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How to learn “harder” languages

Maybe it’s the different alphabet, maybe it’s those alien-sounding gutturals, or maybe it’s having to learn 27 different words for ‘snow’ – some languages are just harder than others. The big question, though, is which is which? How do you know whether you’re taking in a ‘hard’ language that’ll keep you busy for the next few years, or one you’ll be speaking fluently by next week? And what exactly is it that makes one hard and one easy?

The US State Department has produced a comprehensive list of what it considers to be ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ languages. It is based on how many classes employees have to attend before they reach what is called “proficiency”. Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic are the hardest languages for US civil servants to learn, requiring 2200 hours of classes each, while European tongues such as Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and Swedish are the easiest needing only 600 hours each. In the middle are languages like Russian, Serbian and Greek. One thing that stands out is that the harder languages use different alphabets, while the easiest use adaptations of Latin. But does that really make a language more than four times harder to learn?

Different scripts can be a big turn off for budding language learners. I’ve certainly been asked by many an antiglot whether Russian is hard because of “those funny letters”, but in truth, you barely notice them after a while. It can take time, and you have to learn to read patiently at first, deciphering familiar words like “café”, “jazz”, “metro” and your own name. But after a few weeks or months, reading it is like second nature. You can’t ever imagine you once didn’t know it. Even Chinese characters aren’t that scary once you learn about stroke order and how to combine them to make more words. A new script is an extra something on your plate, but far from impossible to master. Plus, reading like a 5 year old again is surprisingly fun.

What also characterises these “hard” languages is the language families they belong to. Japanese is linguistically completely isolated. Apart from a few crossovers with Korean, its grammar works entirely differently to every other language on earth, so students have to spend a long time first conceptualising different structures before producing them fluently. The same goes for Korean, and Chinese is only vaguely related to Burmese and some other distant languages in the Himalayas. Arabic is also fairly unique, related only to a small number of other Semitic languages like Maltese and Hebrew, so it might also feel quite strange to speak it at first.

So in other words, European languages are easy and Eastern languages are hard. If you want to progress quickly, learn French. If you want a challenge, pick Korean. Right?

Well, a quick look at a similar table from China suggests otherwise. For Chinese speakers, French is one of the hardest languages in the world with its bizarre spelling and unique phonology. Further up the list are then all the Scandinavian languages, and again Japanese and Arabic. But amazingly, topping the list this time is Greek. Its mixed syllable structure with its complex sound combinations, its enormous quantity of derivational affixes and rich inflectional system, seem to have stumped the Chinese. But why do the Americans only see it as a medium-difficulty language?

Unsurprisingly, if we flip the world over and look at it from a different perspective, what constitutes ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ languages completely changes. What is hard for one person is a breeze for another. What comes naturally to someone from Asia, like a tonal system, will need far more work for European language speakers. Objectively, there are no hard or easy languages. It all depends on what you already know, or what you’ve already learnt. But how can you make learning easier for yourself?

Firstly, learning multiple languages really helps. The more neural pathways you create, the more you have at your disposal when studying in the future. There are also some things you only have to learn once, such as certain grammatical concepts. The direct object of a sentence in Scots Gaelic is exactly the same as it is in Zulu, only when you learn about it in Zulu you’ll recognise the concept, observe how to form and use it, and be able to move on.

But secondly you may find that harder languages just require more rigour and discipline. Remember that every language is learnable; some just take longer than others. You should follow these steps when starting any language, but for tackling trickier tongues they are absolutely essential:

1) Get motivated and stay motivated. Before you start, make a note of why you’ve chosen it, and what you want to achieve with it in the end. Turn to this at times of self-doubt.

2) Make a schedule, stick to the schedule. Establish realistic goals of how much you aim to study each day, and do it. Decide, for example, you will learn 20 words each week and study only 10-15 minutes per day, and do it every week.

3) Keep tabs on your progress. Make sure everything’s going in by regularly testing yourself. With harder languages, you might want to find a tutor for an hour or so a week who’ll double-check you’ve learnt everything correctly. Having a chance to practise everything you’ve learnt with another person will also help it all to stick.

4) If something’s broke, fix it. If you find yourself hitting a brick wall, try something different. Make little changes to your routine to keep your mind fresh and engaged. Go study somewhere new, use different coloured pens, start earlier or later, and do anything to prevent your learning turning into a chore.

So although some languages might seem harder or easier than others, thinking of it like that is the wrong approach. For me, hard is what I don’t know, and easy is what I’ve learnt. When I couldn’t speak Russian, speaking Russian was very hard, but now I’ve learnt it, speaking it is very easy. So instead of hard and easy, there are only two categories with languages: learnt and unlearnt. With the right attitude, patience, plenty of determination and hard work, you can reduce that with any language to just the one: learnt.

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