Bengali is the language of over 230 million people in the world. It's the language of Bangladesh and Eastern India and belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family, which in turn is part of the Indo-European group of languages.
This means that Bengali is remotely related to most European languages, English included. It's definitely not a twin language, however, and if you decide to pick up Bengali, you'll notice that the most of the difficulties in learning the language stem from it being so different.
Is it hard to learn Bengali for an English speaker?
In my opinion, no foreign language is inherently difficult to learn. They may take time to get used to, however. Bengali is very different from English in terms of alphabet, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, and that means that it'll take much longer to learn than, say, French or Norwegian for the average English speaker. In the following, I'll take a look at some of the features of Bengali that might influence its difficulty.
Bengali is harder to learn for an English speaker than other languages such as Danish or French. This is due to the language being significantly more different from English than other languages. When learning Bengali, you need to get used to grammar patterns, vocabulary, and pronunciation which will bear little resemblance to languages you already know. This makes it relatively difficult.
Is the Bengali Alphabet and Its Pronunciation Hard to Master?
The Bengali alphabet consists of 50 letters. That might sound like a lot, but it's actually one of the easier aspects of learning Bengali. Many language students shy away from languages where they'll have to face a new alphabet. Yet they don't think twice about taking on learning several thousand new words in order to become fluent in another language.
With Bengali, it's the same story. Sure, you need to put in the time to learn the alphabet. But two weeks will do the trick, and you can actually learn it even quicker. I write about learning the Bengali alphabet more in detail in my article called "How to learn Bengali" that you have to read.
As for the pronunciation, Bengali doesn't represent any extremely foreign or unusual sounds like it's the case when you learn a language like Arabic. With Bengali, the difficulty lies in the slight differences. There are numerous different letters that we, in English, would just call "T" or "D" for example.
One of the important factors that distinguishes Bengali letters from one another is aspiration. Try comparing the word "stop" with the word "talk". The "t" in stop is not aspirated, but the "t" in "talk" is. When consonants are aspirated, they're pronounced with a little puff of air coming out of your mouth as you pronounce them. Try holding your hand in front of your mouth while saying the two.
With Bengali, there are different letters for aspirated and un-aspirated consonants and that's one reasons that account for a lot of the extra letters.
Bengali grammar - easy or hard?
When learning the Bengali language, you need to get used to a new way of thinking, that's quite different from English. In the beginning, it feels like doing linguistic acrobatics, but quickly you'll get used to the Bengali language's peculiarities.
For one thing, Bengali is a subject-object-verb language, where English is a subject-verb-object language. What this means is that while in English you say "I eat apples" you'd say "I apples eat" in Bengali. This doesn't seem that bad at first, but the longer and the more complicated the sentence, the more confusing it will get.
It's also worth mentioning that Bengali is an inflected language. This means that instead of putting the information as individual words, you stick them to the word as prefixes or suffixes. In reality, this isn't much different from how we're used to use English. We just add spaces between words, while in Bengali, the words are joined.
Bengali also uses cases - but not in a complicated way like you see in Slavic languages like Russian and Polish. In Bengali, there's a set of suffixes used for living things and another for dead objects. The cases are used for possession (Tom's hat), location (The apple is in the hat), and "directional" (to the hat) sentences. But ignore all of this for now - cases makes more sense when you see them in context, and Bengali cases are simple and easy to get used to.
Is it hard to learn vocabulary in Bengali?
If you're an English speaker and you only know English, I'd be tempted to say that Bengali is a little difficult when it comes to learning vocabulary.
It is by no means impossible, though! You just need more time, and you might need to work a little more with each individual word for it to stick. The problem is that it simply doesn't sound very much like anything English speakers are used to hearing. This means that the brain has a hard time with making associations, and the words remain mostly undefined in the learner's memory. There are ways around this, however!
When you learn new vocabulary, there are numerous techniques that you can use to better remember foreign words. I actually wrote an article on remembering words that I recommend that you read.
While Bengali has seen a lot of influences throughout the centuries, these mostly consist of languages such as Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Turkish and others. These are mostly languages very far from English.
Since colonial times, however, Bengali became influenced by English, Dutch, French and Portuguese. The loan words left by these languages are naturally easier to remember.
It doesn't change the fact that most of Bengali's vocabulary is.. Well, Bengali words.
Is Bengali a difficult language according to linguists?
The Foreign Service Institute is the American government's institution in charge of teaching foreign language to US diplomats going overseas. They have a lot of experience in teaching a wide variety of different languages, and are known for dividing the languages that they teach into language groups. Each group is defined by the time the FSI estimates that it takes an average student to learn the language to "professional working proficiency".
The groups go from category 1 to 4.
The first category includes languages such as French or Dutch. These are supposed to take the average learner 5-600 classroom hours to learn.
Group two consists of German, Malay and other languages and take around 900 hours.
In the third group, which is where we find Russian, Thai and also Bengali, the FSI estimates that an average student needs 1100 classroom hours in order to reach their definition of fluency.
Finally, there's group 4 which consists of very complicated languages such as Arabic, Japanese and Korean. These are estimated to take a whooping 2200 hours!
But let's get back to Bengali: 1100 classroom hours! While most of my readers are self-students and most don't aim for "professional working proficiency" specifically, this number is a good indicator as to the real difficulty of Bengali.
Bengali roughly takes twice as long as French to learn. But only half as long as Korean (I don't know if that helps you!).
1100 hours is roughly three years of studying one hour per day.
So is Bengali difficult to learn?
As I've mentioned before, I think that Bengali needs a lot of work. But that doesn't make it difficult. If you keep at it and you are consistent with your studies and don't give up despite not feeling a lot of progress, you'll eventually get there.
Language learning isn't hard. Even when the language is complicated like Bengali, people learn it if they keep at it. After all, most of the world's 230 million Bengali speakers learned the language as children. It doesn't demand any language talent or intellectual competences. All you need is patience and consistency.
So go for it!
But before you start go read my article on how to learn Bengali.... (Well you don't have to..)