Ah, language learning. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of learning a language; I collect them like a hobby. While I’m only fluent in a very small number, I can casually speak quite a few because I enjoy dipping my toes into a language. I know a lot of people are not so happy about it; many folks struggle with languages in the same way I would struggle in math – and just as irritates me when people who are good with numbers tell me how easy Calculus is, I know it’s irritating to people when I tell them how easy it is to learn a language.
So, let’s take a different tack this time around. What’s the hardest language in the world to learn for an English-speaker? While some might suggest Arabic or Cantonese, I would suggest that Hungarian (or Magyar, as the natives sometimes refer to it) is hands-down the most difficult language for an English-speaker to learn.
The Case of the Infinite Cases
The first piece of evidence for my suggestion is the fact that Hungarian has 35 distinct cases. English, by way of contrast, has largely abandoned the case system – the remnants are still there, but in general it’s possible to speak quite clearly and correctly without any understanding of case in English, and in fact many do.
Now, the number ‘35’ is misleading. You’ll often see 18 as a more reasonable number. The reason for this disparity is the fact that many of these ‘cases’ apply only to prepositions, which are then appended to the words themselves. So, yes, there is such a thing as the Accusative case in Hungarian, but that simply means that a single letter gets attached to the word to mark it as an object. Still, whether 18 or 35, the Case system in Hungarian is a nightmare.
Idioms, Verbs, and Pronunciation
Sadly, the terror of Hungarian doesn’t end there – Hungarian is a very expressive language that relies on idioms more than other languages, meaning it seems like a secret code to newcomers. In addition to all those cases, there are also 14 different vowels, nearly twice as many in English, and this not only makes spelling and comprehension difficult, it means the words themselves are nightmares of unfamiliar appearance. Consider Italian or French: As you an English speaker, you might recognise many of the words in those languages by sight. This will not happen in Hungarian. Plus, there are two verb forms, the definite and indefinite, just to ensure you’re driven completely mad.
And Hungarian is difficult to speak and understand, as well, using a lot of ‘throaty’ sounds that are not only tough for people to mimic, but can actually be a little painful at replicate at first, until you get used to it. Consider the word for computer, számítógép. Do you have any idea how to pronounce that? I thought not!
Image courtesy langhacking.com