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It seems that everyone considers the language of their birth to be one of, if not the, most difficult language(s) to learn as a second language. When I was teaching English, the Chinese, the Spanish (from all regions), the French, and the Brazilians all insisted that their native languages were much more difficult to learn than English. Several materials which I used in class had the reverse opinion for English (i.e, English was more difficult). Here in the Netherlands the Dutch definitely think that Nederlands is much more difficult than English (and sometimes German).

To me, this is an interesting phenomenon. Obviously, not everyone can be correct: not every language can be the most difficult to learn as a second language. I’m not a linguist, so I can’t assess whether there are empirical measurements for discerning the difficulty valance of a language. However, the sociological phenomenon of thinking one’s native language is the most difficult certainly can be analyzed.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of several social and psychological factors that could contribute to the belief one’s native tongue was ueber-complicated.

a) straight-forward cultural superiority/nationalism. My country is better than yours because we intuitively speak a more difficult language;

b) greater familiarity with the nuances of the native language. Time and time again, when teaching a language one discovers subtle twists and nuances in one’s own language that are difficult/impossible to translate. These are usually only learned in a second language after very long familiarity with the language, and many learners never reach that level with a second language. This could leave a person with the
impression that their first language is more complex and subtle simply because they don’t know the second one as well;

c) needed confidence boost for the process of language learning, which at times can make one feel stupid (inability to say simple things in another language can be frustrating); by positing the relative difficulty, the learner can think they’ll ultimately be smarter than those whose language they’re learning (by knowing both it and a more complex one).

I’m sure there are many more ways the concept could be considered appealing to people. Some of the ones above are more flattering than others; and the first one is downright disturbing. But I wondering if the wide-spread dissemination of the idea has to be related to (a) on some level since (i) not everyone who has this idea seems to have spent lots of time learning another language and (ii) nationalism is still a rampant vice.

What do you, dear readers, think? Any other factors influencing this phenomenon? Any linguists with methods for testing difficulty?

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