How hard is it to learn English?
Well that’s not easy for me to say since I’ve been learning it since the day I was born (actually, recent research suggests I’ve been learning it since I was in the womb1). But it got me thinking. I searched around a bit and couldn’t find much online about it until I came across the famous FSI list.
The FSI is the Foreign Service Institute which is an American government department responsible for teaching languages to American diplomats and so on who are heading off to work in another country. They compiled a list of languages and ranked them according to how difficult they are to learn for the average English speaker. This means, in effect, comparing them against English to see how similar they are.
So, in answer to the question of how hard it is to learn English, this will depend in part on where the learner comes from. If they speak a language close to English in grammar and vocabulary (such as Dutch, for example) then they’ll find it easier than if they speak Chinese which has many, many differences not only in the way its written but also in grammar and vocabulary.
The FSI List
So, to the famous FSI list. These first two groups of languages are classed as being very similar to English, I suppose in terms of vocabulary and (to a certain extent) grammar:
Category 1: Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.
Category 2: German
I’m surprised to see German in a group of its own because from the little I have studied of it (I lived there once for a while) I have found it to be as difficult as Norwegian (I have a Norwegian friend whom I don’t understand) and Portuguese (I tried to teach myself some Portuguese before I went on holiday there).
But all in all I can see the relationship between English and these languages and learners from these countries will have plenty of familiar and recognizable signposts in English when they begin to learn it.
Next up comes a group of languages which show some linguistic and/or cultural differences from English:
Category 3: Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
Well yes. I attended a very short series of lectures on Swahili at university when we did comparative grammar and yes, it gets weird. Funnily enough though I’ve heard others say it’s pretty easy.
Then comes languages which show major and significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English:
Category 4: Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, *Estonian, *Finnish, *Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, *Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, *Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Polish, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Tagalog, *Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, *Vietnamese, Xhosa, Zulu
Those marked with an asterisk are harder than those without here. A sort of turbo charged Category 4.
Now a few of these surprised me. I spent a lot of time in Greece and speak the language quite well. Once the initial shock of the alphabet wears off it’s pretty straightforward (for instance reading is easy since it’s got a very phonetic writing system unlike English).
I also, for my sins, did a couple of lectures on Xhosa at university (again, comparative linguistics) and it’s all clicks and strange sounds I couldn’t make.
So for me Greek goes in Category 3 and Xhosa stays where it is to be joined by Swahili.
Finally come those languages which are most removed from English. These are the ones we find it hardest to learn and therefore, one presumes, native speakers of these languages find English hardest:
Category 5: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, *Japanese, Korean
Again, that asterisk takes Japanese turbo charged above the list and so, according to the FSI Japanese is the hardest language for English speakers to learn and, presumably, Japanese speakers find learning English the hardest.
Foreign Service Institute – about the FSI who compiled the list