/ Linguistics

Rank of Language Difficulty

Which language is most difficult?

In our last post, we talked about developing an objective method for comparing language difficulty across three aspects: vocabulary acquisition, syntax and grammar, and phonology. Languages are oral and most do not have writing systems, and those that do have a huge disconnect with actual speech, so our language difficulty rating does not take writing systems into account (and I strongly suggest to stop relying on the written word to learn a foreign language).

Today let's take a look at a few languages and objectively compare their difficulties with data!

Vocabulary Acquisition

English EN: Germanic>West with lots of Romance vocabulary (base language)

In order of difficulty (these numbers depend on the base language):

LanguageFamilyPoints
GermanIndo-European>Germanic>West0
FrenchIndo-European>Romance5
SpanishIndo-European>Romance5
PolishIndo-European>Slavic>West10
RussianIndo-European>Slavic>East10
ArabicAfroasiatic>Semitic100
GeorgianKartvelian100
UbykhNorth Caucasian100
Japanese>50% Sinitic vocabulary100
Korean>50% Sinitic vocabulary100
ChineseSino-Tibetan>Sinitic100
Taiwanese HokkienSino-Tibetan>Sinitic>Min100
ThaiTai-Kadai100
FinnishUralic>Finnic100
HungarianUralic>Ugric100
Syntax and Grammar for Fluency

English: SVO, AN, GN, DN, NR, 0, 2, 2, 1, preposition (base language)

In order of difficulty (these numbers depend on the base language):

LanguagePoints
Taiwanese Hokkien3
Thai3
Vietnamese3
Chinese4
Finnish6
Ubykh6
Japanese9
Hungarian9
Korean10
French11
Spanish11
Georgian15
Arabic21
German21
Russian25
Polish28
Phonology for Fluency

English: 39 phonemes including allophones (American English base language)

In order of difficulty (these numbers depend on the base language):

LanguagePoints
Finnish4
Georgian4
Spanish4
French5
Arabic6
Japanese6
Vietnamese-Northern6
German7
Hungarian8
Mandarin Chinese-Taiwan10
Thai11
Mandarin Chinese-Beijing13
Polish16
Taiwanese Hokkien19
Korean20
Russian23
Ubykh57
Total Scores and Rank on a 10-Point Scale for Fluency
LanguagePoints10-Point ScaleGlossika Fluency Course
Spanish201Spanish
French211French
German282German
Polish543Polish
Russian583Russian
Vietnamese1096Vietnamese
Finnish1106Finnish
Mandarin Chinese-Taiwan1147Mandarin-Taiwan
Thai1147Thai
Japanese1157Japanese
Hungarian1177Hungarian
Mandarin Chinese-Beijing1177Mandarin-Beijing
Georgian1197Georgian
Taiwanese Hokkien1227Taiwanese
Arabic1277Arabic
Korean1308Korean
Ubykh16310no plans for this

Reaction to Results

I must say that I'm quite surprised with the final difficulty ranking for Korean. Out of the languages I know (which doesn't include Ubykh) I was actually expecting Taiwanese Hokkien to take the crown for most difficult due to its insane tone sandhi and nasals. But Taiwanese Hokkien has few points of articulation and relatively simple grammar.

Let's compare these results with the Voxy.com article "hardest-languages-infographic". I've included our total points after each language for comparison.

  • Easy: Portuguese (19), Spanish (20), French (21), Italian (20), Dutch (19), Swedish, Afrikaans, Norwegian.
  • Medium: Hindi (51), Russian (58), Vietnamese (114), Turkish (116), Polish (54), Thai (114), Serbian, Greek, Hebrew, Finnish (110)
  • Hard: Arabic (127), Chinese (114), Japanese (115), Korean (130)

There's no reason to put Vietnamese, Turkish, Thai and Finnish in the Medium group at all. These are clearly easy languages in terms of grammar and in terms of phonology. The only thing difficult about them is that the vocabulary is completely foreign.

If we ignore vocabulary, Arabic (27) is one point easier than German (28); Chinese (14) is one point easier than Spanish (15), Japanese and Spanish are the same (15), and Korean (30) is only two points more difficult than German (28) and fourteen points easier than Polish (44).

Stay tuned because we'll be talking a lot about language difficulty in up-coming posts!

Michael Campbell

Polyglot, phonologist, linguist specialising in Formosan, PAN, Sinitic, Slavic, typology, IPA, and L2. Does GSR training daily.

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