What makes some languages more difficult to learn?

First, peruse some background on Contrastive Analysis
In the 1960s and 70s everyone in the field of Second Language Acquisition was talking about Contrastive Analysis, a new movement which entailed the side-by-side comparison of two languages to see where and how they differed. It was proposed that languages which were more different would be harder to learn for speakers of either tongue and languages which were more similar would be easier. Researchers also hoped that differences between languages could be used to predict learner errors which would then lead to more effective lesson design.

You might not have heard of Contrastive Analysis because results did not work out the way researchers had hoped and the movement was somewhat discredited along with its posits about language dissimilarity and learning difficulty. Nonetheless, there were some important takeaways, mainly that first language interference can and does occur when a learner studies a second language, and second, that Contrastive Analysis charts can sometimes be used to explain the resulting errors.

Next, consider how first language acquisition factors in
In order to learn a second language we first have to be able to recognize words encountered in the input, either visually or aurally. And this is easier said than done when faced with a sound or letter that simply doesn’t exist in your native tongue. This is because from the moment we are born, our brains are tuned to the language around us. When babies are as young as six months old they begin to focus in on the sounds of their first language and gradually lose the ability to decipher what they have not been exposed to.

The same goes for letters that have not been encountered; they are often interpreted as pictures until we learn they come from an alphabet and represent sounds. So, it follows that languages which contain hard to hear sounds and are written in vastly different alphabets and writing systems prove challenging to learn. Those languages written in cursive letters which change shape depending on where they fall in a word (e.g. Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Urdu) can be even more of a headache!

Now, what can you do to overcome the “difficult language” challenge?
Dive straight in and get as much sound and letter practice with your new language as possible. This can be accomplished through phonics exercises and extra time spent with the sounds and letters that prove troublesome for you. You may find you have no difficulty with the “sh” sound from the letter ش in Arabic but that the difference between a د “d” and ض “D” is simply impossible for you to hear. Pay attention to the words you are learning successfully and those you struggle to recognize, hear, say and spell. The learning burden in words can be related to novel sounds and letters, so find your weak spots and then drill yourself until you’re well prepared for any phoneme or grapheme that comes your way.

One thing to keep in mind is that receptive skills usually come before productive ones, so even if you can’t say the “ع” in Arabic, you’ll still benefit from trying to identify it in spoken words and familiarizing yourself with vocabulary and phrases in which it appears.

Several factors contribute to the perceived difficulty of learning a particular language. While the complexity of language learning varies from person to person, some languages pose specific challenges that make them more challenging for certain learners. Here’s a detailed exploration of factors that contribute to the difficulty of learning a language:

  1. Grammatical Complexity:
    • Verb Conjugation: Languages with extensive verb conjugation systems, where verbs change form based on tense, mood, aspect, and person, can be more challenging. For example, Spanish and French have more verb conjugations than English.
    • Case Systems: Languages with case systems, where nouns change form based on their grammatical role in a sentence, add an additional layer of complexity. German and Russian are examples of languages with case systems.
  2. Phonetic Complexity:
    • Phonetic Variations: Languages with a wide range of phonetic sounds and variations can be challenging. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, has a tonal system where the pitch of a word can change its meaning, adding a layer of complexity for learners.
  3. Writing Systems:
    • Logographic Systems: Languages with logographic writing systems, where characters represent whole words or morphemes, can be more challenging to learn. Chinese, Japanese (Kanji), and Korean (Hanja) fall into this category.
    • Alphabets and Characters: The complexity of writing systems varies. For example, languages with non-Latin alphabets (e.g., Cyrillic in Russian) or characters (e.g., Arabic script) may pose challenges for learners accustomed to the Latin alphabet.
  4. Grammar-Translation Gap:
    • Differences in Sentence Structure: Languages with significantly different sentence structures from the learner’s native language may pose challenges. For example, Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order in Japanese contrasts with Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) in English.
    • Word Order Flexibility: Languages with flexible word order, such as Latin or Russian, can be challenging for learners accustomed to more rigid structures.
  5. Cultural and Conceptual Differences:
    • Cultural Nuances: Languages often embody cultural nuances and context-specific expressions. Understanding and navigating these cultural aspects can be challenging for learners from different cultural backgrounds.
    • Unique Concepts: Some languages express concepts that may not exist in other languages. For example, the Japanese concept of “wa” (harmony) or the German concept of “Schadenfreude” (taking pleasure in others’ misfortune) may not have direct equivalents in English.
  6. Language Distance:
    • Language Family: Learning a language that is not closely related to one’s native language can be more challenging. For instance, a native English speaker may find Spanish (a Romance language) relatively easier to learn than Mandarin Chinese (a Sino-Tibetan language).
    • Grammatical Distance: The grammatical distance between the native and target languages can affect ease of learning. Closer grammatical structures may ease the learning process.
  7. Phonological Challenges:
    • Distinctive Sounds: Languages with sounds that don’t exist in the learner’s native language can be challenging. For example, the retroflex sounds in Hindi or the guttural sounds in Arabic may be unfamiliar to English speakers.
    • Sound Distinctions: Languages that make subtle distinctions between sounds, such as tonal languages or those with vowel length contrasts, can be more challenging for learners to master.
  8. Lack of Resources and Exposure:
    • Limited Learning Resources: The availability of high-quality learning resources, including textbooks, courses, and language immersion programs, can impact the ease of learning a language. Less commonly taught languages may have fewer resources.
    • Exposure Opportunities: Access to native speakers, language exchange partners, and immersion environments is crucial for language learning. Languages spoken in smaller communities may offer fewer opportunities for immersion.
  9. Irregularities and Exceptions:
    • Irregular Verbs and Nouns: Languages with numerous irregularities, where verbs and nouns deviate from regular patterns, can be more challenging. English, for instance, has irregular verbs like “go-went-gone” that don’t follow typical conjugation rules.
    • Exceptional Cases: Languages with many exceptions to grammatical rules may require learners to memorize multiple case-specific forms, adding complexity to the learning process.
  10. Word Complexity:
    • Complex Word Formation: Languages with complex word formation processes, such as agglutination or compounding, may pose challenges. Turkish, for example, uses agglutination to add multiple affixes to a root word to convey various meanings.
  11. Cognitive Load:
    • High Cognitive Load: Languages that require learners to manage a high cognitive load, such as memorizing extensive vocabulary, complex syntax, and nuanced cultural expressions, can be more mentally demanding.
  12. Motivation and Interest:
    • Relevance and Interest: The motivation and interest of the learner play a significant role. Learners are often more successful when they are genuinely interested in the language, its culture, or its practical applications.
  13. Age and Previous Language Experience:
    • Age of Acquisition: Younger learners may have an advantage in acquiring certain language features, particularly pronunciation. However, older learners may bring cognitive advantages, such as better metalinguistic awareness.
    • Previous Language Experience: Learners with experience in multiple languages may find it easier to grasp certain linguistic concepts or navigate language learning challenges.
  14. Language Policy and Standardization:
    • Standardization: Languages with varying dialects or standards may pose challenges for learners. Standardized languages often have more resources and established learning materials.
    • Official Language Status: The official language status of a language can influence its recognition, standardization, and accessibility for learners.
  15. Mental Representations:
    • Alignment with Mental Representations: The degree to which the structure and features of a language align with the learner’s existing mental representations of language can impact the ease of learning.

It’s essential to note that the perceived difficulty of a language can vary widely among learners, and individual factors, such as motivation, learning style, and prior language learning experience, also play crucial roles. Additionally, advancements in language learning methodologies, technology, and available resources can mitigate some of the challenges associated with learning a particular language.

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