Gabe Bokor was born in Hungary in 1937. He attended school initially in his native country, and then in Romania and Bulgaria. Upon graduating from the Russian-language M. Gorkyy secondary school in Budapest, he was granted a scholarship to study Chemical Engineering in Moscow, USSR. After the 1956 Hungarian revolt, he defected, with his parents, to the West and emigrated to Brazil.
   Before the first anniversary in his new country, Gabe passed the high-school revalidation exam and the admission exam to the prestigious São Paulo Polytechnical Institute, where he graduated as a Chemical Engineer in 1963.
   While working during the day, Gabe earned his MBA by attending evening classes at the Escola de Administração de Empresas da Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo.
   He worked in different engineering and managerial positions for the American company Sharples and the Swedish company Alfa-Laval in Brazil, Sweden, Argentina, Panama, and the USA for periods from 1 year to 3.5 years.
   In 1977 Gabe and his wife Catherine settled in the USA and established the translation company Accurapid Translation Services, which they managed until Gabe’s retirement in 2011.
   Gabe is an Active member of the American Translators Association (ATA), and has served as its 3-term Director and 2-term Treasurer, as well as its Ethics chair and Administrator of the Science and Technology Division, among other positions.  
   He is ATA certified in four language combinations, none of which includes his mother tongue, Hungarian. He served as an English-to-Portuguese grader for 25 years.
   In 1997 Gabe established the on-line Translation Journal (, which he managed until 2014.


Language & Languages

by Gabe Bokor

    Abstract: The use of language is the shared ability of all human beings, regardless of their geography, race, or degree of civilization. Infants learn a language instinctively, by imitating adults, but this ability is lost at an age of about 13, after which language learning requires conscious, sustained effort. The difficulty encountered by adults in learning a language depends on the similarity of the language(s) to be learned with the learner’s mother tongue and acquired languages, as well as the phonetics and grammatical complexity of the novel language. The language learner should evaluate the time and effort required to achieve the desired proficiency in the language to be learned, taking into account the purpose of learning and the resources the learner is willing and able to invest in the enterprise.

    Keywords: Language, native, acquired, vocabulary, grammar, phonetics, morphology, syntax.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines “language” as “The system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc., typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure; (also) a formal system of communication by gesture, esp. as used by deaf people.”

The total number of languages spoken in the world is estimated at 7,117 (, distributed as follows:

Asia – 3,000

Africa – 2,144

Americas – 1,061

Pacific – 1,313

Europe – 287


These are admittedly arbitrary numbers, since they depend on what is considered a “language.” The well-known definition that “language is a dialect with an army and a navy” does not tell the whole story, since it does not take into account the evolution of languages (why is Latin considered a language, but the language of Beowulf is just “old English”?), nor does it recognize that some languages (like Kurdish) are spoken by people that do not have a country of their own, and, conversely, some dialects are restricted to a single sovereign country, like Swiss German, spoken only in Switzerland. Many human subgroups, such as families, members of the same profession, people living in the same geographic area and even some individuals use expressions peculiar to this group or individual (idiolect). The conversation of two members of almost any of these groups may sound as a foreign language to an outsider. Siblings, especially twins, have been known to have their own “secret” language.

The number of languages actually spoken in the world is declining, since many of them have only a handful of living speakers, and, by the time you are reading this, some of them may no longer be alive.

In this essay we will discuss only natural human languages, occasionally mentioning engineered languages such as Esperanto, which share most features of natural languages, but not computer languages such as COBOL or Java. Given the number and variety of languages, it is difficult to make statements that universally apply to all languages spoken on planet Earth. In this essay a not entirely successful attempt has been made to avoid, as much as possible, bias favoring the languages the author is familiar with, which are admittedly few in number and tend to be geographically restricted to Europe and the Americas.

Many animals, and even plants, communicate with each other, although very little of this communication has been deciphered by humans. However, as far as we know, humans are the only living beings having and using language as defined above, and all human groups, even those isolated from what we call civilization, have some form of language. For this reason, our species, the “homo sapiens” (the human who knows) could more appropriately be referred to as “homo loquans” or “the human who speaks.”

Human communication using grammatically structured language must have started at about the same time when our ancestors developed the technology to make tools and weapons that enabled them to produce (kill, grow, or manufacture) more goods than was necessary to satisfy their own needs and started to trade the surplus for something their neighbor had and they did not. To negotiate these transactions, something more than grunts and hand signals was needed. Thus, technology gave rise to commerce, and commerce gave rise to language. Obviously, humans living in tropical rain forests, where food is readily available from the surrounding vegetation and fauna, and there is no compelling need for shelter or clothing, have technological and thus linguistic needs different from their counterparts living in the moderate or polar climates. Accordingly, the development of technology and language followed different paths for humans living in different surroundings. The ways climactic factors affect language, both directly through temperature, humidity, and altitude, and indirectly via people's lifestyles, is a complex subject, not yet fully explained by science.

The need for transmitting the technology to the other members of the tribe and to posterity, and for establishing the rules of commerce to be followed by all those involved led in turn to the invention of writing. We obviously do not know much about human language of the era before the first words were recorded on a stone tablet, tortoise shell, or wooden board, just as we still do not exactly know what human speech sounded like before the invention of sound-recording devices. We can only assume that the invention of writing followed shortly that of the spoken word for most of humankind, although there are languages even today that have no established writing systems.

One language with over half a million native speakers and a standardized writing system introduced as late as 1986 is the Sranan Tongo, an English-Dutch-Portuguese creole language also known as Surinamese or Taki Taki. It is spoken by the majority of the population in Suriname. The Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Yemen and Oman--Mehri, Hobyot, Harsusi, Soqotri, Shehri and Bathari--were until recently largely unwritten languages. Of these, Soqotri got a script, developed by the Russian Arabist Dr. Vitaly Naumki and based on the Arabic one, most recently, in 2014. Most sign languages such as ASL (American Sign Language), have no written form. The Brazilian Sign Language LIBRAS and the Nicaraguan Sign Language LSN are exceptions.

We do not know whether the different languages existing today were created independently from each other or developed from one “proto-language” or a small number of “proto-languages.” The one-proto-language theory, represented by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, has been neither validated nor refuted by modern science. The undeniable fact is that the variety of languages spoken on planet Earth today, whether by age, number of speakers, size of vocabulary, complexity of grammar, or any other criteria, as well as the variety of existing writing systems, is hard to overestimate.

Neither do we know how language evolved from animal grunts to grammatical speech, but the trend for the past few millennia for which we have written records, shows that, counterintuitively, the trend has been from more complex to simpler grammar, which is demonstrated by the evolution of grammatical gender in the Western languages. Old English had three genders, as do contemporary German and the Slavic languages, among others: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Grammatical genders all but disappeared in modern English, in which today almost all non-animated objects are neutral (it), with the exception of certain countries and transport vehicles, although pronouns have preserved the gender distinction for humans; for animals, he or she is used when gender is known or relevant, it otherwise. However, cats of unknown gender are often referred to as she, while dogs are assumed to be he. A similar evolution can be observed in most other language families. The three genders of Latin and German have been replaced by two (masculine and feminine) in modern Romance languages and by neuter and non-neuter in the Scandinavian languages, except Icelandic and Norwegian. Dutch has retained the three-gender structure in some dialects and in formal language, while most native speakers use only two genders. Most Slavic languages have gender-differentiated past tense.

Chinese does not have gender-specific words, although it has two different characters for "he" and "she," (他 and 她), which share the same pronunciation (ta) and differ only in the first part of the character, indicative of meaning.

Traditional Japanese makes a distinction between "women's words" (onna kotoba) and "men's language" (danseigo). However, today's educated Japanese women tend to ignore this distinction. The same erosion of gender-specific speech can be observed in the Korean language.

Simplification of language is also manifested, in addition to the reduction in number or disappearance of grammatical genders, in other languages and other language areas.

Informal American English often uses simple past tense ("Did you do your homework yet?") where traditionally present perfect would be used. In contrast, the passé simple (simple past tense) is all but obsolete in colloquial French, but not in the written language. Brazilian colloquial Portuguese has abandoned the mesóclise, or placement of a pronooun used as direct or indirect object between the root and the ending for future or conditional of the verb (dá-lo-ei or enviar-lhe-ia), and it is abandoning the ênclise (placement of that pronoun after the verb -- dá-lo, enviar-lhe), among other evolutionary simplifications of the language.
How Many Words?

One distinguishing characteristic of languages, and one of the few that can be quantified, is the size of vocabulary. While this may seem to be a precisely knowable quantity, it is far from being that. Some languages fuse several words into one, others like to keep them separate. Middle age are two words in English, while the respective cognate Mittelalter is a single word in German. The term Glass surface cleaning is expressed by three words in English, while its translation, Glasflächenreinigung, is one word in German. Should flexed forms be considered one word or several? Should homonyms (such as run as a verb and run as a noun)? Should words borrowed from other languages (such as Schadenfreude), obsolete (crapulous) or “made-up” words such as trembulate count at all?

Isolating languages like Thai and Chinese, and polysynthetic languages like Yupik (spoken by the indigenous people of Alaska and Siberia), have no words in the meaning familiar to speakers of European languages. Instead, the first group has syllables, each of which may be one word with an independent meaning of its own or part of a single concept expressed by two syllables. The second group expresses a complex meaning with a single root and several appended suffixes.

Every language has specialized subsets of words used in the different areas of human activities and under specific circumstances: sports, arts, sciences, slang, etc. For all these reasons, the number of words in any given language is difficult to assess, and the numbers for different languages calculated in different ways are not comparable. The numbers of headwords in existing printed and on-line dictionaries for some of the most widely spoken languages are listed in Wikipedia at (




















The number of definitions in a dictionary exceeds the number of headwords sometimes by a factor of 3 or more.

Example: The headword “patient” as an adjective is defined in Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary as 1: bearing pain and trials calmly and without complaint; 2: being kindly and tolerant; 3: not hasty or impetuous; 4: steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity. “Patient” as a noun adds another headword and another definition for the same word.

The actual number of words in any language is much larger than that of dictionarized words. English is usually considered the richest language in the world, due to English speakers’ almost infinite capacity and willingness to borrow and assimilate words from other languages, as well as to create new ones. The English language has an estimated 1 million words, or about 35% more than those that have made it to the dictionary. In addition to being the world’s largest borrower of words, it is also the largest “lender,” having contributed to the vocabularies of virtually all modern languages.

On the other extreme, Toki Pona, a language created by Sonja Lang, a Canadian linguist and translator with the purpose of testing the idea of minimalism, has less than 150 words formed using only 14 phonemes.

Learning a Language

According to Newsdle,, 43% of the global population is bilingual, 40% is monolingual, and 17% is multilingual. According to the same source, 67.3 million people in the US (20.6% of the population) are bilingual or multilingual. This means that the percentage of monolingual people in the US (79.4%) is twice that of monolinguals worldwide. The main reason for plurilingualism is also different in the US from the rest of the world. While in the US bilinguals are typically immigrants or children of immigrants, elsewhere most plurilinguals are born into plurilingual families or learn their non-native languages later in life. Outside the US it is also more common that individuals use one language or one variant of a language at home, another one within their social circle, and possibly a third one professionally.

Most languages make a distinction between an informal style used in speech and a formal one used in writing. This is true for most modern languages to a varying degree, although few go to such extremes as Arabic and Chinese where the written forms serve, in different ways, to unify the different spoken variants.

The spread of social media and smart phones introduced a third style of communication characterized by extreme informality, use of a special slang, abbreviations, and graphic symbols (emojis). These features tend to prioritize brevity and efficiency of communication, rather than grammatical correctness and linguistic elegance. The learner of a foreign language has to navigate among these three styles, correctly understanding utterances in any one of them and choosing the right one to use according to the circumstance of the moment and the audience.

While at least one foreign language is taught in elementary- to secondary-level schools in most countries, this is far from being the general practice in the US. The lack of Americans’ interest in foreign languages is often justified by the phrase “everybody speaks English,” which may be at least partly true in Western Europe and some countries of Latin America and Asia, but Americans may suddenly find themselves in unfriendly linguistic territory if and when they venture outside the classic tourist locations or outside their professional environment.

With inexpensive air fares making overseas visits increasingly affordable and global trade making Americans more and more familiar with foreign-made and foreign-labeled products, Americans’ interest in foreign languages has sharply increased in the past few decades. The influx of immigrants, even more than their own trips abroad, also introduced Americans to foreign languages and foreign customs. Technology has made it possible to learn a foreign language without going abroad or even without having a flesh-and-blood teacher. Thus, it is not surprising that on-line and recorded language courses have proliferated in and outside the classroom. Foreign languages are also being increasingly introduced in US school curricula, despite a severe shortage of competent foreign-language teachers.

Being familiar with foreign languages not only facilitates communications with people from different cultural backgrounds and access to information not available in one’s own language, but studies show that being bilingual or multilingual may have a physiological effect by preventing or at least retarding the onset of age-related dementia. (Mendez, Mario F. “Bilingualism and Dementia: Cognitive Reserve to Linguistic Competency” The study of foreign languages also benefits one’s better understanding and use of their own native language.

So, what is the best method for learning a foreign language?

The simplest and most obvious answer to this question is: as you learned your mother tongue, at an early age, listening to your parents and other adults in your life, interacting with your friends, preferably all in the country where the language is spoken. Experience shows that not only is language learning easiest and most efficient in early childhood, but a child can also learn more than one language simultaneously or consecutively without one language interfering with the other(s). It is not uncommon to hear a child talking English to mom, Spanish to dad, and Portuguese to grandma, all without a foreign accent and translating idiomatically between those languages.

Unfortunately, around the age of 13, something changes in our brains and our speech-generating organs, and this capacity to learn a foreign language instinctively, as we learn our mother tongue, disappears. For the vast majority of people, learning a new language after that critical age requires a conscious effort involving the study of grammar and vocabulary, as well as careful listening to and emulating the pronunciation of native speakers. Even so, few adults manage to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent and without interference from the grammar and vocabulary of their mother tongues. While adults can achieve fluency and proficiency in several acquired languages, and some individuals, like actors, learn to simulate almost any accent, this ability is far from common.

This essay will focus on language learning at an adult age, using mostly examples from the author’s experience. The reader must be aware of the fact that not all statements made here are applicable to all situations, which will vary according to the language to be learned, the purpose of language learning, the learner’s native language, the language(s) learned previously, the learner’s age, natural talent, dedication, and time available, among other factors.

Language Learning and Machine Translation

The first machine translation systems introduced in the 1950s were rules-based, i.e., they worked on a principle similar to the one used by adults to learn a language: Take a number of words and put them together with the help of a set of grammatical rules. This system has proved to be inadequate for various reasons: First, it had to be re-engineered for each language, since the rules (grammar) of one language cannot be automatically applied to any other language. Second, it did not take into account the context in which the words are used, or the existence of homonyms, i.e., words having the same spelling but different meanings. This resulted in translation errors, just as adult learners of a language are faced with interference of another language’s grammar and vocabulary with those of the language being learned.

Modern machine translation systems such as Neural Machine Translation NMS, introduced in 2014, attempt to emulate the way infants learn their mother tongue: by collecting and processing a large number of actual samples of text, and then finding and applying patterns of use. Since language is not an exact science, computers use statistical methods to determine the most likely optimum translation of a given word or group of words. This requires an amount of processing power that was unavailable just a few years ago.

Regrettably, there are serious obstacles to using the technology of modern machine translation for teaching foreign languages to adults. Our brains are not equipped for acquiring, storing, and processing millions of text fragments from different sources and used in different contexts. For this reason, we’ll have to content ourselves, for now and for the foreseeable future, with traditional methods of language learning: by studying vocabulary and grammar and training our speech-generating organs in the correct pronunciation.

Language Proficiency

Several methods have been devised for measuring foreign-language proficiency.

The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) scale distinguishes five levels of proficiency:

    Superior, and

The first three levels are each subdivided into three sublevels (Low, Mid, and High).

The Inter-agency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale ( that is set by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute also measures language proficiency on a five-level scale with levels 0 through 4 further sbdivided into two sublevels each:

    0, or No Proficiency
        0+, or Memorized Proficiency
    1, or Elementary Proficiency
        1+, or Elementary Proficiency, Plus   
    2, or Limited Working Proficiency
        2+, or Limited Working Proficiency, Plus
    3, or Professional Working Proficiency
        3+, or Professional Working Proficiency, Plus
    4, or Full Professional Proficiency
        4+, or Full Professional Proficiency, Plus
    5, or Native or Bilingual Fluency
The Council of Europe has established a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), where language skills are graded on a six-level scale (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2), A1-A2 being the level of the Basic User, B1-B2 of the Independent User, and C1-C2 of the Proficient User. The highest level of this scale, C2, is not intended to imply native-speaker or near native-speaker competence but it characterizes the degree of precision, appropriateness and ease with the language.

Interpreters’ language proficiency is usually classified as A, B, or C. An individual’s “A” language is usually their native or mother tongue, but can also be a language acquired later in life, but which is now the individual’s language of habitual use. Their “B” and “C” languages are acquired languages used with proficiency decreasing in this order.
What to Learn?

Learning a foreign language involves basically four targets:

   1.   Vocabulary
   2.   Grammar
   3.   Pronunciation
   4.   Non-verbal elements

Learning the vocabulary of a language is the beginning of learning any language and is an endeavor that never ends. We learn new words even in our mother tongue all the time, and even if we could, at a point in time, have learned all the words of a language, new ones are constantly being created and old ones become obsolete or acquire new meanings.

The Collins dictionary defines passive vocabulary as all the words, collectively, that a person can understand. It describes active vocabulary as the total number of words a person can use in their speech and writing. Our passive vocabulary is vastly superior to our active vocabulary, and the number of words we actually use is much smaller than either. We need about 3000 words to maintain an everyday conversation. The active vocabulary of the average native speaker of English is about 20,000 words. That goes up to 40,000 for the passive vocabulary or for the active vocabulary of college-educated people ( The size of individuals’ vocabulary in their native language and their acquired languages is a good measure of their level of education. The size of an individual’s vocabulary in their acquired language(s) is also a good, although not exclusive measure of their language skills such as fluency, understanding, and ability of expression.

Grammar is the set of rules that tell us how to put the words of a language together for correct and efficient communication. Unlike vocabulary, grammar is fully learnable, although few people use perfect grammar all the time. It is also subject to evolution and varies according to geography, the speaker’s social class and level of education, as well as the degree of formality  of the communication. The difficulty in learning a foreign language is influenced not only by the complexity of its grammar, but also by the number of exceptions to its rules and the circumstances under which those rules or the exceptions apply.

Grammar describes the sounds of a language (phonetics), the structure (morphology), meaning (semantics) and origin (etymology) of its words, and the rules of formation of its sentences (syntax). Different languages exhibit different degrees of complexity and difficulty of their grammatical rules. Easy morphology is usually associated with difficult phonetics and vice-versa. Chinese has a simple morphology (no flexed words), but difficult phonetics (one of four musical tones for each word/syllable). Romance languages have a relatively simple phonetics, but a more complex morphology (multiple tenses and grammatical genders). Slavic and Finno-Ugric languages flex both verbs and nouns.

Pronunciation is also learnable, although few people are capable of learning proper pronunciation in their acquired language(s) (lose their foreign accent) after the critical age of about 13. Some languages have sounds that are almost impossible for a grown-up foreigner to emulate. The clicking sounds of the Khoisan languages are an extreme example, but some people, depending on their mother tongue and their natural talent, have difficulty pronouncing the English th sound, the German ö sound or the Danish stöd (glottal stop). Distinguishing between similar sounds, such as the open and closed “e” phonemes in French and Portuguese, can be another challenge to the non-native speaker.

The musical tone of words in Chinese and some other Oriental, African, and Native American languages presents an additional difficulty to the learner. In those languages you must learn not only how to articulate a word, but also which of the musical tones, which may number as many as 12, is associated with it. Of course, Chinese and other pictographic languages are also difficult to learn because the written representation of each word does not directly tell us how it is pronounced. Thus, you can learn how to speak Chinese without learning to read or write a single character and, at least theoretically, you can learn how to read and write without learning how to pronounce a single word (in which case you must identify each character by its translation, if it exists, or its description).

Pronunciation includes not only generating the sounds of a word, but also the intonation and rhythm, the so-called suprasegmental elements (prosody) of the phrase. Therefore, the native speaker will usually recognize a foreigner even if the latter pronounces each word correctly. In addition to intoning their sentences unlike the natives, foreigners also tend to use their speech-generating organs differently and speak in a rhythm that differs from that of the native speaker.

The differences in pronunciation on the sentence level depend, of course, on the languages involved. For example, a question in a Western language can be recognized by the intonation of the phrase. Since in Chinese intonation is part of each word’s identity, a question is marked by a dedicated word, rather than by the sentence’s intonation.

Non-verbal language elements such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice can also be mentioned, together with pronunciation, as parts of a language. Italians’ gesticulation when speaking is well known. Bulgarians signal “yes” by moving their head left and right sideways and “no” by moving it up and down, which can be confused with the opposite meanings signaled by people of other nationalities. The Swedish ingressive “yes” sound is somewhere between a gasp and a slurp. People of different nationalities have different gestures for different things and differing degree of significance they attribute to those gestures, as well as to bodily proximity and bodily contact.

Non-verbal signals can be an important part of interlingual communications, and the wrong non-verbal signals can cause serious misunderstandings.

Total immersion in the new language either in the country where it is spoken or in an institution that ensures exclusive exposure to it is the closest alternative to childhood-type learning. If this is not possible, some of your options include, in decreasing order of efficiency for the first five items:

1.      Periodic visits to the country where the language is spoken, long stay and maximum interaction with the natives;

2.      Hiring a private, preferably native tutor;

3.      Taking a course in a classroom with a live teacher together with as few fellow students as possible;

4.      Purchasing an on-line or recorded course from a reputable vendor; beware, however, of unrealistic promises, such as “We will teach you to speak like a native in 30 days”;

5.      Purchasing a grammar book/language learning manual and attempting to interact with one or more native or almost-native speakers to perfect your pronunciation;

6.      Combination of two or more of the above methods.

Whichever method is chosen, a language cannot be learned at an adult age without conscious and sustained effort. Language is no glue, and it will not “stick” to you, even after prolonged stay in the country where it is spoken. We have all encountered immigrants having lived in their adopted country for decades and still speaking with faulty grammar, poor vocabulary, and a strong foreign accent. In the author’s experience, immigrants who have not acquired language proficiency in their first year in the new country will most likely never do so.

Success in language learning will depend on many factors, such as the language to be learned (how objectively difficult it is and how close it is to the learner’s native language), the quality of the method chosen, the purpose of learning, the amount of time and effort dedicated to learning, and the learner’s natural talent for languages. You can predict your success in learning a new language and choose an optimum learning method by answering the following questions:

·         What is your purpose of learning?

·         What degree of proficiency do you aim at?

·         How much time and effort are you willing and able to dedicate to this endeavor?

·         Should you prioritize speaking, reading, writing, or understanding?

·         Are you familiar with any language other than your native one?

·         If yes, how did you learn your second and possibly subsequent languages and what degree of proficiency did you achieve?

·         Do you memorize better visually or auditively?

·         How many repetitions do you need to learn a word?

·         Do you easily learn to imitate sounds produced by others?
    Remember: Notwithstanding what some vendors of language courses want you to believe, learning a foreign language at an adult age requires serious effort, but if you are willing to pay that price, you’ll see a new world open to you as you become familiarized with people, cultures, and customs different from your own. As a wise man put it: you are as many persons as many languages you speak.
Polyglots and Hyperglots

Polyglot is defined as a person speaking three or more languages. Hyperpolyglot or hyperglot is defined as a person speaking 11 or more languages. These simple definitions, however, need some clarification to make sense.

First, what is meant by “speaking” a language? Do you speak a language if you can introduce yourself and ask for directions to the nearest restaurant? The difference between that level of language skill and being able to converse about an abstract topic as an educated native is the same as between a toddler’s first step and a world-class athlete’s performance.

Second, learning a language involves not only speaking (verbal skill), but also reading, writing, and understanding—skills that can be acquired more or less independently from each other, depending on the language. We have mentioned Chinese, a language which you can learn to speak without learning how to read or write. One of history’s most famous hyperglot, Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849), reportedly “spoke” 30 languages, but in his time and for people in his social position, “speaking” did not mean conversational skills, but the ability to read, understand, and possibly translate sacred texts.

Some languages have dialects so different from each other that they can be considered separate languages for the purpose of speaking or even understanding them. Should the Swiss child, who speaks Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German) at home, but in school learns and professionally will use Hochdeutsch (standard German) be considered bilingual?
Use It or Lose It

If you are or wish to become a polyglot, your job does not end with learning a number of languages. As is the case with any skill, if you don’t practice it, you will gradually become less and less proficient until you lose it completely for all practical purposes. Your mother tongue is less subject to being “forgotten” than your acquired languages, but if you’re out of touch with it for an extended period of time, you’ll certainly experience first some impairment in your use of your active vocabulary, such as difficulty in remembering certain words or applying the grammar of another language to your speech. Language also undergoes changes over time; so, if you live outside your country of birth, when you return there after some years, the natives may find your use of some words and structures old-fashioned, and you may not understand some neologisms.

Your acquired languages are affected even more by lack of use. Those who have learned several languages, must also learn how to keep them alive, an endeavor not unlike the effort of juggling several balls attempting to keep them all in the air.

The good news for polyglots is that we never completely forget a language we have once learned either as a child or an adult. Refreshing a language that has become “rusty” for lack of use is always easier than learning it anew.

“Easy” and “Difficult”

While a human infant can learn any language with virtually the same ease, some languages are objectively more difficult to learn than others for a non-native adult. The ease or difficulty of learning a given language, without considering the learner’s mother tongue depends on

1.      The number and variety of its phonemes (sounds);

2.      The complexity of its grammar and the number of exceptions,

3.      The richness of its vocabulary.

Wikipedia gives the number of phonemes in a number of languages. By this criterion, English is one of the most difficult languages, with 44 phonemes in “general American” English—24 consonants and 20 vowels. It is tied with Danish (18 consonants and 26 vowels), Hamer (an Afro-Asiatic language—26 consonants and 18 vowels), Hindi (33 consonants and 11 vowels), and Wambule (a Sino-Tibetan language with 33 consonants and 11 vowels). It is surpassed only by Norman, an Indo-European language having 48 phonemes (23 consonants and 25 vowels), Nemi, an Austronesian language (43 consonants and 5 vowels), and Kosraean, another Austronesian language, with 47 phonemes—35 consonants and 12 vowels.

On the other extreme, we have Hawaiian (13 phonemes—8 consonants and 5 or 25 vowels, depending on how long and short vowels and diphthongs are classified), closely followed by the engineered language Toki Pona (14 phonemes—9 consonants and 5 vowels), five Austronesian languages: Areare with 15 phonemes (10 consonants and 5 vowels), Gilbertese (15 phonemes—10 consonants and 5 vowels), Nuaulu (16 phonemes—11 consonants and 5 vowels), Saaroa (17 phonemes—13 consonants and 4 vowels), and Dawan (18 phonemes—11 consonants and 7 vowels.

Caucasian languages, the African Taa language, and Mandarin Chinese are difficult because of their almost unpronounceable (for the non-native) phonemes. Chinese also has a large and difficult-to-learn vocabulary.

Basque and the Finno-Ugric languages are considered difficult because of their complex grammar and grammatical concepts that do not exist in other languages.

Japanese has three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana and kanji, the first two being alphabets, each sign representing a phoneme. Kanji is a pictographic system adapted from Chinese.

Some languages like Finnish, Spanish, and Italian, are more or less spoken as they are written, so learning how to read and write requires little additional effort once you have learned how to speak. The Korean script Hangul was designed expressly to reflect pronunciation.

On the other hand, Chinese script and spoken language are almost totally divorced. English is between those two extremes with many words having the same spelling but pronounced differently like bow (of a violin, rhyming with low) v. bow (a polite gesture, rhyming with cow), or spelled differently but pronounced in the same way (homophones), like brake and break or there and their. An extreme and made-up example of non-phonetic spelling in English is the word “fish” spelled as ghoti (gh as in rough, o as in women, and ti as in nation).

Surprisingly, the complexity of a language’s grammar and the richness of its vocabulary have little to do with the degree of civilization of its speakers. Some of the peoples living in the most primitive environments have the most complex languages. This complexity may be manifested in the multiplicity of phonemes as in the languages !Xóõ and !Kung featuring numerous and varied click sounds, or in a maddeningly complex grammar as Dyirbal, an Aboriginal Australian language. The vocabularies of those “primitive” peoples, while lacking many abstract terms and terms of science and technology, are rich in terms relating to their environment, fauna, and flora. Different sources ascribe the Inuit language between 50 to 400 different terms for snow. Despite their age, no one would label the ancient languages of Sanskrit, Greek, or Latin as “primitive.”

Which are the most difficult languages for a speaker of English to learn? The Foreign Service Institute has a ranking system for language difficulty. Here is a small sampling according to Quora ( Category I — Afrikaans, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish. Category II — German. Category III — Indonesian, Swahili. Category IV — Armenian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Hebrew, Hindi, Khmer, Thai, Hungarian, Georgian. Category V — Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese.

By the complexity of their grammar, the most difficult languages are:

  1. Tuyuca: With less than a thousand speakers, Tuyuca is considered the world’s most complex language. It is spoken by indigenous people in a few areas of Brazil and Colombia. It has up to 140 noun classes, each of them being indicated by a different suffix or prefix. This language has three different musical tones, which makes it even harder for non-natives to learn.

  2. Arabic: Arabic adjectives are declined according to case, state, gender, and number. Personal pronouns have 12 forms. Verbs are based on a root made up of three or four consonants. Changes in the vowels specify grammatical functions such as tense, person, and number, as well as mood and functions such as causative, intensive, or reflexive. The existence of multiple regional dialects and a modern plus a classical versions make the learner’s task challenging.

  3. Mandarin: Mandarin is one of the many spoken dialects of modern Chinese, which are unified by a pictographic script. Estimates of the number of Chinese characters vary from 50,000 to over 100,000. An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters, but you will only need about 2-3,000 to be able to read a newspaper. Chinese characters have one to 64 strokes, some of which may indicate the word’s meaning and others its pronunciation. In mainland China (People’s Republic of China), but not in Taiwan, the traditional characters have been simplified, which has resulted in two different sets of characters. Chinese words are not flexed. Special syllables/characters fill the function of prefixes and suffixes of Western languages. As mentioned above, Chinese pronunciation is made difficult by the fact that each word has one of four different musical tones, which lend the word different meanings.

  4. Basque: Basque is one of the few non-Indo-European languages spoken in Europe, together with Maltese, Turkish, Sami, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. Basque nominal and verbal morphology employs mostly suffixes to add grammatical information, though prefixes may be used in some verb forms to express subject and object. Suffixes are also involved in word derivation, which relies on nominal and verbal compounding as well. Questions are marked by a special “question word” zer. Most verbs are flexed with the help of an auxiliary verb. Verb tenses are simple present, simple past, present imperfective, past imperfective, present perfective, past perfective, future in the past.

  5. Hungarian: Hungarian is the author’s mother tongue. It belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages, which also includes Finnish and Estonian. Hungarian has no grammatical genders, and only two verbal tenses—present and past. Future is formed with an auxiliary verb. However, verbs have an objective and a subjective form, a distinction unknown in other European languages. Hungarian merges the verb, its subject, its object, and a mode indicator; thus, szeret is the root of the verb “to love;” szeretlek” means “I love you” (3 words in English); szeretnélek is “I would love you” (4 words in English); szerethetnélek is “I would be able (or would be allowed) to love you” (7 words in English). The prepositions of Indo-European languages are replaced by suffixes, which results in 17 different noun cases. Hungarian also expresses possession by endings. Thus, “house” is ház; “my house” is házam; “in my house” becomes házamban in Hungarian. The ending for plural is tucked in between the word’s root and its first suffix (házaimban).

On the other end of the difficulty spectrum, the easiest natural languages to learn for a speaker of English, according to Babbel ( are:

1.      Norwegian

2.      Swedish

3.      Spanish

4.      Dutch

5.      Portuguese

6.      Indonesian

7.      Italian

8.      French

9.      Swahili.

The engineered (constructed) languages such as Esperanto, Interlingua, Volapük, Lojban, and Toki Pona, are specifically designed for ease of learning. However, their ease of learning (for speakers of the major European languages) is derived from the fact that they were invented by Europeans. They have limited practical usefulness, since they have no native speakers, and no country has adopted an engineered language for official use.

Although all natural languages have a full-fledged grammar, those listed above are considered easy for being non-tonal, using the Latin script, having no hard-to-pronounce phonemes, and their grammar has relatively few exceptions. European languages, especially the major ones (English, French, Spanish, and German) also have more resources available for learning, such as on-line, printed, and recorded courses, dictionaries, grammar books, and trained teachers.

Learning languages similar to one’s native tongue is easier than learning a language of a different language family. Portuguese-speaking Brazilians and Spanish-speaking Spaniards or Latin Americans understand each other almost without any study of each other’s languages. They also consider French an easy language to learn, but German a difficult one. Speakers of Dutch and Scandinavian languages--Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic--hold the opposite view of those languages. Learning multiple similar languages, such as Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, does not require the same effort, and for any non-native adult is not an accomplishment comparable to learning Chinese, Tupi-Guarani, and Inuit. Similarities in vocabulary, grammar, and phonetics among the languages to be learned and to the learner’s native tongue are important factors in evaluating the difficulty in learning and even the degree to which an individual can expect to learn a foreign language.

For all these reasons, the statement “Mr. X speaks y languages” does not make much sense and does not tell us much about Mr. X’s accomplishment unless we define how objectively difficult those languages are, how close they are to the Mr. X’s native tongue and to each other, for what purpose and to what level of proficiency those languages have been learned.

For individuals with no prior contact with any language but their native one, the first foreign language is the most difficult one. All subsequent language learning will benefit from that first experience, the more so the closer the subsequent languages are to the learners’ native tongue and to each other. The saying that learning languages is like purchasing buns in some bakeries: “buy ten, get one free,” is only a slightly exaggerated statement of the fact that learning any language can benefit from languages learned previously.

The author’s mother tongue, Hungarian, has no grammatical genders, so he had to learn the concept of gender with the first foreign language he had contact with, which happened to be German. Having cleared that hurdle, the same concept of genders in Russian, French, and other Indo-European languages no longer seemed so exotic. Similarly, he learned the concept of grammatical verb tenses, which do not exist in Hungarian, when studying French, which facilitated his learning the same concept in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Russians and Chinese must learn the concept of definite and indefinite articles, which their languages lack. Some grammatical features are shared by many different languages; others are peculiar to one or just a few of them. Even some languages that are only distant relatives or no relatives at all may surprisingly share a lot of vocabulary and some grammatical features, like Romanian, Bulgarian, and the Scandinavian languages all having the definite article in the form of an ending.

Almost all languages share some vocabulary with others. Thus, English words, in their original form or with modified spelling and/or pronunciation, can be found in almost all modern languages. This is particularly true in some areas such as the entertainment industry and technology, especially in the computer sciences. Who would recognize the expression “talk show” in its Hungarian form tak só or the word "site" in its Hungarian form szájt or in its Russian form сайт? In some countries English-looking or -sounding expressions have been created that are not used and probably wouldn’t be understood in any English-speaking country. Example: no-break for “uninterruptible power supply” in Brazilian Portuguese. All languages of Europe (except some Slavic languages and Greek), as well as most African and Asian languages, use the Latin alphabet with or without diacritics.


Language sets apart humans from all other living things, while, at the same time, serving as a unifier of all humans, regardless of their geography, race, and degree of civilization. Despite the dazzling variety of languages, this essay attempts to make some general statements that are applicable to most, if not all natural human languages, and which may be useful to a person learning a foreign language for whatever purpose or simply interested in languages.

While all human infants learn their mother tongue with about the same ease as they learn to eat and walk, learning a language different from one’s native one as an adult requires conscious and seldom fully successful effort to prevent one’s mother tongue from influencing the language(s) to be learned. However, whether you decide to learn a new language to read Tolstoy in the original, understand a scientific paper written in German, enjoy an Italian film, or converse with the natives in Thailand, and whatever degree of proficiency you achieve, each language learned opens for you a window to a different culture and a different way of looking at the world.

Regardless of what prompted you to embark on the study of foreign languages in the first place and regardless of the degree to which you ultimately achieve your original goal, you’ll find that the journey itself is worth the effort.


The Oxford English Dictionary Revised 2008. Keyword “Language” n.d. Accessed Feb.16, 2024

Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary, BlackDog & Leventhal Publishers, 3rd Printing, 1994, ISBN 0-9637056-0-1

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Newsdle. n.d. “What Percentage of the World’s Population is Bilingual?” Accessed Feb.16, 2024  

Mendez, Mario f. “Bilingualism and Dementia: Cognitive Reserve to Linguistic Competency”

LTI (Language Testing International) “ACTFL Proficiency Scale” n.d.  Accessed Feb.16, 2024

ILR (Inter-Agency Language Roundtable) “Testing on the ILR scale” n.d. Accessed Feb.16, 2024

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages “The CEFR Levels” n.d. Accessed Feb.16, 2024

Collins Dictionary Keywords “Active Vocabulary” & “Passive Vocabulary” n.d.  Accessed Feb.16, 2024

Language Convo “How many words do you need to be fluent?” n.d. Accessed Feb.16, 2024.

Wikipedia “List of languages by number of phonemes” n.d. Accessed Feb. 16, 2024.

The author can be contacted at: or send a message to Gabe Bokor via Facebook Messenger.