There are pros and cons to learning any language, and every language comes with its own set of difficulties. Some require you to learn an entirely new alphabet (we’re looking at you, Russian; get back here, Mandarin), while others involve the baffling problem of being a little too similar to another language you already know, which can lead to a horrible combination in your head (and out your mouth) that simply no-one understands.
Choosing the right language for you is vitally important before you waste a few weeks on a lost cause. And that’s where we come in: here we examine the differences between two popular languages and how easy each can be for an English speaker to get to grips with.
First up, let’s take a look at the Italic language of Spanish versus the Germanic language of...German:
Perhaps the number of people worldwide who speak a language can have an impact on how easy it is to learn. For one thing, the more people who know it the more people you’ll find to practice with. And of course, if a whole load of folks have managed to get their head round it, how hard can it be?
According to Ethnologue: Languages of the World, a web-based language statistics publication, Spanish is second only to Mandarin as a worldwide language, with 415 million native speakers worldwide as of 2013. By contrast German can only muster 90 million people, which is a bit disappointing given the population of Germany is something like 82 million. The statistics are tentative but the disparity is clear, and Spanish romps home by a landslide.
Breathe a sigh of relief: both languages share the same alphabet we’re all used to...well, up to a point. Spanish does introduce the peculiar-looking ñ, which makes a ‘ny’ sound, but apart from that it’s pretty standard stuff.
German, though, has some explaining to do. Principally: what on earth is this?
No, it’s not a capital B, it’s what the Germans call an ‘esszet’, which has the effect of a double ‘s’ in English but looks like a hippo in a ballet dress. Add to that the umlaut (which makes various vowels sound totally different) and it’s clear that once again Spanish has the edge.
Pronunciation and sounds
Each of the two languages make the vocal cords work for it despite using more or less the same set of letters. Spanish for example has stubbornly refused to standardise its pronunciation of the soft version of the letter ‘c’ across the world, so whereas one country will pronounce it as an 's', another, naming no names (Spain) will demand that Barcelona becomes Barthelona and Valencia becomes Valenthia. Also, sometimes a ‘b’ will actually be a ‘v’, but when an English speaker tries to attempt it they sound quite daft. And then you have the double ‘l’ – a letter that becomes a ‘y’ sound in words like ‘pollo’ and ‘calle’. Unless you’re in Argentina, where that same sound is a soft ‘j’ or ‘sh’’. Keeping up?
German, aside from its letter ‘z’ being pronounced ‘tz’, is a lot kinder when it comes to pronunciation. It does of course mess about with those fiendish umlauts, but we can’t hold that against it twice so it’s a German win in this one.
The sentence structure is another difference between the pair. Spanish generally follows the English pattern of subject-verb-object, regardless of tense, meaning that the one potential hurdle of where words actually go in a sentence is removed.
German seems intent on making life hard for us when it comes to the past tense, by shifting the past participle to the end of the sentence, separated from the subject and auxiliary verb by the various other words in that sentence. Even the subject will shift around from time to time. For example, gestern habe ich Bier getrunken (‘yesterday I drank beer’) has words scattered all about the place as though the beer in question was just a little too strong.
However, though it involves a difference from English, when you’re learning German it does seem to follow a curious logic and is actually quite an easy (and enjoyable) aspect of the language to get your head around, so we’ll call this one a draw.
In a tight encounter, two wins for Spain, one for Germany and one draw mean that Spanish comes out as the easier language to learn. If you’re looking to pick up a quick language it can take an average of about 600 hours to master Spanish, which is on the lower end of the scale.
Not all language learning is about taking the easy route though, and if you’re up for the challenge German may be the one for you. There’s no definitive measure of how long it takes to learn German but a fair estimate would be around 1,800 hours for fluency, and a few hundred hours less for a decent level of proficiency.