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Feature Photo: sara~’s Photo: marmouzet

From Spanish to Swahili, the world’s easiest and most difficult languages.

According to an overview of the 14 most popular language course offerings in the U.S, the U.S state department groups languages into three categories:

Category 1: The Latin and Germanic languages, the former requiring approximately 600 hours of study, the latter 750. Grammar and structures are similar to English.

Category 2: Slavic, Turkic, Indo-European languages such as Persian, and a handful of others including Hebrew and some African languages. Around 1,100 hours of coursework.

Category 3:
Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and the Chinese languages. 2,200 hours of coursework.

The difficulty of a language here is established according to several factors: linguistic complexity and similarity to English, accessibility (meaning, do you have to go to a tiny town in the middle of Tanzania to practice it, or can you find somebody on the next block to have a conversation with you?) and cultural factors (for example, in Japanese and Korean honorific language can be confusing and strange to learners coming from cultures that do not have separate terms to distinguish social, economic and/or cultural hierarchies).

I learned Spanish with only three weeks of formal study; the rest of the time I was piecing it all together on the road, on buses with Argentinians, in apartments with Colombian roommates, hiking mountains with Ecuadorian friends. I already spoke French and the grammar between the two languages was so similar that Spanish seemed to come naturally. I attributed learning Spanish so quickly to already being familiar with how to learn a language – sure, once you learn one, you’ve got the skills, right?

Ha! Try picking up Chinese on the road. It’s virtually impossible. A year in China and it was still a minor miracle when a waitress understood my order for cold beer. Granted, I could’ve studied a lot more, but the enormous learning curve for tonal languages can be disheartening, and for as much as I studied and practiced, studied and practiced, I still seemed to be staring dumbly at the summit of a distant peak. I found Japanese much, much easier, with characters that correspond to pronunciation and many words adapted from French, Spanish and English.

And you, Matadorians? What languages have you studied, and which do you find most difficult, easiest, most rewarding? Please share your thoughts and tips below.

Community Connection

If you need to get out of the grammar box, check out five metaphors for language learning and find out why you should get motivated. If you’re willing to take on the major challenge, get some tips from Matador on how to learn a tonal language.

 

 

About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • http://valeriewng.wordpress.com Valerie

    Thanks for writing this piece Sarah!

    I’ve had language learning experiences similar to yours. I studied Spanish first, which made it easier to pick up French because like you said their grammar and vocabulary are so similar, and some words are close to English as well. Even though I’ve spent considerably less time formally studying French my level of comprehension nearly caught up with Spanish because of their linguistic closeness and I picked up quite a bit from living with French speakers.

    Similarly, I was able to pick up Mandarin because of my background in Cantonese. I never achieved fluency in either, though. This applies to the spoken language only – they share the same written language, but don’t even get me started on how hard it is to learn the characters or the way I was taught! But to sum it up, you have to be really good at memorization in order to master written Chinese. It isn’t about skill or technique like learning to spell or conjugating verbs.

    And I agree about Japanese – I studied it for a year in college, and found it to be considerably easier. Familiarity with some of the kanji from Chinese certainly helped a lot, as did the fact that it was partially phonetic and there are no tones to worry about.

  • http://klanestrotalisman@gmail.com Brian Carpenter

    Esperanto is the most easiest language to learn, It has no irregularities and was created 120 years ago to help achieve world peace, a Language anyone can learn easily, Visit http://en.lernu.net/enkonduko/lingvolernado/kial_lerni.php

  • http://www.kaleidoscopicwandering.com JoAnna

    I don’t know which of the three categories above this falls into, but I thought Swahili was very simple to learn. The rules were straight forward and there were minimal derivations from the stated rules. I’m not a language person by nature, but Swahili seemed, even to me, to make a lot of sense.

    I studied Spanish in school and minored in German, but I still think Swahili was the easiest language I’ve tried to master.

  • http://rita.nomadlife.org Rita P

    I’m a native Chinese and English speaker, and have studied French, Portuguese and Spanish in the process. While I grew up speaking and writing Chinese fluently I now unfortunately lost the skill to write eloquently in Chinese as I potentially could have done. I think what’s difficult about Chinese is that grammar is defined by context and you sort of have to take in, say, 2 words before and 2 words after, to gauge the meaning of what was said. I would imagine this is where its difficult in particular because we have to do this all at the same time- (i.e. conversations). I am fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin but i think it’s simply because im a native speaker. I found portuguese much easier to leran than spanish, though. I don’t really know why. It took me a year and im still at (really stuttery) basic gringo spanish level where im much more comfortable with Portuguese with just 2 months. Maybe it’s because they speak slower and the vocabulary is smaller. anyhow, just an idea, im sure some might disagree!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Difficulty is much broader than the limits given by that study. Your own motivation and emotional investment and experience make a huge difference. For me the hardest language I’ve ever learned (after several) and ever will have learned was Spanish (the easiest in the link you gave) – it has nothing to do with grammar etc., and more to do with getting over a mental barrier of me thinking I wasn’t “naturally talented” in languages, since it was the first one that I tried.

    I’ve just learned Czech (category 2 in this study) and it was a sinch in comparison because of increased experience and confidence, despite the fact that it’s superficially more difficult because of its grammar and vocabulary. I’ve heard others tell me they found Chinese easy and Japanese impossible and you say the opposite. There’s no universal sweeping statement that can be made about any language’s difficulty as this post suggests. It’s as invalid as saying skiing is harder than surfing or cooking is harder than photography etc.

    I imagine the number of hours of coursework is presuming a traditional academic approach with leaves a lot to be desired, frankly especially if basing it on the American academic approach to teaching/learning languages. There are quicker ways to learn languages.

  • http://milesofabbie.com Abbie

    While I’ve never really tried to learn a difficult language, Spanish was pretty easy for me to pick up just by taking high school and college courses.

  • http://yourmom.com Danzan

    I think a lot of what makes it difficult may be the context its learned in. I studied and am studying spanish in the US where we focus on learning the grammar and not on how to communicate with people.

    When I was in Lebanon I picked up a lot of Arabic simply because my roommates were Arabs and I had to speak in Arabic all the time. For me personally, focusing on grammar gave me a lot of knowledge but no communicative skills or confidence in using the language.

  • http://joelrunyon.com Joel Runyon

    Aw crap.

    Just as I was starting to entertain the idea of learning Japanese or Chinese. Off to learn French, I guess. :)

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/aleksandragajewski Aleks

    I am a native speaker of Polish and English. I took Spanish for 2 years in high school and I minored in Italian during college.

    In the end, I think it all depends on the person and his or her level of retention in his or her lexicon.

    My first language was Polish, so it comes naturally to me. I don’t have to think about putting sentences together in my head before speaking. It just comes out.

    Just like English.

    Spanish – to be honest – I never took seriously (which I now regret) and I can only sing an elementary school song in the language now.

    Italian was easy to learn, but hard to execute. I lived in Rome for a while and I couldn’t teach myself to consistently think in Italian. Every time I opened my mouth to say something in Italian, Polish came out….

    Even now, when I converse with some of my Italian friends, I will be speaking in Italian, and then throw in a word in Polish.

    The difficulty of learning a language is dependent on the person and his or her mental barriers, lexicon and dedication.

    And Joel, don’t be discouraged! Learn a language that appeals to you that you will have practical use for later. Maintaining language skills after spending time and money learning it was always my biggest downfall.

  • Katie

    Indonesian, at the market/conversation level, was very quick and easy to learn! There isn’t any conjugation of verbs (there are other indicators for past/present/future), it is very phonetic, and the alphabet is the same. It is a very simple language and I found that even if my grammar wasn’t correct I was able to communicate what was I trying to say.

  • Reece

    I learnt Japanese through high school and while i could maintain the grammar and most of the vocab over the holidays, kanji needed constant revision to keep sharp but there are programs like anki(ichi2.net/anki/) that are really good at organising things you need to practice

  • http://desmotspoursetaire.blogspot.com aelle

    While I can get around in Spanish although I never took its formal study very seriously, and while I managed to build a fair understanding of Dutch purely through informal exposure, I found that my level of Japanese actually decreased when I was out in the street using my language skills. I needed to put in the hours on books and targeted practice to just maintain my level.

    I agree with Benny the polyglot, though – I wonder on what they based their estimate of the number of study hours necessary.

  • Jessamyne

    I learned Danish as a Rotary exchange student, and while the grammar was simple … pronunciation was HARD. After a solid year of practicing, I still can’t pronounce the ‘ø’ sound, which means ordering a beer (øl) is out of the question hehe.

    I learned Japanese in school for 8 years, and while I didn’t think the language itself was too hard (despite the different verbs for different social statuses!!), learning kanji often left me staring at the piece of paper in despair.

    Compared to them, Spanish really was a piece of cake. Learning the subjunctive is a little frustrating, though, but you get a feel for it once you start speaking to people, and everyone understands you anyway.

  • http://dogfreak-17.blogspot.com/ Amanda Soo

    I learnt English, Chinese and the Malay language from young. English is my first language, Chinese is the language of my ancestors while Malay is my country’s official language. I started off my school years in Chinese-medium schools, where studying all three languages were compulsory, and had a pretty good grasp of them all. I stopped practicing Malay and Chinese when I switched to home-schooling at the age of nine since I used American syllabus and everything was taught in English.

    Three years later, I returned to government school, this time a Malay-medium school where (thankfully) learning Chinese is not compulsory. Although my capability in both languages had deteriorated over the three years of abandoning them, I caught up with Malay pretty fast. Chinese was a different story altogether. I have forgotten 90% of the characters I had learnt from my few years of Chinese education, and I definitely had my days of being more fluent in the Mandarin dialect (the dialect used in school systems).

    I’m 17 now, and can still speak in Mandarin and Hokkien (my family dialect), but the fact that I’m not fluent in them is very obvious when I’m among my Chinese friends in school, who are mostly Mandarin-speaking. I can have conversations in Mandarin, but I always end up throwing lots of English and Malay words into them. And I always have to turn to my best friend for the meaning to some bombastic statement one of classmates just made.

    Written Chinese requires lots of continuous practice to remain skillful in. I agree with Valerie that memorization is very important when it comes to reading and writing in Chinese. Even my friends who are very fluent in both the spoken and written Mandarin always find themselves asking each other the right way to write a particular character when doing their Chinese homework. And they have been studying Chinese for more than ten years! I used to love reading Chinese books, but now, I can barely finish a sentence without having to turn to the dictionary.

    Yes, I do sort of regret abandoning the Chinese language years ago. I think it’s a very difficult language to master.

  • late_stranger

    I took two year of French in middle school (I’m a freshman in high school now), and now I’m taking both Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Spanish is really easy because of my basic French.

    Chinese is really, really different, but it’s pretty easy for me. In fact, I’m getting a better grade in Chinese than in Spanish.

  • Maree

    I’m 18 months into trying to learn Arabic. I live in an Arabic speaking country where it is all around me and devote 1 – 2 hours of serious study to it each day.

    It has been a hard slow slog. My reading and vocab are starting to come together nicely and I’m fine with Arabic signs, menu and can follow along with movie subtitles.

    The spoken language though it turning out to be a much greater challenge. I have only extremely basic spoken Arabic. I think part of the problem is everyone writes something close to Modern Standard Arabic but the spoken dialects range hugely. I’m told differences between dialects can be up to 40%.

  • Jocelyn

    My first language is English, & my second is French. I took 3 years of Spanish in high school (4 years ago) & find that while I can’t piece together vocabulary into sentences, I can still understand what is spoken to me. I took a year of Italian in uni & kept getting it confused with Spanish.

    Learning Arabic is very cool. I picked up the alphabet without very much difficulty, but the vocabulary is harder because I don’t have anything to reference it to. It’s fun to practice reading, but speaking is more difficult. I am working on it, only 3 months in!

  • Tony Eames

    I am a native English speaker and as a young person taught myself basic German which – was then polished up during a stay of several months in Germany.

    Decades later I went to Swedish evening school to get a smattering of Swedish, prior to living for a while in Sweden.

    I found Swedish very easy for someone familiar with English and German, particularly the vocabulary. On top of that, it is very straightforward, having even less inflection than English, and it has consistent spelling and much fewer irregular verbs.

    However….. the downside was that, regardless of my valiant efforts, everyone of all ages insisted on speaking in flawless English. In fact, the only time my little Swedish proved useful was when I encountered a Croatian lady working in a laundromat who knew no English!!!

    On the other hand, my Japanese mother-in-law has as much English as I have Japanese (maybe even less). Luckily, she studied German pre-war, so we get by with a trilingual creole made up of 25% each of Japanese and English and 50% of German. People listening in on our conversations are usually quite mystified – but it works for us!!

  • julie

    I am a native English speaker. I grew up speaking a lot of Polish on the weekends with my grandmother. I took two years of German and found it very easy to pick up. Usually, if you understand two words in the sentence (and a lot of germanic languages share the same words/similar words) its very easy to understand the gist of what is being said.
    These past two years I have been taking Japanese, and found it very frustrating. I am able to understand hiragana and kanji and i know most of the katakana, however, I find that I struggle with some of the grammatical concepts.
    I don’t know if it is because I spent around 180 to 270 minutes a week studying German and only 150 to 200 minutes studying Japanese (not including homework). Or it could just be the teacher. I find that I learn a language if the teacher is not a native speaker, mostly because they can convey concepts better and mneumonics they might use, etc. My german teacher was very laid back, and my Japanese is not. She teaches at a college level.

  • Jared Krauss

    I’m about four months into learning Arabic. Unlike Spanish, I have no pre-conceived notions about words or meanings, nothing to confuse it with. In other words, I was beginning with a clean slate; this meant that everything that I know about Arabic is true, because I have learned it from my professor. Spanish, while easy to speak for me, due to my Latino friends and time spent in Spanish speaking countries, it was very frustrating for me to through class in it. I really did not find the rules for the grammar to make much sense to me, there was not enough logic in it for me. While I feel that if I was forced into a Spanish speaking atmosphere I would be able to survive after a while, I am definitely not at a competent level.

    Arabic, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense to me, as far as the grammar that I have learned thus far. Also, the method of teaching here at the University of Iowa is less American and more European, considering the chair of Arabic here is from Hungary and has taught all over the Middle East and Europe. I find that I am just as competent at understanding Arabic when I hear the language as much as reading it. I’m still not at the point with my vocabulary where I can have a very fluent and smooth conversation, but my understanding is FAR beyond what I expected it to be at this point.

    As was previously stated though, the interest level in learning is very important. Considering that I want to work in the Middle East and become an expert on the culture I have a very large interest in the Arabic language. Once I became familiar with the characters and pronunciation it was simply a matter of memorization of words and the continual learning of grammar.

  • Jeronimo

    I’m a native Spanish speaker and my second language is English. I took French in high school and found it easy to learn, I guess because I wanted to learn it and having the Spanish background made it a little easier.

    Funny thing was that when I went to France all my confidence went to the floor! Every time I tried to say something in French, I would say it in Spanish or in English and when I went to Italy, only the French would come out!

    I’m not fluent in French but I will be one day when I move to France and learn it where it’s spoken!

  • Jah

    I’m a native English speaker.

    I minored in Japanese in college. LOVED it.

    I studied Mandarin Chinese briefly AFTER studying Japanese and found it very difficult. My “laoshi” (instructor) informed me that Japanese usually seems easier to learn after studying Chinese, but NOT the other way around.

    I learned Spanish in Peru (where Spanish is spoken beautifully). I had VERY LITTLE Spanish background and initially struggled but I still found it easy to learn because the alphabet is almost exact to my first language’s alphabet. This makes a big difference.

    Now that I’m fluent in Spanish, I can converse with native Portuguese and Italian speakers…not fluently, but we manage. I can read Portuguese and Italian pretty well as well, all thanks to Spanish. The similarities are absolutely helpful.

    I liken French to Spanish/Portuguese/Italian in the same way I relate Mandarin Chinese to Japanese…I feel that Spanish/Portuguese/Italian are easier to grasp once French is learned, just like Japanese (written) comes easier after Mandarin Chinese (written) is learned.

  • http://thailandbreeze.com/thai-greetings.html Thailand Breeze

    Learning a new language is much more fun when I can practice speaking with native speakers.

    Thai language probably falls into the 3rd category because it’s also a tonal language like Chinese. Many of my foreign friends told me that learning Thai is so difficult, mostly because they can’t get the tone right.

    One tip to get the right tone is to practice saying a word with 5 different tones. For example: “ma” (as you pronounce ma in “mama mia”).
    “Ma” with different tones have 3 different meanings: come, a horse, a dog.

    Keep practicing!

  • http://xoco.posterous.com Megan

    I’ve studied Spanish, Japanese (just couldn’t do it) and Mandarin Chinese (my dream language…it really gets a bad rap).

    Spanish is easy at first, and while I could survive in a Spanish speaking country and have almost complete a college level certificate in it, the grammar still frustrates me to no end. Mandarin on the other hand, is very simple and logical. I’m far from fluent, but I have no problems with tones and have traveled to China with no problems communicating. They key to Mandarin is managing expectations. Don’t expect anything for a year…don’t expect to feel good or make progress or have conversations. Just listen, absorb and practice. Once you get past that first year (or two), it’s much easier. Oh…and drop pinyin ASAP.

  • Milana

    Haha, so far, catalan has been my downfall. I thought it would be easy since I am fluent in Spanish, and the grammar and vocab was pretty easy. But each time I tried to speak it, the moment I let my guard down, I spiraled into Spanish by mid-sentence. They are too similar! I’d like to go back and learn some more though when I have the time. Catalan is a wonderful, quirky mix of Spanish and French.

  • RAJ

    Hi,
    I am from Kerala,southernmost part of India,where we speak ‘Malayalam’, one of the most difficult of all the 16 odd national languages of India.Its tonal nature,difficult grimmer makes it impossible to master unless you are born here.In school we must learn Hindi ,national language ,and then English is compulsory,as most schooling is in English.Then I studied Tamil, language of adjacent state, though another Dravidian language,much simpler to learn.I did my college in Gujarat state of western India,where language is a variant of Hindi,Gujarati,though mutually not intelligible.I learnt Gujarati. Then I proceeded to Sweden for further education,where i became a fan of Swedish.I always adored Hispanic literature and was my dream to learn Spanish to read it in original.I began studying Spanish and reasonably comfortable on it now,In between I studied Portuguese while in Brazil.. Now my aim is to learn Arabic,an I am studying it now.Comparing to my mother tongue all the other languages are much simpler to learn.Cheers.
    Raj

  • Hafidz

    Hey!

    I am a Malayali too. But unfortunately, the national language in my country is English and my mother’s native language is Malay. So I am fluent in both languages without any knowledge of Malayalam.

    I think that Malay is the easiest language in the world, which kind of makes it unchallenging. I was more interested in the Latin languages, so I decided to pick up French during my high school and college years. Now I could read and write French well, but have no confidence of speaking the language. I have a close friend who is French and she had to resort to speaking ‘Frenglish’ to me, 50% English and 50% French.

    Being raised an orthodox Muslim, I can read and write Arabic and Jawi (similar to Arabic) scriptures pretty well. However, my vocabulary is pretty much limited since I had flunked Arabic consistently during my elementary years in school. I had a year of education in Bangkok, Thailand so I could speak Thai adequately. Even though Thai is a tonal language and is different from all the other languages which I have picked up (or attempted to) previously, I fount it really easy. On the other hand, my written Thai is a disaster, mainly because I really hate to practise written Thai while learning it.

    I have a deep love of languages, and in future I hope to speak French, Thai and Arabic eloquently. I hope to pick up my father’s tongue, Malayalam too. It is really nice to see that everyone who has contributed to this blog post either has a flair or a keen interest for languages.

    Cheers,
    Hafidz

  • http://www.road2china.me China Scholarship

    I’m currently learning Mandarin. It’s difficult but I’m enjoying it

  • Audrey

    I’m attempting to learn French right now in college and I am having SOOO much trouble with it- But I love the language, I want to get better at it, but I get so timid trying to speak it in class, how in the world could I survive on the streets of Paris?

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    for people wondering about which language ıs the hardest….

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