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What’s the easiest language to learn? Why is Chinese harder to learn than Spanish? How hard would it be to learn Icelandic? Considering that I spend most of my day lurking through the depths of the language-learning communities on various social media networks, I see a lot of questions about the relative difficulty of learning different languages. My answer to every single one of them: it’s not about the language, it’s about the learner.
For those of you who have your WTF face on, let’s take one ranking scale for example. The Defense Language Institute provides instruction in 24 languages, each ranked by difficulty into one of four categories To reach the same level of proficiency, you would have to study a Category I language (such as Spanish) for 26 weeks, a Category II language (think German) for 34 weeks, a Category III language (something like Thai) for 48 weeks, and a Category IV language (I’m looking at you, Arabic and Mandarin) for 64 weeks. That’s all well and good for DLI, considering that the majority of their students are native English speakers. But on the most basic level, it tells us nothing about how hard each language is to learn.
After all, what makes a language easy or hard? Is it the writing system? Grammar rules like adjective agreement? The arbitrary use of genders for nouns? Don’t even get me started on cases and declension! I would argue that it is none of those things (or perhaps all of those things!) More important than any one facet of a language is the perspective from which you look at the language. What is your native language? How many languages have you learned? How old are you? In what environment are you learning the language? All of these factors play a role in how challenging we may find a specific language.
An infant learns Chinese in roughly 2-3 years with seemingly no effort at all (so unfair), whereas I studied French formally for nearly 10 years before I felt any sense of proficiency in the language. Does that make Chinese easier to learn than French? I think most of us would argue certainly not. It depends on the learner. A native Arabic speaker attempting to learn Portuguese on their own in the Egypt will face an entirely different set of challenges than a native Spanish speaker who has moved to Brazil to learn Portuguese, don’t you think?
So what actually makes a language hard to learn? Certainly having no prior experience with learning languages will make the journey a tad more difficult for you. Learning a language in your home country without native speaker assistance presents difficulties in comparison to immersion learning, of course. Having no motivation or desire to learn a language will also put a damper on your progress—I’m looking at you, high school tweeters of “Oh Em Gee why do I have to suffer through Spanish class #mylifeishard”.
So, my advice to those wondering how difficult it will be to learn a language: don’t worry about the language choice, worry about yourself and your own plans to learn. Don’t get caught up in the “Arabic is the hardest language EVAR” nonsense, and do not be discouraged by anyone who says “learning Italian was so freakin’ easy.” Set your own language goals, work at a comfortable pace, find resources you enjoy learning from, find someone to help you through the difficult parts, and stick with it. The truth is every language is only as tough to learn as you make it out to be!
What do you think about the difficulty of various languages? Are some languages truly more difficult than others?