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There is a fairly standard ranking of the difficulty of learning various languages for English speakers, based primarily on its similarity to English. (Note: I've seen some contradictory information about the list). Some of them are fairly clear (e.g. Spanish, French, and Italian are Category 1 - i.e. "Languages closely related to English," considered relatively easy for English speakers to learn). Category 1 languages are estimated to take 23–24 weeks (575–600 class hours) of study to learn.

A Category III Language is defined a language which is "quite difficult for native English speakers" with an estimated learning time of "88 weeks (2200 class hours) (about half that time preferably spent studying in-country)".

There are several other categories (Category II and Category IV) as well depending on the estimated time and difficulty of learning them. Most of these are what you'd expect, too - for example, Mandarin Chinese is regarded as a Category IV or Category V language (depending on which source you read) - i.e. extremely difficult for an English speaker to learn.

Some categorizations are very odd, though. For example, Dutch and Afrikaans are Category 1 languages (relatively easy for English speakers), but German is a Category 2 language. This seems a little arbitrary to me. Based on the time estimates for learning the languages, this means that the list compilers expect that it will take at least 25% longer to learn German than it take to learn either Afrikaans or Dutch (750 hours of classroom instruction vs. 575 - 600).

How did they determine this? For example, why do they think that German is 25% harder than Dutch? Was this list based on actual statistical studies? If so, how were the studies conducted?

Also, do they rank rare languages (e.g. the Navajo language)? How did they decide which languages to rank for the list and which languages to leave out? Has anyone ever tried to apply the same methods to any of the languages that the FSI didn't study?

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    Welcome to Language Learning Stack Exchange :-) And an interesting first question! – Christophe Strobbe Jan 11 '18 at 19:53
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    @ChristopheStrobbe Thanks :) – EJoshuaS Jan 11 '18 at 19:53
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    I second what @ChristopheStrobbe said. This is a great first question! – fi12 Jan 12 '18 at 1:45
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The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) provides language teaching to diplomats and other U.S. government employees. These diplomats are then sent abroad. My understanding is that the countries where the U.S. want to send diplomats determine the languages that are taught at the FSI. For this reason, the FSI does not teach Navajo, Esperanto or Klingon (that is, until the Klingons want to establish diplomatic relations with humans).

Since the language courses taught at the FSI need to prepare people to work as diplomats, the FSI's definition of "mastery" is a bit different from how other schools define this. Shawn Kobb explains on the Fluent in 3 Months site that (emphasis added),

While daily conversation skills will be important to our lives, the test requires a specific high level of ability in some very challenging subjects. Typically in our final exam, we will be expected to converse at length in topics such as the environment, the political system of the United States, education, military, and countless other topics that the more casual language student may not be interested in.

He also adds,

In addition to speaking on these complicated topics, we must also interview a native speaker in the foreign language and then translate it to English.

As you can see from figures such as "23–24 weeks or 575–600 class hours" (category I) and "88 weeks or 2200 class hours", one week has 25 class hours, which is really intensive.

With regard to the categorisation of languages, Paul Pimsleur wrote in his book How to Learn a Foreign Language (1980, reprinted 2013) that the FSI rated languages

based on the difficulty their students have had over the years in mastering them.

In other words, the FSI tracked how much time students needed to reach the required level (roughly C1 according to Shawn Kobb), and based the categories on these findings. Of course, they can/could only do this for languages they actually teach/taught. Navajo will not be added unless they start teaching it.

In Paul Pimsleur's book, there are just four categories, not five. German, French and Spanish are all in the first category, while Dutch is not listed (the list is probably not exhaustive). Lists with five categories may be more recent than Pimsleur's book. Having German in a more "difficult" category than Dutch might be explained by the case system, which Dutch does no longer have. (Even among native speakers of Dutch, German has a reputation as a difficult language.)

  • Just to add some context, all of this is based on the relationship of difficulty for an ENGLISH language speaker. – Karlomanio Jan 30 '18 at 21:31
  • @Karlomanio That's right. As the first sentence in the question says, this is about the "difficulty of learning various languages for English speakers". – Christophe Strobbe Jan 31 '18 at 10:34

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