How hard is it to learn a new language?
It’s a great question. The answer is…it depends. And a better question may actually be, “how easy is it to learn a new language?”
Especially in English speaking countries, where monolingualism (= speaking only one language) can be a serious issue, most people want to learn another language, but don’t end up achieving this goal. The main reason is they get overwhelmed at how difficult it seems to learn a new language.
Have you or a friend experienced this situation? For months, even years!, you spend hours everyday studying vocabulary cards, doing drills online, studying grammar books, but when you try to listen to a native speaker, let alone respond!, the mind goes blank. Unfortunately, this is a common scenario, and if you’ve experienced it, you’re definitely not alone.
But the truth is it doesn’t have to be that way. The truth is, if you study a language to get a high score on an app, master vocabulary cards, or review minutiae of grammar, then guess what?, that’s what you’ll be good at. And the truth is if you study a language to speak meaningful phrases, to understand cultural assumptions, to construct your thoughts in different ways, then that’s what you’ll be good at.
The truth is there’s no shortcut to learning a language, and any “ninja hacks” or “quick fixes” will undoubtedly leave gaps in your knowledge. However, knowing the most direct “pathway to fluency” makes the journey simple, whether it’s a short one or a long one, depending on your goals. This is because learning another language is a skill, and the biggest factor is often “how much time are you willing to dedicate to mastering it?”
Now back to our question: “How hard is it to learn a new language?” Like we said, it depends on the length of your journey. “Knowing a language” is quite a spectrum. If you want to hold basic conversations and travel, that journey will be much shorter than the journey to be professionally proficient. See my article here on how you can measure your fluency in a language.
That said, the good news is depending on what languages you already know, part of the journey toward whatever level of fluency you desire might already be done for you. This is because there are many different “kinds of language knowledge” that it takes to master a given language, and when these areas of knowledge overlap, it’s likely easier to learn a given language. Conversely, when these areas don’t overlap, it’s likely harder to learn. See my article here on those different kinds of language knowledge.
Here we’re going to highlight some of the aspects of learning another language that may make it easier or harder for you to learn the next one. Knowing this will better prepare you for how long your journey to fluency will be.
The most evident aspect of language is how it sounds. Every spoken language consists of a certain number of “speech sounds” that make up every word. Grammarians call these “phonemes”. For example, depending on the dialect, English has 44 phonemes. In other words, if you can successfully pronounce all 44 of English’ phonemes, then pronunciation won’t be a significant problem for you.
Learning to pronounce each phoneme is a skill to master, just like riding a bike or throwing a ball. Infants (assuming typical physiology) are born being able to perceive and produce virtually any language’s phonemes. But typically by age 2 their brains start to recognize patterns of sounds (that is, phonemes), and for the rest of their lives they practice distinguishing the different phonemes of what they’re exposed to (within whatever language “systems” they are exposed to).
If you’re an adult learning a new language, you need to train your brain, and in turn your speech and auditory organs, to produce and understand different phonemes. If you are learning a language that has largely the same phonemes as languages you know, pronunciation won’t likely need to be a major area of focus. Conversely, if there is little overlap, it may need to be.
For example, English speakers clearly distinguish the “short i” sound as in “hit” from the “long i” sound as in “beach”. But for languages that don’t have this short-long distinction for the vowel “i” sound, it can be a source of confusion.
I vividly remember teaching ESL in Mexico and not understanding at first why many students were hesitating to pronounce “sheet” and “beach” out of fear of using a short vowel by accident…
Parallel to pronunciation, many languages have different writing systems. And even those that share the same alphabet letters will undoubtedly pronounce them in different ways. Just listen to the letter “r” in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and German, for example.
So, if you know the Latin alphabet (that is, the one English uses), it’s easier to begin reading languages that also use the Latin alphabet. Conversely, if you only know the Latin alphabet as a writing system and want to learn, let’s say, Arabic, Greek, Hindi, Japanese, or Mandarin, you will have to put extra effort into learning a different writing system (or systems, as is the case with the various scripts of Japanese), which may have its own layers of complexity.
Language communities that have high degree of contact with others, or whose languages are descended from a common language, will tend to have more vocabulary in common. Grammarians call these words “cognates”.
For example, the Latin word “nātiō”, referring to birth and by extension to tribes or groups of people, is found in many different languages today, like the English word “nation” or the Spanish word “nación”. So, these words are cognates, and it’s easier to learn vocabulary from languages which share many cognates with those you know.
However, be aware that the meaning of words naturally changes over time, and when cognates spread across languages it’s possible for cognate vocabulary to take on a somewhat related meaning, or even an entirely different one, in different languages.
For an example of a somewhat related cognate, there’s the Latin word is “obligāre”, which means to bind something, and by extension make someone liable in some way. Thus, in English one can be “obligated” or have an “obligation” to do something. In Portuguese, the standard word for thank you is “obrigada/o”, and it’s derived from the same Latin root. One can see the connection from the original Latin meaning or even the English cognate “obligated”, but it’s not obvious.
For an example of a totally different cognate consider the English word “gift”, which refers to something positive that is given to you. The German cognate “Gift” had at some point in the past take on the euphemistic meaning of “poison” (!). So, beware of a “Gift” if you’re in Germany!
An idiom is a group of words whose meaning is not obvious from the sum of its parts, and we use them a lot. In fact, just like how irregular forms of words tend to be common (because they are used frequently), idioms tend to be common and therefore useful when learning another language. So, this makes them important to be aware of and learn.
For example, to describe dying there is the English idiom “kick the bucket.” Imagine learning English knowing full well the meaning of the verb “kick”and the noun “bucket”, and hearing someone talk about a person kicking the bucket.
Here’s a tip for learning idioms. When you encounter them, try to find a (near) equivalent in languages you already know.
For example, in English there’s the idiom “it’s all Greek to me”, which means that something is totally incomprehensible. In many other languages, Chinese is used, as in the Greek expression Εἶναι γιὰ μένα κινέζικα (“It’s Chinese to me”) or the Hungarian one Ez nekem kínai (“This is Chinese to me”).
Another aspect of language learning that many dread (but some like myself love!) is grammar. Grammar often refers to the more abstract or “schematic” parts of learning a language, like labeling parts of speech as “verbs” or “adjectives”, or referring to a standard word order like Subject – Verb – Object. While not every native speaker can give labels or describe the grammar of their language, every fluent speaker has internalized the grammar.
Grammar is one of those aspects of language that can be hard to appreciate unless you’ve studied another language, but can be wildly fascinating, despite its reputation.
So, if you’re learning another language, try to compare how the target language (that is, the one you’re learning) has some grammar that is similar and some that is different. If it’s similar, it’ll be easier to learn. If it’s different, wonder at the difference.
For example, anyone who’s learned Latin or Ancient Greek knows about the “cases” of nouns. In short, Latin nouns have sets of endings that change depending on whether the nouns is singular or plural, and depending on how the noun functions in a sentence.
For example, amīcus means a friend as in Mārcus is an amīcus, and amīcī means friends as in Mārcus and Iūlia are amīcī. However, amīcī means “of a friend” and amīcōrum means “of friends”. So, if you know how cases work in Latin, it’ll be much easier to learn a language like Greek which uses cases as well.
Start Learning Today
The list could clearly continue, but you get the point. Learning a language means mastering a skill like any other. So, if you want to learn a new language, it’s helpful to be aware of what you already know and how far you want to go. It might be easier than you think.
Immersio is built to allow you to begin the journey right away and turn your motivation into a practical habit with realistic expectations. With Immersio from the very beginning of any course you will begin speaking, practicing on demand, and get feedback from instructors or tutors who are invested in your success.
Enroll in an Immersio course and start learning a new language today.