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.

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.

The Importance of Culture in Language Learning

I recently heard someone who studies multiple languages say that he didn’t care about learning the culture behind those languages. This is really surprising to me on many levels since not only is culture a major and inseparable component of “knowing” a language, it is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of acquiring a new language and keeping yourself motivated. If you argue that a language can learned devoid of culture for mere functional or academic purposes, then what you will end up with is the mere ability to function in the language as an outsider at the minimal level and have no real appreciation for the people who use the language. Choosing not to learn about the country or countries where a particular language is spoken nor its government, history or people not only robs you of the richness that knowing another language normally brings with it, but also makes it very difficult to appreciate the news or place current events in any meaningful context.

However, trying to avoid the culture of a language is actually rather hard to do if you study a language to a thorough level and interact with its speakers. For example, you simply cannot learn to speak and function in Arabic if you are not familiar with its underlying culture or Islamic influence. Speaking Japanese without understanding its rather complicated honorific speech system would be socially disastrous and detrimental to any business negotiation. Each language carries with it all of the history and culture of the area that it arises from. The political, social and economic conditions of the country influence its vocabulary and the shades of meaning of its words. The cultural landscape of some languages is quite vast since they are spoken across many different countries, each flavoring the language in its own unique way. Spanish, as an example, is the official language of 20 countries and widely spoken in the U.S. with variations that reflect each region’s reality. In Mexico, many words for food that Americans are familiar with have different meanings than elsewhere in the Latin world. A tortilla, for example, is a thin layer of corn or flour unleavened bread in Mexico, whereas in other Spanish-speaking countries it is an omelet. Every American knows what a taco is, but the word has a myriad of meanings outside of Mexico that have nothing to do with food. In cases like this where a language is spoken in different counties, it’s more practical to learn the most about the culture and people of the country that you will actually interact with.

Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language. They reflect the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but they are also great for your language skills. I still remember very clearly one that I learned while I was a student in the former Soviet Union, “В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят!,” which literally means you don’t bring a samovar to Tula. This expression certainly means very little to most people who don’t know anything about Russian culture. What is a samovar? Where in the world is Tula? Well, a samovar (pictured above) is a traditional Russian urn used for boiling water to make tea, both of which are items inextricably linked to Russian culture. Tula is a city in Russia famous for being a major manufacturer of samovars; hence, there would be no need to take one with you if you go there for a visit. If you invest the time in learning many such proverbs, you will be well rewarded by what you gain not only from cultural insight, but in how your language is appreciated by native speakers.

Learning a language without the cultural framework in which it exists is like cooking ethnic food without the spices of the region. You simply will remove all of the flavor from the language. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel or live in the country for awhile, great! If not, try to learn as much as you can by reading books and magazines from the country and watching its television programs so that you can get a feel for how the people think, act and speak. Don’t just be bilingual, be bicultural!

Inside the Mind of a Polyglot

Babel No More CoverA polyglot is defined as someone who is able to speak several languages. The exact number of languages can be and often is disputed, but technically “poly” from Greek means many so each is free to define it as he or she wishes. People tend to be fascinated and highly impressed when you tell them that you speak several languages. Everyone tends to ask you the same types of questions. How many languages do you speak? Where did you learn them? Do you travel a lot? Don’t you confuse them? While it is fairly easy to impress most monolingual people with your answers, it can sometimes come across as boastful, even when not intended to. In my own case, I have found that the best answer to give is to say how many languages I work in professionally. These are the languages I can use in any situation and actually make a living off of by translating and interpreting. I have studied many languages for pleasure, but if I mention those most people automatically assume that I must speak them all equally as well. However, studying and knowing can often be very different things. I have studied astronomy and chemistry in my life, but I am neither an astronomer nor a chemist. In fact, I remember very little beyond the basics in both of them. However, there are many people who quite readily claim to know fifty languages or more.

So what does it mean to know a language and how many can a person really learn? In search for an answer to that question, a new book has come out titled Babel No More by Michael Erard. The book delves into past and living polyglots and attempts to discover what they all have in common. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for several reasons. First of all, since I have an insatiable passion for languages, I was curious to know what I may or may not have in common with these language overachievers. Secondly, I participated in the on-line survey for the book several years ago and had been anxiously waiting for the book’s release to get a glimpse into the world of modern polyglots. Lastly, I received an iPad as a gift this past Christmas and this was my very first venture into the world of electronic books.

Mr. Erard actually focuses on hyperpolyglots, a newly coined term for people who speak six or more languages. However, he states that he found eleven languages to be a more accurate number for defining a hyperpolyglot. The author admittedly takes a somewhat skeptical approach to claims of those who speak many dozens of languages, pondering whether it is even possible for someone to speak so many languages to any meaningful degree. He researches renowned polyglots from the past and interviews several living ones to observe their methodology for learning and retaining so many languages. The author attempts to determine whether there is any secret or innate talent that they have for learning languages. Each of the people he interviews gives different approaches to tackling a new language, each suited to his or her individual learning style. When he confronts the question of how many languages a person can actually know, he comes to the greater question of what it means to “know” a language and whether you count a language if you merely know a few basic phrases in it. He learns that all of the people he studies have latent languages that they don’t actively use for long periods of time. They reactivate them as needed by studying them from a few hours to several weeks. He tries to figure out how many active languages a person can have, concluding that there seems to be a limit on how many a person can maintain at a high level, though he doesn’t give a precise number in the book. In the end he seems rather disappointed to realize that more than anything else what these hyperpolyglots share is a love for doing what most people find boring: studying vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and grammar. He states that polyglots “haven’t escaped the banality of methods at all; they make the banality more productive. Their minds enjoy the banality.”

My own take on Babel No More is that it is a rare gem – a language book with a mass appeal. It is written in such a way as to be both insightful and compelling. I found myself staying up well past midnight for nearly a week as I couldn’t easily put it down, if one can say that about an e-book. The polyglots that he profiled were fascinating, though sometimes a bit sad. I kept trying to find threads of my own learning style and personality in the quirkiness of the polyglots he covers. I found the living polyglots even more interesting as they are able to speak for themselves. In particular, I enjoyed the section on Alexander Arguelles, who is a living polyglot with an unquenchable drive for studying languages, and whose YouTube videos I have been following for years. His profile reveals just how much effort is required to actually maintain such a large number of languages. Though the book does not cover many other well-known living polyglots, or more famous past ones such as Mario Pei, it is well worth your time and money. I would encourage anyone with the interest in languages in general, or polyglots in particular, to give this book a read.

The Price of Misunderstanding

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language has a favorite story about what happened when he or she misunderstood something that was said. These stories can range from humorous to disastrous. Here’s my story.

Back in the mid 90’s I was tutoring a Venezuelan student in English at her home. We had been meeting for many months so we were quite comfortable with each other and frequently spoke in Spanish during study breaks or when I needed to explain English grammar to her. One day I came by for our regular appointment and she greeted me in Spanish stating that her children were home sick today from school and in their bedrooms. She told me that they both had come down with lechina. My look of understanding and lack of concern betrayed what was really going on in my head. My brain quickly tried to make sense of that word, running through lists of diseases, but I actually thought I heard la china and could not think of any illness that corresponded to it. I discarded it as something minor and didn’t give it any more thought until two days later when I began to start scratching at my chest. As the day wore on I began noticing red splotches on my chest and suddenly my mind went racing back to lechina. I began to have a sinking feeling that lechina was actually varicela… chickenpox. I never had chickenpox as a kid so I got panicky and called my student and explained my symptoms to her. She apologized and said that I apparently had contracted lechina from being in her home. She assumed that I must have had it as a kid since I didn’t seem worried about it during our last class. Being an adult with chickenpox was quite awful so this is one lesson that I will never forget—in Venezuela lechina is chickenpox.  When it comes to important things like health, be sure you totally understand what is being said so you don’t end up in a similar situation.

This underscores the regional variations in language, especially Spanish. With over twenty Spanish-speaking countries, not to mention the Spanglish of the United States, such examples abound. Since that incident, I have worked closely with Venezuelans, Columbians, Mexicans, Salvadorians, Puerto Ricans and Cubans I have observed and noted hundreds of other such differences. I’ll write more about this in a different post.

The main point is that when we speak in another language, we are often reluctant to admit that we don’t understand everything that we hear during a conversation, either out of embarrassment or pride. No one wants to keep asking for sentences to be repeated and modified so that we can understand them. In many cases our brains filter out or guess parts of conversation that were not initially understood allowing us to continue the conversation. Language learners quickly learn to pick on clues to know when to make appropriate nods and “uh huhs” during conversations even if they haven’t gotten the entire gist. However when it comes to more serious things, asking for clarification could have saved me from three weeks of chickenpox but then I wouldn’t have the funny story to tell now.

Is Spanish the best language to learn?

I get asked this question rather frequently. The answer is not always a simple one. With thousands of languages in the world, there is no single language which is the best for everyone. Your geography and job goals play a larger part in choosing a language than most other factors. My views here are particular to readers in the Unites States, though they could be applied in many places in the world. Let’s look at some facts. Spanish is the official language in 21 counties by about 329 million native speakers worldwide, just slightly ahead of English. It is the second most spoken language in the U.S. and the world. For several decades Spanish has been the most studied language of students both young and old. In many cases, this was because it had been perceived to be both easier and more practical than the other languages commonly taught in school, such as French, German or Latin. According to the 2010 census, there are now over 50 million Latinos in the United States, just over 16%. All of these above facts together certainly mean that you can’t go wrong with Spanish. In fact, it is certainly the most useful second language nearly anywhere you go in the U.S. This linguistic trend will continue well into the foreseeable future, so for most learners of any age, I would feel comfortable recommending Spanish.

There is, however, a new trend developing in high schools and colleges to offer less-taught languages, such as Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The sounds and writing systems of these languages seem exotic, which appeals to many students. Forward-looking parents and students will also see that the developing economies of the countries where these languages are spoken will have many job opportunities available to savvy Americans who learn to master these languages. With 850 million speakers of Mandarin Chinese, it is the fastest-growing language in popularity for students worldwide. Here in the U.S., an estimated 1,600 schools are now teaching Chinese, some starting as early as kindergarten. The government of China is an active promoter of the language and in some cases is even providing free teachers for cash-strapped schools. Arabic is also gaining popularity in American universities. With 280 million native speakers in 26 countries, it’s an important language of business and government. In areas where such language opportunities exist, I believe that it’s a fantastic way to get experience in strategic languages that will give students an academic and career edge later in life.

For adults with a desire to learn a language, any language, the question of what language to learn depends more on what motivates them. If you lose motivation in the language, you won’t continue to study it. Learn French if you want to travel throughout France every year, or Russian if you’re fascinated by Russian history. Whatever language you study, try to learn it as well as you can. The real fun comes from being able to use the language easily and naturally.

Confessions of a Language Addict

My name is Bill and I’m a language addict. More precisely, I’m a recovering addict. Since the age of 12, I’ve studied dozens of languages to varying degrees of proficiency, amassing a formidable collection of several hundred languages books spanning over forty languages. My interest in a given language would start out strong and remain so for several weeks, or months, only to wane or vanish altogether once I heard someone speaking another language. I’d get the feeling that I was missing out on something by not studying that language. Some of these languages included Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Czech and so forth. I might spend ten minutes studying German grammar, followed by a half hour of Czech verbs. I managed to continue this erratic learning style while still studying my main languages in high school and college, which were and still are Spanish, French and Russian.

Addiction is generally defined as continuing a behavior that has negative consequences. Few would see any negative consequences from studying too many languages. However, in my case I had thoughts of becoming a United Nations interpreter, considered to be the best in the world. Their job requires an absolute command of at least three of the UN’s official languages, which are English Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. My haphazard study plan of jumping in and out of different languages was leaving me as a jack of all trades and master of none. I had become content with my language skills once I mastered most of the grammar and could carry on full conversations, regardless of how basic they might be. Such skills, though perfect for tour guides and waiters, were nowhere close to the near-native levels I would need for any serious work. I found that I was unable to easily read novels in my main languages, or follow movies and conversations of native speakers. After studying Russian in the former Soviet Union in the 1991, I came back with a deeper appreciation of the joys and practical value of speaking a language well. I began to focus much more heavily on my primary languages, almost to the point of abandoning the study of my minor languages for several years. In 1994, I began to work as a translator and was able to hone my major language skills much more effectively. A job offer in the late 90s as a Spanish/Portuguese translator required me to add Portuguese, a language I had studied for three years, to my list of working languages. This gave me a valid excuse to study another language for work. Now I struggle with the desire to add yet another working language while trying to keep my main languages at very high levels.

I now regard my addiction as more of a passion for language learning. Since I now have nearly twenty years’ experience as a translator, there are not the same downside risks to learning other languages as there were when I still hadn’t perfected my core ones. In the last five years I’ve once again begun dusting off some of those languages I first started studying many years ago. Nonetheless, I still must restrain myself from taking on too many languages since I long ago discovered that it’s a lot more fun, and enormously more profitable, to know a few languages very well than many poorly.