How Long it Takes to Learn Each Language? Languages Ranked from 24 to 88 Weeks


When it comes to mastering a foreign language, the hurdles extend beyond the inherent intricacy of the language itself. The challenge often stems from the stark differences between one's native tongue and the new language.

The United States State Department, in its endeavor to prepare diplomats linguistically, categorizes languages into four tiers based on the learning duration for English speakers – a spectrum ranging from 24 to a staggering 88 weeks:

• 24-30 weeks: Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portugese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish.

• 36 weeks: German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili.

• 44 weeks: Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Kazakh, Khmer, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepali, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Tagalog, Tajiki, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetian, Turkish, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, and Vietnamese.

• 88 weeks: Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

The crux of these differences in learning curve lies in several critical aspects.

Foremost, the writing system presents a formidable challenge. Unlike European languages, many of the State Department's most challenging languages do not employ the Latin alphabet.

Take Chinese, for example, where mastering around 2,000 characters is just the tip of the iceberg for reading a newspaper, with frequent encounters of unfamiliar characters. Japanese complicates this further by using a mix of Chinese characters, each with dual pronunciations – a Japanese and a Chinese one, adding layers of complexity.

However, not all foreign writing systems are daunting. Arabic, though alphabetic, has its quirks – letters morph based on their position in a word, and short vowels are often omitted. Korean's Hangul, a syllabary where each character represents a syllable, is celebrated for its simplicity and logical structure.

The uniqueness of phonetics in a language can also add to the difficulty. For English speakers, unfamiliar sounds such as the clicks in African languages or ejective sounds in Caucasian languages pose a significant challenge.

Moreover, languages like Hindi and Mandarin introduce phonetic distinctions nonexistent in English. In Hindi, for instance, the pronunciation of 't' and 'd' can alter the meaning of words entirely, while Mandarin's use of tones adds another layer of complexity.

Lexicon is another crucial factor. Many European languages, stemming from the proto-Indo-European family, share a lexical kinship. This overlap, coupled with centuries of inter-borrowing, eases the learning process for related languages. In contrast, languages like Arabic and Chinese, which fall outside this European linguistic sphere, offer little lexical familiarity.

Grammar often is the most daunting aspect, with languages like Arabic featuring a plethora of endings, prefixes, and infixes that alter based on the word's role in a sentence. Whereas Mandarin eschews such inflection.

Summing up, the difficulty in learning a language is a composite of its writing system, phonetics, lexicon, and grammar. Each language offers a unique blend of these elements, with Chinese, for instance, being arduous to write yet relatively simpler to speak.

For those seeking linguistic adventures, Swedish might be a delightful start. Europe offers a trove of languages for those aiming to amass linguistic prowess. However, the true test of a linguistic Ironman lies in conquering languages like Cantonese or Korean – a testament to one's cerebral endurance and linguistic agility.

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