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The amount of effort and time required to learn a language highly depends on the language(s) already known. For example, generally, learning a language within the same language family will be incomparably easier than learning a language that has no relation or only a very minute relation.

If you wanted to build a tool that can put out a vague guideline of the amount of time required to learn a specific language, how would you go about it? It should work like this:

  • You choose the language(s) you are already familiar with.
  • You choose the language you want to acquire.
  • The tool will compare these languages and consider possible similarities between them, for example lexical similarity, similarities in grammar, and so on), and then give an estimate based on that, how difficult / time-consuming it will be to learn that language.

Something similar has been done for native English speakers, but I would like to make it possible to get an estimate for any language as a starting point, and also for language combinations. Is this at all realistically doable, and if so, how would you go about it? What would be other factors to take into consideration for the calculation of difficulty, apart from lexical similarity, language family and grammar?

For example, if you wanted to also take into account the fact that language difficulty within a language pair is not always the same for both, meaning for example, learning English as a native German speaker is easier than the other way around, simply because German has a more intricate grammar (more rules for word order, 3 genders for nouns, a case system, conjunctive mood, and so on), even though they are both within the same language family and share vast amounts of vocabulary.

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    I don't think that there are ways to calculate those values, one can only estimate them from empirical evidence. Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 16:29
  • The amount of effort and time required for an individual to learn a language varies enormously from individual to individual, and from language to language. There is certainly no norm, and therefore no way to measure it.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 18:13
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    I think it's important to distinguish between learning a language and learning a writing system – these are not the same thing. Mandarin Chinese is not that hard for an English speaker, but the writing system is extremely difficult and time-consuming to learn. The FSI ranking you link to combines both the language and the writing system in its assessment. Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 22:09
  • @jlawler: There certainly is a way to measure it. As shown in the link in my initial post, they made categories showing how long it took their students to get to a specific level in a specific language. There is no English native speaker that would find Spanish harder than Arabic, for example. Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 17:09
  • @Gaston Ümlaut: The writing system could simply be another category to consider in the calculation of difficulty / time investment. It's also only even worth considering when we're talking about languages that don't have an alphabet. If it has an alphabet, it can be learned in a day or two, which is barely worth mentioning. Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 17:11

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What is required is actual data along with suitable demographics. FSI (and governmental relatives) has a lot of such data using American English speakers, so they can estimate comparative fluency for specific languages and corresponding hours of study. The main problem will be non-diversity of the subject pool – I doubt you can get decent statistics on Albanian speakers learning Zulu or Thai, much less Albanian-Serbian bilinguals learning those languages.

It might be productive to scrutinize any existing literature on teaching-difficulties for a target language, for example, "What are the main impediments to learning Swahili?". I suspect that most L2 Swahili students are young adults in the US so data on L2 acquisition by 12 year olds in Finland will be nearly null: but on the other hand, there will probably be more data on L2 acquisition by 12 year olds for North Saami. The prospects for extrapolating to some reliable system of "properties of L1 <=> properties of L2" difficulty-computation are extremely slim.

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  • This is the reason that I was trying to find a way to calculate it, rather than relying on numbers for all possible language combinations. So for example, if you have certain language features in Zulu or Thai that may be present in Albanian or Serbian, that may lead to a slightly different result calculated, but there can not be much weight put on that alone. The tool I'm proposing would still show that these languages are generally completely different (vocabulary, grammar, etc) For example, Turkish and Japanese have some similar structures, but knowing one still doesn't help a ton. Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 17:13

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