How easy is it to learn English?

Since earning Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages certification, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about learning English. How easy is it to learn as a second language relative to the thousands of other languages in the world?

Well, as this Economist article notes, it depends on your native language: “If you learn a language geographically close and from a common ancestor of your first language, there will be fewer nasty surprises, at every level from sound to word to sentence.” So, for example, if you already know German, it will be easier for you to learn English than if you grew up with, say, Russian.

But a company called Idibon, whose focus is natural language processing, recently conducted a study attempting to answer this question in the abstract. Using the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures, they determined which languages have the most distinct features (like word order and types of sounds). While I would have used a less judgmental word like “atypical,” they called the languages with the most unique features “weird.”

Chalcatongo Mixtec, “a verb-initial tonal language spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico,” tops their weirdness scale while the language with the most common features is Hindi. Interestingly, “Mandarin Chinese is in the top 25 weirdest and Cantonese is in the bottom 10.” They explain this based on the way sounds differ between these languages.

Where does English rank? 33 out of 239. So while the ease of learning a new language depends on the particular features it shares with your native language, if we’re attempting to quantify it in an absolute sense, English is among the top 15% of the weirdest languages.

I encourage you to read more about the study’s methodology here. And since I know plenty of you followers are academic language nerds, let us know your thoughts about it in the comments below!

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3 thoughts on “How easy is it to learn English?

  1. Evan

    Well, I don’t know too much about languages, but I’ve heard that the English language has an unusual quantity and variety of words (I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it makes some sense due to its being a relatively recent merging of multiple language).

    For instance, this sentence uses words of Saxon origin for the first half and Norman origin for the second half, but really just says the same thing twice:

    “To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.”

    If that is the case, although it may be a more difficult language to learn, once you learn it, you might be able to communicate more complex ideas more easily. By taking advantage of the subtle differences in connotation and common usages among similar words, you can be more likely to express what you want in a single word, or a single sentence, which is always helpful. Still, all languages are capable of expressing complex ideas, so I’m not sure if that is the most important advantage of learning to speak English.

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    1. Science Refinery (Lauren Meyer) Post author

      Thanks for your interesting contribution, Evan! Vocabulary size is definitely another variable that would affect the ease of learning a language, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t included in the “weirdness” factor described above. Further evidence that there really isn’t an easy answer to the “how easy is it to learn English?” question!

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  2. Pingback: Learning Languages | Through The Fringe

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