Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute

Which Are the 'Easy' and 'Hard' Languages?

We're often asked which are the easiest and hardest languages to learn. The short answer is that languages closest to English fall into the former category.

A language - any language - has three distinct components: pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.

Contrary to what many believe, pronunciation is not the hardest feature of a language to master. Human beings are limited in the speech sounds they can produce. All of us have the same vocal apparatus - tongue, lips, vocal cords - which we use in roughly similar ways.

Then, too, sounds must remain distinct from one another; if there were too many, listeners might have trouble distinguishing them.

Linguists suggest that no known language is composed of fewer sounds than Hawaiian, which has fifteen; or more than certain languages of the Caucasus, which have up to sixty. Most languages fall somewhere between these two extremes; English and French, for example, have thirty-one sounds.

Grammar, too, is generally more easily absorbed than you might think - particularly once you reach the famed stage of "dreaming" in your chosen foreign language. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule; but those exceptions generally do not impair the speaker's ability to be understood.

Vocabulary, then, is the most difficult to master. This is why languages closely related to one's own are easiest to learn, for one is virtually sure to find helpful similarities in vocabulary.

As native speakers of English, Americans are in a favorable position to learn foreign languages, for English is related to two important language families. We enjoy a head start whether we are learning a Romance language (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan), or a Teutonic language (German, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic).

An American learning French, Spanish, Italian, or German already "knows" every third or fourth word, which reduces the task of learning vocabulary considerably.

Significantly, this advantage actually grows with time. At first, one must learn the little words that glue the language together (I, you; is, are; before, after); as a rule, these do not resemble English. Later on, however, one focuses on "content" words - mainly nouns, verbs, and adjectives - and has the pleasure of recognizing many of these quite readily.

Once one has acquired a basic vocabulary, many expressions can be translated literally; although each language has quite a few specific idioms as well, which are great fun to learn.

The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, located in Arlington, Virginia, has been training diplomats and other government personnel for service overseas for more than a quarter century.

The FSI rates the languages they teach in four categories, based on the difficulty their students have had over the years in mastering them.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
French Bulgarian Amharic Arabic
German Burmese Cambodian Chinese
Indonesian Greek Czech Japanese
Italian Hindi Finnish Korean
Portuguese Persian Hebrew
Romanian Urdu Hungarian
Spanish Lao
Swahili Polish

As expected, the languages closest to English are all on the "easy" side.

Somewhat surprisingly, Swahili is also on that list. Though unrelated to English, it has proven fairly easy for Americans to learn.

Wed 09 Aug 17

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