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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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.