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Language Learning Difficulty 

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   How long will it take to become proficient in a foreign language?

People often ask: “How long will it take me to become proficient in language X?” This question is impossible to answer because a lot depends on a person’s language learning ability, motivation, learning environment, intensity of instruction, and prior experience in learning foreign languages. It also depends on the degree to which the target language is similar to or different from the learner’s first language or languages that the learner has learned in the past. Last, but not least, it depends on the level of proficiency the person wishes to attain.

   Different language skills

There is no such thing as across-the-board proficiency in a particular language. Proficiency is usually measured in terms of four skills:

  • speaking
  • reading
  • listening
  • writing
   Levels of proficiency

Two widely used sets of guidelines are used to identify stages of proficiency (what one can actually do in the language), as opposed to achievement (what one has studied). Both guidelines represent a hierarchy of global characterizations of integrated performance in speaking, reading, listening, and writing. Each description is a representative sample of a particular range of ability, and each level subsumes all previous levels, moving from simple to complex. It is important to understand that these guidelines are not intended to measure what an individual has achieved through specific classroom instruction but rather to allow assessment of what an individual can and cannot do in the language, regardless of where, when, or how the language has been acquired. Both sets of guidelines reflect differences in the amount of time needed by a reasonably capable English-speaking beginning learner of the language to attain a certain level of proficiency in that language.

The two sets of guidelines for speaking are given side-by-side below.

ACTFL revised guidelines ILR guidelines
Novice Low S0 no proficiency
Novice Mid
Novice High S0+ memorized proficiency
Intermediate Low S1 Elementary proficiency
Intermediate Mid
Intermediate High S1+ Elementary proficiency, plus
Advanced Low S2 Limited working proficiency
Advanced Mid
Advanced High S2+ Limited working proficiency, plus
Superior S3 General professional proficiency
S3+ General professional proficiency, plus
S4 Advanced professional proficiency
S4+ Advanced professional proficiency, plus
S5 Functionally native proficiency

 

   Language difficulty scale

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it typically takes to achieve Speaking level 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3) for English-speaking learners. It is important to note that the categorization is limited to languages taught at the Foreign Service Institute. It is equally important to understand that this categorization is a result of longitudinal institutional experience based on record keeping. Data for languages that are frequently taught to large cohorts of students are probably more reliable than data for languages that are less frequently to small cohorts of students. Conducting a controlled study of relative language difficulty  is very difficult considering the large number of variables that affect language acquisition. Students at the Foreign Service Institute are typically 30- 40 years old, are native speakers of English with a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of one or more other foreign languages. They study in small classes of usually no more than 6. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of self-study. Even within this relatively homogeneous group there is still a good deal of variation in language learning ability, motivation, and personal circumstances.

   Category 1 (23-24 weeks | 575-600 class hours)

Category 1 languages are those Western European languages that are most cognate with English and that are most typologically similar to it.  For instance, Dutch, Afrikaans, Spanish, and Italian belong to Category 1. However, German usually takes longer (30 weeks, 750 class hours), because of its relatively more complex grammar.

   Categories 2 & 3 (44 weeks | 1,100 class hours)

These languages usually have significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. Learning results for Category 2 and Category 3 languages have consistently shown that English learners require more time to learn these languages than Category 1 languages. Although these languages are grouped together, those marked by an asterisk such as EstonianGeorgianFinnishAmharicMongolianTamilThai or Vietnamese, and possibly quite a few others, are significantly more difficult to learn for English speakers than, for instance, CzechGreek or Swahili, which are in the same category.

   Category 4 (88 weeks | 2200 class hours with second year of study in-country)

DLI’s Category 4 languages are the same as those for FSI Category 3. These languages are known to be exceptionally difficult for English speakers. In all five languages, a primary factor is the difficulty of learning the writing system.

   The Defense Language Institute Language learning Difficulty Scale

Based on 24 languages taught at the Defense language Institute (DLI), the following scale shows the scaling of languages based on their difficulty for English speakers.

Difficulty Categories Duration of instruction Languages
I 26 weeks French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish
II 34 weeks German, Indonesian
III 48 weeks Dari/Persian Farsi, Hebrew, Hindi, Russian, Serbian/Croatian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Uzbek, Urdu
 IV 64 weeks Arabic (Levantine, Iraqi), Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Pashto

 

   The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI)

The OPI is a testing method that measures how well people speak a language by comparing their performance of specific language tasks with the criteria for each of proficiency levels described in the ACTFL Revised Proficiency Guidelines or the ILR Guidelines for Speaking. Since the OPI is an assessment of functional speaking ability, independent of any specific curriculum, it is irrelevant when, where, under what conditions, and for how long a person had studied the foreign language.

The OPI takes the form of a carefully structured conversation between a trained and certified interviewer (ACTFL) or two interviewers (ILR) and the person whose speaking proficiency is being assessed. A ratable speech sample is elicited from the interviewee by a series of questions or tasks, which follow the established protocol. The speech sample is recorded and later independently rated by two certified testers.

  • Click here to find out how to arrange for an ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview in your language. Tests are available in 50 different languages.
  • Click here for a quick and dirty way to establish your approximate speaking level. Keep in mind that self-rating is not very reliable.
  • Click here to access the Foreign Language Assessment Directory (FLAD), a free, searchable database containing information on more than 200 tests in over 90 languages other than English currently used in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary language programs in the U.S.
   Food for thought: Duration of language instruction in U.S. colleges and universities

Compare the figures on the duration of instruction compiled by the U.S. Government agencies to the average number of class hours per year in an average college language course. A typical college year is 9 months, or 36 weeks. A typical language course is 3-5 hours a week, or 108-180 hours per year plus preparation outside of class. It’s no wonder that students who start a foreign language from scratch in college, rarely achieve higher levels of proficiency. Unless they have done significant language work in high school, they need to supplement their college program with intensive summer schools and study abroad in order to achieve a high level of proficiency. The inevitable conclusion is that one must begin the study of a foreign language as early as possible and pursue it for many years in order to achieve higher levels of proficiency.

122 Responses to Language Learning Difficulty

  1. Ronaldo

    and like so often , the info that Esperanto can be learned in “150 hours”..is left out

     
    • Irene Thompson

      We have no data to support this. If you have such data, we will be glad to include it. Simple assertions by textbook manufacturers do not constitute empirical data.

       
      • Craig Dedo

        What kind of empirical data do you need on the ease or difficulty of learning Esperanto? What kind of empirical data do you use in evaluating the difficulty of learning natural languages?

         
        • Irene Thompson

          As far as we know, there is no empirical data on the ease/difficulty of learning Esperanto. As pointed out on our web page, the scale is experience with teaching a relatively small number of languages in the U.S. Government programs where hours of exposure are controlled. Esperanto is not one of the languages taught. However, my personal guess is that is a Level 1 language, similar to French, Spanish, Italian and other Western European languages, even though it has occasional elements of other languages (mostly in vocabulary). It was designed, after all, to be an easy language to learn, wasn’t it? The idea was to simplify the grammar, which it did to some extent.

           
          • Alex Escomu

            Hi!
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto#Education
            “The Institute of Cybernetic Pedagogy at Paderborn (Germany) has compared the length of study time it takes natively French-speaking high-school students to obtain comparable ‘standard’ levels in Esperanto, English, German, and Italian.[38] The results were:

            2000 hours studying German = 1500 hours studying English = 1000 hours studying Italian (or any other Romance language) = 150 hours studying Esperanto.”

            An more info about it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaedeutic_value_of_Esperanto

            Best regards!
            Alex

             
            • Irene Thompson

              Thank you for your comment. The bulk of these studies certainly point out that Esperanto is relatively easy to learn. Unfortunately, most studies lack empirical rigor. Hence it is difficult to arrive at a reliable conclusion. For instance, if all subjects had taken the same test (such as the OPI), we could then, at least, rank the difficulty level of Esperanto along with German, French, or Italian.

               
    • Ulm

      Esperanto?? while we’re on invented languages, why not comment on the lack of reference to Klingon? or Old Elvish?

       
      • Irene Thompson

        Want to author a page on these constructed languages? Good luck if you can find reliable information.

         
  2. wenkai

    It’s worth noting that Pashto is now considered a Cat IV language by the defense language institute.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you. We will note that as soon as we get to revising Pashto.

       
  3. Susan

    How many hours are needed for Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) speakers to learn English?

    Does prior teaching in an ineffective method (rote learning and such) matter?

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Ineffective teaching methods can certainly impede the learning process. Great strides in teaching approaches have been made since rote was the primary method of L2 learning. Students are free, however, to break free from the shackles of prior unfortunate experiences and become independent learners and intelligent consumers of teaching methodologies.

       
  4. Matthew

    I am currently learning Japanese but took a look at Chinese as well and I honestly think there should be a Level V for Chinese as it is far more difficult in my view than Japanese.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Experience shows that both of these languages take a very long time to master. It is a very rare L2 learner who can achieve native-like proficiency in either one of them without long-term study and immersion in the language and culture of the respective countries. Depending on the individual learner and his/her circumstances, one or the other of these languages may take a different amount of time and effort to learn.

       
    • Tauno

      If the following is true, then I don’t see how it can be a difficult language. “Chinese has no verbal inflections, no gender, number and case endings for nouns, no tense, in short, none of the features we normally associate with grammar.”

      It’s easy compared to Estonian which has 14 cases, so instead of learning just one noun you have to learn 14 variations of the same word!

      Anyway, I can learn at least 500 Chinese words per day (with 90% retention rate). I can master the basic vocabulary in just 1-2 weeks, and I think using advanced memorization techniques anyone can, so I really don’t see why it is considered a difficult language.

       
      • Irene Thompson

        Memorizing words is not the same as being able to function in the language which is a what proficiency is all about. While it is true that the grammar of Chinese is not particularly complex, there are other factors that make it a difficult language such as tones, lack of cognates, and the writing system.

         
      • K

        I would love to hear how you can learn 500 chinese words per day. Learning 50 a day would be extremely impressive. 500 sounds impossible!!

         
        • Ken Wong

          I agree, you must have a photographic memory. But yes, how functional are you?

           
          • Irene Thompson

            What is a “photographic” memory? Define one, and then explain what it has to do with language learning?

             
  5. Susan

    Matthew,

    I’ve studied both Japanese and Chinese while living in those countries. I found Japanese easier because there were better books a resources available, the language is easier to pronounce and due to katakana and hirugana easier to read. And my teacher was well versed in modern pedagogy. In China my teacher still used rote learning and the tones are tough to grasp. I’d vote for a level V.

     
  6. Matt Reever

    Limited working proficiency is definitely not equal to Advanced-Mid on the ACTFL scale.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Can you support your statement more fully?

       
      • Matt Reever

        Sure. I may be wrong but I feel that these descriptions are not equal. For example the ACTFL describes Advanced-Mid (which is the rating I’ve received) as follows: “Advanced Mid speakers contribute to conversations on a variety of familiar topics, dealt with concretely, with much accuracy, clarity and precision, and they convey their intended message without misrepresentation or confusion. They are readily understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives.”
        Now a piece from the ILR description:
        “Can handle with confidence, but not with facility, most normal, high-frequency social conversational situations…..The individual’s utterances are minimally cohesive. Linguistic structure is usually not very elaborate and not thoroughly controlled; errors are frequent. Vocabulary use is appropriate for high-frequency utterances. but unusual or imprecise elsewhere”.
        I don’t know but it seems that Advanced mid speakers are described as having pretty good control of the language and most of the descriptions are positive whereas the Limited Working Proficiency focuses more on the lack of control of the language. Please let me know your opinion.

         
        • Irene Thompson

          You are right. The ACTFL descriptions were originally based on the ILR scale with a further breakdown into sublevels (low, mid, high) instead of the “plus” levels of ILR. However, over the years, ACTFL and ILR independently tinkered with the descriptions so that today the two scales are no longer exactly parallel to each other.

           
  7. mandarin chinese classes

    I wanted to thank you for this wonderful read!!
    I certainly loved every bit of it. I have got you bookmarked to look at new things you
    post

     
  8. Peter Klein

    Dear Ms. Thompson,

    I found this article very interesting. I would like to use some of this data in a paper and I’m interesting in knowing your primary sources for this.

    Also, if a category IV language is difficult for an English speaker to learn, would it be safe to say that learning English would be similarly difficult for an Arabic, Chinese, Korean or Japanese student to master? In other words, would learning English be a category IV language for them?

    Thanks,

    Pete

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for your interesting questions. First, the primary source comes from data compiled DLI (Defense Language Institute) and FSI (Foreign Service Institute). The data compiled is based on experience, rather than on empirical research which is almost impossible to conduct given the large number of individual and environmental variables involved in language acquisition, as well as difficulty of conducting research in ongoing government programs. There is quite a bit of controversy over the difficulty scale, as one might expect. A starting point for your research might be http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/cryptologic_spectrum/foreign_language.pdf. FSI, DLI, and the Center for Applied Linguistics should behelpful.

      As for your second question, it would be unwise to extrapolate that the same scale can be applied in reverse given the variety of circumstances under which English is learned (often as a second, rather than as a foreign language) and the fact that the scale is based on a select group of experienced and motivated learners in intensive programs.

       
      • Peter Klein

        I sincerely appreciate your help.

         
        • Peter Klein

          Ms. Thompson,

          I may mention you in my paper. May I inquire as to your position and your education?

          Pete

           
          • Peter Klein

            After scanning the NSA article that you so kindly recommended, I would like to point out that while Korean is difficult, the author was obviously ignorant of the Korean alphabet, which may in fact serve to reduce the difficulty rating. She states that Korean, Chinese and Japanese use alphabets with special characters. I’m assuming that she means ideograms or simplified Chinese that must be memorized.

            She is correct that many Korean words are derived from Chinese roots, but they are written in a very simple, phonetic alphabet. It is quite possible for a young adult to memorize the characters and learn to read in a matter of days. It was developed at the command of a remorseful King, Sejong, who had to seize property from a peasant who could not read his tax notice. He ordered it to be developed by his most brilliant scholars so such an event would never be repeated. They succeeded in developing something extraordinarily. I personally found it easier to understand than the English alphabet, with fewer irregulars. The rules rarely contradict the pronunciation.

            Reproducing and comprehending the sounds are a different matter. That may take years, because they are so different from Western languages and the many accents that exist within such a small country make it even more difficult. I have lived here seven years and I still, at my age, 51, have a terrible time with the language. It took me three years to reproduce an intelligible sound and to understand what I had heard.

            Of course, her representations about the difficulties of understanding culture, rank or status (power distance} inherent in the language, differing grammar, such as inflected verbs, SOV order, post-positional modification are completely accurate, among other factors she did not mention that only living within the country and culture could illuminate.

            It will undoubtedly take time to develop fluency in decoding words quickly and recognizing them on sight, as it would with English for instance, but if the language was assigned a Category IV difficulty based in part on the difficulty of the alphabet, then it may be necessary to reassess this finding.

            Often, because something is in print, we tend to accept it as fact. In this instance it should be questioned.

             
            • Irene Thompson

              We are not ignorant about the nature of the Korean writing system which is not very complicated. However, there are other difficulties inherent in the learning of Korean have resulted in the FS/DLI rating which, as pointed out, are based the amount of time it takes to reach level III (check out what that means) in SPEAKING under INTENSIVE INSTRUCTION, not picking up the language while living in the country. You seem to be making that point yourself based on your own experience. So get your proficiency tested (go to Language Testing International or ACTFL) and see where you are on the speaking scale. It takes a different amount of time, depending on the language, to reach that level in reading and listening. Your learning environment for the three skills should be taken into account.

               
          • Irene Thompson

            Check out http://aboutworldlanguages.com/about-us to see who I am. However, if you are writing an academic paper, you should go to primary sources, not derivative ones.

             
        • Irene Thompson

          You are welcome.

           
    • N90

      It is very easy for Arabs to learn any other languages

       
      • Irene Thompson

        How do you know that? Where is the data to support your statement?

         
  9. Dana

    I often feel discouraged with my progress in Japanese. Although I am half Japanese, and was raised in a house where I heard Japanese all the time, I never spoke full sentences or started studying until I was a university student. Four years at University, one of those in Japan, and now the last four years I have been living in Japan, and now engaged to a Japanese man and yet I still struggle with the language.

    In professional settings, I do the best. I understand nearly 90% of what is said around me, and my vocabulary is quite large. However, whenever I am trying to express to my fiance about “how moved I was by a BBC documentary about an impoverished and battered Arab woman who risked her marriage and family to travel to India in order to learn, and bring back, solar power technology to her village.”

    I can say that in about 8 or 9 simple sentences, but I feel frustrated that the concise and in-depth thoughts I have still do not come easily after all this time.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Language is learned by continuous exposure to its use in a variety of settings and across a vast array of topics. Your experience thus far does not, probably, include listening to/reading about the fate of Arab women, so you simply do not have the fluency, accuracy, and confidence that comes after having been exposed to that or similar topics. You are not unique. The OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) actually attempts to discover how an examinee functions outside of his/her “hothouse special”, e.g., can someone who can talk fluently and accurately about American-Japanese trade relations, also discuss other areas that he/she has knowledge of, e.g., how to fix a sandwich, explain what to do if the computer crashes, or describe a car accident.

       
  10. Greg Hutchinson

    I was glad to see that you put classified Indonesian as Level-2. I learned Malay (to a decent extent) in the U.S. Peace Corps, and Indonesian is clearly the same language. It was easy to talk with Indonesians in Java, actually easier than talkng with Malaysians from the northern states. (I was in Johor, which is the standard.) But I wonder if Farsi isn’t also Level-2. My British friend, who never mastered Malay, said it was a very easy language to learn. And, by the way, thanks for the excellent page.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Experience with Farsi shows that it is level III. Your friend may be either a super-learner of languages, or he overestimates his true proficiency in the language.

       
  11. Irene Thompson

    There isn’t any that we know of. Difficulty depends in large measure to the degree on the distance between L1 and L2, hence English will be more difficult for speakers of Chinese than for speakers of German, everything else being equal (learning environment, language aptitude, language attitude, age, and so forth).

     
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    • Irene Thompson

      Your point is well taken. One does not become fluent (whatever that means) in a language as difficult as Pashto by being “exposed” to it (whatever that means). It takes intensive language instruction of up to 48 weeks to achieve S-3 (professional proficiency). Unless said corporal had a language-designated job in Afghanistan, he or she would not have been given this type of training at the Defense Language Institute. Most graduates of DLI come out with S-2 (working proficiency) which is a far cry from S-3.

       
  13. Alaina Hagimoto

    Dear Dr. Thompson,

    Thank you for this clear, concise overview. I understand that the DLI compiled this list based on experience and not on empirical research. I was wondering if you were aware of any subsequent body of work that attempted to account for the variation in length of time needed to achieve proficiency. In other words, have there been any publications examining the factors that make Tagalog more time-intensive than, say, Spanish? Have there been any attempts at a theory to explain (and predict) this variation?

    Thank you kindly for your insight.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      This is a very good question that really needs answered. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any empirical studies that show how one language, e.g., Tagalog, is more or less “difficult” (i.e., takes more time to achieve a certain level of proficiency, all other factors being equal) than another, e.g., Spanish. I am not sure that such a study can be done given the relatively small number of subjects and a very large number of variables in the population such as age, language ability, knowledge of related languages, instructional variables (teachers, textbooks, methodology, etc). I think all we can hope for at this point is careful accumulation of data. Government agencies are not well equipped to conduct the kind of research that is needed.

       
  14. guest

    I first learned about the FSI and the difficulty scales about a year ago and with a large enough sample size, the difficulty ratings should be relatively accurate. It is amazing how people say, “Motivation makes a language easier and since I was motivated, chinese was easy!”

    They don’t understand that keeping all variable the same: aptitude, time spent learning, experience learning language and, yes, motivation, some languages are considerably more time-intensive than others for an English speaker.

    The question I have is whether the FSI or the DLI found a range for students who do seem to learn the language faster than others. For instance, if some English speakers learning a category 1 language learned it 10% faster than the published amounts of time.

    Also, are there reports of especially gifted students that without any advantages (Bilingual English and Spanish speaker learning a romance language) learning languages considerably faster than the listed amounts? Like 30% faster? I would definitely just be a normal student in class but I’m curious.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      You are asking very good questions. There is a lot of literature on motivation and L2 learning, a topic that fascinates L2 researchers. Much of the research is “soft”, because the concepts underlying it are hard to define and even harder to measure. Motivation alone will not make a difficult language easier, as you correctly point out. Language learning aptitude, however, is another matter. Adults who score higher on certain components of the language aptitude batteries seem to be able to learn languages faster and with greater accuracy than those who have lower scores. You can check into the literature on language learning aptitude — there is a lot of research in that area. As for the carry-over effect, you are absolutely right. Carry-over simply means that learners come to a new language with mastery of some of its components, so they don’t have to learn everything anew. That is why it is easier for those who know Spanish to learn Italian, and so forth.

       
  15. Charles Quinn

    Thank you for making this information available, and for your informative (and patient!) responses to comments and questions.

    I think it would be helpful if the research/surveys behind the FSI’s and DLI’s time estimates were mentioned somewhere. If it is mentioned, my apologies for not spotting it, but could you perhaps point it out?

     
    • Irene Thompson

      We tried to explain the basis for this particular categorization of language difficulty, as per your comment. Let us know if we can be more explicit.

       
  16. Ethan

    You are so cool! I don’t suppose I’ve truly read something like that before.
    So nice to find another person with a few
    unique thoughts on this subject matter. Really..
    thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that
    is required on the web, someone with a little originality!

     
    • Irene Thompson

      We are glad you found this particular page of interest.

       
  17. Veronica Rivero - LTS

    I am a Language Training Supervisor at Dictyon Languages Services and I use the materials and links shown here. I really appreciate your huge effort for sharing the whole to instructors as well as students.
    Thank you very much.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Glad you find our website useful in your work.

       
  18. Malgosia

    I’ve seen this reference for the FSI a few times but I cannot find anywhere a reference to any specific paper where this data was published. Do you have such a reference, link to where I can read the data by FSI about the ranking of foreign languages.I would be grateful for any help

     
    • Irene Thompson

      The difficulty scale has been published as an internal working document within the ILR only.

       
  19. Russell

    Esperanto? I didn’t see a rating for Pig-Latin either, although it’s not a fair comparison because Pig-Latin is actually much more useful and significant.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      What are you trying to say? Why these languages are not rated as to their difficulty? If so, the reason is that they are not taught at DLI and FSI. We specifically mentioned that the scale is applicable ONLY to those languages that are taught in the government language programs.

       
  20. Iain

    I’m surprised that Korean is rated as so difficult. The alphabet is simple and could be learned in less than a day. There’s no comparison with the Chinese writing system.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Although the Korean writing system presents considerably less of a problem than the writing systems of Chinese and Japanese, there are many other problems that make Korean a difficult language for speakers of English.

       
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    • Irene Thompson

      What was the point you were trying to make. There is a huge difference between L1 and L2 acquisition.

       
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  23. Unknown

    The fact that Hungarian is spoken in countries that are close to its borders is truely based on history. After WW1, the counties that were under control of the Astro-Hungarian empire took away huge amountsd of Hungary’s territory. That is why Hungarian is spoken within those countries.

    I love history, so why can’t that be put into the explination of Hungarian being in Cat 3.

    In addition, Hungarian isn’t Indo-European, thus it doen’t have a relationship between ANY European country

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Yes, Hungarian is not an Indo-European language. Yes, it is spoken in adjacent countries, particularly Rumania. However, what does that have to do with the amount of time it takes English speakers to learn Hungarian?

       
  24. Michele Whaley

    Thank you for the interesting article and for your thoughtful answers to comments! We have crossed paths as you instructed NEH groups at Bryn Mawr many years ago. I’m still teaching high school Russian, so it’s helpful to have a realistic idea of the necessary time that it will take to learn this language! I tell my students that even if I am guiding them into the language, they can move themselves along faster by reading and listening at their comprehension level as many hours as possible. Unfortunately, the available materials at that level are few, but fortunately we now have much greater access to materials on the Internet.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Hello Michele,
      Nice to hear from you. Most learners don’t realize that input precedes output, so they concentrate on speaking and writing without the benefit of reading and listening. I always found it hard to convince my own students to read and listen as much as they can. It is difficult for teachers of the Less Commonly Taught Languages to find suitable materials for low-level learners, but you are right that nowadays there are more than there used to be. Check out Richard Robin’s simplified Russian website.

       
      • Michele Whaley

        Thanks very much for the link. It’s not recently updated, but my AP kids have used it in the past, and I’d forgotten about it.

        Do you know whether there is any research about how long it takes a person to get to the Intermediate Mid level (in Russian, specifically)?

         
        • Irene Thompson

          This is a rather difficult question to answer because you did not mention which skill you are interested in. On the whole, however, there are too many variables. Among them, language-learning ability, type of program, intensity of instruction, motivation, etc. In my own experience, Intermediate-mid in speaking required at least two years of instruction given good language learning aptitude, proficiency-oriented instruction, and possibly a semester in country. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

           
  25. Michele Whaley

    You were right to guess that I meant speaking as the main measurable area. I asked because, with the new focus on data and specific achievement, at least one school district has set the Intermediate-Mid level of speaking proficiency as its target for students exiting their fourth year of high-school language classes. It seems a high bar for high school teachers, at least in Russian. A teacher can control the method of teaching, but can typically offer only a two or three-week country visit. Still, it is interesting to know that, for the right students, the four-year (high school equating to two years in college) course could appropriately set that expectation, even if it should not necessarily be mandated for all students.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      I would think that, on the average, one might expect at least Intermediate Low in speaking and writing, and a somewhat higher level for reading and listening.

       
  26. Ashurbanipal

    If Arabic is considered a Category 5 language, and Aramaic- like Arabic- is a Semitic language, does that mean modern Aramaic is also a Category 5 language?

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Most probably, but we simply don’t have data since so few people study Aramaic under controlled circumstances.

       
    • Kevin Gillette

      Aramaic is closest to Hebrew, not Arabic, although all three are solidly Semitic languages. That said, it seems likely that Aramaic woould fall into the same category as Hebrew rather than Arabic. The latter has a more extensive and complex grammatical and semantic structure, aided by the fact that Arabic has been a lving language over a broad geographic area for several millennia, whereas Aramaic (and Hebrew) essentially died out for a time. In the case of Hebrew, which was retained only as a liturgical language for about 1000 years (my apologies for the inexactness of this figure!), some key pronunciations were lost. I don’t *know*, but I *suspect*, that Aramaic has suffered similar deletions over the centuries. Aramaic remains in use in small enclaves in the Near East and Middle East, but probably qualifies as an endangered language, since the population of native speakers is not really on the rise. Great question, Ashurbanipal!

       
  27. Paul

    I went through the basic Arabic program at DLIFLC in 2002-2004 (L3/R3/S2) and over ten years later (not having used Arabic for almost six years now), I still think in Arabic instead of English at times. Also, going from MSA to Iraqi is a much easier transition than English to MSA. Like you said, it took 2 years of constant exposure and practice to reach the 3 level in MSA, but it wasn’t until about four years after that when I really felt my Fus’ha was decent. Yet, it took only 8 weeks for me to reach a 3 listening level in Iraqi.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Receptive skills might be generally easier to transfer from one variety to another than productive skills.

       
  28. Stephan Botes

    As a speaker of English, Afrikaans and Zulu I wonder why Zulu and Xhosa are not starred as they are both agglutinative and tonal languages. The tonality is not indicated in writing and as such can be very difficult to master without extensive in country exposure. Additionally the language contains a number of distinctive, 15(zulu) 18(xhosa), click consonants that are generally difficult to master for english language speakers.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      You are absolutely right. I can’t unilaterally change the ratings assigned by the ILR, but believe that they simply did not have enough data for these languages. That said, I can certainly add your comment to highlight the difficulty of these languages due to their phonological and grammatical systems. Thank you for your insight.

       
  29. Martina

    Hi, Irene, please, could you give me a website reference where FSI provides the information about the different language learning length needed to achieve the proficiency level? Thank you.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      As stated on our website, this information comes from internal DLI/FSI data.

       
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  32. Edwin

    What about Irish Gaelic and Norwegian?

     
    • Irene Thompson

      We don’t have any data for these languages due to the small number of students who study them in the government setting. As far as we know, Irish Gaelic is not taught at all, except in some universities.

       
      • Tara MacLeod

        Irish is taught in at least 11 universities in the US. The University of Notre Dame has a Department of Irish Language and Literature and students can Major in Irish at both ND and CUNY.

         
    • Mike Banahan

      Totally non-empirical but speaking from personal experience as a native English speaker, Norwegian and Irish both belong in category 1 but with Norwegian at the somewhat easier end and Irish (due to its Goidelic grammar) up towards the harder end. The paucity of irregular verbs in Irish is a delight, the multiplicity of inflected pronouns rather less so. But how can you not love a language which embraces the uncertainty of existence by dispensing with words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’?

      One can almost certainly include Scots Gaelic and the recently-revived Manx along with Irish, however finding Manx learning material would be a real challenge. Manx has recently been spectacularly brought back from the dead by the introduction of Manx-only immersion schooling on the island – see youtube for examples.

      There’s an entertaining case study of zero to good-working-knowledge of Irish done by the Amero-Irish comedian Des Bishop on youtube: ‘In the Name of the Fada’, where he went from no knowledge to delivering stand-up comedy in Irish in a year. I should give a profanity warning about the series though, tender ears may be offended.

       
      • Irene Thompson

        This is a lovely discussion, but neither one of you have any empirical data to support your opinions.

         
  33. Connie Navarro

    Dear Ms Thompson,

    I am impressed with the time you take to answer questions. Thank you for all the information provided.

    My question concerns the amount of time spent in the target language. ACTFL recommends spending 90% of class time in L2. As an evaluator of World Language Teachers, I am often told by my Chinese (Mandarin) and Japanese teachers that that target is too high for English speakers. They site your Level 4 difficulty ranking as a reason why they cannot / should not be expected to stay in L2 for 90% of instructional time. Our European language teachers (French, Spanish, Italian and German) are able to stay in L2 for 90%+ by using various comprehensible input strategies. Your comments above about input seem to support the idea that all language teachers should strive for a high level (a high % of class time) of L2 that is 100% comprehensible.

    I am very interested in your comments and insight into this topic. My very limited knowledge of Asian languages leaves me unable to respond effectively when these teachers express their dismay at being expected to stay in L2 for 90% of instructional time.

    I look very much forward to your response.

     
  34. Connie Navarro

    Here is a link to an article published in 2012 that discusses the 90% recommendation:
    “… the ACTFL recommendation that communication in the target language comprises at least 90% of instructional time.” (p2 of 6)
    http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/TLE_pdf/TLE_Oct12_Article.pdf

     
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  36. Don

    Thanks for your information and your response to comments.

    My daughters have taken arabic from a sheikh at the local mosque. He has taught them the arabic alphabet and phonetics. He seems quite pleased at how well they read and sound out the words though they have no idea what they are saying.

    My daughters are about to start the online high school modern standard arabic course offered by BYU. It seems to be the highest quality online arabic course I could find.

    Can you recommend resources for me to try to understand how applicable the classical arabic they have learned will be to learning modern standard arabic?

    Thanks!

     
    • Irene Thompson

      The principal differences between Classical Arabic and MSA pertain to vocabulary and stylistics. There are much fewer differences in morphology and syntax. Any exposure to Arabic, such as learning the basics of the Arabic alphabet in the case of your daughters should give them a head start.

       
      • Don

        Thanks so much for your response.

        My daughters also would like to participate in summer or year abroad language programs.

        Can you recommend any websites/resources for programs and scholarships for high school or university students?

        Thanks again!

         
        • Irene Thompson

          I can’t recommend any because there is an incredible number of such programs. ACTFL (https://www.actfl.org/) is an excellent first resource. Also consult the websites of the National Foreign Language Resource Centers for information you are seeking for a particular language.

           
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    Updated links under Language Difficulty Scale paragraph: Level 3 –
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  42. Ken Wong

    Hi, I have taught Chinese in schools for over 20 years and its not easy for L2 learners. Your website is excellent and has brought up many interesting points of view. I would just like to mention that native Chinese speakers who start learning English in high school or afterwards find English very difficult.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      This is predictable since the two languages are linguistically unrelated, making transfer from one to the other extremely limited. This works in both directions.

       
  43. Sean

    I find this funny. Time and again, Finnish/Estonian are placed below these eastern languages simply because the pronunciation is not overly complex (no tones, etc) and the alphabet is the same as the English alphabet (mostly). When it comes to grammar, Finnish and Estonian are above and BEYOND any of those Category IV languages. If we were going off grammar alone, they would probably be like a category VII. I find it funny that the government thinks it’s faster and easier to learn these Finno-Ugric languages when in reality, I’ve never yet met an English speaker speaking Finnish who didn’t make at least a handful of grammatical errors every sentence – and those are the best of the best of the Finnish/Estonian native-English-speakers who I’ve met. It’s truly a joke trying to learn those languages speaking 100% grammatically correct. The best your average English speaker will ever attain is probably a solid 70 – 80% correct grammar. That’s the BEST, in my estimate. Many a linguistic PhD has commented on the intense difficulty of Finnish and Estonian grammar; again, far above and beyond any of these “category IV” Asian languages.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      What is your point? And do you have any actual data to support your opinion.

       
  44. Sean

    The only way to learn them and know them perfectly (because they are so situational), truly, is to have been born and raised in Finland or Estonia. It takes that much “practice” to be able to know how to speak correctly. I seriously do not see how any native English speaker could ever speak it at the level of proficiency which English speakers have learned these other languages.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      All languages are “situational”, as you put it. Both formal and informal environments are needed to learn them. Adults generally will not reach full native speaker proficiency without some formal instruction. Immersion alone often produces speakers who are fluent but inaccurate. This has to do with speaking. Listening, reading, and writing are another story. Children will acquire native phonology but they also need some formal instruction in the appropriate use of language. For instance, reading is a powerful tool for vocabulary acquisition for native speakers. There are numerous instances of second language speakers who are as proficient or even more proficient than native speakers in every aspect of the language, except for phonology, the latter including many components.

       
  45. Austin Voigt

    This was such an informative read! People always tend to want to generalize things and just have a black and white answer, but when it comes to things like language or culture, everything is on such a spectrum. Thanks for this! Really thought provoking.

     
  46. Ramond

    As a person who has english as the primary language, I have to say that it can be difficult to learn other languages. I’m trying to learn finnish and whilst it’s rather challenging, it’s definitely not going to stop me from learning it diligently :)

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Good for you! Finnish is hard to learn for a number of reasons: (1) it is unrelated to English; (2) it has a very complex grammar system.

       
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  48. Jeffrey M. Petrie

    I found your website in second position on a Google search for rankings of language difficulty, congratulations! I was looking for data to convince my mostly Mexican ESL students that English & Spanish are closely related and easily learned. You’ve given me some good ammunition here, thanks. I have degrees in Spanish and English, and have had formal study in 7 other languages, most
    recently Arabic in 2003-5. I studied in Saudi Arabia under a Jordanian Palestinian with an M.A. in teaching classical Arabic and 25 years experience. Leaving completely aside the annoying insistence of the written language having separate characters for each letter depending upon their position within the word, he showed me that the syntax and verb system of English & Arabic are quite similar (except for a few features like articles & the position of the adjective, which are shared with Spanish). In many cases a linear word-for-word translation into English is possible. Notwithstanding I was already then very much an older learner, learning to speak Arabic in transliteration was a walk in the park. In fact the “Company” produced & disseminated transliterated materials and encouraged the method. (If you’ve been to the Kingdom you know of which company I speak.) My sister mastered Mandarin and studied Japanese, Arabic & Farsi at Harvard, and she agrees that Arabic was by far the less challenging. Regarding the value of studying classical (“al-fosha” in transliteration) rather than MSA or “al-amiyya” was evident whenever I traveled to another country. Muslims the world over may not speak, but universally understand and respect the Arabic of the Quran, it is truly a lingua franca for 1.8 million people in a way that MSA is decidedly not.

     
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