What makes learning a new language hard?

Unfamiliar grammar and writing systems throw curveballs to those of us used to the rules and contours of English, our language columnist writes.


What is the hardest language to learn for native English speakers? Last week we talked about pronunciation issues; now let’s have a look at grammar and writing systems.    

Languages have gender if they separate nouns into classes, which then affects adjectives and other parts of speech. Germanic languages often have three genders – masculine, feminine, and neuter – which don’t necessarily correspond to human gender. As Mark Twain famously quipped, “In German, a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has.” In English, if a girl is eating a turnip, she is eating it; in German, it is eating her.  

It gets even more challenging when you add case, a system in which nouns and their modifiers change to indicate the role they play in sentences. When we see “The dog bites the man,” we know who’s doing the biting because of word order; in Latin, it’s all about the noun endings. Vir is “man” and canis is “dog,” so canis virum mordet is “dog bites man,” while canem vir mordet is “man bites dog.” Latin has six cases, and nouns follow one of five patterns of declension, which if you multiply leads to ... confusion. Other languages have even more cases; Tsez, spoken in the Caucasus, has 18, which can be combined in various ways to produce around 126.  

Other languages force speakers to encode information that English doesn’t. You can’t just say “we” in the Solomon Islands’ language Kwaio – choices include “we two (but not you),” “we three, (including you),” and “we many.” You can’t speak Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian language, without knowing your relation to the sun since the language uses the cardinal directions to locate things, as in “there’s an ant on your south leg” or “the spoon is northeast of the fork.”  

Then there’s writing. Unfamiliar alphabets – Greek, Korean Hangul – are fine once you memorize the symbols. But some languages use abjads instead, which are basically consonant alphabets. Arabic, for example, omits all but long vowels in its written form. If you’re a native speaker, it might be easy to see that “Cnda” is “Canada.” For the rest of us, it can be like playing a game of Wordle. And some languages employ logograms, which don’t reflect sound at all but rather possess particular meanings. Mandarin has over 50,000 characters, though you “only” need to recognize 3,000 or so to be able to read a newspaper.

So which is hardest? The U.S. Foreign Service ranks Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean among the toughest for English speakers, estimating that they take 88 weeks to learn, versus 24 for “easy” Spanish and Danish. The real answer is probably, whatever language you’re trying to learn at the moment. 

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