What is the hardest language to learn and other questions from my followers
What is the hardest language to learn? It’s a question I’m asked often on my YouTube channel and blog. Here I provide the answer to this question, and others that followers have asked me recently.
What is the hardest language to learn?
It depends. Obviously, the more similar a new language is to a language that you already know, the easier it’s going to be. Chinese has nothing in common with English, and so it was difficult for me to learn. Russian was difficult, but Czech was easier. Knowing Russian and Czech then made it easier to learn Ukrainian and Polish. It’s all a matter of how related the language is to a language you already know.
But similar languages are not necessarily a cake walk. I can remember going to Portugal for the first time. I already spoke Spanish and had put some time into learning Portuguese. Still I couldn’t really use the language. People would reply to me in English. Sure, I might understand and speak Spanish very well, but I couldn’t really understand them very well in Portuguese, and couldn’t say much in the language. Actually, it was a fair amount of work to get used to Portuguese. Learning similar languages gives you an advantage, but it is still a fair amount of work.
I had difficulty going from Spanish to Portuguese. I was reluctant to move from Spanish pronunciation to Portuguese pronunciation. I was kind of half pronouncing the Portuguese word the way it would be pronounced in Spanish. For a long time, I wouldn’t let go of the comfort of my Spanish pronunciation.
Motivation is also a major factor affecting difficulty. If you are very motivated to learn a language you will overcome other difficulties. A language which might be easier, but which you are not motivated to learn, will become difficult.
Why do you learn new languages rather than work on ones that you don’t yet speak as well as you would like?
To me, learning about another country and another language is an advantage which outweighs the disadvantage of not being able to spend enough time with those languages where I want to improve.
Can you study more than one language at a time?
I don’t recommend it. I find that I need to concentrate on one at a time. However, if you are far enough along in two languages you could work on two of them at the same time. It is really a matter of what you want to do. Try it out and see what works for you.
What is the biggest mistake when learning a difficult language?
One of the main reasons that people don’t become fluent is that they stay with beginner material for too long. You can read the blog post I wrote on the topic.
How often do you read or listen to the same content?
As a beginner, I’ll tend to read and listen quite often. I listen and don’t understand, then I read and listen again, and read again. It could be four, five, six, 10 times. Not necessarily staying with one, but maybe doing lessons one, two, three, four, five and then going back to lessons one, two, three, four, five again.
As soon as I get to where I can start to understand more I tend to move on, even if I don’t fully understand. I am reviewing all of the vocabulary while I read new lessons. These new words just show up in different contexts. I see that I have met them before because once I’ve saved them they’re in yellow at LingQ.
What about learning a dialect of a language or a related language? Does it help or hinder?
Well, what’s a dialect? Is Portuguese a dialect of Spanish? Is Cantonese a dialect of Mandarin? You could argue that Cantonese has many more speakers than most world languages.
Studying a closely related language enriches your hold on a language you already know; you’re covering some of the same vocabulary. Even now, I go from studying Russian to Czech and Ukrainian and I’m reinforcing my grasp on the fundamental way Slavic languages operate. I think it’s well worth it and it doesn’t hurt you.
Do cultural barriers make a language more difficult to learn?
No, not at all. Having exposed myself to 15 or 16 different cultures, I’m always impressed by how fundamentally similar all human beings are. You learn about the culture through the language, but it’s not a barrier as long as you’re interested. In Japan some people worry that if they don’t get the politeness level right they might offend someone. I find that it is hard to offend people just by using their language incorrectly. I don’t worry about cultural barriers at all. I just try to learn the language and use it when I can, without worrying.
You’ve covered reading, listening and speaking in a previous post, but how do you write? How do you approach it? How is it different as you go through different levels in the language?
Writing is tremendously powerful as a way to learn. I don’t have the discipline to do it now. I did a lot of writing when I learned French, because I was a student in France for three years and we had to write all of our exams in the language. When I studied Chinese for eight-nine months full time, I had to write, and writing is tremendously powerful.
The main benefit of writing is in the very fact that you write. You’re forcing your brain to think about words. You might be looking things up, so you put a degree of preparation and a degree of thoroughness into your writing that you can’t do while speaking. It helps prepare you for speaking, so it’s obviously a great thing to do if you have the motivation and the patience to do it. I learn for fun now, so I don’t bother writing.
The benefit is not primarily because someone is going to correct your writing. The benefit comes from that the fact that you write, and the more you write the better you get. It’s fine if people correct you. If they don’t correct you, that’s fine too. You’ll eventually start to notice most of your mistakes.
It’s important to know lots of words, but why do some language learners and polyglots constantly insist that you only need to know X words to do just fine in the language?
People talk about learning one word a day or even until you reach your goals. But in my experience it’s best to just enjoy reading and listening. If I don’t understand when reading or listening to podcasts, it’s not because of the grammar, it’s because I don’t know the key words. I also find that when I speak to native speakers, it doesn’t help if I can say a few simple things in the language if I don’t understand what they’re saying.
If I’m out with people and they’re chatting and I don’t understand what they’re talking about, if I watch a movie and I don’t understand the plot, what’s lacking, typically, is the words. So I don’t understand why some people say you only need a few words; it has not been my experience. My experience has been that you need a lot of words. Now, other people may have a different experience.
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What has been the hardest language to learn for you? Are you still working toward reaching your goals?