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I've recently been to Poland and I've heard the claim that Polish is the hardest language to learn. I've found this claim repeated again today, for example on this blog post:

The hardest language to learn is: Polish – Seven cases, Seven genders and very difficult pronunciation. The average English speaker is fluent in their language at the age of 12, in contrast, the average Polish speaker is fluent in their language after age of 16.

There are no citations in the post:

  • Are there any direct studies that prove that Polish is the hardest language to learn? Does it even make sense to claim that (e.g. hardest for whom)?
  • Is there any proof that learning Polish is relatively harder than other slavic languages?
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    Sklivvz, AFAIK, the claim is actually that "Polish the hardest language to learn for native speakers of English". Obviously won't be hardest language for example for Czechs or Slovaks. – vartec Sep 23 '13 at 13:38
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    @vartec the blog post claims that is the hardest even for Polish children as a first language, so I guess the claim is a bit more wide than one supposes. – Sklivvz Sep 23 '13 at 13:44
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    @Sklivvz: right, I'm highly skeptical of that part myself. Anyway, whole thing might boil down to how do you define when you've "learned" the language. FSI's estimates most definitely do not permit full fluency, as in broad vocabulary and no grammatical mistakes. Thus for English speaker learning "Tarzan Polish" is probably easier than learning "Tarzan Japanese" – vartec Sep 23 '13 at 13:55
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    Other languages this claim is often made of include Georgian, Hungarian, Icelandic, and Mongolian. I've also heard one superpolyglot make a claim for Vietnamese. – hippietrail Sep 30 '13 at 18:53
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    Where did you find that there are seven genders in Polish?!?!?! There are three as for example in German. Also fluent in 16? Where did you get that from? Most of children speak Polish well at the age of 6 (own experience). – Jagger May 22 '14 at 11:02
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The question cannot be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no', be it about Polish or any other language, as "language difficulty" is not readily definable.

For example, there is an effort among linguists to use "language markedness" to predict language difficulty.

Jakobson (1941, 1963), however, observed that the marked members of oppositions were acquired later by children and were found in fewer languages, suggesting that they are not only more complex in their abstract structure, but also more difficult for language users. Source.

However, it's not usually a problem during first language acquisition (L1 acquisition):

Although there is great variation between individual children and the rate of their language acquisition, there is little variation in the pattern of development between languages. One language is not more difficult than another, as we can establish by observing the ease with which children acquire different languages by the same age. Virtually every child develops linguistic and communicative competence, and it is learned naturally and in context, not arranged in an easy-to-difficult sequence. Source.

As for second lanquage acquisition (L2 acquisition), linguistic distance often plays a more important role than language markedness in whether a language will be perceived as difficult. Speakers of other Slavic languages will find a lot of similarities in Polish so they might not view Polish as particularly difficult.

According to

Markedness Differential Hypothesis (Eckman 1977)

a) Those areas of the target language which differ from the native language and are more marked than the native language will be difficult.

b) The relative degree of difficulty of the areas of the target language which are more marked than the native language will correspond to the relative degree of markedness.

c) Those areas of the target language which are different from the native language but are not more marked than the native language will not be difficult.

As far as English speakers go, there has been some research that focused on measuring the "distance" between English and other languages.

The paper by Hart-Gonzalez and Lindemann (1993) reports language scores for 43 languages for English-speaking Americans of average ability after set periods (16 weeks and 24 weeks) of foreign language training. <...> The range is from a low score (harder to learn) of 1.00 for Japanese to a high score (easier to learn) of 3.00 for Afrikaans, Norwegian and Swedish. The score for French is 2.50 and for Mandarin 1.50. These scores suggest a ranking of linguistic distance from English among these languages: Japanese being the most distant, followed by Mandarin, then French and then Afrikaans, Norwegian and Swedish as the least distant.

According to this report, the score for Polish is 2.00. (Compare with some other Slavic languages: Russian - 2.25, Serbo-Croatian - 2.00, Czech - 2.00, Bulgarian - 2.00.)

Additionally, there might be other factors that can make a certain language "harder to learn" for L2 learners. For example, motivation or attitutde.

A second affective factor, which is formed by the cognitive development of a person, that can make second language acquisition difficult for an adult is attitude. Young children are not cognitively enough developed to possess attitudes towards races, cultures, ethnic groups, and languages. As the child reaches school age, attitudes are acquired. It is agreed that negative attitudes towards the target language, target language speakers, the target language culture, and the social value of learning a second language can impede language learning while positive attitudes can enhance learning (Ellis, 1994; Brown, 1994). Source.

  • Your answer shows that Polish does not stand out with regards to similar languages. I do find this enough to disprove that Polish is a singularly difficult language as claimed. – Sklivvz Sep 30 '13 at 13:08
  • @Sklivvz The thing is that, objectively speaking, there's nothing "outstandingly hard" when it comes to any language in the world. However, learning a language is a very subjective thing and there might always be people out there that will perceive Polish as the hardest to learn. As you correctly mentioned in your question, you can always ask "hardest for whom?" – stillenat Sep 30 '13 at 13:51
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    It is true that children learn to speak whichever first language at the same speed. Now linguists do not include reading and writing in language acquisition, but laypeople as in this question do. Learning to read and write is not equal for all languages. Children learning to read and write Japanese need a lot more time and effort than children learning English, which in turn requires more than languages with more phonetic writing systems. – hippietrail Sep 30 '13 at 19:05
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    @hippietrail The question is about Polish, anyways. And Polish uses a Latin-based alphabet and its writing system is even more phonemic than English so it should be easier to write/read in Polish than in English. – stillenat Oct 1 '13 at 3:44
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    @hippietrail Frankly, I'm afraid I'm not sure at all what your point is exactly. English is very likely harder to read than Polish but Polish poses other difficulties that English doensn't (and vice versa). That's why I tried to point out that it's not completely legitimate to try to estimate which language is more difficult by its nature. You can only give subjective opinions. Chinese, for example, is grammatically a quite simple analytical language. The time spent on hieroglyphs might be equal to the time spent on learning Polish inflections. It's all very subjective. – stillenat Oct 1 '13 at 6:19

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