A few months ago, we brought you an article that defined whether languages were easy or difficult from the exclusive point of view of the English speaker.  We think that this manner of classifying languages is quite biased and provincialist, albeit legitimate.  What irritated us about the article was how it was classified the Basque language as a “dialect.”

Today, we’re bringing you a very different and much more professional way of analyzing the matter.  This is how The Economist went about doing it for their article, “What Makes a Language Difficult?”

It starts by referencing the study the US State Department carried out on how many hours were needed to learn a language.  Obviously, these studies were based on the average times an English speaker would need to understand another tongue.

But it then surprises us with a language difficulty index put together by IDIBON, a company that analyzed them based on technical parameters rather than the relative difficulty of a language when compared to the analyst’s.  This would be the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS).  The conclusion, which will surprise many, is that English is ranked 33rd on the list, from hardest to easiest.  Moreover, languages such as German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, and Mandarin were rated as being more difficult than Basque.

And, as we said, this rating is based on specific criteria.  If others were used, the ranking would be different.  But, unlike those subjective criteria based on the classifier’s language, this study tries to use objective criteria that are independent of the researcher’s mother tongue, which makes it an extremely interesting reference.

But the final conclusion, which is quite important, is that learning a language depends on what mother tongue the student is coming from and how near or far the second language is from that.

We’ll leave you with the article from The Economist, an article about the WALS study published on IDIBON’s blog (we’re now linking to the Internet Archive version), and the WALS website itself.

The Economist – 28/8/2013 – USA

What makes a language difficult?


EVERYONE has the intuition that some languages are more difficult than others. For the native English-speaker, professional agencies that teach foreign languages have made it quite clear. America’s state department reckons that Spanish, Swedish or French can be learned in 575-600 class hours (“Category 1”). Russian, Hebrew and Icelandic are more difficult (1100 class hours, “Category 2”). And Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and a few others are in the hardest group, Category 3, requiring 2200 class hours. But what makes a language difficult?

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Idibon – 21/6/2013 – USA

The weirdest languages

We’re in the business of natural language processing with lots of different languages. In the last six months, we’ve worked on (big breath): English, Portuguese (Brazilian and from Portugal), Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, Greek, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Polish, Dutch, Swedish, Serbian, Romanian, Korean, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Hindi, Croatian, Czech, Ukrainian, Finnish, Hebrew, Urdu, Catalan, Slovak, Indonesian, Malay, Vietnamese, Bengali, Thai, and a bit on Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Kurdish, Yoruba, Amharic, Zulu, Hausa, Kazakh, Sindhi, Punjabi, Tagalog, Cebuano, Danish, and Navajo.

The Internet Archive does not allow for automatic translation.  You can do it manually here:
Google Translate


World Atlas of Language Structures

The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of 55 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject). The first version of WALS was published as a book with CD-ROM in 2005 by Oxford University Press. The first online version was published in April 2008. Both are superseeded by the current online version, published in April 2011. WALS Online is a joint effort of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the Max Planck Digital Library. It is a separate publication, edited by Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, 2011) ISBN: 978-3-9813099-1-1. The main programmer is Robert Forkel.

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Last Updated on Feb 2, 2022 by About Basque Country

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