I think Anton is right and you could compare French and English similarly. On paper, French speakers generally find English grammar relatively simple, conversely Anglophones find French hard. This is because there are many more elements in French to assimilate for the Anglophone, whereas the Francophone is actually liberated from many complexities of his language when adapting to English.
Here are just a few ideas off the top of my head...
In learning French, Anglophones have to contend with :
- this new concept of gender-specific nouns, which few manage to grasp in speech : "le" and "la" are simply mapped to "the" in English
- more complexity in the use of pronouns (oh and reflexive pronouns don't really exist in English) and the ways they arrange themselves in substituting for nouns. Following this, adjectives have to agree in number and gender with nouns in French.
- the position of adjectives affects meaning; not so in English.
- conjugation of verbs; it's simpler in English, eg. run/runs: in the present tense there are only 2 inflections.
So generally, in most other areas that I can think of, such as the use of prepositions and adverbs, the challenge in both languages is about the same. The areas I describe above nudge French ahead of English in terms of complexity.
Another thing is, English is more flexible with vocab use and the way words can be accorded and sequenced. However, French is a lot more anal.
If French society is so monolingual or unmotivated with regard to learning other languages, then the fact that English is so widely spoken is irrelevant.
I don't think that all languages are equally hard, English grammar is extremely simple, while in most other languages it is much more complicated.
I think that English way of saying things is pretty simple, too. We have 7 cases and English has none; our words can change their forms many times and in English they are almost always the same.
You guys that think languages all are equally complexed are crazy! It is obvious that some languages like Russian, chinese and japanese are way harder than languages like English, french and Spanish. For example when I was at school the french classes were practically fluent while the japanese classes were still learning basic stuff like "where is the post office?".
In any language, the hardest point is definitely the way to put the things, I mean "usage". Some languages obviously have a more complicated grammar than others, but once you've overcome them, then it's all right. Whereas the usage remains hard for a long time. There is an infinite number of proper sentences you can make in a language, but also an infinite number of wrong ones. And you can never be too sure if you're correct, until you have "swallowed up" an enormous quantity of phrases.
Maya, my experience also suggests that you are right. As for me, mastering "usage" in French was much harder than in English or German, or even Serbo-Croatian, which is more complex than French. Ironically, I like French perhaps the most of all these languages, so it is not an issue of motivation, but may be due to the fact that French has a completely different way of putting things. I have just a "flirting relationship" with Mandarin Chinese (for lack of more time), but what I could realise so far is that it has quite a simple grammatical structure, while the usage relies very heavily on idioms, therefore may take more time to master. On the other hand, Hungarian (my native language) has quite a complex grammar in some way, and most foreigners have a rather hard time mastering it, but once you get to learn the basics, usage is not much of a problem (though this may also depend on what your native language is).
French and English speakers have similar problems in similar areas, since the differences between the two languages are the same for speakers of both.
The main problem for native speakers of one language learning the other language is pronunciation. The easiest part is vocabulary.
What about languages like Chinese that basically depend on memorization of characters? Isn't this different from the way one would learn to speak English for example? And don't Chinese children continue to learn new characters well into their high school years?
On a side note, I was thinking about doing the peace corps for two years and I would like to learn either Arabic or Chinese. Do you think I could gain fluency in those two years or will I be starting something that I won't be able to finish? Sorry for changing the subject.
i am chinese and have learnt english for many years and am aquinted with janpanese. i think chinese is most complicated. ^_^
Moreover, for the second lanuage speakers, to memorize the characters is most difficult, but the Chinese grammer is easy, I think. You guys just need to choose the best words and put them together in correct sequence. ^_^
I personally love foreign languages, but I would never dare to start learning Chinese (or any other language with similar characters), because I think it would be impossible for me to learn how to draw all those characters and recognise them. As for the Arabic, their way of writing is also weird, but much easier than Chinese because they have much fewer letters. Roman, Cyrilic and Greek letters are equally simple to me. As my sister said once: "You have to be talented for drawing to learn to write Chinese"....LOL, I agree.
Sanja, you are right to a certain extent: in both Chinese and Arabic, writing is used as a type of ornamental art (being from Bosnia, you may see instances of this on Muslim mosques, where Qur'aan citations are used for ornamental purposes as well). I personally find them beautiful. On the other hand, I think the situation is not so hopeless. Chinese writing uses patterns, and the recommended way of learning to write these characters is to write out whole pages with each one of them, keeping to the order of writing the individual lines. Once you have written them a hundred times, it will work in much the same way as learning to dance: after some practice you will not miss the basic steps any more, although you may occasionally step on your partner's toes. ;-) Of course there are "writing artists" in China or India or the Arabic countries, but they are regarded as possessing special skills by the natives themselves, and you are not required to have their skills to be able to write in everyday life.
Yes, Arabic looks nice. The strangest thing is that they write from right to left.
I've heard they wrote English (or Saxon as it would have been then, I suppose) from right to left, when they carved it in stone. Since the right hand would have been used for the hammer. When they started using quills they had to switch to going from left to right to prevent smudging.
Of course, all of this assumes that the right-handed majority got to make the rules every time.
People always assume that because English is largely free from gender, then it is relatively easy, as though gender is the only difficult thing in a language.
English is complicated in many ways. Our spelling system is one of the most unphonetic in the world. There are eight ways to pronounce "ough." Italians and other people struggle with the pronounciation of "th", and there are two ways to pronounce that in English. Lots of words in English are pronounced differently from the way they are spelt, but other languages are easier to read. For example, in Finnish, a "k" is ALWAYS a "k" and an "l" is always an "l".