America and the Study of Foreign Languages

Following article was written by Brandon Lutz, “An Insight into the Breakdown of Language Difficulty issued by the Defense Language Aptitude Battery,” August 9, 2010.  It’s a very informative article and is worth reading carefully.

The United States seeks to help students and federal officials learn at least one other language besides English in order to both enforce cultural uniqueness and to help broaden their scope of work should it be in business, education, or military service.  In order to categorize what the most difficult languages are for English speakers to  learn, the Department of Defense created the Defense Language Aptitude Battery.

The DLAB gathered the most spoken languages of world and organized them into four tiers of difficulty relative to an English speaker.  The results help both federal workers and education officials understand which languages are the most difficult to study.  The results are as follows:

Tier One:  Romance

Tier one languages consist mostly of languages based on Latin roots. The major languages include Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian. The reason behind their easiness to learn is that English shares the Latin alphabet with these languages albeit, with Germanic pronunciation. Because of the same alphabet, students find many words that are near or are the same to their English translation (IE Masticar [Spanish] and to Masticate both mean to chew).

Some other additions include Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian and this is mostly because while some are Scandinavian influenced, they follow similar grammatical patterns with English and the Romance languages. People who study these languages generally find that business in South America and even Africa offer the most use for the tier one languages.

Tier Two:  Germanic

Despite English’s Germanic pronunciation, it is more difficult for English speakers to learn languages like German, and Hungarian, because of a significant grammar difference. English typically ignores some verb tenses which is shown in certain wording such as the sentence “I read” which can be viewed in both present and past tenses.  Germanic languages are highly structured to focus on tense and gender where as in English it can be more ambiguous.  A student first starting will note the difficulty mastering structure and tense, but once grammar rules are recognized, they may see that phonetics in German mirror English making it easy to translate.

Indonesian may also sometimes find its way into this category because it also differs in sentence structure yet is one of the easier Indo-Aryan languages to learn.

Tier Three: Cyrillic, Semitic, and Indo-Aryan

Languages in tier three are labeled as a higher difficulty level because it involves several tasks. First, these languages require a mastery of a completely new alphabet, which must be memorized before any type of language learning must be done. This tier includes the Cyrillic languages including Russian, Greek, Polish, and Turkish; the Semitic languages of Hebrew, Swahili, and Arabic; and the Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Farsi, or Urdu. Once the alphabets are memorized, then pronunciation and sentence structure follows which could take months before basic understanding is acquired. An example would be Hebrew which is not only read from right to left, but after basic concepts of vowels and emphasis are met (practiced with series of dots and slashes under a letter), the markers are removed showing only the base alphabet. Although more difficult to learn, these languages are more in demand for the petroleum market, as well as for diplomatic missions due to the lack of availability for decent speakers.

Tier Four:  East Asian Languages

The most difficult languages for English speakers to learn are without question the East Asian languages. This group includes Korean, Japanese, both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Arabic in some cases. The reasoning behind this is that these languages are exponentially more different in grammar, structure, and even translation. These languages contain characters, which have both varying sounds and meanings. The difficulty with understanding the characters is that some may represent sounds, while others represent entire words or ideas. Also, some of these languages do not add new characters for new words. Instead, characters are blended to make a basic translation. One such example is in Mandarin, 飞机 or airplane is actually translated as “flying machine”. Too add to the complexity, some of these languages have several alphabets for different words and formalities like Japanese, which has kanji (Chinese characters), romaji (Romance words), and then katakana and hiragana.

Although the hardest languages to learn, they are the most sought after due to the amount of trade that occurs in Asia with the US.


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