Difficulty of learning languages

Difficulty of learning languages

Many languages have been claimed to be the hardest language to learn. Assessments have been used to determine language difficulty based on the ease with which infants learn a particular language as their first language, and how challenging a language is to learn as a second language by older children or adults.



According to A. Z. Guirora in the Journal of Language Learning, the hardest part of learning a new language is pronunciation, which can result in a "foreign accent".[1] Accents are caused by transfer between the sounds of the first and second languages, for which there are three possibilities:[2]

  1. The second language phonemes are not found in the native language at all. For example, Korean does not have any phonemes corresponding to the English phonemes /f/ or /v/, so they would be completely new to Korean learners of English.
  2. The first language has one of the two contrasting phonemes. For example, Japanese has a /p/ sound as in the English paid, but no /f/ sound as in the English fade. Japanese learners of English need to learn a new phoneme.
  3. The second language phonemes both exist in the native language, but as allophones of the same phoneme. For example, in Japanese, [l] and [r] are allophones so Japanese learners of English need to learn to distinguish these sounds.

Totally new sounds do not always pose significant problems for second language learners, unless they are radically outside the classes of sound in the native language. The most difficult phoneme pairs to learn are often allophones of the same phoneme, as in Japanese learning to distinguish between /l/ and /r/.[3]


A study on speech comprehension by German immigrants to the USA and American immigrants to Germany found that native English speakers learning German as adults had a disadvantage on certain grammatical tasks, while they had an advantage in lexical tasks compared to their native German-speaking counterparts learning English.[4]

Native English speakers

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages for their professional staff (native English speakers who generally already know other languages). Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and reading, requiring 88 weeks (2200 class hours), are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. The Foreign Service Institute notes that Japanese is typically more difficult to learn than other languages in this group.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Guirora, A.Z. (2006). "Empathy and second language learning". In Language Learning. 22(1).
  2. ^ Eckman, F. R.; Elreyes, A.; Iverson, G. K. (2003). "Some principles of second language phonology". Second Language Research 19 (3): 169–208. doi:10.1191/0267658303sr2190a.  edit.
  3. ^ Cook, Vivian (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Arnold. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-0-340-95876-6. .
  4. ^ Scherag, A., Demuth, L., Rösler, F., Neville, H.J., Röder, B., "The effects of late acquisition of L2 and the consequences of immigration on L1 for semantic and morpho-syntactic language aspects." Cognition 93 (2004),B97-B108.
  5. ^ (2007) [1] National Virtual Translation Center

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