Students may roll their eyes when they are required to learn a new language in school, but being bilingual is an excellent skill to have. Bilingual people can communicate with people from different cultures, opening them up to rewarding ways to connect with others. The cognitive benefits include better critical thinking and problem-solving skills, improved concentration, and better memory.
Becoming bilingual can also help your career, as it is a competitive advantage that other job applicants may not have. In fact, knowing another language is listed as a top job skill for in all occupations, no matter the skill level or industry. Employees who can communicate with more colleagues and customers nationally and internationally are in higher demand than ever before.
Some Languages Are Harder To Learn
Obviously, some languages are harder to master than others. One factor is the learner’s native language. For example, someone who grew up speaking Japanese may find it easier to learn Korean since the two are similar. Children that grow up in homes where more than one language is spoken naturally learn both.
So, what factors make a language harder (or easier) to learn? Some share common sounds, like Italian and Spanish. Other ones like Arabic or Russian have certain sounds not present in the English language, so if you mispronounce a word, you may not realize it.
Some languages resemble each other because certain words can be traced to the same roots. Germanic languages like German, Dutch, English, and Swedish can be grouped together this way. It is easy to find words that sound similar and have the same meaning when you compare them:
English German Dutch Swedish
water wasser water vatten
green grün groen grön
sun sonne zon sol
Languages that are harder to learn are more complex since they really do not resemble other languages. Native English speakers have more difficulties learning languages that have different alphabets, with unfamiliar letters. Arabic and Hebrew fall into this category, and both follow vastly different rules when it comes to their vowels. Japanese is also tough as it has a different writing system. The Korean language is known for its complex grammar and pronunciation, and Xhosa (spoken in parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe) requires clacking sounds made in the sides and roofs of the mouth and back of the teeth.
The Winner Is...
Over 900 million people speak Mandarin, which is spoken in southwestern and northern China. It is especially challenging because it is a tonal language. This means that the way a word is said changes its meaning. Different pitch tones can be applied to single words or syllables. Take the word “ba,” for example. Depending on the tone, it could mean:
- pull out
There are four pitch tones in Mandarin: falling, falling-rising, rising, and high-level. To complicate matters further, Mandarin has a complex writing system. There are thousands of characters, with different markings.
Learning Difficult Languages
Anyone who has mastered – or has even considered – learning Mandarin or another complicated language should first be congratulated. Some are even hard for computers to understand! New languages and intonations can be taught and learned, and becoming bilingual is a long-term, worthwhile pursuit.
To get started, linguists recommend setting aside some time to just listen. This allows students to become familiar with the new sounds, tones, and rhythms. It is also important to study the letters (or characters) and to try memorizing some. Focusing on the language’s patterns rather than its rules is also recommended.
Students who devote additional time to reading in the new language and practicing out loud as much as possible will find that these methods also help. Being patient is a major component of learning a complex language, but in time the speaking skills will improve.