Do you laugh in the face of a 1,000-piece puzzle?
Do you crush your New Year’s resolutions by February?
Do you think instruction manuals are for sissies?
If you’re the type of person who laughs when they hear something is “difficult” then learning a challenging language is right up your alley.
Some languages are simply more difficult to learn than others.
If you’re studying (or plan to study) a challenging language, then you’ll want to know what kinds of obstacles you might come across. Put more plainly:
What makes learning these languages so hard?
We’ve examined some of the hardest languages to learn in the world, and have come up with a list of four characteristics shared by most of these languages.
Study these shared characteristics before you study a hard language and you’ll find it easier to overcome the obstacles before you!
Why Learn a Difficult Language
Why would anyone venture to learn a language that’s considered hard? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Here are some reasons these languages are worth the effort:
- Global communication. We live in a time when we can communicate with almost anyone in any part of the world, and while there are some languages that are spoken more than others, they won’t always be enough. Sometimes business or social issues press us into other areas of the globe. English, for instance, is spoken and taught globally but we can’t and shouldn’t always rely on just one language to communicate.
- Job opportunities. Whether it’s for international business or the Peace Corps, you could potentially find yourself in a situation where knowing a more exotic language is advantageous. Even if you never get to use the language, some employers hold high esteem for people who have a wider view of the world and experience with different types of people.
- Travel. The world is much bigger than your backyard. Traveling’s easy if you have a map and a guide and even easier if you can communicate with the locals.
- Diversity! Language is a living thing. Just like the plants and animals we share the planet with, languages can go extinct. No one really speaks Latin anymore, for example, and yet it’s been a basis for many European languages. To keep our diverse range of languages alive, it’s important to learn and use these languages.
Some of the Hardest Languages to Learn
Every continent (except maybe Antarctica) has certain languages that are tougher to learn than others. These languages are as diverse and varied as the people who speak them. Here’s a list of some of the hardest languages to learn:
- Asia: Tagalog (Philippines), Indonesian (Indonesian archipelago), Urdu (India and Pakistan), Korean (North and South Korea), Chinese (China)
- Africa: Afrikaans (South Africa), Arabic (across the Middle East and Africa)
- Europe: Welsh (Wales), Hungarian (Hungary), Gaelic (Scotland), Icelandic (Iceland), Norwegian (Norway)
- Native/Indigenous: Navajo (Southwestern US), Sami (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia)
So why are these languages more difficult to learn? Here are some of their characteristics and challenges.
4 Characteristics of the Hardest Languages to Learn
All language learning takes time and dedication. But some languages require more effort to learn than others. What makes these particular languages so difficult to learn? Here are four factors that contribute to the increased difficulty.
Many of the hardest languages to learn have dialects that make studying them a challenge. These dialects vary from having alternate pronunciations to using completely different words.
For example, Mandarin Chinese is spoken in multiple counties within China. However, within each individual county the language differs, sometimes marginally and sometimes by a lot.
Another example is Norwegian. While the entire country speaks one language, the way Norwegians speak and write in the northern part of the country varies distinctly from the way they speak in the rest of the country. The northern dialect is called “nynorsk,” and something as simple as the word “milk” has two completely different spellings and pronunciations depending on where you are in the country.
2. Limited Availability of Resources
Some languages aren’t even written down, only spoken. It seems wild to consider that in some places written language doesn’t exist, but it’s true. The idea of writing down language is not as ancient as it seems and only came about during the rise of civilizations around the world.
As a result, if a language is not widely used (and especially if it’s strictly oral) there may be a lack of interest or great difficulty in creating resources for it. This means you might have trouble finding dictionaries, courses, textbooks, teachers and other critical tools for learning a new language. Unless you’re dedicated enough to travel to the place where the language is spoken, things could get tricky.
For example, Native American languages historically were only spoken languages, not written ones. As such, it’s been difficult to teach native languages to the next generation and other people because of the lack of written language resources.
This is also true for the Sami languages in Scandinavia. And sadly, these indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing if no further effort goes into preserving them.
3. Smaller Population of Living Native Speakers
A dead language is a language that’s no longer spoken today. Latin is the best example of a dead language: Even though Latin was a base language for many of the Romantic languages, it no longer has any living native speakers. Yes, you can learn Latin at school or through an online program, but few people speak it conversationally or use it in their everyday life.
Many indigenous languages are considered dead languages today, or are on their way to becoming dead languages because so few living people speak them.
For example, at one point there were 12 or more Sami languages spoken across Nordic Europe. Now only nine remain.
Even if a language isn’t in danger of becoming a dead language, having a smaller population of speakers can make it difficult to learn. For example, Faroese and Icelandic are spoken pretty much exclusively by their island inhabitants. That’s because these places are fairly isolated, despite modern technology. Similarly, languages spoken by isolated groups of people in Africa are harder to learn.
4. Location on the Language Family Tree
Languages belong in language families based on how they relate to each other. These families can include a wide range of languages that stem from one source, spoken back before humans migrated all over the globe. Together, these families form what’s called the “language tree.” However, there isn’t one definitive language that all humans once spoke. All over the world, various groups of humans developed languages that sounded and were structured differently. This is why Norwegian is so different from, say, Thai.
For instance, native English speakers typically have a more difficult time learning Asian languages and vice versa. Because Asian languages are not related to Germanic languages (which is where English originated), they’re more difficult for the corresponding speakers to master. Distance on the family tree leads to widely differing sounds, grammar structure and syntax, word endings, verb conjugation and so on.
It should be noted that some languages are simply innately more difficult for certain people to learn, requiring more effort in making the mouth and vocal cords produce the necessary sounds (i.e. pronunciation).
Whatever challenges you might face, don’t let the difficulty of a language deter you from pursuing it. Anything can be learned if you put enough effort into it. There are many strategies to learning a language that’ll make it easier for you, no matter which language you choose!
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