What makes a language difficult?

There are two things that I like, although I often admit that I’m not particularly good at either of them: Maths and Languages. Apparently a deflector of Alzheimer’s and generally awesome to use, I’ve never known why I’m drawn to them. All that aside, here is a blog from The Economist (Economist Explains) about languages and the difficulty in learning them.

As it happens, I always used to say that learning maths was like learning a new language, though that is neither here nor there and has nothing to do with the following.


EVERYONE has the intuition that some languages are more difficult than others. For the native English-speaker, professional agencies that teach foreign languages have made it quite clear. America’s state department reckons that Spanish, Swedish or French can be learned in 575-600 class hours (“Category 1”). Russian, Hebrew and Icelandic are more difficult (1100 class hours, “Category 2”). And Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and a few others are in the hardest group, Category 3, requiring 2200 class hours. But what makes a language difficult?

How long it takes to learn a language does not answer which ones are hard independent of the learner’s first language (nor the related question “How hard is English?”) Ranking languages on a universal scale of difficulty is itself difficult and controversial. Some languages proliferate endings on verbs and nouns, like Latin and Russian. Such inflection can be hard for learners who are not used to it. Several years ago, two scholars found that smaller languages (those with less contact with other languages) tended to have more inflection than big ones. By contrast, creole languages—which arise between groups that do not share a common language—are thought by scholars to be systematically simpler than other languages, even after they become “normal” languages with native speakers. They typically lack heavy inflection.

But inflection is only one element of “hardness”. Some languages have simple sound systems (such as the Polynesian languages). Others have a wide variety of sounds, including rare ones that outsiders find hard to learn (like the languages of the Caucasus). Some languages (like English) lack or mostly lack grammatical gender. Some have dozens of genders (also known as “noun classes”) that must be learned for each noun. Languages can have rigidly fixed or flexible word order. They can put verbs before objects or even objects before subjects. Yet it is not clear how to rank the relative difficulty of exotic consonants, dozens of genders or heavy inflection. Another recent approach sought to go around the problem by finding languages that had the most unusual features, skirting the question of whether those features were “hard”. Comparing 21 feature parameters across hundreds of languages, they ranked 239 languages. Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Mexico, was the weirdest. English came in place number 33. Basque, Hungarian, Hindi and Cantonese ranked as among the most “normal”. The researchers did not find any larger similarities between “weird” and “normal” languages. (For example, they do not claim that smaller or bigger languages tend to be “weirder”.) But again, the caveat is that this only compares which languages are unusual in a global context, not which are hard.

So the two most robust findings seem to be that smaller languages are more heavily inflected, and that languages farther from your own in the linguistic family tree will be harder for you to learn. If you want a challenge, a good bet is to pick a tiny language from halfway around the world.


Free MBA* (paperwork not included)


Photo: iMBA graphicOnline MBA degree coming to U. of I.’s College of Business

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois College of Business will launch an online-only Master of Business Administration degree program, pending approval by the U. of I. Board of Trustees.

The degree, called the “iMBA,” will be the first online graduate business degree offered in partnership with Coursera, the Silicon Valley educational technology company that already offers a number of U. of I. courses through its platform of massive open online courses, more commonly known as “MOOCs.”

The online degree will democratize access to both the coveted business credential and the world-class faculty of the Urbana campus, said Larry DeBrock, the Josef and Margot Lakonishok Endowed Dean of the College of Business.

“The University of Illinois has a tradition of excellence and a distinguished reputation as a leader in research, teaching and public engagement, and our faculty is at the heart of that tradition,” he said. “All of the classes for the new degree program will be taught by faculty members from the College of Business as well as industry experts. In leading the new endeavor, they will continue our college’s tradition of excellence.”

According to DeBrock, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the U. of I. College of Business was the impetus behind the development of the program.

“We considered it an opportunity to reinvigorate the land-grant mission of the University of Illinois as a public university,” said DeBrock, who noted that the iMBA program will cost one-third as much as a master’s degree from an institution of similar stature. “We’re entering the online MBA field motivated in part to find new ways to return to the tradition of great public universities making an elite education available to all.”

The program also amounts to a total rethink of the online MBA degree curriculum, said Raj Echambadi, the associate dean of outreach and engagement for the College of Business and a professor of business administration.

“This will be the first for-credit graduate program from a top university to offer individual certificates in subject areas that can double as building blocks to earning a full MBA degree,” Echambadi said.

The “stackable credentials” will be offered in topics such as digital marketing, accounting and finance – courses that have their own appeal for current professionals, Echambadi noted.

Illinois is also leveraging Coursera’s innovation-friendly platform to reconceptualize business subject areas.

“Rather than simply transferring traditional MBA content online, we’re mixing academic disciplines into active-learning packages about how businesses work that are preassembled for students,” Echambadi said. “This is part of what makes stackability possible: self-contained classes with execution-ready content.”

“We’re finding new ways to mix content and active learning that’s better suited to high-level business leadership while also democratizing access to the degree,” DeBrock said. “For business education, it’s a truly historic occurrence.”

The stackable nature of the degree program also means that students are not locked into a particular course sequence.

“Students can take any set of courses in any order that suits them,” Echambadi said. “The iMBA program will work for the entire spectrum of potential students, from those who are curious and merely want dip their toes in the water to those who know they want to earn a full master’s degree right away.”

Students also have the option of taking a course sequence free of charge, receiving a Coursera-verified certificate or continuing their studies for academic credit through the Urbana campus.

“The iMBA is perfect for those who want to round out their STEM or liberal arts educations with business know-how,” Echambadi said.

Students can apply for the iMBA either before they’ve enrolled in classes or after they’ve already sampled one or more classes.

“A student or working professional could sign up for a class in a topic they need right away for their work and keep stacking courses and credits to build toward a full iMBA degree,” Echambadi said. “This is part of what makes stackability possible – each sequence brings together all the pieces of the puzzle in one place. The iMBA really redefines business subject areas so that they’re not confined to the way other b-schools or universities are organized.”

Offering an online-only MBA degree will ultimately help the U. of I. connect with students around the world who wish to earn a master’s degree in business administration but can’t afford – in terms of time or money – to push the pause button on their career or go back to school full time, DeBrock said.

“The iMBA really leverages the power of MOOCs for the first time,” DeBrock said. “The first portion of every course is open enrollment and involves people from all over the world, not just those who have applied and been accepted into an online MBA program. Instructors lead through a cohort system that creates constant, direct interaction among peers.”

Daphne Koller, co-founder and president of Coursera, said the iMBA program “reimagines graduate education to be more flexible and accessible.”

“Aspiring professionals from all over the world will be able to earn meaningful certificates for the business skills they need and always have the option to earn the full MBA degree, at an unprecedented affordable cost, from a top business school,” Koller said. “This is an educational model that puts learners first and is well suited to the needs of today’s workforce.”

Maths: Percentages

Understanding Maths Series:

[Percent (%) = per  cent = in relation to (one) hundred]

The following are a series of calculations on how to reach (the sum of)

You should understand the relation of all figures in the equation. The MAIN VARIABLE will determine whether you use the multiply/divide by 0.xx% or 1.xx%. Generally, if the main variable is to increase, then we use 1.xx% but, if the main variable decreases then we should use 0.xx% . Therefore, identifying the main variable is imperative and find out whether we need to extract a larger or smaller figure from it.

Look out for this in the examples below:

  • How do I find a percentage of a number?

Q. What is 12% of  48?

The figure we are looking for is a smaller portion of 48, therefore 12% is represented as the decimal 0.12

x= ∑ 48 x 0.12

x= 5.76

In Q.1 the main variable is 48 . The extracted figure was smaller than the base, which is also the main variable. We multiplied it by .12

  • How do I find out the result of x percent increase?

Q. I have £48 and it increases by 12%

In this calculation, the base figure (48) increases by 12% which means that x = 112% of the base.

112% is represented here by the decimal 1.12  (it is merely 112 represented as a rational number ÷100)

x= ∑ 48 x 1.12

x= 53.76

In Q.2 the main variable was still 48, this time the figure was to INCREASE so we multiply it by 1.12

NB. the base is not increasing by 112% but is increasing only by 12%. To increase by 112% the calculation is more than 2 x base, the figure to multiply by would be 2.12

  • How do I find out the result of x percent decrease?

Q. I have £48 and it decreases by 12%

In this calculation, the base figure (48) decreases by 12% which means that x= 88% of the base.

88% is represented here by the decimal 0.88  (it is merely 88 represented as a rational number ÷100)

x= ∑ 48 x 0.88

x= 42.24

Alternatively, if we use the 0.12 (12%) we will arrive at the sum 5.76 which you can subtract from the base, like so:

48 x 0.12 = 5.76 (this is 12% of the base)

48 – 5.76 = 42.24 (if you subtract the 12% from the base you arrive at the sum)

In Q.3 main variable is 48 yet again. The extracted figure was smaller than the base, which is also the main variable. We multiplied it by .88

  • Percentages as a proportionate figure

Q. 48 is 12% of x, how do I find ‘x’?

The result is 12% of x so we convert 12% into it’s decimal format: 0.12

x (multiplied by) 0.12 = 48

:. (therefore) 48 ÷ 0.12 = x

x = 400

Q.4 the main variable is ‘x’. The formula is actually x (multiplied by) y% = z. The figure represented by ‘x‘ is larger than the base figure(48), therefore to find 12% of x we would use the sum: ‘x’ multiplied by 0.12 but that is not the question.

What we are doing is finding a smaller figure from x, the main variable.

We know 12% of is 48 so we divide 48 by 12% of it’s parent (x) using 0.12

‘x’ X 12% = 48 —-> ‘x’ X 0.12 = 48 —-> We now rearrange the formula:

x’ X 0.12 ÷ 0.12 = 48 ÷ 0.12 —-> x’ X 0.12 ÷ 0.12 = 48 ÷ 0.12 —->x’ = 48 ÷ 0.12

oh, alternatively! (48 ÷ 12) X 100 🙂 but that’s too easy!

  • Representative percentage increases

Q. I had £x and it increased by 12% to £48, what is x?

I’m trying to find out what I used to have, so this becomes the main figure.  The result is 112% of ‘x’

x (multiplied by) 1.12 = 48

:. 48 ÷ 1.12 = 42.86

Q.5 main variable = x. The formula is actually x (multiplied by) y% = z.

‘x’ increased in size therefore we use the figure: 1.12

x’ X 12% = 48 —-> ‘x’ X 1.12 = 48 —-> We now rearrange the formula:

x’ X 1.12 ÷ 1.12 = 48 ÷ 1.12 —-> x’ X 1.12 ÷ 1.12 = 48 ÷ 1.12 —->x’ = 48 ÷ 1.12

  • Representative percentage decreases

Q. I had £x and it decreased by 12% to £48, what is x?

I’m trying to find out what I used to have, so this (x) becomes the main figure.  The result decreased (by 12% which is equal to 88% value of ‘x‘) so x is obviously larger than 48.

We know that 48 is 88% (100 – 12) of ‘x’

x (multiplied by) 0.88 = 48

:. 48 ÷ 0.88 = 54.54 (r)

Q.6 the main variable is again x. This is because, like in question 4, the formula is actually x (multiplied by) y% = z. In this case we have x (multiplied by) 88% = 48 because we are trying to find 88% of ‘x‘ Once again, we are searching for a smaller figure of x

Here is another example:

I have $48 to spend on CD’s. The shop has a discount of 20% on selected items, what is the highest pre-discount priced item I can purchase?

:. the formula is:  x X y% = 48

If we multiply x by 1.2 it will = a mark the price upwards. This is not correct becausex’ is greater than 48.

If we multiply x by o.2 it will = a 20% reflection of the price not a 20% reduction. This is not correct.

:. we need to represent x with a 20% decrease in value, this is done by multiplying by 0.8 (See Q.3)

:. x X 0.8 = 48 —-> We now rearrange the formula:

x’ X 0.8 ÷ 0.8 = 48 ÷ 0.8 —-> x’ X 0.8 ÷ 0.8 = 48 ÷ 0.8 —-> x = 48 ÷ 0.8

x = 60

  • Percentage increase differences

This is very simple.

Q. I have 48 apples, yesterday I had 40, what is the % increase?

the difference between the two figures is 48-40 = 8

8 ÷ previous amount —-> 8 ÷ 40 = 20

the increase is 20%

  • Percentage decrease differences

Q. I have 48 apples, yesterday I had 60, what is the % increase?

the difference between the two figures is 48-60 = 12

12 ÷ previous amount —-> 8 ÷ 60 = 20

the decrease is 20%

Hope that all makes sense!

Arabic: Naseeha (Advice)

As Ibn Taymiyyah(rh) said, “Using a language has a profound effect on one’s thinking, behavior & religious commitment. It also affects one’s resemblance to the early generations of this Ummah, the Companions and the Tâbi³în. Trying to emulate them refines one’s thinking, religious commitment & behavior.”

And he said: “The Arabic Language is from the Religion, & the knowledge of it is an obligation. For surely the understanding of the Qurân and the Sunnah is an obligation, & these two are not understood except with the understanding of the Arabic Language, & whatever obligation is not fulfilled except by certain steps then those steps themselves become obligatory (to fulfill the initial obligation).” [The Necessity Of The Straight Path by Ibn Taymiyyah ( 1/470)]

There is report concerning ³Umar(ra) that he wrote to Abu Musa al-Ashâri(ra) and said, “Learn the Sunnah & learn Arabic; learn the Quran in Arabic for it is Arabic!”

Another statement from Umar(ra) quotes him saying, “Learn Arabic for it is part of your Religion…” [See Iqtidâus-Siraatil-Mustaqeem (2/207)]

“Indeed we have sent it down as an Arabic Qurân, in order that you may understand.” [Sûrah Yusuf: 2]

“And thus we have inspired to you an Arabic Qurân so that you may warn the mother of towns and all around it.” [Sûrah ash-Shura: 7]

“And truly this (the Qur`ân) is a revelation from the Lord of the ²âlamin (mankind, jinns and all that exists), which the trustworthy Ruh (Jibrîl) has brought down upon your heart (O Muhammad(sal Allâhu ³alayhi wa sallam) that you may be (one) of the warners, in the plain Arabic language” [Sûrah ash-Shura: 192-195]

“A Book whereof the verses are explained in detail, a Qurân in Arabic for people who know” [Sûrah Fussilat: 3]
Ubay ibn Kâ²b (radiAllâhu ³ânhu) said, “Teach Arabic like you teach the memorisation of the Qurân!” Abu Bakr (radiAllâhu ³ânhu) said, “That I recite and forget (a portion of the Qurân) is more beloved to me than to make a grammatical mistake!”

And ³Umar (radiAllâhu ³ânhu) once passed by a group of archers who missed their targets. He admonished them and they responded that they were only beginners, but in answering back they made a grammatical mistake in their wording. He told them, “Indeed, your mistakes in Arabic grammar are more difficult to bear than your mistakes in archery!”

Imâm ash-Shâfi³î said, “Therefore it is imperative that every Muslim should strive to learn Arabic as hard as he can, so that he can testify the shahada, and recite the Book of Allâh and say the invocations that are mandatory upon him, such as the takbîr, tasbîh, tashahud and other prayers. And the more he learns the language that Allâh Himself chose to be the language of him who sealed the prophets (sal Allâhu ³alayhi wa sallam), and to be the language of His final revelation, the better it is for him!”

1. Make Du³â
2. Discipline yourself!
3. Know your basics well
4. Invest in a good dictionary and Arabic books
5. Enrol into a summer course
6. Study Arabic as part of your full-time degree
7. Study under an Arab friend or tutor
8. Organise a class locally
9. Study abroad in an Arab country
10. Expose yourself to as much Arabic as you can
11. Speak Arabic whenever you can
12. Relate your knowledge back to the Qurân and other worships: Don’t forget that your aim is to understand what you recite of the Qurân especially in your salâh and other adhkâr. Try to recognise Arabic words as you come across them in the Qurân and apply your knowledge in understanding the Qurân. Ponder over and pay attention to the words in your salâh.