Learning any new language is difficult. However, some languages are MUCH MORE difficult than others, depending on your native language. A Spanish speaker will have an easier time speaking Italian than someone who speaks Hindi. A Klingon will have an easier time learning Kryptonian than learning Welsh. That’s (duh) because there are similarities in languages families and it’s easier to learn languages that are in the same family. So, if you (English Speaker) want to learn Spanish or German, that’s no big deal, the languages are pretty similar. However, if you’re up for a real challenge, there are languages completely unrelated to English that are fiendishly difficult for an English speaker to learn, for reasons you wouldn’t expect
Hint—Pig Latin is not on the list
Spoken by 280,000,000 people in 26 different countries, including Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq, Israel, Syria, and Somalia; Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world. If you want to see the pyramids, religious historical relics, or a war zone, this is a good language to know.
What makes Arabic simple:
It uses an alphabetic system.
There are lots of classes you can take and textbooks you can use.
What makes Arabic migraine-inducing-ly difficult:
First, even though it uses an alphabet of only 28 letters, the letters have four different forms, depending on where they land in the sentence.
Ls, mst f th tm thy dnt ncld vwls n wrtng. Bcs fck y, thts wh.
Also, most of the time, they don't include vowels in writing. Because fuck you, that's why.
Secondly, the Modern Standard Arabic you’ll learn from textbooks, college courses, US Government Spy training, etc, is used only for writing and for watching the news. Each country or even area of a country has a different dialect. They SAY dialect, but they don’t mean cute pronunciation differences like the Weasley brothers have, they mean that these dialects can be completely un-intelligible to each other. The pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of colloquial Arabic are all different from the Modern Standard Arabic you learned to read and write from your textbook. (What’s left to language after you change the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary?)
So, first you have to figure out where you want to go/who you’re going to need to talk to. Figure out what dialect they speak and then spend 2,200 class hours (double that to include homework time) reaching “general proficiency.” The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State has found that it takes 88 weeks of super intensive study (half that time spent in-country) for dedicated, high-aptitude language learners to become mostly proficient in Arabic. Conversely, they say it takes 23-24 weeks to reach that level in Italian or Norwegian and 30-36 weeks for Swahili. You could become competent in THREE other languages in the time it takes to reach the same level in Arabic.
Remember how French and Spanish have gender for each noun? It was sometimes hard to remember that extra little info, wasn’t it? Guess what, Arabic has that too! Also, each noun and verb must be learned not two, but three separate ways- singular, dual, and plural. In English we normally just tack an -s on the end of a noun and maybe turn the -y to –i for plurals, but sometimes we have totally different words, “I” versus “we” or “mouse” versus “mice.”
It would be like every noun changing three different ways—mouse, bimice and mice. Or maybe dualmice…
If Arabic gets too tough and you want to switch to Dutch, just remember that ageless proverb:
الخاذل أخو القاتل The deserter is the brother of the murderer.
Xhosa is spoken in South Africa and Lesotho by about 8 million people, including Nelson Mandela. Xhosa is related to languages spoken all over Africa, so if you want to travel throughout Africa, learning a new language every 300 hundred miles, why not start here? There are classes offered in South Africa if you care to move to Cape Town and you can get newspapers and magazines printed in Xhosa.
Xhosa is an “agglutinative” language which means that each word starts with a base and then you add prefixes or suffixes or infixes to add meaning. Do we do this in English too? Abso-fucking-lutely! (Well…abso-fucking-not-really would be more accurate.) Sure, we add prefixes, and we add suffixes, but, like the example above, the f-bomb is about the only in-fix we have. Xhosa also has four different tones and 18 different click sounds. In fact, the name of the language begins with a click sound that sounds kind of like the click we use when we want horses to go a little faster.
Xhosa also has 15 noun classes. This means that when you learn a new noun, you need to learn which of 15 categories it belongs to. Is it an abstract thought like justice? Then it fits in noun class 14. Is it a loan word from a different language like computer? Then it goes in noun class 9. Noun classes affect things like which pronoun you use with the noun, how you make it plural, how it works together with the verb and so forth. So after you learn each word, you have to figure out which noun class it fits into and what other changes you have to make to the sentence based on that.
Finally, numbers can be hard. I’ll just leave you with a few examples.
66 amashumi amathandathu anathandathu amashumi amathandathu anesithandathu
24 amashumi amabini anane amashumi amabini anesine
56 amashumi amahlanu anathandathu amashumi amahlanu anesithandathu
Japanese is spoken in Japan by about 125,000,000 people, including Ichiro and Pikachu. Its writing system is ridiculously hard. There are two different alphabets (adding up to 96 letters), in addition to the characters which make up the main base of writing. There will be lots more to say about the difficulty in learning to read characters further on, but first-
What makes it easy: It is pretty easy to pronounce, has very few irregular verbs (not like English: swim, swam, swum), and there are countless textbooks, learning CDs, and teachers to teach it.
How’s it hard?
The pronunciation has a key difference from English that we didn’t even know existed. Based on how long you say the vowel in a word, the meaning changes. Beru is building while beeru is beer and obaasan is grandmother and obasan is aunt. Try picking those differences out when you’re in the middle of a conversation.
Turns out lots of languages are agglutinative, and Japanese is no exception. They pack lots of meaning into a single word, expressing the idea, “if (subject) had been made to work…” by saying, “hatarakaseraretara...”
However, the thing that trips up most people is the honorific language. In Japan, being polite occupies about 90% of your waking hours. Verbs change completely depending on if you’re talking to a close friend or your boss. There are something like 6 levels of politeness, and the second trickiest part is knowing when to use which one. You can’t talk to your boss the same way she talks to you, because you’re at different status levels. Women and men have different ways of speaking (guess which gender speaks more politely?) Plus, you can hurt a close friend’s feelings by speaking too politely, therefore implying that you’re not actually all that close. They take this stuff so seriously that you can actually take a night course to learn the exact proper degree of bowing.
The words change a lot depending on which level of politeness you’re going to use. For example, the past tense of the verb to read changes from its most causal form, yonda, to its most formal form oyomininarimashita. Sometimes you have to use completely different words, like changing ashita (tomorrow) to myounichi (tomorrow, but nicer).
Besides the fine arts of paper folding and really weird porn, they have also mastered the art of both and indirect speech in Japan. You’ll never hear the word no. You’ll rarely hear people say what they honestly think. If you ask someone to come to your house for dinner with friends, they might say, “Oh, don’t you think it’s too much trouble to make dinner for so many people?” You’ll insist, “No! I like having people over!” They’ll mention, “Won’t it be hard to find your place?” “No, no, no,” you’ll say, “there’s a bus stop right in front of the apartment building.” They might have to work late that day… “Whenever you can come by, come!” you’ll say warmly. At this point, they trip and fall over… and you might finally realize that what they’re actually saying is, “Hey, dumbass, I’ve made it abundantly clear I’m not coming! Stop pushing it. Can’t you understand Japanese?”
Navajo is spoken in the southwest United States by about 170,000 people, including Keith Little: a decorated Code Talker who fought in the Marshall Islands, Sai Pan, and Iwo Jima. Read more about the code talkers at http://www.navajocodetalkers.org.
Navajo has four tones: high, low, rising, and falling, and these can each be pronounced either normal or nasalized. (Don’t get a cold when you’re trying to speak Navajo.) Navajo has a shit-ton of verbs, despises nouns, and doesn’t use adjectives at all.
Navajo is an endangered language. In fact, only three percent of Navajo speakers are monolingual. Lots of people care about it, so there are bilingual schools to preserve the language, and Rosetta Stone recently completed a language program so you can learn it at home.
The fun thing about Navajo is that verbs are all important and change all the time. You can’t just say, “sit,” you have to think ahead about WHAT is sitting. If people sit, it’s sidá, if something round or square is sitting, you use si’ą́, and if something flat and flexible is sitting, you use siłtsooz.
Also, unlike Japanese that borrows words like computer (konpyuta) and beer (beeru), Navajo rarely does that. Navajo creates new words describing the term. A cell phone is called “the thing you stand up on the hill with” and an army tank is a “car that one sits up on that crawls around with a thing on it that makes big explosions” (chidí naa’na’í bee’eldǫ́ǫ́htsoh bikáá’ dah naaznilígíí.) Also, since they rarely use nouns, instead of calling most anything one person sits on a chair, they describe by how it’s used, so it can be, “bikáá’ dah ’asdáhí (“one sits up there on it”) or bikáá’ na’anishí(“one works on it”),”
Cantonses is spoken in Southern China, the city of Hong Kong and elsewhere by about 20 million people.
What makes it easy: Nothing. We’re pretty high on the difficulty list here.
Why it’s hard: The main problem that gets people who are learning Cantonese are the tones. There are six tones: high, low-middle to high, middle, low-middle to low, low to low-middle, and low-middle.
So, when you learn a new word, you have to also learn the tone, and you’ve got to hit it just right, because the middle and low-middle tones are close but crucially different. If you say something with the wrong tone, it’s a big deal. Maii (low to low-middle) means buy. Maii (low-middle) means sell. Also, tou (low to low-middle) ngo (low-middle) means hungry while tou (low to low-middle) ngo (high) means diarrhea.
Also, have you ever tried looking up a picture in a dictionary? Let’s say you’re reading a book and you come across a word you don’t recognize. Let’s say it’s this one.
How exactly do you go about finding one of those characters in the dictionary? There’s no alphabet, so if you don’t already know the character, you don’t know how to pronounce it. Well, I’ll tell you how, but it’s a pain in the ass. First, you have to figure out the “key,” a little section of the character. There are 214 keys and every character will have at least one key in it. Then you have to figure out how many brush strokes it would take to write this key… if you’re writing it in calligraphy. Then count how many strokes for the whole character. Then you look in the key index in the dictionary for the key under the correct number of brush strokes, then go to the right page for that key, then search under the key according to the number of brush strokes for the whole character, then look through all the samples until you find the character you’re looking for. For a beginner, it can take over ten minutes to look up a single word and often times, they are actually unable to look up the word at all because as a beginner, you don’t know which part of the character is the “key” and you don’t know how many brush strokes it takes to write each key. Then you realize that most words are made of two characters and you might need to look up both of them separately and find the right combination.
Tuyuca is spoken in the Eastern Amazon and has less than a thousand speakers. It- obviously- doesn’t have a Rosetta Stone option, and there aren’t any textbooks for learning it. If you want to learn Tuyuca, you have to move to Columbia or Brazil and live on the shores of the river with the indigenous people who speak it. It’s a bit more difficult than practicing Spanish when ordering tacos at the van that drives right up to your house. What kind of language is it? It’s “a postpositional agglutinative SOV language with mandatory type II evidentiality.” Geuh…..
Because it’s agglutinative like Japanese, the one word means “I do not know how to write.” It also has two different words for “we.” One that means us and not you, and one that means us and you too. This could help clear up some confusion in English.
“WE’RE going to the movies tonight.
Finally, remember how Xhosa had 15 noun classes? Well, Tuyuca has somewhere between 50 and 140. One of the more obscure noun classes is the class that means, “bark that does not cling closely to a tree.” This can also apply to baggy pants, or wet peeling plywood.
As for pronunciation, it has two tones and the meaning of the word changes whether you say it nasalized or not… but you’ve already got tones and nasalization mastered from Navajo and Cantonese.
And last, but not least, remember the last time you had to write a paper and you had to painstakingly cite all your sources? Well, if you want to speak Tuyuca, you better get used to citing every thought you want to express. Tuyuca has obligatory endings on its sentences that state HOW you know what you’re saying. You can’t just say, “That dude is a douchebag.” You’ve got to say-
“That dude is a douchebag” + any of the following 5 verb endings:
+ because I saw him kick that puppy (visual sensory).
+ because I can smell his Axe body spray from here (nonvisual sensory).
+ because his friends are douchebags (inferential).
+ because my friend told me (reportative).
+ because I have seen other douchebags who have also bleached the tips of their hair (assumed).