Multilinguish: Easiest And Hardest Languages

And the top 3 easiest and hardest languages for English speakers to learn are…
Multilinguish: Easiest And Hardest Languages

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One of the toughest parts of learning a language can be that one initial decision: which language should you learn? Sure, you can take a quiz to help you choose. Or you can think about the various factors to weigh and decide based on those. But maybe you want a simpler way to make your choice — by going for the extremes.

In this episode of Multilinguish, we break down the easiest and hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Then it’s up to you to decide between the low-hanging fruit and the tougher challenge.

Multilinguish: Easiest And Hardest Languages

Senior producer Dylan Lyons (yours truly) is joined by project manager for learning content Elin Asklöv and English language editor Ted Mentele to discuss the easiest and hardest languages.

In the first part of the episode, we reveal the three easiest languages to learn and what makes them more straightforward. Then in the second segment, we move on to the three hardest languages. We explain what makes them more difficult, and why they’re worth learning anyway.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by me, Dylan Lyons, and edited by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Elin Asklöv and Ted Mentele for sharing their expertise and insight on this episode. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.

Transcript

Dylan Lyons: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m Senior Producer Dylan Lyons.

Deciding to learn a new language can be super exciting. Like with any good challenge, you get this thrill to be pursuing a goal that can open new doors. But before the thrill comes the decision, which language should you learn? Well, that mostly depends on your motivation. Are you learning for love, for travel, or just to exercise your brain? Do you want to learn practical things you can use in your community, or do you enjoy linguistic puzzles and learning for the sake of learning? All of these questions may play a role in your choice.

But on today’s episode, we’re going to help you get started by breaking down the three easiest and hardest languages for English speakers to learn. There’s obviously some subjectivity here, but I’ll be joined by two of Babbel’s language experts to explain why these languages made the top of the list. Before we dive in, please take a moment to make sure you’re subscribed to Multilinguish so you get every episode in your feed.

Okay, so I am joined now by my colleagues who have some linguistic expertise. Do you both want to introduce yourselves before we get started? Ted, why don’t you start?

Ted Mentele: My name’s Ted and I’m an editor on the English team and I’ve been working at Babbel for about two and a half years now. And I think that I’ve already had a guest appearance talking about… What were we talking about?

Dylan Lyons: Was that the American Expats in Berlin episode?

Ted Mentele: Ah, yeah. That’s right, it was the ex-pat episode. So it’s good to be back, thanks for having me.

Dylan Lyons: Thanks for coming.

Elin Asklov: Hi, I’m Elin. I’m also on the didactics team. I’m a project manager for learning content and learning media. Thanks for having me.

Dylan Lyons: Yes, great. Well, thank you both for joining me. So you are going to take us through the three easiest languages for English speakers to learn, and then we will talk about the three hardest. But before we dive into the list, I know everyone’s waiting with bated breath, can we just go through a little bit of the methodology? Can you just tell me what characteristics you consider when you decide which are easier or harder languages for English speakers?

Ted Mentele: Sure. There are a few different things that we took into account when making this list. The first thing is how lexically similar the language you’re learning is to your native language is. And basically, that just means how similar are the words of the language, so a language with high lexical similarity will have a lot of cognates, a lot of words that look similar to words in your language and have the same meaning.

Dylan Lyons: We love cognates.

Elin Asklov: Yeah. And another thing is how grammatically similar it is, and also the syntax, so the word order and how you form sentences, that can also be very informative in deciding if it’s easy or not.

Ted Mentele: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We also think about the phonology of the language and how phonologically similar it is to your native language. So there are languages that have different sounds that do not happen in English, and if there are a lot of those sounds in the language that you’re trying to learn, it might end up being a bit harder, right?

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: That makes sense.

Elin Asklov: And then we also thought about the opportunity to practice, the exposure that you’re able to get. Obviously, English is one of the languages with the highest exposure, it’s all over the internet and all over film and TV and media. And it helps a lot if you’re able to get a lot of exposure and also practice opportunities, so that’s also something to think about.

Dylan Lyons: Great.

Ted Mentele: And the last thing that we did really include in the list, because this comes down to each person’s individual background, is if you know any other languages. If you already know a Romance language like Spanish, then that would make picking up French or Italian a lot easier because languages that come from the same language family share a lot of characteristics.

Dylan Lyons: Cool. So now that we’ve established how we came up with this list, let us wait no further, let’s dive in. Drum roll, please. What is the easiest language for English speakers to learn?

Ted Mentele: So the easiest language for English speakers to learn is Afrikaans, and Afrikaans is the… It’s the official language of both South Africa and Namibia, and it is a really close relative to Dutch. And Dutch is already really similar to English, but the reason Afrikaans is the easiest for English speakers to learn is because it’s basically just a simplified version of Dutch. So let’s take a look at Afrikaans and talk a little bit about what makes it easy. The first thing is that you don’t have to learn a new alphabet. There are just a couple of letters that have these diacritic marks on them, so a little mark above the letter like you wearing a hat or something like that. And also, English and Afrikaans, which are both Germanic languages, share a lot of words, so there is that lexical similarity that we’re talking about. In fact, there are entire poems that could be read in either language.

Dylan Lyons: Really?

Ted Mentele: The words are all exactly the same and have the same meaning. Yeah, they just have different pronunciations.

Dylan Lyons: Wow! I didn’t realize it was that similar, that’s incredible.

Ted Mentele: Yeah. I found that pretty crazy as well. Also, something that’s really nice about Afrikaans, a lot of Germanic languages have grammatical gender for their nouns, maybe two or three, masculine, feminine, and sometimes neuter, but Afrikaans, just like English, only has one grammatical gender, so it makes it a lot easier to learn vocabulary and, by nature, also simplifies the grammar. You don’t need to remember gendered adjective endings or worry about how the words change depending on the case you’re using.

Dylan Lyons: That’s actually a really helpful point because I feel like one of the things that I’ve struggled with when learning languages is trying to figure out the genders just because we’re not used to it, coming from English and figuring out, “Oh, what’s the ending of this. And what if you don’t know the gender of the person you’re speaking to or you’re talking to a group?” It just complicate things a lot, so I think that’s really nice.

Ted Mentele: Yeah, exactly. And I mentioned cases before as well, and if you don’t know any cases, that’s totally fine because Afrikaans doesn’t even have them, so nothing to worry about there.

Ted Mentele: Perfect.

Elin Asklov: Woo-hoo, Afrikaans!

Ted Mentele: It’s also really easy in the grammar because verb conjugation is super, super simple. Afrikaans doesn’t change the verb depending on the subject which is objectively easier even than how we do it in English. For example, in English, we have the verb “to be”, so we have “he is, I am, you are” and so on. But in Afrikaans, they do not change. For example, for any personal pronoun, whatever subject you’re talking about, they’re verb “to be” is just “is”. So it’s like, in English, if you could just say, “I is, you is, he is, she is, we is,” it’s easy.

Dylan Lyons: Wow! So is that for all their verbs, you just don’t have to conjugate?

Ted Mentele: Yes, that is for all verbs. No conjugations, really great, huh?

Dylan Lyons: All right, sign me up. I’m ready to learn Afrikaans.

Ted Mentele: All right. So there are no conjugations in the sense of subject-verb agreement, but there are… Sometimes, you’ll need to conjugate a verb and that’s when using a different tense. So in English, we have 12 different tenses, past, future, present-perfect, present-perfect-continuous, all these. And in Afrikaans, you only have three tenses, you have past, present, and future. And another great thing here is that the present form of each verb is also the infinitive, so the base form, as well as the imperative form, the command form that you use to tell someone to do something. So you have…

The present form is those three together, and then to form the future, you just use a helping verb, and in this case, it’s “sal” just like “will” in English. And there, you use “sal” with the present form of the verb, so really, you only need to learn two verb forms, you need to learn the present form and the past form, and then you know all the forms of a verb.

Dylan Lyons: Amazing, I love that.

Ted Mentele: It’s great.

Dylan Lyons: That’s a breeze. So, let me ask you. Other than the fact that it is very easy or relatively easy to learn for English speakers, what’s a good motivation? Why would people want to learn Afrikaans, would you say?

Ted Mentele: Well, it’s the official language of South Africa and Namibia like I said, so if you’re interested in traveling to this part of the world, then that’s great. It’s not the biggest language in the world, it’s only got about 10 million native speakers, but there’s a lot of Afrikaans media and learning materials that you can practice with. And also, South Africans love to travel, you’d probably run into them wherever you go in the world, so you’d have a great opportunity to practice the language there as well.

Dylan Lyons: So is there anything tricky about they language?

Ted Mentele: Ahm. As with learning any language, there’s going to be some tricky bits. And while Afrikaans is a phonetic language, which means that the words sound how they’re spelled, not like English. Once you understand the sounds of the language, this makes it really easy to learn new words, but the tricky part is learning how each letter or combination of letters sounds. Some pronunciations are completely different than you would think, coming from English. For example, the letter combination “tj” can sound like “ch” or “k”, and neither of those is what I would have thought looking at T and J.

Dylan Lyons: Interesting.

Ted Mentele: So I’d say that’s probably the tricky part, it’s getting the phonetic system of the language done.

Dylan Lyons: Got it. Okay. Well, overall, it sounds like not too much of a challenge and a great possible choice for English speakers to take up, so thank you for that. So now, let’s move on to the second easiest language for English speakers to learn which, I believe, is a tie. Is it not?

Elin Asklov: It is. So this is a tie between Norwegian and Swedish. And I’m a little bit biased here, so I will talk mostly about Swedish because that’s also my language. But this is very scientific, so it’s not just me thinking that you’ll also learn Swedish.

Dylan Lyons: But you secretly do want us all to learn Swedish?

Elin Asklov: I secretly do, yeah. Yes.

Dylan Lyons: All right. Okay.

Elin Asklov: Just like with Afrikaans, Norwegian and Swedish are closely related to English, with a lot of cognates. Often, you can guess a word if you have some imagination with the vowels, you spoke about the vowels, or you spell it a little bit differently. It’s not that close so you can write a poem and read it in a new language, but there are definitely a whole bunch of words that are pretty easy to figure out. And also, just like with Afrikaans actually, there’s no verb conjugation so you would say…

Dylan Lyons: Ooh, another one. I love this.

Elin Asklov: Another one, yeah. And this goes for both Norwegian and Swedish and Danish, so all of these Scandinavian or Nordic languages. So that makes it easy to learn and it makes it really easy to get started also because a lot of times, you’d spend so much time trying to figure out how to conjugate a verb when you first learn a language, but with the Scandinavian languages, you can pretty much learn the 20 most common verbs, and that can already take you pretty far because you can just use the same form for everyone. And then there are tenses of course, and they change, but they roughly match English, I would say. There’s no progressive form or gerunds, the [-ing 00:13:35] form in English, so you would say, “Right now, I eat,” not, “Right now, I am eating.”

Dylan Lyons: Oh, that makes it simpler.

Elin Asklov: That actually makes it easy. Yeah, it makes it simpler. Yeah, so I would say those are pretty good contestants actually, and they belong on the top three, I would say.

Dylan Lyons: Okay. Now, you mentioned Danish, but why is Danish not in there?

Elin Asklov: Well, I didn’t want to put Danish on this list. And believe me, I love Danish, it’s one of my absolute favorite languages, but it is very tricky to pronounce, it is completely unphonetic, like nothing is spelled as it is said. And they also use a very strange and unusual way of counting, which is by 20s and then-

Dylan Lyons: What?

Elin Asklov: … you divide it by half.

Ted Mentele: Oh, it’s like French.

Dylan Lyons: Oh no, you have to do math?

Elin Asklov: It’s like French, yeah.

Dylan Lyons: Oh, yeah, French is wild, too.

Ted Mentele: Yeah, I know.

Dylan Lyons: No, I can’t do that.

Elin Asklov: Yeah, you need to do math, but I think what most people end up doing is that they, they’d rather learn everything by heart. But in the other two languages, in the counting system, there is more, well, logic if you will, or it’s easier to apply rules.

Dylan Lyons: Interesting.

Elin Asklov: Yeah. But I mean, they are very similar, the Scandinavian languages, and at least in writing, you are able to understand most of the other ones when you know one.

Ted Mentele: Uh-huh (affirmative), very economical.

Elin Asklov: Yeah, totally.

Ted Mentele: Great.

Dylan Lyons: And I want to ask about… It’s my understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, that most people in the Scandinavian countries also speak English. Is that correct?

Elin Asklov: Ahm. Yeah, that’s correct. The Nordic countries, so also including Finland, is constantly on the top five of countries in the world where English proficiency is the highest, so yeah. But it’s like nobody has to learn a Scandinavian language, but as we know, motivations are different for people, and there are lot of motivations to learn a language, even if they speak good English. Like perhaps, you really want to move there and then it’s helpful, or you want to get to know someone just a little bit better, or you have a partner who speaks the language and you want to get closer to them, that’s also a common motivation.

Dylan Lyons: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And they sound nice, right? They have this sing-songy quality.

Elin Asklov: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, they do, but that can also be a little bit difficult to get that right.

Dylan Lyons: True.

Elin Asklov: Because sometimes the porosity is also important because it carries a lot of meaning, the intonation has some meaning built into it. For example, if you go up in the end of a sentence, you signal politeness, very helpful, which in other languages, that’s the way you ask a question, so that’s very confusing to Swedes learning Spanish, that they just end up asking a lot of question when all they wanted to do was to be polite.

Dylan Lyons: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s almost tonal, but not quite, or would it be considered tonal?

Elin Asklov: Some people consider Swedish and Norwegian tonal. They have a pitch accent, so there are certain words that have different meanings depending on the pitch accent, like [foreign language 00:17:38] [foreign language 00:17:38]. Those are different.

Dylan Lyons: Oh, I don’t really hear a difference, so that would be difficult.

Elin Asklov: So that can be tricky. So we’re actually talking about things that can tricky, and pronunciation is definitely one of them. So the intonation, the tonality, and the vowel sounds… There are a lot more vowel sounds than in English which contributes, I suppose, to this sing-songy quality. And you also have a lot of reductions or contractions which is like words blending together. If you would say the sentence [foreign language 00:18:26], “I’m not here,” if you would say that in how we actually say it, we say [foreign language 00:18:32]. So it can be difficult to-

Dylan Lyons: Oh, so you really smash it together?

Elin Asklov: Of course. Exactly. So it can be difficult, if you listen to that, to actually parse the words together and like, “Where does one word stop and the other one start?” And grammar wise, Swedish and Norwegian do have gendered nouns, but not in the classic way. So Swedish, for example, has two genders, but they’re not masculine or feminine, so they don’t correspond to human gender, if you will, so that can be tricky to learn.

Dylan Lyons: So can you talk a little bit more about that? What are they called?

Elin Asklov: They’re called common and neuter. Neuter, like you have in German… For example, in German you have feminine, masculine and neuter, but something happened around 1000 years ago in Scandinavia that the feminine and masculine just merged together, and they formed a big group of nouns. It’s like 75%, so-

Ted Mentele: Okay. So you can just take a shot in the dark and three quarters of the time, you’re going to be okay?

Elin Asklov: Yeah, most of the time it’s just going to be a common gender.

Dylan Lyons: Okay, that’s not bad.

Ted Mentele: Okay.

Dylan Lyons: Decent odds.

Elin Asklov: No. I mean it’s not… Yeah, it’s not a complete deal breaker, I wouldn’t say.

Dylan Lyons: Okay, great.

Ted Mentele: All right.

Dylan Lyons: Great. So Swedish and Norwegian are both strong candidates if you’re looking for an easier language. Awesome. So lastly, to round out our list of the easiest languages, we have Spanish.

Ted Mentele: Yep, that’s right, Spanish. So I guess, first, we’ll talk a little bit about why it’s easy. It’s easy because it’s a Romance language which means, of course, that it’s based on Latin. And if you speak English, you know a lot of Latin-based words because a lot of our words are also based on Latin. So again, this means lots of cognates, and lots of words that sounds similar have the same meaning, so that, again, makes memorizing vocabulary a lot easier. The pronunciation is also pretty straightforward, it’s a phonetic language. There are, of course, some sounds that don’t occur in English, for example, like the trilled R, which I can’t do for the life of me, that’s really hard.

Dylan Lyons: It took you long?

Ted Mentele: But, of course, with anything, practice makes perfect. I’m sure if you practice over and over again, you can do it.

Dylan Lyons: Yeah. And it’s like, in general, Spanish, it just feels like so much easier to pronounce than even English words, even for an English speaker, I would say. It’s just very straightforward, it’s pronounced generally the way that it’s spelled which is really nice.

Ted Mentele: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, exactly. And I mean, talk about an accessible language, especially if you’re living in the states. There are 45 million native Spanish speakers in the US alone, that’s more than in Spain. It’s more than in Spain, like-

Dylan Lyons: So your practice buddies are right there?

Ted Mentele: Right. Exactly. And the country bordering to the south, Mexico, has the most Spanish speakers of any country in the world, so you’re not far away if you want to go take a little trip and practice, you know?

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: And also, it’s an official language in about 20 other countries, so there are lots of places you can go for travel, practice, meet people.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: Yeah. So that’s another big reason why it’s easy.

Dylan Lyons: It definitely feels very widespread, you can go anywhere and probably find a Spanish speaker.

Ted Mentele: For sure.

Dylan Lyons: The other thing that’s interesting is how much it appears in pop culture and in the media. I think we just naturally got exposed to quite a bit of Spanish, whether it’s… There’s a few Netflix shows that I happen to love that are in Spanish or just bits and pieces of Spanish appearing in the news or in place names, so I feel like we definitely got a lot of exposure.

Ted Mentele: Yeah, exactly. And I’ve also noticed recently, there has been a big trend when there’s just some little random snippet of Spanish in a TV show or in a movie. A lot of times now, they don’t even put subtitles anymore, so it’s almost like for those people who do speak Spanish, a little Easter egg, and you’re going to be like, “Oh, I know what you just said.”

Dylan Lyons: That’s true. Yeah.

Ted Mentele: Another reason to learn, the lack of subtitled Spanish. All right. So I guess, we should talk a little bit about what makes it tricky, yeah?

Dylan Lyons: Yes.

Ted Mentele: There are some tricky grammar rules and tenses. Spanish has a lot of tenses just like English. They do mostly line up with our English ones, so it’s not too hard to learn, but in comparison with Afrikaans and Swedish, it’s definitely a bit trickier. Because Spanish is such a widely spoken language, you’re definitely going to come across situations where there are different ways to say something depending where you are. For example, the [ye 00:24:29] sounds that you’ll hear a lot in Spanish, for example, in the word “yo”, I, or the one that’s made by the two Ls, like the word “ella”, the word for she. In some places, for example, in Argentina, it sounds a bit like, “sho” or “jj,” so you wouldn’t say, “Yo,” you’d say, “Sho,” and you wouldn’t say, “Eyya,” you’d say, “Ejja.”

So you’re going to find that with a language that’s spoken over half of the world, that in some places, it’s diverged a bit, and there’s different rules, different slang, different words that are used, different pronunciations, so that can make it a bit tricky as well. But in general, if you travel to Argentina and you’re speaking standard Mexican Spanish, they’ll understand you.

Dylan Lyons: Right. And Elin, you’ve learned some Spanish. Although, I guess, your native language isn’t English, so it’s a little different, but how have you found it in terms of difficulty?

Ted Mentele: No, I definitely agree with all of this super… It’s great that it’s so phonetic, but I do have a hard time with the verbs. Especially coming from a language where you don’t conjugate anything and learning Spanish, that is tricky because your head just spins in other directions, and you need to constantly think about, “Who am I talking about?”

Dylan Lyons: Yeah, that’s true.

Ted Mentele: That’s hard. And then the conjugations on top of all the tenses and modes and aspects and all of that, the verbs are really what gets me with Spanish.

Dylan Lyons: Yeah, and also the grammatical gender to some extent there as well.

Ted Mentele: Yeah, you do, but it’s easier because it’s so much easier to see from the form of the noun if it’s feminine or masculine.

Dylan Lyons: True. It’s generally like an O or an A, yeah.

Ted Mentele: Yeah. That’s a good thing about it, that it’s very regular in that sense.

Dylan Lyons: Cool. Yeah. I think no one will be terribly surprised that Spanish made the list, but… Oh yeah, one of the thing that we should talk about is the rate of speaking.

Ted Mentele: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dylan Lyons: Ted, do you want to explain that a little bit?

Ted Mentele: Yeah. So as with a lot of other Romance languages, Spanish speakers, they speak quite fast, they speak at about… I found a study where they figured out how many syllables per second, on average, a speaker of a certain language speaks, and for Spanish it’s, I think, the second fastest language. The only faster language is Japanese, and they speak 7.82 syllables a second. It can make parsing individual words quite difficult for our slow English ears. On average, in English, we speak 6.2 syllables per second.

Dylan Lyons: Interesting. So that almost two extra syllables makes a big difference.

Ted Mentele: Exactly. And if you’ve ever heard a native speaker speak in Spanish, you know exactly what I’m talking about, it’s super fast.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: Cool. Well, I think Spanish is a great one. I think a lot of people choose to learn Spanish. I know that for Babbel in the US, it’s by far the most learned language, and it makes sense because there’s so much exposure and there’s so many uses for it, but also, it’s not as difficult as some, so happy it made the top three. So thank you both for that. We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, if anyone is up for a challenge, we’ll talk about the three hardest languages for English speakers, so stick around.

Thomas Devlin: Hello, it’s Thomas from the podcast. Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Our marketing team wants you to know that we offer an app that teaches you 14 languages from Spanish, French, and Italian, to Portuguese, Russian, and more. Babbel’s app is created by real languages teachers and experts. You’ll learn how to have conversations in real-life situations, whether you need to get a restaurant reservation in Russia, or eat your way out of a witch’s gingerbread house in Germany. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a 3-month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast, that’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast.

Dylan Lyons: So before the break, we talked about the three easiest languages for English speakers to learn. And now, we’re going to go to the flip side and talk about the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. So this is good for those of you who are up for a challenge, and we will also talk a bit about why each language is worth learning even though it’s harder, so don’t give up hope or write off these languages. Oh, for sure. But let us start with the hardest language. Ted, what is that?

Ted Mentele: That is Mandarin Chinese. And just a slight disclaimer here, we chose Mandarin Chinese but you could easily choose Cantonese or another dialect as well. We chose Mandarin because it’s the most widely spoken dialect of Chinese.

Dylan Lyons: Makes sense.

Ted Mentele: And it is hard for a lot of different reasons, the first being that it has a completely different alphabet with thousands of special characters. And if you want to be literate in Chinese, you have to learn them all. And for us English speakers, with our measly, little 26 letters, that’s a huge task. So luckily, there is a romanized version of the alphabet called Pinyin that is pretty widely used, but you’re still going to need to learn the characters as well. Also, it’s tonal language. So there’s four different tones, I think there’s high, low, rising, and falling, and depending on the tone that you use, it can completely change the meaning of a word. There are tons of really subtle homophones in Chinese. So for example, the word “ma”, and my tone is way off, but it’s mother, and [mă 00:31:32] is horse.

Dylan Lyons: That could end badly for you.

Ted Mentele: Some embarrassing situations that could result from that. Yeah, so there’s the tones. And also, Chinese speakers use a lot of idioms, and they don’t directly translate. So for example, we have the idiom, translated literally is, “To cast a brick to attract jade,” any idea what that means?

Dylan Lyons: Ahm, no.

Elin Asklov: But it’s beautiful.

Ted Mentele: Yeah. I mean, it’s really nice, but if you heard that and you’re like, “Okay, I know all those words, what does that mean,” it means that you’re just throwing an idea out there, and maybe that idea is not very good, but it will lead to a better idea.

Dylan Lyons: Oh, interesting!

Ted Mentele: Nice.

Dylan Lyons: So you’ll get some jade by the end?

Ted Mentele: Right, exactly. And another one that I found that I liked was, “Nine cows and one strand of hair,” and it’s basically the equivalent of a drop in the bucket, something insignificant, really tiny.

Dylan Lyons: Wow!

Ted Mentele: Yep.

Dylan Lyons: That’s amazing.

Elin Asklov: Nine cows is pretty big.

Ted Mentele: Right.

Dylan Lyons: That’s a lot of cows.

Ted Mentele: But of course, just because it’s hard, it doesn’t that it’s not worth it, right?

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Ted Mentele: There are a lot of reasons to learn Chinese, the first being that it is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world. And it has the most native speakers of any language, it has 1.3 billion native speakers.

Dylan Lyons: Wow!

Ted Mentele: Yeah, so you’ll find someone to talk to if you speak Chinese, that’s for sure. Also, it’s good for your brain. There are studies that suggest that learning Chinese uses more parts of your brain than other languages, so it’s a really great way to keep mentally fit as well.

Dylan Lyons: Oh wow, that’s super interesting, I’ve never heard that. You have to memorize so many characters and use so many different tones and all of that, I guess it makes sense, but that’s very cool.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dylan Lyons: Work that brain.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: Awesome. Yeah, Chinese sounds like a good bet. I know it’s also pretty big in the business world, and so a lot of people choose to learn it if they’re going into global business as well. Awesome. All right. Next up, second hardest language for English speakers, what do we got?

Elin Asklov: Yes. We have a little bit of a wildcard here, I would say. We have put Hungarian on this list. And you might think that so many European languages are making it to the easiest languages list, so why not Hungarian? But in fact, Hungarian is not at all related to any of the other European languages, except for Finnish, Estonian, and Sami. It’s a completely different language family, and it works in a completely different way than other languages in Europe. So one interesting thing about it is that it’s agglutinative which means that you just… Well, I like to think of it that you glue parts together to form one giant monster word. So prefixes and suffixes are added to a word or a base instead of stuff like prepositions or even pronouns, so one word carries a lot of information.

Dylan Lyons: So they must get pretty long?

Elin Asklov: Yes.

Ted Mentele: Yeah. I think I saw a word, it was like 50-some letters long.

Dylan Lyons: Oh my goodness.

Ted Mentele: And it a word that’s not used in everyday conversation, and it’s more an example for Hungarian speakers to show that their language can be overly complex sometimes, but it’s amazing.

Elin Asklov: Yeah. And another complex thing about Hungarian is there all right 26 cases.

Ted Mentele: Wait, how many?

Dylan Lyons: Oh god!

Elin Asklov: So, Ted, you touched on cases before. I mean, the four or five that German has, it seems like child’s play in comparison to 26 of Hungarian.

Dylan Lyons: 26!

Ted Mentele: That’s insane

Dylan Lyons: Glad I didn’t take that in high school.

Elin Asklov: Yeah, exactly. I don’t have, at the time, imagination enough to imagine what they can even be and what you use them for.

Dylan Lyons: Right, beyond our wildest dreams.

Elin Asklov: Yeah. And then a little bit on the phonetic side of things, Hungarian has vowel harmony, so words are supposed to harmonize vowel wise, you can say. You add an extra vowel onto a word to make it sound right, and you have to remember rules in order to do this right.

Dylan Lyons: Huh, that sounds hard, but it also sounds really beautiful, really pretty.

Elin Asklov: Exactly. Yeah. I appreciate that someone cares about harmony.

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Elin Asklov: For sure.

Ted Mentele: Right? Exactly?

Elin Asklov: Yeah. But there are people who learn Hungarian, so why would they do that? I mean, I think that there’s a little wordplay going into this. It’s like solving a puzzle, and if you’re into that and if you’re into maths, all of these cases are just interesting, I believe, to a lot of people.

Dylan Lyons: It’s like the linguistic nerd’s dream language.

Elin Asklov: Exactly. And the vowel harmony and the whole agglutination thing gives it a nice flow and melody, and… Well, there are actually only three tenses also, past, present, and future, so while you have 26 cases, you will have an easier time when you come to the verb phrases.

Dylan Lyons: Okay.

Elin Asklov: Yeah. And then, I don’t know, if you want to explore and experience Hungarian culture, which is an old and rich culture of Europe, then you can do so by learning the language, and it will be easier.

Dylan Lyons: That is true.

Elin Asklov: But, yeah, it’s still difficult. It’s still definitely among the difficult languages.

Dylan Lyons: Cool. So last but not least, the third hardest language for English speakers.

Ted Mentele: The third hardest language is Navajo which is also called Dine in Navajo, and there are, again, several reasons why it’s hard, first of all, being that it’s tonal like Mandarin. And also, it has consonants that are not present in English like “dl,” “dz,” “gh.” And my favorite one, a K with a glottal stop, it just sounds like “k’.”

Dylan Lyons: Oh, that’s cool actually. That’s really cool.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: Yeah, it’s really cool, but wrapping your head around these and making these sounds in the middle of a word that you already aren’t familiar with, not so easy.

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Elin Asklov: For sure.

Dylan Lyons: That’s tough.

Ted Mentele: And like Hungarian, it also has elements of agglutination, so this gluing parts onto words to make a different meaning, but it’s so unpredictable that some linguists don’t even consider it to be agglutinative. So I don’t even know what that means, and it’s already sounding really intimidating.

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Ted Mentele: Yeah. And also, it has almost no loan words from other languages, so all the words in Navajo are just in Navajo, so good luck learning the vocab.

Dylan Lyons: Right, and I think we take that for granted because we have so many loan words in English from other languages.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: For sure, yeah. And also, interestingly because of the lack of loan words and the difficult grammar… Maybe you know this, during World War II, the allies employed Navajo code talkers to send encoded messages, and so they would basically speak in some kind of code using Navajo words, and it was the only spoken code that was never deciphered in World War II.

Dylan Lyons: Yeah. I think that story is so fascinating. And we actually have an article about the Navajo code talkers, so if you’re interested, I’ll put the link in the show notes, a shameless promotion there. But, yeah, that just tells you how difficult it is off the bat because they chose it as their indecipherable code.

Ted Mentele: Right. Exactly. And the last thing, we talked about this opportunity for practice, exposure thing, and with Navajo, it is… While is the most widely-spoken Native American language, it still only has about 170 thousand speakers, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to practice, and it’s pretty geographically isolated to the Southwest of the United States.

Dylan Lyons: Right, okay.

Ted Mentele: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: So if you live in Arizona, New Mexico, then you’re more likely to encounter it?

Ted Mentele: Exactly.

Dylan Lyons: Okay. So let’s look at the other side. Why is it worth learning anyway?

Ted Mentele: Well, by learning Navajo, you would contribute to the preservation of a minority language, hence, culture. I guess there aren’t a lot of speakers, and so every extra speaker that this language could get, I think, is a good thing, right?

Dylan Lyons: Absolutely.

Ted Mentele: It’s also wildly different from most of the languages people commonly learn, so it might be a fun and unique challenge and a little feather in your cap to say, “Oh yeah, I know a little bit of Navajo.”

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: And I would say the last thing, and this is true of all of the languages that we’ve talked about today, not just Navajo, it offers unique angles for looking at the world. The more languages you know, the more ways to talk about the same thing, the wider your horizons are, your worldview, and the more enriched your experience of the world, so it’s not a bad reason.

Dylan Lyons: I totally agree. And I do want to close with just a caveat of sort which is that everyone’s different and we all find different things challenging, and also, just because something is challenging doesn’t it’s not worth doing which, I think, is important to drive home. All of these languages are incredible in their own ways and offer a lot of really cool opportunities if you decide to learn them.

Elin Asklov: Yeah, for sure. And also, if you’re motivated to learn Hungarian, that will be easier for you than if you have absolutely no motivation to learn Spanish, I believe.

Ted Mentele: Right. I would agree with that as well.

Dylan Lyons: Right.

Elin Asklov: Yeah.

Ted Mentele: Yeah.

Dylan Lyons: Great. All right. Well, thank you both for coming on today and for talking to us about the easiest and hardest languages.

Elin Asklov: Thank you.

Ted Mentele: Thanks for having us, Dylan.

Dylan Lyons: I appreciate it.

Ted Mentele: It was great to be on.

Dylan Lyons: Thank you so much, and I’ll talk to you later.

Ted Mentele: All right.

Elin Asklov: Yes.

Ted Mentele: Bye.

Elin Asklov: Bye.

Dylan Lyons: Multilinguish is a production of the language app, Babbel. This episode was produced by me, Dylan Lyons, and edited by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Elin Asklov and Ted Mentele for sharing their expertise. You can read about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine, just visit B-A-B-B-E-L,.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us @BabbelUSA. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. Thanks for listening.

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Author Headshot
Dylan Lyons
Dylan is a senior content producer, overseeing video and podcast projects for the U.S. team. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS News. He’s currently pursuing his MBA part-time at NYU Stern. His interests include podcasts, puppies, politics, alliteration, reading, writing, and dessert. Dylan lives in New York City.
Dylan is a senior content producer, overseeing video and podcast projects for the U.S. team. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS News. He’s currently pursuing his MBA part-time at NYU Stern. His interests include podcasts, puppies, politics, alliteration, reading, writing, and dessert. Dylan lives in New York City.

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