“The word I-R-O-N is ‘eye-yern’,” says Larry King, during his 2013 guest appearance on Norm MacDonald Live. “It should be ‘eye-ron’. That’s what makes English the world’s toughest language.”
“It is the toughest language?” replies the host. “To me, it’s the easiest.”
True to MacDonald’s comedic style, there is something rather brilliant in this rejoinder’s naivety. Of course English is the easiest language for him — it’s his mother tongue. But by stating the obvious, he also drives at the strongest counterargument to King’s hypothesis: that a language’s level of difficulty depends entirely on the person who is learning it.
Needless to say, Larry King is not a linguist, and an offhand remark made on a podcast seven years ago is hardly something to get worked up over. The thing is, King’s not the only one speaking in absolutes on this subject. A widely-cited book on language acquisition asserts that “One of the main challenges for children learning to read in English is that it is the hardest language.” “It’s like making children from around the world complete an obstacle course to fully participate in society but requiring the English-speaking participants to wear blindfolds,” reads one Atlantic article on the irregularity of English spelling. Weighty claims — but is there any truth to them?
Read it and weep
English is certainly harder to read than most other European languages. A 2003 study found that English-speaking children’s literacy develops twice as slowly as that of, for example, Finnish or Italian children. The difference is in these languages’ orthographic depth; as King’s “iron” example illustrates, plenty of English words don’t sound the way they’re written. This is a rare occurrence in Finnish and Italian, as well as Greek, Spanish, and German, all of whose phonetic rules are fairly steadfast. “[English] is the worst of all the alphabetical languages. It is unique in that there are not just spelling problems but reading problems. They do not exist anywhere else,” says Masha Bell, member of the English Spelling Society, which advocates for a complete overhaul of the language’s orthography. For this reason, spelling bees are frequently touted as an exclusively Anglo-American phenomenon — although there are other European languages for which comparable competitions exist, such as French and Dutch, which proves that the English spelling system is not the only one that poses challenges for native speakers.
We need only to look outside of Europe to realise that we could have things so much worse. Spare a thought for schoolchildren in China, who are required to learn to write and recognise 3,500 individual characters of their logographic script (wherein one character equals one word), in addition to the Latin alphabet, before they reach high school age. If an Anglophone comes across a word they’ve never seen before, they can at the very least take a guess as to how it’s pronounced — no such luck for Mandarin speakers. The Japanese have to contend with logographs as well as two separate syllabaries (which function like alphabets, except each symbol represents a syllable, not a single consonant or vowel sound). Learning to read a Semitic language (like Arabic or Hebrew) is no cakewalk either, as they are written using abjads — writing systems that generally only mark consonants, leaving the reader to fill in the correct vowel sound themselves.
It’s all relative
In any case, a difficult writing system doesn’t necessarily equate to a difficult language. After all, you can theoretically learn to speak English without learning to read it. What about the essence of the language itself — its grammar and lexicon? Someone who speaks a Romance or Germanic language will likely find learning English relatively straightforward, thanks to the wealth of shared vocabulary and syntactic similarities. An Afrikaans speaker would probably dispute Larry King’s claim, given that the sentence “my pen was in my hand” has the exact same meaning in their language as it does in English. What’s more is that English lacks many of the linguistic elements that cause confusion for learners of other western European tongues. Grammatical gender, still persisting in French, Spanish and German today, had disappeared from English by the end of the 14th century, such that Anglophones no longer have to trouble themselves about whether a fork is a “he” or a “she”.
Perhaps this is why some writers actually argue that English is the easiest language to learn. As Thomas Sheridan declared in the preface to his 1780 dictionary:
Of all the languages known in the world, the English is supposed to be the most difficult; and foreigners in general look upon it as impracticable to arrive at any degree of perfection, either in writing or speaking it. Yet from its nature and constitution, with regard to the grammatical part, it ought to be the most easy of attainment of any other; as upon examination it would appear, that it is built upon the simplest principles, and governed by the fewest rules, of any language yet known.
Sheridan’s logic is questionable, too, of course. English won’t be easy to learn if your native tongue is one whose grammar is completely different. An ESL student from Moscow may struggle with our definite and indefinite articles (the, a, and an), as these are nonexistent in Russian. For a similar reason, it might take a Vietnamese speaker some time to wrap their head around the idea of plurals. And language differences can run deeper still: members of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe gave up on learning to count to ten after eight months of nightly lessons, due to the fact that their own language has no counting system beyond “a small amount”, “a somewhat larger amount”, and “many”.
The title of “world’s toughest language” is therefore clearly unwinnable. There is a conversation to be had, however, about which language is the hardest for English speakers to learn. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it’s Japanese, followed closely by Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean. Interestingly, Korean made its way into the top 5 despite its famously simple alphabet, demonstrating that a language’s writing system can have little to do with its level of difficulty.
Insisting that English is the world’s toughest language (or the easiest, for that matter) is at best misguided; at worst it’s a touch chauvinistic, born out of a belief that our language needs to be recognised as exceptional. In the same vein are the philologists gushing about the unparalleled volume of our lexicon (“the English vocabulary is one of the extraordinary achievements of the human mind,” writes linguist Charlton Laird in The Miracle of Language, as if your average Anglophone knows even ten percent of the reported 750,000 words in the dictionary), as well as those celebrating English as the world’s lingua franca (as if it didn’t get that way because of colonialism). If English is exceptional in any way, maybe it’s that its defenders are the most zealous. A quick Twitter search of the words “English is the hardest language” shows just how widely the misconception has spread. Then again, searching “El español es el idioma más difícil” (Spanish is the hardest language) or “Le français est la langue la plus difficile” (French is the hardest language) will yield similar results. Everyone thinks they’re special — that’s what makes us all alike.