Are Some Languages Harder to Learn than Others?

Posted on 10. Mar, 2014 by in Language Learning

 hardlanguageWhat’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?

About meaghan

Meaghan is the Social Media Coordinator for Transparent Language, aka the messenger of language news to twitterverse. She once had a love/hate relationship with French, but the two are now very happy together, although one time she was a little unfaithful with a semester of Hausa lessons. @meagmcgon

34 Responses to “Are Some Languages Harder to Learn than Others?”

  1. hilmans 10 March 2014 at 11:38 am #

    that’s mostly true, it depends on the learner. you have to know the best method for learning it, if you haven’t find out yet, go figure it out now! you have to do the trial and error method until you know your capability to absord the knowledge. and one think for sure, you have to expose yourself to the language as much as possible.
    i’m indonesia, so my native language is Bahasa Indonesia, I’ve been learning English in school since i was in elementary school, and I feel like I’m fluent in english right before I went to college (16y/o), the reason why it took me so long to be able to speak english fluently is because I didnt expose myself enough to that language, I only learn english 6 hours of lesson in school. right now, I know what is the best method for me to learn language, I read alot, I listen alot, and I translate alot. right now i’m 22y/o, for the past 6 years, i’ve been learning several languages, and now I speak Korean (i learned at age of 17), Dutch (20), and French (21). and i’ve been preparing my French for admission of my master degree in France, hopefully I can pass the delf C1 in couple months later. :)

    • meaghan 10 March 2014 at 1:13 pm #

      Another great point! Not only is difficulty measured by your past experience with languages, your motivation, etc., but certainly also by the method and resources you choose. Some may find immersion the easiest way to learn a language, while others may prefer traditional classroom instruction. Again, another example of how it’s all relative!

  2. Iain Cardno 10 March 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    I think this is one the most well thought out articles about language that I have ever read. People are always saying to me here in Poland that I shouldn’t worry too much about learning it because it’s the hardest language in the world to learn! I must admit that it hasn’t been easy to learn, but when I first arrived, worked in non-expat bars in Kraków and had no English Speaking friends I picked up Polish very quickly, it was very much Pidgin Polish but I learned to get by pretty easily in the space of about 4 months. Now that I am working in an English Speaking environment and spend most of my time at home speaking English, even with Polish classes, my level of Polish has plateaued and I seem to find it’s not improving at the rate it was previously when I HAD to use it.

    Same thing happened with me and Italian, I was working in Scotland but we had a Pizzaiolo who didn’t speak English, was about my age and was the only other person in the staff accommodation for the first month I was there. I felt a responsibility to this chap that he shouldn’t be stuck alone and so, having never said a word of Italian in my life, I took him to the pub or out for walks every night and sat and pointed at stuff which he would call in Italian and I would in English and we always had an English-Italian dictionary at hand. Now obviously with him being in Scotland he picked up English pretty quickly, but between the two of us, we could communicate pretty well in an Italian-English mix within the space of a fortnight!

    In short, I agree with this article.

    • meaghan 10 March 2014 at 1:12 pm #

      Thanks, Iain! Your first point about Polish is exactly why I wanted to share my opinion on this subject. Ranking languages by difficult is in no way productive. To rank a language as “too hard to learn” gives learners an excuse not to try, or to write off their mistakes. To claim a language is “very easy” can be equally discouraging for those who are struggling with it.

      It’s all about YOU and your language background and your motivation. You can’t listen to anyone else’s subjective rankings!

    • Clint Swift 5 April 2014 at 11:34 am #

      Agree this is an interesting and useful post. Thanks, Meaghan

  3. Dorothy 10 March 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    Well,I’m a Hungarian,and a lots of people tell me,that it’s is the hardest,but the most beautiful language.Actually,I don’t know.I mean,yes,Hungarian is such a hard language,even though it’s my first language,but what do you think,I’m curious.c:

    • imutimut 15 August 2014 at 4:53 am #

      The hardest? Have they learned all the languages in the world?!

  4. BillyMcGookin 10 March 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    Hi Meghan, living in Sardinia with my partner she has mastered the Italian but i am suffering trying hard but at 68years old it is hard.

  5. Jullisa 10 March 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    Very encouraging article. I grew up in the Dutch Caribbean where pretty much everyone speaks 4 languages (Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish and English). I find that knowing more languages makes it easier to learn other languages as you can draw more parallels to the languages you already know.
    When I learned French, the knowledge of both Spanish and Dutch helped. Now that I am learning Hindi the comprehension of genders from Spanish helps and also some syntax from Papiamento (like the repetition of the same word in a sentence to add emphasis).
    However I believe the most important factor that will determine how fast you would learn a language is the desire and the love you have for it.

    • meaghan 11 March 2014 at 1:19 pm #

      Definitely true, Jullisa! The more languages you learn, the easier it becomes, not only because you’ll see overlap in vocab/grammar, but also because you’ve learned HOW to learn. You’ve experienced the highs and lows of language learning, you know what types of materials you enjoy using, you’re more confident in your approach, etc.

  6. Salvador 10 March 2014 at 4:47 pm #

    I´m Brazilian and I agreewith this oppinion: it´s about the learner. My first language was´nt Portuguese. It was Italian. Unfortunately, my dad (from Naples) stoped to speak Italian when I entered the elementary I don´t know why. At the age of 8, I joined my mother to learn English. I learned some and she didn´t. At school, I learned more English (7 years) and French (2 years. Then, I decided to learn Japanese, Russian and German by myself. I learned just a little. Spanish is very close to Portuguese and I didn´t studied it regularly. Nevertheless, It is easy to understand, read and speak some. Ther is also , Greek, Latin, Interlingua, Esperanto, IDO and Latino sine Flexione. So, I had contact with 14 languages but I only know Portuguese and English very well and a little of the others. My advice is: attempt to the similarities of the languages (there is a lot), try to learn like children (as an adult you can run very fast) and do not feel scaried. Be open minded and go on.
    PS: as a (former) system analyst, I have programmed in 25 computer languages. The system was the same.

  7. Francine 10 March 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Things are not as simple as that. Saying it depends on the learner is just too simplistic.
    I speak fluently 4 languages (european languages) and another 3 i am only able to have basic conversations in.
    It depends on the learner, on the background of the learner, how good they are at language, theyre willingness to learn and how similar the new language is for them to learn.
    Okay I am not and English speaker, what I mean is that for a French person to learn italian is easier than to learn Dutch or English. Italian has similar “roots” to French.
    I speak german and French, to learn Afrikaans was easy, but to learn Zulu was extremely difficult. Does that makes sense? It took me about 2 years to understand Afrikaans, but 9 to understand Zulu.

  8. royendershade 10 March 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    It’s not so difficult to see that some languages are harder to learn. I’ts true, the most important part is the starting point, but even then, we only need to see how Chineese takes much more years to learn for native speakers that many other languages. Thats how hangul appeared in Korea, when one medieval king noticed how hard it was for people to learn to write, so they decided to create a new alphabet, with a very short number of symbols, just like the european ones, and in a few years there weren’t almos iliterates, compared to the situation before when it took many years to learn only to read. So it’s a fact, it’s easier to learn reading when you need to learn only 20, 30 symbols that you can use to build any word, than when you need to learn 10000 one for each word.

  9. Rebotante 10 March 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    I need separate my comment into two parts:

    a) About learning Esperanto: It is really easy to learn, at least it’s easier than natural languages, because it was designed to avoid difficult on learning languages. It has only 16 grammar rules and NO EXCEPTIONS. So you need understand that rules and then you can expand your vocabulary very fast. For example:
    – Lern+i (Lerni)= to learn
    – Lern+ej+o (Lernejo)= school
    – Lern+ant+o (Lernanto) = student
    Obviously it has some parts that you need understand as the accusative mode (As spanish speaker it is a little bit hard). But you can be fluent in 6 months (average).

    b) I’m not fluent in English as I wish, but I’m working on it, and I’m learning French as a fourth language. Some people says me It’s not a good idea to study two languages at the same time, but it’s not true. As more languages you learn as easier you’ll learn another one, specially if they are different one each other, because you have more points of view to compare grammar rules, exceptions, and roots.

    I like listening foreign radios in the languages that I study, in Esperanto, in English, and in French. And I read blogs, I use my Facebook in Esperanto, my cell in French, and my Twitter in English. I used to read the bible in all languages that I’m learning. And all this helps me to learn and practice. I’m talking about strategies, it works for all languages.

    A language it’s not just a system to express something but a system to see the world in a different way. Every language is another world. How many worlds have you visited?

  10. Alex 11 March 2014 at 3:02 am #

    Some Approaches from TED: Ajit Narayanan: A word game to communicate in any language http://youtu.be/-Z-ul0GzzM4

  11. Sam Dunbavin 11 March 2014 at 3:15 am #

    I think that you briefly mentioned a point that I feel is very important. I think that another way that makes a language hard/easy to learn are the languages that you have learnt before. I’m not talking about your native tongue, I mean the ones you have physically set out and learnt, mostly in a classroom. If the learning experience from learning, say French, resembles that of learning Spanish, in that there a number of cognates and similarities between the two, then that makes learning Spanish a lot easier than if you had been taking it from scratch. So yes, you’re right about it coming from perspective I think, but experience too is a huge part of that perspective, and I don’t think it can be overlooked.

    • meaghan 11 March 2014 at 1:22 pm #

      I completely agree, Sam. The experience level of the learner plays a huge role in their ability to learn new languages. That topic may make for an interesting blog post of its own, actually… stay tuned! ;)

  12. momen 11 March 2014 at 7:37 am #

    I am Momen from Egypt . my native language is Arabic ( thank God) and I learnt English and German .
    I think when comparing English and German , German is harder than English although I like German more so I have more motivation to learn it , but it still harder . and to be honest I can’t imagine myself learning Chinese , Japanese or even Arabic , if I were not native Arabic speaker .
    but actually you are right in saying that the learner plays the major role ,but I just wanted to add that the language plays a part too . 65% learner and 35% language

    • imutimut 15 August 2014 at 5:32 am #

      “my native language is Arabic ( thank God)” Why “thank God”? Because “Arabic is the hardest language in the world”? lol

      “I can’t imagine myself learning Chinese , Japanese or even Arabic” Don’t just imagine. But do it learn Chinese or Japanese if you want to. I’m learning Japanese at the moment. While Kanji is not a child-play, it’s not impossible to “master” if one keeps on working on it. If you give yourself a false-hope of “mastering” Japanese in one year, you may break your heart. My point is that, some people give up too easily and too soon. They can’t even imagine themselves learning “the hardest language in the world”. Don’t blame the language.

  13. Dr Doom 11 March 2014 at 8:48 am #

    The title of this piece is, ‘Are some languages harder to learn than others?’ Prior to reading this piece, my opinion was ‘yes’, as I find it hard to imagine all languages perfectly equal. This piece seems to answer ‘no’ based on the relative difficulty people experience when coming from different backgrounds. I don’t feel that this. I don’t think that this reasoning is technically answers the original question.

  14. Jenny 11 March 2014 at 9:55 am #

    I find Japanese and Korean to be extremely easy! The only “difficulties” I’ve found is kanji is time consuming as you need to know around 1500 – 2000 to be considered fluent. How much time do I need to take to learn all this? As for Korean, there are a few vowel sounds that are not in English so that will take time to train my ear to listen to them.

    I actually find Spanish to be difficult as I don’t care to learn it, and the grammar is a bit harder than English because it throws in gender words. English refers to everything as an “it.”

    The other difficulties I’ve found is people really don’t speak clearly or speak up. I do have a hearing problem and need for people to face me when they speak and not to whisper. Because of this, my reading and writing are a lot better.

    • imutimut 15 August 2014 at 5:39 am #

      “I find Japanese and Korean to be extremely easy! The only “difficulties” I’ve found is kanji is time consuming as you need to know around 1500 – 2000 to be considered fluent.”

      Agree. At first I thought “particles” will be pain in the ass. It turns out, it’s not. At least for now. Maybe because, I find using “particles” fun. Japanese is fun for me to learn. I love the language. :)

      Japanese phonology is easier for me than Korean.

  15. Laly 11 March 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    THANK YOU Meaghan! I am so glad that recently I’ve signed up for Transparent Language news. At my 46 y.o. when I moved to Hannover,Germany for a year without any background in German language and after attending a school for adults now I am able to understand, write and speak basic conversation, even though I am a native Spanish speaker and I hated German before.

    I think the most important is the willingness to learn a language without fear once you are in the country of origen (my own languages have some difficult grammar rules like others as well!)

    These are my tips:
    – I’ve learned German using English as a primary language, not my Spanish. So I can keep my English.
    – Reading the newspaper or any written source, at least to get the idea of the message.
    – Having a friend without any background in English neither Spanish and keep in touch via e-mails or letters with him/her who is a German language learner too! – I found this really cool! We both trying our best to communicate.
    – Listening to the radio news – NDR (my favorite)
    – German podcast – Deutsche Welle, Goethe Institut, i.e.

    I moved back to the USA some months ago and because I don’t want to miss all what I learned with passion, I am reapplying all my previous tips plus I belong to a German club and I set up my devices in German. :-)

    Now I would love to learn Italian. Ciao!

  16. Thony 14 March 2014 at 8:00 am #

    The article states that a Chinese infant learns it in 2 or 3 years. That is incorrect. Chinese speakers (I guess it suggests Mandarin?) in their early years learn the speaking part (in more than 3 years!), then move to reading and writing. We can’t say they know Chinese if they can’t write a sufficient amount of characters on their own.

    What makes Chinese a huge challenge for anyone whose native language is using neither tones nor characters is the fact that both aspects are divergent. If Vietnamese, Cantonese or Japanese can master it “easily”, good luck for others. Learning Chinese is learning two if not 3 languages at the same time: pronunciation, writing and tones that we can even differenciate from the pronunciation since you could perfectly know the pronunciation but if you forgot the tone, natives will have a hard time to understand you. That is a huge loads of work!

    If you have been studying Chinese full time in a Chinese school, you will see how a (very) large majority of learners improve at a relatively slow pace. It naturally depends on your native language, the environement you grew up, your motivation, your love for the language etc but fact is that Chinese does share similarities with a few languages only, hence most learners will have to rely merely on the efforts they will pay to learn… and efforts is an understatement! Even natives tend to forget characters easily. Yes another aspect, recognizing a word and being able to write it yourself perfectly is another story.

    My native language is a latin language and to me, Chinese in its overall is the hardest language I have come across, by far!! Pronunciation of Icelandic is tough as well.

    To me any language that you speak and write the same way is in essence easier that another working the other way. It should not prevent anyone from learning it, the road will just be a wee bit more bumpy. And yes, it’s never too late to start!

    Good luck everyone with the language(s) you are working on at the moment. And great blog!

    • Guy Chamberland 14 March 2014 at 9:05 pm #

      Interesting. One point I would like to make is that, in spite of the varying degree of difficulty of foreign languages for a native speaker of, say, English, children learn their *mother tongue* all at basically the same devlopmental rate. In other words, a 4-year old Cantonese speaker has the same linguistic abilities as a 4-year old English or Urdu speaker.
      In my view, the real difficulty in learning a foreign language as an adult is not the grammar, but the vocab — thousands upon thousands of words. And to follow up on my own comments (below), one of my profs, when I learned Arabic, pointed out that you need about 3000 english words to read a newspaper without the help of a dictionary. You need about 10,000 Arabic words to do the same.
      Good luck with Chinese!
      Guy (@GuyChamberland)

  17. daniel 14 March 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    quiero tener combersaciones en ingles para podere manejar el idioma como me gustaria

  18. Guy Chamberland 14 March 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    Sorry, Meaghan, I disagree because I think you want to compare apples and oranges. There is no point in comparing a child who learns Chinese as his/her native language, and an adult English speaker learning Chinese. The only useful way to look at it, I would argue, is: *Everything being equal*, what is the degree of difficulty of this or that foreign language for a native speaker of, say, English. I don’t think you could argue that the level of difficulty of Dutch is comparable to that of Chinese for an English speaker.
    I have myself studied Arabic for 3 years at the university level, and did a 6-week course at the bourguiba Institute, al-Manar University in Tunis. Well, being a native speaker of French, after 2 hours (yes: 2 hours) of reading an Italian article for my M.A. thesis, I knew more Italian than Arabic. everything being equal, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that some languages are way more difficult (or at least, require a lot more time) than others.
    In addition, there are “artificial” reasons (i.e., non-linguistic reasons) why some languages are more difficult than others. Spanish writing, for example, is almost entirely phonetic, while French sticks to archaisms that fly in the face of the notion of *alphabet*: “Les poules du couvent couvent” is not easy to get at first.
    Likewise, the Arabic writing system doesn’t normally provide the short vowels, so that one can’t learn a word just by reading it unless it is of a known pattern (such as, say, a masdar of the 10th form, on the istif3aal pattern).
    That was my honest take on it! hope you don’t mind!
    Guy

  19. Andrew Barr 20 March 2014 at 4:47 am #

    Hi Meaghan,
    For me the core message of this article is that mindset is critical for success at learning a second language.

    There is no doubt that learning a second language is difficult regardless of what language you choose. But there is one thing is constant across all languages, you as the student have to be motivated and committed over the long term.

    You have to develop skills that aren’t obvious like making mistakes and being okay with that. You will need get used to being uncomfortable and facing your fears. And lastly once you have chosen a second language to tackle you need to avoid procrastination and excuses to keep going when you don’t feel like it.

    For students learning a third or forth language these skills were probably discovered when they stepped outside their first.

    Hopefully your article well help remove some mental hurdles for some students and keep them on the path that will lead to the awesomeness that is speaking a second language.

  20. Katya 28 March 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    My grandparents were Ukrainian (on the western side for those of you interested in current events) and I had very little exposure to the language growing up because my mother refused to have me grow up Ukrainian. (Silly woman!) To make matters worse, I haven’t been near a Ukrainian since the country became independent!

    It’s taken me several false starts, but I’ve hooked up with a private tutor and am supplementing our work with BYKI. Learning the Ukrainian / Cyrillic alphabet is much easier than I thought it would be and so is the language.

    I think – for me – it’s 99.9% desire and .1% dormant brain cells waking up.Nothing’s impossible if you want to learn it bad enough.

  21. L. Nance 24 April 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    You’re entirely right, Ms. Meaghan. I’ve learned from experience that nothing influences the language-learning process as much as initial perspective. For example, when I began to study Latin, I approached it with very few expectations. I found it to be time-consuming, but not conceptually difficult. My classmates, however, gave up very easily because they had been convinced beforehand that Latin is an inherently difficult language. I also had a similar experience with Arabic.

    On the other hand, I have always seen French as a confusing language with slightly nonsensical rules (a deplorable prejudice, I know!). I approached it with this presumption, sadly, and since then I have found learning it to be a decidely uphill battle. Not many would claim that French is a “more difficult” language than Latin or Arabic, and yet, because of my preconceptions, I seem to have written my own self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The lesson is that your attitude is what determines how well you accept and absorb a particular language. I love to hear other people’s opinions on it, though. Thank you for sharing in the comments, everyone!

  22. imutimut 15 August 2014 at 5:15 am #

    “An infant learns Chinese in roughly 2-3 years with seemingly no effort at all (so unfair)”

    I’ve heard about a Japanese adult “mastering” Mandarin Chinese in one year. He lived with a native speaker though. I think, when we learn our mother tongue as an infant, we have the advantages of being surrounded by the language every single day. Even so, a two-or-three-year-old infant surely still not masters his/her mother tongue. Still speaking like…well…an infant/toddler. Still a lot to learn.

    When it comes to “the hardest language”, native speakers tend to brag about how hard their language(s) is/are. They believe theirs are “the hardest” as if they have learned all the languages in the world.

    “the hardest language” in the world is perhaps spoken somewhere in the jungle nobody ever been to. Its native speakers don’t even care their language is “the hardest”.

    • Jeff Grady 9 October 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Russian (and most Slavic languages) are easier to learn in my view. Why? First, because I have mastered Russian while living in the U.S. Secondly, Russian (and other Slavic Languages) can be learned in large part simply by memorizing the “rules”. (There are of course, exceptions.) So for me it was a matter of memorizing, then practice, practice, practice.


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