What Makes a Language Difficult?

Determining the difficulty of a language is itself a difficult task. As we’ve argued before, there really isn’t such a thing as a hard language to learn. Since learning a second (or third or fourth) language comes down to motivation, the “objective difficulty” of a language plays a much smaller role than you might think. Just think about the French classes you had to take in high school – despite French being an easy language for English-speakers to learn, the vast majority doesn’t leave school speaking it fluently.

However, there is definitely an intuition that some languages have a lot more bells and whistles than others. Gendered nouns and evidentiality markers are just two features some languages have busied themselves with that English-speakers would find unnecessarily complicated. So, today, we’re taking a look at some of what can make a language either difficult or easy.

Big = simple?

One thing that might help determine the difficulty of a language is the number of people who have had to learn it as a second language. Essentially, one could argue that big languages are also easier to learn. Now, this says nothing about the inherent difficulty of the language. Instead, if a language has to be learned by adult non-native speakers (usually in order to do business), it often starts dropping the more complicated aspects of its grammar.

Take Swahili, for example. Swahili has been used as a lingua franca in East Africa for a long time – it is the language in which trade happens. And so, over the years it has dropped quite a few of the more infuriating grammatical tics that other Bantu languages retain. Of course, for your average English-speaker, it still looks like a complex language but it is certainly easier than a number of others in its group. In contrast, if you look at small languages, which are mainly taught natively to the children of a particular community, there is no such wearing down. This process is called partial pidginisation and essentially means that the most dominant global languages also become easier to learn over the years.

When a pidgin becomes a creole

There is another method for language simplification that has to do with pidgins. Pidgin languages, in general, have the characteristic of being as simple as possible. Although they can’t be considered actual languages since they help to carry only the most basic communication, there is one way that simplicity carries over to an actual language. And that is when a pidgin is expanded into a fully fledged creole language. This process doesn’t happen very often but, when it does, the result is a new language that lacks the grammatical baggage of old languages.

One of the most famous examples of this is Tok Pisin, today spoken as an official language by around 4 million people in Papua New Guinea. The language got its start as an English-based pidgin used by Pacific Islanders. These islanders were brought to work on plantations in either Australia or elsewhere in the region, mostly working under English-speaking foremen. Since they came from different islands, they didn’t share a common language and a pidgin version of English was developed for basic communication. Over time, however, the pidgin expanded drawing on vocabulary and grammar from both European and Pacific languages. Today, Tok Pisin is widely recognised as a creole and taught to children as their first language.

A long history of language change

The previous two parts described what can make a language more simple. But what, then, makes a language difficult? The short answer to that would be – time.

All languages change over time. And while it might be nice to think that they evolve towards some Grand Goal of ultimate understandability, that is simply not the case. Much of language change has to do with chance. That is how we got the whole group of Romance languages from the single predecessor of Latin. Drift and flukes in pronunciation have led us to the point where Latin is now divided into separate languages which, although similar, are mutually unintelligible.

Chance-fuelled change also means that languages gather a whole lot of linguistic baggage over time. There is no reason for languages to have grammatical genders for their nouns, retain unnecessary inflections which could be left to context, or even have the number of past tenses that many do. However, once these things develop (a process which is so slow that it’s difficult to observe changes before they’ve solidified), it’s also almost impossible to get rid of them. This is how we got tones in tonal languages and why you need to decline nouns and adjectives in fourteen cases in Estonian.

The question of familiarity

And so the question what you might consider difficult about a language comes down to what you’re used to or familiar with. According to some research, English should actually be considered among the weirdest languages on the planet but you don’t often think about it.

Take for example the word “do” in English. Why is it there? What purpose does it serve? If you’re asking someone “Do you want to go for a walk?”, why exactly do you need that “do” there? In any other major European language, you would translate that question simply as “Want you to go for a walk?” (Or even “Want you go walk?”) And once you get over the initial weirdness of that sentence, you’ll see how it actually makes a lot of sense.

And let’s not even get started on the unnecessary progressive tenses.

However, if you have grown up in a mostly English-speaking environment, all of this seems completely normal and you cringe at the thought of declining your nouns or using the pitch of your voice to carry meaning. Because English is so prevalent in the world, its idiosyncrasies don’t often strike us as so peculiar.

Conclusion – Difficulty is subjective but languages do sometimes lose complexity

All natural languages have weird grammatical tics that have stuck around in them without making much sense. So, what you consider difficult in a language will come down to what you’re used to, and the answer is different for everyone. However, there are some processes that can make some languages lose some of their complexity. For example, partial pidginisation can wear down some of the more complicated grammatical aspects for old languages. And when a new language is created by expanding a pidgin, they are often created without many of the bells and whistles older tongues suffer under.