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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Top 5 Hard Languages to Learn for English speakers

1. Arabic

Arabic breaks down into families. One is the Modern Standard Arabic of print, media, and online content. The other is spoken Arabic, which encompasses many colloquial dialects which vary by region. This means that if you pick up conversational Arabic in Tunisia, it might still be tough to be understood in Kuwait.

For all dialects of Arabic, pronunciation is difficult for English speakers, as many consonants are formed at the back of the mouth.

Arabic script is a phonetic, 28-symbol alphabet descending from Phonecian. Most letters change shape depending on their position in the word, and letters may or may not be joined. The most basic challenge in tackling written Arabic is in reading from right to left, working against an English speaker’s deeply embedded instinct.

Arabic grammar has very few parallels with English and Indo-European languages. The plural is expressed by changing the vowel structure of the word: kitab (book) becomes kutub (books). The bulk of verbs are irregular and can be formed 25 ways. It’s a logical grammar system, but a complicated one too.

2. Basque
'Freedom to choose the Basque language'
Thousands of southern Navarrese demonstrated yesterday in Pamplona in
demand of equal rights in access to education and services in the Basque language.
from leherensuge.blogspot.com
In a study conducted by the British Foreign Office, Basque was ranked as the hardest language to learn. Geographically surrounded by Romance languages, it is one of the only language isolates of Europe, with no syntactic parallels to English. The regional dialects are highly diverged, though a standardized Basque is used for media and academics.

Like many languages on this list, Basque is agglutinative, meaning that words are formed and modified with prefixes and suffixes. While “law” is lege in Basque, the phrase “according to the law” would be structured by suffixes as “legearen arabera.” Instead of prepositions, Basque uses cases endings to show the relationship between words, such as mendi (mountain) and mendira (to the mountain). It sounds simple, but with eleven cases, each taking four forms, the grammar is complex.

Basque is written in the Roman alphabet and pronunciation is fairly easy, even with new consonant sounds like tx or tz.

Cantonese is a tonal language, which can be hugely challenging for English speakers who are used to speaking with emphasis (“I didn’t eat YOUR sandwich!”) and inflection, rising tones to pose a question. Cantonese can be difficult even for those fluent in other Chinese dialects because of its tonal system. While Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has eight, with pitch and contour shaping a syllable’s meaning.

Chinese has a logographic (pictoral) writing system of 5000+ characters. This gives a new hurtle to language learning, since a reader of Cantonese can’t sound out syllables in a text as we can with phonetic alphabets. They must know and recall the name of each character. It is a myth that all Chinese languages are written in the same logographic form, though Cantonese and Mandarin share many traits of their writing systems, and the Mandarin writing system is often used by Cantonese speakers.

Barry Farber, the author of “How to Learn any Language” and a polyglot many times over, says that Finnish is one of the hardest languages for him to learn.

Finnish is in the Finno-Ugric language family, with Estonian and Hungarian. Without Germanic or Latin influence, Finnish vocabulary is completely alien to English speakers. Its grammar is also somewhat notorious. There are fifteen noun cases, sometimes with subtle differences. Talotta means “without a house,” while talolta means “from a house.” Tricky.

There are six verb types, classed by their stems. These stems alter as the verbs are conjugated. The language is agglutinative and verbs are conjugated with a succession of suffixes.

The good news? Finnish is written as it sounds (in the Roman alphabet!), and pronunciation is comfortable for English speakers. A common speaking problem lies in remembering single or double vowel sounds, as in tuli (fire) and tuuli (wind).

Letter in Hungarian Language
from Learning Hungarian 

Though it uses the Roman alphabet for writing, don’t think that reading Hungarian will be a snap. Unique vowel sounds (á,é,ó,ö,ő,ú,ü,ű,í) and consonant clusters (ty, gy, ny, sz, zs, dzs, dz, ly, cs) make it difficult for English tongues to read and pronounce Hungarian.

Instead of articles, Hungarian conjugates verbs in one of two ways for definite and indefinite objects. Olvasok könyvet means “I read a book,” while Olvasom a könvyet is “I read the book.”

Because possession, tense, and number are indicated by suffixes, not word order in a sentence, Hungarian sentence structure is very loose and flexible. The truth is that any sentence can take on several meanings if the suffixes are altered slightly. It’s a confusing system to learn.

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