What is the hardest language for English speakers?

Access is important. Are there materials online, or do you have to raft down the Maici River in Brazil hoping someone will teach you Pirahã?


What is the hardest language to learn for native English speakers? Several factors determine whether languages are easier or more difficult to acquire – phonology (its sounds), grammar, writing systems – so the answer depends in part on what a learner’s purpose is. If you want to speak to people on the street but not read or write, the answer might be different than if you want to pore over works of literature, dictionary in hand, but never talk to anyone.  

It also depends on how easy it is to access the language. Are there lots of good instructional materials online, or do you have to raft down the Maici River in Brazil and hope someone will teach you Pirahã, as linguist Daniel Everett did? Do native speakers have experience with foreigners trying to use it? English speakers will likely lend an understanding ear when an Italian person rolls the r in procession, for example, or a Japanese person doesn’t put articles in front of nouns; we’ll still get it. But in some cultures, people rarely encounter adult language-learners. When I taught English in Korea 25 years ago, few people had had much exposure to foreigners attempting their language, and they often couldn’t make the leap from my appalling pronunciation to what I was trying to say.

When languages are phonologically similar – when they share some of the same sounds – they are easier to learn, and in my defense, Korean pronunciation is difficult for native English speakers. It has several consonants that I simply couldn’t hear, let alone articulate. Other languages are even more phonologically challenging. While English is often considered to have 24 consonant sounds and 20 vowels, Ubykh, which was once spoken near Sochi, Russia, has 84 consonant phonemes and two or three vowels. Some linguists have estimated that !Xóõ, a click language spoken in Botswana, has 160 phonemes.  

English speakers are at least familiar with consonants and vowels, but some languages use tones to distinguish words, too. In Mandarin, ma means mother, just as it does in English, but only “if you say ma on a high pitch, as if you were singing the first syllable of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” according to linguist John McWhorter. If the tone starts low and goes high, like a question, ma means “hemp”; if it dips and goes back up, it’s “horse”; and if the tone falls, ma means “scold.” Mandarin, however, can’t compare with Chicahuaxtla Triqui, from Oaxaca, Mexico, which has perhaps as many as 16 tones, and Wobé, spoken in Ivory Coast, with as many as 14.

We’ve already got some good candidates for “hardest language,” but in next week's column we’ll add grammar and writing to the mix.     

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