Sunday, June 16, 2013

English is the Hardest Language to Learn. Oh, really?


Growing up, I constantly heard people saying “English is the hardest language to learn”.  Inevitably, all of the people making that claim were monolingual English speakers and their point of reference for making it was our orthography. English spelling is, admittedly, not the easiest thing in the world, but those claiming that it made English the most difficult language never took into consideration anything else: grammar, pronunciation, proximity to a person’s native language. Theirs was a narrow, one point focus. It also showed their lack of knowledge about language acquisition. I’ve often wondered if this claim was their way of justifying their monolingualism. After all, if they had already mastered the world’s “hardest language”, then they were ... well... better than everyone who hadn’t, right?

Now, let’s look at this claim for what it is. The difficulty you have in learning a language really involves many factors – the age at which you begin learning the target language, its proximity to your own language, the amount you are actually exposed to your target language – which includes but is not limited to where you are living. Are you in a place where that language is widely spoken? Do you already speak more than one language? Do you have a natural facility for learning languages? The list goes on and on. No two second language learners are alike and, consequently, no two second language learning situations are alike. There are children who learn two languages simultaneously and grownups, illiterate in their own languages, who learn another, often after immigrating as adults. Frequently the children of immigrants in the United States who are schooled in English never learn to read and write the language they speak at home.  In short, it’s all relative.

If we look at the single factor of spelling, we are not considering that we learn our first language before learning to read and write. In fact, literacy is not required to learn a language. Of the more than 6,000 languages in today’s world, it is estimated that at least twenty percent have no written form. How do the speakers of those languages learn them? The same way you and I did. Babies are remarkably good listeners and are equally good at mimicking what they hear. We hear, we associate and we repeat. That’s how it works for everyone. It is only as adults trying to learn another language that many of us link literacy with language learning. Consequently, we associate our difficulty in learning another language with the difficulty we have in learning to read and write it and that is further complicated by our own often stubborn insistence on trying to apply our native language’s phonetics to the target language – something that rarely ever works. Is Chinese inherently harder to learn than English, when we consider that one needs to learn three to four thousand characters to be considered literate? I honestly do not know, but if that is the case, then English, with its twenty-six letter alphabet, should be a snap – even if there are languages, like Spanish and Portuguese, that use the same alphabet but are far more phonetic than English.

If we truly wanted to know which language is the hardest or easiest, we would need to isolate the intervening factors that have already been mentioned: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. The closest we can come is, perhaps, compare the relative ease with which children who are being raised with at least two languages simultaneously learn and even then, we can only compare the languages in that specific case. In my home, we have an almost perfect laboratory for such a comparison. Both Jack, who is now five and a half, and Melissa, three and a half, have heard both English and Portuguese in fairly balanced amounts since birth. Their mother Rosangela has spoken to them only in Portuguese and I have spoken to them only in English since both were in the womb. Although they were born in the United States, we made every effort for them to hear and experience Portuguese in all forms: children’s books and videos, songs, television, etc. Before moving to Brazil, in turn, we stocked up on English language books, videos, educational toys and other assorted paraphernalia. We use the SAP button (second audio program) whenever possible so they can see programs originally recorded in English in that language and we are meticulous in maintaining both languages separately, not mixing them. Both children know that English is for Daddy and Portuguese is for Mamãe and ne’er the twain shall meet.

So how is that working out? Well, it’s fun. We enjoy watching them learn to talk – and talk, they do – in both languages. Jack started off slowly. He didn’t really say much until he was about three, but when he did start speaking, he had already separated the two languages. As for his delay, research indicates that it was fairly typical for a child growing up with two languages, as is the clear separation of those languages when he finally did begin. That same research also shows that this has absolutely no negative impact on language learning. Melissa began speaking much earlier than Jack and, she, too, separates both languages. It’s instinctive. Daddy talks this way, so that’s how we talk to him. Mamãe talks that way and, with her, so do we. Even when we are having three and four way conversations, Jack and Melissa use the appropriate language with the appropriate parent. They simply don’t mix them. (Melissa will occasionally say something to me in Portuguese when she doesn’t know how to say it in English. All I do is say it back to her in English and she repeats it. That goes to learning.)

And which language seems to be easier for them? English. Most adults enjoy hearing the mistakes their children make when they are first learning to speak. In our case, it is doubly so, because those mistakes come with two flavors, two accents, two everything. Their mistakes are typical for small children in the two respective languages. In other words, Jack and Melissa make the same mistakes in English that are typical for children of their age. Ditto for Portuguese. And why do I say English is easier? Observation of those mistakes, which are related to the different grammars in question. Because of his relatively more advanced language skills, at five and a half years of age, I will focus on Jack, rather than Melissa. Remember that Melissa is at a much earlier stage of language acquisition.

In order to understand my contention, we need to look at grammar. I know. Grammar is probably the least sexy and potentially most boring of topics, unless, of course, you are a language freak, which is my case. In broad strokes, we will look at two aspects: the declension of nouns, adjectives and articles and also the conjugation of verbs.

English has no gender and modification of number affects only the noun. Portuguese has gender (masculine and feminine) and, hence, all adjectives and articles must agree with the noun in gender and number. Let’s take two phrases in both their singular and plural forms: the red ball and the red cake. In English, if I make those plural, I only need to change the noun from singular to plural – in this case by adding an “s”: the red balls and the red cakes. The article “the” and the adjective “red” do not change. Now, in Portuguese, it is a tad more complex: the word for ball is the feminine noun “bola” and the word for cake is the masculine “bolo”. (Please note that gender has nothing to do with male and female. It is merely a grammatical construct.) Thus, with “bola” we must use the feminine forms of the article (“a”) and the adjective (“vermelha”) to say “the red ball” – “a bola vermelha”. One letter differentiates the feminine word “bola” (ball) and the masculine “bolo” (cake). Thus, “the red cake” becomes “o bolo vermelho”. We have to make the article and adjective masculine (“o” and “vermelho”). In both phrases, we are using the singular form. When they become plural (“the red balls” and “the red cakes”), we have to change all the singular articles and adjectives to plurals, while retaining their respective genders, i.e., “as bolas vermelhas” and “os bolos vermelhos”. Sound complicated? For an adult, not some much, but for a five year old, definitely. Jack tends to make mistakes in gender and in number in Portuguese, which is typical for young speakers. After all, we are not born knowing all things. We learn them as we grow. Those mistakes are not possible in English simply because the distinction does not exist in our language.

And, now for verb conjugation, which  is an even stickier wicket.

English is relatively simple, even in its irregular verbs, which we will not examine here. We will continue with our red cakes and red balls by “having gotten them”.

I got the red ball. You got the red ball. He got the red ball. We got the red ball. You all got the red ball. (Substitute cake if you prefer. It is, after all, tastier.)

That’s easy enough. In the simple past tense, we merely change the subject noun or pronoun. The rest remains the same. Even in the present, we only change the verb in the third person: I get the ball. He gets the ball.

In Portuguese, we have to change the verb: Peguei (I got). Pegaste. (You got.) Pegou. (He or she got.) Pegámos. (We got.) Pegastes. (Y’all got. What can I say? I’m Southern.) Pegaram. (They got.) Notice that we do not need to specify the subject, as the verb form itself contains the subject. Eu (I), tu (you), ele (he), nós (we), vós (y’all), and, finally, eles (they) – just to use only the masculine forms – are all understood, contrary to English.

The same holds true for the present: pego, pegas, pega, pegamos, pegais, pegam. Without even touching on the addition of “red balls” and “red cakes”, we can see that, for a five year old, this can be – and is – a little daunting. In time, it becomes second nature, but for a child, just beginning to talk, it is a lot to get wrap your head around. Language acquisition is a long-term and very complex process. It takes practice. It is also a long road upon which both Jack and Melissa have just begun to tread. I am certain both of them will eventually speak flawless, accent-free Portuguese and English. They have the advantage of having no choice in the matter. Two languages are natural to them. And, besides, their big sister Georgia, now 21, walked the same path. She has now added a third language to the mix: Spanish.

And, in the final analysis, what is the impact of these mistakes Jack now makes? None at all. In English, when he says, “He don’t know”, he sounds like many adults back home. And, in Portuguese, when he says, “Pegueio as bolo vermelho,” from what he has in his hand, we know whether he is going to play with them or eat it.  Context is everything. Besides, he’s only five, right?


  1. English is a piece of cake to learn. And I'm brazilian.