What is the Easiest Language?

Posts29Likes34Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
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There is a controversy among language enthusiasts: is it possible for a language to be objectively easier than another?


I would argue Yes. The first objection is usually (and it is correct) that for a speaker of Cantonese, Mandarin is easier than English, while for a speaker of German, English is easier than Mandarin. So obviously the comparison needs to be made under the condition that all else is equal: given two languages that are both equally familiar or equally unfamiliar to the person in question, it is possible to say that one is easier than the other.


Take two Slavic languages for example, Russian and Croatian, and assume a learner who has never studied any Slavic language. I believe that in this case, it is possible to say that Russian is objectively harder because its spelling and pronunciation are less straightforward, while both languages feature a similar a relatively complex grammar and rich vocabulary.


The writing system itself need not be a reason to consider a language to be harder than another, provided the spelling is reasonably phonetic. That is, learning "Korean spelled in Latin letters" would take a few hours less than "Korean spelled in the Hangul alphabet", but as long as the writing system can be learned in a few hours (through my Script Hacking books for example), we need to examine whether the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are significantly easier than in the other language, so as to offset the extra few hours spent on the writing system.


And this is where it can get tricky. Often there seems to be some kind of balancing, that is, languages that are unable to express as many nuances through morphology (prefixes and suffixes) instead express these nuances through more rigid word order, more rigidity as to how something "has to be said", and a more extensive vocabulary. How does this look concretely?


Grammar vs. word order


Latin word order was extremely free, at the cost of having to memorise tables upon tables of endings that tell you what a word does in the sentence. By contrast, English has next to no endings, but its word order is very rigid. Poetry written in Latin, or in other languages that have a free word order, loses most of its power when translated into English and many people who have experienced poetry in one of these languages will prefer it over poetry in English.


Grammar vs. vocabulary


Another example: many learners of German dread the system of separable and non-separable verb prefixes. It is a part of grammar that is obviously harder than e.g. French grammar. However, there is a cost in vocabulary: learners of French have to learn a lot more word roots because French does not extensively use verb prefixes. Compare:


German: gehen (go), ausgehen (out-go), mitgehen (with-go), vorgehen (front-go), vorbeigehen (past-go), entgehen (de-go), zergehen (dis-go) --> learn only 1 root: gehen

English: go, go out, go along, go ahead, pass, escape, dissolve --> learn 4 roots: go, pass, escape, solve

French: aller , sortir, accompagner, avancer, passer, échapper, fondre --> learn each of the 7 roots


Doing the math


How do you weigh this against each other? I don't think it's possible. People with a very logical brain may prefer the logic of Latin and German systems and learn these more quickly than the randomness of French, while people whose brain is less attuned to tables and patterns may be overwhelmed by Latin and German and find French easier. So even when considering only English speakers with a comparable background in language-learning, it is not clear which of these languages will require the least amount of hours.


Add to that the difference in learning goals and study materials. Latin is generally learned with an emphasis on passive understanding, while you cannot claim to know French unless you know how to read AND speak it. In Latin, you're expected to be able read literature in order to pass the final exam, meaning that your vocabulary has to be quite extensive, while you may be able to pass French class with a much smaller vocabulary as long as you can use it effectively in conversation. The materials are also not comparable. Languages like Russian and German have a huge amount of different materials (textbooks, easy readers, videos, podcasts, apps...) catering to all levels and all study styles, while the selection of Croatian and Danish learning materials is much more limited, meaning that you may not learn at the optimal pace.


The easiest?


I still believe that it is possible to say that e.g. for a monolingual English speaker, the overall difficulty looks roughly like this, from easiest to hardest:


Esperanto < Dutch < German < Russian < Chinese


That is, to describe difficulty in rough strokes. Beyond that, it really depends on personal factors:

  • Most of us have had at least some language classes at school or even learned one or more languages to a conversational level. That will completely warp the picture of which language is easiest to learn next.
  • If one of the languages you're considering might be deemed difficult due to comparative lack of materials (say, Javanese), you can mostly ignore that if you live in the area where it's spoken - or if you like to study languages the old-fashioned way and don't depend on Netflix, easy readers etc.
  • What do you personally find easier to learn: a language with harder grammar, harder vocabulary, harder spelling, or harder pronunciation? This personal aptitude often makes the difference.


Final thought


The above describes how many hours you'll need to spend on the target language. But you and I know that sometimes an hour feels interminable and sometimes we barely notice it passing. This mainly has to do with motivation. So in the final analysis, whether a language FEELS easy to learn or feels hard also depends on how good your reasons are for learning it. If you need the language to talk to the person you've fallen in love with and you don't have another language in common, that's probably the easiest language you've ever learned.



I offer personal language coaching if you like.

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Posts1498Likes999Joined18/3/2018LocationPattaya / TH
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Although I have heard that babies, on the average, take about the same amount of time to learn their mother tongue regardless of the language, I agree that, for a given individual, some foreign languages are easier than others. For example, most native English speakers will find Spanish easier than Mandarin.

I also agree that “easier” should mean “less time consuming” here. Although some activities are more “intense” than others, it is hard (impossible?) to measure things like intensity, so using time as the metric makes more sense.

GermanPolyglot wrote:
The writing system itself need not be a reason to consider a language to be harder than another, provided the spelling is reasonably phonetic. That is, learning "Korean spelled in Latin letters" would take a few hours less than "Korean spelled in the Hangul alphabet", but as long as the writing system can be learned in a few hours (through my Script Hacking books for example), we need to examine whether the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are significantly easier than in the other language, so as to offset the extra few hours spent on the writing system.

I don’t believe this true in my case, though. Everyone has their own weaknesses when it comes to language learning, so ymmv. But for me, I don’t believe grammar is the hardest part overall. If it was, Russian would be my hardest language. But this is my ranking:

Portuguese/Spanish/French/Swahili < Tagalog < Russian/Thai/Korean < Mandarin/Japanese

Notice I’m only using four levels; it’s hard for me to say which is easiest within each group. So here is something I noticed for the first time this year – having a different (non Latin-based) script, even if it can be “learned in a few hours”, puts a language into the two hardest levels. This is not only true for my personal situation, but also applies to FSI rankings. If the language has a different script, it is automatically placed in cat 4 or 5, the hardest categories.

To be clear, I’m not saying the activity of quickly learning the script in order to start reading is the big time consumer. My theory is that the constant need to use a different script, when you read and perhaps even when you imagine words, slows you down considerably.  

Mandarin and Japanese, on the other hand, are in an even higher category because Chinese characters are so incredibly time consuming to learn. I am always baffled when someone claims languages like Korean belong in that category; it makes me think our brains are very different.   

Anyway, I guess I just described how I came up with my level 3 and 4. All languages with different scripts are level 3, unless they have Chinese characters, which puts them in level 4. But what about 1 and 2? Well, I think Tagalog is in 2 because it has much harder grammar than the level 1 languages. Tagalog’s difficulty is often underrated because native speakers usually speak English very well, and they code switch to English so often. That plus the fact that its grammar resources are so poor make it harder to learn. And that’s also why I’m writing a Tagalog grammar now. 

I'm reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

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Posts29Likes34Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
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Amazing, go you for creating a Tagalog grammar!!!


I'm not sure Korean is easier than Mandarin for everyone, because Korean conjugation tables look intimidating and Chinese doesn't have any conjugation. To read most Chinese texts, 3000 characters is enough. When I was intensely studying Chinese characters, I needed approximately 1 minute total (spread over several sessions) to transfer a character into my long-term memory. That would mean 50 hours total for the characters. Even if the true number is double (the first characters take longer to learn), I'm sure there is someone who'd need more than 100 study hours to be able to confidently use Korean conjugations. So yes I agree Chinese should be in the hardest category, but probably there are people whose aptitude is better suited to Chinese than to Korean.


I'm wondering if you just had very bad experiences with foreign alphabets. Russian and Thai writing are not straightforward - it's like saying the Latin alphabet is hard because English spelling is hard, but Spanish spelling makes this alphabet much easier. Try Greek or try Serbian (written in Cyrillic) and you'll probably find that the alphabet is no big deal. These languages would not belong in your category 3.

I offer personal language coaching if you like.

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Posts1498Likes999Joined18/3/2018LocationPattaya / TH
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GermanPolyglot wrote:
Amazing, go you for creating a Tagalog grammar!!!
Thanks!

wrote:
I'm not sure Korean is easier than Mandarin for everyone, because Korean conjugation tables look intimidating and Chinese doesn't have any conjugation.
Yes, as I said, ymmv. But for me, except for the case of Tagalog, grammar doesn’t seem to effect the overall difficulty level of a language.

wrote:
50 hours total for the characters.
This is an underestimation imo; it’s even lower than the number of hours just to complete Heisig. The average learner seems to finish Heisig in about 200 hours, and the method works, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Most people can expect Chinese characters to contribute at least an additional 1000 hours to the learning of Mandarin and Japanese. I am upper intermediate in both languages. The 1000+ plus hours jibes with my experiences and the experiences of the majority of people who have reached a high level in the languages.

wrote:
I'm wondering if you just had very bad experiences with foreign alphabets.
I suppose this is possible, but my experiences are compatible with FSI, so I am probably not unusual in that regard.

wrote:
Russian and Thai writing are not straightforward - it's like saying the Latin alphabet is hard because English spelling is hard, but Spanish spelling makes this alphabet much easier.
Sorry, but I don’t follow.

wrote:
Try Greek or try Serbian (written in Cyrillic) and you'll probably find that the alphabet is no big deal. These languages would not belong in your category 3.
You might be right.

I'm reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

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Posts29Likes34Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
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I think Heisig is hugely inefficient for Chinese (not Japanese) imho. He just translated his book without prioritizing those characters that are essential to Chinese and he doesn't even give Pinyin. The majority of Chinese characters are composed of theme+pronunciation, so how can he possibly think that ignoring the pronunciation makes it easier to learn Chinese characters?? I much prefer the Matthews' "Learning Chinese Characters" or McNaughton's "Reading and Writing Chinese Characters". These books are also based on building up understanding of Chinese characters from their components and using mnemonics where necessary, but they are also adapted to Chinese. Of course you need to use Anki with any of these books, otherwise I can easily believe that you need 200+ hours to memorize the characters. 


I started learning Chinese in 2003 and for several years I always struggled to go beyond 600-800 because the characters all start to look the same at that point; I was close to giving up. Then I discovered the Heisig/Matthews' method and by combining that with Anki I memorized (for reading comprehension, not handwriting) 2500 additional characters in one non-intensive year. My Anki says I spent about 50 hours total on that deck. I definitely would have noticed if it had taken me 1000 hours because I had a full-time job that year. I'm ready to allow that knowing the first 600 characters was a good foundation and I may have needed more time per character if I had started with those, but still, a multiple of 100 hours to memorize 3000 characters sounds like someone is using a hugely inefficient method. 


This knowledge is not purely Anki knowledge either. In addition to learners' materials and bilingual books, I have read 6 monolingual Chinese books written for native speakers (novels and autobiographies) and in 2015 I took a class on Chinese linguistics taught in Chinese, as a final assignment I wrote this essay

I offer personal language coaching if you like.

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Posts1498Likes999Joined18/3/2018LocationPattaya / TH
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GermanPolyglot wrote:
I think Heisig is hugely inefficient for Chinese (not Japanese) imho.
I actually don’t recommend it either, but for different reasons. I believe it is not efficient to try to keep any out-of-context wordlist, including and especially Chinese characters, alive in an Anki deck until one actually encounters them in real life, and starts to use them. Instead, I recommend that learners use the Heisig mnemonic method to learn characters as soon as they encounter them.


The thing is, "learning" those 3000 characters using a Hesig-like method is just the tip of the iceberg. One has to learn pronunciation/words too. And after that, every time one reads, writes, perhaps even visualizes the language, those characters slow them down compared to a language without characters. Considering that my personal experience, the experience of most advanced learners I read about and FSI all show that it takes 3 to 4 times as long to learn Mandarin/Japanese as a Cat I language, I think estimating the contribution of the characters at 1000+ hours is reasonable.

I'm reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

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