What is the most difficult language to learn? Based on my personal experience, I would vote for Thai. And that personal experience came in the military.
Every generation seems to have a war; mine was Vietnam. Fortunately, I got in on the tail end, when “Vietnamization” was in full swing. I spent little time in-country, my orders having been changed almost immediately to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in northeast Thailand. Although I was a very busy aircraft maintenance officer, initially I had some free time in the evenings. Wanting to be a good international guest and absorb as much of the local culture as possible, I signed up for a course in the Thai language at the base education office.
It was quite an experience, with a pretty young native lady as an instructor. She immediately confessed her family didn’t want her working there, with all the negative implications for an attractive woman working on a military base with thousands of airmen who were many miles from home (but that’s another story). She was a very good instructor, considering her knowledge of English was still somewhat limited. She was constantly writing letter combinations on the board, asking us to pronounce them in English, then tinkering with them to get just the right sound to teach her next word. Unfortunately, I was just beginning to understand the basics when my work schedule was changed and I had to stop attending, so I’m afraid my Thai vocabulary never got beyond about a dozen words.
With such limited exposure to the language, what gave me the impression that Thai is difficult to learn? Actually, it was because of someone much more experienced than I.
The very first evening, the Base Education Officer welcomed us. He was a civilian with probably more time in that part of the world than any U.S. citizen on base. It was he who told us that, in his opinion, if the Good Lord had deliberately set out to create a language that was difficult for Westerners to learn, it would’ve been Thai. It’s not because of the unique script or the fact that there are several dialects. Since Thai is a tonal language, meanings can change depending upon pronunciation. And he told the following story to illustrate this point:
Sometime in his recent past, he had helped the Thai military set up a training program. When the program’s first class was about to graduate, he was asked to say a few words at the ceremony in recognition of his contribution. Wanting to impress the gathering with his knowledge of the local culture, he decided to make his remarks entirely in the Thai language. To make sure it went smoothly, he wrote everything out phonetically.
He even thought of a clever ending. Holding out his arm at shoulder level, he would say, “And if I had people of this caliber to work with all the time, I would stay in Thailand until the snow is this deep.” At which point he expected to sit down to thunderous applause.
Except when he actually delivered this line, instead of getting applause he got laughter. And more laughter. They were practically rolling in the aisles laughing. He slunk back to his seat very chagrined.
After the ceremony, he sought out one of his best friends and basically asked, “Okay, what did I do wrong this time?”
And his friend candidly told him: “The word you used for snow was correct. But the way you pronounced it, you actually referred to the sexual organ of a female dog.”