What are the hardest languages to learn?

Tourist Bus on Syntagma Square, Athens
A bus of tourists cruising through the centre of Athens… is it all Greek to them?

I was shopping for veges at an Athens urban produce market and in my dodgy Greek I asked for a hot dude, not a lettuce. 

If you’re travelling through a foreign language country, or spending some time living there, do you learn the language, at least some useful phrases? Or do you assume English will get you through, no matter what? Are you prepared to screw up?

What are the hardest languages to learn?

Greek is somewhere in the middle. While the Greek alphabet looks scarily hard, one of the easy parts of learning Modern Greek is its phonetic structure, so what you see is what to pronounce. Or WYSIWYG. Not like English with all its head-spinning exceptions to the rules and silent letters. A pain in the ass. 

In case you’re wondering what the language is, in the cover image, it’s a photo of the Acropolis in Athens and the words say in Greek: “A foreign language will open doors”. Mια ξένη γλώσσα  θα ανοίξει τις πόρτες (Mia xéni̱ gló̱ssa , tha anoíxei tis pórtes).


From Thursday I’ll be saying: “Θέλω € 20 για to κινητό παρακαλώ”. In English that means approx: “I want 20 euro credit for a mobile phone, please.” To say it phonetically in Latin letters: “Thelo eikosi evro ya to kinito parakalo”.  Kinito is enough for mobile phone. A lot of Greeks simply use the word “mobile”, anyway.

If you’re visiting Greece for a short time, you won’t be expected to speak Greek, as English is now widely spoken. But, like many countries, exchanging basic pleasantries in the native language is good manners. It often engenders mutual respect. You’ll probably get a smile in return. It might get you better service. Or not! 

So many years ago, I went to a weekly fruit and vegetable market in the Athens northern suburb of Halandri and asked for a “manouli“, instead of a “marouli“.  Sexy bloke, not lettuce. The stallholder, to her credit, didn’t smirk. She bagged a lettuce and held out her hand for the money. 

But in other situations I was mocked and felt the sting of racism and prejudice. At other times I struggled to keep a straight face when Greeks shouted or used baby language and theatrical gestures, thinking I would understand them better. 

Marjory McGinn, who wrote the travel memoir Things Can Only Get Feta, also had her fair share of Greek gaffes. “I confused agori (boy) once with angouri (cucumber),” she says.

Nice one, Marjory. Up there with lettuce man.

Connecting with others on their turf, in their language, opens many doors. But you can’t predict what doors will open. I was not a particularly conscientious German language student at school, but I had a very enthusiastic teacher in Mrs Lane. I was belatedly grateful for her influence. In a world of increasingly porous borders, where travel is also increasing exponentially, language learning (and therefore, ideally, cultural openness, understanding and tolerance) seems all the more vital. 

In reverse, it also enriches. My sister teaches English as a second language, and loves learning about the cultures of her students.

Asking for coffee in 6 languages

If you’d like to order coffee in Greek, read more about coffee options in Greek cafe culture, a sweet taste of life.

A few words go a long way

My Arabic is basic, so is my Spanish and French. My German marginally better these days. Occasionally my limited language knowledge got me out of weird situations. At 2am in Kosovo I used French to find the way to a hotel. It’s a long story, and attention spans are short. Moving on.

In France particularly, polite greetings, please and thank yous are mandatory. The French place great importance on manners. Learn them and you feel as though you have un orteil dans la porte.

My elegant friend Grace, who had done a French language course before a two-week tour of Provence and the South of France, used everything she’d learned. Her joy in being able to use the language in situ was infectious. We shopped in the product markets in Arles, had early morning breakfast in a back street cafe, I discovered lots of excellent boulangeries, using French only. Although I admit sometimes it was simply finding the longest queues up the street. A sure sign of popularity and quality. 

Cultural immersion is my way of travelling. That can’t be done without language. Europeans routinely speak multiple languages. In Australia, where I live, not so much. Millions of Australians with dual nationalities are lucky enough to be bi-lingual from an early age. Indigenous Australians learn multiple dialects and Aboriginal languages. My tri-nationality daughters are bi-lingual. 

I lived in Greece for years, so I had to learn the language. Without it, my Greek life would have been very superficial. Although I knew ex-pats who hardly spoke a word of Greek and never bothered to learn. If you’re wondering how hard it is, as a native English speaker, to learn another language, then take a look at this great infographic, courtesy of the American site voxy.com and take your pick. Bon chance, buona fortuna, καλή τύχη, viel erfolg!

Learning languages infographic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: