Which Language Should I Study, Part III: The Easy Language

What’s the easiest language?

Back in Shanghai, Chinese people used to tell me unequivocally that Chinese was the easiest language to learn. It is certainly the most widely spoken. As a second language, they have to study English, but they say that Japanese is easier to learn; it’s more similar to Chinese (are you kidding me?!). The hardest language, they told me, was Spanish and it was exclusively due to the trilled /r/ sound, which gave them nightmares and caused them to despair. I tell them of course about the native Spanish speakers who don’t or can’t trill an /r/, or about the other millions of foreigners who get by without trilling their /r/, as a way to comfort the poor traumatized trill-o-phobic Chinese masses, but they just look at me like I’m a jerk. It doesn’t fit into their world view.

Americans usually name Spanish as the easy language. They cite all the shared cognates and then mention all the place names, menu items, and Cinco De Mayo happy hour vacation phrases that they already know. Therefore, Spanish is the easy language.

If you follow that line of reasoning, French is also the easy language; cognates, place names menu items. Therefore French is the easy language.

Nobody ever claims that German is the easy language; it’s got genders and a case system, noun capitalization, and the famously dozen-syllable words that are all consonants and vowels that make you feel like a seal pup. Nobody ever claims that German is the easy language. Right?

Wrong. Americans who study German say that German is the easy language. The number of cognates beats Spanish and French considerably, so much so that they feel like German sentences are just English sentences with different word order, and cute endings that you can just feel your way through. Did you know? German is the easy language.

I asked one of my Mandarin students what the word on the street was; he reported that German, indeed, is known as the easy language in my school. I admit to having walked by the German classroom on multiple occasions and being dazzled by the confidence and fluency of the German students.

Then I asked my student about studying Chinese, and he said something like, “it’s really hard until you figure it out, and then it’s easy.”

For me, personally, Italian was the easy language; learning the basics felt like coasting downhill on a bike on a sunny day; a little wobbly, maybe a touch faster than I was comfortable with, but I was getting somewhere. I didn’t want to stop.

There are blog posts all over the internet about why X language is easy, why X language is impossible, and most of them cite grammar type and degree of cognate with English. A lot of people consider the matter settled. Look, here’s an infographic, they say, it’s called “hardest languages” for goodness sake! Didn’t the US State Department already rank which languages are the hardest?

Huh, I don’t know, did they?

I don’t feel moved to link to it here. But if you feel moved to google it, you’ll see that the Foreign Service Institute did, in fact, classify certain languages according to a) how closely related a given language is to English, and how many cognates it has, b) how typologically different or similar that language is to English, c) how many hours it typically takes a foreign service agent to “learn” that language. Tada! Behold a list of the hardest languages!

So it’s settled, right?

No it’s not. That list is based of an assumption that “different” and “hours learning” necessarily equal difficult. I’m sure a lot of people buy that, but I don’t. For me “different” + “more hours of learning” just indicates that there is more to learn.

A bowl of noodles is different than a plate of fried rice, but that doesn’t mean one is harder to eat than the other, it just means they take different skills, and it’s going to be a different experience. A ten gallon bucket of fried rice may seem daunting, but just because there’s a lot of it doesn’t mean fried rice is more difficult to eat; it just means there’s more of it. It will take longer.

You know what will make a five-gallon bucket of fried rice more difficult to eat? if you put a ridiculous time limit on it. That would make it difficult. Or, if you had someone ridiculing you the entire time, that would make it difficult. Or if you decided that you were going to use index cards as utensils; that would make it difficult .

Surprise! it was a metaphor. If you have a ridiculous time limit, it makes learning language difficult as well. Also, if someone is constantly ridiculing you; in other words, if the learning atmosphere is emotionally toxic, language learning will be difficult as well. If you insist on using ineffective tools (cough*flashcards*) you might be able to describe your language learning experience as difficult.

So what’s the easy language to learn? Which language can I learn that will feel like coasting downhill on a bike on a sunny day? Assuming that you don’t have some unreasonable time limit, or insist on inadequate tools, then there’s only one factor: the chemistry of your learning environment.

Is Spanish the easy language? Yes… if the chemistry of the class is not toxic. If people are ridiculing each other and everyone is afraid to speak, or if your classmates otherwise make the class as boring and unbearable as possible, and keep you from concentrating, congratulations, you’ve made Spanish the hard language.

Is German the hard language? Yes. Yes it is indeed the hard language… unless you’re in a supportive classroom and your classmates all share your goal of wanting to practice expressing themselves with a long strings of syllable-filled consonants.

Is Mandarin hard until it gets easy? Yes. When you’re panicking about tones and stroke order and alveolar consonants it’s hard. But it’s the panic that makes it difficult. When you practice in an environment where your peers are supportive, it gets easy. I certainly know people who learned Mandarin well and quickly; in all cases it’s because they had found a supportive environment to learn in. For some people, that environment was matrimony; they married a Chinese spouse. For others, that supportive environment was the circle of friends they made, usually in Taiwan–but of course I know some folks who learned in Mainland China as well.

Which language is the easy language? The easy language is the one that you enjoy learning. What’s the easy language class? The easy language class is the one where everyone in the room supports you and wants to practice speaking.

If you are in a class that makes you feel bad about speaking and practicing, do something about it. Work to improve the chemistry of the class, or drop if you have to. Sitting in a class when you’re fearful of practicing is a waste of everybody’s life.

The students say that at my school, German is the easy language I believe them; they’re the ones that made it happen.

Please use the comments section below if you have something to say!

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