Are some languages harder to learn than others?

An unusual post. But since my children are exposed in a completely new environment where (no one speaks their mother-tongue language and) they had to adopt quickly to be able to interact (and is surprising how flexible they are and how they do it), I decided to write this post.

I’m glad to speak (a so called complicated) language named Slovenian or Slovene (we even have two English words to describe something of Slovenia). To make a point with a silly example: we can e.g. travel the world, comment it in our own language and 99,9999% of people would not understand the meaning of our conversation. We now even have our own small (OK, really small) country. Still, our first manuscript dates before the year 1000, we had our first published book Abecedarium in 1550 and we are the 12th nation in the world which had translated the Bible (1584). Not many minority language speakers (we used to be a minority most of the time throughout the history) are so lucky. And many languages were sadly extinct in Europe in the last 200 years. 

The other day, a few British teenagers were guessing what language do we speak (me and my children). And they came  to the conclusion that it must be Australian. Beat me, how they figured it out (since they colonized Australia a few hundreds years back).

But I do agree that Slovenian in not easy to understand, nonetheless learn or speak. Take for example this story by Victor Irving:

Slovenian is one of the most complicated languages on earth.



Take this joke from students who were struggling with the language:

– Let’s order two coffee.
– All right, coffee is kava and two is dva, so dva kava?
– No, it’s dva kavo – 4th case because it’s the object of the sentence: (I’d like) dva kavo.
– But hey, adjective and noun should match, so shouldn’t it be: dvo kavo?
– Not really, because with two it’s an exception: dve kavo
– All right, the dualism…
– Oh yeah, two has a separate ending! Ena kava, dve kavi, tri kave.
– So it should be Dve kavi, prosim,
– Don’t forget it’s still the 4th case.
– Same as the 1st for dual, female gender words.
– But I’d like my coffee with whipped cream: z smetan.
– That’s the instrumental case. Z smetano.
– No, I think it’s s smetano because of the pronunciation.
– Screw this: ‘Two beer please.’


Another situation: Guys sees a girl walk by and wants to invite her for a coffee.

He is about to say: Zdravo! Gremo na kava?

Then he remembers: Oh wait, we’re going somewhere, so fourth case: gremo na kavo. No wait, with ‘gremo’ she’ll think it’s for three or more persons, so: greva na kavo? Then he realises it’s more polite to ask if she would like to go: Bi rad da greva na kavo? But since he’s talking to a girl he has to say: Bi rada da greva na kavo?

– Zdravo! Bi ra…

The girl has passed by a minute ago.


Even more interesting is the way Slovenian bends city-names. The city is called Ljubljana, but you are from Ljubljane. The a changes into an e, however, if a city-name does not end with an a you add one. For instance, I am from Amsterdama. But if you go to the city, it becomes Ljubljano. And if you say you live there, you say in Ljubljani, or in case there is no a to change into an i, you say you live in Londonu.


The same with names: You are at Victorju (Victor’s), the belch came out of Victorja and you’re crying about an impossible grammatical system with Victorjem and you know about Victorjevega cat and haven’t understood Victorjevega text.


Let’s take a moment now to fully appreciate that six cases, three genders and singular, dual and plural endings lead to 54 options, and with adjectives that may differ from nouns, about 108 options. For newcomers, creating a sentence may take some time.


Most interesting, however, is that there are a few words that are the same in every case. Roza (pink) never changes, and neither does a name like Karen. Great. How about something similar for all words in Slovenian? People may still be able to understand each other; in English or Dutch coffee is coffee whether you drink it, see it, don’t have it, order it or throw with it. Moreover, these days national identity is no longer dependant on a language’s complexity. Slovenia is a real country, so the language can develop as all other languages: get easier. Maybe then foreigners can devote some brain capacity to what they want to say instead of how they have to say it.


Victor Irving lives in Ljubljani and is desperately trying to learn Slovensko.


Even though I see his point of view, I have no idea why he thinks we should make it less complicated. Our language evolved like every other language (reading old Slovene to me is like reading old English to native English speakers). We have had (even violent) influence of other languages as well and have several Italian and German words, and words from other Slavic languages in it. To change the language for foreigners, so they can easily learn it, does really not make any sense. I, for example, am sometimes struggling with English. Why the plural of ox is oxen, but the plural of fox is foxes? Does it make sense? No. Our kids now learn English alphabet and it seams odd to them that e.g. the letter E has five different sounds (egg, evening, resume, enemy, axe …). Does it make sense? Not to us who “Write as we speak and read as it is written”.  It’s the oddity of the language development and beauty of its exceptions.

I like languages. It’s what makes us rich and diverse. I actually live in an area where Italian language (besides at least English) is thought in schools and spoken in administration, where many people watch also Italian, German and Croatian TV, and radio stations play music of at least 5 different nations. We are not forcing our language on foreigners and most people in Slovenia speak at least a bit of two other languages (Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, German, English, Italian …). Our language will keep changing like any other live language.