Assess the Language Difficulty (Step 4)
Languages can sometimes be difficult to learn.
But what if there was a way to make ANY language easier?
Fortunately, by understanding what makes a language difficult, you can significantly decrease the difficulty level of a language.
And that's exactly what I'm going to show you how to do on this page.
So... What Makes a Language Difficult?
There are two main factors that play a role in language difficulty:
- The relatedness of the language you're learning and the language(s) you speak
- The features of the language you're learning that are not present in the languages you speak
The bottom line?
The difficulty of a language is relative to the languages you speak; it depends on how they're related and what features they share.
Many well-reputed websites simply list languages by level of difficulty and fail to mention that language difficulty is relative. They assume that their readers are all native speakers of English and do not speak other languages.
This is a major misinterpretation of language learning difficulties.
Why? Because it leads to the generalization of learning difficulties which are in fact specific to each of us.
Here's how we'll proceed on this page:
During this process of evaluating the difficulty of the language you're learning, you'll first be led to establish the relatedness between this language and the languages you speak.
Then, you'll be invited to assess how complex that language is by researching the various features it has and comparing them with the features present in your native language and in other languages you may speak.
1. Assessing the Relatedness of Languages
Languages can be related in two ways: language family and language borrowing.
Let's start off with language family.
According to Ethnologue, there are six major language families in the world:
- Trans-New Guinea
There are more families than that, but for reasons of simplicity, let's stick to these.
Now, each of these major language families can be further divided into sub-families.
In turn, these sub-families can be further divided into more sub-families.
Why is this important?
Because the further down the language family tree you go, the more related languages are. And related languages tend to share features (especially the vocabulary).
Now, let's not fall into the trap of assuming that a language is easy to learn because it is very much related to our own.
In fact, that cannot be farther from the truth.
And the best example of this is seen in the relatedness of English and German:
There, you have two languages which belong to the West Germanic sub-family, which makes them quite related to one another. However, there's a crucial difference between these two languages: their linguistic features.
German has genders, a complex conjugation system and an extensive grammatical case system which Modern English does not possess.
That can make German a challenging language to learn for English speakers.
Now, you might be asking yourself:
"But if a language related to my own is not easy to learn, then why bother with relatedness?"
Well, as I mentioned earlier, because there's one key thing where related languages tend to share a lot of similarities and that is in their vocabulary.
But there’s more...
Similarities in vocabulary can be seen throughout the whole family group. In the case of English, they are seen throughout the Indo-European family.
That is a staggering 445 languages according to Ethnologue, ranging from Greek to Hindi.
As you might expect, when dealing with words that are similar to words we know, they're easier to memorize and their meaning is sometimes similar.
So, for unilingual Japanese speakers (who speak only Japanese), for example, German vocabulary is way more difficult to pick up than it is for English speakers.
Vocabulary brings us to the next way languages are related: language borrowing.
Language Borrowing - A Factor That Truly Makes a Language Easier to Learn
This is one more thing that makes languages related.
Over time, languages tend to borrow features from other languages (mostly words). The extent to which that is done varies from one language to the next.
Here’s one example...
Due to historical circumstances, English has borrowed a lot of words from French, thereby making it more related to this language.
According to this Wikipedia article, 45% of all English words come from French.
That is a HUGE number that cannot be disregarded in terms of relatedness of languages.
For this reason, French vocabulary should be simpler to master for English speakers than for speakers of a language of the same family as English but which is less related to French (Afrikaans, for example).
Now that you know about relatedness and borrowing, it's time to learn how to actually determine if your language is related to the one you're learning.
How Can I Tell if a Language is Related to Mine?
It's fairly easy to know if a language is related to yours.
First, you can look at the family tree of both this language and yours.
The simplest way to do this is to go to the Wikipedia article of each language and looking at the right hand side of Wikipedia, there will be a column with some characteristics of the language.
Close to the top on the left, in bold letters, you'll see Language family and next to it, you'll see the family tree of this language.
Here is how it looks like in the Kazakh language article:
Then, compare all the levels of the family tree of this language and of yours and see if any of them match.
Secondly, you should do a quick read about the history of the language you want to learn, and also, about the history of your native language, if you don't know it.
The goal is to see if they have accumulated a significant amount of loanwords.
That can also be done quickly on Wikipedia.
This here was taken from a Wikipedia article entitled History of the Spanish language:
And you can also do a search on Google:
Now, how can you actually benefit from evaluating relatedness?
By knowing about relatedness, you'll be able to create some expectations about how similar the vocabulary and other features will be.
These expectations will make you better prepared and, thus, the learning curve should be easier.
Relatedness is not the only factor at play when learning a new language; a factor that is perhaps even more important is the complexity of its features.
2. A Language's Features - Learning About Them Can Make a Language Less Difficult
Languages do not need to be related to share features.
These features can be of any type: word order, grammatical cases, phonetic sounds, tones, conjugation, etc.
As I stated before, it's easier to learn a language that has a lot in common with our native language in terms of features.
Let's take German as an example.
Here are some linguistic features that German has:
- SOV (Subject Object Verb) word order is common
- Conjugation is different according to almost each person
- Weak and strong verbs
- Singular and plural in adjectives and nouns
- Phonetics sounds such as: [œ], [a͡ʊ], [x], [ç], [p͡f] and [h]
- Grammatical cases
- Three genders
Now, as an English speaker, some of these must make you jump out of your seat.
First, as you can see, German has weak and strong verbs.
The past forms of these verbs shouldn't be much of a problem because, thanks to its relatedness with German, English has these verbs as well:
Also, German has singular and plural forms just like English does.
So far so good.
But wait a moment...
What about SOV word order in German?
Indeed, English is an SVO language. SVO stands for "Subject Verb Object". This means that the usual word order in English is, first, the subject, then, the verb, and finally, the object.
Now, in German, things are different.
This language has a lot of sentence constructions in the SOV word order. Here is an example:
Think for a moment about how unusual the SOV word order would seem to English speakers.
And yet, if you learn German, you'll have to deal with it.
Before learning a language, if you knew about the various features this language has, they shouldn't come as a surprise as much and they should be easier to absorb, wouldn't you say so?
How can you learn about these features?
This task is also a simple one and it's well worth the little time it takes to do it.
Here are the four steps to take:
Step 1: Find the Wikipedia article of the language you're learning. Examples: "German Language" and "Spanish Language".
Step 2: Read it.
Step 3: While reading, make a list of any unusual features that you stumble upon as you read. Pay special attention to the grammar and phonetic/phonology sections of the article as they typically list a lot of features.
Step 4: Research each of these features on Google to get some basic information about them.
And you're done!
Oh, and your list of features should look a bit like the one I made for German above, or perhaps with slightly more elements.
As we saw at this step, knowing about the difficulties of a language makes us better equipped to deal with them.
On this page, I have provided you with the means to find out what these difficulties may be, whether it's a difference in vocabulary (relatedness) or a difference in features.
Perform this step BEFORE learning a language and you should be able to significantly drop the level of difficulty of that language, whatever that level may be.
NEXT STEP: 5. Create a language immersion environment at home (OK, now that you know what variety of language to learn, where to learn it from and what its main difficulties are, how do you go about learning it?)