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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Are some languages more difficult to learn than others?


If there is one thing the Dutch often tell me about their language, it’s that it’s difficult. I am always surprised when I hear this. After all, it didn’t sound so difficult to me. German proved to be a huge help when learning Dutch- speakers of German can read Dutch even though the pronunciation is different, making speaking it a little bit harder.

This made me wonder whether some languages were more difficult than others. I browsed the web in search for the most difficult languages in the world, and found this or this list.

I am a native speaker of Polish, which is notorious for being difficult, and some lists even mention Polish as the most difficult language ever- see here for the explanation why it’s supposedly so difficult. I have been speaking German since a very young age, and it didn’t seem difficult to me, but I was very surprised that many of my co-students at school often stated that they preferred English because it was easier.

So, just because one language is considered easy or difficult, doesn’t mean that this is the case, because whether a language can be called easy or difficult depends on so many things. One of them is its distance to the native language. I considered Dutch easy because it’s close to German. So even though Polish can seem impossible to learn (Cases! More exceptions than rules! All these “sh-sounds!”), it might appear easier to someone who already knows Russian, Slovak or Czech. If you know Italian, you can easily learn Spanish, etc.

Another aspect is that in fact, all languages have their own unique characteristics. For example, while Chinese doesn’t seem to have any grammar to speak of (so it could be considered easy), but then it has a totally different language system, and a complex alphabet on top of that. English is considered easy, but personally, I found German easier than English: English has TENSES! As a speaker of a language that doesn’t have so many tenses, I couldn’t have cared less whether something had happened before something else happened, or that something has been happening for a while now, or has only happened recently. And there is no way of knowing how something is spelled or pronounce. Italian or Spanish always seemed easy to me but they have a complicated system of tenses, just like many other Romance languages.

Another thing is that sometimes we have a talent for languages in general or, a better understanding of some languages over others. A friend of mine told me that she had a talent for Romance languages and she was very proud of her knowledge of Italian. I have learned a great deal of Germanic languages, can understand some Italian and Spanish, but still struggle with French.

Then, there is the motivation for learning the languages: if it’s a duty, it’s going to be hard. If it’s fun, it’s going to be challenging- not necessarily easy, but at least it will be fun! Still, I think that each language we learn is a benefit, and each language we learn gives us a glimpse into another world.

What is important is that we don’t make this a competition. Learning a language- any language- is an accomplishment!



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13 comments:

  1. I've never really understood why the Dutch think that their language is so difficult; it has some weird sounds in it (like 'ui') but otherwise I found it like German without the cases. I don't really see what you mean about tenses in English; isn't it basically the same as in German? In French you have more tenses but the past historic, for example, is basically never used in everyday language. At the moment I'm learning Danish for fun; it's grammatically easy but the pronunciation is difficult; I'd imagine that it'd be especially hard if you were French, for example.

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  2. Paul, German has 7 tenses English, on the other hand, has 17- see here for a full table: http://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/tenses. By comparison, Polish has all of 4 tenses, and then so called aspects are used to indicate whether an action was finished or not (no other language I know has aspects).I think that yes, French has even more tenses, and it's a language I'm struggling with. I agree, I didn't mention pronunciation when considering the level of difficulty for a language. My husband is learning Polish and the pronunciation is one of the things he's struggling with- maybe Dutch is harder to pronounce than German for example? Not sure.

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    1. No, actually it only has 14 tenses, the last three happen to be conditionals

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  3. I can confirm, for Czech speakers Polish is easy to understand (and kind of funny). In my experience everyone seems to think their own language is hardest, I imagine because we're all deeply aware of the intricacies of our own language (I can't count how many times I've heard "I don't envy people learning my language - I don't even speak it properly!"). I think if any language were objectively harder then children would start speaking it later, but this doesn't happen.

    I would say languages are harder to learn the further away they are from your "base" (native language), similar to what you're describing. So Polish is easy to pick up for a Slavic speaker, but hard for an English speaker. Both are hard for a Chinese speaker, and Chinese is hard for anyone in the Indo-European family but probably relatively easy for a Japanese speaker.

    I've also run across the idea (among non-native speakers) that English is an easy or primitive language, because for instance there is basically no case system. It is interesting to note, though, that I've never heard anyone say this who actually speaks English WELL! Only the people who learned a bit of English and think that's all there is to it. My husband and a few other friends near-native English would never say English is easy; they would say it takes work to speak on a higher level, which it does.

    And you're right, we have a crazy system of verb tenses :)

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    1. Oh I can assure you that Czech sounds so sweet to Polish ears- we say it's like children talking, but then the Czech and the Slovak say the same things about Polish, and I think it's really funny. Yes, language get harder to learn the farther away there are from our own language- we have to learn more, and deal with grammatical aspects of the language that are foreign to us (like the aspects or cases in Polish for German speakers, or tenses and articles in English for Polish speakers). And I have heard ( and even said) this assumption about English- that it's easy. Then I learned to speak it better and understood that it's not easy at all-it might be easy to get started to speak, making for a good success experience, but if you really dwell into it, it becomes more difficult as you learn to express yourself better and better. I feel pretty challenged to learn a language with a totally different alphabet, like Russian, or Arabic, or Hindi (I love Bollywood movies and I think it sounds great), or maybe Chinese- but that's more of a dream right now.

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  4. As a Hungarian native speaker, I am always told how difficult it is to learn, esp because it is not an Indo-European language :) I found Russian difficult, German moderately difficult, English easy, and yet to see about Dutch :)

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    1. Hello and welcome to this blog! We've been to Hungary a lot and I think learning the language would have been difficult, but then I would have a lot of motivation to learn it (love the country and have very fond memories from there) so that would definitely make it easier. If you found German moderately difficult, you might find Dutch somewhat easier- no cases- especially if you found English easy and Dutch has a lot of English-sounding words. Good luck- and have fun learning Dutch!

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    2. Thanks for the welcome :) If you have any tips on where to learn Dutch (in Amsterdam) I would be grateful. I am very happy to hear you loved Hungary on your visits - let me know if you go again and need info or help :) Cheers, Rita

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    3. Rita, for more information on Dutch classes check out Amsterdam Mamas- they post useful information about classes on FB and Twitter: http://www.amsterdam-mamas.nl/. Nomad Parents is another good source to ask: www.nomadparents.nl. And, last but not least, contact Expatica (http://www.expatica.com/) or IamExpat here (http://www.iamexpat.nl/). I don't live in Amsterdam so I can't really tell you which classes are the best, but I hope one of these sites will help!

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  5. In my view there are two basic ways of how to assess the difficulty of a language.

    Some languages are objectively more difficult than others. For example, compare Indonesian with Chinese, and Indonesian is objectively simpler. (Note I'm talking about combined reading/writing/speaking here).

    Then some languages are more difficult/easier depending on the language background of the student. As a native English speaker who spent four years trying to learn Chinese, I was surprised to hear a Dutch person claim Dutch was the most difficult language in the world. Maybe it is - if you're a native Japanese or Swahili speaker. But for English speakers there are a few changes in sounds to learn to say words that are related to English, and it only takes a few hours to read text that would take months or years to learn in Chinese.

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  6. Hi Rhys thanks for your comment. I agree that it depends on your background. But I found that each language has it's simpler and more difficult aspects. I don't know about Chinese and Indonesian. With some languages, you can start speaking almost straight away, but then still struggle with more refined aspects of grammar. Some languages take longer to learn but once you get there you already have a strong knowledge of it.Some languages might have an "easy" or no grammar, but be extremely complex in terms of vocabulary, spelling, or expressions used. Also, while comparing languages might be useful for learning it (for example making the comparison between Dutch and German), but I'm not sure why we have to make lists of the most difficult languages in the world, or find the most difficult one. Yes, I am often told that Dutch is difficult, but it is easy for me. I have read that one philosopher claimed that it was the language used in heaven (can you imagine?)

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  7. I tried to learn French, actually it was easy to learn. But when I tried to learn TCM it was really difficult to learn Chinese. Still I can’t pronounce those words.

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    1. Hello, and thank you for stopping by. Yes, if these tones don't exist in your langauge, it will be hard to learn to pronunce it. Learning a langauge is always difficult, so don't beat yourself up!

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