Hard Languages

The US State Department considers Afrikaans, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish to be the easiest to learn because they closely cognate with English. They are denominated “world languages.”

Albanian, Hindi, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish and Ukrainian, among others, are considered “hard languages” because of their significant linguistic and cultural differences from English.

Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are “super hard languages.”

Curiously, there is a separate category called “other languages” that includes German, Indonesian, Malay and Swahili. These are considered harder than French or Swedish but easier than Hindi or Polish.

I don’t know much about Swedish but I wonder why it’s considered so much easier for an English speaker than German. Also, I don’t get why Spanish or Romanian and more linguistically and culturally related to English than German.

16 thoughts on “Hard Languages

  1. “Swedish but I wonder why it’s considered so much easier for an English speaker than German”

    The written form of Swedish (also Danish and Norwegian) is super easy for English speakers because the word order is very similar to English (maybe simpler in some ways) unlike German with it’s weird word order traps and there are lots of cognates that make things easier to remember (bo – to live in a place is related to English board, as in boarding house).
    The pronunciation is harder (esp Danish) and active speaking and writing are also a bit harder but basic reading ability is very easy for English speakers.

    ” why Spanish or Romanian and more linguistically and culturally related to English than German”

    I don’t get Romanian either, but Spanish is maybe considered easier because all of the shared franco-latinate vocabulary – hospital, hospital, Krankenhaus….

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    1. Interesting about the word order in Swedish and Norwegian, which I didn’t know. Word order is what defeated my studies of German. Those long tacked-on words slaughtered me. As well as the prepositions at the end of the sentence. In Latin, I also struggled the most with the word order.

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      1. “Word order is what defeated my studies of German”

        I remember a (British Commonwealth) friend living between Germany and Poland some years ago who loved (non-East) Germany and German but said that when he tried to speak he’d find himself in some word order maze with no idea how to escape…. I symapthized cause I had the same problem.

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      1. Precisely, especially true of German cranks!
        No, but seriously: Norwegian is felt to be particularly easy for English speakers (and the easiest of the Scandinavian languages) because of its reduced forms and its simplified spelling (compared to Swedish, and Danish even more so) which make it closer to the spoken version of the standard form of the language. However, be warned that a large number of Norwegians do NOT speak the standard variant, as dialect forms are not stigmatised in Norwegian society and everybody is quite fine speaking his own phonologically discordant version of the language: as a speaker of Danish I find the written language totally transparent, but speakers from out of the way valleys tend to become unfathomable to my ears.
        I am baffled as to the presumed accessibility of Romanian for speakers of English: as a native speaker of Italian (which is considered the Romance language closest to Romanian) I must say that it is a gross oversimplification. While it may be true that roughly 50 or 60% of vocabulary is of Romance origin (even more if you consider the cultivated lexicon), this is not so perspicuous to speakers of Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese and it gets lost behind a dense smoke of rather exotic-sounding words and a syntax which is in many ways closer to Latin than any of the other languages from the same family. But that’s not strange at all if you consider that it works the same way between French and Italian or Spanish and (European) Portuguese.
        It is true though, that once a language system has been mastered, most of the remaining work to be done is vocabulary acquisition. In this case English speakers may be at an advantage thanks to the large component of Latinate vocabulary in English (especially with regard to the intellectual lexicon), whereas if you look at the high-frequency vocabulary of English (the one thousand most frequently used words), you’ll be surprised to find out that it is around 96% Germanic).
        I speak and have studied a wide variety of languages, including Japanese, but Polish remains the most devilish for me. No matter how hard I apply myself to it, I still make far too many mistakes. It is the work of a lifetime – like Chinese, Arabic, Finnish or Hungarian – and I should have tackled it earlier, now it’s just too late, alas.

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        1. “a large number of Norwegians do NOT speak the standard variant”

          It’s my understanding that there is no real spoken standard. There are a few written standards (2 to 4 or more depending on how you count) but the idea is that you choose a standard and write that and continue to speak your dialect.
          I think it’s a problem for immigrants since they have no clear standard to follow in speaking but have to learn to be able to understand a bunch of different dialects.
          A friend, American living in Norway for 20+ years, says they sound funny because they speak a very unlikely combination of different dialects.

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          1. @cliff arroyo
            Technically speaking you may be right: there is no official standard spoken form in that, as I said in my original post, everyone in Norwegian society feels quite happy to use their own dialect-based pronunciation.
            However, as in all societies, there exists a spoken standard used by educated, urban, middle-class professionals living in and around the capital, which closely follows the written standard form of Danish-based Norwegian called Bokmaal, which, while not “official” in any way, is spoken by a significant segment of Norwegians.
            Norway is a textbook case of what is called a diglossic country (which is not the same as bilingual). There is another language, which is also official, a koiné based on Western dialects, called Nynorsk, prevalent in Bergen and a few other parts of the country, and more directly linked with the medieval form of Western Scandinavian, Old Norse, which shows significant divergence from Bokmaal to the point that documents and textbooks, for example, have to be written in both languages. Spoken variants of Nynorsk are even more numerous, but Norwegians speaking this are decidedly in a minority – only around 15% of the total population.
            The attempt to create a third form of Norwegian that would integrate the two languages, called Samnorsk, failed after several false starts throughout the twentieth century and was finally abandoned in the 1990s.

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  2. i don’t know much about Swedish but I wonder why it’s considered so much easier for an English speaker than German. Also, I don’t get why Spanish or Romanian and more linguistically and culturally related to English than German. </[>

    This last sentence is ambiguous, and I am not sure which meaning you intend. Do you mean that Do you mean that Spanish and Romanian are more closely related to English than they are to German, or that they are more closely related to English than German is to English? Or is there another interpretation that I have overlooked?

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    1. English is a Germanic language, so if expect it would be closer to German than to Romance languages like Spanish and Romanian. Of course, English has been influenced deeply by the French and Latin, as well. But it’s still a Germanic language.

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  3. Old English is much more like German than present-day English is; as another commenter observed, word order in modern German presents many hazards for the native speaker of a language in which SVO is standard order. English now shares that with Spanish and other Romance languages, as the case system in all of them has broken down. When I had recently taken an intensive course in German, and was studying Old Norse, I could read/translate my roommate’s second-year Swedish textbook with no difficulty at all, though I doubt I could reproduce that feat today.

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  4. Arabic is even tougher because there are dialects written in Arabic script that are to a great extent mutually incomprehensible.

    Arabic of the GCC region is different from the Arabic of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, all three of which have their own dialect differences, for instance.

    Japanese is tough because of three alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji derived from Chinese), very different sentence structure, the existence of “particles” that change word meaning, verb forms that don’t exist in English, a lack of common root words, and to top all of that off, various spoken dialects that differ greatly from the Tokyo metropolitan dialect, such as “Kansai-ben”, the semi-country accent of the Kansai region.

    Turkish isn’t too awful if you start it when you’re three years old. 🙂

    Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu, and Tagalog share commonalities, but they also have some considerable differences that are further exacerbated by the fact that local speakers use the standard forms as second languages, so the local dialects push the standards farther apart.

    But Swedish is easy.

    Back in the late 1990s, there were a lot of immigrant taxi drivers in Stockholm who only spoke Swedish and their native languages.

    It was easier to try to speak with them in a broken mishmash of Swedish and German that it was to try to converse in English.

    You could learn Swedish, German, and Polish in the time it would take you to develop academic level mastery of Japanese, so there’s that. 🙂

    But if you want the full horrible experience of learning a new language, try Finnish.

    It has some of the difficult features of Gaelic and Latin combined with a near total lack of root words you’d recognise in any other language … unless you speak Estonian, of course.

    Then the Finns will just look down on you for speaking Estonian. 🙂

    If it’s an almost completely alien outlook on language you’re seeking, try Navaho.

    It’s a bit harder to learn than Japanese.

    Some people who come across the Navaho code talkers in American history decide it’d be fun to try to learn. Usually that ends with a partial knowledge of the language because it’s just that wickedly difficult.

    And so anyone who’s part of a team doing first contact with an alien civilisation should absolutely know Navaho because it shreds all of your everyday expectations about languages. 🙂

    I don’t get why Korean’s ranked up with Japanese and Chinese, BTW, when it’s really between Turkish and Japanese, more toward the Turkish end.

    For starters, the characters are a lot easier to figure out as they’re composites of a standard alphabet of character forms. Once you get a hang of the character groups, it goes a lot easier, but you can take the time to figure them out because they’re formed through consistent rules.

    Unlike Japanese kanji, which have all kinds of exceptions … oh, and “onyomi” and “kunyomi” readings, which mean that the same thing has at least two ways of saying it, and you just have to know which is correct … yeah.

    Korean vocabulary’s tough, but no more so than Turkish.

    Japanese further makes things horrid because nihongohasnoconceptofspacingbetweenwordsandsoyouhavetofigureoutwherethewordbreaksareinasentence.

    Yeaaaaah, fun times.

    Also, a Krankenhaus is absolutely full of Kranks. 🙂

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    1. Finnish and Estonian are very close indeed. However, they have some very important differences. For instance, the same word “hallitus” means “government” in Finnish, but “mold” or “rot” in Estonian. From some viewpoint it is even appropriate. 🙂 For some time I could not figure out why there are so many articles devoted to mold in Finnish newspapers. 🙂

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  5. I had a year of Spanish in seventh grade, a year of French in eighth, two years of Latin in high school, and two and a half years of French in college, along with a couple of semesters of Greek. Many years later, I got into a conversation with a woman whose career entailed living in a bunch of different countries, and she was talking about all the languages she’d had to learn. I made the mistake of mentioning the languages I’d studied back in my youth, and she responded scornfully that I’d only taken the easy ones. Sure, lady, easy for you to say…

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  6. “English is a Germanic language, so if expect it would be closer to German than to Romance languages like Spanish and Romanian. Of course, English has been influenced deeply by the French and Latin, as well. But it’s still a Germanic language.”

    English is a weird hybrid. Its core and root is Germanic, but a vast amount of words in English have Romance origins through no less than five linguistic introgresssions:

    A few words that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes learned from Roman traders before invading England: “cup” is from ancient Latin cuppa.
    A lot of words imported from the Norman French conquerors after 1066.
    More words imported from Continental French immigrants after the Norman French had consolidated their rule of England. Amusingly, you can find pairs of words in English that come from these two French introgressions. For instance, “cavalry” and “cattle” came from Norman French, but “chivalry” and “chattel” from Continental French.
    Many words were directly imported from Latin during the English Renaissance, when English writers came to feel that English rather than Latin should be a language of learned discussion, but also felt that many Latin words were missing from English too useful to give up. So they Englishized a boatload of Latin words.
    Some more Latin words were imported during the scientific and technical progress of 1700 onward.

    If you are literate in modern English, it can be difficult to follow spoken Spanish; but written Spanish has a lot of familiar words, because so much of English came from Ancient Latin rather than Old German. And I expect those words are fairly easy to learn as spoken speech given reasonable practice.

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  7. “I don’t know much about Swedish, but I wonder why it’s considered so much easier for an English speaker than German.”

    The progenitor of English was three closely related Old Germanic languages — Angle, Saxon, and Jute. Before invading England, the Jutes lived in what’s still called “Jutland” in Denmark. The Angles and Saxons lived in what’s now the southern borderland of Denmark. So the root of modern English was probably very close to the root of modern Danish.

    I recently spent a week in Copenhagen. I can attest: Danish feels very different than German does, to somebody like me who has no real literacy in any language but English. Modern German will sometimes have words that seem weakly familiar, but generally it feels like a dense and obscure jumble. But Danish … it’s weird. I couldn’t actually read most of the words; but I felt, all the time, like I almost could. I have never felt that way about any other language.

    I suspect that if I had to stay in Denmark and learn Danish, I’d manage it much more easily than German. I don’t know if I’d have the same feeling about Swedish, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did.

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  8. My dad learned Turkish as a child. He’d say it was easy… same way all languages learned in childhood are easy.

    He believes this made it easier for him to learn Viet as an adult. Something about brain circuitry.

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