Curious Kids: Are some languages more difficult than others?


Antonella Sorace, The University of Edinburgh

Some languages seem harder than others. Does that mean that the brains of people who speak those languages are more stimulated? – Maria Júlia, aged 14, São Lourenço, Brazil

Are some languages harder than others? For example, is Japanese more difficult than English?

To answer the question, the first thing we have to do is distinguish between babies learning their first language and children or adults learning a second language. For babies who learn their first language, no language is harder than another. Babies all learn their first language in about the same period of time. This is because learning a language is natural for all babies, like learning to walk.

A baby’s brain comes into the world prepared to learn any human language they hear spoken around them. The brain gets the same stimulation from exposure to any language, although it adapts to certain features of the language such as specific sounds. There is no evidence that some languages make you smarter.

In fact, babies can even acquire two (or more) languages together, if they hear them regularly. The languages can be similar, like Portuguese and Spanish, or very different, like English and Chinese – but the baby’s brain can learn them at the same time.

But that changes if you already speak a language and are learning a second one. A language that is very different to the one you already know is going to seem harder than one that’s quite similar to your first language.

Learning a second language

For example, if your first language is English, Spanish words like león for “lion” or sal for “salt” are going to be easier to learn than, say, Chinese shīzi and yán, or Turkish aslan and tuz.

To make English words plural, you usually add -s or -es, and the same is true in Spanish, so “lions” is leones. But in Turkish “lions” is aslanlar, and in Chinese there’s no difference between “lion” and “lions” at all. It’s mainly the difference from your first language that can make another language “easier” or “harder”, not the language itself.

The more languages you know, the easier it is to learn other languages. Babies who learn two languages at the same time often have an easier time learning a third or fourth language when they are older. Their bilingual brains already understand something about the ways that languages can be different.

Cards with words in Portuguese and English:
Learning about fruits in Portuguese and English. Eiko Tsuchiya/Shutterstock

Scientists used to think that there was a cutoff point, at around the age of 12 or 13, after which it was impossible to learn a new language completely. We now know that young people can learn another language throughout their teen years. After that, it does become harder - but not impossible - to reach high levels of fluency in a new language.

The reason that babies are so good at learning languages, though, is partly because they have more time to do it. A teenager’s brain or a grown-up’s brain may still be flexible enough to learn another language, but as people get older, they’re busy with school, work and friends. When babies are learning their first language or languages, they’re spending hours every day practising.

Reading is different

While understanding and speaking a language comes naturally, though, learning to read and write is a different story.

Reading is not something that brains develop automatically. It actually has to be learned. And because different languages are written in different ways, it really does make sense to say that some languages are easier to learn to read than others.

Children who speak English or French spend more years in school learning to read than children who speak Italian or Finnish. This is because in Italian or Finnish there’s a close match between written letters and spoken sounds, while in English or French there are lots of complications. If you’re reading this, you’ll already know about some of the complications in English.

In some languages where writing was invented a long time ago, especially in Asia, there are other complications. In Chinese and Japanese, especially, writing is based on separate symbols for words or parts of words instead of letters that stand for individual sounds. Learning to read these languages can take even longer. In certain particular ways, then, some languages can be harder to learn than others.

Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics, The University of Edinburgh

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.