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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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!
So if you’re good at simple visual memorization, you’ll probably do fine at Chinese. Not so much for the other languages on this list, which all involve horrible, horrible conjugations. Conjugations refer to the alterations of a verb according to number, tense, gender and a whole lot of other stuff, and are hated by anyone who has ever tried studying a foreign language in order to impress an attractive exchange student.
For a good introduction to conjugations, this is an Arabic verb chart:
Once you stop shaking in fear, note the focus on masculine and feminine. Arabic, like many European languages, has two genders for its nouns, even the non-human ones. For example, ‘sun’ in Arabic is a feminine word, and so the verb connected to it must be feminine. Also, any adjectives relating to gendered words (like the ‘bright’ in ‘bright sun’) must change to a feminine form. On top of all this, Arabic also has the extremely rare dual form, which means that you have to learn a new plural based on whether you have one falafel, two falafels, or a whole damn bunch of falafels.
But learning plurals is easy, right? After all, in English we usually just stick an ‘s’ on the end of words. In Arabic, not so much. Like many Semitic languages, Arabic has issues with vowels. It seems to think they’re not real, and can be changed around whenever you feel like it.
So Arabic has something called a ‘broken plural’, where the ‘real’ part of the word (the consonants) remains the same while vowels are shuffled around, pretty much at random:
Walad (boy) – Awlad (boys); Kitaab (book) – Kutub (books)
On top of all this, there are two forms of Arabic, classic and modern. The former being what you’ll see in books, the latter what you’ll have to use if you ever wake up from a hangover and find yourself in central Baghdad. So the Arabic you learn at school? Probably won’t sound anything like what you hear on the street when you’re desperately trying to find your way to the Green Zone.
As you probably know, the Chinese language is relatively unique in that it doesn’t use an alphabet. Instead, every word is given its own separate character. You’ll need to be able to recognize about 4000 in order to gain a reasonable fluency in reading Chinese, but all in all there are well over forty seven thousand.
This remarkable system means that there are even characters to depict people making random grunting sounds and saying ‘uh’. Yes, really.
Still, Chinese goes on the bottom of this list because the grammar is relatively simple. Once you have shut yourself up in your house for four years learning all those characters, the grammar will come pretty easily.
There’s one more hurdle though: the tones. Even if you succeed in throttling your English-speaking mouth through all the weird new sounds you have to learn, you still have to deal with the fact that Chinese word meanings are influenced according to whether the word is spoken with a rising, falling, rising then falling, or ‘high level’ tone.
Do you consider yourself tone deaf? Maybe it’s better for you to stick to another language then, before you mix up your risings and fallings and end up insulting the mother of a member of the Chinese Communist Party.