The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Are There Easy Languages and Hard Languages?




G’day all! 🙂

I know I don’t ask this question often enough but…

How’s your own language learning going?

Hopefully you’re staying committed and putting in some serious hours to get the successful outcome you deserve!

I’ve now been here in Korea for over 7 months and I’ve gotta say I’m starting to get pretty worn out and in need of a real holiday.

I was considering taking time out of my insane schedule to head down to the Philippines for a 1-2 week Tagalog challenge but at this stage I reckon a few days break from any kind of learning and laying on a beach with a fishing rod might be what I really need! 🙂

This has been a really intense time and I’ve sacrificed a lot of luxuries to hit my fluency mark in Korean up to this point (as I alluded to in this video, spending time exclusively with natives for many months is tougher than you might think). I haven’t decided exactly when I’ll leave here yet and even though I’m on a 1 year contract with my current job, other tempting opportunities have recently been offered to me in the Mid East and elsewhere.

One thing is for sure though – I refuse to leave this place until I can say mission accomplished with Korean.

When I first got here, I bragged about how I was going to divide my time between Korean, preparing for an Arabic translation exam, and maintaining 3 other spoken languages.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that spreading myself thin like that with full-time work was ridiculous. A complete and utter waste of time.

I needed focus if my Korean challenge was going to be a success so I decided that all that extra stuff had to be put on hold so I could give 100% of my time and energy to really smashing Korean. That included cutting back on blogging (hence my inactivity lately).

I have to say it has made an unbelievably noticeable difference.

Today I want to ask you something:

In your mind, what does a hard language look like? Is there such a thing as an easy language? Or is this just a false dichotomy?

The few times I’ve relaxed to watch a French movie or read something in Irish after I’ve spent many months focused on Korean, I’ve been blown away at how different they are in terms of their difficulty levels.

Some languages really do feel like a walk in the park compared to others.

Let me point out the obvious here and say that it’s all very relative to your own native language however.

 

Easy vs. hard languages – it all depends on your mother tongue

French is a fucking joke.”

That was the reaction I had recently when I decided to kick back with some French after spending hours racking my brain over Korean, speaking with natives all day and feeling mentally wasted.

It really feels like a piece of cake compared to Korean (and my French is not impressive).

What I found unsurprising too was that my Korean friends who are fluent in Japanese feel the same way about Japanese after studying English.

It just makes more sense to them.

Now, I’ve criticised the FSI categories in the past for what I think is an inaccurate classification of Arabic but there is a reason why these categories exist based on the approximate length of time it takes English speakers to learn certain languages.

The fact that at least half of the English language is made up of French or Latin vocabulary and another quarter or third is Germanic in origin, it makes perfect sense that you’ve got a serious head-start on any Romance or Germanic language as an English speaker.

And that’s without factoring in all the related grammar and syntax as well.

If your first foreign language is a Romance or Germanic language then it might seem like a mammoth task but it’s not until you experience a language that’s totally alien that you really start to realise how close European languages are to each other.

 

The adjustment period

There’s one important point I want to make here which is this:

Once you’re over the initial ‘strangeness’ of a new language, it really becomes just like any other language.

The easy/difficult dichotomy eventually disappears.

All the extra hours you’d be expected to spend on a ‘difficult’ language is really just adjustment time at the end of the day – time spent getting your head around a new writing system, new phonetics and a bizarre new structure.

One thing that I’ve noticed moving from my time last year learning Irish to this year learning Korean is that because of the totally different structure of Korean, you require a massive transformation in the way you think if you hope to communicate smoothly.

The word order alone makes this so important.

A sentence like I spoke to the man who I met yesterday at work is something like yesterday at work met man to I spoke in Korean to give you one example.

If you’re thinking with your English cap on and trying to say things like this it’s gonna be a mess!

This is why it takes so much time to adjust – it’s not just about learning vocab and rules but a complete change in the way we think.

Every language needs hard work but for some the adjustment time is definitely longer than others.

Have you found one language easier to learn than another?

 

This was written by .

 

 

Comments

House Rules: I love comments and feedback (positive and negative) but I have my limits. You're in my home here so act accordingly. No advertising. Links will be automatically flagged for moderation.

Got something to share?

  1. I think that some languages are easier and some are more difficult. I've never studied asian languages before but now I'm working on Norwegian and it's not the most challenging language. However, Norwegians speak very fast so it's challenging to understand them. Therefore I arrived at the conclusion that Norwegians is a little bit challenging. I had a chance to be learning Spanish ans it was easier.

  2. Hey, man, great article and one which I relate to! I'm Spanish-English bilingual and currently studying Mandarin Chinese as my 9th language, but when I started Brazilian Portuguese even though I expected it to be easy given my Spanish knowledge, I was shocked to realize that after 8 hours of lessons I could already deal with any situation entirely in Portuguese (NOT fluent but still…8 hours!) and got to a solid upper B2-lower C1 level in a few months; German on the other hand…man, that was tough for me for a long while! 😛

  3. The main point is, as you said, it depends on your native language and its origins. If you are from Spain with its big part of vocabulary coming from Latin you should learn Italian or French easier that e.g. Turkish when you have to learn all the words (except the ones coming from French) like you heard them for the first time. Your previous knowledge won't help you.
    On the other hand when you know Turkish you can easier pick up some Arabic vocabulary, although you have to remember that the plural is made differently in the latter. As you speak Arabic, you know there are some patterns but generally for a beginner it's better to learn singular and plural of the noun. Otherwise in Turkish – all the plurals are made in a regular way, adding -ler/-lar.
    Saying that, there are all those conjugations and declensions. In Polish, which is my native language, we have both, we change not only verbs accoring to a person who is speaking, but we have several noun cases – to construct them you have to change a word, adding a pronouns like in English is not sufficient. I guess that makes Polish (as well as e.g. Russian) so difficult for persons who just add pronouns to create cases. And vice versa that makes e.g. English relatively easy for Poles because you don't have to learn cases and conjugations (apart from the third person singular which is not difficult at all).
    Yet, if you have to learn different script, it still makes a language more difficult. But not impossible to learn. I can lean Arabic script, but I had to spent some time on it, I didn't have to do it while learning Italian or Turkish. Perhaps we shouldn't say that any given language is more difficult than another, but that it takes more time to learn it basing on the differences between a learner's native and target language.

  4. Very true. I think the thing that makes us learn those "hard languages" well is the ability to be more objetive. For an example, imagine you are reborn now with an adult mind, knowing no culture and no language. Your new X culture will impress a language on to you and you will learn like a baby – pure logic, imitation and non-verbal communication. That is one useful mindset to have when you're learning Korean as an Aussie for example.

    However when you learn French as an Aussie, you should determine to what point you can use the logic from your native language in order to learn. The limit between the useful logic for fluency and the "harmful" anglification of French.

    My native language is Serbo-Croatian. By the time I was a teenager I was reasonably fluent in English (TV, movies.. none dubbed).

    I moved to Slovenia and went to high school there. I learnt the language fast, but VERY well only when I started assimilating and accepting the new accent.

    I've become conversationally fluent in Italian very fast because I've spent two months in Italy. Having the "reborn" mindest helped a lot, as well as knowing English and using the grammar and logic from Serbo-Croatian.

    I've learnt French afterwards, speaking it in France, also very fast. It's almost the same as Italian, just a tad more complicated. The words sound so indiscernable compared to Italian, but it really it is just a mask "meant to" discourage beginners.

    Now I live and study in Austria. At first learning German was kind of different, especially because of the word order, similar to what you've just said about Korean. However once you get into that mindset of "forgetting" your native one and adopting the new one, it sinks in and all goes easier.

    Right now I'm learning Russian. It's very logic to me as a Serbian of course, in many respects it's even "too simple". Actively learning Spanish too, I have a lot of contact with Portuguese (but not actively learning it), also maintaining the previously mentioned languages.

    The point is, learning a new language is adopting a new mindset. Not comparing it to your own, but "dropping" it and learning like a baby. If you're learning Persian, think like a kid in Teheran, not like a working adult in Toronto. The more objective you are, the easier it gets.

    Another point, if you're learning Spanish already knowing Portuguese, once you grasp the general logic of Spanish use Portuguese to your advantage. But only to the point where it doesn't confuse you. This is difficult for beginners ("oh you'll always mix those two! Forever!"), but for experienced language learners it's a skill you achieve at some point. It's nothing super hard, it just takes some time and attention.

    1. You’ve just described exactly how I feel about languages 😀

  5. First of all, you should definitely take a break, with no language challenge, you will feel so much better for it!

    Now onto the interesting question in hand. I think the answer is it's all relative. And as you say, after a certain point we lose perspective on whether it's hard or not because we just know it.

    My biggest pet peeve in my Vietnamese classes is when teachers say Vietnamese is hard. Verbs don't need to be conjugated, nouns don't have genders… and despite it being an Asian language, sentences follow subject-verb-object so I have an easier time than the Koreans and Japanese, who have vocab advantages.

    I'd actually say Vietnamese is easier than German, which I learnt in school, however there is definitely a longer adjustment period because you have to get used to tones and the pronouns to address people. Perhaps if we reconsider the FSI categories as being a measure of adjustment period, rather than difficulty as that's not actually the same thing, then maybe they're not so bad after all. Would you say Arabic, or for that matter Korean, took a comparatively longer time to adjust to?

  6. It is definitely all relative. My native language is English and I find Chinese to be the easiest language I have studied so far. Before I started learning Chinese I had studied Spanish, French, and German and struggled through all of them. Then Chinese comes along with its lack of articles, non-conjugating verbs, and simple grammar, and I picked it up more quickly than any language close to mine. I also think that learning a language so different from English made it easier too, there was no confusion with words that look like English but have different meanings. I’m not saying that Chinese is easy, it’s not at all, but I have found it easier to learn. Right now I’m studying Portuguese, and it has been a struggle. Good luck with your Korean! Take a break and refresh your brain. There are plenty of scientific studies that say the brain can only focus for so long and effectively retain information. Breaks aren’t only welcome, but are necessary for improvement.

  7. As Przemek above I'm learning Turkish. Because the grammatical structure is totally different to the languages I know (German, French, Spanish) I find it hard. Instead of prepositions multiple suffixes are used. Add to that quite often where you would have one word in English, there are several alternatives in Turkish, all of them commonly used.

    For example:

    "times" as in "I have been here 3 times before" = kez, kere, defa

    It works the other way round too so that the same Turkish word can have various unrelated meanings eg

    Ay = moon, month, oh

    On the other hand I imagine Italian would be pretty easy to learn if I put my mind to it.

  8. I think there are easy, intermediate and hard languages, but I don't advise dwelling how easy or difficult a language is to learn, just learn what you want to learn. If I want to learn a language, it will be interesting to me and I will learn it no matter how challenging it is. When I first began learning Finnish, everything I read told me how hard the language is for English speakers, but strangely enough this actually motivated me to learn it. At first the vocabulary and grammar seemed very foreign but as I learn and use the language it gets easier.

  9. As Robin said I found trying to learn Turkish difficult and didn't really get beyond the tourist stuff before giving up.

    I think you're right in saying once you get over the strangeness it becomes 'easier' but like most things it depends on your motivation. Unfortunately for me with Turkish it wasn't there.

  10. I think it's also important to remember that languages are difficult in many different ways and although Korean may have very hard grammar, it makes up for it by having a relatively easy to learn and consistent writing system (I've heard). Whereas Chinese has one of the hardest writing systems in the world, and difficult pronunciation (tones) yet the grammar is relatively simple and the way new words are structured is quite logical.

    No language is unconquerable as long as you are interested and put in the time.

  11. Like you said, it really is about your native tongue. I speak English and I picked up Spanish and some French very easily because they're both Latin based. However, when I took Japanese my first year of college, I found myself struggling because of the different methods of writing and grammar. This article does give you something to think about with motivation being a contributing factor, though. That really is the make-or-break situation with language.

  12. Hi Donovan, great article!

    I agree that the perception of difficulty is relative to your native language; however in my own experience I've found that can hinder my progress…..
    I'm conversational in Italian, and would have thought that French and Spanish could come quite naturally to me – but that is just the problem: when I went to study them, I could rely so much on my knowledge of Italian to 'get by' that the process lacked the challenge I needed to motivate me and I dropped out.
    I've been studying Irish for 6 months now (I'm in Sydney), and it's 'foreign-ness' is a challenge that spurs me on and keeps me motivated, in a way that has led to me making more progress than I ever did in french or spanish.

    Hope you do take a break and re-energise!

    1. Hey Emily!

      Yea that\’s a great point. It does raise the excitement level when a language is more exotic or mysterious for sure.

      That\’s awesome that you\’re learning Irish! I love coming across other Aussie gaeilgeoirí. Have you managed to connect with other Irish speakers in Sydney?

    2. Yes! I'm very fortunate, I live in walking distance of the Sydney Irish language school and go to classes there – so I get to interact with Irish speakers and learners of different levels every week! But I also try to put myself out there, keep challenging myself and connecting with people. I've found a Brisbane-based learner and we practice conversations on the phone for example.
      I actually don't have Irish ancestry, but I've already felt welcomed into a (albeit small) community in the most warm and lovely way – I think encouragement by others combined with interest and motivation of the learner can smooth out the adjustment phase even for "difficult" languages.

      I'm really enjoying following your journey and insights in this blog……maybe one year we will see you at the sydney scoil gheimhridh? 🙂 All the best

    3. Most definitely!

      I\’m nearly done here in Korea and might take a break to visit friends and family so if I make it to Syd then I\’ll let you know 🙂

    4. Beidh sé ​​sin go hiontach! Beannacht 🙂

  13. For some reason, the structure of language doesn't phase me at all – perhaps because I'm an audio/kinesthetic learner and a verbal processor (with a brain that loves to free-associate :). I don't have any trouble shifting my thinking from one kind of sentence structure to another.

    However, as a native English and second language Spanish speaker, what I find the most difficult about Korean is the reading. Because I am still essentially sounding out words in Korean, it severely limits my ability to focus on learning the language itself. I live in a small town in America, so I am not surrounded by Korean like in some other places.

    What I am doing to help myself is focusing on my reading fluency by reading news scripts that I have printed off daum and naver news videos as I listen to the news stories being read by the reporters (they can be downloaded onto my phone for portability, too, even when I don't have high speed internet).

    Although I don't understand much of the vocabulary yet, my focus here is reading fluency, and it seems to be working. I notice that I am reading faster now, and recognizing many words and syllables without really thinking about it, which is, of course, the whole idea behind this activity 🙂

  14. بنسبة لي، اللغة العربية جميلة جدا، بسبب بناءالحروف، ولكن لازم ادرس اكثر! احب اللغة الفارسي افضل من العربية. في الحقيقة، فارسي ليست لغة صعبة، ولكنها جميلة بخطها مثل العربية

    For me, the more a language has in common with English, the less exciting it is. If you aren't excited by a language, how can you learn it? ّWhen you love a language and its culture, then it is easy, and the hours of study pass very quickly!

  15. I have to say German was the easiest language for me, and I’m a native English speaker. I did go to a German school for 2 years as a kid, but even as an adult I pick up new words and new sentences fairly easy. I found French to be nigh on impossible to speak well because the way you phrase ideas is so different I never know if I’m saying it “just right.” I’m glad you’re having fun in Korea. I lived there for a year and my Korean is pretty conversational. It’s important to hang out with Korean natives and try to use the language as much as you can. I’m in China now, learning Mandarin, and I can read and write very well, but speaking is just…a train wreck sometimes 😛 I need more practice. The problem is at work I speak exclusively in English because the point is to teach English, but with the staff I try my best just to speak Chinese.

Love languages?
JOIN THE GUILD:

Or take a look at my Essential Language Learning Tools.

AS SEEN IN:

BBC