Language is at the center of nearly every part of life. Whether the words roll off the tongue or flow from fingertips tapping at a keyboard, they are essential to the way we express, relate, and collaborate to get things done.
It’s frustrating when we don’t have a language in common. So why do so many of us speak only one or two? What is it that makes languages so hard to learn?
- Written language: Pictographic systems, like Chinese, can have thousands of unique characters representing individual words, while phonetic languages have symbols that represent sounds. Not to mention silent letters (here’s looking at you, French!). Arabic, while it has vowel sounds, has few vowel characters in its written form (Babbel Magazine).
- Grammar: English sentence structure, for example, is relatively flexible. In many cases, several different word orders could be correct, and often even “incorrect” sentences can be understood. Many other languages have more rigid ties between grammar and meaning. Vietnamese is one example, or German with its more complex case system and sentence structure (Translate Media).
- Tone: Word order and grammar aside, there are linguistic concepts in some languages that don’t exist in others. Mandarin famously has four tones so that the pitch of the voice changes the meaning of the words. The Hmong language spoken in Thailand and Vietnam comes in at an even more daunting eight tones (The Atlantic).
- Cultural Nuance: Once these mechanics are mastered, there are social graces woven into language that reflect important unspoken cultural guidelines. These kinds of mistakes can cause serious faux pas. Just imagine if a potential business partner were welcomed in the informal terms used to greet a child or addressed with the endearing words reserved for family and close friends.
Despite all of the challenges that come with learning a language, it’s well worth it! Communication is not just essential to what we do, but to who we are. What a joy it is to share that exchange with people of other tongues!
Our teachers share a bit of themselves and their culture as they connect with their students through language. Learning a language requires vulnerability and a willingness to make inevitable (and sometimes embarrassing) mistakes. But, these are the very moments that can cross the barriers of language—and begin friendships that are a blessing to those who are willing to try.
For more information on difficult languages: