What Makes Languages Easier to Learn

I’m often asked, how long does it take to learn a language, which language is the easiest to learn, are some languages easier than others and so forth, so here’s my take on what makes languages easier.

The first thing is how much similar vocabulary is there. If you are an English speaker learning French 50% of the vocabulary or more is recognizable, therefore easy to learn and I’ll explain why that gives you big advantages. Even if you’re learning German, I don’t know what the percentage is, but there are a lot of words there that you recognize. 

Where that’s not the case, for example, right now I’m struggling with Arabic, Persian and Turkish, essentially there are very few. It’s 10% of words that are recognizable from a European language. There are another number of words that I recognize because they connect Arabic, Persian and Turkish. They’re common to those three languages and so to that extent that helps. To me, the overwhelming consideration is the amount of recognizable vocabulary. 

After learning Russian, Czech has about 60% of vocabulary that is recognizable from Russian. That gives you a big head start and the reason that’s important is because the second thing that influences how difficult or easy a language is to learn is the availability of interesting, compelling content in that language. That means that you have to be able to get from sort of beginner material, material sort of designed for the learner, to material that’s genuinely interesting. So I’m trying, as I did for Arabic and for Persian, to get to podcasts and movies and things that are genuinely interesting, but it’s very difficult because of the gap between the beginner materials, such as our mini stories where there’s a lot of repetition of vocabulary. 

To get from that to sort of genuinely interesting material is a much bigger gap because there are so few words that you recognize. Whereas if you are in French or Spanish or even having done one Slavic language and you go to another Slavic language, you can much more quickly get to a situation as I was in those languages, say even in Polish or in Ukrainian, where you can find genuinely interesting stuff, podcasts, whatever, that you can listen to and take with you everyday. So you’re no longer consciously learning the language, you are learning about interesting things using the language and your language skills are developing. 

To me, that’s the big thing. How close are the languages in terms of vocabulary and therefore how quickly can you get on to interesting content. The other consider, of course, is the availability of interesting content, but that’s increasingly there. It’s sometimes difficult to find. You’ve got to look for it in the iTunes library or on Netflix or radio stations online or anywhere they have material that you can access. For example, now I’m looking for Turkish podcasts and I’m going to put the podcasts onto this Happy Scribe, this transcription service, or with our LingQ extension I can take YouTube videos that have subtitles and automatically import them into LingQ as study material.

A big obstacle for me is while Korean shares a lot of vocabulary with Chinese and Japanese to the extent that they share Chinese origin vocabulary, these are hidden for me in Korean because I don’t know what the characters are. In LingQ, for example, in Japanese on the lesson page you can show the furigana. In other words, the hiragana sort of phonetic script for what you are reading or you can show the romaji. So we have the ability to show another line of text. It would be amazing if in my Korean learning we could get a hold of some automatic conversion of Korean into Chinese characters where those characters exist and then to show that on top of the text which is all in Hangul. 

Steve Kaufmann

These would all be ways of making genuinely interesting material more accessible. Otherwise, it’s a big struggle to get from sort of easy material to genuinely compelling material, especially when all of the words have to be learned. Not all because some of the words are forms of other words, but you don’t have so much common vocabulary that helps you to transition from beginner material to genuinely compelling material.

So just my take on what makes a language difficult. It’s not word order. It’s not even the grammar. To me, it’s words. How many words are recognizable based on languages that you know. That is going to help you transition to more interesting content which will then speed you on your way to learning the language.

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