Friday, March 09, 2012

The Top Five Hardest Languages to Learn

I was surfing the Web the other day when I stumbled upon this article on, which (naturally) got my linguistic antennae quivering: The Top 5 Hardest Languages to Learn (you may have to load it a few times to get past all the annoying, difficult to shut down pop-up ads and videos).

According to the article, the most difficult languages to learn - particularly for an English speaker - are:

1. Arabic;
2. Chinese;
3. Japanese;
4. Korean; and,
5. Hungarian

The presence of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean on the list don't surprise me, as they all use ideographic alphabets built on thousands of characters which convey meaning, rather than traditional alphabetic letters, which represent sounds. They are also tonal languages, in which changes in the vocal delivery (tonal quality) of individual words can give several different meanings to words with identical spellings. In addition, Korean features a different system of sentence structure than most of us are used to, odd syntax, and difficult verb conjugations.

Arabic is at the top of the list because of its radically different writing system which uses fewer vowels than European languages, making it difficult to read. It also has very few words which resemble those of European languages, and a difficult system of pronunciation. The difficulty of the language is an advantage to those who rely on the inability of most people to translate and interpret the classical Arabic of the Koran to advance their own interpretations.

Hungarian is in a world by itself, unrelated to just about anything except ... ready? ... Finnish. It's a so-called "finno-ugric" language, with a bizarrely twisted grammar and a difficult system of pronunciation.

There are a few languages I'm surprised didn't make the list:

The Language of Economics - if you ever tried to figure out what Alan Greenspan was talking about in any speech he ever delivered while he was the Fed Chairman, you'll know what I mean. Economists have their own system of communication which is utterly incomprehensible to Real People, and thus allows them to pontificate at great length without being understood, thus enabling them to be able to say "I told you so!" no matter what happens in the economy.

The Language of Politics - this one is especially difficult because it relies so much on the deliberate distortion of fact and reality, and because it is often spoken not in complete sentences but in short, staccato slogans designed to fit on bumper stickers and be remembered by individuals with limited education and short attention spans. In addition, the language of politics is complicated by the proliferation of completely unrelated and mutually unintelligible dialects, such as:

Libertarian (recognizes no grammatical rules);

Tea Party Republican (a slogan-based dialect generally shouted at high volume);

Reagan Republican (the word taxonomy or any variation thereof cannot be used in analyzing its grammar);

Conservative Republican (widely spoken, if not completely understood, in Middle America);

Moderate Republican (virtually extinct);

NRA-ish (used by those who are fond of shooting off their mouths);

Far-Left Democratic (similar in structure and volume to Tea Party Republican);

Moderate Democratic (also virtually extinct);

Ivory-Tower Academic Democratic (based on willful ignorance of grammatical and other reality); and,

Liberal Democratic (widely spoken in California and the Northeast, but unintelligible in most other locations, particularly Texas, Idaho, Montana, and the Deep South).

And don't get me started on The Language of Advertising ...

I hope this helps. You'll get lots of lessons in the political dialects between now and November. I recommend investing in a good set of noise-reducing headphones.

Have a good day. Be here tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.

More thoughts then.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

I wish I could hide under a rock until after the elections. These clowns scare the hell out of me

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Very informative and entertaining, Bilbo. As for the easiest second languages to learn, my guess would be those in the Romance languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Portugeuse, Catalan, and Romanian.

There's also P.C. Pastois and Administrativese. And the jargons of various occupations.

Amanda said...

Ever since my one and only crochet project so far, I've been of the mindset that crochet and knitting pattern instructions are in a language other than English.

Mike said...

"finno-ugric" sounds like the last few panic trips to the bathroom at the end of a stomach flu day.

dino lingo said...

Very insightful. One question: is it because Arabic is the toughest or its at the top becuase alphabetically it comes first. This is the only post that I encountered puts Arabic in front of others. Interestingly, I just wrote a blog about this topic

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

hey I'm not extinct!


The Bastard King of England said...

I read where Navajo was another exceptionally hard language to learn.

Bilbo said...

Andrea - save space under that rock for me!

Angelique - the Romance languages tend to be easier for us to learn because they have more in common with English. And there's a lot of good blogging material to be mined in the jargon of various occupations and hobbies!

Amanda - I've seen the knitting instructions for some of Agnes's projects, and you are right! They seem to be written by the same people who write instruction manuals for consumer electronics...

Mike - I think it sounds more like something you'd take to prevent those trips.

Dino - interesting question. It may have been at the top because of alphabetic arrangement, but nevertheless Arabic is a devilishly difficult language because of its very different alphabet, the glottal sounds that are not easy for English speakers to reproduce, and its lack of commonality of vocabulary with most European languages. At the very least, it's on a par with the others on the list.

Peg - no, you're not extinct (thank goodness)... and we need to keep you around as long as possible.

King - Navajo is quite difficult (and relatively rarely spoken), too, which is why it was used during World War II by the famous "Code Talkers" to confuse Japanese listeners.

Duckbutt said...

With regard to the language of advertising, there are such abominations as "preowned," "run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it," and "supersize."