Since we have recently shared a list of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn and why, we thought we would also share a list of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. Firstly, each learner is different; the time it takes to learn a foreign language will depend on a number of things, for example, how close the new language is to a person’s native language or other languages already mastered, how motivated the learner is, the language learning resources available and how many hours are devoted to language learning each week. However, learning these three languages will usually be the most difficult for a native English speaker:
Arabic has an alphabet, so it is easier than Chinese for example, which has a set of characters. There are just 28 letters but most of the letters have four different forms, depending on whether they stand alone, or come at the beginning, middle or end of a word. If that’s not tricky enough, in Arabic, as in Hebrew, people don’t include most of the vowels when writing. Maktab meaning ‘office’ would just be written as mktb. F y cn rd ths yr dng wll. (If you can read this you are doing well). Then, there are the sounds that feature in Arabic which are guttural and which are difficult for English speakers to produce.
The grammatical aspect is no easier. Arabic is a VSO language, which means the verb usually comes before the subject and object. It has a dual number, so nouns and verbs must be learned in singular, dual and plural. A present-tense verb has 13 forms (!) all of which are commonly used. There are three noun cases and two genders. Some European languages have just as many forms to keep track of, but in Arabic the idiosyncrasies can be mind-boggling. For example, adjectives modifying non-human plurals always have a feminine singular form – meaning that ‘the cars are new’ would be ‘the cars, she are new’.
Finally, modern standard Arabic has about the same role in the Arab world that Latin had in medieval Europe. It is the language of writing, religion and formal speeches, but it is no-one’s native spoken language anymore. Arabic has long since become a series of “dialects,” which are actually more like separate languages, as many varieties are mutually incomprehensible. Arabic spoken in Morocco is as different from Arabic spoken in Egypt and from Modern Standard Arabic as French is from Spanish and Latin. When Arabs from different regions talk to each other, they improvise with a mix of Egyptian Arabic (which is understood widely because of Egypt’s film industry), Modern Standard and a bit of their own dialects.
The Japanese language is written in three different scripts, which each use a different alphabet. These are Kanji (Chinese origin), Hiragana (native Japanese) and Katakana (non-Chinese foreign origin). The most obvious challenge is learning all of these alphabets, each with thousands of characters, but most English speakers stick to the Romanised script which makes speaking easier but not reading. It is said that, in Japan, to read a newspaper article, a Japanese person needs to know at least 3,000 characters.
Japanese grammar is a little tricky too because of the word order which is Subject-Object-Verb. Great if you are used to other languages such as German, but for English speakers it will feel odd to say ‘I chocolate am eating’. Finally, there is no such thing as interword spacing, which we have in English: Tryreadingthissentenceandyouwillgetthegist.
Perhaps the hardest part about Japanese is the notion of an honorific language. Japanese speech can vary with levels of politeness. It is absolutely essential, when speaking Japanese, to take into consideration ones context. The language spoken at home, by close friends, by women, by men, by children, to your seniors at work is quite different so depending on the situation you have to choose your words carefully to avoid being unintentionally rude or appearing childlike or overtly feminine or masculine. One sentence can be said in three different ways, depending on the relationship between the speaker and the person being spoken to.
Finally, expressing yourself is done differently in Japan. In English, the onus is on the speaker to be explicit so that he is understood. In Japan, the onus is on the listener to pick up what the speaker is talking about. So, in Japanese if you speak too directly and explicitly, it will appear clumsy and strange e.g. you don’t have to say who is going somewhere (I am going to the shop) because it will be assumed to be you already. Finally, Japanese favours the passive form. So in every day speech rather than liking something, something is liked. Rather than wanting something, something is desired….
3) Chinese – Mandarin and Cantonese
Having no alphabet, the scripts pose problems for English native speakers. Indeed there are believed to be around 60,000 characters in the Mandarin language.
Unlike Cantonese, Mandarin is not a syllable-timed language. Mandarin is a stress-timed language, as English is. Syllable-timed languages have each syllable lasting for the same amount of time, while stress-timed languages have a variety of syllable durations. Whilst this is one positive for a native English learner, Mandarin is full of other complexities that will appear bizarre to us. The Mandarin language does not use tenses, such as past, present or future. Instead, the importance of a topic is shown by its prominence within the sentence. With a combination of markers of modality and aspect markers, single syllables are used that can change the entire meaning of the sentence. While they do not denote time, they do show that the subject of the sentence has changed status, passively implying the passage of time. This is the same with Cantonese, where the placement of words in a sentence can change the meaning of a sentence to extremes. Likewise, in Cantonese, while the form usually follows a typical sentence structure of Subject-Verb-Object, Cantonese is a topic-prominent language, meaning that the more important a subject or object is to the speaker, the more prominence it will have within the sentence itself.
Cantonese differs from Mandarin in several ways. For example, the direct object will always precede the indirect object, so “give me that pen” will always be used instead of “that pen, give it to me”.
If you are thinking about having a go learning these languages, then good luck from everyone at BLS. But just in case it doesn’t work out, remember we can provide translations from and into all these languages.