How to really rate languages by difficulty

Monday, April 19, 2010

If you've ever seen a discussion online about which languages are more difficult than others you'll notice that the reasons given for the relative ease/difficulty of a language are quite varied. "Language X is difficult because it uses a totally different alphabet" or "Language Y is difficult because the grammar is so hard" and so on. Some will say that German is easy because its resembles English while others say the grammar is a killer.

So how to rate languages by difficulty? We need to add an extra dimension in order to do that. Here's what the chart looks like.

This is, of course, languages based on their difficulty for English speakers. So how does it work?

First of all, there are generally two areas where students need to work at a language, and one is pure mental difficulty (unfamiliarity of grammar as well as irregularities that simply need to be dealt with) while another deals more with the length of time it takes to become familiar with it (unfamiliar vocabulary, a different alphabet or script).

Now, the languages on the chart there are placed there a bit haphazardly so you may disagree (and feel free to), but here's the logic behind each one.

Afrikaans and Norwegian (AF and NO) are the easiest. Afrikaans gets a few extra points for being more familiar while Norwegian grammar is a bit easier (fewer irregular plurals, word order is more similar to English). Overall though they're both quite easy.

German and French (DE and FR) are somewhat close but German is more difficult. The grammar isn't insanely difficult but is still a challenge, and having three genders with little rhyme or reason most of the time plus a lot of exceptions moves it up. French is about as familiar (basic words are less familiar while more academic words are easy; in German the opposite is the case) but the grammar takes less getting used to. It does have a lot of exceptions though (irregular verbs for example) so it still gets moved up a bit.

Indonesian (ID): super easy grammar, but pretty much every word is unfamiliar to an English speaker. The task for an English student learning Indonesian is to look up word after word after word after word. Due to some Dutch and other familiar vocabulary it doesn't go completely to the right.

Persian (PA): slightly harder grammar than Indonesian but still very easy to master. The script makes it less familiar, although it's still an Indo-European language so a lot of basic vocabulary (plus a lot of vocabulary from French) is still familiar.

Chinese (ZH): Completely unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar not so hard. I would have moved it down a bit but learning to write in Chinese is a different matter from simply getting used to another alphabet.

Turkish (TR): Mostly unfamiliar, aside from some loanwords and the Latin script. It stays over to the right on unfamiliarity in spite of the Latin alphabet because of all the grammatical info tacked on to the end that often renders the loanword illegible in spite of being a word an English speaker would know (i.e. jeton means ticket but jetonlarım means 'our tickets' and blog is blog but blogcuyum means 'I'm a blogger'). The grammar is also completely different, but is also extremely regular so it doesn't go up as far as you might expect. Learning Turkish is largely just a matter of doing grammar plus more grammar plus more grammar plus more grammar until you get it, and then it's all fun.

Japanese (JA) and Korean (KO): Unfamiliar grammar, unfamiliar script.

So once again, feel free to disagree with the reasons there as I've placed them quite quickly on the chart, but the chart itself is something we probably need to use in rating the difficulty of a language because it has so much to do with the way they are learned, and this is important to a person based on how they prefer to study. For example:

Student A: Loves to tackle difficult grammar, starts learning a language from a textbook and reads it the whole way through. May not be that interested in actual conversation though.
Student B: Can't stand grammar and just wants to use languages from the start. Ideally wants to find a class or a friend to use it with and hopes to just become fluent through using it. Has no idea what a gerund, adverb, past participle or anything else is.

Student A can deal with languages high up on the chart, while Student B can deal with languages far to the right. Student B can't stand the effort involved in learning languages that are high up, while Student A may find languages low and to the right to simply be boring because it's just learning word after word while he wants to learn a totally new method of thinking.

Finally, what if you know another language plus English and are now looking at another? Just determine what you've already learned with what you'll have to learn. If you've learned Dutch then German will move right over to the left, but it won't move as far down because you still haven't had to deal with cases yet. However, if you've learned Russian and are going on to German then it gets moved down a bit more even though the languages are not as related because you're very used to dealing with cases, plus classifying vocabulary into one of three genders. And if you've learned Japanese to fluency then Korean suddenly gets pulled down and to the left, right into the bottom left box. That's why Japanese took me three years to learn but Korean only half that after moving from Japan to Korea.

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