Month: July 2014

The World’s Most Difficult Language to Learn


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


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.


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.