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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Dying World Languages

More than half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are facing likely extinction within the next 50 years. In fact, it is estimated that a language dies every two weeks. Many of these languages still have thousands of living speakers, yet the languages are not being passed down to the next generation. Such languages are considered to be “dying” since eventually their last native speaker will die leaving no one left to carry on the language. National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project studied this phenomenon and named Northern Australia, Central South America, Canada’s Northwest Pacific Plateau, Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States as areas where indigenous languages face the greatest peril. Even here in the US there are some 40 Native American languages still are spoken today in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

There are many reasons why a language does not get passed down from one generation to another. However, in most cases it is the dominant language of the area that gradually overtakes the minor language in school, work and at home to a point where the speakers of that language no longer bother or find it necessary to pass along the language to their children. In other cases, language policies of the region speed the language’s demise in favor of the dominant language. Once a language is dead, it’s unlikely to ever be revived. Hebrew is the only language to be successfully revitalized as a national language once it had lost its native speakers.

The question is why should anyone care? The truth is that when a minor language dies and is replaced by a more dominant language, the world loses a piece of its cultural history, not that different from the extinction of an animal species. The culture of an entire people is tied to its language so more than just the language is being lost. Since the majority of the dying languages are not written down the oral traditions of thousands of years may be lost forever once the last speaker is gone. For this reason, linguists and cultural anthropologists are in a struggle to record the sounds, grammar and oral histories of as many of these languages as possible. No matter how widely spoken a language is, it is still vulnerable. A perfect example is Latin, which was a dominant language spoken throughout the Roman Empire, yet as the language spread throughout the region, over time it splintered into several different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Italian, etc.) and the mother language itself fell into disuse. Even though it is still learned by millions of students and used to a limited degree within the Catholic Church, there are no living native speakers of it. The lesson for us all is to be sure to pass along our native languages and cultures to our children.