As I have written about before, I have had many clients come in and ask me questions about language as well as to discuss issues they have on learning English. I had one client very recently who asked me if it was possible to study for ten years if he, as a native speaker of Korean, could be fluent in English.
Now, a slightly more complicated and longer answer involves how much time and energy you are willing to spend in order to reach that goal. Another important factor is how closely related your language is to English (or, if you already speak English, how related your language is to English). This is not to say that because English shares very little in common with say, Korean, that you cannot learn English later in life as a native speaker of Korean, or you cannot learn Korean if you are a native speaker of English. It just involves hard work. And here at Seal the Deal English, I am here to help with the hard work.
What is closest? What is furthest?
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the United States governments’ main training center for employees who are working overseas. It prepares US diplomats, as well as other professionals, to advance or help promote the U.S. overseas and in Washington.
As part of their job, they created a list of different languages and how relatively difficult or easy they are for a native English speaker to learn, and how much time it takes to reach “general professional proficiency” in reading and speaking. The list is broken into five different categories from “easiest” to “hardest”. You may notice in this list that languages like French, which have lots of vocabulary and grammatical features shared with English is ranked higher than say a language like Vietnamese.
This is in part because of a long history of cultural exchange between France and the UK as well as a lot of French words entering English. Both French and English are part of the “Indo-European” language family, which is a massive number of languages spread across Europe and Asia that share a common ancestor in “Proto-Indo-European” or “PIE”. English is part of the “Germanic” branch while French is part of the “Romance” branch of the Indo-European family. If you would like to learn more on that, check out this video from LangFocus about the Indo-European languages. Below is a map to help visualize how far spread the Indo-European language family is:
As you can see, languages that are relatively “close” to the UK and English will be a bit “easier” to learn than those that do not have linguistic or cultural similarities to English.
Category 1: 23-24 weeks of studying (or 575-600 hours)
These languages are deemed “closely related to English,” and are either “Romance” languages (like Spanish and French) or part of the “Germanic” language family (which English is classified under, like Danish and Afrikaans).
Category 2: 30 weeks of studying (or 750 hours)
This is for “languages similar to English”. Although, there is only one in this group, and that is German. Although German is a fellow “Germanic” language, it has some major differences with English which make it a little bit harder to learn than other Germanic languages.
Category 3: 36 weeks of studying (or 900 hours)
Here we can see the first non-European, non-Germanic, and non-Romance languages appears. These languages have “linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”.
Category 4: 44 weeks of studying (or 1100 hours)
Chances are, you may be in this category. Sorry. This category is for “languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”. Some of these are seen as being a bit more difficult than the rest and have a little star (*) next to them:
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Quite a long list here, right? But these are not what are considered to be the most difficult languages.
Category 5: 88 weeks of studying (or 2200 hours)
If you have been paying attention to how many hours are estimated to learn a language from each category, you may notice that the difference between category 5 and category 4 is twice the amount of time to reach proficiency. These languages are considered “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers” because of a wide variety of cultural and linguistic differences.
Chinese (Cantonese, Mandarin, etc)
Yes, Japanese is deemed the hardest of the hard. I am so sorry fellow Japanese language learners.
So how does this list help you?
Great question. This list is meant as a guide for understanding how different your own native language is to your learning language (in this case, English). It is most likely the case that someone who speaks Russian as their native language will have a harder time learning English than learning Polish, which is another fellow Slavic language. Additionally, I have heard anecdotally from my Korean speaking clients that Japanese is a lot easier to learn than English because Japanese has a similar word order, similar vocabulary, and similar cultural features that English just does not have.
That being said, this is a useful tool for finding out why a language is difficult, and to understand in what ways your new language does not allow you to express yourself like you would in your native language.
For instance, let’s talk pronouns. English loves pronouns and puts a lot of emphasis on knowing who the subject is in a sentence. Korean, however, tends not to and it seems like knowing “who” did something is less important and can be easily ignored if you understand the situation you find yourself in. So beyond just having issues with say “grammar” in English, you can be better able to pinpoint some major differences between your native language and English, which can help you to better target and study those linguistic differences in order to reach linguistic mastery.
This also gives you a helpful timeframe for figuring out how to best maximize your time and how long it can take to reach a proficient level of English. I had previously talked about short, medium, and long term goals in my mandating urgency article a few weeks back. If your goal is to reach proficiency, then this list gives you a mandatory minimum for reaching your goal. This also helps you keep track of how close you are to reaching your long term goal; how many hours of studying did you put in for a month or a day? The more you study, the more you learn.
Lastly, it should be noted that this is not an exact science so much as a useful guide to help promote language proficiency. You can certainly find many non-native Korean speakers who can speak Korean fluently. Why? Because people work extremely hard to try and overcome the difficulties of learning another language. Those people have a true passion for learning languages, or learning a particular language.
At the end of the day, you can do it. Ten years may be a bit too long; you might be able to do it in an even shorter time period.
to advance (v.) – to improve, to help make better
proficiency (adj.) – well-advanced, competent at doing something
to visualize (v.) – to show, to make a mental image of something
to classify (v.) – to arrange or organize based on important key traits
exceptionally (adj.) – extremely rare, unique
anecdotally (adj.) – something based on personal experience or observation.