Monday, March 02, 2009

Which language is harder?

My students often say that English is really difficult, and at the same time people say that Japanese must be a really difficult language to learn. Which is harder? I guess there are several ways of looking at it. First, it's all relative. If you are a German or French speaker, English is probably pretty easy. We have the same alphabet, and lots of cognates. But if you are a speaker of Hindi, then it might be harder.

My guess is that there are lots of factors that would make a language easier or harder, but there are two scales that I have run into recently that rate languages harder or easier to learn. This list at Lexiophiles is a one that was created after a survey conducted by the British government. The list goes like this:
2 Hungarian
3 Chinese
4 Polish
5 Japanese
6 Russian
7 German
8 Korean
9 English
10 Swahili

The next list is from the US Defence Language Institute for Language, and they list the languages like this, I being relatively easy, and IV being relatively difficult

I French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish
II German
III Hebrew Hindi, Farsi, Russian, Thai
IV Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

My guess is that this is a list made up for American speakers of English, so English doesn't appear in the list, and the languages that appear there would be difficult for Americans to learn. I don't think Korean would be that difficult for a Japanese person to learn, because they have more similarities than Japanese and English for example.

Anyway, it's all relative, this question of what is harder? If you are motivated and enjoying your learning, it will be a breeze. If you are slogging it out in a dull class, any language will be torture.


Iluska Ikeda said...

Regarding the US defense language institute's list, yes, it's relative to English speakers only. It was created after the world wars when they were looking for bilinguals or multilinguals to work in intelligence. They trained intelligence operatives in languages according to their linguistic ability (after taking aptitude tests), and those with more ability would be trained in the more difficult languages (level IV). Just a little background for you guys...

As for difficulties of languages, you're absolutely right that it is relative to your first language or the distance between the native language and the target language, although there are other factors that influence it too (aptitude, age, motivation, sociocultural factors, etc).

Interestingly, they have done some research (see Bialystock from the U of Toronto for example) that suggests once you aer bilingual, learning other languages becomes easier (even if they are "far" from your native language).

Daniel said...

Thanks for the background and the tip on bilingual research. Sometimes I think my students say English is hard so they can use it as an excuse for not being any further on in their studies, or as a way of getting stroked for their hard work. I do admire them though, I mean the students that I taught last night in particular. Out in the worst of weather to do something positive for themselves and the world.

Iluska Ikeda said...

You're more than welcome. I'm actually starting my PhD in second language acqisition in the Fall (finishing MA this semester), so I get to read all kinds of research on the subject. I love it.

I have to say, I really enjoy your blog, since my husband is Japanese (and learned English there) and it's so interesting to read how ESL is faring in his country from someone on the inside. So thanks for sharing your experiences.

Daniel said...

Congratulations with finishing your MA. You must be about done. Working on your thesis and comprehensive exams?

PhD sounds exciting. Stay motivated!

Edwin Bradford said...

Hi, I came across your blog through Google. I checked the article on Lexiophiles, that was a user poll only. As you surmised, people will just vote for whatever they are studying themselves.

Here's a more reputable study:

I'll quote the key part:


Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean". The Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be the most difficult of this group.


I also read previously about the British Embassy survey but I've never found the actual data itself. The summary I read claimed Basque and Hungarian were the most difficult and I think Japanese came third. Even so, I'll take the American study over the British one any day, I'm British by the way.

If you have any rough knowledge of the differences between Chinese and Japanese its easy to see why Japanese is harder, that's a no brainer. Chinese has one character system: Hanzi (Kanji). Japanese has three: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Chinese Kanji are pronounced one way. Japanese have an *average* of around three to four pronunciations per character, some can have eight or so.

I'd be interested to see why a Japanese speaker studying English believes English is harder than Japanese and frankly I'd be sceptical. English is 26 characters they already know from school. 50% of my time is spent learning Kanji, that means my vocabulary and grammar have 50% less time than the Japanese learning English. I can not see an argument for why English is harder than Japanese if we assume that the vocabulary and grammar are equally opposite for both learners.

I did come across one Japanese national who said English is harder than Japanese. Obviously I'm biased as I'm a learner but I'm trying to be objective as possible and happy to be proven wrong if someone has a compelling counter argument.

Daniel said...

I agree with you that Japanese is the more difficult language to learn overall, but I would guess that is because of the kanji factor. Reading and writing the language is more difficult than English, which is a barrier to learning it through the written form. The verb system is simpler than English, and the phonetic system is simpler than English.