Comparison of Language Learning Difficulty (Foreign Service Institute)

The US Foreign Service Institute rates languages on a scale of how easy they are to learn for English speakers.

The Foreign Service Institute of the Department (FSI) of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3). The list is limited to languages taught at the Foreign Service Institute.

It must be kept in mind that that students at FSI are almost 40 years old, are native speakers of English. and have a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages. They study in small classes of no more than 6. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of directed self-study.

Here are the rankings:

Category I: Languages closely related to English
23-24 weeks (575-600 class hours)

  • Afrikaans
  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Italian
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

Other languages [This category appeared at the end, but I sorted it according to the length of time to learn the languages.]

  • German 30 weeks (750 class hours)
  • Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili 36 weeks (900 class hours)

Category II: Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
44 weeks (1100 class hours)

  • Albanian
  • Amharic
  • Armenian
  • Azerbaijani
  • Bengali
  • Bosnian
  • Bulgarian
  • Burmese
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • *Estonian
  • *Finnish
  • *Georgian
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Hindi
  • *Hungarian
  • Icelandic
  • Khmer
  • Lao
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Macedonian
  • *Mongolian
  • Nepali
  • Pashto
  • Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Serbian
  • Sinhalese
  • Slovak
  • Slovenian
  • Tagalog
  • *Thai
  • Turkish
  • Ukrainian
  • Urdu
  • Uzbek
  • *Vietnamese
  • Xhosa
  • Zulu

Category III: Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers 88 weeks (second year of study in-country)
(2200 class hours)

  • Arabic
  • Cantonese
  • Mandarin
  • *Japanese
  • Korean

* Languages preceded by asterisks are typically somewhat more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category.

Do you agree with the rankings?

Yes, I think these rankings give a pretty good rule of thumb for how difficult different languages are. Rating the difficulty of languages isn’t a precise science, but these rankings and numbers look sensible to me.

I use spaced repetition (Anki) for vocab learning, and that gives lots of statistics on how much time it takes to learn. By my reckoning it takes me at least four times as long to learn a list of words in Mandarin (one of the hardest languages) as it does for a similar list in an easy language like Spanish or Italian. This seems to fit with the foreign service rating scale that says it takes nearly four times as many hours to get to the same level of proficiency in the hardest languages compared to the easiest.

I have studied both Cat I and Cat IV languages and can attest to the time it takes to learn both. Spanish is generally done in six months or less. I’ve seen some people study Arabic for over a year and still only reach a 2/2 proficiency. To provide some perspective, a 2 or 2+ is generally the minimum to achieve any semblance of decent conversation in the target language, and conversation will be rough at the 2/2 level. By rough I mean you won’t be anywhere near forming paragraphs or even grammatically correct sentences of significant length or complexity.

With regards to mnemonics, the techniques are exponentially more useful the closer you stay to the English language. The more distant the target language is from your native tongue, the more difficult it is to apply mnemonic techniques. That’s probably obvious for most users on here though. For Arabic, I have to use the three-letter roots as transliterated English consonants for some words, just because there is no other way to apply a phonetically-matching mnemonic image. Anyone who has studied Arabic should understand what I’m referring to. An example: خبر - to report or inform; the closest English phonetic equivalent is kabara (root: kbr). I use the image of a Ron Burgundy painted in copper, holding a kabar knife (reinforces the image twice using the phonetic sounds).

I will add that once you learn a language in a particular language group (for example Arabic), you can learn a similar language much faster (Farsi for example). That is probably stating the obvious. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t enjoy doing things that make sense so if you study Chinese, your next language will probably be something like Punjab, but I digress.

Hi. I’m a bit surprised you say that, because my experience is exactly the opposite.

For easier languages like Spanish I hardly bother with mnemonics except for the more difficult words which have no resemblance to English or another language that I know. For simpler words I don’t find the mnemonics are worth the time and “brute force” spaced repetition is good enough.

By contrast, for Chinese I am extremely reliant on mnemonics, and I have elaborate systems to remember the sound of the word, the tone, and the written characters for each word. I rely on these heavily because without them I find it extremely difficult to remember the characters. And I don’t think it’s just me - I’ve found learners of Chinese and Japanese to be among the most enthusiastic users of mnemonics, and there are books and other study material available.

So in my experience it’s the languages that are the furthest from English that are most conducive to mnemonics, the opposite to yours. Maybe the difference is that your example of a language that is far from English - Arabic - is less suited to mnemonics than Chinese or Japanese is. Chinese characters, for example, are almost tailor made for mnemonic techniques because they rely on pictures and imagery, whereas Arabic is nothing like that.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Being that I’ve never studied any Asian languages, I can’t at all speak authoritatively to that, though I have seen others on this forum say that Chinese lends itself to mnemonic images easily. Arabic is certainly not like this, and the reason I say that more distant languages from the learner’s tongue makes mnemonic use more difficult is because languages that differ significantly from English for example (and that don’t already lend themselves well to mnemonic image creation I suppose), contain sounds not in the English language. Arabic is full of these and it is difficult to find any English phonetic equivalent to form images from. With regards to the simpler languages, it sounds like you have studied Spanish as well correct? I use mnemonics alot for Spanish, primarily because in conversation, words tend to sit on the tip of your tongue… until you can correctly remember them, which mnemonic images make infinitely easier in my opinion. Once you have used the word in conversation however, your natural memory takes over and you no longer need the mnemonic.