Although learning languages at school was never something that I enjoyed I have since taken quite an interest in them. While living in Japan I undertook the task of learning the local language, gaining conversational ability. Since leaving school I’ve also taken classes in Mandarin, Finnish and Spanish. It’s well known that some languages are more difficult to learn than others, and there are a lot of lists out there on the Internet acting as guides (for example here, here and here). Mandarin and Japanese always seem to in the top with Finnish not far behind. While I definitely agree that for a native English speaker these languages are more difficult to learn than Spanish, the reasons given often centre around grammar and the difference in concepts compared to English. Personally I found Japanese to be far easier to learn than Finnish, for many reasons beyond just how different the language is structurally to English. Here are five considerations of language difficulty besides grammar.
1. Your Goal
The Finnish language was once described to me as being an upside-down pyramid. When you begin studying it the grammatical structure is likely to be drastically different to your own language (unless you are Hungarian or Estonian), and the vocabulary is probably also going to have very little connection. It’s very difficult at first, but then when the rules and vocabulary are learnt it’s possible to perfect. Japanese on the other hand is the reverse, when you initially begin to learn it doesn’t take long to be able to have basic conversations. The grammar is different but logical, and there are very few exceptions or irregular words. To master Japanese, however, is incredibly difficult due to the need to perfect honorific language, a task which even native speakers struggle with. The different writing system present in Japanese and Mandarin are also often presented as a reason for its challenging nature. The question though is what would you like to achieve by learning the language. If your aim is not perfection but communication then Japanese’s easy pronunciation and regular grammar mean you can speak well relatively quickly. Mandarin’s tones are a challenge, but the grammar is some of the most straightforward of any language. If your aim is not perfection, but rather oral proficiency then both these languages are likely to be easier than even more familiar languages such as German.
Motivation is well known to have links to educational outcomes, after all if you have no motivation then you will certainly not progress much. It is a complicated issue though. While there are some obvious motivating factors dependent upon a person’s individual circumstance, the need to talk to a partner’s family or promise of work advancement, for example, there are some less obvious factors that can help maintain motivation while learning a language. Interest in the target culture is a primary consideration before embarking on learning a language. Culture and language are closely tied, so if you don’t particularly like a certain culture then their language is unlikely to hold your attention for long. I am constantly surprised by people who tell me that they want to learn Chinese because of China’s global economic importance, but have no interest in ever going to China. Your real life experiences with a language will be what make or break your motivation with regards to studying it, if you don’t want to visit a country that speaks a certain language then there are probably better choices.
A similar thought for those considering which language they should study is ease of meeting real life speakers. I’ve been toying with the idea of learning Esperanto, after studying Spanish it looks incredibly easy to pick up, but in the end it would be difficult for me to ever use in realistic settings so I have decided not to. One of the best things about studying Spanish and Japanese is that I can encounter them regularly in my life at home, as well as desire to go to the countries that speak the languages. Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and is often used in US TV shows. Japanese tourists are some of the most enthusiastic in the world and can often be met abroad. Besides having an extensive movie and TV production business, Japanese is often heard in pop culture as a language of business men, ninjas or Yakuza. One of the biggest factors that I’ve heard cited for a lack of motivation for studying Finnish by my peers is that only 5 million people speak it natively. Whatsmore, of those 5 million people a very large percentage have functional English, meaning that even when you do meet a Finn, Finnish is unlikely to become the lingua franca.
3. Directness of Target Culture
The time will eventually come when learning any language when you need to interact with native speakers. Suddenly being asked to communicate with people who aren’t aware what set phrases your textbook included is intimidating, and yet so rewarding if successful. So what affects if this transaction is successful? Your skill in the language is an obvious factor, but so too is the ability of the person you’re talking with to guess that your utterance of ‘Have orange, apple, banana?’ means that you would like to know if the shop has any fruit.
While there are several ways of classifying cultures on different scales, one of the the most influential is that of the high- and low-context societies based on the work of anthropologist Edward Hall. This concept can be seen well in English by comparing the US and the British culture. As this Buzzfeed article illustrates, the British often say things and expect their conversation partner to understand a hidden meaning, while this is rarer in the US. The US would be described as a more low-context society than the UK as the literal meaning of the words are more likely to contain all the information needed, regardless of the context of the conversation. East Asian societies are often very high-context where much information is left up to a person to infer from a situation. While this may sound frustrating to those from a low-context society, it means that people from these cultures are more used to placing less importance on specific words and using context to provide clues as to what their partner might be trying to communicate.
I witnessed a good example of this when I first arrived to Finland, a very low context society. I stood outside a restaurant with two Finns and a Chinese friend at lunch time. The friend was trying to communicate in Finnish that we should go and eat by saying ‘let’s go for food’ in Finnish. His pronunciation of the Finnish word food, ‘ruoka’, however was not great and the Finns seemed to have no idea what he was saying. I knew perfectly what he was saying, and from context it was obvious that this was what he was trying to communicate. However, the Finns had to ask in English what he was saying. If perfection, or something close to it, is needed to communicate in a language then the language becomes very challenging.
4.Availability of Material
Everyone has different ways that they like to learn, and your preferred study methods are likely to vary depending on what is your eventual goal. The more popular your language is then the more likely it is that there will be study material to match your desires. I am a huge fan of both Duolingo for Spanish, and make use of a lot of the pre-made flashcard decks available for Anki for Japanese. Finnish has resources available online, as well as in textbooks. However, these materials are not nearly as extensive as those for many other languages. Variety is important for keeping motivation high, so this is a very practical consideration when deciding if you should begin studying a language.
5. Success of Others
While taking a slightly different perspective than the other entries in this list, the success of others in a similar position to yourself is another thing you might want to think about when starting to study a language. The planning fallacy is a concept that Daniel Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. The basic idea is that people always underestimate the amount of time that they predict a task will take to complete. One way that he suggests of getting around this is by looking at how long it has taken others to complete similar tasks. This is often a much better estimate than if you think about each of the steps that will be necessary and how much time it will take. A similar approach can be useful to thinking about your success when it comes to learning a language. When I lived in Japan a lot of the foreigners I knew who were living there spoke excellent Japanese. In Singapore the number who spoke Chinese was considerably less, however I have heard that those who actually live in China often develop a decent command of the language. While I know many foreigners who live in my city in Finland the number who speak Finnish well is small. A person’s environment is a huge influence on what he or she is likely to achieve, and so the achievements of people in similar situations to yourself is a sensible consideration when thinking about potential language success. Despite this, however, every person’s situation and internal motivation is different, added to which no language is impossible to learn. Studying a foreign language is a useful and enjoyable activity for most, and the process itself may be enough of a reward regardless of resulting language proficiency.