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Differences in the difficulty and time required to learn different languages


The Foreign Service Institute of the Department (FSI) of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3). The list is limited to languages taught at the Foreign Service Institute.
It must be kept in mind that that students at FSI are almost 40 years old, are native speakers of English. and have a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages. They study in small classes of no more than 6. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of directed self-study.

For native English speakers all foreign languages are not equally difficult to learn. The Foreign Service Institute (Foreign Language Institute) has broken down the 60 some foreign languages they teach into three categories of difficulty. The first category has the 10 foreign languages that are easiest to learn for native English speakers. These languages are the Germanic languages closely related to English and the Romance languages, which like French, share much vocabulary with English. Although German is a Germanic language it doesn’t fit into the first category. They rate it as requiring 30 weeks of study whereas the other category one languages require 24.

Although they are not taught here I would assume that the Frisian languages, being the most closely related to Old English, would be easiest to learn but I may be wrong. Frisian is spoken by a small number of people in the Netherlands and Germany but whereas modern English vocabulary has been greatly influenced by French, Frisian has been greatly influenced by Dutch.

The third group of languages, Category 3 are some of the most influential languages in the world today: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. Out of this group Japanese is said to be slightly more difficult to learn and the rest of the languages in category 3.

The rest of the languages fall into category 2. It’s interesting to note that Indonesian, Malaysian, and Swahili fall between category 1 and category 2 meaning they are actually easier to learn than most languages. However, they are harder to learn than the languages most American high school students learn, namely French and Spanish. So when students complain about the difficulty of learning those languages they should realize that most other languages are much more difficult!

Category 2 languages, languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English are approximately twice as hard to learn, taking twice as long to learn as category 1 languages. Vietnamese is a category 2 language although it is harder to learn than regular category 2 languages.

Category 3 languages are languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers and require twice as long to learn as category 2 languages and require one year of study in country.

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