FSI Language Difficulty Ranking – Don’t Let it Put You Off

The Foreign Services Institute (FSI) has developed a difficulty ranking of languages based on the time it will take an English speaker to learn the different languages. You can see the ranking here: https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

It ranks the languages on their similarity to English. For example, Spanish and Swedish are in category 1, requiring an average study time of 24 weeks. At the other end of the scale are Chinese and Japanese, ranked category 4, and requiring a study time of 88 weeks.

Of course, there are variables – does the language learner live in the country where the language is spoken? Is the language learner a “natural”? Does he or she pick up languages easily? How much opportunity does the learner have to practice the language?

Over the years, I have studied a number of languages. My language learning experiences do not correlate to the ranking. For example, I spent five years studying German in school. German is category 2, which should take approximately 36 weeks to learn. I struggled with the grammar, and didn’t get beyond the most basic level, even though I enjoyed learning it and spent much longer than 36 weeks studying it. I found Japanese to be much easier to learn. For me, the grammar was a lot easier than German. I think it is ranked so highly because of its writing systems. There are three to learn – two can be learnt in a few days, one takes considerably longer. Another reason it is ranked as the most difficult is its honorifics, although if you live in Japan, you get used to these pretty quickly.

I am now studying Mandarin Chinese, another language ranked category 4. Having a background in Japanese is really helpful, and I am progressing at a satisfactory pace. In fact, I am finding it a lot easier than I find French, which I have been trying to learn for a while. French is category 1, and should be easy for me. For some reason, it isn’t. Maybe I just don’t dedicate enough time to it. Maybe I’m just not a natural when it comes to European languages. I also want to learn Russian and Korean. Russian is category 3, and Korean category 4. I have dabbled in both, and in the few hours I have spent on both languages, I have made much more progress in Korean, despite already being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet, and only having a basic grasp of the Korean characters.

Everyone learns differently. Everyone has different motivations for learning a language. Don’t let the difficulty ranking put you off learning a language you really want to master. If you have struggled with an “easy” language like me, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to find a “difficult” language impossible. You might be suited to the more difficult languages. Try it and see. 

16th February 2020 – Japanese

It was Sunday, so I had some extra time to spend reading. I’ve nearly finished the novel Watasareta Bamen, and three new novels arrived today, just in time! I’m going to have a rest from Matsumoto Seicho’s novels and try something different. I ordered a series of three books by Okuda Hideo. Here they are. I hope to start the first one tomorrow or the day after.


Total study time: Reading – 2 hours

16th February 2020 – French

I learnt irregular verbs, such as partir, dormir, and sentir, and the difference between partir, sortir and quitter. I also learnt verbs which are similar to venir, and dire, lire and ecrire. I did OK on the exercises, so was quite pleased.

I then did some shadowing using the second passage from Easy French Reader. It took about half an hour, but at the end I could speak along with the narrator.

Total study time: Grammar – 1 hour, shadowing – 30 minutes

16th February 2020 – Chinese

I did the 4th practice test from 2018. I understood a lot more on the listening section. I was able to pick out full sentences rather than just keywords. I don’t know why my ear has suddenly got better, maybe it’s all the listening I’ve been doing while driving.

Anyway, I only got four questions wrong. Two of those were on the writing section, and two were on the listening section. I got a perfect score on the reading.

I think it’s time for me to apply for the test in April! (I just looked at the website, and the April test will only be held in Tokyo. That’s miles away from where I live, so I’ll wait and take the test in May or June. More time to study!)

Total study time: HSK practice test and review – 1hr 30 minutes