600 hrs -> Norwegian; 1200 hrs --> Zulu; 2200 hrs --> Japanese
December 8, 2017 11:59 AM   Subscribe

How long does it take an English speaker to learn a foreign language? The map shows the number of weeks required for European languages. Scroll down to see the global results (from the Foreign Service Institute).
posted by storybored (93 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Portuguese is easier than German? NOT IN MY EXPERIENCE. But this is really cool, thanks.
posted by capnsue at 12:14 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I could learn French in 24 weeks, eh? My inability to speak French after years of secondary school lessons would contradict that. My French teacher was from New Zealand though.
posted by w0mbat at 12:15 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


so the extreme Celtic fringe is unclassified/NA hmmm....no category high enough to learn Welsh?
posted by supermedusa at 12:20 PM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


This must have a concentration on the written language as opposed to spoken. Danish is significantly harder to understand than Swedish when spoken but about the same when written. IMHO and experience.
posted by conifer at 12:26 PM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]


According to a different article, this is only the languages listed are those considered relevant to US foreign service, which is why some areas are unclassified/NA.
posted by ckape at 12:27 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


I wish Duolingo had a way to show me how many cumulative hours I've spent on each language module I've done. It would be interesting to have a ballpark on the Norwegian course. I know it wouldn't count my external studies but it would still be good to know.
posted by angeline at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting how Japanese is "usually more difficult than other languages in the same category". Mastering kanji is harder than reading straight-up Chinese hanzi because of the multiple readings, but on the flip side, Japanese pronunciation is way easier because there aren't any tones and the syllables are "simpler" (I forget the actual term for this).
posted by airmail at 12:31 PM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]


I feel like I could probably pick up Scots pretty quick.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:40 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


My inability to speak French after years of secondary school lessons would contradict that

I've seen this list before and it's based specifically on how they teach languages at the Foreign Service Institute, where you are spending over 8 hours a day working on that language. If you had it all compressed together like that, your results would be different.
posted by tofu_crouton at 12:46 PM on December 8, 2017 [13 favorites]


so the extreme Celtic fringe is unclassified/NA hmmm....no category high enough to learn Welsh?

The ranking is by the US Foreign Service and we don't have diplomatic relations with Wales separate from those with the UK.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:49 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Category 0 (English Speaker)

As a native American English speaker, I've spent nearly four decades trying to learn British English to no avail.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:49 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


Hmm...no rankings for Klingon, Quenya, The Black Speech of Mordor, Parseltongue, Valyrian, Na'vi, 1337, Lolcats, Doge, Snek, Pig Latin, or angelic tongues.


I am disappoint.
posted by darkstar at 12:59 PM on December 8, 2017 [13 favorites]


I wonder what does make German harder than Dutch, and all those romance languages, for a native English speaker.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:00 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


Surprised that Icelandic is listed among the more difficult languages. It's quite closely related to Old English. (Which, to be fair, is pretty far from modern English, but a lot of core vocabulary is preserved.)
posted by sjswitzer at 1:03 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Foreign Service Institute had not previously considered The Black Speech of Mordor as important for the US diplomatic corps, and I guess they're just being slow catching up to the Trump Administration's new foreign policy objectives.
posted by ckape at 1:03 PM on December 8, 2017 [50 favorites]


So far, my experience of learning/speaking Swahili and learning Indonesian is indeed that they are comparable in difficulty! Good job, Foreign Service Institute!
posted by ChuraChura at 1:06 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


My learning increased vastly when I got over details and focused on delivery.
I speak like an imbecile but my accent is very good and it helps immensely. If you're learning French pretend to be Serge Gainsbourg when you start rather than being technically correct.
posted by Damienmce at 1:08 PM on December 8, 2017 [9 favorites]


I wonder what does make German harder than Dutch, and all those romance languages, for a native English speaker.

I think a big part of it is probably (a) the word order in German sentences (the verb often waits until the end of the sentence to make its appearance), and (b) the 12 different possible situations that determine how to say "the" depending on the gender of the noun, etc.

I still remember intoning:

"Der, die, das, die,
Den, die, das, die,
Dem, der, dem, den,
Des, der, des, der"
posted by darkstar at 1:08 PM on December 8, 2017 [22 favorites]


The Foreign Service Institute had not previously considered The Black Speech of Mordor as important for the US diplomatic corps, and I guess they're just being slow catching up to the Trump Administration's new foreign policy objectives.

One does not simply maintain an embassy in Mordor.
posted by Foosnark at 1:11 PM on December 8, 2017 [26 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: I wonder what does make German harder than Dutch, and all those romance languages, for a native English speaker.

"Zug"
"*zeigen"
"*liegen" (which includes not only ~liegen but fliegen = "to fly" compounds)
"*setzen"

My first language is Spanish, my second one is English, and IMO German is an order of magnitude harder than English because all those verbs with no meaning that combine with all the prepositions.
posted by sukeban at 1:12 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


the word order in German sentences (the verb often waits until the end of the sentence to make its appearance
I believe that you the verb often until the end of the sentence to make its appearance waits meant
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:15 PM on December 8, 2017 [37 favorites]


Something that looks like it's bumping a lot of languages up at least one rank is a case systems for all nouns, which is something both German and Icelandic have but nothing in Category I does (except Romanian, assuming my 10 seconds of Wikipedia research is correct). At the higher end, it also looks like using a non-Latin script is a major factor pushing languages that aren't incredibly hard to learn conversationally into the upper tiers because of the added difficulty of reading and writing.
posted by Copronymus at 1:18 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Interesting that Chinese is more difficult than Russian; I recall a story from a CIA spook that he would intentionally dial wrong numbers in Moscow to try to acquire a fluent accent, because he'd been told a local accent was impossible for someone learning at his age. I briefly tried learning Thai, though, and I found that a lot harder than Spanish, so I assume it's a tonal language thing.

Alas, despite on and off attempts with Pimsleur and whatnot, I can brokenly translate Spanish to English but can never seem to manage my half of the conversation well without a lot of time to think and parse through my limited vocabulary. Maybe someday I'll suck it up and do an immersion course.
posted by tautological at 1:24 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Japanese arguably has the most complex writing system in the world, so that’s not doing it any favors. Conversational fluidity (if not fluency) can at least be fudged though by treating topic/subject marker particles as a pseodo-copula, at least initially as a crutch.

I wonder, though, if using the Latin alphabet for a very non-English-related language like Turkish or Basque or Finnish (it drove me nuts when I found out that the convention is to NOT capitalize “suomi” to refer to the language, even when it’s in a list of otherwise capitalized language options shown in each language) adds a sort of difficulty all its own — with a foreign writing system, there’s that clear indication that it’s a very foreign language, at least.
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:24 PM on December 8, 2017


I think I would have snuck Frisian into category one...
posted by jim in austin at 1:32 PM on December 8, 2017


I couldn't figure out why anyone would imagine that suomi is easy without full immersion
posted by infini at 1:33 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Category V learners, holla!

I'm diving back into Mandarin now that my kid has started attending a Mandarin-emphasis school and I'm just being reminded about all of my intellectual inadequacies. I spent 6 months living in Shanghai and never made it beyond superficially conversational. (My kid is a rockstar with it, but he's got brain plasticity on his side.)

On the plus side with Chinese: no verb conjugations! Very little pluralization! Fairly simple sentence construction!

On the minus side: Everything else. Tones. Characters. Measure words. (Fucking measure words! Why can't I just use 个 for everything???) The sprinkling of 了 all over the place. The homophonnnnnesssss.

It's hard, guys.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:34 PM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


> I spent 6 months living in Shanghai and never made it beyond superficially conversational. (My kid is a rockstar with it, but he's got brain plasticity on his side.)

I'm not convinced by that brain plasticity thing. My kid is learning English (it's his mother tongue and he's not really learning anything else) and I can tell you that six months in he was not even slightly conversational and after 12 years of full immersion with no alternatives he still hasn't really mastered it. This is considered normal, of course. I'd like to think that 12 years of full immersion would get even my creaky old brain to a pretty good place in almost any language.
posted by merlynkline at 1:50 PM on December 8, 2017 [9 favorites]


I don't see Jive on this list.
posted by chicobangs at 1:55 PM on December 8, 2017 [12 favorites]


interesting that hebrew and russian are in the same category, i found the former significantly easier than the latter.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:59 PM on December 8, 2017


I started studying Japanese a couple of years ago, before a trip to Japan. Several Chinese native speakers saw my class reader and commented that Japanese was "so hard!", which I found amusing.

Back when I was in college, I took a bunch of Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, and French) because they were easy for me and they were all 5 units, so I could get up to the credit minimum with two language classes and one more class of something else. Then just for fun, I took Russian and found it a fun challenge and ended up majoring in it. I had taken Latin and bit of Greek, so the idea of cases and the alphabet weren't completely foreign to me - I was the nerd who begged my parents to let me take Latin and now my kid is doing the same, which warms my heart.

While studying Japanese, what I find most interesting is that when I can't think of a word in Japanese, the language that I reach for is Russian, not English or any of the Romance languages I've studied. Not sure why that is.
posted by mogget at 2:13 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Japanese also does not have gendered objects and adjectives, nor is its grammar super complex. In fact it doesn't have a huge vocabulary. What makes it hard IMHO are the nuances from the onomatopoeic words. In English you can say; it's pouring, it's sprinkling, it's drizzling, etc. in Japanese you would always say; it's raining, but you might use any of the following words to modify it. ZAAAAA is heavy rain. Potsu-potsu is rain coming down in dribs and drabs. Shito-shito is a heavy, steady rain. etc. There's hundreds and hundreds of these words and they are easy to misuse.
posted by jfwlucy at 2:15 PM on December 8, 2017 [11 favorites]


I was hoping that there would be other equivalent difficulty rankings for native speakers of other languages, mainly because I have a hunch about my brother in law:
He's a native Swahili speaker, fluentish in English and also has some arabic. FOR FUN he started picking up Japanese. He said he found it easier than English. (he's also just extremely bright and always up for new challenges)
I took japanese from high school through college and never found it particularly easy, especially at first.
My suspicion is that there's better homology between linguistic constructions that swahili makes a more comfortable base for Japanese acquisition, compared to English.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 2:21 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I've been told that English is super super hard for non-native speakers. Even harder for people whose native languages aren't Romantic or Germanic. So much English just doesn't make any gd sense without a socio-linguistic explainer on who conquered England and when.
posted by soren_lorensen at 2:35 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


Surprised that Icelandic is listed among the more difficult languages.

And way more difficult than Norwegian, apparently.
posted by Segundus at 2:43 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Whoever made the map in the article might want to learn their 24 weeks of Swedish and see how far that gets them in the southern parts of Finland. Being able to read road signs and government forms is cool and all, but sooner or later you might actually want to talk to people.
posted by Soi-hah at 2:48 PM on December 8, 2017


Norwegian has two or three genders and usually no cases. Icelandic has three genders and four cases, so 12 declensions for each noun. Learning the word "horse" is easy, using it in a sentence is not.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:52 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


after 12 years of full immersion with no alternatives he still hasn't really mastered it. This is considered normal, of course.

Yo dawg, its not.
posted by Damienmce at 3:05 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


>> after 12 years of full immersion with no alternatives he still hasn't really mastered it. This is considered normal, of course.
> Yo dawg, its not.


Your experience of twelve-year-olds must be different from mine then :/
My son seems to (admittedly biased) me to have pretty good language compared to his peers, probably because he reads a lot more than them AFAICS, but I can't really say he's mastered it yet.
posted by merlynkline at 3:10 PM on December 8, 2017


Maybe I'm misreading this but if the kid is 12 and has spent 12 years fully immersed in a language and can't speak it, I wouldn't classify this as normal.
posted by Damienmce at 3:18 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Best line I've heard in a while from a German instructor to an Englishman:

"German: the hardest (western) language to learn, but the easiest to perfect (as by the time you've learned all the various cases, tenses, and forms, you're finished with precious few exceptions)... whereas your English is the easiest to learn... ... but perfect does not exist."
posted by Seeba at 3:28 PM on December 8, 2017 [10 favorites]


After getting my butt kicked by the JLPT, at least I can take solace in Japanese being literally the #1 most difficult language on the list
posted by kurumi at 3:50 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


I have no idea which languages are hard(er) to learn than others - it took me years to learn English and years to not learn French, main difference was motivation -, but I just want to add I keep running into Americans convinced they are ‚fluent‘ in German.

(They‘re not.)
posted by The Toad at 3:51 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I've had coworkers over the years from Bulgaria, China, India, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Romania (actually an ethnic Hungarian), Russia, Vietnam, and probably a few others. They speak English much better than I speak Spanish, or any other language, and I have tremendous respect for that.

On the flip side, I know someone who studies a particular period in Swedish history, learned Swedish to study it, and when he goes to Sweden is politely invited to speak in English.
posted by graymouser at 3:52 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


politely invited to speak in English.

Th'ar's the rub, everyone needs to learn english and few have patience with 'mericans trying to learn theirs.
posted by sammyo at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2017


Why can't I just use 个 for everything???

Good news. According to my Chinese wife, you can. You'll sound like a yokel, but you'll be understood.

I've often wondered ("often" may be an overstatement) if there are languages that are more flexible in the sense that you continue to be understood even if you make increasingly more mistakes. If, for example, you create the past participle by adding "ed", you'll be wrong a lot of the time, but you'll be understood 100% of the time. Are some languages more or less permissive in this way? Or are all languages about equally permissive, but permissive in different ways (I know from experience that I could butcher Spanish and my Spanish teacher understood me perfectly, but my mangled Mandarin was met with blank looks).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:02 PM on December 8, 2017 [9 favorites]


> Maybe I'm misreading this but if the kid is 12 and has spent 12 years fully immersed in a language and can't speak it, I wouldn't classify this as normal.
You are misreading it. He can speak the language, better than most of his peers in fact, but hasn't yet fully mastered it; most twelve-year-olds haven't. The point being that the supposition that the alleged better brain plasticity of kids makes it easier for them to learn languages seems off to me. Twelve years of full immersion would hopefully serve an adult just as well, as you also seem to suggest.
posted by merlynkline at 4:03 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


The article is clear that these difficulties are for English speakers, but it's worth repeating. The map would look very different for (say) a Russian speaker.

Also, of course, difficulty depends on what you already know. If you know English and Russian, then Polish isn't that hard.

Let's see, what other cold water can I throw? Maybe my standard warning that the really hard bit about any language is going to be its vocabulary, not the writing system or the morphology. If you learn Russian, the alphabet will be a stumbling block for a few months, but remembering 2000 or so new words will take far longer.

Also, merlynkline is quite right that brain plasticity is way overrated for child learning, and that 12-year-olds still have a lot to learn. Kids learn their native languages fast because they have to, and they're fully immersed in them. More on this on my site.
posted by zompist at 4:07 PM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


>I don't see Jive on this list.

Chump don't want the help, chump don't get the help.
posted by KazamaSmokers at 4:15 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


While studying Japanese, what I find most interesting is that when I can't think of a word in Japanese, the language that I reach for is Russian

Though I'm a native English speaker, whenever I stumble and flail in Japanese (which is often) I always seem to land on Spanish, presumably because most of the words use the same sounds. Worse, I often do it aloud.

This can be choto embarazoso.
posted by rokusan at 4:19 PM on December 8, 2017 [13 favorites]


If I understand the term, Japanese also has measure words. The saving factor is that there's a generic numbering system as well -- you can speak of a quantity without specifying if it's legs, heads, flat things, round things, machines, etc. But it helps to recognize the measure words when others are speaking them at you, and to use them in turn. And usually, if you get the wrong measure word, people will still understand you.
posted by oheso at 4:26 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


A bit of conversation from the bar last night. One of my native conversational partners said, "What you just said was really strange, but I understood it."
posted by oheso at 4:27 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


On the flip side, I know someone who studies a particular period in Swedish history, learned Swedish to study it, and when he goes to Sweden is politely invited to speak in English.

I choose to believe this is because he actually knows an archaic dialect which is relevant to his research but confusing to modern speakers. Please do not correct me.
posted by ckape at 4:28 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


Anecdote: one of my library science teachers, working on her doctorate at a Canadian university, had as her first language Croatian. Somehow I found out that she spoke French, and when she lectured (read: tried to), you could almost see her translating complex ideas in her head from Croatian through French to American English. She literally restarted sentences she spoke and then, when she couldn't figure out the words to express the thought, would drop the point and go on to another concept. It was wildly frustrating for me; not sure how her experience of it would have differed.
posted by datawrangler at 4:31 PM on December 8, 2017



Norwegian has two or three genders and usually no cases. Icelandic has three genders and four cases, so 12 declensions for each noun. Learning the word "horse" is easy, using it in a sentence is not.


Isn't that the same amount of grammatical moving parts as German (which is two categories down) though? Is Icelandic really almost twice as hard to learn from English as German?
posted by acb at 4:32 PM on December 8, 2017


Yeah, the “when I don’t know a word in Foreign Language, I reach for Other Foreign Language I Know” is a very real phenomenon. A friend visited me in Japan some years back and lamented that whenever he opened his mouth, German accidentally came out.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:32 PM on December 8, 2017 [15 favorites]


According to my Chinese wife, you can. You'll sound like a yokel, but you'll be understood.

Yeah, I've been told that as well. I don't wanna sound like a yokel, but I totally use 个 for all the things when I can't remember the correct measure word. Which is always.

It does occur to me that English has measure words too, of a sort, and you can use "things" as a generic stand-in. "Give me a thing of that."

When I can't get a Chinese word to come out my brain moves on to French, for some reason.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:37 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


"Der, die, das, die,
Den, die, das, die,
Dem, der, dem, den,
Des, der, des, der"


Go home, Darkstar, you're drunk.
posted by w0mbat at 4:48 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


A friend visited me in Japan some years back and lamented that whenever he opened his mouth, German accidentally came out.

I once tried ordering a beer in a German bar in Stockholm without using English; the sentence that came out, “Jag vill ha ein Weihenstefaner, bitte”, changed languages halfway through without my noticing until I finished.
posted by acb at 4:49 PM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]


Pity they don't have dead languages on the list; I suppose it's not like we have diplomatic relations with ancient Athens, Rome, or Sparta, etc. I took a year of Ancient Greek in college, figuring that--since I'd done pretty well in class with French, Latin, Russian, and Japanese up to that point--it wouldn't be too bad. Greek kicked my can good and hard, which had the salutary effect of making my upper-level Japanese classes feel easy. There are more exceptions than rules! Accents! Declining articles! Optative (was it?)! Mi-verbs! Oy.

I've been told that when I speak the little Korean I know, I sound like a diaspora Korean-Japanese: the accent and the choice of words and grammar forms are all super influenced by Japanese habits rather than Korean ones (and it's really hard not to put "ne" at the end of the sentence in the Japanese way rather than the Korean one).

I think there must be a kind of brain switch, labeled in order "Mother Tongue" "Foreign Language #1" "Foreign Language #2" and so on (in order of priority, not order of learning). So when you're stuck for a word in "Foreign Language #2" or later, your mind can't flip back to "Mother Tongue" immediately; it reaches for "Foreign Language #1" instead.
("but you're trying to speak a foreign language!" "I KNOW, BRAIN, but I'm in France! I don't want to say 今, I want to say, um, um, um...maintenant!")
posted by huimangm at 5:28 PM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]


(Edit to remove any inaccurate implications, I'm in fact not a diaspora Korean-anything, in spite of the user name; but have been told that I speak Korean like someone whose native language is Japanese, not English.)
posted by huimangm at 5:31 PM on December 8, 2017


One does not simply maintain an embassy in Mordor.

Mor-Dor-a-Lago?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:34 PM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


My totally unscientific theory regarding reaching for a word in one language and getting a word in a different language is based on my similar experience with German (high school) and Russian (college). I grew up speaking English. In your brain there is a language center that gets filled up with your native language. If you learn another language later on it gets tagged as foreign and gets stuck next to your native language. If you learn another language it gets stuck more or less on top of the first foreign language. So when you try to remember a word in say German, the Russian word pops up first. This was my problem the first time I went to Germany. But three trips to German speaking countries and the desperate need to converse in German switched the ordering. Now when I have to remember something in Russian the German pops out.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:40 PM on December 8, 2017


I am completely baffled by Portuguese being listed in the easiest category. You might be able to do basic reading after that many weeks, but speaking it is a whole different ball game.

I, an American from the south, just got back from a trip to Portugal. I started taking Portuguese courses via Memrise many many months ago. I learned just under 1,000 words, and thought I was in a good place for my trip. The courses had a lot of listening and I worked very hard on my pronunciation, conjugations, etc. Turns out I can read the language pretty darn well (there was an incident with the rental car and us all being non-diesel driving people which resulted in me needing to read the vehicle owner's manual - in Portuguese, and I was successful!). However, when I tried to *speak* with anyone, including hotel staff, tour guides, and other people used to dealing with dumb tourists, nobody could even figure out what I was attempting to say.

TL;DR - Portuguese is HARD. If every other language is harder, then I give up.
posted by tryniti at 5:55 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think Korean should be Category IV because of
a. one straightforward alphabet (and minimal use of Chinese characters)
b. no tones

I realized that all the things that stumped me about Korean -- grammar order, modes of politeness, Chinese origin vocabulary -- were super easy for native Japanese speakers. However as a Korean American who grew up with two native Korean speakers but didn't really get past a child's passive listening ability until I took intensive language courses for a year as an adult, my onomatopoeia and ability to complain about being hungry (tired / sleepy / headachy / hot) was on point. Also I could distinguish and pronounce phonemes (bp vs b vs pp) that were way more difficult for people who hadn't been exposed to Korean early and often. So when I tried to learn Japanese for the second time, I decided to go to a language academy in Korea, to learn Japanese from a Korean speaker's viewpoint and textbook and instructional system. And it was indeed sooooo much easier than trying to learn it from an American English viewpoint.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:12 PM on December 8, 2017 [15 favorites]


My Japanese is stuck somewhere between beginner and intermediate and I cannot get it to move. I've been doing more listening practice, but i really just need to speak more. And learn to read.

The lack of subject verb agreement and lack of gendering nouns is great. But adjectives conjugate, there are so many counters. Reading correctly without someone listening to you speak means that you may get the gist but say it entirely incorrectly.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:45 PM on December 8, 2017


Go home, Darkstar, you're drunk.


I must have been, because I said there were 12 different situations that determine the word for “the” in German, and then proceeded to list all 16.
posted by darkstar at 6:54 PM on December 8, 2017 [11 favorites]


TL;DR - Portuguese is HARD. If every other language is harder, then I give up.

Portuguese's mapping of letters to sounds is consistent, but how to put it, unique to Portuguese. Written Portuguese is a breeze since it is just another descendant of Latin.
posted by ocschwar at 7:14 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I've seen this list before and it's based specifically on how they teach languages at the Foreign Service Institute, where you are spending over 8 hours a day working on that language.

Plus the students are highly motivated because learning directly affects their careers.
posted by Homer42 at 7:30 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Surprised that Icelandic is listed among the more difficult languages.

To be fair, they were specifically referring to conversing with Björk.
posted by maxwelton at 7:35 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


"You'll sound like a yokel, but you'll be understood."

Though you do need to have some sympathy if people have more trouble understanding you when you miss this stuff. They're used to hearing things said in a certain way.

I swear I've heard more than one anecdote from someone with grade-school French who has insisted that some French person intentionally refused to understand them until they got the gender on some noun right. (Or substitute some other rule that they're sure was made up just to torture foreigners.)

No, my friend, they're already fighting to decode what you're saying through your weird vowels and shaky grammar, and on top of that you've got a "le" where they expect a "la", that will make it harder for them.
posted by floppyroofing at 7:49 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


skims list looking for Arabic

Yep, that's where I thought it'd be.

I've been doing Pimsleur lessons in my car for about ten months, and I'd compare my comprehension and my productive vocabulary favorably to any native speaker who has been acquiring the language for the same amount of time. Like, sometimes I get the jokes on the foreign-language version of Sesame Street. If I've spent five or ten percent of the hours that the Foreign Service budgets for Arabic, I think I'm pretty much on track.

The experience, as an adult, of being profoundly illiterate --- as in "I keep seeing this ligature that doesn't seem to be in the alphabet is that a letter or what" --- is very interesting; everyone should try it.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:19 PM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


15 - 17 weeks of basic training in the Légion étrangère includes basic language training. At the end of that period, recruits will have a mission-critical grasp of French.
posted by fredludd at 8:32 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Though I'm a native English speaker, whenever I stumble and flail in Japanese (which is often) I always seem to land on Spanish, presumably because most of the words use the same sounds.

I don't speak Japanese though at this point I recognize a few words. It took like three months after my friends pulled me into watching anime with them for my brain, which *barely* knows any Spanish anymore, to stop trying to parse everything I was hearing as Spanish. It sometimes left me with a baffling moment of having understood a couple words in entirely the wrong language. Especially where some things could fall into vaguely similar contexts... your umbrella and your house are both useful shelter in the rain.
posted by Sequence at 8:49 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


You are misreading it. He can speak the language, better than most of his peers in fact, but hasn't yet fully mastered it; most twelve-year-olds haven't. The point being that the supposition that the alleged better brain plasticity of kids makes it easier for them to learn languages seems off to me. Twelve years of full immersion would hopefully serve an adult just as well, as you also seem to suggest.

Count me as also extremely confused as to what you are trying to say. Your son, a native English speaker, isn’t speaking at an adult level? Well, yes? He’s not an adult and his brain isn’t fully developed. The whole “kids learn languages faster” thing isn’t about mastery; it’s about can they make themselves understood and understand what people are saying to them, faster then a random adult.
posted by Automocar at 9:05 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


I like this, thanks for posting. But let me point to a small issue. "Speaking and reading proficiency" is what exactly? Unless this is precisely defined (I'm guessing it is by the FSI but the original content creator forgot that it was important to spell out), all the numbers in the world about hours to learn mean precisely jack shit. Give me some solid, can-do descriptors, heck, give me some CEFR grade levels for crying out loud.

Also, a frequently overlooked reason why Japanese presents challenges is the plethora of nonsensical loan words written in katakana, which, although sounding like English and having a possible derivation from English, may as well be in Martian. For example, "catch copy" [slogan], "cash corner" [ATM] and "chin-suru" [warm something up in the microwave].

OK, the last one isn't technically an English loan word, but it does sound like chin.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 10:05 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


When I was learning Japanese, my professor would expect us just to be able to magically know Japanese loan words, even when they were not derived directly from English. Pan is bread, which is easy enough but hocchikisu for stapler... Never guessing that one. Ever.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:50 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Why can't I just use 个 for everything???

一个蛋糕 🎂
一块蛋糕 🍰

😛
posted by airmail at 11:26 PM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]


I once spoke a sentence in three languages. I was shooting for French but modulated into German and then Japanese. Amusingly, what I was trying to say was not much more complex than, "Bonjour, comment t'allez-vous?"
posted by oheso at 11:34 PM on December 8, 2017


> Count me as also extremely confused as to what you are trying to say
OK, I'll have one last go at this. soren_lorensen said that their kid was picking up Mandarin fast and attributed this in part to youthful brain plasticity. I am not so sure that this alleged youthful brain plasticity plays much of a part. To illustrate this I somewhat facetiously cited my observation of my twelve-year-old son's language. He has been learning a single language by full immersion for 12 (or say, if you like, 10) years. He speaks it like a twelve-year-old, which is to say not perfectly. I like to hope that adults given 12 (or 10) years of full, exclusive immersion would achieve something similar. Ergo youthful brain plasticity is not a significant factor (if my hopes are realised).

So yes, kids can make themselves understood faster than adults generally do, and "mastery" is a red herring here (sorry), but I believe this to be more down to the stark necessity of full, exclusive immersion than youthful brain plasticity. That's all.

*re-asseses his own mastery of his native tongue*
posted by merlynkline at 12:52 AM on December 9, 2017


This makes me feel better about how pathetic my Japanese is, so, uh, thanks for that. I guess.
posted by davejh at 1:10 AM on December 9, 2017


Especially where some things [in Spanish and Japanese] could fall into vaguely similar contexts... your umbrella and your house are both useful shelter in the rain. -- Sequence

This is a brilliant example, and thank you, because I am stealing it.
posted by rokusan at 1:31 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


I understood you perfectly well the first time merlynkline which shows that language is much more than grammar and syntax :-P (English is not my first language.)
posted by mmkhd at 3:13 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


一个蛋糕 🎂
一块蛋糕 🍰

😛<---🎂
一脸蛋糕

For the uninitiated, that's
-one/a [generic measure word] cake
-one [MW piece] cake

-one [MW face] of cake, or "a faceful of cake", as in what happens after someone gets a cake thrown in their face.

The concept of measure words stumped me until I realized that most measure words are nouns in their own right (个 is very much the odd man out among measure words in that it functions more as an adjective, "individual/particular/certain" in non MW roles, unlike "bucket" or "basin" or "unit"), and basically, any ol' noun works as long as logic allows, which vastly expands your ability to say interesting things.
posted by saysthis at 3:50 AM on December 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


The concept itself also exists English: Sheet of paper, stack of paper, ...
Also when you're talking about three sheets of paper, you need the measureword "sheets", as "three papers" is a bit odd.
Chinese is like that, except that it requires measurewords for almost all common (and countable) nouns. Japanese does, too, although there are fewer of them than in Chinese.
posted by sour cream at 4:58 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


Why can't I just use 个 for everything???

一个蛋糕 🎂
一块蛋糕 🍰


Maybe I wanted to eat the whole cake. You don't know my life.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:08 AM on December 9, 2017 [15 favorites]


I choose to believe this is because he actually knows an archaic dialect which is relevant to his research but confusing to modern speakers.

My friend was telling me a story like this (sorry, may be kind of foggily remembered) about someone who learned ancient Greek and was traveling in Greece when his car broke down, eventually managing to communicate to someone "my chariot won't march."
posted by en forme de poire at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2017 [12 favorites]


Trying to learn Arabic (well, MSA) was the first time I truly understood how great the phonetic divide could be between two languages. It basically took everything one uses in English and added more. Pronunciation in my native language of English has never been my strong point--so the result was that my attempts to speak Arabic often sounded more like I was in mid-vomit. And that difficult was just in pronouncing letters. It only gets harder from there. Needless to say, I didn't get too far into the language.
posted by schroedinger at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2017


I wonder what does make German harder than Dutch, and all those romance languages, for a native English speaker.--Eyebrows McGee

It was cold for five days.

German: Es war kalt für fünf Tage.
Dutch: Het was vijf dagen koud.

The Dutch is more recognizable, I think, because it has closer ties to old English. It also has closer ties to modern English.
posted by eye of newt at 2:19 PM on December 9, 2017


Gee, to me the German is easier to recognize. Am I making the right assumptions? i.e.
Es = It?
war = was?
kalt = cold?
fur = for?
funf = five?
Tage = days?
posted by storybored at 7:48 PM on December 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


Needless to say, I didn't get too far into the language.

this is why I call BS on this survey, Japanese is tons easier to learn to speak or read than Arabic or Mandarin.

The only hard parts to speak come from Mandarin (e.g. the ri/ryo sound can be a tongue-swizzler to get half-right vs. native speakers), in the main the soundset is similar to Spanish, ah, ee, oo, eh, oh + consonants.

Now, if they're talking about mastering the language, then, yeah, it's pretty hard I guess.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:35 PM on December 9, 2017


Also, a frequently overlooked reason why Japanese presents challenges is the plethora of nonsensical loan words written in katakana, which, although sounding like English and having a possible derivation from English, may as well be in Martian.

I don't know. Would it be that much easier to learn if all these words had entirely native vocabulary? This would make a language like French extremely difficult, since it is full of words like gentil, grand, joli, sympathique, blesser, actuellement, attendre, sensible, formidable, personne that have very different meanings from their English equivalents.

Pan is bread, which is easy enough but hocchikisu for stapler... Never guessing that one. Ever.

Probably due to the (disconcertingly large) fraction of my teen years spent watching anime, I was able to parse this as Hodgkiss/Hotchkiss. Fascinating stapler history.
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 12:58 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


> I was able to parse this as Hodgkiss/Hotchkiss

Wow! Instantly went from opaque to obvious, for this non-Japanese speaker with a kid who watches way too much anime. Which really illustrates that your existing relevant knowledge is the important thing. After all, "pan" for bread is only easy if you happen to already have that bit of knowledge of romance languages, which not all English speakers do.
posted by merlynkline at 2:14 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


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