The International Writers Magazine: Learning Languages
This language is easy or difficult because I said so
An American kid I met in Phnom Penh today told me Korean language was not difficult. He said, “Easy to read, easy to write.”
I told him, “The alphabet is easy. But Korean is the single most difficult national language in the world, rated category 6 by Defense Language Institute.”
He disagreed, and repeated that Korean was easy. This is a pet peeve of mine. People who tell you Korean is easy are either: lying, insane, comparing it to nothing, or, as is the most common case, speak it at an incredibly superficial level. With 12 registers of common speech, Korean is incredibly complex and difficult to learn to any significant level of fluency. But, to determine the difficulty of learning a particular language we don’t need my opinion or his. Every expert source I have checked has listed Korean in the highest band of language learning difficulty.
The National Security Agency (NSA) classifies Korean as one of the most difficult languages to learn. Defense Language Institute (DLI) ranks Korean as category 4, the highest level of difficulty, requiring 64 weeks to learn. Arabic and Pashto are also category 4 languages, but somehow no one ever says that Arabic and Pashto are easy to learn. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) rates Korean as a category 5, the hardest category in their system, requiring 88 weeks to learn. On the same scale, Pashto was category 4, requiring only 44 weeks to learn. Apparently, some experts think Pashto is easier than Korean, and yet no one ever says that Pashto is easy. The Cranberry Letter rates Korean 9/10 in difficulty. On the same scale, Mandarin was only 8/10 and Pashto only 7/10. Anyone who tells you Korean is easy could probably master Pashto in a matter of weeks.
Most people who tell you Korean is easy are generally basing this evaluation on the writing system. The Korean alphabet, Hangul, is a phonetic writing system, which includes only 24 letters, and can be learned in a day or a week, misleading beginners into believing Korean language is easy. English also has an alphabet of less than thirty letters, as do most western languages. Does this mean that if you have knowledge of the Latin alphabet you can say Hungarian is easy?
The guy is lucky he still has his teeth. While claims that Korean is easy will set me off like a firecracker, another way to send me into a ballistic fit is to tell me that a language is difficult which is actually easy.
An American friend of mine bought a house in the Dominican Republic and has been living there several months per year, for the last decade or so. At a dinner I was attending, he told his family, most of whom don’t speak a foreign language, ‘Spanish is so hard. There are so many words, more than English.” And as proof, he gave the example, “In English there is one word for ‘eat’ but in Spanish there are four.”
It is common knowledge that Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English native speakers. Actually Dutch and Afrikaans are the easiest major languages (Major language being the national language of a country) for speakers of English. But Dutch and Afrikaans aren’t languages widely studied outside of their home country. For most US Americans the first choices for language learning are French or Spanish, whereby Spanish is the easier of the two. Spanish is linguistically easier than French, easier to spell and pronounce, and the cognates are more obvious. A lot of research has been done on the influence of culture on language learning. Many experts believe understanding a culture makes learning a language easier. Most Americans have a lot of exposure to Spanish language and culture, between Spanglish songs on the radio to TV shows and movies which deal with Mexico or Latin America. Or, they may have been exposed to one of the 54 million Hispanics who live in the US.
All of the above factors make learning Spanish particularly easy for US Americans. But, once again, we don’t need my opinion. Let’s check with the experts. The NSA ranks Spanish as the easiest of the critical languages. DLI categorizes Spanish as category 1, needing only 26 weeks to learn. FSI ranks Spanish as category 1 and requires only 23-24 weeks to learn.
As for my friend’s claim that Spanish has more words than English, this is also false. Nearly every reliable source you can find will tell you that English has more words than Spanish, by a tremendous margin. The Global Labguage Monitor sets the number of words in the English language at 1,025,109.8. "It has been estimated that the vocabulary of English includes roughly 1 million words" (Merriam-webster.com, 2015). A CNN report claimed that “web 2.0” which was officially added to the English language in 2009 was the one millionth word. (Sutter, 2009).
If we look at the most authoritative dictionaries of the two languages, we can see that The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary 171,476 words are in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words; 615,100 definitions, whereas, Diccionario de la Real Academia Española has 100,000 words. Centro Cervantes recognizes DARE as a source, suggesting that there are 93,000 words in the Spanish language. (Bernárdez, 2014) The same article goes on to explain the obvious difficulty of counting how many words there are in a language, do plurals and singulars of the same word count twice? What about verb conjugations? Given the various methods of counting, Centro Cervantes came up with a variety of figures, the largest of which was 500,000 words, still only half the number in the largest estimates of the English language.
As for Spanish having four words for eat and English only having one…it’s only one if you ignore ALL of the synonyms: attack, binge, bite, chew, chow, consume, devour, dine, feed, inhale, nibble, pick, swallow, absorb, banquet, bolt, breakfast, cram, digest, dispatch, gnaw, gorge, gormandize, graze, have a bite, have a meal, indulge in, ingest, lunch, masticate, munch, nibble, nosh, overindulge, ruminate, scarf, scoff, snack, sup, wolf, break bread, chow, down, dispose of, feast upon, gobble up, have a meal, make a pig of one’s elf, partake of, peck at, pig out, polish off, pork out, put away, stuff ones-self, take food, take in, take nourishment…
Learning any language takes a lot of hard work and dedication. And most people won’t master more than one second language in a lifetime. So from that standpoint, we could say that all languages are hard to learn. But the relative difficulty of one language over another is not based on opinion or personal experience. Experts have spent years and years comparing and analyzing languages and have come to very similar conclusions. By any ranking system in existence, Spanish is one of the easiest and Korean is one of the most difficult major languages to learn. And without any doubt, my Amercan friend who said Spanish is hard, should NEVER attempt to learn Pashto.
© Antoni Graceffo March 2015
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
The Monk from Brooklyn, the book which gave Antonio his name, and all of his other books, the book available at amazon.com. His book, Warrior Odyssey, chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia, including stories about Khmer and Vietnamese martial arts as well as the war in Burma and the Shan State Army, is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
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Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)
Bernárdez, E. (2014). Cuántas palabras hay en un idioma?. [online] Cvc.cervantes.es. Available at:
Merriam-webster.com, (2015). Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. [online] Available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/ [Accessed 5 Feb. 2015].
Sutter, J. (2009). English gets millionth word on Wednesday, site says - CNN.com. [online] Cnn.com. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/06/10/million.words/
When up is down, Perceptions in Linguistics - Antonio Graceffo
On a map 'up' is something we have all accepted that up is North. There is no reason for that. We just all agreed on it.