Difficulty of writing and speaking English?
November 23, 2009 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Is English much more difficult than most languages to speak and to write?

I have a good friend who is a high school English teacher. He is frustrated by the many errors in the papers he grades. Some common errors: "Your" for "You are"; misuse of the apostrophe, such as "apple's for sale"; improper grammar such as "Me and him went to the game".
We are wondering if students in other countries speak and write incorrectly as much as American students do? I speak a little Spanish, and I realize Spanish is an elegant, easily pronounced and spelled language, with a grammatical structure that maybe makes more sense than that of English. But French? And how about the convoluted syntax of German?
Multi-linguists of the hive mind, what do you think?
posted by ragtimepiano to Education (37 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have been told by people who know such things that basic English is one of the easier languages to learn, but fluent English is one of the harder, because of all the exceptions due mostly to its mashed up ancestry and vestigial bits from other languages.

The examples above don't seem like problems of fluency, though. The homonym and apostrophe problems are just from being poorly taught. The "me and him" example seems like a problem of competing dialects.

I don't know how current students compare to previous ones. The letters from my great great grandfather have lovely handwriting and abominal grammar and words that are just plain old incorrect. The handwriting suggests to me that he DID go to school and the rest suggests to me that he didn't get too much past the handwriting level (what, 5th grade?), and didn't spend a lot of time reading.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:36 PM on November 23, 2009

I realize Spanish is an elegant, easily pronounced and spelled language

I hear pronunciation errors and see spelling mistakes or netspeak in Spanish all the time. Spanish has some logical rules, but even those fly out the window at times. I wouldn't say it's more "elegant" by default either. Language is beautiful depending on how you use it.

English is my native language and Spanish is my second. I'm conscientious as well, and that makes me careful to get my grammar and usage correct no matter what language I'm speaking or writing.

As far as non-native English speakers I know, most have no trouble if they are taught properly and speak/spell/write with care. For example, my German cousin sometimes asks to make sure she's using the correct term/form, and she usually is. She's studious and careful.

Your friend's students may just not care enough to make sure or have previously been taught poorly.
posted by cmgonzalez at 2:57 PM on November 23, 2009

As an American who grew up learning English and then learned German, German is relatively difficult to begin learning: you have to learn all the grammar at once. (I take that back. You can get by with just the present tense. All the time. ... but your fluency and conversational abilities are heavily compromised)

That being said, there's a "click" moment when it all seems to fall into place and make sense. ... that moment is awesome, but it's frustrating 'til you get there. Having asked the same question of my German teachers in Berlin and Hamburg, they all agreed that German was a relatively difficult language to start, but once you understand how all the grammar fits together, it's quite easy and just a matter of vocabulary.

From m'dad, who learned English after speaking German his whole life, he echoed small_ruminant: for him, English was very easy to pick up, but fluency took years, and he still (almost thirty years later) has occasional difficulty with word order.

When my girlfriend and I chit-chat, she can tell when I've been talking to m'dad: my prepositional phrase order switch and occasionally verb placement in the sentence will be just a hair "off". In that sense, it's rarely grammatically incorrect... just awkward to a native speaker. ("Yeah, we went today, to the store, to buy groceries" instead of "We went to the store to buy groceries today"; the German "Temporal, Causal, Modal, Location" order sounds a bit backwards to an American ear)

(Also, it's hilarous, to read something, that my dad, has written, because comma placement, seems to have been, added with scatter shot, from a, shotgun)
posted by Seeba at 3:05 PM on November 23, 2009

As a native speaker of (US) English, and having learned some Spanish in high school and college, Spanish has it's share of tricks and problems. Have you tried to roll Rs for the first time as an adult? And the placement of accents on Spanish words is logical to a degree, but can still be trickier than imagined.

I doubt there is any major language without it's set of exceptions to the rules, tricks in proper pronunciation, or peculiarities in spelling. Try to say enough things, and you're bound to break rules somewhere.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:07 PM on November 23, 2009

I used to TA for my university's history department - I'm OLD, dangit, so this was before netspeak became so omnipresent! Anyway, I graded essay exams and recall that the kind of errors you mentioned are really common - the misused apostrophe, the inability to distinguish between "your" and "you're", and colloquial dialect such as "ain't got" or "me and him went." The majority of the students making these errors were native English speakers.

This is just my opinion, but I don't think this is due to English being that difficult to learn (although I find it much more mystifying than Spanish and Japanese, two of the other languages I have studied; conversely, I find Russian to be even more unforgiving than English). I think it comes down to this - some people care, some people don't. And most don't. If they can make their point, that's good enough for them.

Oh, and people are lazy :)
posted by chez shoes at 3:07 PM on November 23, 2009

The question of the relative difficulty of English has been tackled in other threads - but the situations you're discussing are something else, actually. Every language has its weird quirks that cause problems for some native speakers / writers.

French has a similar problem with words that sound the same but are spelled differently. "Passé," "passer" and "passez" are all pronounced the same and are (essentially) forms of the same words. I can't tell you how many times I've encountered situations where someone's used the wrong one of these spellings, leaving me (a non-native French speaker) to ponder how they came up with that specific construction . . . the thought that a native speaker could make such a mistake doesn't usually occur right away to me.

Serbo-Croatian (my language), German and Russian all have case constructions that I've heard native speakers fumble. This doesn't happen in English (except in a handful of cases), because English doesn't really have this concept.

As a specific example of the unique problems in a language, Hungarian has an interesting grammatical construction, which is how it conveys the idea of being "in" a city. They do this by adding an ending to the city . . . basically "-ban" (if there is an "a," "o" or "u" - or some variation thereof - in the root word), or "-ben" (if there isn't.) So you have:

Parisban = in Paris
Tokyoban = in Tokyo
Berlinben = in Berlin

This isn't too hard, except that this rule doesn't apply to cities within Hungary and cities which were formerly part of 'greater Hungary' (when using their Hungarian names.) These take "-n," "-en," "-on" or "-ön," also depending on the vowels in the root word.

So you get:

Budapesten = in Budapest (not "Budapeston," because the root word is "Pest.")
Kolozsváron = in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, in Romania.)

. . . and so on. Basically, you're "on" a Hungarian city, "in" a non-Hungarian city.

But there are weird exceptions. A Hungarian city, Pécs, has the form "Pécsen," but there's an older form people use for "in Pécs," which is "Pécsett." I suppose both forms are correct = Google seems split on the issue . . . but people argue vociferously about which is "right."

Similarly, Debrecen tends to take the form "Debrecenben," although it's a Hungarian city and ought to be "Debrencenen." But that sounds weird to people, so . . . they use the foreign form.

Hungarians screw this up more often than you'd think, and to those who take their language knowledge seriously, this is really a bother. But it's nothing you'd even think about doing wrong in English, where to be "in" a city is to be any city.

All languages have these weird problems, and they're in no way indicative of the overall difficulty in learning the language. When you think about it, the 'mistakes' your friend's students make are actually pretty easy to fix with about five minutes of patience.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:16 PM on November 23, 2009 [10 favorites]

Misspelling in French is very common, at least among my age group when I was living there for a short time. Like with English, but with cedilla and accents.
posted by fiercekitten at 3:16 PM on November 23, 2009

I was raised bilingually in Dutch and Frisian, and was taught to write in English, German, French, and some Latin and Greek as well, at my secondary school [called Gymnasium, yet not your kind of gymnasium]. Judging that experience, I'd say English was the easiest language to learn, by far. Because the many weirdnesses in the spelling actually helped me to remember those words.

German has indeed a much more complicated syntax, just as French, because the nouns have genders, that most often cannot be guessed.

The big caveat in this is that movies, television series, and pop music, is predominantly in English as well, in the Netherlands. Much more of that language is on offer, than of the other two. The difference being: you cannot escape to hear English, when switching on the telly or radio, and searching for something that'll interest you, but you'd really have to look for French or German.

And, I've found that my theoretical knowledge of the English grammar tends to be a bit better than most native speakers have, because I was taught a lot more about the basics.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:19 PM on November 23, 2009

As a native English speaker with a fair amount of linguistics under my belt, I would say that it's not the easiest language I've seen in terms of writing and speaking, but it's not the hardest either.

We haven't had a real spelling reform since spelling was codified, which is a problem when the system of orthography preserves things like pre-Great Vowel Shift vowels; we spell more or less the way the prestige dialect was spoken a few hundred years ago. (French is in pretty much the same boat.)

Of your examples of errors, two of them involve homophony and errors in apostrophe placement; a spelling reform ain't gonna fix homophones, and I really don't know how to make people learn the convention of where apostrophes go. As for "me and him went to the game," that presumably is the students attempting to write down what they actually would say; I don't think the problem there is with English per se but rather with the fact that the students need to learn that the register of formal, academic English is not the one that naturally comes out of their mouths.

And yes, of course people make errors in other languages. I took two years of Russian in college; many of my classmates were native Russian speakers who could not read or write, and they had a hell of a time learning to spell. (Russian is decently easy to read -- thank you, orthography reform -- but a pain to spell, thanks to vowel reduction.) They also, if my professor was to be believed, made a bunch of usage errors typically made by Americanized Russian speakers -- particular ways of constructing the possessive, a less complex set of verbs of motion, and so on.
posted by sineala at 3:22 PM on November 23, 2009

I don't think it's a matter of English being too "difficult" per se (and trying to establish a language's difficulty is a somewhat problematic exercise anyway) but rather that public school English education in many parts of the US just plain sucks. As an anecdotal data point, I have a German exchange student in one of my classes this semester, and she writes much more fluently, coherently, and elegantly in English than do many of my native-English speaking students. If I had to guess, my German student has probably had much more rigorous training in English grammar than most of my US students have ever had. And once they're in college, it's almost too late to try to change the bad habits they have internalized.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 3:25 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been teaching English to non-native speakers for a few years, and have noticed that they just don't make the same errors that native speakers do.

Consider should of. Given its basically identical pronunciation to should have, you would think that my younger students would make this mistake all the time. But they don't! Perhaps because they learned have (I have a pen) and should (you should go to the doctor) relatively early on, and only later come to should have (I should have been nicer to my ex-boyfriend.) as a separate and totally different and highlighted-for-meaning-in-a-lesson way composed of these two other parts with meanings they already know.

Native speakers don't get this, as they're immersed in all kinds of language from day one.

Some errors Polish students make that native speakers, for the most part, do not:

We mustn't go to school today! It's Saturday. One could say that "must" and "have to" are roughly synonymous, but "mustn't" and "don't have to" are not.

I've met you yesterday, don't you remember? We usually use "I met", a simple past form, rather than the perfect "I've met", with "yesterday."

What does mean _________? Auxiliary verbs and word order are harder if you're translating from your first language to English all the time.

Keep in mind, finally, that the sounds of words and how they are spelled is complex in English, unlike many other languages. Even Polish, notoriously "hard to pronounce" for English speakers, has a comparatively simple sound-spelling correspondence system.
posted by mdonley at 3:26 PM on November 23, 2009

I speak various amounts of German, French, Polish, Russian and Spanish so any comparisons I make, it's to these languages.

I would say English is very easy to learn on a basic level - spoken communication There are fewer pronouns (no proper forms), pronouns are required and fewer words used in general conversation. There's even a version of english named Basic (Simple) English, which simplifies English down to 850 words.

I have a theory that English is so easy to use, even if spoken very poorly, because we're used to communicating with non-native speakers. Look at the history of the world's largest english speaking countries: England was a huge colonial power that spread the english language around the world, and took a lot of immigrants in at the same time. America, Canada and Australia are countries made up of immigrants, for most Indians English is a second language.

Reading and writing are a whole other ballgame. The non-centralized nature of its development has caused English to really become a hodgepodge of other languages. Words that sound the same but are written completely different, words that look nothing alike on paper, but have the same pronunciation. Crazy apostrophe rules. Heck, I used to teach English and I just had to think whether I needed to use "it's" or "its".

All that said, most of the errors you've pointed out are common, lazy mistakes. Everybody makes those, in every language. Polish, for example, is very strict as far as reading and writing go. Poles don't ask, "how do you pronounce this?" - every non-imported word is pronounced the way it's written. They don't spell out their names, Bożysław Jagniątkowski is as simple to read as Jan Nowak, and as simple to write.

Still, there are a few errors to be made: some sounds can be written in two ways (like u and ó), some words should be run together (z nad => znad), etc. And still, every day I read auction listings, forum posts and IM messages with every kind of error you've mentioned. Some people don't realize they're making mistakes, others don't proofread, many don't notice but most of them just don't care.
posted by jedrek at 3:30 PM on November 23, 2009

Native German speaker here who's majoring in English right now:

The worst aspect of learning English is IMHO the difference between spelling and pronunciation - while German has pretty much a 1:1 relation between graphemes and phonemes (again, exceptions prove the rule) it's often a guessing game how to spell an unknown English word. This can make looking up unknown words quite difficult.

Another advantage of the German being written pretty much as it is pronounced is that it is quite tough for spelling errors to achieve the same epidemic spread as in some English speaking forums: many dialects of English have a tendency to move unstressed vowels towards a schwa sound, so even if a word is spelled incorrectly this would be not apparent if it is pronounced as written. This might also be a reason why the confusion of homonyms like "they're / there / their" happens so often.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:30 PM on November 23, 2009

I have read a number of times that Japanese is the most difficult of all languages to learn for a non-native. Problems in English for non-natives generally because of idioms.
posted by Postroad at 3:31 PM on November 23, 2009

I am not sure about Spanish, but although Portuguese is straightforward to pronounce given the written word, it is hellish to spell. As hellish as Portuguese may be, French is much worse. Don't even get me started with Chinese and Japanese.

I say this as a native Portuguese speaker who only learned English at a fluent level in his late teens: English is a walk in the park compared to any other language I have had contact with.

I think the mistakes your friend is being faced with has little to do with the language itself. Instead, I'd hazard to guess it has more to do with his students not reading much, and writing even less. It matters little how you spell something if you never write anything down, and if you hardly ever read anything more than a few sentences long. Moreover, in certain environments there is little pressure for people to spell properly. If you are a kid and your peers mock you when you misspell and/or use improper grammar, you end up learning the proper rules pretty quickly. In an example of the other extreme, you can see that this is how languages evolve -- if enough people make the same mistake, it is not even perceived as a mistake, and eventually becomes the norm, as there is no pressure to correct it.

My written Portuguese is abhorrent. Why? I think it is because I have read a handful of Portuguese books during my whole life. I didn't have to do all the readings for university entrance exams, nor I did not have to write the essays for those exams (I left for Canada in high school). I only really started reading after moving to Canada, and I have read quite a bit since then.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 3:33 PM on November 23, 2009

DiscourseMarker's German student reminded me of when I landed into a 9th grade English class here in Warsaw in 1993. I had lived in the US for the past 9 years and my English was perfect: it was my native language. My teacher told me to conjugate some verb in the present perfect tense. I had absolutely no idea what the hell that was.
posted by jedrek at 3:37 PM on November 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think small ruminant had it right out of the gate: English is one of the easier ones to get a foothold in and one of the most damnably difficult to get to fluency: the endless series of special cases, obscure dialect words, and homophones make it daunting. I am a native speaker myself, but I have studied a dozen or so other languages and work in an mostly English-speaking environment where the majority of speakers are not native speakers.

I married a non-native speaker when I was young. I recall my wife's onging attempts to improve her English, and her frustration at the mess that it seemed to her. Once:

"What does 'board' mean?"

"Well, depending on the spelling and the usage, it can mean 'a plank of wood' or 'a committee' or 'to enter a vehicle' or 'drilled a hole through' or 'finding a situation uninteresting' or 'a surface where you play parlour games' or 'the price of meals when lodging'. If it's plural it can mean 'the stage in a theatre' or 'the low wooden walls around a hockey rink' or...
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:38 PM on November 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

Following Postroad's comment, I think you might find the The US Department of State's Foreign Service Institute's language learning difficulty ratings interesting. It is based on how long it takes for a native English speaker to become proficient in a particular language.

As far as homonyms go, I don't think that is special to English. French has many more of them (many common verb conjugations), and so does Portuguese (in some cases only the accentuation distinguished the words, without change in pronunciation).
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

We're really talking about two different things here - spoken fluency and written fluency.

The students in a high school English class are amazingly fluent in their particular dialect of spoken English. So fluent that many scientists hypothesize that spoken language is innate to humans, and that we just learn the vocabulary and specific grammar of our parents.

However, written language is hard for anyone to pick up. There are all these rules that don't cross over to spoken language - there are no apostrophes and "Too", "two", and "to" are all pronounced the same! The kinds of problems that all native speakers have when they are learning to write tend to fall into this category - rules that are nonexistent in speech. Not to mention the fact that, at least in English, there is casual speech and formal speech, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dialects. And yet, English teachers demand one dialect of written speech that often seems unnatural and stilted to students who don't really read a lot of "proper" books.
posted by muddgirl at 3:45 PM on November 23, 2009

Arrrgh. Just re-read my comment - please substitute "homophone" for "homonym". (no homo)
posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:47 PM on November 23, 2009

My teacher told me to conjugate some verb in the present perfect tense.

This is an experience common to nearly all exchange students who end up in a mandatory ESL class in their host country. How you learn a language naturally, how you are taught the finer points of grammar in your native language and how you learn a foreign language are often three quite different things.

In my case, it was getting to my English exam and being confronted with the question "Classify morphologically the underlined words in the following sentence:" Fortunately for my self-esteem, the question was multiple choice so I could figure out the answer easily enough, but my 16 year old brain near exploded at the thought that I was going to fail English as a Second Language, when it was my first language.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:49 PM on November 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

In all my travels, I have learned this: damn-near every speaker of a language believes that (1) his own birth-language is both the easiest language on earth and yet (2) is very hard for foreigners to learn.

It's some kind of weird pride, or less kindly, a common national conceit. Japan (and to a lesser extent China) is great for this, hyping the 'complexity' of their language as a sort of implicit xenophobia: foolish foreign barbarians can't possibly master our wonderful, perfect tongue! I hear lesser versions of this all over the planet from time to time: Oh those people from (x) can't possibly speak our (y) language well. Poor people.

The only possible "easier" arguments that I actually believe are those based on language roots. I believe it is not very difficult to move from Spanish to Italian, for example, since they are so closely related and share such a large vocabo/ulario, and I suppose that any languages that share alphabets will save a bit of early learning time. But not much: an alphabet is a very small, simple and early part of learning a language. (Yes, even for that 'oh so complicated' Chinese.)
posted by rokusan at 4:06 PM on November 23, 2009

while German has pretty much a 1:1 relation between graphemes and phonemes (again, exceptions prove the rule)

English spelling is a nightmare, indeed, because of its everything-and-the-soup collection of words from other languages. But coming from German, at least the grammar won't be too foreign to you, right, and the alphabet is (almost) the same. So you get some bonuses.

I think that's how it is most of the time. All languages have their quirks that take a disproportionate amount of time to learn, but they also all have their easy parts, depending on what you already have in your mental skills bank. In Spanish, idiom and puns are hard to develop an ear for. In Chinese, there are those damn tones.

But on the upside, you get a free bonus in grammar when moving from English to German (as above), all those borrowed Chinese characters are a handy shortcut if you're learning Japanese, and there's even a near-perfect matching set of sounds shared by Japanese to Spanish (!)

So I have a hunch that it all averages out.
posted by rokusan at 4:12 PM on November 23, 2009

(Great use of 'of' and 'and' tags, btw.)
posted by rokusan at 4:13 PM on November 23, 2009

English is probably one of the easiest language to learn, assuming you are starting from a inflecting language. For a Japanese guy, Korean may be far easier to learn than English. That being said, English was difficult for me because it was the first foreign language I learned. Looking backwards, and in comparison to other languages, English just looks like a stripped down version of German. And it actually is a stripped down version.

I generally found Russian a nice language but difficult to learn. Taken the different alphabet not into consideration (which you could basically learn in one day), it has a difficult grammar and stresses vocals like in Spanish or Portuguese but you have to know which vocal to stress. This can not be concluded out of the written Russian - you have to know. Making things worse, the stressed vocal often changes often during conjugation and declension . Nasty.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 4:14 PM on November 23, 2009

A lot of people are making good point about the ease of transitioning from one language to another, but a lot of neuroscientists and linguists have been working on the question of whether different languages require different mental habits, and which require the most raw processing power.

This Nature Neuroscience news article gives a nice overview of the research in this area as it was in 2000. The news article was promted by a report in the same issue that, when presented with word fragments or real words, native Italian speakers use a different brain region from and read faster than native English speakers. The authors suggest that this is because Italians are used to words being phonetic, wheras English's much weaker link between spelling and pronounciation (rough, bough, cough, etc.) has trained native speakers to engage other brain areas to search for more clues to the word's meaning, context and therefore pronounciation.

More recently:

Speaking Chinese may take more brainpower than speaking English, a study suggests.
Researchers in Britain have found that people who speak Mandarin Chinese use both sides of their brain to understand the language. This compares to English-language speakers who only need to use one side of their brain...


Despite being the world's lingua franca, English is the most difficult European language to learn to read. Children learning other languages master the basic elements of literacy within a year, but British kids take two-and-a-half years to reach the same point.

In the most extensive cross-national study ever, Philip Seymour of Dundee University and his team compared the reading abilities of children in 15 European countries. They found that those learning Romance languages such as Italian and French progressed faster than those learning a Germanic language such as German and English. "Children do seem to find English particularly complex and problematic though," says Seymour.

Anecdotally, many of my friends and colleagues are bi- or multi-lingual, and generally say that English was very easy to learn because Western culture is saturated with it. The economic and cultural power of the UK and now the USA means that English language popular media (films, TV, pop music) is available all over Europe, and that English is often the lingua franca (irony duly noted) between people from different European countries. It also tends to be pretty strong wherever the British Empire had influence, so along with most educated Europeans, most educated Indians, Pakistanis and Honk Kong Chinese will have at least a passing familiarity with the language. I'm told that this constant, low-level exposure makes a very helpful base from which to start learning.

While searching for these links, I also stumbled across an intruiging report of a boy who seems to be dyslexic in English but not in Japanese.
posted by metaBugs at 5:53 PM on November 23, 2009

For what it's worth, I read some articles perhaps 8-10 years ago that said that the incidence of dyslexia amongst people who speak languages with simpler pronunciation (such as Italian) is significantly lower than amongst English speakers. How scientific it all was, I don't know, but it makes anecdotal sense to me at least.
posted by wackybrit at 6:07 PM on November 23, 2009

"The convoluted syntax of German"? Huh? I've always thought German was a pretty simple language. Of course, it's my first language, so naturally it would seem so to me. I think there's a great deal of subjectiveness to your question.
posted by glider at 6:24 PM on November 23, 2009

This previous AskMe thread has a lot of overlap with this question.
posted by Zed at 8:26 PM on November 23, 2009

I think what the poster is asking is if you pick some random essays from a literature classroom in Spain (written in Spanish) and compare them to random essays from a literature classroom in America (written in English) will the essays by Spanish kids have as many errors in grammar and spelling.

It has nothing to do with how easy the language is to learn for foreigners. I think it has more to do with the educational system, as mentioned above. Kids who are taught properly do not write like that.
posted by amethysts at 8:56 PM on November 23, 2009

As a native English speaker, fluent-ish French speaker, I can definitely say that the French struggle with orthography. When I was transitioning from basic French to conversational French, I was volunteering at an event for my local Alliance française. As I was helping to hang a banner (which a native speaker had written), four elderly women, all native, educated speakers, spent at least half-an-hour bickering over the placements of accents in the sign. It was the first moment I realized that even native speakers are not perfect. The constant mistakes I made/make didn't seem like a big deal after that.
posted by gam zeh yaavor at 9:12 PM on November 23, 2009

Yes, amethysts, you are correct, and you phrased the question much better than I did.
posted by ragtimepiano at 10:01 PM on November 23, 2009

Glider, sorry, I meant no disrespect for the German language. It's just that the phrasing order is different from English and so seems "convoluted" to English speakers, just as English must seem "convoluted" to German speakers.
posted by ragtimepiano at 10:03 PM on November 23, 2009

I'm a German speaker who has learned, or at least tried to learn, Latin, English, French, and tiny bits of Spanish, Italian and Turkish.

I don't know whether the many homonyms in English really make spelling errors more common. Just off of the top of my head, I can think of several commonly missspelt German homonyms: dass/das, weiß/weis, seit/seid, gebe/gäbe. So, same problem here.

One difference between English speakers and German speakers is that many German speakers have - apart from usually knowing a bit of English - learnt at least one romance language, which makes spelling errors in loanwords from these languages less common. E.g. if you know Latin, you're probably not going to write "definately" or "existance".

Re: spelling on the internet - the main determinant of the rate of spelling errors in a forum or blog is probably going to be the average level of education of users. In Germany, internet users are more likely to be more highly educated, on average. (Internet use is not as widespread in Germany, yet - users are not as diverse as in the U.S. or even UK). Therefore, German internet content does have less spelling errors, but that's not because Germans, as a whole, are better spellers, but because less educated Germans are much more unlikely to be online than uneducated Americans. This might also be the case for other languages (e.g. French).
posted by The Toad at 1:49 AM on November 24, 2009

I have read a number of times that Japanese is the most difficult of all languages to learn for a non-native. Problems in English for non-natives generally because of idioms.

*sigh* No, it depends on the native language, as others have said.

Some languages are, of course, more difficult than others, in certain ways. Chinese is horribly difficult to read/write, while Korean is not. English is no doubt somewhere in between. But it's not possible to say which language is the most difficult overall.
posted by smorange at 6:53 AM on November 24, 2009

I think what the poster is asking is if you pick some random essays from a literature classroom in Spain (written in Spanish) and compare them to random essays from a literature classroom in America (written in English) will the essays by Spanish kids have as many errors in grammar and spelling.

Ah, well, the question is a difficult one in that case, though interesting. Many, many Chinese can't write (or even read) much of their own langauge, let alone make spelling errors in it. Certainly English classrooms come out ahead of Chinese classrooms. On the other hand, all Koreans can write in their language with nearly dead-on accuracy. This is due to the languages themselves, of course. But it's also due to economic factors.
posted by smorange at 7:05 AM on November 24, 2009

There may be something going on other than the level of difficulty of the language. To people of my generation (40-something) written communication tends to be formal, and we tend to care about grammar and spelling. To the younger generation who grew up with the internet and SMS written communication is casual, analogous to spoken language, and correct spelling and grammar are irrelevant as long as the meaning is clear.

(I'm a non-native English speaker, by the way, and I didn't find English particularly difficult to learn.)
posted by rjs at 11:21 AM on November 24, 2009

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