“Learn German, It’s Easy”

I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard this comment, or how many times I’ve heard it in the opposite direction; that it’s “too hard.” I’ve always wondered why the perceived difficulty of a language comes up so quickly in conversation. Are we suggesting that easy languages are less desirable to learn than more challenging ones? Certainly that’s part of the reason why people tend to be impressed when westerners learn a language like Mandarin or Arabic.

Officially, German is noted as being more challenging than French or Spanish. That’s not just my own opinion, that comes straight from the Foreign Service Institute. From having learned it, I actually do think the numbers are fairly accurate. A different word order, plurals with seemingly very few rules, four cases, three genders, and the ever so popular separable verbs, where you can have a long sentence requiring a random prefix to be placed at the very end; all of these contribute to challenges, and all are difficult to master. Of course, there’s always the reality that people don’t necessarily “care” whether the rules are all correct, but to really become proficient requires learning something unusual.

So that I don’t come across as being part of the group saying it’s impossibly difficult, I will say that I’ve found Polish to be significantly harder than German to get to the same point. This is true even though it has a relatively flexible word order, and I’m not longer struggling to learn what a case is.

I suppose the reason why comments like these bother me is that they tend to cheapen or downplay the very real challenges in learning a language. Spanish has a reputation as a particularly “easy” language, and yet, many English speakers who can communicate in the language are still completely confused about the use of the subjunctive. No language is truly “easy,” unless you’re discussing constructed languages, or ones that were specifically created with ease in mind. In mastering a language, you have to re-learn basic vocabulary, set aside at a minimum hundreds of hours of time, face awkward situations where you barely understand what is being said to you, and it still won’t be as “natural” as your native language for awhile. It certainly is not an “easy” process. I could also make the comparison that singing is not as “hard” as being a classical pianist, but nobody gets to the top of their fields without hours and years of practice.

Perhaps my real reason for writing this post is to encourage other language learners to not feel bad or defeated if they find they’re getting to a point where it’s just not improving. It takes time (575-600 hours for “easy” languages) to really learn what you’re doing. We all really do struggle in our language missions together.

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