by John Malathronas, CNN
With so much time on our hands during lockdown, many of us have entertained the idea of expanding our horizons.
Learning a foreign language is an obvious option.
It’s one that I would personally endorse: My individual circumstances were such that, by the age of 12, I could speak German, Greek and English, so languages became my passion and my hobby.
My advice is that you should learn a language because you’re also interested in the culture and the country.
If you like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, learn Russian. If you’re going to live in Bangkok, learn Thai. If your partner is Mexican, learn Spanish.
And remember: Although you can get by as a tourist in, possibly, weeks, mastering a language is a long-term commitment taking years, not months.
Language and diplomacy
After World War II, the United States expanded its influence around the world by training its embassy staff in the local languages of the countries they were in.
Thankfully for language learners today, the US Foreign Service Institute’s language books and tapes can be found online.
These are the best free courses available, though you can still detect a touch of the Cold War in the syllabus (“Where is the state clothing shop?”).
Best of all, the FSI has done us a great service by classifying languages in degrees of difficulty for English speakers.
Here are a few examples, ranked in order of the number of hours it takes the average learner to master them from lowest to highest:
Easiest (about 600 hours of study)
Along with Dutch and Norwegian, the popular Latin languages — Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese — require about 600 hours of study to achieve “general professional proficiency” in speaking and reading.
Of these, Spanish and Italian are the easiest for native English speakers to learn, followed by Portuguese and finally French.
They share many words with English, but it’s that common vocabulary that creates “false friends” — words in different languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly as meanings have drifted with time. For instance, in Spanish an “embarazada” woman is pregnant, while a French “préservatif” is not something you add to your food, but a condom.
While French and Italian are pretty standardized, you must choose whether to learn Latin American Spanish or “castellano,” which is spoken in Spain; they differ as much as US English and British English.
The choice is even more striking with Portuguese; long ago I opted for Brazilian and to this day I still can’t properly understand speakers from Portugal.
German (750 hours)
One of my German teachers used to joke that it takes you a year to say, “I’m traveling on the bus,” but once you’re on that bus, it’s plain sailing.
With nouns that are masculine, feminine and neutral, verbs that conjugate heavily and an extremely strict syntax, German may appear insurmountable to start with.
On the other hand, pronunciation and spelling is straightforward and once you learn the — admittedly many — rules, that’s it.
You’ll also realize why Germans never interrupt you during a conversation: they’re waiting to hear the verb at the end to figure out what you were talking about.
Malay and Swahili (900 hours)
It’s not surprising that the two exotic languages that are simplest to learn employ the Latin alphabet.
Malay is the lingua franca of several Southeast Asia countries and has been simplified by its use as a second language by non-native speakers.
For example, the Malay plural is formed by repeating a word twice — buku means book and buku-buku means books.
Similarly, Swahili evolved as the trading language in East Africa and is described as having an Arab vocabulary upon an African grammar.
It’s given us the safari, all the characters in “The Lion King” (Simba, Timon, Pumba) and the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa.
Hungarian (1,100 hours)
If you like a challenge, try Hungarian. It’s like no other European language you’ve heard, except maybe Basque.
I remember a conversation I had once with a friend who insisted that “nouns are declined but verbs are conjugated”; except in Hungarian you both decline and conjugate nouns, sometimes together.
You denote possession (my garden, your garden, his garden and so on) by putting verb endings to the noun garden.
Think of the Shakespearean “thou takest” and “he taketh”. In that case “your garden” would be “gardenest” and “his garden” would be “gardeneth.”
You may well ask what happens to double possessives (my mother’s garden’s flowers) or the difference between my parent’s garden’s flowers (plural, singular, plural) and my parent’s gardens’ flowers (singular plural plural) — but that’s where I gave up.
Greek (1,100 hours)
Modern Greek is maybe the easiest language to learn that uses a different alphabet.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek book titled “Learn Greek in 25 years,” but you’ll be surprised at how straightforward it is to learn the alphabet: those alpha males, beta releases and gamma rays have seen to that.
Because, yes, Greek is also a language that’s contributed numerous words to English.
Indeed, in 1957 Xenophon Zolotas, the then governor of the Bank of Greece, gave two speeches to the IMF that contained just Greek loanwords apart from the inevitable basic English. (Example: “Our policies should be based more on economic and less on political criteria.”)
Russian (1,100 hours)
The big advantage of learning Russian is that, once you’re proficient, you can understand other Slav languages like Czech, Polish or Bulgarian.
It’s also spoken and understood in all former regions of the Soviet Union from Armenia to Kyrgyzstan.
Hidden behind a Cyrillic veil of mystery, it’s one of the harder languages to master, so much so that even many Russians speak it incorrectly.
But any literature, music and ballet buff or aspiring astronaut — Russian is a mandatory subject at NASA — should study a language with over 500,000 words (some up to 38 characters long), where the letter “e” sounds as e or o and nouns are “alive” or “dead.”