Easy and hard languages to learn

Also, what features are easy and what are hard

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Easy and hard languages to learn

#1  Postby lpetrich » Oct 14, 2013 1:57 am

This likely varies a lot, but it would be interesting to look for patterns.

The closest I've found to a systematic survey is a difficulty list from the Foreign Service Institute of the US State Department. Its measure of difficulty is how many weeks of class time it takes to get proficient. Here it is: Wikibooks:Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers - Wikibooks, open books for an open world

The difficulties:
  • I: 23-24 weeks: Romance and most Germanic languages
  • 30 weeks: German
  • 36 weeks: Indonesian/Malay, Swahili, Jumieka
  • II: 44 weeks: most of the rest, including Icelandic
  • III: 88 weeks: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean
Japanese is the most difficult one. It's the writing systems that make Category III languages especially difficult, and Japanese the champion. Without that source of difficulty, they'd likely be Category II.

Has anyone tried composing such lists for other languages? I have yet to find any. But I would not be surprised if the FSI has a Russian counterpart with a similar list for speakers of Russian.

Turning to learning English, its spelling is legendary in its difficulty; it's semi-logographic. I recall some English learners writing English phonetically in their native languages to help them along. But aside from that, how easy or difficult does English tend to be?
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#2  Postby don't get me started » Oct 14, 2013 5:24 am

When talking about learning other languages, one must always be clear about where the starting point is, i.e. what is the native language of the learner. As was pointed out in this book http://www.amazon.co.jp/Language-Myths- ... 0140260234
the question is; How do you get there from here?

The Japanese writing system is indeed a horror for English speakers, and as I've said on many other threads, it is one that a lot of Japanese themselves have trouble with.
Other factors to consider in assessing the difficulty of learning a language (I'll stick with English speakers learning Japanese, but they will be relevant elsewhere as well) are:

Discourse norms that differ significantly. Japanese often tends towards the elliptical and context bound. As a learner who is already struggling with comprehensions, the habitual omission of the subject of a sentence can cause real problems in understanding what is going on. Sometimes I can understand every single word of an utterance, but still have no idea who actually did the actions described in the sentences.

There is a style of Japanese expository writing called Kishotenketsu which has a component that goes off unexpectedly at a tangent and seems to be completely unrelated to the main theme of the writing. It is very challenging to learn how to read this kind of piece, especially when you are not 100% on the vocabulary and grammar.

My experience here in Japan with exchange students coming to study Japanese is that the Koreans and Chinese make the best progress. Not surprising, given the similarity of the grammar and vocab between Korean and Japanese and the commonalities of the writing system between Japanese and Chinese. Non-English native speaking Europeans tend to come next, possibly because they are usually proficient in English and perhaps other European languages and have good language learning skills in place already. Native English speakers usually bring up the rear.

For learners of English, the spelling system can be a headache, but there is regularity. It isn't the free-for-all chaos it is sometimes made out to be. Many learners struggle with specific English phonemes. L and R for East Asians, The 'Th' sounds for many others and the Schwa for almost everyone.

One thing that English does have in its favour is that its status as a lingua franca means that speakers are often used to wide varieties of proficiency. Basically, most English speakers have extensive experience with other varieties, as spoken by people with very different levels of proficiency. For languages like Japanese, in my experience, there are a number of people who have great difficulty understanding foreigner talk.

Great thread Ipetrich!
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#3  Postby orpheus » Oct 14, 2013 6:41 pm

Finnish. Grammar is horrifyingly complicated.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#4  Postby I'm With Stupid » Oct 14, 2013 7:16 pm

The main factor is simply how different it is to your native language (or another language you know well). So Japanese might be the hardest language for an English-speaker, but for a Chinese speaker or Korean speaker, it might be easier than English.

But there are also factors that are objectively more difficult. The largely phonetic spelling of Vietnamese is obviously easier than non-phonetic spelling of English, which is obviously easier than hieroglyphics employed in Chinese. A language with lots of exceptions to grammar rules is harder than a language with none. But in both of these examples, Vietnamese comes across as a fairly easy language, yet in reality, it's insanely difficult for an English speaker, because of the pronunciation, which goes to show that similarity to your own language is still the main issue.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#5  Postby I'm With Stupid » Oct 14, 2013 7:20 pm

don't get me started wrote:For learners of English, the spelling system can be a headache, but there is regularity. It isn't the free-for-all chaos it is sometimes made out to be. Many learners struggle with specific English phonemes. L and R for East Asians, The 'Th' sounds for many others and the Schwa for almost everyone.

Fucking hell, trying to teach "th" is exactly like this:



Doesn't help that Vietnamese people have a taboo about sticking their tongue out.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#6  Postby Weaver » Oct 14, 2013 7:23 pm

The US military runs a test called the Defense Language Aptitude Battery to assess a person's ability to learn foreign languages. The languages are grouped into four categories based on difficulty for a native American English speaker to learn:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_La ... Categories
Language Categories[edit source]

Category I language: 95 or better[4] (French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish)
Category II language: 100 or better (German, Indonesian)
Category III language: 105 or better (Dari, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi/Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, and Uzbek)
Category IV language: 110 or better (Modern Standard Arabic, Pashto, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean)


The DLAB is a very interesting test - they teach you the rules of a language you've never heard of before, then run you through a progressively more difficult series of tests on comprehension and translation ability.

I scored 136 back in 1988.

Interesting trivia - the language used is Esperanto, though we don't tell young recruits that ahead of time.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#7  Postby The_Metatron » Oct 14, 2013 7:39 pm

Try and get a Korean to ask for a lizard pizza with a Fanta to drink.

There are sounds some peoples simply do not use in their speech. Goddamned German umlaut or the French r. Bastards.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#8  Postby orpheus » Oct 14, 2013 9:00 pm

Weaver wrote:The US military runs a test called the Defense Language Aptitude Battery to assess a person's ability to learn foreign languages. The languages are grouped into four categories based on difficulty for a native American English speaker to learn:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_La ... Categories
Language Categories[edit source]

Category I language: 95 or better[4] (French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish)
Category II language: 100 or better (German, Indonesian)
Category III language: 105 or better (Dari, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi/Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, and Uzbek)
Category IV language: 110 or better (Modern Standard Arabic, Pashto, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean)


The DLAB is a very interesting test - they teach you the rules of a language you've never heard of before, then run you through a progressively more difficult series of tests on comprehension and translation ability.

I scored 136 back in 1988.

Interesting trivia - the language used is Esperanto, though we don't tell young recruits that ahead of time.


That is really interesting. I didn't know anything about this.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#9  Postby lpetrich » Oct 15, 2013 3:09 am

don't get me started wrote:The Japanese writing system is indeed a horror for English speakers, and as I've said on many other threads, it is one that a lot of Japanese themselves have trouble with.

If they themselves often have trouble with it, what hope is there for everybody else?

I've seen a defense of Chinese characters that they are useful for disambiguating homophones, sound-alike words. However, if one is using an alphabet for phonetic spelling, one can depart from phoneticity for that purpose. Italian does that with h for a few words. Some English spelling also does that, but like English spelling in general, it does not do so very coherently. Thus:

reed, read (present)
red, read (past)

My experience here in Japan with exchange students coming to study Japanese is that the Koreans and Chinese make the best progress. Not surprising, given the similarity of the grammar and vocab between Korean and Japanese and the commonalities of the writing system between Japanese and Chinese.

So it would be like how most western European languages are relatively easy for English speakers.

Great thread Ipetrich!

Thanx.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#10  Postby lpetrich » Oct 15, 2013 3:13 am

Weaver wrote:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_La ... Categories
Language Categories[edit source]

Category I language: 95 or better[4] (French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish)
Category II language: 100 or better (German, Indonesian)
Category III language: 105 or better (Dari, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi/Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, and Uzbek)
Category IV language: 110 or better (Modern Standard Arabic, Pashto, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean)


Let's see how they map onto the FSI's estimates.
I -- I
II -- I* as it may be called
III -- II, II*
IV -- III, III*, Pashto is II
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#11  Postby lpetrich » Oct 15, 2013 3:35 am

Let's see where the languages of Europe fall in the FSI's classification.

I - Romance langs, most Germanic langs
i* - German
II - Icelandic, Irish, Albanian, Greek, Baltic langs, Slavic langs
II* - Uralic langs

Outside of Europe, most languages are II, with a few I*, II*, III, and III* ones.

Of notable past European languages, I think that the likes of Old English, Old Norse, Latin, and Classical Greek would be II.

Standard Average European - Wikipedia describes shared features of several Western European languages. These features are likely areal effects, since Germanic and Romance's most recent common ancestor was Late Proto-Indo-European. It departed rather strongly from SAE, as Latin and the earlier Germanic languages also did. So sharing SAE features may make some languages relatively easy to learn.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#12  Postby Imp » Oct 15, 2013 7:38 am

The_Metatron wrote:Try and get a Korean to ask for a lizard pizza with a Fanta to drink.

There are sounds some peoples simply do not use in their speech. Goddamned German umlaut or the French r. Bastards.

There are umlaut sounds in English, you're just not aware you're using them.

I'd reckon languages using clicks would be more difficult to pick up.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#13  Postby Berthold » Oct 15, 2013 8:30 am

Imp wrote:There are umlaut sounds in English, you're just not aware you're using them.

The ö is similar (though not identical) to i in bird or u in turd. The ä is like the a in mad. There is no ü in English, but British people know French anyway :grin: , where it occurs as the u in many words.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#14  Postby Blackadder » Oct 15, 2013 8:45 am

What a fascinating thread. Weaver - I too was unaware of the DLAB.

I was raised bilingual, speaking both English and Punjabi equally regularly. I also learned Hindi/Urdu as a child, along with a smattering of Arabic. I went on to learn French and was learning Spanish for a year until life got in the way. My personal experience (for what it's worth) is that I have found it relatively easy to pick up the pronunciation of new languages, probably because my ear and vocal chords were trained as a child to get around what I call "front of mouth" languages like English and also "back of throat" languages like Arabic. Grammar and script still present huge challenges, of course!
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#15  Postby Fallible » Oct 15, 2013 10:30 am

I have a suspicious respect for polyglots. There is something of the black arts about them.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#16  Postby Blackadder » Oct 15, 2013 12:26 pm

Fallible wrote:I have a suspicious respect for polyglots. There is something of the black arts about them.


:devil:

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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#17  Postby Scot Dutchy » Oct 15, 2013 12:27 pm

The "g" in Dutch gave me a severe throat infection when I was learning.

There are several Dutch sounds that are almost impossible for English and Latin speakers.

Ask the Germans to speak the Dutch version of the "sch" sound. They cant do it.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#18  Postby Fallible » Oct 15, 2013 12:29 pm

Blackadder wrote:
Fallible wrote:I have a suspicious respect for polyglots. There is something of the black arts about them.


:devil:

Namaste, Sat Sri Akaal, willkommen and dabro pazhalavat! Won't you step into my parlour? Mwahahahah.


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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#19  Postby Zwaarddijk » Oct 15, 2013 1:32 pm

Berthold wrote:
Imp wrote:There are umlaut sounds in English, you're just not aware you're using them.

The ö is similar (though not identical) to i in bird or u in turd. The ä is like the a in mad. There is no ü in English, but British people know French anyway :grin: , where it occurs as the u in many words.

Some Californian dialects are reputedly having a sound change where /u/ (the sound in cool) or somesuch has been shifting forward while maintaining roundedness. Rumor has it some sociolects even have an ü there, but I have not heard any recordings that would confirm it. The strongest fronting I've heard puts it at what in IPA is written [u], which is somewhat further back in the mouth than an [y] is.
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Re: Easy and hard languages to learn

#20  Postby orpheus » Oct 15, 2013 3:22 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
Berthold wrote:
Imp wrote:There are umlaut sounds in English, you're just not aware you're using them.

The ö is similar (though not identical) to i in bird or u in turd. The ä is like the a in mad. There is no ü in English, but British people know French anyway :grin: , where it occurs as the u in many words.

Some Californian dialects are reputedly having a sound change where /u/ (the sound in cool) or somesuch has been shifting forward while maintaining roundedness. Rumor has it some sociolects even have an ü there, but I have not heard any recordings that would confirm it. The strongest fronting I've heard puts it at what in IPA is written [u], which is somewhat further back in the mouth than an [y] is.


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