IT’S A CURIOUS THING WHEN there is an idiom—structured roughly the same way and meaning essentially the same thing—that exists in a large number of languages. It’s even more curious when that idiom, having emerged in dozens of different languages, is actually … about language. That’s the case with “It’s Greek to me.”
Chinese happens to be the most common replacement for Greek in the idiom around the world—and the language that tops polls as the most difficult natural language to learn.
“CHINESE IS CONSIDERED A LEVEL-FOUR foreign language—the most difficult—for native English learners in the field of second-language acquisition,” says Janet Xing, a professor of Chinese and linguistics at Western Washington University. Different organizations have different rankings for the difficulty of learning languages; the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the U.S. government’s department for training foreign diplomats, has five levels, based on roughly how long it will take a native English speaker to learn a given language.