As a foreigner in France, I tend to have frequent conversations about languages and language skills. Conversations often go like this :
Other person: Where are you from?
Other person: Wow, you speak French very well. The French don’t speak foreign languages, you know?
I will not go into detail concerning the fact that I always find it amusing that many people think they can judge my language skills after a less than ten-word conversation. After this first remark people usually go on telling me that they either do not speak German or only very little. After almost countless exchanges like this, my standard reply is often that German is very difficult and complex and that I wouldn’t like to learn it myself if it wasn’t my mother tongue. This got me thinking: What are generally the hardest languages to learn?
I found an interesting infographic on dailyinfographic.com which categorises the difficulty to learn a foreign language for native English speakers. This illustration divides some commonly learned languages into three categories based on various factors: easy, medium, and hard. The estimated time to achieve proficiency in each category is included at the top of the sections.
I guess the message of this illustration is less surprising. Languages closer to the English language are perceived as easier to learn than those that have fewer similarities. We could even state that the closer the country where a certain language is spokes to the country where English comes from – i.e. Great Britain – the easier to learn that language. Russian is seen as more difficult than French and Dutch for English native speakers for example; Arabis and Japanese are considered hard to learn.
While I find this illustration interesting I also find it too simplistic. I learn Swedish and I speak French. In my eyes, French is far more complex than Swedish. Whereas the Swedish language is rather straight forward (no different verb forms etc.) the French language requires to conjugate the verb which is the tricky part when it comes to learning French. It could be though that a native English speaker doesn’t agree with me considering the linguistic proximity between German and Swedish. In that context I also wonder where they would put German. I assume you would find it in the same category as French and Swedish. Still, in my eyes, German is even harder than French. German has three different articles, we conjugate our verbs and there is something that even Germans have problems with: our “cases“.