Which is the hardest language?

or “An Introduction to Language Distance”


I have been teaching English for about 10 years, and not rarely do I hear from my Portuguese-speaking Brazilian students comments like “learning English is harder than learning Spanish, right?”, “I was told Portuguese is the most difficult language in the world” or “American English is easier than British English, right?”. What we are talking about here is language distance and, more specifically, people’s perception of language distance. Although the space of a blog post is not in the least enough to address such a complex subject, I will try to be brief, straight to the point and only talk about a few main ideas.languages

When we are learning a new language, there is absolutely no way we can turn off the languages we already know. Like it or not, they are going to influence how we make sense of new language features and how we use them. This is called cross-linguistic influence, a phenomenon present in virtually every language learner’s speech and writing. There are several factors determining if, when and how this influence happens, but most researchers agree that the most important of them is cross-linguistic similarities or language distance.

Let’s not get too technical. To put it simply, language learners create hypotheses, both consciously and unconsciously, about how their first language works and what connections there may be between the languages they know and the one they are learning (the target language). If learners perceive (or assume) that a certain feature of one language is also present in the language being learnt, they may be led to transfer this feature, and the outcome may be positive (when the feature actually exists in the target language) or negative (when it does not exist or is not used the same way).

For example, a German-speaking learner of English may read the sentence “I am 29 years old” in a coursebook and notice that both languages use the verb BE to talk about age in sort of the same structure:

ENGLISH: I am 29 years old.
GERMAN: Ich bin 29 Jahre alt.

He may then assume that this pattern should work as some kind of general rule and start producing other sentences, such as “She is 15 years old” and “Mr. Kent is 40 years old”, all of which correct. On the other hand, a Portuguese-speaking learner of English that does not speak German may want to transfer his first language’s pattern into his English and say:

 I have 29 years.     Or even: I have 29 years of age.
PORTUGUESE: Eu tenho 29 anos (de idade).

In his first attempt, his assumption of cross-linguistic similarity will have led him to make a mistake in English, but what about his second attempt? It would be grammatically right, but certainly not the natural choice of a native speaker of English.

In the function above (talking about age) German bears closer similarity with English than Portuguese, and this is actually what is going to happen in almost every other case. This is because German and English are in the same linguistic branch, the Germanic languages, while Portuguese belongs to another branch, the Romance languages. Actually, both branches developed from the same ancentral language, the highly unknown, mostly theorised Proto-Indo-European, and that is partly why there are also some similarities between Germanic and Romance languages. Of course, the whole dynamics of how languages develop and come to influence one another in history and in the language learner’s mind is a lot more complex and, as I said, I cannot fully explain it here. But I hope you are following my brief considerations.

Now back to the comments which I said I often hear from people. It is impossible to say which language is the most difficult, or which variety of English is easier. The answer depends on who is asking. If you are learning a language that is more closely related to the languages you know, especially your first language, you are more likely to find it easier to understand and learn. On the other hand, if your target language is a language that is not related to any of those you know, it will probably feel harder to get to grips with. For example, speakers of English will find Norwegian way easier to learn than Finnish, because the latter is a totally unrelated language which, by the way, has no relative within the Indo-European languages (a group that represents +90% of the languages in Europe). If you are a speaker of Spanish, you will find Portuguese, Italian, French and Romanian much easier than Hungarian (and even if you are not, just check out the table below for the sentence “I drink wine” in those languages and draw your own conclusions).

Spanish Yo bebo vino.
Portuguese Eu bebo vinho.
Italian Io bevo vino.
Romanian Eu beau vin.
French Je bois du vin.
Hungarian Iszom bort.

Don’t be scared of learning distant languages, though. Learning a language which is not closely related to yours is like getting a special key into secret chambers where dozens of other languages hide. If you learn Russian, you will be amazed to see how short a step you are from Ukrainian. If you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you will be able to communicate with people from 22 countries and easily learn any of the dozens of local varieties of the language, even though most of them are not mutually intelligible. As for myself, I am currently a learner of Russian. When I achieve an advanced level in it, I intend to venture on Belarussian or Ukrainian, but not before I pick up at least one more Romance language, perhaps Italian.

How about you? Which language are you going to learn next?

SUGGESTION: A History of Languages: an introduction by Tore Janson is a very nice, easy-to-read book about how languages are born, develop and die. It is filled with examples and maps and the author gives lots of suggestions of further reading on different topics.