Everyone seems to think their native language is more difficult than everyone else’s. But is it really?

People are fond of stating that English is a difficult language to learn, with all its many idiosyncrasies. Currently trying to wrap my head around Spanish, I’m starting to think it’s more difficult – for a start they use genders, which we don’t in English.

The idea of languages being ‘difficult’ to learn surely has more to do with perception than reality. For native English speakers, Chinese would seem difficult as it has many different tones, which are unfamiliar. The unfamiliar is often a source of bemusement and fear.

This article in The Economist explores the idea of languages being ‘difficult’ and concludes that Tuyuca, a language of the eastern Amazon, is the hardest:

It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

What’s the most difficult language you’ve come across?