The World’s Most Difficult Language to Learn

nsisland33

There’s no shortage of claims for different languages being the world’s hardest to learn. I wouldn’t be surprised if every natural language in existence had had that claim made for it at least once. Usually these claims come either from native speakers of those languages, to brag about how smart they must be for speaking the language fluently, or from people learning those languages, to justify the hard time they’re having.

I’m now going to reveal to you the actual hardest language in the world to learn: Sentinelese!

Here’s why: Sentinelese is only spoken on North Sentinel Island, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, by the Sentinelese people. Since their discovery by outside peoples, there have been several attempts to contact them. However, these people have proven to be fiercely independent and extremely hostile to outside contact.

Anyone who has ever gone to the island or tried to make contact has either been killed, or barely escaped with their life. In one intense episode in 2006, a boat of Indian fishermen illegally fishing off the coast of the island were killed by the islanders. A helicopter operated by the Indian Coast Guard, sent to recover the bodies, was chased off by a barrage of arrows and javelins.

Parisians may have a reputation for being hostile to foreigners, but they have nothing on the Sentinelese!

Seriously, though, here’s the thing: this language is difficult to learn for sociological reasons, not linguistic ones. Other extremely difficult languages to learn are the Harappan and Minoan languages, for the simple reason that they haven’t been deciphered yet!

There is no such thing as a “hardest language in the world,” because language is a human development, and languages evolve to suit the needs of the people who speak them. A given language can never get so unwieldy that it becomes too difficult for its native speakers to use because these speakers are constantly introducing new innovations into the language to keep it efficient and useful.

It is, of course, a fact that some languages are “harder” to learn than others for a speaker of a given language, meaning that there are more obstacles and differences to overcome, so they take more time and effort. For example, for an English speaker, Mandarin Chinese is harder than, say, Portuguese, and because of this, a lot of people like to say that Mandarin is the hardest language to learn. However, for a Cantonese speaker, Mandarin is much easier to learn that Portuguese. It all depends on what you already know, and what you’re used to. The key, of course, is to be open-minded about the differences and know that if you put in the time and effort, it will come.

You Have to Be Open-minded to New Ways of Doing Things

p4gz301tayopen_minded_neon_sign

In a post a few weeks ago, I mentioned several characteristics that determine how successful a person will be in learning languages.  One of the points I mentioned was that you’re more likely to learn, and to have quicker results, if you’re able to understand that the way things are done in your native language – i.e. grammatical structures, sayings, prepositions, etc. – are not the default, most logical way of stringing morphemes (essentially words) together to create a meaningful utterance.

Some people seem to think that we say things the way we do in English because that is the most logical way to arrange ideas into a string of words. Any other way of doing things would just be incorrect thinking.

Believe it or not, most people around the world don’t actually think in English. All natural languages developed over the course of thousands of years, and have different ways of converting thought to language, and to each of them, their way is the most logical, because that’s the way they’re used to doing it. Some of them will be very different from anything you’re used to.

As an example, prepositions, for example, are notoriously fickle about meaning. In fact, the way a given preposition conveys meaning will vary significantly even within a single language. In New York, people don’t wait in line, they wait on line. In some parts of the English-speaking world, apples are different from oranges, whereas in other parts, apples are different to oranges.

English puts adjectives before nouns; Spanish puts them after. English puts relative clauses after nouns (e.g. “the boy who is eating ice cream”); Chinese puts them before (e.g. “the eating-ice-cream boy”).

I’ve found that a person’s ability to dissociate the meaning from the words they’re used to is one of the biggest predictor of a person’s future success. Conversely, people who, for example, just can’t get past the fact that a different language has two different words for the concepts that we in English tie all together with the word “to be,” such as Spanish and Portuguese, are much more likely to give up because “it’s too hard.”

Portuguese Week 5: Final Update and Analysis

I wrapped up my five-week Portuguese learning project last night with my final video.

My goal for this project was to reach level B1 of the CEFR in five weeks. While reaching for that level in such a short period might usually be a tough task for someone with a monolingual English-speaking family and a full-time day job, I felt confident I could reach my goal because of the similarity with Spanish, which I already speak fluently.

Experiments with shortcuts in related languages

In fact, part of my reasoning was to experiment on how the learning process is affected when you already speak a closely related language. There are numerous resources online that give an idea for how long it should take an English speaker to learn a language, depending on the similarities and differences, the “difficulty” of the language.

Spanish and Portuguese are both listed in the “Level 1” languages – the easiest class of languages for an English speaker to learn. Still, some estimates say it should take upwards of 600 class hours to learn these languages. I wanted to know how long it would take for a Spanish speaker to learn the closely related Portuguese.

We don’t really have a similarly closely related language in English. Because of the huge influence of French after the Norman Conquest of Britain and the dramatic grammatical shifts that occurred in Old and Middle English, the similarities of English to its Germanic cousins aren’t nearly as transparent as in the case of Spanish and Portuguese. True there is Scots, but it’s not very widely used or even well known outside of Scotland. In contrast, Spanish and Portuguese are both well known and widely spoken. In fact, both of these languages have more speakers outside of their countries of origin than inside.

Where I’m at

As I mention in the video, I feel comfortable using the language at a B1 level now. In fact, with the right preparation beforehand, I can sometimes even function at a B2 level. Still, for the most part I’d confidently say I’ve reached B1 level.

Going forward, while I won’t be putting special focus on Portuguese for now, I’ll continue to use the language and maintain it, and maybe even improve it, albeit probably much more slowly than during the last several weeks.

I’ll also be getting ready for my next project. What will it be? Stay tuned!

Focus More on Speaking and Listening than Reading and Writing

Woman confused while reading

I took a few semesters of Mandarin in college. It was a lot of fun. The thing is, the curriculum was mainly focused around reading and writing, and there wasn’t a whole lot speaking and listening going on.

In my opinion, a lot of school language curricula focus too much on reading and writing and not enough on speaking and listening. In a way, it’s hard to blame them. It’s much easier to give a test on reading and writing proficiency than on speaking and listening skill. Unfortunately, as I mentioned last week, the way we go about learning languages in schools is usually not optimal for actually learning the language, and the cramming-testing-forgetting model is just one reason.

Here’s why focusing on reading and writing, at the expense of speaking and listening, is a problem:

Different skills involved

Humans have been capable of oral language for around fifty thousand years, give or take. Written language has only been around for a few thousand years, and most of that time only a very small proportion of people could use it. In fact, to this day there are still many languages that have no writing system, but that are, by definition, spoken by all their speakers.

Written language is a development patterned directly after spoken language. Some writing systems, such as the ones used in Korean and Spanish, are highly phonetically correlated to their spoken forms. Other systems, such as the ones used in Chinese, some Japanese, and, to a much lesser extent, English, sacrifice phonetic correlation for a variety of reasons, such as retaining etymological spellings, or because of dialectal variation.

All written languages exist as tools to preserve speech in time. Whereas speaking and listening are exercises that involve timeliness, with reading and writing, you can take as long as you want, and go back and reread or rewrite the written material if you need to, as many times as you want.

The thing is, speaking and listening use mental processes that aren’t used when reading and writing, so if you’re learning your language in order to talk to real, live, people, then you’ll have to use certain skills you won’t develop if you focus mainly on reading and writing.

Overextending yourself early on

Here’s another thing worth considering: because written and oral language use different mental processes, and the difference depends on how phonetic the writing system is, you might be overexerting yourself trying to learn to speak, understand, read, and write in the language all at the same time.

Let’s use Mandarin as an example, because it has one of the least transparently phonetic writing systems, although this could also apply to languages with scripts you merely haven’t been able to learn yet, such as Arabic or Hindi. When you learn a new vocabulary word in Chinese, you have to learn how to say the word and how to write it.

This means that for every word you learn, you have to keep track of two new facts, effectively doubling the work you have to do. If, instead of trying to learn all these new words and how to write them all at once, you first learned how to speak and understand the language, and then, after you have a decent grasp of the words, you learned how to read and write the language, a lot of the guesswork will be done for you. You’ll have created mental stepping stones to get you to your goal, rather than trying to reach it all in one leap.

Caveats

Here’s where we get into the “yeah, but”s. If you can’t read at all in the language, you limit yourself to valuable input. In the Mandarin Chinese example, there is a commonly used Romanization system called pinyin, which uses the Latin letters familiar to speakers of European languages to write Mandarin, but it’s much less common to find books, news articles, blogs, etc., in pinyin than in Chinese characters.

If you’re learning the language to further your business prospects, you’ll most likely want to learn to read and write eventually. And of course, if your language goal is purely to learn to read the language, such as for literature in languages such as Biblical Hebrew or Classical Latin, then the advice here is basically moot.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should avoid learning to read and write. Just remember to not overextend yourself in the written language at the expense of the spoken language. Don’t use relatively decent writing and listening proficiency as an excuse for poor speaking and listening. After all, what use is it to be able to read street signs in your language if you’re unable to actually speak to the people you learned the language in order to be able to communicate with in the first place?

Portuguese Week 4 Update

Four weeks into my Portuguese project! Even though I originally set my goal deadline for the end of the World Cup, one month to the day after I started, I’m going to extend it through to next Thursday, so I get another good week in and a video update on schedule at the end.

So I’m feeling a lot more confident conversing in Portuguese. I’ve mostly been using WeSpeke, Skype, and a good old phone to talk to people. I’m to the point now where I can pretty much get across any meaning I want to, although sometimes I have to either talk my way around a word or concept I don’t know how to say, or just look it up. I’m also understanding spoken Portuguese much better, although listening comprehension hasn’t ever been my strongest suit in any language. Still, I’d definitely say this project has gone well, and quickly.

For those who aren’t able to watch the video, I mention that I was surprised (although I probably shouldn’t have been) to see that I’ve actually seen much more interference from Portuguese on my Spanish than vice versa. I went to a Mexican restaurant a few days ago, and I was talking to the wait staff in Spanish. At a few points in the conversation, I had to make an effort to keep speaking Spanish rather than reverting back to Portuguese. For example, when the waiter handed me my food, I meant to say “Gracias,” but it came out as “Obrigado!”

This is mostly due to the fact that I have been thinking and speaking almost entirely in Portuguese for the past month, and almost no Spanish. After finishing my five weeks of Portuguese, I’ll spend a lot more time speaking Spanish again, and hopefully develop a good separation between the two in my mind.

 

Learn Languages Like Musical Instruments, Not School Subjects

Concert Pianist

You know there’s a problem with the way we’re teaching languages in school when a person can take four years of Spanish in high school and still barely be able to speak a word of Spanish by the end. Unfortunately, a lot of people walk away after all that time spent, thinking that they’re just not good at languages.

Last week I wrote about what makes some people better than others at learning languages, but today I want to focus on this point in particular. For those who have put in several years of school learning with nothing to show for it, you don’t suck at languages. The problem is in the method – we’re going about the whole learning process wrong.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re in a high school biology class. You have a final coming in up in a few days or weeks or whatever, so depending on your study habits, you’ll probably start studying/cramming/memorizing, right up to the morning of the final. On that day, you’ll regurgitate all the facts you’ve memorized in the previous weeks onto a written test, turn it in, walk out of the room, and promptly forget everything you “learned” up to then, because honestly, unless you’re going to be a doctor, when are you ever going to use it again?

This is the basic format for all subjects taught and learned in school. We study and memorize, do some homework, and take periodic tests, usually with a big final at the end of the semester. In theory, it’s not terrible, but the problem is that we rely solely on this model for all of our learning.

I took piano lessons for several years when I was a kid. Each week, the teacher would come to my house, have me play the songs and lessons I had been practicing from the week before, show me what I did right and how to improve on the parts I was lacking in, then assign me new songs to work on. The whole lesson took no longer than about an hour. However, the real learning took place in the days between lessons, in my practice time. Learning the theory and technical points is important and serves its purpose, but if I want to become a good piano player, then most of my learning will take place in the time I’m using my skill.

Languages are best learned not as academic subjects but as skills. The theory (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) is important, but if you spend all your time memorizing facts, as if for a test, the way we do it in school, you won’t learn the language. You get out of it what you put in.

And there’s the crux of the issue. Language classes as they are usually taught in schools are designed to prepare you for a test, rather than to teach you a skill you can use. Unfortunately, the education system doesn’t appear to be in the throes of change, so if you want to actually want to learn the language you’re studying on school, you’ll need to take all that theory and put it into practice; watch movies, listen to podcasts, talk to people, etc.

Remember, language isn’t a set of facts to be memorized and regurgitated, but rather a skill to be practiced and sharpened.

 

Portuguese Week 3 Update

I’ve now been working on my Portuguese project for three weeks.

Last week I mentioned how I had a much easier time speaking than understanding spoken Portuguese. Even though I might still speak rather pausedly, if I give it some thought, I can usually figure out a way to put my thoughts in words, even if it’s not the most efficient wording.

Still, I really needed to spend a lot of time working on my listening comprehension, so this past week I made that a special focus, mostly watching and listening to the news, watching movies, and conversing with native or fluent speakers.

Some of my favorite sites for listening to the news in other languages are RFI and BBC World Service. They both have podcasts for a variety of different languages. I’ve mostly been listening to the RFI Brasil podcasts (news and special topics), as they’re in a format I find the most convenient.

I also watched the movie Apenas o Fim, which has a sort of (500) Days of Summer or Once vibe, for anyone who has seen either of those movies. The movie is very heavy on dialog, and it’s a casual, informal, conversational dialog, so that was helpful. I didn’t understand a ton of the spoken dialog, but watching with the Portuguese subtitles I was fully able to understand everything that was going on.

A final resource I’ve taken advantage of this week is WeSpeke, a social website that lets you practice speaking languages with people all over the world. You sign up for a profile, select your native language, the language you’re learning, and choose topics that interest you. Then you can see who’s currently online and available for a text or voice chat. The only thing I don’t like about WeSpeke so far is that you can only choose one language as your target language, but it’s easy to change, and you don’t have to limit your conversation partners to people who speak your target language.

This week I plan to keep working on my listening comprehension, but especially in an interactive, conversational context, not just passive listening. Also, now that I have a solid footing in the language, I intend to iron out some grammatical points I’m still a little shaky on, and fill in some of my vocabulary gaps.

What Makes Some People Better than Others at Learning Languages?

College-ProblemsIf you have ever tried and failed to learn a language in the past, you might have come to the conclusion that you simply aren’t “good at languages,” or don’t have the “language gene.” Learning languages, apparently, is best left up to the type of people who perpetually have their nose stuck in a book, or language nerds who have no lives outside of academia.

Now, if you think about it, this is obvious “sour grapes” thinking. Here’s the thing: everyone out there, except maybe feral children, have learned at least one language to fluency. If you grew up speaking English, for example, then I’d be willing to bet you’ve mastered the language to the point where you can understand all the subtle nuances and shades of meaning used in most situations, aside from extremely technical jargon. Really, you’ve learned to speak English at native-level fluency! You’ve already done it once!

Scientists have discovered that there is in fact a language gene. But the thing is, all humans have it, even you.

Still, I’m going to go ahead and say that some people are better than others at learning languages, but the reasons aren’t what you might think; they’re not really linguistic in nature, nor are they innately exclusive advantages you can never hope to have.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve found, in no particular order:

Frustration tolerance / Impatience

If you absolutely must see quick results, or breeze through anything you try, I’m sorry to say it, but you’ll have a tough time with language learning. This is one area where simply memorizing a checklist of items will not get you to where you’re trying to get to. Learning a language takes practice, and stretching yourself. Some days it will come easier than others, but if you’re the kind of person who quits if you can’t get it right the first time, stop being that kind of person.

Open-mindedness to new ways of doing things

I could write a whole post just about this one topic. Maybe I will sometime. For now, suffice it to say that the way we word things in English isn’t necessarily the logical way to do things. It’s just the familiar way for us. Other languages use completely different rules for putting words together to communicate ideas. You’ll have trouble learning languages if you can’t get let go of the notion that English’s way is always the better way.

Creative thinking

You have two options: either learn every single word in every possible combination that exists in your target language, or accept the fact that sometimes you’ll have to express an idea that you don’t have the exact words to communicate. Personally, I think the second is infinitely easier. Of course, this means you will sometimes have to use some creative thinking to get an idea across, but this is a skill that is easy to learn with practice. For example, if you don’t know the word for, let’s say, a planter box, you can say “that wooden box that has flowers in it.” Most likely, the person you’re talking to will understand your meaning.

Openness to social risk

This is one that I’ve had a hard time with. Unless you only intend to use your language for reading, for example, with Biblical Hebrew or Latin, odds are you’ll want to talk to someone in your language. The reality is that you’re extremely likely to be in a situation where you’ll need to think on your feet while in a social setting. You’re going to make mistakes in front of people. You’re going to have to make weird sounds come out of your mouth.

If you’re one of the many people who have a tough time in social situations in your own language, let alone a new one, my advice is to make an experiment out of it. I think the key is in the way you approach failure. If failure means you’re terrible at languages no one will ever talk to you again and you’ll never amount to anything and why keep trying because AAAAAAAAHHH!! then you’re much less likely to have a good experience. On the other hand, if failure simply means noting what didn’t work, iterating, and trying again, then you take personal risk out of the equation, and you’ll see much more progress.

Sense of purpose

Have a clear idea of why you want to learn this language in the first place. Is it because your girlfriend is French and you want to be able to talk to her in her own language? Is it because your family came from Mexico and you want to learn Spanish to connect with your heritage? Is it because you want to further your career prospects in Japan? Is it because you love Italian culture, art, music, etc., and want to immerse yourself more deeply into it? Is it because you want to be able to read your religion’s sacred texts in their original language to pick up on nuances that might not carry over into the translation? Is it because you’re fascinated with the uniquely human cognitive construct that is language and want to understand what you have in common with people half the world away?

The firmer the understanding you have of exactly why you’re putting yourself through this process, the more likely you are to stick through the rough patches and see success.

Sense of direction / Goals

Here’s a scenario. Two guys set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and get in shape.

The first guy gets a subscription to a gym, not because gyms are inherently better, but because he knows he’s more likely to stick with it if he knows he’s spending money on it every month. He goes to the library and gets a book on the different kinds of exercises for different muscle groups. He hires a personal trainer to show him exactly how to do the exercises for optimal results. He takes regular measurements and tracks his performance and progress.

The other guy gets a gym membership because that’s what everyone does when they want to get in shape. He goes every once in a while and lifts a random bar here and there, runs on the treadmill for awhile until he gets bored, then sits in the hot tub.

Which of the two is more likely to get the results he wants? Obviously.

The main point isn’t to spend more money, it’s to create a framework for your own success. Set goals. Track your progress. Define specific objectives you want to meet, and solid deadlines for those objectives.

Already having learned a second language

Here’s the kicker: once you’ve already learned a second language, it’s much easier to learn a third, and fourth, and so on. The reason is that learning a second language requires learning how to learn a language. There are many different smaller skills involved that you simply haven’t picked up yet. Once you’ve deconstructed the process and learned these skills once, you can reuse them again and again. So don’t worry, the first time is the hardest. It gets better.

Portuguese Week 2 Update

I’ve come up on my second week in my Portuguese project. So far, so good. I feel like I’m seeing some good progress.

For anyone who’s had trouble staying focused and keeping motivation in a language learning project, I highly recommend making a video series of yourself at regular intervals during your project. Not only does it provide a way to look back and review your progress, but it also gives you incentive to keep it up – as you’ve publicly committed to all your viewers that you’re going to stick with it. No turning back!

When I begin language learning projects, I’m usually pretty good at leveraging what little I know of the language early on to try and express what I’m trying to say. I may not know the exact word I’m looking for, but I can circumlocute, or “talk my way around it.”

On the other hand, as I mention in the video, learning to understand the spoken language is much more difficult for me than speaking it. It’s just a quirk in the way I learn. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. So this week I’ll be spending a lot more time listening to spoken Portuguese – watching videos, listening to recordings, and having conversations.

Hacking the Romance Learning Curve

I’ve talked a little about how my Spanish gives me a shortcut to learning Portuguese quickly, but a lot of people might not know that even just speaking English gives you a huge leg up on learning Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages.

What’s a Romance language?

World Map of Major Romance Languages
World Map of Major Romance Languages

The Romance languages are the modern descendants of the Vulgar (meaning “of the common people”) Latin spoken in the Roman Empire. They include some of the most widely spoken and historically influential languages on the planet. In all they are spoken natively by approximately 800 million people worldwide. The largest include:

  • Spanish, 410 million native speakers as of 2010 (more than English, second only to Mandarin Chinese)
  • Portuguese, 215 million
  • French, 75 million
  • Italian, 59 million
  • Romanian, 24 million

Plus dozens of other regional dialects and languages. If you’re interested in learning a useful language for international business or travel, you could do much worse than choosing a Romance language. But what I really wanted to get into here is the added bonus of how easy Romance languages are to learn if you happen to be an English speaker.

Distant Indo-European Cousins

The Romance languages share a common ancestry with English, along with most of the other languages of modern Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, dating to roughly 6,000 years ago. This means that, although they are now completely different languages that sound nothing alike, they actually have much more in common than you’d think, especially in terms of vocabulary and grammar. For example, here are the numbers 1-10 in a few Indo-European languages:

English Spanish Portuguese French German Welsh Greek Russian Persian
one uno um un ein un énas  odin  yek
two dos dois deux zwei dau dýo  dva  do
three tres três trois drei tri  tría  tri  seh
four cuatro quatro quatre vier pedwar  téssera  chetyre  chahaar
five cinco cinco cinc fünf pump  pénte  pyat’  panj
six seis seis six  sechs  chwech  éxi  shest’  shesh
seven siete sete sept  sieben saith  eptá  sem’  haft
eight ocho oito huit aucht wyth  októ  vosem’  hasht
nine nueve nove neuf neun naw  ennéa  devyat’  noh
ten diez dez dix zehn deg  déka  desyat’  dah

Obviously, they are very different from each other, but if you look closely, you can spot some patterns and similarities.

These similarities are a tremendous help when learning other Indo-Euopean languages, especially if you know where to look. However, the Romance languages share an even closer bond with English. This special relationship is enough to help you boost your vocabulary very quickly, and might even help you with your English at the same time!

Romance – English’s “Adopted” Family

English is at its heart a Germanic language – closely related to modern German, Dutch, and Swedish, and if you read anything written in old English (i.e. written before A.D. 1066), such as Beowulf, it’s for the most part a completely different language from the English we know and love today. However, in 1066, the Normans – French speaking Vikings – invaded and conquered England. Over the next few centuries their French had a huge influence over English, fundamentally changing it.

The Normans, seen here turning Ænglisc into English
The Normans, seen here turning Ænglisc into English

It’s because of this historical fact that we have so many pairs of words in English that mean the same thing, but where one of them sounds more “educated,” such as brotherhood and fraternity, heavenly and celestial, kingly and royal. In each of those pairs, the first is a native English word, and the second from French or Latin.

Because of all this borrowing from French into English, there are a huge number of cognates (words with a common origin and similar meaning) between English and the Romance languages. “Information” is información in Spanish and informação in Portuguese. “Opportunity” is oportunidad and oportunidade, respectively.

This leads to an interesting quirk when it comes to learning Romance languages. The first words you will need to learn, the I‘s, you‘s, be‘s, do‘s, etc., will have to be learned and memorized normally, but when it comes to the more advanced vocabulary, the words will be much more similar, and in many cases you will even be able to guess and probably get it right. For example, the sentence “Various political opinions inform national agendas,” is usually not the kind of sentence you’d think you’d be able to say in your target language within the first few days of learning, but that sentence in Spanish is, “Varias opiniones poíticas informan agendas nacionales.” Not exactly the same, but close enough to be able to guess.

I’ve even found that learning Romance languages can boost your English vocabulary. For example, if you come across the word mellifluous and don’t know the meaning, but you do know from your Spanish that miel means “honey,” and fluir means “to flow,” you might be able to figure out that mellifluous speech or music is so sweet and smooth that it sounds almost like flowing honey.

So, keep that in mind. Languages are actually not all that hard to learn if you know where to look for the shortcuts!