It’s hard to compare languages to one another: they are divided into numerous categories and are characterised by numerous characteristics. Difficulty level is definitely one of them.
Does it mean “easy” languages are somehow worse than those perceived as “difficult”? Not really – every single one of over 7000 languages present in the world has years of history, tradition, and cultural identity behind it. Moreover, each of them has easier and more challenging aspects: a language with relatively simple grammar can come with tricky pronunciation.
What are the most difficult languages in the world – and what is so challenging about them?
If we look deeper into this issue, we will immediately realise that various lists of world’s most difficult languages do not differ much. No wonder – the criteria allowing us to assess a language’s difficulty remain strongly subjective. Usually, a language with complicated grammatical structure, extensive lexicon or complicated alphabet is deemed to be demanding. It may also be characterised by complex pronunciation rules. Another way to assess the difficulty of a language is to check the number of hours needed to master it. As we can see, the above-mentioned criteria aren’t precise, which doesn’t make it any easier to unanimously arrange the languages by difficulty level.
Languages of chilly north – Finnish and Icelandic
Inventing Quenya, one of the languages of the Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien took inspiration from, i.e., Finnish. Indeed, this language – which belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group – has a nice, melodic sound. At that, it comes with a relatively complicated grammatical structure (15 cases) and a challenging lexical pattern (Finnish is an agglutinative language, which can be easily noticed with words such as kaksikymmentäyksi). Icelandic alphabet, on the other hand, features characters that we are unlikely to see in other writing systems (ð, Þ i æ). The language itself has complex grammar and unique lexicon, which is a result of the country’s long-term isolation from external influences and linguistic purism policy (foreign phrases are replaced by equivalents in Icelandic).
Middle and Far East – Arabic and Chinese
The necessity to learn a new alphabet, along with challenging pronunciation are the main reasons both Arabic and Chinese are usually featured on the list of languages that are the most difficult to learn. The difficulty with learning Arabic lies with exceptionally subtle differences between separate characters in the alphabet, the necessity to write in a precise, calligraphic way, as well as the direction of writing – from right to left. As soon as we grasp this, there’s another time-consuming challenge awaiting us: perfecting the pronunciation of Arabic sounds. Proper pronunciation of particular sounds is also bothersome to the learners of Mandarin, which also boasts a whopping number of characters – around 47,000! While comprehending just a portion of them is necessary to achieve a conversational level of Chinese, usually learning the links between characters, their manner of writing, meaning and pronunciation proves to be the biggest obstacle.
The brotherhood between the Polish and Hungarian
It comes as no surprise that Polish is usually listed among the world’s most difficult languages. Complicated grammar and difficult pronunciation of “rustling and rattling” words – that are challenging for the Polish people themselves and often prove unlearnable for the foreigners – make the learning process tough. It’s no different when it comes to Hungarian. Lack of any similarity to other European languages and complex grammar featuring numerous cases can successfully deter potential language learners. Hungarian, just like Finnish, is an agglutinative language, which translates into long words that the beginners may find too tough to pronounce and remember.
It’s worth mentioning that personal inclinations also play a role in making certain languages seem easy or difficult to us. Usually it’s assumed that Russian is more difficult that English – but for a native speaker of Polish, it might be the other way round. Seemingly easy English might appear illogical and tough to master, while Russian can be acquired in a more intuitive way. Any difficulties while learning a given language can be resolved in almost any case – you just need a bit of perseverance, regularity, and, most importantly, the choice of proper learning method.