What Goes into Learning a Language?

education. languages, cloudChoosing a language to learn is often based on need. If a teacher has a high population of a certain ethnicity, they would probably choose that ethnicity’s language. If a businessman is opening a new office in Japan, it would be Japanese. But what about those people lucky enough to choose to learn any language in the world? What should they pick?

It turns out that there’s been a lot of work done on what makes certain languages easier to learn. To start, a language can be broken up into three basic components:

  • Phonology – the sounds used in the language that correspond to words and letters
  • Grammar – how sounds are organized in a sentence
  • And the vocabulary itself

English as compared to other popular languages

Let’s start with English as a baseline on these measures. English features 44 needed sounds in its phonology, relatively high as far as world languages go. Sentences flow from subject to verb to object (“He caught the ball”). More than a million words of the English language are represented using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, used widely around the world.

Many English speakers choose Spanish for a second language, and that tends to be a good start. Spanish has only 24 sounds, only one additional letter in its alphabet, and grammar only needs to be switched to subject-object-verb.

As you might have guessed, an Asian language like Mandarin offers a more significant challenge. It also features fewer sounds than English but relies more on tones to convey meaning rather than content. It also uses thousands of characters rather than the 26 of the Latin alphabet.

Going from versatile to versatile

Researchers have also come up with another measure, morphology, which might explain why some languages are easier than other. Morphology means how malleable the language can be. For example, in Spanish the verb comes with embedded tenses that tell you who is doing the acting. That is high morphology. In English, we rely on other words—articles—to relay that information. That’s a hard transition for the beginning Spanish learner.

Whatever your reason and whatever the language, broadening your linguistics is one of those pursuits where the benefits far outweigh the costs.

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