What could be more motivating than making a resolution to learn a new foreign language? Being able to communicate with other people and discovering a new culture bring a sense of joy that more than compensates for the effort that needs to be put in and the challenges that need to be overcome while you’re learning. With some 7,000 languages in the world, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing one. But, objectively speaking, are some languages easier to learn than others? Or does it all depend on the native language and culture of the learner? Is it possible to group modern languages into families or categories based on their similarities? What is it that makes us think that one language is more difficult than another?
In Europe, the first language family we can identify is Romance languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Occitan and Catalan are all in this group. Then there are Germanic languages such as German, English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Norwegian. The Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Serbian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, and so on) make up another important family. In addition to these majority languages, the European language family tree also includes Celtic languages (Welsh, Breton, Irish, etc.), Baltic languages (Latvian, Lithuanian) and Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian), as well as Greek and Albanian.
It is important that everyone has the opportunity to practise one or more foreign languages, and well-known programmes like Erasmus+ help to promote mobility and dialogue between nations. But what is it about a language that makes it difficult? Is it mostly the alphabet? Pronunciation? Grammar? Vocabulary? In Danish, the sound [o] can be pronounced in five different ways, which makes it a challenge for the uninitiated. Similarly, the Swedes make use of letters that are all their own (ö, ä, å). In some languages, word order within a sentence, declensions or the existence of three grammatical genders can complicate things, and that’s why a lot of students struggle with inflected languages. Just ask most of the French people who are trying to learn German!
For Swedish speakers, vowel sequences and the distinction between [b] and [v], [p] and [b] or between [f] and [v] are not obvious. Latin languages are easier to learn if you’re a native speaker of a language within this linguistic group. These are both examples of what language experts call “linguistic distance”. A French speaker will find it much easier to take up Italian, Portuguese or Spanish than to start learning Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese or Arabic. Although it’s very much a relative figure, linguists have calculated that an English speaker would need at least 88 weeks before they would be able to get by in Japanese! The use of a different alphabet is, naturally, another complicating factor. Greek, Korean, Armenian, Hindi and Thai can all be bewildering in this respect, but it’s important to persevere. As for languages that employ ideograms – well, they’re another thing altogether. Lastly, the order of words within a sentence is significant. Subject/verb/object is the most common configuration, including in French. But in some languages – Japanese, for example – subject/object/verb is the norm. So the predicate, or jutsugo, comes at the end of the sentence.
Learners of English benefit from the lack of a distinction between masculine and feminine nouns. There are also no declensions and word order is more or less the same as it is in the majority of languages. And then, you don’t have to address people differently depending on how well you know them (the tu/vous distinction in French, for example). It tends to be said that English is an easy language to pick up, but is that really true? Throwing yourself into Shakespeare’s tragedies is very different to having an informal conversation about today’s weather. It’s fair to say, though, that we are swimming in an ocean of English, and 30% of the world’s population can speak the language. We are overexposed to English words, with many Anglicisms to be found in the worlds of business, IT, the media, and so on.
It is worth noting, however, that English has 46 different phonemes, while French has 35. In addition, unlike French, stress in English does not fall on the final syllable of a word. The language of Molière has lots of exceptions to the rules of grammar compared with other languages. You will have learned that words ending in the suffixes -ence or -ance are feminine (une science [a science], une chance [a piece of luck, a chance], and so on), but isn’t it le (masculine!) silence [silence]? There are lots more examples like this. Finally, mastering pronunciation is no mean feat, especially for beginners! The problem is that, in French, not all the letters in a word are pronounced. Take the word oiseau [bird] for example: here, none of the letters are pronounced individually. Odd, isn’t it?
A language immersion course can be the key to unlocking motivation or a way to consolidate your skills – things can seem easier when we’re exposed to the usefulness of a language on an everyday basis, or when having those skills allows us to engage in conversation. We have less trouble remembering something when it is interesting to us, when it affects us or when it is useful to us. On an immersion course, learners are in contact with native speakers and use the language they are studying as a tool. What’s important is not so much being able to regurgitate your knowledge of grammar, but rather making use of your skills to carry out specific tasks – buying a train ticket, asking for directions, borrowing a book from the library, and so on). An environment where only one language is spoken is ideal, because it means you’ll be speaking the same language both in class and outside. And that’s exactly what you’ll get if you choose the Centre International d’Antibes for your next language course in France! After classes are over, you’ll spend time listening to the radio, watching films, reading magazines and listening to songs in French. Bit by bit, this linguistic “pool”, combined with the work you put in, will help you to make progress.