Some new language learners complain that learning a language is difficult, although we cannot say that it is a general occurrence because there are people who find that second language acquisition is easy.
The widespread use of the Internet and globalization made world leaders realize that more people should learn other languages for several reasons, including international trade, effective and faster communication, additional business and job opportunities and narrowing the language gap.
It is very easy to say that people should be learning a new language and that bilingualism opens more doors for business, employment and personal relationships. It’s the actual process of learning a language that is difficult, based on the premise that learning something new is naturally hard to do initially. But we all know that it would get better in time.
How long does it take to be proficient in another language?
Most language learners ask how long it would take them to be proficient in the language they are learning. It’s a question that is difficult to answer because there are many variables to be considered. Factors that affect language learning include the learner’s ability, the learning environment, motivation, previous experience in learning second languages and the intensity of the instruction.
Another thing to consider is the level of similarity or difference of the target language from the native language of the learner, as well as the other languages that the student has previously learned. The speed by which a foreign language student could be proficient in a language also depends on how proficient that student wants to be.
Required four skills
Proficiency in a language is variable. It cannot be across-the-board even if all the students are on the same level, either beginner, intermediate or advanced. Measuring proficiency requires the presence of four skills, namely, writing, speaking, listening and reading.
Given the presence of these four skills, there is scientific evidence showing that some adults do find it easier to learn a second language than others, which is due to how the different parts of the brain talk to each other.
Researchers have found through brain scans that it is possible to know who will be able to learn a language successfully. It is based on how the person’s language centers communicate while the brain is at rest, which is the stage when most learning happens. Therefore, it is important for a learner to have enough sleep.
This is based on the scientific research of Canadian scientists at McGill University where they found out that if the left superior temporal gyrus and left anterior operculum communicate more when the brain is resting, it is easier for the person to learn a language. The research was led by Dr. Xiaoqian Chai. In the study, the team of researchers scanned the brains of 15 adult English speakers who are about to receive intensive training in the French language. They were tested before and after their language course.
While they found conclusive evidence on how the brain’s wiring affects the facility to learn a language, it is not the only factor. The brain is also shaped by the experience and learning of the person. But the study would be of great help in coming up with better teaching methods to enable better and faster learning, even among adults.
Level of difficulty
In the U.S. the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute or FSI has data on the approximate level of learning among their students, although it is limited as they only teach specific critical languages. Their data covers the length of time it usually takes a learner to achieve level 3 in speaking and reading – General Proficiency in Speaking and General Professional Proficiency in Reading among their learners who speak English.
The information may not be conclusive because it is based on the records of their students. Most of them are in their 30s or 40s whose first language is English. The students at the Foreign Service Institute have the inherent ability to attend formal language courses and most of them have already learned other languages.
They study intensively in a controlled environment but other factors such as their personal circumstances, motivation and language learning ability also play a part in how quickly they learn a new language.
Based on their records, languages that belong to Category 1 require about 24 months of study. Most of these are Western European languages that are closer to English, such as Italian, Spanish, Afrikaans and Dutch. While German belongs to Category 1, it takes about 30 months to learn the language because its grammar is more complex.
In Categories 2 and 3, languages such as Swahili, Greek and Czech take about 44 weeks to learn. These are languages that are distinctly different culturally and linguistically to English. Included here are other languages that require longer learning time, such as Vietnamese, Thai, Tamil, Mongolian, Amharic, Finnish, Georgian and Estonian.
For FSI students, the most difficult languages to learn require about 88 weeks of continuous study, including in-country study. Languages in Category 4 include Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Arabic.
College-level language course
The previous data are for professionals who are learning different languages as required by their work. They achieve their level of proficiency due to their intensive training.
Achieving proficiency in a language at the college level is quite different. A college year is about 36 weeks long, which is equivalent to roughly nine months. Normally a language course is about three to five hours per week, or about 108 to 180 hours per school year. Thus, it is very rare for foreign language students to achieve a high level of proficiency due to the limited hours of training.
To achieve a high level of proficiency in a foreign language, the student should have started learning in high school and supplement their college level course with summer language classes and study abroad programs.
The conclusion derived from these facts is that a high level of proficiency could be achieved if the student starts language classes as early as possible and continue the study for several more years.
Difficulty may be due to the language itself
Bilinguals are quite lucky since most of them started second language acquisition since they were young. But for many more people, they struggle with learning a new language due to factors already mentioned.
However, the difficulty could be due to the language itself.
There are three basic components of a language: words, grammar and phonology. For most English speakers, it is easier to study a language that is close to their first language. One of the easiest language for an English speaker to take is Spanish. Its word order is the same as in English and it only has 24 phonemes, which are quite easy to pronounce. Only one letter is added in the Spanish alphabet, the letter ”ñ.”
The morphology (structure of the language) of English is quite poor, according to Rutgers University associate professor of psycholinguistics, Nuria Sagarra. She said that if the morphology of the student’s first language is rich and he or she is studying a language that has a richer morphology, the learning would be easier. Having a good memory helps as well.
She added that learning a language is difficult because it requires the student to work with a different cognitive model. Translating them based on the native language of the learner is memorizing rather than learning. The student spends time on the things that are unfamiliar, like the relationships of the different parts of the sentence. Only when the student knows enough of the language that the transfer rate increases because they do not have to use their native language to filter the information.
Training makes it easier
If you are an English speaker, it is better to learn a language that is closer to English, if your objective is to learn a foreign language as an additional skill. As you learn more languages, you’ll be more capable of using smarter filters to transfer them. Instead of using your first language to filter the information so you can understand the sentence in a foreign language, you’ll be using other related languages as your filters. For example, if you’ve learned Japanese, you could use it to help you with Mandarin lessons.
Attitude and mindset
The language learner’s attitude also has a bearing on why a language becomes difficult to learn. If the learner already has the mindset that the language is difficult, it can affect the progress of learning. For example, if you do not like something from a country, like their food or their laws, you might experience a more difficult time in learning that particular country’s language. If you are motivated, for example, you are an avid K-pop fan; you’d try harder even if Korean is a one of the most difficult languages to learn.
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