It is no surprise that some languages are easier to learn than others — just ask any high school student who chose to learn Spanish over Arabic, or French over Mandarin Chinese. But, how much easier are Spanish and French relative to Arabic and Mandarin? And why is there a difference in the first place?
At the Defense Language Institute (DLI), run by the Department of Defense, military personnel and federal employees can participate in intensive full-time linguistic training to become conversational in one of 22 languages. However, one of the main differences between language programs is the length of the training.
In order to achieve the same level of fluency as someone who has been learning Spanish for 26 weeks, the program for a student in Russian would take 48 weeks of study–almost twice the time. A German learner would need somewhere in between, or 35 weeks. Meanwhile, a student in Korean would need 64 weeks. The DLI categorizes the languages it offers into four categories; the first category contains the easiest languages to learn, and category 4 contains the hardest languages:
Category 1 (26 weeks): French, Portuguese, Spanish
Category 2 (35 weeks): German, Indonesian
Category 3 (48 weeks): Hebrew, Hindi, Persian Farsi, Russian, Serbian / Croatian, Tagalog, Turkish, Urdu
Category 4 (64 weeks): Arabic (Modern Standard, Egyptian, Iraqi, Levantine, or Sudanese), Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Pashto
So what makes one language ‘easier’ than another?
Alphabets, Sounds, and Scripts
One difference between the category 1 and 4 languages is visibly apparent: the alphabet. Learning other alphabets definitely requires extra time and dedication, as deciphering different letters slows down reading, and writing down new words in a different alphabet involves strong attention to detail and effort.
French, Portuguese, Spanish, German and Indonesian–all of the category 1 and 2 languages–use the Latin alphabet, which is the same one English uses. Granted, there may be additional accent marks and the letters may not be pronounced the same way, but the looks are the same. Some of the languages in category 3 also use the Latin alphabet, such as Croatian, Turkish, and Tagalog. Other languages combine other alphabets with the Latin alphabet, such as Uzbek and Serbian, which can also be written in Cyrillic, the same alphabet Russian uses.
Category 3 and 4 languages, on the other hand, almost all use another alphabet. Russian and Croatian use Cyrillic, and Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu, and Farsi all use their own unique scripts. Pashto and Arabic, both category 4 languages, also have their own alphabets, in which the letters are written totally differently based on whether they are at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.
Even more challenging to foreign language learners from the United States, however, are the languages that have no alphabet, but instead, use characters or syllabaries to convey meaning. The most classic example would be Mandarin Chinese, which uses uniquely assigned characters for each word. Korean’s alphabet is phonetic, but the consonants and vowels are combined to make syllabic figures. Japanese has three different writing systems, often mixing aspects of Chinese characters with Japanese syllabaries.
Pronunciation and Accents
Then, there comes the trouble of pronouncing it all.
For example, Russian requires most of the consonants to be pronounced as either hard or soft; hard consonants are in the front of the mouth while soft consonants are pronounced towards the palate of the mouth. If you get it wrong, Russians may not understand you; a hard or soft l could be the difference between onion (luk) and manhole (l’uk).
Arabic also has many sounds that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Often described as ‘throaty’ by non-native speakers, Arabic has several sounds that are articulated at the back of the mouth, in the glottal and uvular regions.
Every language has its own accent, unique pronunciation features, and distinctive writing style, but the more different these are from English, the more difficult it will be for English speakers to learn them.
Verbs and Nouns
There is a common misconception that each word in English will have a distinct, singular translation in all foreign languages. For some cases, this works just fine: the house in English can be easily translated to la maison in French, la casa in Spanish, and a casa in Portuguese. Very few, if any, translators would disagree. However, when you translate the house to German, it can become either das Haus, des Hauses, or dem Haus. German, like Latin and Russian, has a case system, meaning that nouns are declined (similarly to how verbs are conjugated) depending on their relationship to other words in the sentence. If the house is the subject or direct object of the sentence, das Haus will be used. If it is the indirect object of a sentence, dem Haus will be used. This complicates language-learning quite a bit. When learning languages with case systems, not only do English speakers have to memorize new vocabulary words, but they also must memorize all of the different forms. This explains why case languages, like Croatian, can take twice as long to learn as non-case languages such as Portuguese.
If something as simple in English as a noun can be tough to learn and translate to a foreign language, verbs can be even more complicated. For example, imperative verbs in Hindi and Urdu must be conjugated based on three or four different levels of politeness. In Italian, the student must take note of how many times the action was repeated, if at all. How long did the action in Russian take? Did the verb in Arabic express desire, command, or consequence? Multiple variables can affect how easily an English speaker can conjugate verbs. The more different the verb system is from English and the more irregular the conjugations, the more difficult it will be for an English speaker to learn the language.
Learning any language requires serious time, effort, and skill. However, if you strategically take into account your strengths and weaknesses in language-learning, you will reap the most benefits. For example, if you’re tone-deaf but have great handwriting, Arabic may be easier to learn than Mandarin. If you are great at pronouncing foreign sounds, but not as great at grammar, Spanish or French may be a good choice. At Dynamic Language, we understand that language can be the key to culture, communication, and opportunity, which is why we offer premier translation, interpretation, localization, transcreation, transcription, as well as deaf and vision impaired services.