Learning a new language is a challenge that some people love to take on. Many languages around the world share common ancestry and rules, like grammar or alphabet, which can make learning certain groups of languages easier. Sometimes, languages can seem totally alien – phonically, grammatically, scripturally or all three. Are some languages harder to master than others, and which are the most compatible?
English is Tough
English has notorious quirks: irregular verbs, words spelled the same but pronounced differently – and the intricacies of emphasis. English takes longer to learn even for native speakers, and is significantly different to other European languages – even German or Dutch, with which it shares roots.
Grammatically, English is relatively simple; it has no gendered grammar and tenses are relatively straightforward when compared to other European languages, but it doesn’t seem to make it any easier to learn.
English has a high number of homophones – words that sound the same with different meanings and or spellings (like knew and new, for example) – which change across rhotic and non-rhotic accents.
This is before taking into account the sheer ridiculousness of the “rules”, set and broken seemingly haphazardly. Breast and yeast don’t rhyme, but off and cough do – tough rhymes with stuff, but though doesn’t – it rhymes with snow. If you think now, then you thought in the past – but if you wink now, you winked in the past. They’re, their and there all sound the same but are completely different.
It’s a lot to take in. It’s true that all languages have their intricacies and foibles, but English extends these quirks into culture. Unlike the French vous and Spanish usted (formal or polite ways of saying you, found in numerous other languages), English has no default polite setting. This simplifies grammar, but complicates context – and often forces verbose, bloated and frequently apologetic language to be inserted for the sake of formality and politeness.
In contrast, Japanese has an entire vocabulary and system of polite language, or respect language, simplifying formal situations.
Toughest Languages for English Speakers
Arabic – Arabic uses a right to left, cursive script of 28 characters and numerous markings to denote vowels. It’s very confusing at first and can hinder the speed of learning. It is amongst the hardest languages for an English speaker to learn, requiring an average of 88 weeks of study for a student to become proficient.
Mandarin – Chinese Mandarin has no alphabet. Written words are made of symbols for individual syllables: tens of thousands of them. So, writing Mandarin is complicated – but speaking it is even more complicated. Mandarin is a tone language – so the way the pitch is bent during a word being spoken vastly affects the meaning of words that are otherwise pronounced the same.
Japanese – It can take years for an English speaker to grasp Japanese, and is regarded by the FSI as the hardest language for English speakers to learn.
What Languages are Easier to Learn?
The Romance languages – French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian – share striking similarities due to their shared heritage in Vulgar Latin. This makes it easier to learn multiple Romance languages once one has been learned, and gives native speakers of a Romance language an easier route into polyglotism – although French breaks the mould somewhat.
Interestingly, English is as hard to learn for Japanese speakers as Japanese is for native English speakers. Spanish is comparatively easy for English speakers to learn – and Japanese shares some pronunciation with Spanish, which (anecdotally at least) could make Spanish easier to learn for Japanese speakers.
It’s possible to “bridge” languages in this way to find common, easy to learn languages. Esperanto was invented as the ultimate bridging language – one that made it as easy as possible to pick up for native speakers of any given language. In fact, it’s more like playing a game than learning a language – it’s extremely easy, because it’s designed to be. What’s more, it’s a gateway language – which can make it easier for people to learn other languages.
It has 2 million speakers today, but hasn’t quite bonded the world with language in the way its creator had hoped. Still, if your ambition is to learn more than one language, Esperanto is a great way to start your journey.
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