Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why the Hardest (or Easiest) Language in the World Doesn't Exist

There are plenty of lists around the internet of the hardest and easiest languages to learn. While these lists can be interesting and helpful if you're trying to decide upon a new language to learn, they're inherently flawed due to the idea that such languages actually exist.

Hold on! I'm not saying languages don't exist; that'd be completely absurd. Of course they do! What I'm saying is that it's pretty much impossible to classify languages as difficult or easy to learn. However, I have seen a number of clever criteria for attempting to create these classifications, so I'd like to look at a few of them today.

Hong Kong, the home of both Chinese and English!
Similarity to your Native Language

One of the first ways many people classify language difficulty comes down to similarity to the learner's native language. While I agree that I've seen plenty of evidence to support this statement, this does mean that the world's hardest or easiest language differs depending on your native language. Does this mean it could also be affected by which dialect of your native language you speak? I'd love to see some studies about that...

Complexity

The complexity of a language is said to influence how easily somebody can learn it. However, "how complex is a language?" is as difficult to answer as "how difficult is a language to learn?". If one language uses more phonemes in speech, is it more difficult than one that uses more characters in its alphabet? How do we assign value to each component part? We couldn't possibly all come to an agreement on which elements complicate a language the most and which parts the least.

Time Spent Studying

Time is a fairly scientific way of measuring progress. The less time taken to become proficient in a language, the easier the language must be. However, at what point is a speaker "proficient"?

I don't find language learning to be a journey from A to B with a definite endpoint, but rather an ongoing adventure. I definitely couldn't pinpoint an exact moment when I became proficient in any of the languages I speak.

If proficiency is judged by passing a test, then the tests would have to be standardised across the entire world. I'm sure they're not...

All roads lead to Rome, but do all Romance languages lead to
a simple language learning experience?
Easy Languages

When it comes to English speakers, most lists put the Romance languages in the easy category. French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese tend to feature regularly as easy languages to learn because of their similarity to English.

Difficult Languages

The languages that generally get lumped together as the most difficult languages tend be geographically and linguistically distant from English (at least if you consider the language to be from the UK, as I tend to do). Languages from Europe don't tend to be included in this list.

Many of these languages make use of a different writing system to English, such as Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese. However, I'm sure Mandarin speakers wouldn't struggle as much with the Japanese writing systems as someone more familiar with the Latin alphabet would.

With all that said, I tend to find that similarities can also make something more difficult to learn instead of simpler. For example, I know how to walk and I know how to drive. If you make me walk on ice, I struggle, and if you put me in a car that I'm not familiar with, I have to spend a while working out where everything is. However, I can still walk to the car and start driving and start walking when I get out the car, despite the two being completely different activities. Differences can make something more memorable!

While these are all fair ways to measure how difficult a language might be, they all ignore a number of factors. I'm not disparaging those who have tried to measure something that's seemingly immeasurable, I'm just saying that you can comfortably ignore a lot of these lists. If you want to learn Tagalog before you learn French, then go for it!

Everyone has their own experiences while learning a language. In fact, in a recent post I complained about the subjunctive tense and a few of the reasons that English speakers may find it difficult. That said, I know plenty of people who comfortably master it without even breaking a sweat!

What I'm trying to say is that when learning a language, there will always be things you find easy and things you find difficult. You'll never get to find out which is which if you don't start!