All children are born with the same kind of brain wiring, so they’re equally adept at learning any possible human language. For a new-born, any language is, in principle, as easy or as difficult to learn as any other. But from the early teens, due to the loss of neurons in the brain, it becomes more difficult to acquire a new language with native-like competence.
From this perspective, the issue of which language is most difficult to learn from scratch is only really relevant for learning second or other languages, after a mother tongue (or tongues, in the case of bilingual communities) has been acquired. And in the context of learning a second language, then this the answer to this question in fact depends on what your native language is, as your brain has been preconfigured to that recognise and produce that particular language.
"As humans the world over have, broadly, the same physiology, and hence, same capacity for sound and speech production, we therefore have the same physical potential to speak any other language."
Language is varied. Obviously, as humans the world over have, broadly, the same physiology, and hence, same capacity for sound and speech production, we therefore have the same physical potential to speak any other language. Nevertheless, there’s a huge variation in terms of sounds used by any given language – not all languages select the same set of sounds.
The kind of British English (Received Pronunciation) that I speak, for instance, has about 40 to 50 distinct sounds. Linguists call these phonemes – each word is made up of a different set of sounds.
So, for example, the word ‘cat’ has three separate sounds: /k/, /æ/, and /t/. Some of the African languages – and particularly some of the ‘click’ languages – can have many, many more. Some of the Western African languages and some of the indigenous languages in the Americas have a very high number – up to 144 distinct sounds. Other languages have far fewer sounds. Hawaiian only has 11, while there’s an Amazonian language with 10 sounds for females, while the males make use of 11 distinct sounds.
The advice from the Foreign Service Institute is that, if you’re an English native speaker, then Japanese is the most difficult language to learn – followed by Arabic, Polish, Georgian, Mandarin, Hungarian and Thai. Essentially, these are all languages that have a totally different vocabulary system, pronunciation and grammatical system when compared to English.
Vyvyan Evans is the author of The Crucible of Language: How Language and Mind Create Meaning.