What is a “hard” language?

If you tell someone that you’re studying Japanese, they’ll very likely comment on how hard the language is. And if you’ve studied Japanese, you probably agree that the language is a tough one. But what does that even mean? When we say a language is hard, what are we talking about? After all, babies can learn to speak any language on earth — and so can adults, given enough time and effort. But when you’re learning a language as an adult, there are a few languages that take more time and more effort to progress than others do.

Why is this? By the time we’re adults, we speak our language (or languages) like a master guitarist plays their instrument: smoothly, automatically, and quite beautifully. The process of learning a new language is like that master guitarist learning a new instrument. If you give the guitarist a mandolin, a lot of the skills they already have will help them: tuning the instrument, strumming, etc. A flute, though, requires a very new set of skills. And drums? Our guitarist is practically starting from scratch when they’re studying the drums.

If English is a guitar, then a language like Dutch (a very similar language) is a mandolin. Something like Japanese, though, is more like the drums: you have to learn all-new ways of playing. So this is one of the big factors affecting language difficulty: how different is the language you’re learning from the language you started with?

In this post, we’ll discuss why Arabic, our newest Duolingo course, is often considered a “hard” language for English speakers to learn — the drums, in the musical analogy above. But we’ll also discuss why hard is definitely not the same thing as impossible, and why it’s a challenge that everyone can take on.

Understanding Arabic grammar

One of the things that makes a language hard to learn is how complex its grammar is. Now, every language’s grammar is complex in its own way. For example, try to explain the rules in English of why we say “a girl” but also sometimes we can say “the girl” and also we can say “girls” but also “the girls” but not “a girls” — and if it’s tough to explain, imagine how tough it is to learn! (Those who have studied English as a second language know what we’re talking about!)

Arabic has a lot of grammatical features that are very different from what we have in English. Let’s take the following as an example of this:

  • In English, we say things like “I write,” but “she writes.”
  • Arabic has the following forms (for starters, just in the singular):
  • I write: 2aktub / أَكْتُب
  • You (masculine) write: taktub / تَكْتُب
  • You (feminine) write: taktubiin / تَكْتُبين
  • He writes: yaktub / يَكْتُب
  • She writes: taktub / تَكْتُب

As you can see, there’s an interesting difference between English and Arabic. English only really has different verb forms based on whether I’m doing the writing or she’s doing the writing, etc. Arabic has different verb forms depending on whether it’s a man doing the action, or whether it’s a woman. An English speaker learning Arabic needs to carve out a new space in their brain where they remember, “Okay, when I’m forming verbs, I need to think about gender, too.”

Of course, when you’ve gone through a Duolingo course, you’ve probably seen a sentence like “You run every day.” What would the Arabic version of that be? We don’t know whether we’re talking to a man or a woman — but that fact matters for the verb we’re using! In our Arabic course, we’ve constructed sentences so that they communicate enough context to make the grammatical differences clear. Our first lessons teach a wide range of Arabic names, so that later, we can indicate who the learner is talking to when they ask Where do you live, Rania? or Do you have a cat, Omar? This context allows them to get enough practice to start to internalize these gender patterns.

Arabic alphabet and pronunciation

Arabic has an alphabet that’s different from what’s used to write English. This is what written Arabic looks like:

A sentence in Arabic

The Arabic alphabet is both beautiful and challenging to master. Here are some of the things that make reading and writing Arabic difficult for someone who grew up speaking and reading English:

  • The language is written from right to left. This is difficult both conceptually and technologically — most computer systems were developed for left-to-right languages like English.
  • Letters change shape based on whether they’re in the beginning, the middle, or the end of a word. See, for example, how the letter ب changes shape depending on its position in the word. (Don’t forget — read right to left!)

Shapes of the Arabic letter b

  • Short vowels don’t get written out as full letters. Instead, the expectation is that people reading Arabic will know how to pronounce the words they read. It’s like how English readers know how to pronounce words like “bought” and “tough” even though it’s not obvious from the spelling — but on an even bigger scale. Those skills don’t come quickly! (In our course, we write out these short vowels; this is what’s often done in beginner Arabic courses, to help learners build their skills.)

Arabic is also a language that has some sounds that English doesn’t have. For example, the letter ق is a sound like a k, but pronounced farther back in the throat. English-speaking students of Arabic need to tune their ear to differentiate this sound from ك (pronounced more like the English k). And this is an important distinction to make: there’s just a one-letter difference between قَلْب (qalb, which means “heart”) and كَلْب (kalb, which means “dog”). It would be horribly embarrassing if you wanted to call someone you loved “my heart” but mispronounced the ق!

For all of these reasons, Duolingo has made the following decisions in our curriculum:

  • Our course teaches the alphabet very methodically. The course is structured to introduce a few letters at a time, then give people a chance to practice those letters, then introduce a few more, and so on.

  • We give plenty of practice with the sounds of Arabic. Every unit has phonetic exercises. These exercises either help develop your ability to discriminate one new sound from another or help to develop your understanding of the correspondence between sounds and letters.

  • We’ve made these exercises tricky, too! The challenge level of these exercises will ensure that our learners are forced to engage their brains to internalize the new alphabet.

Different Arabic dialects

There’s another reason that Arabic is hard — namely, you could be totally fluent in Arabic…and still have difficulty talking with another fluent speaker of Arabic.

That’s because what we call a “language” is often actually a blanket term for a whole group of related dialects. Sometimes these dialects are very close; for example, speakers of Australian English can generally understand speakers of American English with only a little difficulty. But dialects can also be very distant. This is the case in the Arabic-speaking world. Speakers of Egyptian Arabic might not fully understand speakers of Yemeni Arabic, who might not totally understand speakers of Moroccan Arabic.

So which dialect should someone study? This is a dilemma that makes it hard to even start learning the language. Many Arabic programs (especially in the United States) have their students start out with Modern Standard Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is considered a literary, educated language — not what people grow up speaking, but what gets used as a common tongue in formal settings in the Arabic-speaking world.

This is the variety we’ve decided to teach as well. Specifically, we’re teaching a less-formal, spoken version of Modern Standard Arabic — not the version that would appear in poetry or formal news broadcasts, but instead the version that would be used once a newscaster stopped reading from their script and started talking to their interviewee. It’s a version of the language that can be used in a formal conversation, but one that also can be used with the widest range of Arabic speakers.

Why learning a “hard” language is worth it

For the reasons listed above, among others, Arabic is a challenging language to learn. If you’re an English speaker, you’ll need to spend more hours studying Arabic than you would studying Spanish to get up to a similar level.

But a harder language is not an unlearnable language. First, Arabic vocabulary might not be as difficult for an English speaker as you’d think — English and Arabic actually share some vocabulary. For example, words for many delightful things (like coffee and sugar and oranges and limes) have been borrowed from Arabic. And second, while Arabic grammar isn’t simple, a well-designed course guides learners carefully through the trickier parts of the language. We take time with the difficult concepts and make sure that the course is never overwhelming.

A guitarist will need time to learn to play the drums well. But the guitarist can learn. And at the end of the day, the guitarist, by learning the drums, will discover all sorts of new things. They’ll sharpen their sense of time and rhythm, for example. And when they return to use their guitar, they’ll know a bit more about playing their instrument well.

Arabic is the same way. The path of learning Arabic won’t be easy or quick. But by learning it, you’ll challenge yourself, sharpen your mind and your language-learning skills, and perhaps learn something about the language you yourself speak. And you’ll be opening up opportunities, as well: you might find yourself, down the road, with the opportunity to speak with some of the 300 million people who claim this language as their own. Or you might get to travel to one of the 25 countries where Arabic is spoken, or you might discover the beauty of classical Arabic poetry. Or you might even just get the opportunity to greet your neighbor in her native language, and perhaps make her feel just a bit more welcome. So the question isn’t whether or not it’s worth it to learn Arabic. The question is whether or not you’re ready for this exciting challenge.

And if you are? You can start learning Arabic, today, right here.