Saturday, 18 September 2010

What's the most difficult language?

There are over 6000 languages spoken around the world but, according to my year 8 students, "English is the most difficult language to learn".

If that is the case, why do they find French and German so difficult?

They also think that all foreigners can speak fluent English, so it can't be that difficult, can it?

So what makes a language difficult?

I suppose it is all relative and depends on how you define "difficult".

If your first language was Ukrainian then learning Russian would be less of a trial than a mandarin speaker learning Russian.

Similarly, a native Swedish speaker would find learning Norwegian much easier than a native English speaker would.

As an English speaker and teacher of languages, I think the most difficult languages to learn would probably those which don't use "our" alphabet, have different grammatical rules and have few or no cognates. Examples of these would be Russian, Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic.

It also depends on how you define "learning".

Learning to write a language is much harder than learning to speak it.
I learned some Japanese a few years ago from a book and a CD. Even though I can remember a few basic phrases and numbers, I never learned to write it, except in Romaji.

Successful language learning can depend on how good your teacher is, too.

However, I've discovered that the most difficult language in the world has to be Sentinelese.

It really exists. It is spoken on North and South Sentinel Islands in the Bay of Bengal by about 200 people.

So why is it so difficult? Nobody knows.


Mainly because going to the islands is illegal and anyone attempting to visit is killed by the locals.

And we complain about severe grading...


Suzi Bewell said...

I have learnt something new today Dom.

Clare Seccombe said...

I have heard it said that Basque is one of the hardest languages to learn as it is not linked to any other language, so cognates would be a bit of a problem. I've been to Bilbao once, and all I can remember from my brief stay is that plurals in Basque end in -ak. I remember this from visiting the ladies' toilets at the station. Don't ask.

A similar discussion I have had at school this week (with non-language professionals, I might add) is "Which is the easiest language to learn?"

I tell my pupils that English is difficult to learn as a foreigner because the sound-spelling link is so bonkers. I usually give them the word "remember" and ask them to tell me the rule for pronouncing the letter "e". And then point out that if it were a French word or a Spanish word it would be easy to read because of the pronunciation rules. Mr S likes to quote "Rough grass is thoroughly tough though" as an example of the difficulties of English.

Steve Smith said...

Tee hee