What Makes a Language Hard?

Students shy away from certain languages because they are perceived to be too difficult. But are there really easy or hard languages? Well, yes. However, the degree of difficulty that any language poses is relative to many factors. What might be a difficult language for one person may be very easy for another. If English is your first and only language, then how hard a given language is will depend on how different it is from English. And if you speak another language well, then learning additional ones will become easier and easier. Whether or not aptitude plays any substantial role is debatable. The people I know who speak several languages have a real passion for them and their language abilities are the result of a lot of hard work and effort. That said, obviously all people have an innate ability to learn a language as a child, but I am going to look at this question from the prospective of the adult learner.

FSI Difficulty Chart

FSI Language Difficulty Chart

A language’s level of difficulty can be measured in many ways, but in practical terms it can be measured by how long it takes an average learner to reach a certain degree of fluency compared to another language. The Foreign Service Institute has created a list of languages ranked by the number of hours needed to reach what it deems as “General Professional Proficiency” thereby equating a language’s difficulty with how much time is required to reach this proficiency level. Therefore, “easy” languages take less time and effort to learn than “harder”.

To get a better perceptive of why it takes more time to learn certain languages, we need to understand that all languages are grouped into “families”. The Indo-European family contains many of the most common languages that English speakers learn. Each family is broken down into smaller subgroups. The farther down you go in these subgroups the more similar the languages become to one another. Let’s look at five languages from what’s called the Italic subgroup: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. These are all commonly known as Romance languages. Romance here means that these languages all descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire. I chose this group because four of the five are very commonly studied in the U.S. and provide a basis for comparing the difficulty of other lesser studied languages. Even though these five languages are all in the same language subgroup, they are not equally easy for English speakers. Spanish is widely regarded as the easiest of the group for various reasons, such as its highly phonetic structure, regular stress patterns, relatively uncomplicated grammar and abundance of cognates. French, on the other hand, has a much more complicated pronunciation system and grammar than Spanish, but has even more easily recognizable cognates. Portuguese, which is a close cousin of Spanish, is slightly more difficult due to its pronunciation, contractions and less recognizable cognates. What this means to English speakers is that if you learn Spanish well first, then you will be able to learn Portuguese later on much more easily than any other language. Italian is highly phonetic and has many recognizable cognates, but it is just slightly more difficult than Spanish given that stress on words is often unpredictable, the rules for making plurals is different and there are many contractions. And lastly, Romanian is the most different of the five since not only has it been influenced by Slavic words, but it still retains grammatical cases left over from Latin. All five of these languages are therefore theoretically easier for English speakers to learn than languages in other subgroups or language families.

You have undoubtedly heard people say that English is such a hard language for foreigners to learn, but this is not necessarily true. I remember staying with a host family in the Netherlands when I was in high school who told me that English was very easy for them. They said French and German, the other two languages they were required to study, were more difficult for them than English. This is easy to understand as the Dutch language is very closely related to English so the grammatical elements of English that might be difficult to master for a Chinese or Czech speaker do not exist for a Dutch speaker whose own language has the same grammar features. Russian is considered to be a particularly difficult language for English speakers to learn due to its very different grammar, but it is quite easy for a Ukrainian or Polish speaker whose own languages contain many of the grammatical features and vocabulary as Russian. Chinese, on the other hand, has a very simple grammar, yet part of its complexity lies in its tones, complete lack of cognates and difficult writing system. Japanese is just the opposite. It has simple pronunciation, but a complicated grammar structure.

All languages contain elements that are either easier or more complicated than English so judging how hard a language is with any precision is a rather tricky and subjective matter. Yet whatever the real or perceived difficulty of a language, you should not let that be an obstacle to you trying to learn it. The right materials, teachers or environment can make all the difference in whether a language seems difficult or fun. With enough time, dedication and most importantly motivation, no language is beyond anyone’s grasp.

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Learning a Language without Grammar

Disclaimer: Before I get into my own viewpoint on this, I need to make an important point. The objective of this blog is not to assert that there is necessarily only one right way to learn a language. Different people learn in different ways and suggesting that a one-size-fits-all approach would work for everyone would be arrogant and intellectually dishonest. I also must admit that as a translator I absolutely love grammar!

Recently there has been a lot of talk about learning a language without all the supposedly “unnecessary” complications of grammar or boring memorization. The idea is that you will learn naturally, just like a child, and that your brain will slowly piece together the grammar without any active effort on your part by continued exposure to simple sentence patterns. In fact, many new products are being extensively marketed right now based on this very idea (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Michel Thomas). The concept is nothing new. It’s been touted for many years. I was even required to use it when I taught English as a Second Language classes a long time ago so I do have first-hand experience with the method and its results.

In the beginning stages of language learning, it makes sense to deemphasize (though not eliminate) grammar and focus more on pronunciation and vocabulary acquisition. This frees the learner to concentrate on memorizing essential vocabulary and commonly used phrases and learned responses. This honeymoon period can help the learner to get a feel for the language and gain a bit of confidence before tiptoeing into the finer points of grammar. The problem is that our brain does not work the same as adults as it did when we were young children. Certain changes, which are not yet completely understood, occur in the brain at puberty. Therefore, adults can only get so far with the approach. Though short-term gains can be impressive when used in combination with teachers or native speakers, ultimately without at least some grammar rules to fall back on, the student will become frustrated and unable to produce more complicated thoughts.

Even with languages with relatively easy grammar for English speakers, like Spanish, the learner will quickly be confronted with concepts that don’t exist in English, such as the gender of nouns. It will take a while to grasp just by reading and hearing the different forms in context that Spanish has four ways to say “the” (el, la, los, las) if the learner is not simply given this basic information in the beginning. This is a needlessly inefficient and frustrating approach to learning a language. In other languages, like Russian, where grammar can be extraordinarily complex for English speakers, I simply don’t see any realistic way that anyone can make any genuine progress in the language without grammar. Floundering to figure out grammatical features that don’t exist in your native language like noun declensions, verb aspects, etc. serves only to undermine the learner’s motivation and confidence.

Though it sounds trite, grammar is truly the foundation of any language and you can’t build upon it if you don’t understand it. Anyone who truly wants to have a deep knowledge of a language and the confidence to know that he or she is speaking correctly cannot avoid grammar. People who make grammatical mistakes in English do so because they don’t understand their own grammar, so why would someone be able to speak a foreign language any better who didn’t understand its grammar? While skipping grammar may sound like an efficient shortcut, it is best reserved for the casual language learner — someone who just wants a smattering of the language for vacation or social purposes. I admit that grammar can be a drudgery to some, but when you remove it altogether from the learning process you don’t simplify learning, you complicate it.