Translation Musings: which language should I learn?

Dec 9, 2014 | Language, Translation

HELLO in eight different languagesAs a native English speaker looking to learn a second language, one of the hardest decisions to make is which one? Sometimes the decision is made for us – schools often only offer a handful and French is almost always the first we experience. But it is tricky – which is going to be most helpful to us? And which is easiest?

Well, the first question is difficult of course, and depends on why you’re learning. But the second one has, apparently, been answered! The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a list of (approximately!) how long it could be expected to take an English speaker to reach ‘general professional proficiency in speaking and reading’ in the languages of the world.

Drum roll!

The “easiest” to learn are, unsurprisingly, those closest related to English – such as French, Spanish and Italian. You could reasonably expect to be proficient in any of these languages with around 600 hours of study. Slightly surprisingly, for me anyway, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Portuguese also fit into this category. But German would take you a bit longer – around 750 hours, with Swahili coming in at around 900 hours!

Then it starts to get really tricky… The fourth category contains those languages considered to have significant linguistic and/or cultural differences to English and would need around 1100 hours study. Languages falling into this category include Hungarian, Polish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Russian and Tagalog.

The final category is those languages which are considered exceptionally difficult for English speakers and often have a completely different set of characters and grammatical rules. Arabic, Cantonese and Mandarin, Japanese and Korean all fall into this group and will typically take around 2200 hours to master!

So now you know. But don’t let it put you off – you may just find you’re a natural at Pashto or Arabic, and it might just change your life!

For the full list, click here.