Faroese properly. Faroese, like Icelandic, prefers to coin new words rather than borrow words wholesale into its language. Therefore the English speaker will not see a lot of obvious borrowings to help them out. Some argue against this nativization process, but maybe it is better than being buried in English loans like German and Dutch are at the moment.

computertelda (derived from at telja – to count. Icelandic has a similar term.
helicoptertyrla (derived from tyril – a spinning tool for making wool or loom.
musictónleikur
pocket calculator
telduhvølpur (Lit. computer puppy), roknimaskina (Lit. calculating machine)

Faroese has the advantage of having no verbal aspect, and verbal declension does not differ much according to person. However, Faroese has a case system like Icelandic.

Faroese gets a 5 rating,extremely difficult.

Norwegian is fairly easy to learn, and Norwegian is sometimes touted as the easiest language on Earth to learn for an English speaker.

This is confusing because Danish is described below as a more difficult language to learn, and critics say that Danish and Norwegian are the same, so they should have equal difficulty. But only one Norwegian writing system is almost the same as Danish the Danish writing system. Danish pronunciation is quite a bit different from Norwegian, and this is where the problems come in.

Even Norwegian dialects can be a problem. Foreigners get off the plane having learned a bit of Norwegian and are immediately struck by the strangeness of the multiplicity of dialects, which for the most part are easy for Norwegians to understand but can be hard for foreigners. Norwegians often only understand their many dialects due to bilingual learning and much exposure and there are definitely Norwegian dialects that even Norwegians have a hard time understand like Upper and Lower Sogn and Trondnersk.

There is also the problematic en and et alternation, as discussed with Danish. Norwegian has an irrational orthographic system, like Swedish, with silent letters and many insensible sounds, both consonants and vowels. It has gone a long time without a spelling reform. It has the additional orthographic issues of two different writing systems and a multitude of dialects. Norwegian, like Danish and Swedish, has a huge vowel inventory, one of the larger ones on Earth. It can be confusing and difficult to make all of those odd vowel sounds: 18 contrasting simple vowels, nine long and nine short , , ɛː, ɑː, , , ʉ̟ː, , øː, ɪ, ɛ, a, ɔ, ʊ, ɵ, ʏ and œ.

Norwegian has very little inflection in its words, but the syntax is very difficult. Norwegian also has “tonemes” which distinguish between homophones.

tankenthe tank
tanken
the thought

have two different meanings, even though the stress and pronunciation are the same. The words are distinguished by a toneme.

For some reason, Norwegian scored very high on a study of weirdest languages on Earth, but Swedish and Danish also got high scores.

However, Norwegian is a very regular language.

Norwegian gets a 2 rating, moderately easy to learn.

East Scandinavian

Danish is a harder language to learn than one might think. It’s not hard to read or even write, but it’s quite hard to speak. However, like English, Danish has a non-phonetic orthography, so this can be problematic. It has gone a long time without a spelling reform, so there are many silent letters and sounds, both vowels and consonants, that make no sense. Danish makes it on lists of most irrational orthographies of all.

In addition, there are d words where the d is silent and other d words where it is pronounced, and though the rules are straightforward, it’s often hard for foreigners to get the hang of this. The d in hund is silent, for instance. In addition, the b, d, and g sounds are somehow voiceless in many environments. There are also the strange labiodental glide and alveopalatal fricative sounds. In certain environments, d, g, v, and r turn into vowels.

There are three strange vowels that are not in English, represented by the letters æ, ø and å. They are all present in other Scandinavian languages – æ is present in Icelandic and Norwegian, ø is part of Norwegian, and å is part of Norwegian and Swedish, but English speakers will have problems with them. In addition, Danish has creaky-voiced vowels, which is very strange for an IE language. Danish language learners often report having a hard time pronouncing Danish vowels or even telling one apart from the other. Danish makes it onto lists of the wildest phonologies on Earth,and it made it high on a list of weirdest languages on Earth.

One advantage of all of the Scandinavian languages is that their basic vocabulary (the vocabulary needed to converse at a basic level and be understood) is fairly limited. In other words, without learning a huge number of words, it is possible to have a basic conversation in these languages. This is in contrast to Chinese, where you have to learn a lot of vocabulary just to converse at a basic level.

As with Maltese and Gaelic, there is little correlation between how a Danish word is written and how it is pronounced.

Pronunciation of Danish is difficult. Speech is very fast and comes out in a continuous stream that elides entire words. Vowels in the middle and at the end of words are seldom expressed. There are nine vowel characters, and each one can be pronounced in five or six different ways. There is nearly a full diphthong set, and somehow pharyngealization is used as an accent. Danish has a huge set of vowels, one of the largest sets on Earth. The sheer number of vowels is one reason that Danish is so hard to pronounce. Danish has 32 vowels, 15 short, 13 long and four unstressed: ɑ, ɑː, a, æ, æː, ɛ, ɛː, e, e̝ː, i, , o, , ɔ, ɔː, u, , ø, øː, œ, œː, ɶ, ɶː, y, , ʌ, ɒ, ɒː, ə, ɐ, ɪ, and ʊ.

There is also a strange phonetic element called a stød, which is a very short pause slightly before the vowel(s) in a word. This element is very hard for foreigners to get right.

Just about any word has at least four meanings, and can serve as noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Danish has two genders (feminine and masculine have merged into common gender), and whether a noun is common or neuter is almost impossible to predict and simply must be memorized.

Suggesting that Danish may be harder to learn than Swedish or Norwegian, it’s said that Danish children speak later than Swedish or Norwegian children. One study comparing Danish children to Croatian tots found that the Croat children had learned over twice as many words by 15 months as the Danes. According to the study:

The University of Southern Denmark study shows that at 15 months, the average Danish toddler has mastered just 80 words, whereas a Croatian tot of the same age has a vocabulary of up to 200 terms.

[…] According to the study, the primary reason Danish children lag behind in language comprehension is because single words are difficult to extract from Danish’s slurring together of words in sentences. Danish is also one of the languages with the most vowel sounds, which leads to a ‘mushier’ pronunciation of words in everyday conversation.

Danish gets a 3 rating, average difficulty.

Swedish has the disadvantage of having hundreds of irregular verbs. Swedish also has some difficult phonemes, especially vowels, since Swedish has nine vowels, not including diphthongs. Pronunciation of the ö and å (and sometimes ä, which has a different sound) can be difficult. Swedish also has pitch accent. Pronunciation is probably the hardest part of Swedish.

Words can take either an -en or an –ett ending, and there don’t seem to be any rules about which one to use. The same word can have a number of different meanings.

Swedish, like German, has gender, but Swedish gender is quite predictable by looking at the word, unlike German, where deciding which of the three genders to use seems like a spin of the Roulette wheel.

Word order is comparatively free in that one can write a single sentence multiple ways while changing the meaning somewhat. So I didn’t know that. can be written the following ways:

Det visste jag inte.
Det visste inte jag.
Jag visste inte det.
Jag visste det inte.
Inte visste jag det.

For some reason, Swedish got a very high score on a study of the weirdest languages on Earth.

The different ways of writing that sentence depend on context. In particular, the meaning varies in terms of topic and focus.

There is a 3-way contrast in deixis:

den
den här
den där

Swedish also has the same problematic phrasal verbs that English does:

att slå -  beat/hit

slå av     turn off
slå fast   settle/establish
slå igen   close/shut
slå igenom become known/be a success
slå in     wrap in, come true
slå ner    beat down
slå på     turn on
slå runt   overturn
slå till   hit/strike/slap, strike a deal
slå upp    open (a book), look s.t. up

Swedish orthography is difficult in learning how to write it, since the spelling seems illogical, like in English. The sj sound in particular can be spelled many different ways. However, Swedish spelling is probably easier than English since Swedish lacks a phonemic schwa, and schwa is the source of many of the problems in English. Where allophonic schwa does appear, it seems to be predictable.

One nice thing about Swedish grammar is that it is similar to English grammar in many ways.

Swedish can be compared to a tube in terms of ease of learning. The basics are harder to learn than in English, but instead of getting more difficult as one progresses as in English, the difficulty of Swedish stays more or less the same from basics to the most complicated. But learning to speak Swedish is easy enough compared to other languages.

Swedish gets a 2.5 rating, easy to average difficulty.

Celtic

Any Gaelic language is tough. Celtic languages are harder to learn than German or Russian.

Insular Celtic
Goidelic

Old Irish was the version of Irish written from 650 to 900 AD. It was used only by the educated and aristocratic elites. The rest of the population spoke a simplified version that was already on its way to becoming Middle Irish.

The verbal system in Old Irish was one of most complicated of all of the classical languages.

The persons were 1st, 2nd, 3rd and plural. The tenses were present, preterite, imperfect, perfect, future and an odd tense called secondary future. There were imperative and subjunctive moods. There was no infinitive – instead it was formed rather erratically as a verbal noun derived from the verb. This gerund underwent 10 different declensions and often looked little like the verb it is derived from.

cingidto step -> céimstepping

There were both strong and weak verbs, and each had both simple and compound forms.

Bizarrely, every verb had not one but two different paradigms – the conjunct and the absolute. You used the conjunct when the verb is preceded by a conjunct particle such as (not) or in (the question particle). You used the absolute when there was no conjunct particle in front of the verb.

Hence, the present indicative of glenaid (sticks fast), is:

Absolute   Conjunct

glenaim    :glenaim
glenai     :glenai
glenaid    :glen
glenmai    :glenam
glenthae   :glenaid
glenait    :glenat

The colon before the conjunct verbs indicates that a conjunct particle preceded the verb.

The phonological changes were some of the most complicated you could imagine. An attempt was made to orthographically portray all of these convoluted changes, but the orthography ended up a total mess.

Each consonant had four different values depending on where it was in the word and whether or not it was palatal. Hence, even though the 1st person absolute and conjunct look identical above (both are spelled glenaim), they were pronounced differently. The absolute was pronounced glyenum, and the conjunct was pronounced glyenuv.

The grammar was unbelievably complex, probably harder than Ancient Greek. There was even a non-IE substratum running underneath the language.

Old Irish gets a 5 rating, extremely difficult.

Irish students take Irish for 13 years, and some take French for five years. These students typically know French better than Irish. There are inflections for the inflections of the inflections, a convoluted aspiration system, and no words for yes or no. The system of initial consonant mutation is quite baffling. Noun declension is mystifying. Irish has irregular nouns, but there are not many of them:

the womanan bhean
the women
na mná

and there are only about 10 irregular verbs. There are dozens of different declension types for verbs. The various phonological gradations, lenitions and eclipses are not particularly regular. There are “slender” and “broad” variants of many of the consonants, and it is hard to tell the difference between them when you hear them. Many learners find the slender/broad consonants the hardest part of Irish. The orthography makes many lists of worst orthographies on Earth.

Irish gets a 4.5 ratings, very difficult.

Both Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are written with non-phonetic spelling that is even more convoluted and irrational than English. This archaic spelling is in drastic need of revision, and it makes learners not want to learn the language. For instance, in Scots Gaelic, the word for taxi is tacsaidh, although the word is pronounced the same as the English word. There are simply too many unnecessary letters for too few sounds. Of the two, Scots Gaelic is harder due to many silent consonants.

Irish actually has rules for its convoluted spelling, and once you figure out the rules, it is fairly straightforward, as it is quite regular and it is actually rational in its own way. In addition, Irish recently underwent a spelling reform. The Irish spelling system does make sense in an odd way, as it marks things such as palatalization and velarization.

Scottish Gaelic and Manx have gone a long time with no spelling reforms.

Scottish Gaelic gets a 4.5 ratings, very difficult.

Manx is probably the worst Gaelic language of all in terms of its spelling since it has Gaelic spelling yet uses an orthography based on English which results in a crazy mix that makes many lists of worst scripts.

Manx gets a 4.5 rating, very difficult.

Common Byrthonic

Welsh is also very hard to learn, although Welsh has no case compared to Irish’s two cases. And Welsh has a mere five irregular verbs. The Byrthonic languages like Welsh and Breton are easier to learn than Gaelic languages like Irish and Scots Gaelic. One reason is because Welsh is written with a logical, phonetic alphabet. Welsh is also simpler grammar-wise, but things like initial consonant mutations can still seem pretty confusing and are difficult for the non-Celtic speaker to master and understand. Verbal declension is irregular.

caraf   I love
carwn   we love

cerais  I loved
carasom we loved

The problem above is that one cannot find any morpheme that means 1st person, 3rd person, or past tense in the examples. Even car- itself can change, and in connected speech often surfaces as gar-/ger-. And carwn can mean I was loving (imperfect) in addition to we love. There are no rules here, and you simply have to memorize the different forms.

Welsh gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

Breton is about in the same ballpark as Welsh. It has a flexible grammar, a logical orthography and only four irregular verbs.

On the other hand, there are very few language learning materials, and most of those available are only written in French.

Breton gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

Hellenic

Greek is a difficult language to learn, and it’s rated the second hardest language to learn by language professors. It’s easy to learn to speak simply, but it’s quite hard to get it down like a native. It’s the rare second language learner who attains native competence. Like English, the spelling doesn’t seem to make sense, and you have to memorize many words. Further, there is the unusual alphabet. However, the orthography is quite rational, about as good as that of Spanish. Whether or not Greek is an irregular language is controversial. It has that reputation, but some say it is not as irregular as it seems.

Greek has four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive and vocative (used when addressing someone). There are three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Nouns have several different declension patterns determined by the ending on the noun. Verb conjugations are about as complicated as in Romance. Greek does retain the odd aorist tense. In addition, it has the odd middle voice and optative mood. Greek syntax is quite complicated.

Greek gets a 5 rating, extremely difficult to learn.

Classic or Ancient Greek was worse, with a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, a pitch accent system and a truly convoluted, insanely irregular system of noun and verb inflection. It had a dual number in addition to singular and plural and a very difficult optative case. Irregular verbs had one of six different stem types. The grammar was one of the most complex of all languages, and the phonology and morphology were truly convoluted.

Ancient Greek is said to have had four different genitive cases, but it actually had four different uses of the genitive:

  1. Objective Genitive – “for obedience to faith”
  2. Subjective Genitive – “faith’s obedience” or faithful obedience
  3. Attributive Genitive – “obedience of faith”
  4. Genitive of Apposition – obedience, i.e. faith

How confusing!

Classic Greek gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all to learn.

Armenian

An  obscure branch of Indo-European, Armenian, is very hard to learn. Armenian is a difficult language in terms of grammar and phonetics, not to mention the very odd alphabet. The orthography is very regular, however there are some irregularities. For instance:

գրել , written grel but spoken gərel (schwa removed in orthography)
խոսել, written xosel but spoken xosal  (a changed to e in orthography)

However, the alphabet itself presents many problems. Print and cursive can be very different, and upper case and lower case can also be quite different. Here are some pairs of letters in upper and lower case:

Ա ա
Յ յ
Փ փ

All in all, this means you have to memorize as many as four different shapes for each letter. However, the grammar is very regular.

In addition, many letters very closely resemble other letters, which makes it very easy to get them mixed up:

գ and զ
ե
and է
դ
and ղ
ո
and ռ

There are voiced consonants and an alternation between aspirated and unaspirated unvoiced consonants, so some mix up the forms for b, p and , for instance. Nevertheless, there are many things about the grammar that seem odd compared to other IE languages. For instance, Armenian has agglutination, and that is a very strange feature for an IE language.

Part of the problem is that due to its location in the Caucasus, Armenian has absorbed influences from some of the wild nearly Caucasian languages. For instance, an extinct NE Caucasian Nakh language called Tsov is thought to have contributed to the Hurro-Ururtian substratum in Armenian. So in a sense when you learn Armenian, you are also learning a bit of Chechen at the same time. For some reason, Armenian scored very high on a weirdest languages survey.

People who have learned both Arabic and Armenian felt that Armenian was much easier, so Armenian seems to be much easier than Arabic.

Armenian is rated 4, very hard to learn.

Albanian

Albanian is another obscure branch of Indo-European. Albanian nouns have two genders (masculine and feminine), five cases including the ablative, lost in all other IE. Both definite and indefinite articles are widely used, a plus for English speakers. Most inflections were lost, and whatever is left doesn’t even look very IE. The verbal system is complex, having eight tenses including two aorists and two futures, and several moods, including indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conjunctive, optative and admirative. The last three are odd cases for IE. The optative only exists in IE in Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Manx. Oddly enough, there is no infinitive. Active and passive voices are used.

Similarly to Gaelic, Albanian is even harder to learn than either German or Russian. Albanian may be even harder to learn than Polish.

Albanian is rated 5,extremely difficult.

Slavic

All Slavic languages have certain difficulties. For instance, the problematic perfect/imperfect tenses discussed below in Czech and Slovak are present in all of Slavic. The animate/inanimate noun class distinction is present in all of Slavic also. Slavic languages also add verb prefixes to verbs, completely changing the meaning of the verb and creating a new verb (see Italian above).

East Slavic

People are divided on the difficulty of Russian, but language teachers say it’s one of the hardest to learn. Even after a couple of years of study, some learners find it hard to speak even a simple sentence correctly.

It has six basic cases – nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental and prepositional – and analyses have suggested up to 10 other cases. The most common of the extra cases are locative, partitive and several forms of vocative. All of these extra cases either do not apply to all nouns (“incomplete” cases) or seem to be identical to an existing case. At any rate, the vocative is only used in archaic prose. And there is also a locative case, which is what the exceptions to the prepositional case are referred to. Russian has two genitive cases, the so-called Genitive 1 and Genitive 2. The first one is standard genitive and the second is the genitive-partitive (see above), which is now only used in archaic prose.

The grammar is fairly easy for a Slavic language. The problem comes with the variability in pronunciation. The adjectives and endings can be difficult. In addition, Russian has gender and lots of declensions. Like Lithuanian, almost everything in the language seems to decline. The adjectives change form if the nouns they describe have different endings. Adjectives also take case somehow.

Verbs have different forms depending on the pronouns that precede them. Russian has the same issues with perfective and imperfective forms as Polish does (see the Polish section below). There are dozens of different declension types for verbs and many verbs that are irregular and don’t fit into any of the declension types. In addition, there are many irregular nouns, syncretisms, and an aspectual system that is morphologically unpredictable.

Word order is pretty free. For instance, you can say:

I love you by saying

I love you.
You love I.
Love you I.
I you love.
Love I you.
You I love
.

Pronunciation is strange, with one vowel that is between an ü and i. Many consonants are odd, and every consonant has a palatalized counterpart, which will be difficult to speakers whose languages lack phonemic palatalized consonants. These are the soft and hard consonants that people talk about in Russian. The bl sound is probably the hardest to make, but the trilled r is also problematic.

Russian has several words that, bizarrely, are made up of only a single consonant:

s with, off of
k
to, towards
v
in, into
b
– subjunctive/conditional mood particle (would)
Z – emphatic particle

In addition, Russian has some very strange words that begin with a doubled consonant sound:

вводить
ввести
ссылка

The orthography system is irregular, so there are quite a few silent letters and words that are pronounced differently than they are spelled.

Word Silent Letters Example
здн  [знпраздник
рдц  [рцсердце
лнц  [нцсолнце
стн  [снлестница
вств [ств]          чувство
жч   [щ]            мужчина
зч   [щ]            извозчик
сч   [щ]            счастье
чт   [штчто
чн   [шнконечно
тц   [ц]            вкратце
дц   [ц]            двадцать
тч   [ч]            лётчик
дч   [ч]            докладчик
тся  [цца]          учится
ться [цца]          учиться

Stress is quite difficult in Russian since it seems arbitrary and does not appear to follow obvious rules:

дóмаat home
домá
buildings

One problem is that phonemic stress, not written out, changes the way the vowel is pronounced. For instance:

узнаюI’m finding out
узнаю
I will find out

The two are written identically, so how you tell them apart in written Russian, I have no idea. However in speech you can tell one from the other because the two forms have different stress.

Russian also has vowel reduction that is not represented in the orthography. The combination of stress and vowel reduction means that even looking at a Russian word, you are not quite sure how to pronounce it.

Like German, Russian builds morphemes into larger words. Again like German, this is worse than it sounds since the rules are not so obvious. In addition, there is the strange Cyrillic alphabet, which is nevertheless easier than the Arabic or Chinese ones. Russian also uses prepositions to combine with verbs to form the nightmare of phrasal verbs, but whereas English puts the preposition after the verb, Russian puts it in front of the verb.

All of Slavic has a distinction between animate and inanimate nouns as a sort of a noun class. Russian takes it further and even has a distinction between animate and inanimate pronouns in the male gender:

dvoje muzhchin     two men
troje muzhchin     three men
chetvero muzhchin  four men
pyatero muzhchin   five men
shestero muzhchin  six men
semero muzhchin    seven men

Compare to:

dva duba      two oaks 
tri duba      three oaks 
chetyre duba  four oaks

However, Russian only has the animate/inanimate distinction in pronouns and not in nouns in general.

Like Polish below, you use different verbs depending if you are going somewhere on foot or other than on foot. Second there is a distinction between going somewhere with a goal in mind and going somewhere with no particular goal in mind. For instance, to go:

idti (by foot, specific endpoint)
xodit’ (by foot, no specific endpoint)
exat’ (by conveyance, specific endpoint)
ezdit’ (by conveyance, no specific endpoint)

The verb to carry also has four different forms with the same distinctions as above.

In addition, there are various prefixes you can put on a verb:

into                  v-
out of                vy-
towards               po-
away from             u-
up to the edge of     pod-
away from the edge of ot-
through               pro-
around                ob-

These prefixes look something like “verbal case.” You an add any of those prefixes to any of the going or carrying verbs above. Therefore, you can have:

poiti  –walk up to something
obezdit’
drive around with no goal
uxodit’
–  walk away from something with no goal in mind

The combination of paths and goals results in some very specific motion verbs.

Russian is harder to learn than English. We know this because Russian children take longer to learn their language than English speaking children do. The reason given was that Russian words tended to be longer, but there may be other reasons.

Russian has the advantage of having quite a bit of Romance and Greek loans for a Slavic language, but unfortunately, you will not typically hear these words in casual conversion. Russian also has no articles. English speakers will find this odd, but others regard it as a plus.

Russian is less difficult than Czech, Polish or Serbo-Croatian.

Russian gets a 4 rating, very hard to learn.

West Slavic
Czech and Slovak

Czech and Slovak are notoriously hard to learn; in fact, all Slavic languages are. Language professors rate the Slavic languages the third hardest to learn on Earth. Czech is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the hardest language to learn. Even the vast majority of Czechs never learn to speak their language correctly. They spend nine years in school studying Czech grammar, but some rules are learned only at university. Immigrants never seem to learn Czech well, however, there are a few foreigners who have learned Czech very well – say, three or fewer errors in a 30 minute monologue, so it is possible to learn Czech well even if it is not very common.

Writing Czech properly is even more difficult than speaking it correctly, so few Czechs write without errors. In fact, an astounding 1/3 of the population makes at least on grammatical or spelling mistake in every sentence they write! The younger generation is now even worse as far as this goes, as Czech language teaching for natives has become more lax in recent years and drills have become fewer. Nevertheless, the Czech and Slovak orthographies are very rational. There is nearly a 1-1 sound/symbol correspondence.

Even natives often mess up the conditional (would). The 3rd conditional (past conditional) has nearly gone out of modern Czech and has merged with the present conditional:

3rd conditional – If I “would have known” it, I would not have asked has merged with
2nd conditional – If I “would know” it, I would not ask.

This means conditional events in the present are no longer distinguished between those in the past, and the language is impoverished.

Native speakers also mix up a specific use of the gerund:

English:

She looked at me smiling.
He walked along whistling.
He was in his bed reading a book.

This is easy to say in English, and the use of these forms is rather common. However, it is very hard to make those sentences in Czech, and possibly only 3% of the population can formulate those sentences properly. Instead, they break them up into two sentences:

Czech:

She looked at me, and she smiled.
He was in his bed, and he was reading.

Czech is full of exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions. It is said that there are more exceptions than there are rules. Czech has seven cases in singular and seven more cases in plural for nouns, for a total of 59 different “modes” of declension. There are also words that swing back and forth between “modes.” Adjectives and pronouns also have seven cases in the singular and plural. Czech is one of the few languages that actually has two genitive cases – one more or less possessive and the other more or less partitive. There are six genders, three in the singular and three in the plural.

When you put all that together, each noun can decline in 59 different ways. Further, these 59 different types of nouns each have 14 different forms depending on case. Verbs also decline. The verbs have both perfective and imperfective and have 45 different conjugation patterns. Czech learners often confuse the perfect and imperfect verbs. Verbs of motion can also be quite tricky.

One of the problems with Czech is that not only nouns but also verbs take gender, but they only do so in the past tense. In addition, Czech has a complicated aspect system that is often quite irregular and simply must be memorized to be learned.

This conjugation is fairly regular:

viděl continuous past – he saw
uviděl
punctual – once he suddenly saw
vídával
repetitive – he used to see (somebody/something) repeatedly

Others are less regular:

jedl continuous – he ate
snědl dojedl
he ate it all up
ujedl
he ate a bit of it
pojedl
he finished eating
jídával
repetitive – he used to eat repeatedly

Czech also has an evidential system. The particle prý is used to refer to hearsay evidence that you did not personally witness.

Prý je tam zima.
Someone said/People say it’s cold outside.

Truth is that almost every word in the language is subject to declension. The suffixes on nouns and verbs change all the time in strange ways.

There are some difficult consonants such as š, č, ť, ž, ľ, ď, dz, , ĺ and ŕ. It’s full of words that don’t seem to have vowels.

Entire Czech sentences can have extreme consonant clusters that appear to lack vowels:

Strč prst skrz krk.
Stick a finger through your neck.

Smrž pln skvrn zvlhl z mlh.
A morel full of spots welted from fogs…

Mlž pln skvrn zvh.

However, the letters r and l are considered “half-vowels” in Czech, so the sentences above are easier to pronounce than you might think.

The letters ř and r (Czech has contrasting alveolar trills) are hard to pronounce, and ř is often said to exist in no longer language, including other Slavic languages. It is only found in one other language on Earth –  the Papuan language Kobon, which pronounces it a bit differently. Even Czechs have a hard time making these sounds properly (especially the ř), and many L2 speakers never get them right. There is also a hard and soft i which is hard to figure out.

As with other Slavic languages like Russian, it has the added problem of fairly loose word order. In addition, there are significant differences between casual and formal speech where you use different forms for someone you are familiar with (are on a first name basis with) as opposed to someone you do not know well. In addition, females use different endings for the past tense than men do.

On the plus side, Czech stress, like that of Polish, is regular as the accent is always on the first syllable. But if you come from a language such as Spanish where the accent is typically on the second syllable, this might present an obstacle.

Czech gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

Slovak is closely related to Czech, and it is controversial which one is harder to learn. Slovak is definitely more archaic than Czech. Some say that Slovak is easier because it has a more regular grammar. Slovak has the additional problem is marking acute accents: á, é, í, ĺ, ó, ŕ, ú and ý. Slovak fortunately lacks the impossible Czech ř sound. Instead it has something called a “long r,” (ŕ) which is not very easy to make either. This is something like the er sound in English her.

Slovak, like Czech, has retained the vocative, but it almost extinct as it is restricted to only a few nouns. Like Polish and Sorbian, Slovak also has an animate/inanimate distinction in gender for plural nouns. So Slovak has five genders: masculine, feminine and neuter in the singular and animate and inanimate in the plural.

Some say that Slovak is even harder than Polish, and there may be a good case that Czech and Slovak are harder than Polish.

Slovak gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

Lechitic

Polish is similar to Czech and Slovak in having words that seem to have no vowels, but in Polish at least there are invisible vowels. That’s not so obviously the case with Czech. Nevertheless, try these sentences:

  1. Wszczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie.
  2. Wyindywidualizowaliśmy się z rozentuzjazmowanego tłumu.
  3. W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.

I and y, s and z, je and ě alternate at the ends of some words, but the rules governing when to do this, if they exist, don’t seem sensible. The letter ť is very hard to pronounce. There are nasal vowels as in Portuguese. The ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, sz, cz, dz, , sounds are hard for foreigners to make. There are sounds that it is even hard for native speakers to make as they require a lot tongue movements. A word such as szczescie is hard to Polish L2 speakers to pronounce. Polish written to spoken pronunciation makes little sense, as in English – h and ch are one sound – h, ó and u are the same sound, and u may form diphthongs where it sounds like ł, so u and ł can be the same sound in some cases.

The confusing distinction between h/ch has gone of most spoken Polish. Furthermore, there is a language committee, but like the French one, it is more concerned with preserving the history or the etymology of the word and less with spelling the word phonemically. Language committees don’t always do their jobs!

Polish orthography, while being regular, is very complex. Polish uses a Latin alphabet unlike most other Slavic languages which use a Cyrillic alphabet. The letters are: A Ą B C Ć D E Ę F G H I J K L Ł M N Ń O Ó Q P R S T U V W X  Y Z Ź Ż. Even Poles say that their orthography is very complicated.

Polish is even complex in terms of pronunciation. There are apparently rules for regarding comma use, but the rules are so complex that even native speakers can’t make sense of them.

Further, native speakers speak so fast it’s hard for non-natives to understand them. Due to the consonant-ridden nature of Polish, it is harder to pronounce than most Asian languages. Listening comprehension is made difficult by all of the sh and ch like sounds. Furthermore, since few foreigners learn Polish, Poles are not used to hearing their language mangled by second-language learners. Therefore, foreigners’ Polish will seldom be understood.

Polish grammar is said to be more difficult than Russian grammar. Polish has the following:

There are five different tenses: zaprzeszły, przeszły, teraźniejszy, przyszły prosty, and przyszły złozony.

There are seven different genders: masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine, and neuter in the singular and animate and inanimate in the plural. However, masculine animate and masculine inanimate and the plural genders are only distinguished in accusative. Masculine animate, masculine inanimate and neuter genders have similar declensions; only feminine gender differs significantly.

Masculine nouns have five patterns of declension, and feminine and neuter nouns have six different patterns of declension. Adjectives have two different declension patterns. Numbers have five different declension patterns: główne, porządkowe, zbiorowe, nieokreślone, and ułamkowe. There is a special pattern for nouns that are only plural.

There are seven different cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, vocative. Only the genitive locative cases are irregular, the latter only in the singular. Verbs have nine different persons in their declensions: ja, ty, on, ona, ono, my, wy, oni, one. There are different conjugation patterns for men and women. There are 18 different conjugation patterns in the verb (11 main ones). There are five different polite forms: for a man, a woman, men, women and men and women combined.

There are four different participle forms, three of which inflect. Some of these are active and others are passive, but the whole system is incredibly complex. All of the participles decline like nouns, each gender adds its bit to each pattern which in turn change more according to tense.

Polish has seven cases, including the vocative which has gone out of most Slavic. The vocative is often said to be dying out, becoming less common or only used in formal situations, but the truth is that it is still commonly used.

In an informal situation, a Pole might be more like to use nominative rather than vocative:

Cześć Marek! (Nom.), rather than
Cześć Marku! (Voc.)

However, in a more formal situation, the vocative is still likely to be used:

Dzień dobry panie profesorze/doktorze! (Voc.). Dzień dobry pan profesor/doktor! (Nom.) would never be used, even in casual conversation.

Case declension is very irregular, unlike German. Polish consonant gradation is called oboczność (variation).

The genders of nouns cause the adjectives modifying them to inflect differently.

Noun
matka    mother (female gender)
ojciec   father (male gender)
dziecko  child (neuter gender)

Modifying Adjective
brzydkiugly ugly

Singular
brzydka matka     ugly mother
brzydki ojciec    ugly father
brzydkie dziecko  ugly child

Plural
brzydkie matki    ugly mothers
brzydcy ojcowie  ugly fathers
brzydkie dzieci   ugly children

Gender even effects verbs.

I ate (female speaker) Ja zjadłam
I ate (male speaker)   Ja zjadłem

There are two different forms of the verb kill depending on whether the 1st person singular and plural and 2nd person plural killers are males or females.

I killed     zabiłem/zabiłam
We killed    zabiliśmy/zabiłyśmy
They killed  zabili/zabiły

The perfective and imperfective tenses create a dense jungle of forms:

kupować - to buy

Singular  Simple Past         Imperfect
I (f.)    kupiłam             kupowałam
I (m.)    kupiłem             kupowałem
you (f.)  kupiłaś             kupowałaś
you (m.)  kupiłeś             kupowałeś
he        kupił               kupował
she       kupiła              kupowała
it        kupiło              kupowało

Plural
we (f.)   kupiłyśmy           kupowałyśmy
we (m.)   kupiliśmy           kupowaliśmy
you (f.)  kupiłyście          kupowałyście 
you (m.)  kupiliście          kupowaliście
they (f.) kupiły              kupowały
they (m.) kupili              kupowali

The verb above forms an incredible 28 different forms in the perfect and imperfect past tense alone.

The existence of the perfective and imperfective verbs themselves is the least of the problem. The problem is that each verb – perfective or imperfective – is in effect a separate verb altogether, instead of just being conjugated differently.

The verb to see has two completely different verbs in Polish:

widziec
zobaczyc

WidziałemI saw (repeatedly in the past, like I saw the sun come up every morning).
ZobaczyłemI saw (only once; I saw the sun come up yesterday).

Some of these verbs are obviously related to each other:

robić/zrobić
czytać
/przeczytać
zachowywać
/zachować
jeść
/zjeść

But others are very different:

mówić/powiedzieć
widzieć
/zobaczyć
kłaść
/położyć

This is not a tense difference – the very verbs themselves are different! So for every verb in the language, you effectively have to learn two different verbs. The irregular forms may date from archaic Polish.

In addition, the future perfect and future imperfect often conjugate completely differently, though the past forms usually conjugate in the same way – note the -em endings above. There is no present perfect as in English, since in Polish the action must be completed, and you can’t be doing something at this precise moment and at the same time have just finished doing it. 95% of verbs have these maddening dual forms, but for 5% of verbs that lack a perfective version, you only have one form.

It’s often said that one of the advantages of Polish is that there are only three tenses, but this is not really case, as there are at least eight tenses:

Indicative         grac       to play
Present            gram       I play 
Past               gralem     I played
Conditional        gralbym    I would play
Future             będę grać  I will play
Continuous future  będę grał  I will be playing
Perfective future  bogram     I will have played*
Perf. conditional  pogralbym  I would have played

*Implies you will finish the action

There is also an aspectual distinction made when referring to the past. Different forms are used based on whether or not the action has been completed.

Whereas in English we use one word for go no matter what mode of transportation we are using to get from one place to another, in Polish, you use different verbs if you are going by foot, by car, by plane, by boat or by other means of transportation.

In addition, there is an animate-inanimate distinction in gender. Look at the following nouns:

hat      kapelusz
computer komputer
dog      pies
student  uczen

All are masculine gender, but computer and hat are inanimate, and student and dog are animate, so they inflect differently.

I see a new hatWidze nowy kapelusz
I see a new student
Widze nowego ucznia

Notice how the now- form changed.

In addition to completely irregular verbs, there are also irregular nouns in Polish:

człowiek -> ludzie

Let us look at pronouns. English has one word for the genitive case of the 1st person singular – my. In Polish, depending on the context, you can have the following 11 forms, and actually there are even more than 11:

mój
moje
moja
moją
mojego
mojemu
mojej
moim
moi
moich
moimi

Numerals can be complex. English has one word for the number 2 – two. Polish has 21 words for two, and  all of them are in common use.

dwa (nominative non-masculine personal male and neuter and non-masculine personal accusative)
dwaj (masculine personal nominative)
dwie (nominative and accusative female)
dwóch (genitive, locative and masculine personal accusative)
dwom (dative)
dwóm (dative)
dwu (alternative version sometimes used for instrumental, genitive, locative and dative)
dwoma (masculine instrumental)
dwiema (female instrumental)
dwoje (collective, nominative + accusative)
dwojga (collective, genitive)
dwojgu (collective, dative + locative)
dwójka (noun, nominative)
dwójkę (noun, accusative)
dwójki (noun, genitive)
dwójce (noun, dative and locative)
dwójką (noun, instrumental)
dwójko (vocative)
dwojgiem (collective, instrumental)
dwójkach
dwójek
dwója
dwójkami

Polish also has the paucal form like Serbo-Croatian. It is the remains of the old dual. The paucal applies to impersonal masculine, feminine and neuter nouns but not to personal masculine nouns.

Personal Masculine

one boy     jeden chłopiec
two boys    dwóch chłopców
three boys  trzech chłopców
four boys   czterech chłopców
five boys   pięciu chłopców
six boys    sześciu chłopców
seven boys  siedmiu chłopców
eight boys  ośmiu chłopców

Impersonal Masculine

one dog     jeden pies
two dogs    dwa psy
three dogs  trzy psy
four dogs   cztery psy
five dogs   pięć psów
six dogs    sześć psów
seven dogs  siedem psów
eight dogs  osiem psów

In the above, two, three and four dogs is in the paucal (psy), while two, three or four men is not and is instead in the plural (chłopców)

A single noun can change in many ways and take many different forms. Compare przyjacielfriend

                             Singular         Plural
who is my friend             przyjaciel       przyjaciele
who is not my friend         przyjaciela      przyjaciół
friend who I give s.t. to    przyjacielowi    przyjaciołom
friend who I see             przyjaciela      przyjaciół
friend who I go with         z przyajcielem   z przyjaciółmi
friend who I dream of        o przyjacielu    o przyjaciołach
Oh my friend!                Przyajcielu!     Przyjaciele!

There are 12 different forms of the noun friend above.

Plurals change based on number. In English, the plural of telephone is telephones, whether you have two or 1,000 of them. In Polish, you use different words depending on how many telephones you have:

two, three or four telefony, but
five telefonów.

Sometimes, this radically changes the word, as in hands:

four ręce, but
five rąk.

There are also irregular diminutives such as

psiaczek  -> słoneczko

Polish seems like Lithuanian in the sense that almost every grammatical form seems to inflect in some way or other. Even conjunctions inflect in Polish.

In addition, like Serbo-Croatian, Polish can use multiple negation in a sentence. You can use up to five negatives in a perfectly grammatical sentence:

Nikt nikomu nigdy nic nie powiedział.
Nobody ever said anything to anyone
.

Like Russian, there are multiple different ways to say the same thing in Polish. However, the meaning changes subtly with these different word combinations, so you are not exactly saying the same thing with each change or word order. Nevertheless, this mess does not seem to be something that would be transparent to the Polish learner.

In English, you can say Ann has a cat, but you can’t mix the words up and mean the same thing. In Polish you can say Ann has a cat five different ways:

Ania ma kota.
Kota ma Ania.
Ma Ania kota.
Kota Ania ma.
Ma kota Ania.

The first one is the most common, but the other four can certainly be used. The truth that while the general meaning is the same in each sentence, the deep meaning changes with each sentence having a slightly different nuanced interpretation.

In addition, Polish has a wide variety of dialects, and a huge vocabulary. Although Polish grammar is said to be irregular, this is probably not true. It only gives the appearance of being irregular as there are so many different rules, but there is a method to the madness underneath it all. The rules themselves are so complex and numerous that it is hard to figure them all out.

Polish appears to be more difficult than Russian. For example, in Russian as in English, the 1st through 3rd person past tense forms are equivalent, whereas in Polish, they are each different:

          English   Russian     Polish

1st past  I went    ya pashou   ja poszedłem 
2nd past  you went  ty pashou   ty poszedłeś
3rd past  he went   on pashou   on poszedł

Even adult Poles make a lot of mistakes in speaking and writing Polish properly. However, most Poles are quite proud of their difficult language (though a few hate it) and even take pride in its difficult nature.

On the positive side, in Polish, the stress is fixed, there are no short or long vowels nor is there any vowel harmony, there are no tones and it uses a Latin alphabet.

Polish is one of the most difficult of the Slavic languages. Even Poles say it is very hard to learn. Most Poles do not learn to speak proper Polish until they are 16 years old! Although most Poles know how to speak proper Polish, they often use improper forms when speaking formally, not because they do not know how to speak correctly but simply because they feel like it.do

It is harder than Russian and probably also harder than Czech, though this is controversial. There is a lot of controversy regarding which is harder, Czech or Polish.

Polish gets a 5 rating, extremely difficult.

South Slavic
Eastern

It’s controversial whether Bulgarian is an easy or hard language to learn. The truth is that it may be the easiest Slavic language to learn, but all Slavic language  are hard. Though it is close to Russian, there are Russians who have been living there for 20 years and still can’t understand it well.

It has few cases compared to the rest of Slavic. There are three cases, but they are present only in pronouns. The only case in nouns is vocative. This is odd because most Slavic languages have either lost or are in the process of losing the vocative, and in Bulgarian it is the only case that has been retained. Compared to English, Bulgarian is well structured and straightforward with little irregularity. In addition, Bulgarian has more Romance (mostly French) and Greek borrowings than any other Slavic languages. Romance came in via the Vlahs who lived there before the Slavs moved in and Greek from the Byzantine period. In recent years, many English borrowings have also gone in.

Bulgarian has a suffixed general article that is not found in the rest of Slavic but is apparently an areal feature borrowed from Albanian. The stress rules are nightmarish, and it seems as if there are no rules.

Bulgarian has grammatical gender, with three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter. In addition, adjectives must agree with the gender of the noun they are modifying. In English, adjectives are invariable no matter what the noun is:

pretty man
pretty woman
pretty horse
pretty table

However, the Bulgarian alphabet is comparatively simple compared to other Slavic alphabets. Since 1945, it has only had 30 letters. Compare this to the 70 letters in Polish. There are only six vowels, and it has the easiest consonant clusters in Slavic. The orthography is very regular, with no odd spellings. The Cyrillic alphabet is different for those coming from a Latin alphabet and can present problems. For one thing, letters that look like English letters are pronounced in different ways:

В is pronounced v in Bulgarian
E is pronounced eh in Bulgarian
P is pronounced r in Bulgarian

There are a number of Bulgarian letters that look like nothing you have ever seen before: Ж, Я, Ь, Ю, Й, Щ, Ш, and Ч. Bulgarian handwriting varies to a great degree and the various styles are often difficult to map back onto the typewritten letters that they represent.

While Bulgarian has the advantage of lacking much case, Bulgarian verbs are quite complex even compared to other Slavic languages. Each Bulgarian verb can have up to 3,000 forms as it changes across person, number, voice, aspect, mood, tense and gender. Bulgarian has two aspects (perfect and imperfect), voice, nine tenses, five moods and six non infinitival verbal forms.

For instance, each verb has at two aspects – simple and continuous – for each of the tenses, which are formed in different ways. Onto this they add a variety of derivatives such as prefixes, suffixes, etc. that change the meaning in subtle ways:

Aorist or Perfect:

да прочитамto read in whole a single text/book/etc (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)
да изчитам – to read every book there is on the subject (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)
да дочетаto finish reading something (viewed as fact, that is the duration of the action does not interest us)

Continuous or Imperfect:

да четаto be reading (viewed as an action in progress)
да прочитамto read in whole a single text/book/etc (viewed as an action in progress)
да изчитамto read every book there is on the subject (viewed as an action in progress)

Mood is very complicated. There are different ways to say the same idea depending on how you know of the event. If you know about it historically, you mark the sentence with a particular mood. If you doubt the event, you mark with another mood.

If you know it historically but doubt it, you use yet another mood. And there are more than that. These forms were apparently borrowed from Turkish. These forms are rare in world languages. One is Yamana, a Patagonian language that has only one speaker left.

In Bulgarian, you always know if something is a noun, a verb or an adjective due to its marking. You will never have the same word as an adjective, noun and verb. In English, you can have words that act as verbs, adjectives and nouns.

Let’s dance!
Let’s go to the dance.
Let’s go to dance lessons.

Bulgarian is probably the easiest Slavic language to learn.

Bulgarian gets a 3.5 rating, above average difficulty.

Macedonian is very close to Bulgarian, and some say it is a dialect of Bulgarian. However, I believe that is a separate language closely related to Bulgarian. Macedonian is said the be the easiest Slavic language to learn, easier than Bulgarian. This is because it is easier to pronounce than Bulgarian. Like Bulgarian, Macedonian has lost most all of its case. But there are very few language learning materials for Macedonian.

Macedonian gets a 3.5 rating, above average difficulty.

Western

Serbo-Croatian, similar to Czech, has seven cases in the singular and seven in the plural, plus there are several different declensions. The vocative is still going strong in Serbo-Croatian (S-C), as in Polish, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. There 15 different types of declensions: seven tenses, three genders, three genres or moods, and two aspects. Whereas English has one word for the number 2 – two, Serbo-Croatian has 17 words or forms.

Case abbreviations below:
N = NAV – nominative, accusative, vocative
G = Genitive
D = Dative
L =Locative
I = Instrumental

Masculine inanimate gender
N dva
G dvaju
D L I dvama

Feminine gender
N dve
G dveju
D L I dvema

Mixed gender
N dvoje
G dvoga
D L I dvoma

Masculine animate gender
N dvojica
G dvojice
D L dvojici
I dvojicom

“Twosome”
N dvojka
G dvojke
D L dvojci
I dvojkom

The grammar is incredibly complex. There are imperfective and perfective verbs, but when you try to figure out how to build one from the other, it seems irregular. This is the hardest part of Serbo-Croatian grammar, and foreigners not familiar with other Slavic tongues usually never get it right.

Serbian has a strange form called the “paucal.” It is the remains of the old dual, and it also exists in Polish and Russian.  The paucal is a verbal number like singular, plural and dual. It is used with the numbers dva (2), tri (3), četiri (4) and oba/obadva (both) and also with any number that contains 2, 3 or 4 (22, 102, 1032).

gledalac            viewer
pažljiv(i)          careful
gledalac pažljiv(i) careful viewer

1 careful viewer  jedan pažljivi gledalac 
2 careful viewers dva pažljiva gledaoca   
3 careful viewers tri pažljiva gledaoca   
5 careful viewers pet pažljivih gledalaca

Above, pažljivi gledalac is singular, pažljivih gledalaca is plural and pažljiva gledaoca is paucal.

As in English, there are many different ways to say the same thing. Pronouns are so rarely used that some learners are surprised that they exist, since pronimalization is marked on the verb as person and number. Word order is almost free or at least seems arbitrary, similar to Russian.

Serbo-Croatian, like Lithuanian, has pitch accent – low-rising, low-falling, short-rising and short-falling. It’s not the same as tone, but it’s similar. In addition to the pitch accent differentiating words, you also have an accented syllable somewhere in the word, which as in English, is unmarked. And when the word conjugates or declines, the pitch accent can jump around in the word to another syllable and even changes its type in ways that do not seem transparent. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get this pitch-accent right.

The “hard” ch sound is written č, while the “soft” ch sound is written ć. It has syllabic r and l. Long consonant clusters are permitted. See this sentence:

Na vrh brda vrba mrda.

However, in many of these consonant clusters, a schwa is present between consonants in speech, though it is not written out.

S-C, like Russian, has words that consist of only a single consonant:

swith

Serbo-Croatian does benefit from a phonetic orthography.

It is said that few if any foreigners ever master Serbo-Croatian well. Similar to Czech and Polish, it is said that many native speakers make mistakes in S-C even after decades of speaking it, especially in pitch accent.

Serbo-Croatian is often considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. It is harder than Russian but not as hard as Polish.

Serbo-Croatian gets a 4.5 rating, very difficult.

Slovenian or Slovene is also a very hard language to learn, probably on a par with Serbo-Croatian. It has three number distinctions, singular, dual and plural. It’s the only major IE European language that has retained the dual. Sorbian has also retained the dual, but it is a minor tongue. However, the dual may be going out in Slovenia. In Primorska it is not used at all, and in the rest of Slovenia, the feminine dual is not used in casual speech (plural is used instead), but the masculine dual is still used for masculine nouns and mixed pairs of masculine and feminine nouns.

In addition, there are six cases, as Slovene has lost the vocative. There are 18 different declensions of the word son, but five of them are identical, so there are really only 13 different forms.

   Singular Dual       Plural 
1. Sin      Sina       Sini
2. Sina     Sinov      Sinov
3. Sinu     Sinovoma   Sinovom
4. Sina     Sinova     Sinove
5. O sinu   O sinovoma O sinovih
6. S sinom  Z sinovoma Z sini

There are seven different ways that nouns decline depending on gender, but there are exceptions to all of the gender rules. The use of particles such as pa is largely idiomatic. In addition, there is a lack of language learning materials for Slovene.

Some sounds are problematic. Learners have a hard time with the č and ž sounds. There are also “open” and “closed” vowels as in Portuguese.

Here is an example of a word that can be difficult to pronounce:

križiščecrossroads

However, Slovene has the past perfect that is the same as the English tense, lost in the rest of Slavic. In addition, via contact with German and Italian, many Germanic and Romance loans have gone in. If you know some German and have some knowledge of another Slavic language, Slovene is not overwhelmingly difficult.

Some people worry that Slovene might go extinct in the near future, as it is spoken by only 2 million people. However, even this small language has 356, 881 headwords in an online dictionary. So it is clear that Slovene has plenty enough vocabulary to deal with the modern world.

Slovene is easier than Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Czech or Slovak.

Slovenian gets a 4 rating, very hard.

Baltic

Eastern Baltic

Lithuanian, an archaic Indo-European Baltic tongue, is extremely difficult to learn. There are many dialects, which is interesting for such a small country, and the grammar is very difficult, with many rules. There is grammatical gender for nouns, and in addition, even numerals have gender in all cases. The language is heavily inflectional such that you can almost speak without using prepositions.

A single verb has 16 participial forms, and that is just using masculine gender for the participles. You can also add feminine forms to that verb. There are two main genders or giminės, masculine and feminine, but there is also neutral gender (bevardė giminė), which has three different forms. Verbs further decline via number (singular, dual and plural) and six different cases. There are five classes of verbs and six modes of declension for nouns (linksniai). However, Lithuanian verb tense is quite regular. You only need to remember infinitive, 3rd person present and 3rd person past, and after that, all of the conjugations are regular.

Here is an example of the Lithuanian verb:

Eiti – “to go. Ei is the verb root, and ti is in infinitival suffix.

Verbs decline according to:

Person and number
1st singular einu   I go  
3rd dual     einava we two go
1st plural   einame we go

The four tenses

2nd pl. past       Ėjote    you (guys) went
2 sing. imperfect  eidavote you used to go
2 sing. indicative einate   you go
2 sing. future     eisite   you will go

They also change according to something called “participants.” The participant paradigm has three tenses and all three genders. Participants are further divided into direct and indirect.

Regular direct participant (3 tenses, 3 genders)

Male
Ėjęs   while he himself went
einąs  while he himself is going
eisiąs while he himself will be going

Female
Ėjusi  while she herself went

Neuter
buvo einama while it itself went
einama      while it itself was going
bus einama  while it itself will be going

Regular indirect participant (3 tenses, 3 genders)

Male
past    eidytas     one that was forced to go
present eidomas     one that is being forced to go
future  bus eidomas one that will be forced to go

Semi participant (no tenses, 2 genders)

Male
eidamas while going himself

Female
eidama  while going herself

Active participant (2 tenses, no genders)

past    Ėjus   while going (in the past)
present einant while going now

2nd infinitive or budinys (no tenses)

eite in a way of going

Plusquamperfect (be + regular participants)

Paradigm
indicative būti   to have been gone
present    yra    has been gone
past       buvo   had been gone 
imperfect  būdavo used to have been gone 
future     bus    will have been gone

past 3pl   buvo ėję they had been gone 

Additional moods 

Imperative (all persons) 

Eik!             Go! 
Eikime!          Let's go! 
Teeina/Lai eina! Let him/her go! 

Subjunctive (all persons) 
eičiau I would go 
eitum  thou would go

In addition, while most verb marking is done via suffixes, Lithuanian can make aspect via both suffixes and prefixes, bizarrely enough (Arkadiev 2011).

Determining whether a noun is masculine or feminine is easier than in German where you often have to memorize which noun takes which gender. Lithuanian is similar to Spanish in that the ending will often give you a hint about which gender the noun takes.

Here is an example of the sort of convolutions you have to go through to attach the adjective good to a noun.

geras - good

             Masculine          Feminine

             Singular  Plural   Singular  Plural
Nominative   geras     geri     gera      geros
Genitive     gero      gerų     geros     gerų
Dative       geram     geriems  gerai     geroms
Accusative   gerą      gerus    gerą      geras
Instrumental geru      gerais   gera      geromis
Locative     gerame    geruose  geroje    gerose

The noun system in general of Lithuanian is probably more complicated even than the complex Russian noun system. Lithuanian is possibly more irregular and may have more declensions than even Polish. Learners often feel that the grammar is illogical.

Furthermore, while it does not have lexical tone per se, it does have pitch accent – there are three different pitches or degrees (laipsniai), which sound like tones but are not tones. Stress is hardly predictable and nearly needs to be learned word by word. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get the accent right, and the accents tend to move around a lot across words during declension/conjugation such that the rules are opaque if they exist at all. It was formerly thought to be nearly random, but it has now been found that Lithuanian stress actually falls into four paradigms, so there is a system there after all.

You cannot really forget about lexical tone when learning Lithuanian, as stress is as fundamental to Lithuanian as tone is to Mandarin.

Often you need a dictionary to figure out where the accent should be on a word. Lithuanian pronunciation is also difficult. For example, look at rimti (to get calm) and rimti (serious – plural, masculine, nominative). There is a short i sound that is the same in both words, but the only difference is where the stress or pitch accent goes. Consonants undergo some complicated changes due to palatalization. Lithuanian has soft and hard (palatalized and nonpalatalized) consonants as in Russian.

Try these words and phrases:

šalna
šąla šiandien
ačiū už skanią vakarienę
pasikiškiakopūsteliaudamasis
ūkis
malūnas
čežėti šiauduose

Or this paragraph:

Labas, kaip šiandien sekasi? Aš esu iš Lietuvos, kur gyvenu visą savo gyvenimą. Lietuvių kalba yra sunkiausia iš visų pasaulyje. Ačiū už dėmesį.

Lithuanian is an archaic IE language that has preserved a lot of forms that the others have lost.

In spite of all of that, picking up the basics of Lithuanian may be easier than it seems, and while foreigners usually never get the pitch-accent down, the actual rules are fairly sensible. Nevertheless, many learners never figure out these rules and to them, there seem to be no rules for pitch accent.

Learning Lithuanian is similar to learning Latin. If you’ve been able to learn Latin, Lithuanian should not be too hard. Also, Lithuanian is very phonetic; words are pronounced how they are spelled.

Some languages that are similar to English, like Norwegian and Dutch, can be learned to a certain extent simply by learning words and ignoring grammar. I know Spanish and have been able to learn a fair amount of Portuguese, French and Italian without learning a bit of grammar in any of them.

Lithuanian won’t work that way because due to case, base words change form all the time, so it will seem like you are always running into new words, when it fact it’s the same base word declining in various case forms. There’s no shortcut with Latin and Lithuanian. You need to learn the case grammar first, or little of it will make sense.

Some say that Lithuanian is even harder to learn than the hardest Slavic languages like Polish and Czech. It may be true.

Lithuanian gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

Latvian is another Baltic language that is somewhat similar to Lithuanian. It’s also hard to learn. Try this:

Sveiki, esmu no Latvijas, un mūsu valoda ir skanīga, skaista un ar ļoti sarežģītu gramatisko sistēmu.

Latvian and Lithuanian are definitely harder to learn than Russian. They both have aspects like in Russian but have more cases than Russian, plus a lot more irregular verbs. Latvian, like Lithuanian, has a tremendous amount of inflection. The long vowels can be hard to pronounce.

Latvian is easier to learn than Lithuanian. The grammar is easier to figure out and the phonological system is much easier. Also, Latvian has lost many archaic IE features that Lithuanian has retained. Latvian has regular stress, always on the first syllable, as opposed to Lithuanian’s truly insane stress system. Latvian has fewer noun declensions, and fewer difficult consonant clusters.

Latvian gets a 4.5 rating, very hard.

References

Arkadiev, Peter. 2011. On the Aspectual Uses of the Prefix Be- in Lithuanian.
Baltic Linguistics 2:37-78.
Seymour, Philip H. K.; Aro, Mikko; Erskine, Jane M. and the COST Action A8 Network. 2003. Foundation Literacy Acquisition in European Orthographies. British Journal of Psychology 94:143–174.

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