The 4 Most Bizarrely Difficult Languages to Learn

Posted on April 16, 2010
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So you want to learn another language. Maybe you want to travel, to expand your knowledge, or just prepare yourself for the day when the Feds track you down and you have to flee the country. Learning a new language can be a fun, enlightening and rewarding thing to do, provided you follow one easy step: avoid the languages on this list.

1.

Japanese

According to the Foreign Service Institute, part of the US Department of State, Japanese is the hardest language in the world for English speakers to learn. So put aside the anime and start learning Spanish or something.

japanese01

Like Chinese, Japanese has a character-based alphabet. In order to read a Japanese newspaper with a good degree of understanding, you’ll have to memorize about 2000 of the little bastards.

japanese02

That’s less than Chinese, at least, right? Well, except that to make up for that fact, Japanese also has two different alphabets, each with forty-six characters in them each. They’ll make you learn both of them before you can even start to think about characters. Oh, also keep in mind that the way each character sounds changes according to whether it’s on its own, in a word in front of another character, in a word behind another character, which character it’s next to, and sometimes just for the hell of it.

But that’s not even what makes Japanese difficult. It’s the goddamn grammar. Not only are there more than fifty ways to modify a verb in Japanese (in English there’s three), the adjectives are modified too. So in the English sentence “I was not sad”, the past tense is contained in ‘was’ and the negative in ‘not’. In Japanese, the same sentence (kanashikunakatta) only needs one word because the past tense and the negative form are contained in the adjective. So you need to learn eight billion conjugations even when you’re avoiding verbs.

japanese03

Oh, and we’re not done. Different sets of verbs, pronouns and even nouns are used in Japanese according to whether you’re talking to someone of a higher, equal or lower social status than you, and using the wrong form of speech can potentially cause great offense. As if social situations weren’t awkward enough already.

2.

Russian

English might be a notoriously hard language, but it’s got one thing going for it: for the most part, it lost its cases a long time ago. Cases are modifications to words that show how they relate to other words in the sentence. Basically, to make up for the loss of meaning that comes with caseless words, English has a very strict word order. So in these English sentences:

A dog bit Bill

And

Bill bit a dog

…the meaning is determined by which comes first, Bill or the dog. In a language with cases, these words can go in any order, because whether Bill was the biter or bitee is determined by which case is used, instead of where his name is in the sentence.

Other languages, unlike English, have retained a lot of their cases. German, for example, keeps case endings on its adjectives. So if you want to use an adjective in a German sentence, you have to determine whether it’s going before the subject or the object or the indirect object or a possessive. Doesn’t seem too hard, right? That’s just four endings to remember. But then keep in mind that German has three genders, which means three rules for every type of noun. So whenever you want to simply describe something as ‘good’ (gut) in German, you have to choose between seven endings. Now we see why Germans are so grumpy all the time.

So why isn’t German the one in this entry? Because although German kept the case endings on its adjectives and a few other types of words, it was sensible enough to drop them on most of its nouns. Not so Russian.

Teaching someone a language should be easy. You point at a book and say ‘book’ and they know the word. But when you’re learning Russian, it’s not so simple: ‘book’ can be kniga, knigu, knigy, knigoy, knig'e, or several other forms according to where it is in a sentence and whether it’s got a preposition next to it.

Another language that does this is Latin. But Russian beats out Latin here, because you have to learn a whole new alphabet in order to speak Russian:

russian01

Also, you’re probably not likely to need to learn Latin these days unless you’re exorcising some demons at the Vatican. But before you do that, remember to brush up on your cases!

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