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Often, when talking casually about languages, people will say that one language is harder to learn than another. I always thought that this was a common misconception, and that other than the relationship to one's native language, there doesn't seem to be any real variable that affects the amount of time it takes to learn one language as opposed to another.

I thought this was more or less a given in linguistics, so I was surprised to find that the Wikipedia disagrees:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_complexity

Is this authoritative? The only link is to an old web discussion. What is the state of the art opinion from experts about this? It would not shock me if a relatively recent creole, for instance, genuinely took "less time" to learn for adult non-speakers, but I find it harder to believe there are two non-recently-formed languages such that one takes significantly less time for adult non-speakers with similar backgrounds.

  • "linguistic-typology" is certainly wrong, but I couldn't find a category that fit and it made me put a tag. sorry! – hunter Dec 12 '14 at 11:35
  • Do you really mean "complexity" as learning difficulty? Then maybe applied-linguistics would suit better. I don't think linguists would take it seriously though. However, morphological complexity as a measurable notion is a hot thing. E.g., there is a book soon to be published. Sorry if I misunderstood you! – Ivan Kapitonov Dec 12 '14 at 13:02
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    See John McWhorter's 'Language Interrupted.' – neubau Dec 12 '14 at 18:21
  • I think most linguists would feel that there's a minimum level of complexity required so that languages can do their job. But some languages happen to develop complexities beyond this base level. Some languages commonly considered extraordinarily complex include Anindilyakwa (Australia) and Yimas (Papua New Guinea). – Gaston Ümlaut Dec 12 '14 at 23:45
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I think the major idea behind the linguistics perception of all languages (except the pidgin ones I guess) is that all languages are good to what they are made for: to make people using it communicate clearly and effectively. That said all languages include all words and meanings necessary to achieve the communication. So, when people compare languages, words, vocabulary size etc they often project to a different language idea of their own language.

Example of the latter are when we are looking for a specific word to a different language that we cannot find. Or that the equivalent word is broader in sense than the one we are looking for. This often reminds me about the story of Eskimos having a huge amount of word to refer to the snow (I don't know how many words there are and I guess it's probably true if we consider they live an environment full of snow) while other languages does not have this diversity.

For me apart from your opinion (with which I agree) that the

relationship to one's native language

is the main factor which determines the difficulty to learn a language. Other factors that can affect someone trying to learn a language is:

  1. The use of different alphabet or an alphabet different than an already known well enough. To make it clearer: I am Greek native speaker, we use Greek alphabet which resembles the English one but it's obviously not the same. So, since my English are good enough I can apprehend German for example relatively easier being familiar with English alphabet than if I weren't familiar with.
  2. If in the language learning you also include pronunciation, then the closeness to your native or a well comprehensive language is also important. By this I mean only phonetic closeness. Example, Greek and Spanish are two distinct languages with different alphabet but really close phonetically: the only real differences is that Spanish do not use the 'z' sound and have a rough 'rr'. This fact make me learn easier this language in the sense that I don't need to invest time learning the pronunciation of various words and also I can understand quite easily the words being spoken.
  3. Another aspect that I can think of is the vocabulary shared between the language to learn and the already comprehensible by the learner languages. Example: English has made a really good job at inserting a huge amount of Latin-originated words through French mostly. This makes really easier for a person knowing English to find the correct French word. Thus he must just adopt to the French case system (non existing in English).
  4. You don't clarify what the previously mentioned relationship means so if it doesn't include the inflectional system of language to be learned. For example English native speaker find it harder to understand adjective cases than a person with an already comprehensive knowledge of language having cases.

I am not refering to other factor that are assumed to be equal for all subject learning a language: Living in a country which the language is spoken or having friends speaking the language etc.

One good link for language diversity (and you can make your own conclusions over complexity what ever sense you give the word yourself is this)

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I stumbled upon two approaches to measure language difficulty, one by a Natural Language Processing company and the other by the Foreign Service Institute by the US and both have clear shortcomings. But it is still interesting to add next to questions like language relatedness, grammatical complextity or the phone/graph-distance the intention of the one who is asking (e.g. Language Processing vs. Learning Advice) - so you may take a look for yourself:

Approach 1: A weird language (i.e. a language with many features most other languages do not share) is a hard language. Ibidon compared languages with the help of the World Atlas for Language Structures and created a list of the weirdest languages of the world.

Approach 2: Time to learn for a certain proficiency. Obviously many factors come together, but the study by the Foreign Service Institute of the US-State Department is still interesting.

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People who say that mean "from my perspective", so it may well be true, applied to adult acquisition. Mandarin speakers probably have an easier time learning Cantonese than English speakers do. As for Wikipedia, errh, no, it is not authoritative.

There is a related but distinct question about "complexity" in an absolute sense, that is, is some one language intrinsically more complex than some other. Some people may think that "easiness" and "(structural) simplicity" are interchangeable, but they are not. Total complexity isn't a measurable property of any language.

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