(CNN) – Many of us have entertained the idea of broadening our horizons. Learning a foreign language is an obvious choice.
One of the things I would personally approve of: my individual circumstances were such that at the age of 12 I could speak German, Greek, and English, so languages became my passion and hobby.
My advice is to learn a language because you are also interested in culture and country.
If you like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, learn Russian. If you are going to live in Bangkok, learn Thai. If your partner is Mexican, learn Spanish.
And remember: even though you can take yourself as a tourist in possibly weeks, mastering a language is a long-term commitment that takes years, not months.
Language and diplomacy
After World War II, the United States expanded its influence around the world by training embassy staff in the local languages of the countries where they were located.
These are the best free courses available, though you can still spot a touch of the Cold War on the show (“Where’s the state clothing store?”).
Here are some examples, classified in order of the number of hours it takes the average student to master them from lowest to highest:
Easier (about 600 hours of study)
After only 600 hours of study, you will have no problem settling on the streets of Paris.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP / AFP via Getty Images
Along with Dutch and Norwegian, the popular Latin languages (Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese) require about 600 hours of study to achieve “general professional proficiency” in speaking and reading.
Of these, Spanish and Italian are the easiest to learn for native English speakers, followed by Portuguese and finally French.
They share many words with English, but it is this common vocabulary that creates “false friends”: words in different languages that look or seem similar, but differ significantly as meanings have been derived over time. For example, in Spanish a “pregnant” woman is pregnant, while a French “préservatif” is not something you add to food, but a condom.
Although French and Italian are fairly standardized, you have to choose whether you want to learn Latin American Spanish or Spanish spoken in Spain; they differ as much as American English and British English.
The choice is even more striking with the Portuguese; a long time ago I opted for Brazilian and so far I still don’t properly understand Portuguese speakers.
German (750 hours)
Interested in reading Karl May’s “Wild West” series in its original language? You will first have to spend 750 hours mastering German.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images
One of my German teachers used to joke that it took you a year to say, “I’m traveling on the bus,” but once you’re on the bus, it’s easy.
With masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, intensely conjugated verbs, and extremely strict syntax, German may seem insurmountable to begin with.
On the other hand, the pronunciation and spelling are simple and once you learn the rules (it’s true that many), you’re done.
You will also notice why the Germans never interrupt you during a conversation: they wait to hear the verb at the end to find out what you were talking about.
Malay and Swahili (900 hours)
It is not uncommon for the two easiest non-European languages to learn to use the Latin alphabet.
Malay is the lingua franca of several Southeast Asian countries and has been simplified by its use as a second language by non-native speakers.
For example, the Malay plural is formed by repeating a word twice: buku means book and buku-buku means books.
Similarly, Swahili evolved as a commercial language in East Africa and is described as having an Arabic vocabulary over an African grammar.
He has given us the safari, all the characters from “The Lion King” (Simba, Timon, Pumbaa) and the African American Kwanzaa vacation.
Hungarian (1,100 hours)
If you like a challenge, try Hungarian. It’s like no other European language you’ve heard, except maybe Basque.
I remember a conversation I once had with a friend who insisted that “nouns decline but verbs are conjugated”; except in Hungarian, both decline and conjugate nouns, sometimes together.
Denounce possession (my garden, your garden, your garden, etc.) by putting verbal endings to the noun garden.
Think of the Shakespearean “you take” and “he takes.” In this case, “your garden” would be “the most garden” and “your garden” would be “the garden.”
You may be wondering what happens to the double possessives (my mother’s garden flowers) or the difference between my parents ’garden flowers (plural, singular, plural) and my parents’ garden flowers (plural plural plural) )), but this is where I gave up.
Greek (1,100 hours)
Your next trip to Greece will be much more meaningful if you take the time to study a little Greek.
Courtesy of the National Tourism Organization of Greece
Modern Greek is perhaps the easiest language to learn using a different alphabet.
There’s a cheeky book called “Learn Greek in 25 Years,” but you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to learn the alphabet – alpha males, beta releases, and gamma rays have seen it.
Because, yes, Greek is also a language that has contributed many words to English.
Russian (1,100 hours)
The great advantage of learning Russian is that once you have mastered it, you will be able to understand other Slavic languages such as Czech, Polish or Bulgarian.
It is also spoken and understood in all the former regions of the Soviet Union, from Armenia to Kyrgyzstan.
Hidden behind a Cyrillic veil of mystery, it is one of the most difficult languages to master, to the point that even many Russians do not speak it incorrectly.
But any lover of literature, music and ballet or an aspiring astronaut (Russian is a compulsory subject at NASA) should study a language with more than 500,000 words (some up to 38 characters), where the letter “e” soni eooi the names are “alive” or “dead”.
Arabic (2,200 hours)
It takes 2,200 hours for average native English to master Arabic.
GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP / AFP via Getty Images
There is an urban myth about a pharmaceutical company announcing an analgesic pill with three non-verbal images for international consumption.
The image on the left depicted a woman with a headache. The one in the middle showed her swallowing the pill and the one on the right made her smile after the pain had subsided.
It worked everywhere except in the Arab world, which read it from right to left.
The direction of reading and cursive writing, which may or may not include vocals, are the two main obstacles for Arabic students.
Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, will make you understand everywhere, but colloquial Arabic can be more useful, because once the locals start talking to each other, you lose the plot.
But who can resist a language with 11 words for love, five oath gradations, and about 100 words describing a camel?
Japanese (2,200 hours)
A country that has enriched the world with sushi, karaoke and manga, Japan has many devotees, especially among players and geeks.
But they face an extremely challenging language that uses imported Chinese characters (kanji), away from their original meaning, as well as two syllabaries: Hiragana and Katakana (you have to learn when used).
Counting objects depends on whether they are long and thin (roads), small and round (apples), thin and flat (sheets of paper), wide and flat (carpets) and hundreds of other varieties.
The Japanese you speak also depends on your gender. There is “rough” language for men and more “feminine” language for women, but you have to understand both.
Of course, start a Japanese course at home, but if you want to progress, make pencils in a month of intensive practice in the land of the rising sun.
Cantonese / Mandarin (2,200 hours each)
One of the challenges of mastering Mandarin is learning all the characters.
AFP / AFP / AFP collaborator through Getty Images
Each Chinese dialect is indeed a different language, but Mandarin (Putonghua in Chinese, meaning the common language) is considered the official language in modern China. They all share (approximately) an evolving writing system, called 書面語 (or written language) invented to administer a large and diverse empire.
To further complicate matters, there are two main types of Chinese characters written under the same writing system: traditional Chinese used in Hong Kong and Taiwan and simplified Chinese in mainland China (standardized and simplified in the 1950s for increase literacy in the country).
For example, fly is written as 飛 in traditional Chinese and 飞 in simplified Chinese. They are basically the same character written in two different ways, but pronounced differently when spoken in a different dialect.
Every word written when spoken is mutually incomprehensible between a Mandarin speaker in Beijing and a Cantonese speaker in Hong Kong. If you think it’s weird, keep in mind our number system: the “9” symbol is universally recognized, but “new” is pronounced in English and “must” in Slovenian.
Each word needs to be memorized separately, as its pronunciation cannot be guessed from the writing, but the same could be said of English if one considers plowing, hard and hard.
Meanwhile, dictionaries list words according to the stroke count.
These go from one to more than 60 strokes. The archaic character zhe – which aptly means “detailed” – has 64 strokes.
And then there are the challenges of pronunciation.
In the days of the British Empire, if you were sent to Hong Kong as a civil servant, you first had to pass a music test because all Chinese languages are tonal.
There are four tones in Mandarin: high pitch (say G on a musical scale), ascending pitch (as from C to G), fall (from G to C) and down and then up (C to B to G) – and if you think it’s hard, there are nine tones in Cantonese.
In other words, if you are deaf to tone, you may give up now.
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