I have never been very good at languages. I took Latin in high school, from the teacher who probably invented it. Then German at U.C. Berkeley, which I enjoyed but could not dedicate much study to. My grandparents across the street spoke mostly Japanese. Since we grew up with them, we have a decent vocabulary, and know the correct pronunciation of much conversational Japanese.
And I have studied numerous online Japanese language courses prior to our visits to Japan. I enjoy Pimsler the most, very straight forward, conversational and interactive. No hangups on grammar.
But Japanese, German, and English do not compare in difficulty to the five most difficult in the world. What are they?
Turkish is the 5th hardest, perhaps most prevalent in its agglutination, in which multiple individual words are pushed together to create a single word with a more complex meaning. Great! The week I spent in Istanbul revealed absolutely none of this to me!
Polish comes next, with challenges in pronunciation and grammar. Polish has Slavic roots, which creates a challenge to English ears, quite possibly because we cannot distinguish between two Polish words with similar sounds. Word orders are also structured the opposite from English. And nouns change their form depending on what is said in each sentence! During the four days I spent there, I did not learn a single word in Polish! Shame on me.
Intuitively, I always figured Arabic to be difficult. It is one of the ten most spoken languages in the world. Arabic words sound very different than English, very guttural from the back of the throat. Plus the written language looks “Greek” to me!
I figured Russian was the hardest, but it is second. I had a horrible time in Russia when I took the Trans Siberian Railway across all of Russia in 2014. My cousin’s father (Dr JW) took Russian in college, and is still quite literate. And I did learn a few words, along with a very basic ability to read their Cyrllic alphabet. Signs in Russia are very seldom in English.
Hardest language, as you might have guessed is Mandarin, spoken by over 873 million people. But it is very challenging for English speakers. Likewise, it is difficult for Germanic and Romance language speakers. There are five tones, one neutral, and four basic tones. Tones can change the meaning of the word. There is no alphabet, but instead, 50,000 characters. Some very interesting conversations occur when different dialects meet, or rather, clash.
For those of you, like my friends in Cambodia, or Katy from England, languages are no problem. Katy is a professional translator, and has also taken to learning Russian, via Skype!! For me, I must have deep seated scars, from my high school Latin teacher.
Sidebar: Funny story. On my very first trip to Germany, actually Munich during the Oktoberfest, I was using the WC in the Bahnhof. A couple of Japanese tourists, asked me, in Japanese, where the Oktoberfest grounds were located. Since I was in German mode, I answered them in German. Can you imagine their shock? Perhaps they expected English or even some Japanese. I had to explain to them I am an American, but speak a little too much bad German!
But I firmly believe in learning some basics in each language of the country plan to visit. Greetings, thank you, basic directions, polite phrases, and always something funny, but politically correct!