After watching a few K-dramas, you may be interested in learning Korean. You picked up a guide and got started. However, you find it surprisingly hard, way harder than trying to learn Spanish.
This may be because you are an English speaker. Naturally speaking, it would be easier to learn Spanish than Korean.
But is there a way to know that? How do you know if a language is easy or difficult to learn?
To tell if a language is easy or difficult for you to learn, you may look at the areas below:
- Language family
- Writing system
- Resources To Learn & Practice
In this post, I share tips on how you can decide quickly if a language will be hard for you to learn. My sharing will be from my experience as a language teacher, and also from my study in linguistics.
|Language Families||Popular Examples|
|Indo-European||English, German, Russian|
|Austronesian||Indonesian, Tagalog (Filipino)|
Linguists (professionals studying languages) categorize languages worldwide into several large families.
These language families typically contain languages that share similarities in many areas, such as pronunciation, writing system, or grammar.
For example, English, German, and Russian can be grouped under the same family of Indo-European languages. Aside from the four families above, there are also many other language families, such as Dravidian, Austroasiatic, and more.
These major language families can be further broken down into more families. For example, English and German can still be grouped together under a smaller Germanic language family.
However, Russian now belongs to the Slavic family, with Polish, Serbian, or Ukrainian.
If your target language belongs in the same language family, it should be easier for you to learn it. The further, the harder.
As an English speaker, you can learn German way easier than Russian. If you plan to pick up Thai, it is going to be way harder.
Another way you can quickly tell if a language will be easy for you to learn is the pronunciation timing. Specifically, the isochrony (if you want to be geeky about it).
Generally, languages can be grouped into several pronunciation types: Syllable-timed, stress-timed, and mora-timed.
|Syllable-Timed||French, Italian, Spanish|
|Stress-Timed||English, Russian, Thai|
Syllable-timed languages tend to care about keeping a steady rhythm. For example, you may hear French or Italian speakers sounding like machine guns, since they sort of speak at a consistent pace. Mora-timed languages are similar to syllable-times, with slight differences.
Stress-timed languages may be less rhythmic, but may have long stresses in between. The easiest way to describe this would be how a Morse code would sound.
Some languages also add in tonality on top, such as Thai. This means Thai is stress-timed, and on top of that, tonal.
If your target language has similar pronunciation timing, it will be easier for you to speak them well.
Look at the languages you speak, and see if it carries similar pronunciation timing as yours. If they are different, then it would be harder to learn them, because you will struggle to speak them well.
One of the simplest ways to categorize language grammar is by their word order. Word order basically looks at how a language arranges things such as subject, verb and object together to form a sentence.
|Word Order||Popular Examples|
|Subject-Verb-Object (SVO)||English, Mandarin, Spanish|
|Subject-Object-Verb (SOV)||Japanese, Korean, Latin|
|Verb-Subject-Object (VSO)||Tagalog (Filipino), Irish, Welsh|
For example, in English, we say “Jimmy(S) eats (V) chicken (O).”
However, in Japanese, a speaker may say “Jimmy(S) Chicken(O) Eats (V).”
There are also other word order styles, such as VOS, OSV, or OVS. However, these word order styles are rare. In fact, SVO and SOV languages take up almost 90% of all the languages in the world.
If you want your language learning experience easier, pick a language with a similar grammar or word order system. If you speak English, that means any of the SVO languages.
You will spare yourself the pain of trying to string sentences in the correct grammar. Some popular SVO languages include French, Dutch, German, Thai, Portuguese, Malay, Indonesian, and more.
Part of learning a language is also learning how to write it. Linguists also have grouped languages in the world into several major writing systems:
|Writing System||Popular Examples|
|Abugida||Thai, Khmer, Japanese Hiragana|
|Alphabetic||English, Latin, Russian|
|Logographic||Mandarin, Japanese Kanji|
The alphabetic writing system uses a set of consonant and vowel letters. You then string them together to read them. Popular alphabetic systems include Latin, English, German, and many other languages.
Abugidas are similar to alphabets. But their alphabet set is usually symbols that may have a combination of consonants and vowels. Examples of Abugidas are Thai or Japanese Hiragana.
Logographic writing systems may be the hardest to learn because, unlike the others, you cannot ‘spell’ them. You need to remember the logo/symbol and write them down. Examples of logographic writing systems include Mandarin Chinese or Japanese Kanji.
If your target language has similar writing systems to what you know, then it should be easier to learn.
English speakers have an advantage here, as many languages worldwide use not just Alphabetic but the Latin alphabet.
That means just by knowing how to write A-Z, you can learn languages as distant as Vietnamese, Afrikaans, or Malay. However, suppose you try to learn non-alphabetic languages such as Mandarin or Korean. In that case, things will become much harder for you.
Resources To Learn & Practice
Telling if a language is difficult to learn is not just on the linguistics side. There are also practical aspects to look at. For example, can you access resources to learn the target language?
Generally, popular languages are easier to learn. These may be languages from Europe or Asia.
This may be because there are more speakers of these languages, and people may want to learn them for cultural and economic reasons.
There are apps, books, and programs that you can sign up to learn them. Your local community college or university may also offer them too.
However, some languages may be hard to find resources for since not many want to learn them. With these languages, things may be a lot harder.
Another practical aspect is whether you will have speakers to practice the target language with? With popular languages, it may be easier. Aside from finding partners online, you may visit the local community to practice.
For example, if you want to practice Thai, you may find a fluent or native Thai speaker at your local Thai restaurant. However, things may be harder if you seek someone to practice Tok Pisin.
In general, there are ways you can tell if a target language you are keen to learn is difficult. You can look into things such as language family, grammar, writing system and more.
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