Some languages just seem easier to learn than others. Why is that?

Catherine Roberts

There are surprisingly a few reasons, cognitive and cultural. There are many individual factors that change how easy it is to learn a language. These include your aptitude, motivation, learning style, and even your personality. One of the most important factors can be when you learn a language. If you learn a language from a young age, it’s likely you learnt the language without remembering what you did. As you grow older it can be more difficult (though not impossible!) to master a new language. Learning how to make new sounds, like tones in Mandarin, can be tricky.

The Critical Period Hypothesis suggests you need to learn a language before a certain time (often around 13/14 years old). Otherwise, you’ll never learn a language. This is highly unlikely, as many older people learn new skills, including languages, throughout their lives. A weaker form of this hypothesis states that it’s harder to learn but you won’t sound like a native speaker. But fear not! If sounding “native” is your dream, there is still hope. Muñoz & Singleton (2007) found that some Spanish-speaking late acquirers of English were rated as having ‘no foreign accent’.

A Romantic Elderly Couple Celebrating Their Anniversary. Photo by Y. Shuraev, 2021, (Pexels).

The language you are learning can also be the issue! Languages that are more like our first language seem easier to master. Linguists have grouped similar languages together into language families. Just like biological families, language families have common “ancestors”. In a biological family, you may share the trait of blue eyes with your cousin. Languages in the same family may share features such as the same sentence structure.

So, how similar your first language is to your new language can change how easy you find it to learn. For example, Murakami and Alexopoulou (2016) found articles in English (a, the) were more difficult to learn for Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Turkish speakers. However, they were less difficult for German and French speakers. Articles do not exist in Japanese, Korean and Russian. Turkish has no definite article (the) but does have indefinite articles (a, an). While French and German both have (many!) articles.

German text on pieces of paper. Photograph by S. Kang, 2020, (Pexels).

Social factors can also impact our learning of a language. Access to quality education can mediated by socioeconomic status (SES). Kids from lower SES backgrounds perform worse than higher-level SES peers in first language abilities. This seems to also be true for second language learning. Trebit et al. (2021) found SES had significant impact for kids in regular language school programs.

Some languages are viewed as more prestigious or more useful to learn than others, and so are prioritised in language teaching. This can impact access to education in that language. You might really want to learn Garrwa, but if nobody speaks or teaches it, you’re going to have a tough time! This is a fundamental truth of languages. A language needs a community to speak it. Many indigenous languages, around the world and in Australia, are endangered because of a decreasing community of speakers. If a language loses all its native speakers, it becomes extinct.

There are many reasons why learning a language can be difficult. There are many reasons to learn it anyway. And if you learn a language, no matter how hard it may be to learn, you’re keeping that language alive.


Pace, A., Luo, R., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). Identifying Pathways Between Socioeconomic Status and Language Development. Annual Review of Linguistic, Vol 3, 3, 285–308.

Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. (2007). Foreign accent in advanced learners: Two successful profiles. Eurosla Yearbook, 7(1), 171-190.

Murakami, A., & Alexopoulou, T. (2016). L1 influence on the acquisition order of English grammatical morphemes: A learner corpus study. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 38(3), 365-401.

Trebits, A., Koch, M. J., Ponto, K., Bruhn, A.-C., Adler, M., & Kersten, K. (2021). Cognitive gains and socioeconomic status in early second language acquisition in immersion and EFL learning settings. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.