Hardest language to pronounce?

  • Moro12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    I love languages, and I tried to learn over a dozen of them (though, to a different extent). I learned various European languages (English, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and others) as well as a few oriental languages: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, very little of Korean, very little of Cambodian, and finally, I learned Georgian.

    I feel quite comfortable with most of foreign sounds due to some practice. I’ve used to the aspirated consonants of English, German, Chinese, Thai, Cambodian and Georgian. I’ve used to the ejective consonants of Georgian. And I do not have any troubles with its complex consonant clusters either. I’ve used to the nasal vowels of French. I’ve used to the Mandarin Chinese tones as well. In the beginning the tones seemed difficult for me, but I practiced them a lot and finally got used to.

    As regards the pronunciation difficulties:
    1. The hardest thing for me is not producing a sound correctly, but hearing the differences in another’s speech. One of the hardest sounds for me is the NG-sound [ŋ]. No, I have no difficulty with pronouncing it. Its articulation is easy, and I feel my tongue positioned in a completely different way when I pronounce N and NG. But I still fail to distinguish N and NG by ear. My native language does not have this sound, and I have to listen very carefully in order to tell them apart. I tried some listening exercises, but it is still mainly the context which helps we to understand if it was “sin” or “sing”, “ton” or “tongue” etc. I do not know why, but this sound keeps confusing me though I barely ever confuse any other consonants. Just N and NG sound pretty much the same for my ear.
    2. Generally I find distinguishing similar vowels to be much harder than distinguishing similar consonants. The English vowels are quite difficult for me; I find the French vowels to be easier. I can distinguish between English vowels if only I pronounce them slowly and carefully. And I do not always hear the difference, especially when someone speaks fast. The hardest vowel pairs for me are DUCK-DOCK, COT-CAUGHT and PULL-POOL. As to SIT-SEAT and SET-SAT, they are much easier. However, there is another interesting fact: I easily distinguish SET and SAT in my pronunciation, but it seems I exaggerate the difference. When listening to American native speakers of English, I find their MAN almost like MEN sometimes.
    3. A similar problem is with Cambodian: it has even more vowels to be distinguished than English does. And some of the Cambodian vowels really sound too much alike. For example, it differentiates between a front [a] and a back [ɑ], each of them can be either short or long, as well as diphthongs like [ai], [ae] and [aə], and many other similar things.
    4. Some of the tonal languages are also hard. The Mandarin Chinese tones are not that difficult: there are only 4 of them, and the difference is easily heard. I struggle with the Thai tones much more: it has 5 distinct tones, some of them being barely distinguishable, especially the mid tone and the low tone.
    But the main difficulty in Thai is not just 5 tones. In Chinese, the vowel length is not an independent vowel property, it is just a feature of the tone: the 1st tone is quite long, the 4th tone is the shortest. As to the Thai vowels, each of them can be short or long, regardless the tone. Thus, in fact we get 10 different possibilities: 5 short tones and 5 long tones, e.g. pan (1) – pan (2) – pan (3) – pan (4) – pan (5) – paan (1) – paan (2) – paan (3) – paan (4) – paan (5). When pronouncing a long vowel, it is easier to distinguish tones since you have enough time to produce a clear tone contour. Distinguishing tones in short vowels is something that drives me crazy.​


    But neither of the languages above is the hardest to pronounce. I have never dared to try to learn Arabic. I believe the Arabic guttural consonants would be really hard for me.

    And that’s still a “kindergarten” as we say it in Russia. If you really want some phonetic challenges, then here you are:
    1. Extremely unusual are the “click” languages of South Africa. I would not go into details since there are already some posts on them here.
    2. Some languages distinguish vowel phonations. It is also very unusual for Europeans and hard to learn. For example, there is specific “harsh voice”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harsh_voice. An example of the language which distinguishes phonations is Dinka in Sudan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinka_language. Let me cite: “The Dinka southeastern dialect is known to contrast modal voice, breathy voice, faucalized voice, and harsh voice in its vowels, in addition to its three tones.”.
    The oddest phonation is the strident voice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strident_vowel which exists in some of South African languages (they also possess lots of click consonants).
    And, finally, it seems to be extremely hard for most of people to learn a language where different phonations co-exist with an extensive tonal system. An example is Mpi language in the North of Thailand which has 2 phonations (modal and stiff) and 6 tones, so we get 2 x 6 = 12 distinctive possibilities.
     
    Last edited:

    Moro12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    As my native language is Russian, I wouldn't consider Polish being hard at all. I even learned a bit of Polish, and can read it pretty well. The only difficulty might be the Polish nasal vowels, but they are not unique to Polish. Some experience in French and Portuguese would solve the problem.
    That's just a Slav's opinion. Non-Slavs would surely disagree.

    Among the rest of the Slavic languages, I'd say Czech is a bit harder than Polish. But that's due to its extensive distinction of short and long vowels. Also Czech uses syllabic consonants (as in "prst", "vlk"), and Polish does not.
     

    Moro12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Wow, a nice one!
    I can say it if only pronouncing slowly and carefully. But the tongue twisters are a different thing. Saying them fast requires multiple exercises :)
    I still cannot do a very short and famous Russian tongue twister: Купи кипу пик ("Kupi kipu pik" for those who cannot read Cyrillic). When trying to say it fast my tongue gets tangled by those alternating K and P, and I stop stammered!
     

    LilianaB

    Banned
    Lithuanian
    It is a poem, in fact by Jan Brzechwa. It is Szczebrzeszyn, making it even worse. I am sorry. Here is the whole text. The entire poem is a tongue twister, but not only that.http://www.tenpieknyswiat.pl/2007/05/09/w-szczebrzeszynie-chrzaszcz-brzmi-w-trzcinie P.S. The mouse may be something extra in the twister.

    Lithuanian may be a difficult language to pronounce too. This is my favorite tongue twister:
    Šešios žąsys su šešiais žąsyčiais.
     
    Last edited:

    Moro12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    The c should have a diacritic, but I could not find it here.
    May I guess? Do you mean this one: č? You can try copy-pasting it into your original post.
    BTW, if you have MS Word, you can always use the "insert symbol" option, and then find a necessary letter in the long list of available symbols.

    Lithuanian may be a difficult language to pronounce too.
    I believe yes. I saw a textbook of Lithuanian for Russians. It was interesting, but the book was not mine and I had to give it back then.

    What surprised me a lot is that Lithuanian not only had 2 different accentuation types (acute and circumflex if I don't mistake) - that's already challenging, but that the accent could sometimes be placed on a consonant! Something like in combinations of "yl", "ar", "ir" etc. the accent was shown not on the vowel itself but rather on the consonant next to it! I still cannot imagine how it is pronounced like that.
     

    LilianaB

    Banned
    Lithuanian
    Yes, it is kind of complicated. It is better to just listen to the sounds. I am not too good with describing sounds in any language. I think the best way is just listening to how they are pronounced.
     

    Youngfun

    Senior Member
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    I think that my native language is the most difficult language to pronounce: the Qingtian dialect (China) :)
    We that speak it since children but I have seen very few people learn it as an adult.

    Here is a video
     

    arielipi

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    For west Europe, and all other languages that don't use the throat sounds, Semitic languages are very hard(in particular for the anglo-languages due to have a-sex system)...

    I often hear people describing the attempt to produce such sounds feels like they're about to throw up or choke...
    For us when we first learn the english/american accent it feels like having no air...
    I believe that its easier for us than it is to you.
     

    Copperknickers

    Senior Member
    Scotland - Scots and English
    arielipi, you should try Glaswegian dialect Scots. We could probably still talk if you removed our heads, since our words go gradually down our throats as we're talking until they almost come straight out of our lungs. It's amazing how much variation there is between dialects in English. I can't speak for other languages, but I think one of the things which makes English hard is that it has a global spread of dialects from many different sources, rather than just a natural spread like most non-European languages. In fact a foreign speaker is more likely to be understood in both the Irish Gaeltacht and the hills of Jamaica than a native of either of those two would be in the other.
     

    arielipi

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    ok...by throat sounds i mean like the kh in genghis khan - english doesnt have that. nor does it have the strong tounge-throat connection that allows us to emphasize pretty much every sound in a way you cant.
    its hard to explain via text...and youtube isnt allowed here so...just search for hebrew for yourself and hear that...
     

    Youngfun

    Senior Member
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    I think that my native language is the most difficult language to pronounce: the Qingtian dialect (China) :)
    We that speak it since children but I have seen very few people learn it as an adult.

    Here is a video
    I found an image with IPA symbols of my dialect... I'm surprised too! 29 consonants and 49 vowel! :eek:

    http://api.baike.baidu.com/albums/history/8475856.html#0$aa251d4f4a73581bafc3ab96

    Although some sound are different from what I actually pronounce, because our dialect is different from village to village, from mountain to mountain, from countryide to city... which makes it even more difficult
     

    tonyspeed

    Senior Member
    English & Creole - Jamaica
    In fact a foreign speaker is more likely to be understood in both the Irish Gaeltacht and the hills of Jamaica than a native of either of those two would be in the other.
    Here we should make a distinction between pronunciation and grammar. The hills of Jamaica speak what many consider to be a language distinct from English.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    of course it's arabic, not only to pronounce but arabic is hardest language to learn.
    It depends on what you know. Arabic certainly has some sounds and makes distinctions that English for example does not have or make. It is the consonants that present a problem for many. However, in contrast the vowel system is quite simple and one can imagine a native Arabic speaker struggling with the large number of vowel sounds in English or French.
     

    Flaminius

    coclea mod
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Japanese with about 100 syllables cannot be as difficult as Arabic to pronounce. Japanese and Korean lack tones you can find in Chinese, by the way.
     

    Nino83

    Senior Member
    Italian
    I'm speaking only about those languages whose phonology I know.
    Indoeuropean languages: English and expecially Danish have a great number of vowel, Slavic languages have consonant clusters which are difficult to pronounce (and syllabic "r"). The Czech /ř/ could be dificult for those speakers who don't have an alveolar trill in their native language (I've been able to pronounce this sound in some minute and I think it's more difficult than the alveolar trill).
    Italian has the opposition between single and double consonants which is the most common mistake made by foreigners. Also Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic have single and double consonants and, like in Italian, closed syllables have short vowels (VCC) and open syllables have long vowels (VVC).
    Ugro-Finnic: Finnish and Hungarian have independent long and short vowels and consonants (VC, VVC, VVCC, VCC).
    That said, all these languages have similar consonants which are not dificult to pronounce.
    Arabic has both long and short vowels and consonants which are independent (like in Finnish and Hungarian) but at the same time has a lot of uvular, pharyngeal, and pharyngealized ("emphatic") consonants.

    About Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
    As far as I know Standard (Seoul) Korean doesn't have pitch accent and, if I'm not wrong, Japanese tone is similar to IE stress accent with the difference that the stressed syllable has an higher pitch instead of an increased loudness.
    I think that Japanese is the less difficult to pronounce among these three languages, because it has 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, ɯᵝ), a consonantic system which is similar to that of the IE languages, with the opposition between voiced and unvoiced consonants. It lacks affricated consonants (except "tsu" and "chi").
    In Chinese and Korean, the difference is between aspirated and unaspirated consonants. Korean has 9 short and 9 long vowels with /ʌ/ /ɛ̝/ /e/ and /ø/ changing its quality when long. Chinese has 6 phonemic vowels but /ǝ/ has something like 6 different realizations, [e] [ɛ] [œ] [ɔ] [ɤ] [ə]. Furthermore, an apparently same syllable can have 4 different tones (in Cantonese 9-10 tones), /ā/ /á/ /ǎ/ /à/.
    That said, I think that Chinese is very difficult to pronounce, Korean has a lot of vowels while Japanese is quite easy to pronounce (you have to know only which syllable is "stressed"). By the way, some Japanese dialects (north of Tokyo) have no pitch accent.

    Among these languages, Japanese is the one whose pronunciation is the most similar to the IE and Ugro-Finnic languages.
     

    涼宮

    Senior Member
    Sbaeneg/Castellano (Venezuela)
    Italian has the opposition between single and double consonants which is the most common mistake made by foreigners.
    Foreigners with mainly what language, Nino? Gemination is usually quite easy to produce if you speak, for example, Japanese. What has been your experience so far? I've found that even though gemination isn't a feature per se in Spanish the Spanish speakers I've met don't usually have problems with double consonants in Italian.


    A proposito grazie per le correzioni sul forum italiano :).
     

    M Mira

    Senior Member
    Mandarin
    Chinese has 6 phonemic vowels but /ǝ/ has something like 6 different realizations, [e] [ɛ] [œ] [ɔ] [ɤ] [ə]. Furthermore, an apparently same syllable can have 4 different tones (in Cantonese 9-10 tones), /ā/ /á/ /ǎ/ /à/.
    That said, I think that Chinese is very difficult to pronounce
    That 6 phonemic vowel thing is an analysis, not reflected in orthography where they are broken into three: e for [e] [ɛ] [œ], o for [ɔ], ê for [ɤ] [ə]. Though the circumflex is normally dropped as it creates no ambiguity. Furthermore, the differences between [e] and [ɛ] [œ] is just that glides aren't normally "finished", merely moving towards the right direction without actually reaching the destination vowel [e]. Orthographies in China and Taiwan both agree that there are 7 vowels:
    i: ~[ɪ̯]
    u: ~[ʊ̯]
    ü: [y]
    a: [a]~[ɑ]
    o: [ɔ]~[ʊ]
    ê: [ə]~[ɤ]
    e: [e]~[ɛ]
    The actual realization is usually somewhere along these lines, though final nasal tends to screw up differently in different dialects of Mandarin, e.g. My -an and -ang have different vowels, and so do -en and -eng, while -in and -ing share their vowels. I have heard of people whose -in and -ing differ, and others whose -en and -eng don't.


    Tone system is a SoB, that I agree, especially after observing (is there another word for observe but with ear?) how it screws around in different dialects (of Chinese, not just Mandarin), creating obfuscating tone sandhi patterns (e.g. Hokkien) or simply changes for no reason (Cantonese) or becoming "neutral" either totally (Shanghainese) or unpredictably (Pekingese)
     

    Nino83

    Senior Member
    Italian
    Foreigners with mainly what language, Nino? Gemination is usually quite easy to produce if you speak, for example, Japanese. What has been your experience so far? I've found that even though gemination isn't a feature per se in Spanish the Spanish speakers I've met don't usually have problems with double consonants in Italian.
    Some mistakes made by Bergoglio (angelus 22 marzo 2015):
    atira, alguni grecci, Gerusaleme, gli diccono, nela cità santa, acolto, capi del poppolo, elliminare, pericolosso, vano, atraversa, hano, dessidero, indiretamente, quela, camino, sconfita, inalzato, nela.

    Orthographies in China and Taiwan both agree that there are 7 vowels
    Thank you, M Mira for the answer.
     

    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    in Romania, Hungarian is considered the hardest language to pronounce because its unusual phonology,somehow similar to Finnish.Primary stress is always on the first syllabe of a word(like in Finnish,Slovak and Czech)
    What unusual phonology do you mean? Hungarian has almost 100% sounds found im most European languages. The only difficult one is the short "o".
     

    M Mira

    Senior Member
    Mandarin
    Does Irish count? Even in Ireland, it's overwhelmingly spoken as L2 and most of the L2 speakers don't use it outside of school. Though it's the result of complicated morphology that triggers lots of mutations in phonology and that English is more prestigious.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top