One of the biggest myths about learning a language is that one language is harder to learn than another. Language learning is highly relative and the success one might have when taking on the challenge depends entirely on one’s attitude, context, dedication and, possibly, the other languages that one already speaks.
There are many wild comments floating around in the language learning world; comments which aren’t supported by thorough investigation or scientific fact. These comments, such as “Chinese is harder to learn than Italian, particularly for native English speakers,” are comments which are based on nothing more than hearsay and bias. It’s true that Italian uses an almost identical written alphabet to English and Chinese is a language which uses a completely different kind of script entirely, but that doesn’t mean that Italian is necessarily going to be that much easier for a native English speaker to learn.
In a similar way, it would be highly unreasonable to assume that native Spanish speakers would find learning Italian a lot easier just because they are both Latin-based languages and because some of the verbs are similar in sound. In fact, sometimes, when a foreign language is very similar to a language that we already know or to our native language, the learning of that foreign language can be made more complex because we tend to get the two languages confused. Sometimes, it can really help that a foreign language is so very different from our native language, because it helps us to keep the two languages separate and learn the new language with more accuracy.
In short, the most difficult aspect of learning Italian is getting over the fact that learning Italian, or any other language for that matter, is difficult. An open mind, dedication on a regular basis, lots of opportunities to practice and a real desire to learn is all anyone needs to be able to learn Italian, whatever their native language might be.
Having said that…
Research has shown that one of the largest challenges most learners of the Italian language face is the difficult task of acquiring tense and aspect. It is apparently a lot easier to acquire knowledge of the present perfect tense first, with skills in the imperfect tense coming along at a later date. Native English speakers find the challenge of choosing between the perfect tense and the imperfect tense in Italian more challenging in general than any other aspect of Italian language learning, or so the studies seem to reveal.
There are ways of overcoming this through teaching methods which focus on providing narrative examples which make the context of the use of perfect and imperfect tenses clear, but the learning the imperfetto and when to use it is apparently slightly more complex than using the passato prossimo in the right context.
Learning Italian is easy, or say they say
The British Foreign Office conducted an interesting language study which cited Basque as being the most difficult language in the world to learn; a language which is spoken in parts of Spain and France. Basque was closely followed by Hungarian in the study, with 35 cases or noun forms to conquer, and both German and Russian were listed for their complex punctuation systems. Italian didn’t feature anywhere in the list of difficult languages to learn.
In fact, The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, divided the list of languages they offer into four distinct groups, ranking them from easy to learn to difficult. Italian was featured in the first group of languages (the group which apparently consists of the easiest languages to learn) along with Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili and Swedish. Is Italian really easy to learn? Or is it just that it’s more common to study Italian and, thanks to its Latin roots, many people assume that it just has to be easy than the like of Chinese or Japanese, for example?
What’s the truth?
The truth of the matter is that learning Italian is neither easy nor difficult. It might have a complex present perfect tense to get to grips with and it might challenge learners when it comes to knowing when to use the imperfect tense, but Italian is just as difficult or just as easy as any other language in the world. Each individual will find certain aspects of the language more or less difficult to understand and there’s probably a large number of language enthusiasts out there who believe that Italian is far more complex than easy-peasy Chinese.
The most difficult aspect of learning Italian, like any other language, is getting over the fear of learning it.
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Tracey Chandler represents Language Trainers, which provides individually-tailored language training on a one-on-one or small group basis worldwide