Frequently asked questions about learning languages

Are some languages more difficult to learn than others?

It is believed by linguists that no spoken language is significantly more difficult to learn than any other in absolute terms. After all kids can learn their mother tongues, whatever they may be, without too much trouble. However adults already speak one or more languages and generally find it easier to learn a closely-related language than a distantly-related or unrelated one. For example, the least difficult languages for English speakers to learn are Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch and German, in more or less that order.

Written languages are a different matter - some, particularly Chinese and Japanese, are difficult to learn even if you're a native speaker.

Each language presents you with a different set of challenges in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, spelling and writing system. The closer these are to your native language, the less difficult a language is to learn.

The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, divides the languages they teach into four groups, from easiest to most difficult, as measured by the number of hours of instruction required to bring students (mainly native English speakers) to a certain level of proficiency. These are listed below: 1 = least difficult and 4 = most difficult.

  1. Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
  2. Bulgarian, Dari, Farsi (Persian), German, (Modern) Greek, Hindi-Urdu, Indonesian, Malay
  3. Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Czech, Finnish, (Modern) Hebrew, Hungarian, Khmer (Cambodian), Lao, Nepali, Pilipino (Tagalog), Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Sinhala, Thai, Tamil, Turkish, Vietnamese
  4. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

Chinese is harder to learn than English - it's official

According to a recent scientific study, researchers found that the brain processes different languages in different ways. The study looked at brain activity in native speakers of English and Chinese when listening to their native languages and found that the Chinese speakers used both sides of their brains, whereas the English speakers only used the left side of their brains. The conclusion is that Chinese is more difficult to understand and speak than English.

You can see the full story at:
http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/research/story/0,9865,987917,00.html

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Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese?

First I should mention that these remarks refer to Mandarin Chinese. Other varieties of Chinese share many characteristics with Mandarin, though have different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

Learning to read and write Japanese is probably harder than Chinese because most Japanese characters (kanji) have two or more pronunciations, whereas the vast majority of Chinese characters (hanzi) only have one. In Japanese you also have to contend with two syllabic scripts (hiragana and katakana). On the other hand, some Japanese words and word endings are easier to read than Chinese ones as they're written phonetically with hiragana or katakana, whereas all Chinese words are written with hanzi. If you don't know the pronunciation of the hanzi, you can only guess it based on similar hanzi you do know.

Chinese word order is closer to that of English, and other European languages to some extent, whereas Japanese word order has a closer resemblance to that of Korean, Mongolian and the Turkic languages. So for English speakers, Chinese is easier than Japanese from this aspect.

Chinese grammar is generally considered a lot easier to learn than Japanese. Chinese is an isolating language, even more so than English, with no verb conjugations, noun cases or grammatical gender. Moreover plurals are only used to a limited extent and are often optional. Japanese is a agglutanative language with numerous verb, noun and adjective conjugations.

Japanese pronunciation is probably easier to learn than Chinese. Japanese uses a limited number of phonemes and has no tones. Japanese words do have different intontation patterns though which need to be learnt to ensure that people can understand you. Only a few Japanese words are distinguished by intontation though, so if you get it wrong, you'll probably still be understand. Chinese has a larger inventory of phonemes and each syllable has its own tone. Pronouncing a syllable with the wrong tone can change its meaning. Most varieties of Chinese other than Mandarin have more phonemes and tones - there are six or seven tones in Cantonese and eight in Taiwanese for example.

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How long will it take to learn a language?

It depends on how much time you're able to put into your studies, how often you practise using the language, and the degree to which you are immersed in it.

It is possible to acquire basic conversational fluency, i.e. the ability to understand and participate in ordinary conversations, in 6-12 months or even more quickly if you are immersed in the language and focus on speaking it. To acquire native-like fluency in a language is likely to take longer.

If your aim is to read a new language, you could learn to do so within a few months, if you are able to do plenty of regular study and practise. However acquiring the ability to read the new language as comfortably as your own will probably take quite a while longer. Learning to read Chinese or Japanese takes considerably longer than other languages as there are many more symbols to memorise.

To acquire native-like abilities in understanding, speaking, reading and writing a language, as well as an understanding of the culture of those who speak it, could take anything from five years to a lifetime.

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Which languages have the most speakers?

Listed below are the languages with the most speakers. If you choose to learn one of these, you will have plenty of people to talk to!

  1. Mandarin Chinese: 1.05 billion
  2. English: 508 million
  3. Hindi: 487 million
  4. Spanish: 417 million
  5. Russian: 277 million
  6. Arabic: 221 million
  7. Bengali: 211 million
  8. Portuguese: 191 million
  9. French: 128 million
  10. German: 128 million
  11. Japanese: 126 million
  12. Urdu: 104 million

These figures show the approximate total number of speakers for each language, including native and second language speakers. They do not include the numbers of people who have learnt them as foreign languages.

Source: Ethnologue (www.ethnologue.com)

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