Why Are Some Languages Harder to Learn than Others?

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

young studiing boy isolated on white backgroung

young studiing boy isolated on white backgroung

Many people, as native English speakers, have thought that probably the hardest language to learn would be something along the lines of Mandarin or Cantonese. Native Mandarin or Cantonese speakers probably think the same about English. You see, whether a language is either more or less difficult for you depends a lot on what your native language is. The tonal aspects of Mandarin and Cantonese, which don’t exist in English, make it very difficult for native English speakers to master, and vice versa.

So, if it really depends so much on your native language, is there any way to judge which languages are actually harder to learn? Not really, but the language learning skills that the individual has could be considered a sort of “absolute” element. Almost everything else comes down to how similar your native language is to the one you want to learn.

There are several different ways a language can be similar (or different) from another, an obvious one being the use (or not) of different tones. A very obvious way that a language can be different from another is in the writing system it uses. Many other languages use the same writing system as English, with a few extra symbols thrown in, so those languages are obviously a bit easier to learn if you already are fluent in English. Others, like Japanese or Hindi, have completely different writing systems that just complicate the learning process further if they aren’t similar to the writing system you grew up with.

A lot of languages share vocabulary in the form of cognates, like the Romance languages and even English and Japanese. Vocabulary that is similar to that of your native language makes it easier to pick it up a new language. In the case of English, since it is such a globally known language that other languages tend to borrow words from, it may be easier to learn certain languages if they have borrowed some English vocabulary.

Sometimes, a language you’re trying to learn has completely new concepts in it that you never had to use in your native tongue. This is the case for some Romance languages that have gendered nouns, articles, and adjectives. Native English speakers in particular tend to have trouble mastering the concept of gender in Spanish and French, for example. Other languages have even more complex concepts, such as Arabic where you have to conjugate the verb differently depending on the gender of the person you are talking to or about. However, a native Arabic speaker might find it hard to stop thinking about that concept when learning English. It’s all very relative to which language you learned first.

So, as you can see, there really isn’t a way to measure how difficult a language is to learn. There are some languages that are very different from most in terms of writing systems, concepts used, and vocabulary, and those could be said to be more difficult to learn than languages that are less complex in those ways. Ultimately, however, it all comes down to how close a language is to your mother tongue.

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Category: Foreign Language

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