It's quite common to talk about the relative difficulty(1, 2, 3, etc) of languages. But do languages have an inherent difficulty?

Put another way, perhaps, are some languages easier or more difficult to learn for native learners (children)? Or are all languages learned as quickly and easily by natives?

For the purpose of this question, I'm interested primarily in learning to understand and speak a language, as opposed to reading or writing.

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    I'd say probably, but it would be pretty hard to conduct an unbiased study on the matter. Different cultures of parenting and teaching can affect how quickly children learn languages (and to what proficiency) just as much if not more than the languages themselves. – intcreator Jul 17 '16 at 6:27

My linguistics professors at university told me that all languages are roughly equally difficult because children learn their native language at roughly the same speed across the world. Languages that are difficult in one respect (say, morphology) are usually easier in another respect (say, word order). However, "language" in this kind of statement refers to the spoken language, not to the writing system.

Writing systems vary greatly in difficulty, i.e. in how closely they reflect the pronunciation. For some languages, e.g. Finnish, the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is very obvious. For some languages, e.g. Chinese, this is not the case. The Chinese writing system is so difficult that proposals to simplify it (or even replace it with a different script, e.g. Latinxua Sin Wenz) date back to the late 19th century (i.e. they predate the Communist Party of China's simplification efforts). For example, Lu Xun was in favour of this kind of reform. There is also a nice YouTube video that claims that Tibetan is the hardest language to spell.

However, there are also languages that have been designed to be easy to learn, especially international auxiliary languages such as Esperanto. Esperanto, for example, has a very regular grammar and very consistent word derivation rules. In this case, learning the grammar of the language is inherently easier, even though the vocabulary may still pose problems, especially for speakers of non-Indo-European languages.

P.S.: The presence of a case system may also affect the learnability of a language.


Firstly, it does seem that some languages might be inherently more difficult than other languages to learn in the classroom. This is because many languages have large amounts of irregulars, exceptions to grammar rules, and things like that. Some languages also have larger useful lexicons than others, but that seems pretty marginal.

However, given that babies tend to have the neuroplasticity necessary to learn any language, the difficulty really comes out after that skill has been dulled by age. In these cases, it seems much more likely that "difficulty" is related more to what languages the person knew before. For example, the reason that many accents emerge from non-native speakers is because, among other things, people who learn languages later in life have to filter pronunciation through the systems of speaking that they learned when they were children (and in some cases the shapes of their palates and vocal chords also affect this). In these cases, it is probably easier to learn a Romance language if you know one already, but it would be much more difficult to switch to German, or a tonal language like Mandarin.

It seems as though children can pick up on most languages pretty easily, given the way their brains are prepped for language. Noam Chomsky writes a lot about biolinguistics in the context of this linguistic theory.

The only notable exception to this is if a created language doesn't follow a clear grammatical system that Chomsky outlines. For example

"Creoles are languages that develop and form when disparate societies come together and are forced to devise a new system of communication. The system used by the original speakers is typically an inconsistent mix of vocabulary items, known as a pidgin. As these speakers' children begin to acquire their first language, they use the pidgin input to effectively create their own original language, known as a creole. Unlike pidgins, creoles have native speakers (those with acquisition from early childhood) and make use of a full, systematic grammar."

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    I don't see how the statement that people's brains are biologically similar supports the argument that difficulty is not an inherent trait in language. Languages are not simply direct products of biology; they have evolved for thousands of years, and have each been influenced by different cultures, by people living in different geographic and climactic conditions, influences from other languages (invasions, ...) etc. Biology appears orthogonal to difficulty because of this long evolution and the many different influences that languages have undergone. – Christophe Strobbe Oct 5 '16 at 11:15

Yes, there is such a thing as an inherent difficulty of a language. All languages are learnable by children, but it is clear that there are features that require more time to learn, and languages having these features can be classified as inherently harder than others.

Consider research on first-language acquisition of past tense inflection in Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish by Ragansdóttir, Simonsen & Bleses. In short, Icelandic has complex morphology (compared to Norwegian and Danish) and Danish has complex phonology (compared to Norwegian and Icelandic). The summary of the results is that acquisition of past tense morphology takes most time in Danish, less in Icelandic, and even less in Norwegian. We can see that the phonological and morphological complexity both play a role here, and and overcoming phonological complexity is a harder task than overcoming morphological complexity.

Based on these results, we can expect that languages that have simple morphology and phonology, such as Indonesian, can be ranked as inherently simpler than most other languages. Yet, I don't think we can make a total ordering of languages from the simplest to the hardest.

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