Learning a new language opens a world of opportunity. You not only understand a new method of communication, but also culture, history, and a new way of thinking. The benefits spread far, but it demands effort. Language learning takes determination and perseverance and many factors contribute to how challenging a language can be including age, motivation and native tongue. There isn’t one “hardest language in the world.” It is all relative and depends on the individual.
As a seasoned ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and a student of Spanish, I have been on both sides of the desk when it comes to language learning. English and Spanish are desirable to learn because of their prevalence in the world, yet both have their challenges and may have you ripping your hair out at some point.
Thanks to the Internet, travel industry and the dominance of the US post-WWII, English is the lingua franca of today. If two individuals need to communicate and they don’t share a native tongue, then chances are they will attempt to communicate through English. For this reason, as well as others, English is one of the top languages studied today. In my experience teaching ESL, there isn’t one specific aspect of the language that is of paramount difficulty, but some challenges tend to recur for all students; in particular pronunciation.
There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. This is misleading when it comes to learning the sounds of English and creates a paradox for some students. Each letter, especially vowels, can have a variety of sounds depending on several reasons, such as position in a word and adjacent letters. In reality, there are forty-four sounds in English, so simply learning one sound for each letter of the alphabet would be like learning all the notes in only one scale for music. Yes, you know the notes, but only in one form. There are still several others to comprehend.
Spanish also has its fun and games. Having lived in both Spain and Peru, I know firsthand the curve balls that Spanish throws. I was lucky to live with a host family in Peru, so I had plenty of speaking practice, which is a key to language learning, and programs like GLA give you the opportunity to immerse yourself. It’s extremely useful learning a world language such as Spanish, but some peculiarities made me want to eat a raw habanero instead.
Personally, having to memorize all those irregular verbs was a big challenge. Spanish verbs can contain the subject, so you first need to understand who or what does the action and then know the tense and how to conjugate it. It’s a lot to think about at once. Another struggle for me was learning the differences between por and para. These words translate to the single preposition for in English, but there are two of them and they aren’t interchangeable. Generally, por is used for time and money while para is used for people and purpose. It’s more complicated than this; trust me, I know. While irregular verbs and these two words will always be my Spanish language enemies, finally understanding them has broadened my worldview and made me sensitive to the challenges my students and all students face when learning a new language.
Here are a few tips that have helped me with my language endeavors. First, speak a lot. Language is a social activity and we learn how to speak before we write. Speaking requires you to think quickly and, over time, it will become natural. Second, write everything down by hand. Technology has made everything convenient but almost too convenient. Writing reinforces what you have learned and by physically putting pen to paper you create a connection with the language that typing doesn’t allow. There are many other tips out there but these are simple and effective.
There’s no question that language learning benefits, but don’t be discouraged by the challenges. It’s both a daunting and rewarding experience. Some languages are hard to learn for different reasons but all are accessible as long as you put in the time and effort. In the end, you will be smarter and have a better understanding of the world around you.
Contributed by Anthony Zamarro