As most learners eventually discover, not all languages are created equal. The US government, along with other nations, has developed scales to rate language learning difficulty via the time it takes to reach proficiency, leading to lists like the following: Hardest: Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, … Medium: Greek, Russian, Hebrew,… Easiest: Spanish, French, Dutch …
But is difficulty related to actual complexity or just a language’s dissimilarity to English? How can we identify what makes a language difficult to learn and then use this knowledge to our advantage when taking on the challenge of studying one of the harder ones? Read on to find out!
First, peruse some background on Contrastive Analysis
In the 1960s and 70s everyone in the field of Second Language Acquisition was talking about Contrastive Analysis, a new movement which entailed the side-by-side comparison of two languages to see where and how they differed. It was proposed that languages which were more different would be harder to learn for speakers of either tongue and languages which were more similar would be easier. Researchers also hoped that differences between languages could be used to predict learner errors which would then lead to more effective lesson design.
You might not have heard of Contrastive Analysis because results did not work out the way researchers had hoped and the movement was somewhat discredited along with its posits about language dissimilarity and learning difficulty. Nonetheless, there were some important takeaways, mainly that first language interference can and does occur when a learner studies a second language, and second, that Contrastive Analysis charts can sometimes be used to explain the resulting errors.
Next, consider how first language acquisition factors in
In order to learn a second language we first have to be able to recognize words encountered in the input, either visually or aurally. And this is easier said than done when faced with a sound or letter that simply doesn’t exist in your native tongue. This is because from the moment we are born, our brains are tuned to the language around us. When babies are as young as six months old they begin to focus in on the sounds of their first language and gradually lose the ability to decipher what they have not been exposed to.
The same goes for letters that have not been encountered; they are often interpreted as pictures until we learn they come from an alphabet and represent sounds. So, it follows that languages which contain hard to hear sounds and are written in vastly different alphabets and writing systems prove challenging to learn. Those languages written in cursive letters which change shape depending on where they fall in a word (e.g. Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Urdu) can be even more of a headache!
Now, what can you do to overcome the “difficult language” challenge?
Dive straight in and get as much sound and letter practice with your new language as possible. This can be accomplished through phonics exercises and extra time spent with the sounds and letters that prove troublesome for you. You may find you have no difficulty with the “sh” sound from the letter ش in Arabic but that the difference between a د “d” and ض “D” is simply impossible for you to hear.
Pay attention to the words you are learning successfully and those you struggle to recognize, hear, say and spell. The learning burden in words can be related to novel sounds and letters, so find your weak spots and then drill yourself until you’re well prepared for any phoneme or grapheme that comes your way.
One thing to keep in mind is that receptive skills usually come before productive ones, so even if you can’t say the “ع” in Arabic, you’ll still benefit from trying to identify it in spoken words and familiarizing yourself with vocabulary and phrases in which it appears.
Finding Resources & Realia for Less Commonly Taught Languages
The more people you have looking into a problem, the more likely you’ll have a solution. Therefore when you consider that languages that are difficult to learn also tend to be less commonly taught, you realize part of the problem is a dearth of quality materials, a scarcity of teachers and a lack of research on effective learning strategies.
But thanks to free digital learning platforms like Lingua.ly, help is on the way! As of July 1, 2014 Lingua.ly supports Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, English, Spanish and French via free dictionaries, flashcard makers and most importantly, article suggestions that present quality realia content for you to read and practice your language direct from native speaker authors on the worldwide web.
Try the latest addition to Lingua.ly’s supported languages- Russian!