I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Defining the difficulty of learning another language requires a point of reference. Most English-speakers have trouble mastering Mandarin and other Chinese tongues.
Similarly, an Arab is likely to find German or Swedish tricky. But a French-speaker should be able to pick up Italian fairly easily because they both have Latin roots.
The People’s Daily in China nominates French as a hard language to learn and says Danish is close in difficulty: “The sound system of Danish is in many ways unusual among the world’s languages, which makes it one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, as the spoken language usually does not sound anything like its written version.”
The Peculiarities of English
Try explaining to a Hindi speaker why it’s possible to pronounce the “ough” combination nine different ways as in: “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed, and hiccoughed.” And, in not one of those “ough” words is there a hard “g” sound.
The word “ghoti” is often cited to highlight some of the absurdities of English spelling. The word can quite legitimately be pronounced “fish;” the “gh” coming from laugh or cough; the “o” from women; and the “ti” from nation or mention.
This construction is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who was a strong supporter of attempts to reform English spelling. However, linguist Benjamin Zimmer has tracked down a reference to the word that predates Shaw.
Richard Lederer, author of the book Crazy English, points out many of the problems non-English speakers are likely to have with the language: “How is it,” he asks, “that your nose can run and your feet can smell?”
The folks at Teaching English Overseas point to several contranyms―words that can mean the opposite of themselves:
- “Bound (Moving towards―‘London bound’)
- “Bound (Unable to move―‘Bound by chains’)
- “Buckle (To hold together―‘Buckle your shoes’)
- “Buckle (Fall apart―‘Buckled under the weight’)
- “Clip (Attach to―‘Clip on your tie’)
- “Clip (Cut off from ―‘Clip your nails’).”
Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary has 192 definitions for the word “set.”
While quirks such as these can be found by the thousand, English is apparently not one of the most difficult languages to master.
Difficulty for Native English Speakers
From an English perspective some of the most difficult languages to tackle are Asian.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) teaches languages to U.S. State Department diplomats; it rates the most difficult tongues for Americans to get to grips with are Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Arabic.
This assessment is confirmed by How-to-Learn-a-Language.com. It also rates the five on FSI’s list as the most difficult for English speakers and adds several central and eastern European languages―Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and Bulgarian―as close runners-up.
And, everybody who is not from southern Africa will have trouble with the “click” sound that is part of the Xhosa language that was made famous by Miriam Makeba in her Click Song in the 1960s.
Vowels and Consonants Can Get Complicated
Again, English is one of the easier languages with its five vowels (six if y is counted) and 20 consonants.
Vowel-rich languages, such as the Chinese family, use tones to create numerous vowel sounds. There are four tones in Mandarin, so the word “he” means “to drink” if spoken in a high level tone, but it means “river” if a rising tone is used. Using the wrong tone on a word can cause the unwary to turn a compliment into an insult.
Ubykh was spoken on the eastern end of the Black Sea around Sochi. This language had a bewildering 78 consonant sounds, many of which a native-English speaker would have a very hard time conquering. However, that’s not likely to be a problem as, according to omniglot.com the last fluent speaker of Ubykh died in 1992.
The Tangled English Tongue
The lingua franca of social media causes frustration for people of a certain age but so can plain old English.
The travel writer and humourist Bill Bryson has observed that “English grammar is so complex and confusing for the one very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common.”
He might have added that English spelling is equally baffling and the rules and exceptions to rules might, in fact, be quite unnecessary. Few English speakers will have trouble reading and understanding the following sentence from Teaching English Overseas:
“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch procejt at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosnt mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter.”
Which is the Hardest Language?
Setting aside the language that allows a wise guy and a wise man to be complete opposites, there are plenty of contenders for the most difficult language.
After a careful study of the subject, The Economist picked a couple of very difficult tongues to speak which, like Ubykh, are obscure.
!Xóo is spoken by only a few thousand people in Botswana, southwest Africa. The Economist describes it as having “a blistering array of unusual sounds.” It takes the Xhosa click to a whole new level with “five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones.”
However, the British magazine has chosen a language from the eastern Amazon, called Tuyuca, as the world’s most difficult.
Tuyuca is spoken by only about 800 people. It is what’s known as an SOV (subject, object, verb language), so an English sentence would read, “George dinner cooked.”
Then Tuyuca gets tricky through agglutination, which is the squeezing together of small units of language into a single word; an English example of an agglutinated word is antidisestablishmentarianism. After that, comes the postpositional factor that means using modifying elements after a word―governor general in English.
But, the Tuyuca language has many more pitfalls waiting for those brave enough to tackle it; it is tonal with a nasal element. That said, it’s unlikely the average person needs to learn to speak it unless she or he wants to know where piranha are lurking.
More English Oddities
But, can any other language match English for its contradictions, exceptions, and absurdities?
- Doesn’t a non-stop flight mean you’ll never arrive at your destination?
- If a teacher has taught, shouldn’t a preacher have praught?
- Why do we put on our shoes and socks? Isn’t that the wrong order?
- Same with falling head over heels; isn’t that how we are when standing?
- In a North American theatre we sit in “orchestra” seats but we’re not with the musicians.
- In Britain, the same seats are called the “stalls” but the audience is not with the horses, and stalls are where Americans go during the intermission.
- If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?
- Why are a slim chance and a fat chance the same thing?
- First we chop down a tree and then we chop it up.
And, as G.K. Chesterton noted “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”
Our Strange Lingo
The following poem is attributed to the British statesman and diplomat Lord Cromer; it first appeared in The Spectator in 1902.
When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose, and lose
And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food, and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone -
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.
A Clever Young Woman Displays Amazing Skill at Mimicking Languages
- The Ewok language spoken by fictional characters in The Star Wars movies is a combination of Tibetan and Nepali.
- The Guinness Book of World Records tells us that NIIOMTPLABOPARMBETZHELBETRABSBOMONIMONKONOTDTEKHSTROMONT is the world’s longest acronym. The 56-letter mouthful stands for “The laboratory for shuttering, reinforcement, concrete and ferroconcrete operations for composite-monolithic and monolithic constructions of the Department of the Technology of Building-assembly operations of the Scientific Research Institute of the Organization for building mechanization and technical aid of the Academy of Building and Architecture of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” The Cyrillic version is a modest 54 characters in length Нииомтплабопармбетжелбетрабсбомонимонконотдтехстромонт.
- From 1969 to 2011 the dictator of Libya was Muammar Gaddafi, or was it Moamar el Kadhafi, or Mu’ammar al Qaddafi? According to ABC News “… the Library of Congress lists 72 alternate spellings, and The New York Times, Associated Press, and Xinhua News sources used 40 additional spellings between 1998 and 2008.” You’d have thought that a man who liked to throw his weight about could have got everybody to spell his name one way.
- “Top 10 Hardest Languages to Learn.” Wang Yanfang, The People’s Daily, September 13, 2013.
- “ ‘Ghoti’ Before Shaw.” Ben Zimmer, Language Log, April 23, 2008.
- “The Crazy World of English Grammar.” Andrew P, Teaching English Overseas, July 14, 2011.
- “Ubykh.” Omniglot.com, undated.
- “Crazy English.” Richard Lederer, Pocketbooks, 1989.
- “Tongue Twisters.” The Economist, December 17, 2009.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Adam on April 04, 2019:
English has more than five vowels, more than ten depending on the dialect. I understand that people, including English speakers, tend to use the word vowel for the letter, but it really means the sound, especially if you compare with Asian languages that don't use alphabets!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 17, 2017:
Very interesting! Learning a language is a great for someone who seriously wants to exercise the brain cells. Good read.
WheelScene from U.S.A. on September 14, 2017:
This is a great read! There are many complexities and oddities in the English language. Think about how much slang is developed through social media and the internet! It would be hard for someone learning English to keep up!
Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on September 14, 2017:
This article is packed full of thought-provoking statements and it's given me many things to consider. I had previously though English was a difficult language to learn; especially since many people who immigrate to English speaking nations seem to have a hard time grasping it. Your analysis has shown me the world of language on a much larger canvas. Thanks for sharing!