002. The hardest language to learn?
“What’s the hardest language to learn?
Japanese? That’s really hard.
Esperanto is so easy.
Finnish is the most impossible.
What’s easier to learn between xxx and yyy?”
I’m a member of various language-learning communities and groups, both online and in person. I frequently hear statements and am asked questions like the ones above.
If you were to ask a group of native English-speakers about this subject, it’s likely that Esperanto, French, Spanish, and Italian will feature among the so-called easiest languages because of the grammatical similarities and shared vocabulary. Languages like Polish and Greek may be considered a bit more difficult because the grammar is perceived as more difficult. Hungarian, Basque, Chinese, or Japanese will likely be considered among the most difficult languages to learn. This is largely because those languages have less similarities to English compared to Romance or Germanic languages. However, I’m going to tell you something important here: there is no hardest or easiest language to learn.
You’re probably thinking, “What? That can’t be right!” Well, let me qualify my statement slightly: There is no objectively difficult language to learn. The perceived difficulty of a language is exactly that: perceived. It’s a subjective opinion and it’s based on a number of things. Let’s look at a few of them now.
Similarity to your native language
It probably seems common sense that it is easier to learn a language that is similar to your own. It’s probably why many native English-speakers find Spanish, Italian, and French among the easier languages to learn. Because all these languages have a great deal of Latin-based vocabulary in common with English, it certainly helps when it comes to learning any one of them.
However, similarity doesn’t always mean ease. Let’s look at Spanish and English. Spanish is considered relatively easy for English-speakers to learn: the spelling and pronunciation are highly regular, it has a lot of vocabulary in common with English, and the verb tenses are used in much the same way in English. That being said, Spanish has a lot of irregular verbs, and a lot more verb forms. Let’s look at the different forms of the verb do between the two languages (hacer in Spanish):
|Do, does, did, done||hago, haces, hace, hacemos, hacéis, hacen, hecho, haciendo, haré, harás, hará, haremos, haréis, harán, hice, hiciste, hizo, hicimos, hicisteís, hicieron, hacía, hacías, hacíamos, hacíais, hacían, haría, harías, haríamos, haríais, harían, haga, hagas, hagamos, hagáis, hagan, hiciera, hicieras, hiciéramos, hicierais, hicieran, hicieses, hiciese, hiciésemos, hicieseis, hiciesen, haz, haced.|
That’s a lot more for learners of Spanish to memorise than for learners of English. Similarly, let’s take a look at a more exotic language: Mandarin. This is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn. It has 4 tones and if you say a word with the wrong tone, you can change the meaning of a word and possibly cause offence. There’s also little vocabulary in common with English. Despite that, Mandarin has no conjugations, no verb tenses, no gendered nouns, and no articles. All of this may make it easier for you to learn than Spanish, french, German, or any other European language.
Go to your local library or search online and you’ll be inundated with results for the most common European languages: books, apps, Youtube videos, podcasts, and blogs aplenty. Some languages, however, do not have as much variety.
In the case of Basque (a language isolate spoken in the north of Spain and south of France – though very unrelated to Spanish or French), there are very few resources – physical or online – in English. In cases like this, the quality may also not be the best as there is very little competition. Some publishers (e.g. Teach Yourself, Colloquial) publish self-study textbooks in a wide variety of languages. However, you may find it difficult to achieve the level that the book advises without adequate practice from a native speaker.
The DLIFLC (Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center) teaches foreign languages to US military and security personnel. They claim you can become fluent in one of its 17 languages somewhere between 47 and 61 weeks. How? Their trainees must study intensively (with little or no use of English) 7 hours a day for 5 weeks. Now, this would be my idea of heaven as a passionate language learner but in the real world, none of us have that availability (except maybe the very rich if they don’t have to work for their money). Nevertheless, the amount of time you can dedicate to your language practice each day (and each day is recommended) will greatly affect your progress.
Is English really an easy language to learn? it’s debatable. As with Spanish and Mandarin that were discussed above, there are certain characteristics of the language that can make it both easy and difficult: there are few variations in verb conjugation and tense but spelling and punctuation are incredibly inconsistent.
So what makes English one of the most widely-spoken languages? It may be partly to do with the fact that people all over the world get exposed to it via English movies, music, books, and TV programmes. This isn’t always the case, however, but people in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries have a reputation for speaking English like native speakers and the TV channels in those countries tend to show English-language programmes or films in the original language as opposed to dubbing them into the local one. By contrast, Spain and Italy tend to dub foreign-language programmes and movies into their own language and their reputation for English-language ability is not as strong as Scandinavian countries.
Perhaps another reason that the whole world seems to learn English with relative ease that people have a passion or a reason for learning it because of the all-pervasive English culture. You automatically have a motivation to learn English if you want to be able to understand the songs by your favourite group, or all the Avengers films, for example. Similarly, people might be motivated to learn Japanese to understand anime or manga. At any rate, the more familiar you are with a language before or during your learning it, the easier it will be.
So, to finish up:
- There is no objectively hard language; the ease or difficulty of a language is subjective.
- Even languages that are perceived as easy have characteristics that can present difficulties to people learning them. Similarly, languages that are perceived as difficult have features that make them easy.
- Whether you find a language easy or difficult depends on many factors such as similarity to your mother tongue, the availability and quality of learning resources, the amount of time you can dedicate to practicing, and how familiar you are with the language.
Feel free to leave any comments and share your own experiences of languages you have found easy or difficult to learn. What was it about the language you found easy or difficult?
*All photos taken by or for Perfektua Language Services unless otherwise stated.