Are Some Languages Harder than Others?

Are some languages harder than others? Of course, the question here refers to whether some languages are harder than others to acquire as a second language in adulthood. It is universally agreed that all languages are equally easy to acquire in childhood (during the so-called "critical period"). So please keep in mind that all of my comments that follow refer to learning an L2 as an adult.


I have read more than once that "languages tend to balance themselves out" in terms of complexity, such that there is a fairly predictable range of overall complexity for most languages, even if complexity is difficult to quantify. However, this assertion is not well founded, in my opinion. Jacques Guy (please see the citation at the end of this presentation to read his short paper on the subject) strongly disagrees with Andersson's suggestion as well.


I have studied three non-Indo-European languages for a year or more: Chinese, Arabic and Swahili. I found Chinese to be the "easiest" to acquire and Arabic to be by far the "hardest." Although the complexity of the phonology of Arabic contributed to the difficulty, its extremely complex morphology posed the greatest challenge. The relatively "simple" grammatical structure of Chinese, which has very few affixes (really just a few suffixes), made it easier for me to learn than Swahili, which has a very complicated system of noun classes and corresponding prefixes. The relatively simple sound system of Swahili (at least compared to that of Arabic and Chinese) helped me learn the language more quickly. So based on my own L2 learning experiences, I do believe that some languages are harder (or at least harder to learn as an adult) than others.


It is the official position of the United States government that languages vary in how difficult they are for native English speakers to learn. The Defense Language Institute has recognized four degrees of difficulty, based on the average amount of time it takes a native English speaker to achieve proficiency (defined by the DLI in this case as ILR level 3) in the spoken form of the language. So, according to the United States Department of Defense, the answer is "yes," for native English speakers.


But relative difficulty in language learnability is closely tied to the learner's L1. For example, a native speaker of Punjabi, which is closely related to Hindi, would surely find Hindi much easier to learn than German or Spanish. While I believe that a strong case can be made for the premise that some languages are harder to learn than others, there are still many open questions and unresolved issues related to the matter. Moreover, it was not obvious to me how we can apply this understanding to our teaching, other than to be cognizant of these principles and to develop an awareness of and sensitivity to the fact that ELLs may experience varying degrees of difficulty and perhaps even differential learning outcomes based on their L1. I encourage you to read Jacques Guy's short paper. I have included a hyperlink to a web page where the paper has been reprinted (by the author himself). For Star Trek fans: I agree with Guy that it's much easier to say "Fire the photon torpedoes!" in Klingon than in English.


To view the entire presentation, click here. To listen to my instructor (Deborah Crusan's) comments about the presentation and my analysis above, click here.

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