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.


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.