Understanding what the most difficult language to learn is requires some knowledge and experience with language learning. The answer to the question is directly related to the languages that someone already knows.
My recent experience learning Mandarin Chinese has put me in a position to consider the question a lot.
No other language that I’ve studied has come close to being the challenge that Mandarin has been for me, those other languages being German, Portuguese and Spanish.
What Makes a Language the Most Difficult Language to Learn?
The most difficult part about Mandarin is the lack of familiarity that I have with its vocabulary.
As a native English speaker, when you study languages from western Europe there are bound to be cognates in the words that you’re studying.
Simpler words in Germanic languages tend to be cognates with those in English like the German word Vater – Father in English, while more “sophisticated” vocabulary in romance languages like the Spanish word recepción – reception in English.
Cognates between English and Mandarin are hard to come by, which makes learning new vocabulary a particularly time consuming task. It’s as if you’re a child again learning a language from zero.
When words in a language that you know and your target language have a lot of overlap in vocabulary, your previous knowledge allows you to learn some vocabulary much quicker. It’s as if you already “know” the word to some extent.
This gap between vocabularies is what makes a language more or less “difficult” if you’re measuring difficulty based on the time it takes to learn a language.
Alternative Ways to Measure Difficulty
There are other ways to measure how difficult a language is, for instance, by looking at how different its grammar is compared to the languages that you already know.
I’ve often heard the polyglot Luca Lampariello comment on how difficult it was for him to become accustomed to Japanese syntax.
Whereas English has a Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure, sentences in Japanese are constructed to be Subject-Object-Verb.
The Japanese writing system is also notoriously complex.
For me, grammar is certainly a factor when discussing what the most difficult language to learn is, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s going to take you longer to learn a language with more difficult grammar. The reason being is that you still need to be actively learning new vocabulary to progress in a language as you’re learning how to use a language’s grammar.
Analysis of German
My perspective on this in large part comes from my experiences learning German.
German has some grammar concepts in its syntax that, maybe aren’t difficult to understand, but are difficult to use the correct way for native English speakers.
For instance, secondary verbs in German go to the end of the sentence.
Present Tense with Modal Verb
Die Frau will ein Film ins Kino sehen. – The woman wants a film in the movie theater to see.
Das Kind hat ein neues Spielzeug gekäuft. – The child has a new toy bought.
The word order in the English translation is the same as the sentence in German sentence to express how abnormal German syntax might seem to a native English speaker.
The difficulty of the syntax almost always revolves around verb placement.
Verb placement at the end of subordinating conjunctions and relative clauses is also a good example of this.
This is a great page to learn more about German grammar and see more unique examples: https://coerll.utexas.edu/gg/gr/con_06.html
These syntax features are uniquely difficult from my perspective. As a comparison, remembering to place adjectives after the noun in Portuguese and Spanish, rather than before the noun in English, has never been a very difficult thing to execute when speaking.
For example, saying la pared azul rather than the blue wall in English.
Remembering to put verbs in their proper place when speaking German, on the other hand, has left me stumbling through conversations many times.
This may be because of the way that I learned German.
Read about all of the methods I’ve used to study German: Best Way to Learn German: 9 Methods Reviewed
Impact of Learning Method on Difficulty
I learned German for several years through university courses where grammar structures were the main point of emphasis in the first 2 or 3 years. Sometimes I reflect on this and think this made me more self-conscious about how accurately I was using grammar.
When I learned Portuguese and as I am learning Spanish now, I don’t dwell so much on my grammatic accuracy because I hardly ever study it in an objective way. This doesn’t mean that I don’t pay attention to it, but I spend very little time studying grammar concepts themselves.
What Role Does Grammar Play?
Despite its seemingly abnormal syntax, German isn’t more difficult to understand because of it.
As long as I catch the vocabulary, my comprehension isn’t necessarily impacted. Additionally, if I used English syntax when speaking German, I’m fairly confident that German speakers would still understand me.
My point being that when determining what is the most difficult language to learn, grammar is a much lesser factor than vocabulary.
Mandarin has reinforced this notion for me even further. The language doesn’t have verb conjunctions. This sounds great, right? There’s no worrying about irregular verbs or whether or not you’re conjugating a verb correctly.
In Chinese you might instead use the particle 了- le in pinyin – to indicate something happened in the past rather than a verb tense.
This does simplify the learning process although it does present a somewhat lesser challenge of learning to think about language in a different way.
Why has Chinese been the most difficult language for me to learn then?
Analysis of Mandarin
Mandarin has an entirely different writing system from languages that use the Latin alphabet with much fewer cognates than you might see between English and a romance language.
It’s simply taking me longer to learn new vocabulary and I’m forced to interpretate it as being more difficult.
What about pronunciation? How much of a factor is it in determining what is the most difficult language?
Chinese is notorious for having four tones that can change the meaning of characters.
I can’t speak much about Chinese tones since I would still consider myself somewhat of a beginner in the language, although my tutor on italki has put quite a bit of emphasis on them during our classes highlighting their importance.
What Is the Impact of Pronunciation on Determining the Most Difficult Language to Learn?
My Spanish pronunciation is an interesting case because native Spanish speakers often tell me that I speak with a Brazilian accent. This is obviously because my pronunciation habits from Portuguese have carried over into Spanish.
My pronunciation does seem to be improving in Spanish, although I haven’t put much direct emphasis on it. I just try to be as observant as possible and try to match the pronunciation of native speakers as much as I can.
Maybe this habit of observation is just embedded in my personality and I have a desire to sound closer to a native speaker. Maybe it’s just human nature to want to fit into your environment.
Whatever the reason is, it’s why I’m currently not fond of the idea of “fossilization” or embedding bad habits in your language output.
I say output because it could theoretically apply to your grammar habits too.
I think if you want to improve your pronunciation or any other aspect of a language and you’re immersed in the language then you will improve that skill.
The reason I’m giving such a strong opinion on this is because I’m currently in Ecuador speaking with native Spanish speakers on a daily basis.
Making communication as seamless as possible improves the fluency of my daily life, improving my pronunciation is a part of this.
It’s easy to compare my progress here in a Spanish speaking environment and understand how much more frustrating learning Mandarin in a Mandarin speaking environment would be.
Conclusion: What is the Most Difficult Language to Learn?
Despite the fact that Spanish has been the “easiest” language for me to learn, I still have moments of frustration on a daily basis while trying to improve it.
What makes a language difficult is anything that hinders your relative progress in the language.
The biggest hindrance is simply vocabulary because without the context that words provide you can’t improve or even practice a language, let alone working to improve your pronunciation.
Ultimately, answering the question “What is the most difficult language to learn?” comes down to my personal experience and in my personal experience the biggest factor in determining the answer is the distance of a language from those that you already know.
The most significant factor in determining the distance between languages is vocabulary because it is simply the most time-consuming aspect of learning a language and the biggest barrier to improving other skills in the language.
The amount of time it takes to learn a language in the end will be the second biggest factor in determining whether or not you succeed in learning the language, second only to your motivation for learning the language. The most difficult language that I’ve ever learned has without a doubt been Mandarin Chinese but perhaps it would be Japanese with its more unfamiliar grammar were I to study it.