03 Jun 2015

Why Are Some Languages Harder to Learn than Others?

It’s common for people to describe languages as being relatively easier or harder to learn than others.

English speakers usually agree that languages such as Hungarian and Mongolian are particularly challenging but often find Spanish relatively easy to pick up.

In many cases it’s the degree of similarity between the language you’re trying to learn and your original mother tongue that determines how difficult you’ll find it. For example, speakers of Hungarian and Finnish will often find parallels between the two languages, which have ancient connections, such as the way they use vowels and share some borrowed words from other languages.

If you’re learning to write as well as speak a different language, having a different alphabet to your mother tongue will obviously add to the time it takes you to acquire written fluency. If you’re focusing on just spoken language, you may find it tricky to master different components of speech.

Non-native speakers of English often struggle with our ‘th’ sound, and we in turn often find the French rolled ‘r’ rather hard to copy. But there are other factors which can made a language harder to learn than others.

New languages force us to consider new language concepts

Whilst French may cause difficulties for English speakers with the notion of using the formal ‘vous’ or informal ‘tu’ when addressing a person, Hungarian uses four different levels of familiarity.

For instance a child speaking to an adult, or an adult addressing an elderly woman, would use one particular form of address that’s respectful but perhaps affectionate, but there’s another kind of address used in business communications, and yet another to express a certain distance between the participants in a conversation. Picking the right one is a matter of experience and social fluency just as much as it is language competence.

An English native learning a romance language such as French has to master not only the vocabulary but also unfamiliar concepts such as giving genders to inanimate objects.

Languages such as Vietnamese also have incredibly complex grammar to master. Although English has its own grammatical complexities, you can make errors in grammar but still be understood. In Vietnamese, and to some extent German, sticking to grammatical rules is more fundamental to meaning.

Whilst the majority of world languages are tonal, meaning they use pitch to convey meaning, those approaching a tonal language from an atonal language background may find the idea as well as the execution hard.

What’s particularly fascinating about the distinction between languages that are tonal and those that aren’t may have some genetic basis.

Approximately six thousand years ago a mutation of the ASPM gene seemed to emerge and quickly spread in some populations that then seemed to the ones particularly disposed to developing atonal languages. The most striking example is perhaps Greek: the ancient form of the language is tonal while the modern is not.

Speakers of atonal languages may find it hard to make the transition when learning a tonal one both from a conceptual point of view as well as the practical execution of the tonal sounds.

It’s also the case that speakers of tonal languages who try to learn other tonal languages may still be challenged if the new tonal language has many more tones than their own.

Swedish is not considered a particularly difficult language for English native speakers to learn, as it has a limited number of tones, but Chinese languages have a much wider range of tones that add complexity for both Swedes and Brits trying to master them.

Easy languages to learn

So if you’re an English speaker wanting to pick up some more languages, which are the low hanging fruit?

If you want to make life easy for yourself, try Dutch, Afrikaans, Spanish or Romanian. These languages are some of the most closely related to English and you should be able to grasp them with ‘only’ 600 hours of study.

If you’re looking for a serious challenge, approach Arabic, Japanese or Korean with caution: these are likely to take around three times as long to gain command of. You’ll also find Thai, Estonian and Finnish to be particularly taxing, as well as the major Chinese languages – Mandarin and Cantonese.

The reason languages such as these take so long is that there’s little immediate payoff for the work you put in. With Mandarin you may be misunderstood if you don’t get the tone absolutely right.

Whilst it’s commonly said that you need to understand 2,000 basic Mandarin characters to get by in this written language but this isn’t really the case. Even these basic characters can be formed into a huge number of combinations, meaning you’d have to spend a long time studying before before you’re able to read a Chinese newspaper.

You’ll also find a large number of idioms in Chinese, many of which have their basis in traditional stories. For example, one idiom emerges from the story of a man called Ye Gong. Although Ye Gong claimed that he was very interested in dragons, the story recounts that when a dragon actually came to visit him the man ran away in terror. When Chinese speakers wish to express someone whose interest in a matter is only superficial, they will say ‘Ye Gong adores the dragon’; a cryptic reference to the story.

Other languages are just as guilty of idiomatic speech: Britain’s seafaring past informs much of our idiomatic language. A person who is exposed for their lack of interest in something might be described as ‘showing their true colors’. This idiom originates from pirate ships flying under a false flag to look like an ally to the ships they preyed upon. Native speakers may not even be aware of the origins of their idiomatic turns of phrase but they will understand the meaning is to reveal one’s true nature.

If this seems daunting, take heart: there’s no evidence that there’s any human language that cannot be learnt by other human beings despite their linguistic background. It just seems to be the case that some languages take much longer to gain mastery of than others.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.