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“What language should I learn?” Choosing which language to learn is about choosing how you want to invest your personal time and money. If we start thinking in terms of profit and return on investment, logic suggests that you should choose one of the most spoken or most widely spoken languages as this way you’ll be able to converse with more people. Based on this logic, your first choice would be English, followed by French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Japanese, Portuguese and Hindi/Urdu.
If you are reading this article, then congratulations, you’ve already mastered the most widely used language in the world! However, why not also learn a language that adds strength to your resume and helps you meet your future work and personal goals. So how do you decide what language you should learn?
What Really Matters to You: ROI or Passion?
Depending on where you live, there are differing demands for foreign language skills. For example, in Africa the most spoken languages include English, French, Swahili and Arabic, whilst English, Spanish, Portuguese and French are the most spoken languages in the Americas. The most widely spoken languages in the Asia-Pacific region are Chinese, Japanese, Cantonese and Korean, while in Europe they are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
Learning a language can also be a hobby or become a deep passion. There are many interesting languages and your motivation to learn may not be to improve your employment chances, but to widen your horizons, discover culture and history and enrich your spiritual life. Whether or not the language is difficult, requires textbooks and intense study – these all become just an afterthought.
As the saying goes: “A skill is no burden”. Whatever your personal motivation, no matter which foreign language you learn, you will deepen your understanding of two different cultures and gain one more skill than others in the process. This article will help you understand why there are differences in difficulty between foreign languages and help you choose the challenge that is right for you.
Are some languages easier to learn than others?
The reason that you might find some languages easier to learn than others is due to a common ancestor language. English speakers will find French easier to pick up as compared to, say, Thai. That’s because French descended from Latin, but had strong Germanic and English influences. Conversely, English is a Germanic language with strong Latin and French influences.
This common ground means that the two languages end up borrowing plenty of loanwords from each other. Many words in English can be found in French, and both use the same alphabet. The same is true of English and German.
On the other hand, English speakers might find that Mandarin and its related languages are an absolute beast to learn. The Chinese writing system is completely unrelated to English and employs a different set of grammar and vocabulary rules. For Japanese and Korean, although almost half of their vocabulary is adapted from Mandarin, the remaining half still has little English influence.
What language would be easiest for me to learn?
Due to the overwhelming number of languages in the world, this article will focus mainly on a few major language families.
For native English speakers, picking up one of the Romance languages would be your best bet, and vice versa.
The Romance language family refers to a family of languages that were derived from the Latin alphabet – the language that the Romans used. The five main Romance languages are French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian.
Although English is a Germanic language, it uses the same Latin lexicon as the Romance languages, and the letters are pronounced the same way. This makes it possible for English speakers to read texts without understanding what is being written – not that it’ll do you a lot of good!
If you are a native Mandarin speaker, it’s easier for you to start by learning one of the Chinese languages.
Just like the Romance languages, the Chinese language is a family in its own right. Some of the more popular languages are Hokkien, Cantonese, and Standard Chinese – otherwise known as Mandarin.
What’s confusing is that even within China, these languages have evolved their own dialects. However, the differences mainly remain in pronunciation rather than grammar.
If you are an Arabic speaker, you will likely find other Semitic languages easier to learn, such as Aramaic and Hebrew.
The Semitic language family includes Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and is used by approximately 260 million people around the world. It is primarily used by people living in the Middle East, although many westerners are picking it up as a secondary language.
The most popular language in this family is Arabic, which has a completely different grammar system from the Romance and Chinese languages. Surprisingly, Arabic seems to share a few common words with Japanese, such as the word ساقي (saki) and 酒 (saké), and the word for ‘you’ (أنتن (antun) and あなた (anata)). However, this is theorized to be pure coincidence, since they are so geographically distant.
The Slavic family of languages includes Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Belarusian, amongst others.
Of the Slavic languages, Russian is the most commonly used. Russian speakers may find it easier to pick up Ukrainian and Polish, while Czech and Slovak speakers may find more common ground in each other’s languages
The Slavic alphabet differs from region to region, but most use the Cyrillic script, which is written in a similar way to English. But note that although some of the Slavic alphabets may resemble English alphabets (e.g. щ, д, ж), they may be pronounced in a completely different waya.
The Dravidian languages include Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. Tamil is used mainly in India, and is the most common of the four. Those fluent in Tamil might find Malayalam the easiest to pick up, since the Malayalam language is regarded as a mix of Tamil and Sanskrit.
Surprisingly, those who are fluent in Tamil may find it easy to pick up Japanese as well! This is because the two languages share strikingly similar grammar and syntax, as well as onomatopoeic expressions.
Japanese and Korean
If you’re a native Japanese speaker, Korean should be easy for you to pick up, and vice versa.
Although Japanese and Korean both borrow many loanwords from Chinese, the two languages are entirely different. Japanese has three different systems for writing: kanji, hiragana, and katakana, while Korean uses a writing system known as hangul. Hangul actually operates in a similar manner to English, with a fixed number of alphabets.
The good thing is that Korean and Japanese are grammatically similar, and both use similar sentence structures.
If you are interested in Japanese, you may also find this article helpful: How long does it take to learn Japanese.
What makes some languages harder to learn?
Apart from your own language background, some linguistic features of your chosen language can also make it harder to grasp.
Alphabet Writing System
In some languages such as English and Korean, it is possible for you to read a word without knowing its meaning. As long as you can remember the letters and the way they are arranged, you can phonetically sound out any word you want. These are known as phonological writing systems.
However, not all alphabets feature phonological writing systems. In the case of Chinese, the phonetic element is built into the glyph itself, making it impossible to sound out the word if you don’t understand it. These writing systems are known as logographic writing systems.
Most languages have a tonal aspect to them. There are two main types of tonal languages: one is more sentence-based, whereby your intonation changes the meaning of your sentence. The other kind is more word-based, where different tones can change the meaning of a word.
In sentenced-focused languages such as English and French, you can change your pitch to indicate if your sentence is a question or not. By placing more emphasis on certain syllables, you can also change the ‘mood’ of your sentence. To show an example, changing the emphasis on any word in the sentence “I never said he took my money” can alter its meaning drastically.
Tonal languages that are focused on words are more difficult to learn because the way that you adjust the pitch of your words can change their meanings significantly. This is why native English speakers find it so difficult to speak Mandarin fluently – the way they control the air coming out of their vocal tract is different.
It also means that certain words can hold multiple meanings. For instance, the Chinese word 的 can be pronounced as de, dí or dì. Depending on your intonation, it can change from a grammar word into a possessive particle.
Those who are keen on learning a simpler language might want to focus more on non-tonal languages, as there is less to keep in mind when pronouncing a word.
Conjugations and Inflections
Conjugation refers to the creation of verbs, and inflection refers to the manner in which you alter the verb’s form. Languages that employ a heavily inflected language will tend to have a more complicated vocabulary since you have to learn a great amount of different suffixes/infixes/prefixes for many different grammatical features.
For instance, the inflected word ‘Bugs’ consists of a noun and the suffix -s. On its own, ‘Bug’ is a legitimate word, while -s does not mean anything when unbound to a word. Languages that consist of many inflections include Latin, German, Russian, and Spanish.
Honorifics are titles that convey your respect to someone else. Honorifics are most commonly seen in Indian, Japanese, and Korean, although most languages have their own way of referring to their elders respectfully. The levels of honorifics differ from culture to culture; for instance, Korea has six levels of honorifics, although only four are commonly used. Japan, on the other hand, has three levels of honorifics.
Although they might not seem important at first, learning how to use honorifics prevents you from accidentally offending someone when you talk to them for the first time. Languages that focus greatly on honorifics tend to sway towards the Asian region, which means that it would be beneficial for those who commonly travel there.
Pronunciation and Syllables
If a word is pronounced similarly to your native tongue, it is easier to listen to and speak, even if you don’t know what it is that you’re saying. This ties back to family languages: most languages that fall under the same language umbrella are easier to learn because they employ a similar set of vowels and consonants.
Interest is the best teacher.
Although it might be easier for you to pick up a similar language, the only real restriction to learning is yourself.
Don’t choose a language because it’s easy. Choose it because you’re interested in it. Because that interest will turn into motivation and help you overcome frustration.
To find out The Best Way to Learn a Language, click here.
Correction: The original article misplaced Persian and Kurdish in the Semitic language category. Persian and Kurdish are Iranian languages in the Indo-European language family. Although they may be geographically close, these two languages and Arabic do not belong to the same language family.