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Of all the languages I have learned, I would say Japanese has been the most challenging thus far.
My native tongue is Vietnamese.
The first language I had to learn as a second language was English. Fortunately, I started learning it at a young age through immersion, so it was not that difficult. However, I remember having a hard time differentiating the sounds "j" and "ch" as in "judge" and "church."
I started learning Spanish in high school. Due to my laziness, it took me nearly seven years to get to the "intermediate/advance" level. Spanish was not hard in the beginning, but to master it, is another story.
I am currently learning Japanese, and my biggest obstacle is getting my brain to process the hiragana faster. And all those KANJI, oh my goodness...
I just sent an email to my niece, who spent a few years in Japan teaching English to students. She had to learn Japanese before she went, so I think she might have some good input for this discussion. Apparently, the ability to learn a language skips generations in my family. I'll post again when I hear back from her.
Furthermore, the resources available are a big factor. There are lots of resources for learning Chinese, French, Russian, etc., but if you want to learn Pirahã, Anindilyagwa or Selknam, it's a lot harder, because there aren't pedagogical resources, native speakers, etc. to learn from available.
Cultural gaps are also considered to make different languages harder or easier to learn. Regardless of what you think of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is difficult to adapt to a completely new set of idioms, metaphors, and the like that are from a culture that is unlike your own. A New Yorker who has all the idiom of an urban Western lifestyle and all of its literature, pop-culture and historical references will have a different set of references to the agricultural, village-based, South-East Asian references of Akha speakers from the hills of northern Thailand.
My parents can attest to the difficulty of learning English. One of their biggest complaints is that Americans do not speak English "correctly." For example, my parents learned that the future tense is "will," but in everyday usage, people often use "gonna."
I remember one day my dad came home from work, he was confused why some of his co-workers replied "I'm good" instead of "I'm well" when they were asked "how are you?"
"I would have to say that Japanese is an extremely complex language to learn, especially considering the fact that it uses a combination of three different alphabets, one of which has characters that can be read/pronounced/translated in multiple ways depending on context...then factor in slang and formal/casual grammatical etiquette, and well...yes. I found it very challenging indeed.
However, English is an extremely complex language. I would say that with the experience of teaching a language, I have found it much less of a challenge to gain conversational abilities than to become completely literate in a second language. And I can't help but think that some languages such as Finnish, or Arabic, might prove just as challenging to grasp."
I am a native speaker of Finnish, which was mentioned in #7. I vaguely remember reading in some sort of an academic publication that for a native speaker of English, Hungarian would be the most difficult language to learn. I don't know how anybody's managed to measure this though. Finnish was also fairly high up on the list, being related to Hungarian but with fewer noun cases etc. This makes sense to me because my studies of German came to an end when I couldn't grasp two of their four noun cases, even though Finnish has about 27 of them!
Personally, I haven't really come across anything too difficult to learn from scratch. My first foreign language is English, which I started when I was nine. Since then, I've taken up (but not stuck with) Swedish, German, Italian and Irish, which all are related to each other. This can help or distract the learning. For example, my fairly fluent Swedish, and knowledge of old/middle English grammatical features was a help in learning Irish, which is an incredibly old language, and at surface level bears little resemblance to for example English. On the other hand, I learned Swedish and German at the same time when I was about 12, and they are so similar from my point of view that I would accidentally do some exercises in the wrong language!
I too imagine that Japanese (or indeed anything with a completely different writing system) would be quite hard. It certainly looks hard if there's no way to make sense of the writing. With e.g. Russian, it's at least possible to figure out which letter is which, and then have a clue what's going on.
Until recently, I would have said Slovak is the most difficult language I have attempted. But I have been looking into Arabic, and, oh my! I can't get past the alphabet.
This is a reather interesting language to learn because not only do you need to learn what the signs are for the English word and vice versa, what the English word is for the ASL sign, you have to know whether or not there really is an English word and/or sign for that concept. Sometimes there is not.
One of the hardest part of learning the language is learning the subtle nuances of facial grammar (expressions) and body language that goes along with the signing. Getting past that feeling of making a funny face or using your body to get your point across was a long and sometimes continuous process. It's something I still struggle with.
Oh gosh, does that ever bring back memories of the first time a group of my friends at school saw me signing with my brother. I wasn't even aware of how much my face was involved in talking to him until they -nicely- commented on the way my eyes would get really big or I would purse my lips.
Also, any language with the other type of tense system than your native language will confuse you. English uses an absolute tense system, so events are either occurring, have occurred, or will occur in relation to the utterance.
Relative tense systems, on the other hand, refer to time in relation to some particular event, not in relation to the utterance. For those who operate in absolute tense, relative tense is causes brain cramps. (I would do some ASCII drawings here, but I have no skill in that department.)
Unless I am fingerspelling, I say everything out loud because my brother reads lips.
Hmmm...I dont necessarily say everything outloud, I do mouth a lot of the english words. However, in trying to keep with the true ASL (which is quite difficult) I've been practicing not putting everything I sign on my lips. There are many signs that don't have English equivalents and vice versa and in my line of work it's best not to equate the sign with a specific word as it limits my ability to match the concept/message of the speaker.
I agree that the Mandarin characters are hard. Did you ever try looking at etymology and morphology? That makes it much easier, but many classes won't go into it much since the students just want to learn "conversational" Chinese. Books like Analysis of Chinese Characters and Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary have been very helpful!
(i.e. English, Swedish, Norweigan, and Persian, when faced with an unfamiliar language, say, "It's Greek to me," but Greek says, "It's Chinese to me.")
I don't think that chart says anything meaningful about relationships between languages--but we can be pretty sure Chinese looks tough to anyone in the Indo-European group!
By the way, in several languages (that I know well enough to notice) the meaning of the English phrase "It's all Greek to me" is rendered in a different form, for instance "it's X village(s) to me" (Czech villages in German, Spanish villages in Macedonian, Czech and Croatian... The idea of foreigness is expressed as a geographical remoteness.
As for who finds what difficult, I agree with Will: it all depends where you're standing.
Oh, I nearly forgot, if you'd like an alternative history of languages check out The history of Britain Revealed by M J Harper.
My native language is French.
I have learnt ancient and modern Greek without problem. Spanish or Italian are easy when you know Latin. But I had to learn Hungarian, and it was a bit difficult. So now, 20 years after this funny learning, with a Hungaro-Greek teacher in Athens, and only 6 months passed there in Budapest at this time, I don't remember any sentence, and can't speak at all.
For the Modern Greek, I don't forget it so easily.
My native language is English. I took Spanish for 6 years (forgot most of it :/), took Mandarin Chinese for a year and have been learning Japanese slowly but surely. The reason for that is I am constantly exposed to the language, given that my interests lie primarily with everything from Japan. But only this semester have I enrolled in a class; the self-teaching failed due to my laziness.
Spanish is very easy to me, despite TONS of verb forms. I grew up around Spanish-speakers often and I'm 1/4 Portuguese (my grandfather was born in Portugal, spoke both Portuguese and Spanish and my mother used to know some Spanish as well) so I think it comes naturally for me. It could also be my talent for languages.
One language which bewilders me, however, is French. I can't get the pronunciation at all, though it doesn't actually appeal to me at all, either (I must be in my own boat, here). I haven't tried to learn it so I don't know about the conjugation and such, but my friend says it's a slightly more difficult language than Spanish.
I'd have to say Japanese has its difficult and easy points, as with many languages. Hiragana and Katakana can be easily memorized (for most people). The grammar is hardest to me. But it's far from the most difficult in my opinion.
For hardest language ever, I'd say English. Chinese would be a close second.
The pronunciation can be very difficult at first. Even after you think you've got it, it can be very easy to forget. Characters are difficult as well and can be easy to forget, especially if you do not use them daily. However, I've found that Chinese grammar is splendidly easy, especially verb conjugation (which is another struggle for those learning Japanese).
On the topic of English, if you speak it to begin with, it may not seem hard. But for those learning it, my heart truly goes out to them. The grammar has almost no rules! The pronunciation also has no rules. English is quite the rebellious language. I haven't even mentioned slang!
But that is simply my opinion, I suppose this all depends what language you are starting with!
Also, I plan on learning Italian in the future. Opinions on the difficulty?
Choose a text that covers a subject that you're intimately familiar with. If you can at least guess which way the author is going, you can ignore 80% of the words you don't know, guess the meaning of 10% and look up the remaining 10%.
If you know the bible in your own language, do try to read it in your target language. (Warning: Russian bibles may or may not be in church-slavonic, which is as close to Russian as Latin is to Italian (give or take 90%).)
Of course, for languages witn ideographic scripts this doesn't help very much...
Having a mothertongue means that you drilled on some patterns and remember many words from that language. Any foreign language that has patterns (grammar and sounds) and words quite different from your own become a challenge. It only depends then on how much you drill to get proficiency.
Another problem is languages that resemble each other too much like Latin languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French...), Slavic languages or between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. It becomes easy to mix up everything.
I suppose that for anyone proficient in English languages like Basque, Georgian, Inuktitut (Eskimo language) and other languages with ergative, many many cases and/or exceptions plus lots of new words challenge the way one learns a language even more than Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese, Swahili or Chinese.
Getting active knowledge and proficiency is what takes time. It takes practice!
I'm currently teaching myself arabic. Good news: 2 tenses- past and present/future. Bad news: most common phrases are not translated as to what the words are, but to what the phrase in supposed to communicate. Other bad news: arabic dictionaries are hellish to use. You look up the three consonant root the word comes from (if you can figure it out), then look for the meaning of the word depending on what vowels are placed where within the word.
But I love the script.
If someone is saying the English words while they sign then they are most likely signing SEE (Signed Exact English - a form of manually coded english that attempts to use English vocabulary and grammar) or PSE (Pidgen Signed English - essentially English word order using signs and fingerspelling from ASL). True ASL has different grammar and syntax or word order than English does. So signing true ASL and speaking English at the same time is signing one language while speaking a completely different one and from what I understand from linguists on campus cannot be done. One or the other language will suffer for it. If you think about it you never see licensed ASL interpreters speaking AND signing at the same time. They stop one while doing the other. It can be difficult to remember that ASL is a different language, not another version of English although there are a number of lexicalized signs because languages blend, just like how users of English have incorporated words from other languages.
That being said, I have learned Spanish, Russian and ASL. Russian was the hardest because I have NO talent for languages. ASL was the easiest for me as it is far more intuitive, word order isn't necessarily carved in stone and it uses classifiers. Also I think it's easier because I love the language so much.
Come to think of it, Hebrew was one of the related languages so perhaps the language group is Semitic?
I was interested to learn the answer to a question I've long had which was why the name for the religion is Islam but the people are Muslims which words don't seem anything alike. And the answer that in Arabic the words actually share a common root, namely s-l-m, the other letters before and between them just change the tense.
There is a reason Bad English is lingua franca of our time, because basic English grammar is one of the easiest there is. However good English is very difficult language because the grammar becomes all exceptions and no rules, vocabulary is huge and pronounciation random.
For Finnish I would say it is pretty much the opposite; basic Finnish is quite difficult, especially if you speak only Indo-European languages, but it does proceed in quite logical manner, you just have to get the rules. And pronounciation of course is easy as writing is almost completely phonetic; I have met people who have learned to e.g. read aloud a text just like a native speaker in couple of weeks, even if they have no clue what they are reading...
Of the languages I speak, I'd say French has been hardest, mainly due to the difference between spoken and written French. Spanish has a lot in common with French but comes with sensible pronounciation rules, which makes it immediately more accessible (and I am sure the same applies for Italian).
Of the languages I don't speak Chinese does look quite complicated. The grammar is apparently easy (which is bad for me, as I tend to pick up grammar quite easily) but I'd lose my patience in writing and talking with four different tones is a disaster waiting to happen.
As a native Finnish speaker it would probably be easier for me than for English speakers to pick up similar languages, other Uralic ones and probably also languages like Turkish or Swahili which have a bit similar logic...
It's useful to know that for the most part, the tones won't cause huge difficulties and ambiguities.
As a native French, I found the diagram in post #22 fascinating. The more so because it shows that French are the only ones to have difficulties with at least 3 languages: Hebrew, Javanese and Chinese.
It was hard for me to read this whole thread, but it seems that Korean was only slightly mentioned. I remember having once read a book on languages where a French sentence of about 20 words was translated to Korean, and it made the words completely mixed, in an order close to the reverse order of the original sentence. At that time, I was acquainted with a Korean student who struggled to complete his PhD MS in French, and it made me better understand his problem.
It has been said that French is more difficult than Spanish, but I think it is the other way round. I learned French first (and that makes a major difference), and I recognize its difficulties (the major one being agreement of past participles). Still, though, Spanish has the added complications of ser vs. estar, por vs. para, a multitude of tenses, the use of the subjunctive in main clauses, etc. Yes, Spanish appears more phonetic, but that is only one side of the coin, and besides, French has its own rules of pronunciation that usually make complete sense ... more sense than English rules, anyway.
English is my native language, and it is naturally the language I know best, but I have taught English as a Second Language, and I have seen the total consternation on the faces of my students when I tried to teach them the accepted pronunciation of "Connecticut". Compared to that, even "écureuil" in French is easier!
I'm a native English speaker and I've studied Spanish for more than a decade. I've taught myself to read in French, Portuguese and Italian, which seemed pretty easy due to the similarity in structure and vocabulary. I spent a little over a year and a half in rural Mongolia, and it was pretty difficult to learn Mongolian. There are seven or eight noun cases, and for a speaker unfamiliar with that kind of thing, it was hard to put together complex sentences where the related parts of the sentence were tied together through declension. There are seven vowels instead of five, and vowel pronunciation takes practice. There are a lot of elements of the Mongolian language that aren't easily explainable in relation to English or Romance grammar. There are tons of particles added to the end of sentences that change meaning. At first, everything just sounded like a low growl, but over time it made sense. I had a really remarkable academic book called Mongolian Grammar, by Dandii Tserenpil and Rita Kullman, which made the learning process a lot easier because it was relatively complete in its illustration of the Mongolian language. I never heard anyone say anything that I couldn't eventually find an explanation for in that book.
I carry the belief that Chinese is probably harder, though. I took a couple of Chinese classes and thought that the sounds were really difficult, and I had a lot of trouble hearing any difference between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants. But maybe that just takes a little practice. The whole language just seems so utterly different to me, and it seems the farthest removed from English/Romance language.
And for any non-English speaker, especially from parts of the world where English has made less inroads, English must be hard as hell.
But indeed there are similarities how words and sentences are constructed and it would probably be easier for Uralic people to get how Turkish or Mongolian works than for English speaker...
One thing that might be worse, I haven't tried to learn any, but I've read about them....languages known as agglomerative? (did I get that right?). They have "root" words to which you add about a zillion prefixes, suffixes, and for all I know infixes to get subject, object, tense, and all the rest. So a "sentence" can consist of one really long word which is "just" the root with all those add ons and curlicues. If you don't know the grammar fairly well, there's nothing you can do to even look it up in the dictionary. The dictionary would have the root, all right, but um, uh, where is the root in all that jabber?
The common term is agglutinative. Some use the term polysynthetic. Navajo is regarded as being agglutinative to some degree, as are Finnish and Hungarian -- the latter two because the case endings seem to be "glued" on to the word, and there is a drift between postpositions (prepositions after nouns) and endings. I think that the Eskimo-Inuit languages (e.g. Inuktitut) have the more extreme form of agglutination that you described.
But as far as dictionaries go, most of those languages keep the root word in the beginning and continue with suffixes. E.g. in Finnish there are some prefixes but they are not that common and usually get their own entries in dictionaries (similar to prefixes in English, like "certain" -> "uncertain"). So you just from the beginning of the word.
I don't know how dictionaries in Swahili work, they use prefixes a lot more.
And suffixes you just learn. It is no harder than learning to use words like "from" or "on", the difference is the location those little words are put on the sentence.
And here comes the good thing which I mentioned in a former post (#45), agglutinating languages can become easier when you learn more of them, because so many words are made up with those prefixes and suffixes and there is a limited number of roots. The dictionaries become more and more unnecessary, opposed to English where even native speakers use a dictionary (or should use, but don't).
On a more serious note, I believe linguists categorize Basque as a separate language family, unrelated to any other.
I guess being a language isolate is in work there, just like speakers of Indo-European languages have difficulties with any non-Indo-European languages. And Basque is indeed considered an isolate by most (some linguists suggest realtionships with other languages, but those possible links haven't been commonly accepted).
Not the only language isolate though. Korean is another (and the one with most speakers), and Japanese was also considered to be one for quite a while, but nowadays some of the Okinawan languages are considered to be separate languages and thus Japanese is part of a language family (but an unrelated language from the viewpoint of almost everyone). And there are quite a lot of isolates in native American languages.
For what itʻs worth, I can pass on what I was told
by linguist Calvert Watkins: That there is "no mystery" about the origins and connections of
Basque: itʻs definitely from Northwest Africa, by way of the Canary Islands. True, it is, consequently, neither Indo-Euoropean, not Semitic, nor Finno-Ugric, nor Turkic (nor, I suppose, Sub-Saharan African). Probably the Berber Language
would be the closest living language.
This is from an unpublished conversation; I donʻt know whether he touches on Basque in his
published works. He is very well grounded in
Greek, Latin, (and probably Sanskrit), and other
Northern Indo-European languages, especially the Scandinavian and Celtic subgroups.
My own acquaintance with Basque is limited to
having obtained and merely looked over a copy of Isaac Lopez Mindizabalʻs 5162197::La Lengua Vasca. . .. It has remained not very near the "top" of a TBR "pile".
"most of which link Basque to Caucasian language"
I didnʻt think Wikipedia, or any one else, other
than Calvert Watkins, would trace Basque to
the Berber area. Geographically, it does make some sense. But we know evidence of that language families can suddenly appear in places remote from their origin, with more than mere accidental coincidence to account for it.
The possible Caucasus connection for Basque, though, is new to me.
"(P)re-dates Indo-Euopean . . ." sounds likely to me.
I don't think there is much connection in vocabulary at all. But languages can change quite a bit when separated for millenia.
Yes, as you say, "for a native speaker of an Indo- European language." Such was my upbringing, anyway, but then Iʻm a philologist, not a linguist. My impression now is that LINGUISTS (as opposed to philologists) donʻt recognize any language as being inherently "difficult" or "easy". They just are what they are. Linguists also donʻt share the philologistsʻ interest in origins, derivations, or anything historical: To them, Haitian Creole has little or no affinity with French; Hawaiʻi Creole (aka "Pidgin")* little or no affinity with English.
*They might disagree on whether Hawaiʻi Creole is a dialect or a separate language.
He gave a lunchtime lecture once in which he developed a formula for something linguistic. He just threw variables into his formula and paid no attention to units. I think he's a charlatan, but reputable publishers publish him.
Derek Bickertonʻs more recent books are deep in a TBR pile (the "pile" exits only in my mind, not physically.
I consulted my wife on the chronlogy of the
"Creole rather than Pidgin" designation. She is fluent in English, Hawaiian, and Hawaiʻi Creole. She isnʻt
sure who was the first to establish it as a creole rather than a pidgin. Iʻm inclined to think that it
was already so known when Bickerton started writing. He may well have spoken out in opposition to someone who mistakenly called it a pidgin.
Our friend Suzanne Romaine who has been teaching at Merton College, oxford, and sometimes at Univ. of Hawaiʻi--Hilo is an authority pidgins and creoles..
It's imperative to keep in mind that this list of mine is derived from my own language learning endeavors–which wouldn't make it objective–and is based only on languages that I know to exist–which wouldn't make it definitive, as there are presumably languages I've not heard of that are more difficult than the above seven languages.
Though there seems to be a rule that the longer language A and language B have gone without sharing a common ancestor, the harder it would be for a speaker of language A to learn language B and vice versa. So, for example, if language A's common ancestor with language B dates back 20,000 years, those two languages would be more disparate and thus harder to learn than language A would be with language C whose last common ancestor was 3,000 years ago.
facility of learning it as a foreign language. If it did, we native speakers of English would all be potential experts
in Latin and the ancient Germanic dialects* - - the main sources of todayʻs English. Except for two Polynesian language and a smattering of Hebrew and Turkish, all the languages Iʻve studied have been Indo-European languages. Admittedly I donʻt have much to compare them to, but I
wasnʻt aware of any ancestry-derived ease in learning them.
*One of which is the medieval language often called "Anglo-Saxon", though scholars say it should be called "Old English". After some seven decades
of non-English language study I have picked up only a smattering of Old English.
The further a common genealogical relationship lies between two given languages––in other words, the further one must go back in time to reach a point where those two languages were mere "siblings" of each other, sharing a "parent" language. An illustration of linguistic siblings being Romanian and Aromanian with Proto-Romanian being here the "parent"––is an accepted methodology with which to approximate those two languages' mutual dissimilarities.
The degree to which one perceives a language as difficult to acquire is roughly commensurate to the degree to which one perceives the aforesaid language as being dissimilar from that of one's native tongue. This can be easily demonstrated with the simple construction of a basic linguistic phylogenetic tree or other comparative linguistic model (where many can be seen at this fantastically constructed and profoundly useful website.).
In seeing such models of linguistic evolution and then being asked which of the model's included languages one thinks they'd find the most arduous to learn, people will invariably pick those that lie the furthest genealogically from their own . What language typically constitutes an Anglophone's list of the world's most difficult major languages? Japanese, Mandarin, Hungarian, Finnish, Icelandic, Arabic, Korean, Basque, Albanian, etc. What about the easiest? Spanish, Italian, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, etc.
In historical linguistics, these two proffered lists of people's supposed most difficult and easy languages coinciding with astonishing precision with how distal or proximal the languages are evolutionarily (or how familiar the languages are to each other as a result of geographic or cultural proximity) is no coincidence.
Be it comparative models, glottochronological analyses in the form of swadesh lists or some other metric of linguistic divergence, the patently obvious conclusion is evolution influences two languages' difference as much as it does with two organisms in biology. The main point here is that, in linguistics, differences correlate with difficulties. What one would think would be almost axiomatic to any linguaphile, polyglot or linguist––that the hard parts of language acquisition come from learning what your L1 lacks; what a language lacks can be said in different terms as what that language regards as unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity doesn't come from nothing. It's a result of either two languages' geographic or evolutionary separation)–seems to be completely arcane to some.
For every learner, the following should make a language easier to learn:
1. Absence of inflected forms. Regardless of whether you're already accustomed to inflected forms for verb conjugations and noun declensions, it's easier to learn a language that doesn't use them: not because the concept is mind-blowing, but because it eliminates a large quantity of material that needs to be learned. It takes a lot of effort to learn the 50+ regular case endings for Latin noun declensions, whereas it's trivial to learn regular noun declension in English (no cases, add "s" for plurals). In this regard, Mandarin is simple, English is somewhat simple (no grammatical gender, limited inflection of regular verbs), French is more difficult (heavily inflected verbs in three regular conjugations, two genders for nouns and adjectives), and Latin and Russian are even more difficult (heavily inflected nouns and verbs, with three genders and a larger number of verb conjugations).
2. Few or no irregular forms. Esperanto epitomizes this; at the other extreme, consider the large number of irregular past tense verbs in English.
3. Spelling that corresponds perfectly or closely to sound (as erilarlo noted). In this regard, Spanish, Russian, and Latin would be easier to learn than French; English would be harder still; and Chinese kanji would be the hardest of all.
4. Absence of a unique script. Armenian, Georgian, and Korean use scripts not used by any other language (as far as I'm aware), so anyone learning one of those languages must, by definition, learn an entirely new writing system.
For almost all learners, the following characteristics should make a language easier to learn because they're in some sense typical among the world's speakers, so they reduce the amount of material that needs to be learned for the average learner:
5. Adoption of a large number of international words. Some words--primarily nouns, primarily words coined in modern times for modern concepts--occur in nearly identical form across a large set of otherwise unrelated languages. "Taxi," "metro," and "coffee" are good examples; of the seven languages I know well, all have incorporated those three words nearly unchanged, which is a boon for tourists. There are languages that haven't really incorporated international words, so those would be harder to learn for speakers of nearly every major language because a large chunk of pre-existing vocabulary is removed. "Computer," "hotel," and "photo" (or "photograph") are typically international words, yet Modern Standard Arabic doesn't use any of them (though I've heard "hotel" in Egyptian Arabic instead of "funduq," and I've occasionally heard "kombyutir" instead of "hasoub" or "aalah haasibah"--yet I've never heard "foto" instead of "suura"), whereas Bulgarian incorporates all three of them.
6. Absence of idiosyncratic sounds. At one extreme, Hawaiian, except for the glottal stop, uses sounds found in almost every major language. By contrast, Arabic uses several sounds not found in any other widely-spoken language.
7. Use of a widespread script. Roughly half the world's literate population uses the Roman alphabet, so that's a freebie for a vast number of language learners.
8. Absence of other idiosyncratic grammatical features. For example, most of the world's major languages don't have verb aspect (which Russian does) or the dual (which Arabic does), so for almost all speakers, those features make those languages harder.
Of course, if we were "voting" by language, where each language gets an equal vote as to whether a feature is typical or not, we'd end up with a very different set of typical features for the second group. Instead, I'm advocating that we weight it by number of speakers. (Or we could hypothetically go a step further and weight it by number of people who actually do, or intend to, learn an additional language, but I'm not sure where we'd obtain reliable data.) For example, there are many modern languages that use some form of the dual (Slovene, Frisian, Samoyedic languages, many/most Austronesian languages), yet as soon as we weight it by speakers rather than by languages, the dual is used by only 7% of the world's speakers, a small minority dominated by Arabic.
I'm sure people can find other examples for these two categories. This is the only way I see to articulate whether, or why, one language is generally harder to learn than another, without saying that it's a meaningless metric except in regard to a single, specified learner.
The problem with dividing languages into families is that it ignores this kind of linguistic borrowing. English has borrowed from hundreds of languages, and hundreds of languages have borrowed from English, in turn. As global communication continues, it's going to get even messier.
At one extreme, Hawaiian, except for the glottal stop, uses sounds found in almost every major language.
That's funny, because I would think that Hawaiian's phonology would make it hard for English speakers, at least me. On `umikumakahi versus tasnmek or unnek or vīnpadsmit, I can read the latter three out easily, but the first I have to go syllable by syllable. Give me short words with moderately complex syllable clusters over long words with simple syllable clusters any day.
most of the world's major languages don't have ... the dual
The dual strikes as very simple; if I say that English Dual adds -en to verbs and nouns for the dual, I think that would be enough for everyone reading to translate text into English Dual with few mistakes and fewer disagreements about what was correct.
I think it's comparable to say the Chinese difficulty with English gender. I know in the latter case that they will often misuse it in speech, but is it ever a problem in comprehension? It seems like something where speakers and writers can recognize they've made a mistake and fix it themselves, unlike a lot of things (prepositions) where the questions "what is wrong?" and "what on Earth is right?" frequently come to the language learner's lips.
I agree that itʻs simple -- in principle, prosfilaes, but then
so is Higher Mathematics, according to Alfred North Whitehead.*
I question, however, your example of
the (almost archaic)
English ʻ-enʻ. The "-en" of "children" is of course
plural,* not dual.# What about the "-en" of " brethren"? Didnʻt Joseph in Genesis
have nine "brethren".?
*A N W says somewhere that
people are always talking about "simple arithmetic", andthereʻs NOTHING simple about arithmetic! But Higher Mathematics is simple (which of course is not synonymous with "easy".)
# A purist might say that, in some instances "Children" is
"collective", not plural.
I think that sentence falls under the logical category "non sequitur".
As a student who never went beyond 2nd Year Algebra, in high school, who am I to try to defend or oppose Whiteheadʻs logic? You may be right, and if so, Iʻm glad, because I collect non sequiturs*.
One of my favorites was rattled off by a judge to a defense attorney in Massachusetts: "If yourʻe talking about a former case of MINE, forget it, because I donʻt even remember it!"
Thanks for the clarification, prosfilaes. I'm not implying that any one of these features is a deal-breaker, just that, other things being equal, these features make things harder or easier. It may take only a few days to learn the letters of a new alphabet, but it takes much longer than that to think in the new alphabet. I can skim my eye down a page of French to look for a key piece of information, and I can do that more slowly for Russian, but for Arabic (after several years of study) I still need to focus on each individual word, and for Georgian I need to sound out names letter by letter.
As for the longer words in Hawaiian, I don't think of that as a phonological issue. No sound in "'umikumakahi" (except the glottal stop, as I noted) requires any learning or effort by a native speaker of English, French, German, Arabic, or Japanese. Compare that to learning the "ayn" and "Taa" sounds in Arabic, which require a ton of work with a good teacher for any speaker of the above five languages.
Likewise, the dual's not a deal-breaker, just something that adds a lot more work in terms of learning and internalization. Arabic has dual forms for nouns, so every time I'm referring to two of something, I have to catch myself before I use the plural; that's even more true for verbs and pronouns because Arabic includes a separate dual in the second and third person. I suspect I'd often be understood if I mistakenly used the plural for nouns, but using the wrong pronouns and verb forms would probably engender confusion. ("Why is he inviting "the three or more of us" to dinner when there are only two of us talking to him? Is he implying that our wives are invited too?") From his library, mujahid7ia seems to be a better Arabic scholar than I am, so perhaps he could weigh in on that. (Thanks for your supportive comment, Imran.) Of course, even if the wrong construction would be understood, it's still wrong, so if I chronically make those mistakes, then I haven't properly learned Arabic because that feature of Arabic is hard...which, after all, is my point.
By the way, what I find most interesting about these features is that they have almost no connection to family relationships between languages, even though that's the most immediately attractive way to approach the problem, as ToaoRaj noted. Hawaiian sounds aren't easier to learn because Hawaiian is related to those five other languages listed above (because it's not); it's just a lucky consequence of the sounds used in Hawaiian. Likewise, madpoet had a good point about massive vocabulary borrowing between languages of unrelated origins. As a similar example, I studied Dari after learning Arabic, and at least a third of vocabulary terms are cognates (or, in many cases, identical), so much so that learning Dari vocabulary felt like cheating--even though Dari is an Indo-European language and Arabic is a Semitic language, so they don't share a known common ancestor.
But that's production. For many languages, including Arabic, there's a market for people who can understand the language even if they can't speak it. (This goes double for languages like Ancient Greek and Hittite.) And even in production, if you write something out, the rules about the dual are simple enough that it's comparatively easy to go back and check whether you've misused it.
Ukrainian and Russian are practically the same language. The dearth of proficient translators working with both of the two languages is a result of the way the native speakers of the two languages use them–which is replete with metaphors, cultural references, slang–rather than anything else.
Comprehension and thus accurate translation between two dialects of the same language can even sometimes present itself as an insuperable challenge. Presumably, some couldn't work as an American English-Jamaican Patois translator–two dialects of the same language. Standard Ukrainian and standard Russian are two languages separated by culture, history, and mutually vagarious diction; take away the rhetoric and you get essentially two variants of one language separated by approximately 500 years of immoderately slow evolution.
As an addendum, I'd argue that there's an even greater paucity of adequate Hassaniya Arabic-Levantine Arabic translators than there are Ukranian-Russian translators. The different ways in which two groups use their languages is more within the ambit of sociolinguistics than linguistic typology, making your critique in post 79 necessarily irrelevant to what I said in post 78 as sociolinguistic differences are superficial.
The last paragraph of your post in comment 88 contains what's known as a "fallacy of composition". You've taken exceptions to the whole, ignored the preponderance of conforming instances relative to those exceptions, and used it to discredit the totality of my argument. This fallacy is demonstrated in the following sentence:
"Hawaiian sounds aren't easier to learn because Hawaiian is related to those five other languages listed above (because it's not); it's just a lucky consequence of the sounds used in Hawaiian."
You then go on to say:
"Likewise, madpoet had a good point about massive vocabulary borrowing between languages of unrelated origins. As a similar example, I studied Dari after learning Arabic, and at least a third of vocabulary terms are cognates (or, in many cases, identical), so much so that learning Dari vocabulary felt like cheating--even though Dari is an Indo-European language and Arabic is a Semitic language, so they don't share a known common ancestor."
This paragraph relies on superficial sociolinguistic phenomena such as relexification and linguistic borrowing as remonstrance, ignoring that my comment only regarded the typological divergence exhibited between languages. Differences in the typology of languages occur in most cases as a result of language isolation, whereas phenomena such as relexification, lexical borrowing, stratal influences, sprachbunds, etc. are exclusively the result of language contact. Regarding typology, rather than assimilation, a languages' relative difficulty can be ascertained by means of linguistic phylogenetic analysis as in the uncontroversial (to linguistics, anyway) comparative method.
If comprehension between two dialects is a insuperable challenge, then they're no longer dialects of each other.
Ukrainian and Russian are practically the same language.
1: The closer two languages are, the easier it is to translate between them.
2: In some cases, really close languages can be difficult to translate between.
1: In those case, they don't count because they're too close.
Doesn't strike me as solid argumentation.
To back up:
The degree to which one perceives a language as difficult to acquire is roughly commensurate to the degree to which one perceives the aforesaid language as being dissimilar from that of one's native tongue.
Ukrainians may need to learn Russian and they will treat it as a different language, as it is nigh-universally treated. Hence when talking about how difficult in arbitrary cases of language learning, Ukrainian-Russian is a case that needs to be covered or explicitly excepted from.
#92: This paragraph relies on superficial sociolinguistic phenomena such as relexification and linguistic borrowing as remonstrance, ignoring that my comment only regarded the typological divergence exhibited between languages.
Instead of rhetoric, let's have facts. Icelandic is, I suspect, way harder to casually learn then many languages despite its close relation to English because Icelanders choose to relexify words instead of borrow them. I'm betting an IT tech sent to Poland for two months would gain a lot more practical command of Polish then one sent to Iceland. Perhaps a mastery of Polish would take longer then that of Icelandic, but that would so go to mitigate against the relationship between two languages being the sole determiner of how easy they are to learn in all case.
If comprehension between two dialects is a insuperable challenge, then they're no longer dialects of each other.
This is a demonstrably incorrect assertion. Mutual unintelligibility exists between dialects lying contralaterally to each other on the dialect continuums of many languages–particular those languages spanning vast geographic distances or containing communities of speakers isolated from other communities of speakers. Those languages with mutually unintelligible dialects are what are known as pluricentric languages, and in the case of many of these pluricentric languages that possess non-dominating varieties, intralingual communication between the language's various dialects typically presents itself as an exceedingly difficult endeavor–in extreme cases, even requiring translators proficient in the various dialects. The disparity between the dialects, and thence their degrees of mutual intelligibility, can be analyzed using the dialectological method of polylectal grammar.
I do understand why you might think two mutually unintelligible forms of speech are unique languages rather than dialects, but they're still considered dialects––or, more precisely, an abstandsprache (see the Ausbausprache–Abstandsprache–Dachsprache framework for clarification)––in linguistics, providing certain criteria are met.
In dialectology, two or more varieties of mutually unintelligible forms of speech are grouped as being a part of one language if the existence of a dialect continuum can be demonstrated as unifying them. In other words, if speech form 6 is mutually unintelligible with speech form 1, yet there exist speech forms 2, 3, 4, and 5 in between them which form a linear dialect chain with the characteristic of the chain’s median speech form (in this case, speech form 3) having the potential of bridging the chasm of intelligibility between speech forms 6 and 1, with both 6 and 1 being mutually intelligible with 3. In that case, speech form 3 is a potential neutral channel (known as a dachsprache in linguistic jargon) through which speakers of 1 and 6 can utilize to communicate with each other. If no such linear dialect chain and attendant linguistic nexus exists to bridge the speech forms, they’re said to be individual languages.
Some salient examples of such pluricentric languages containing dialects which form an abstandsprache would be Mandarin, Arabic, Inuit, and even the whole East Slavic language subfamily (consisting of Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Rusyn and their respective dialects) is sometimes propounded as constituting a single dialect continuum.
Hopefully, this post will adequately convey all that I’ve intended it to and also serve as a conclusion to this discussion. If you’re still convinced hereinafter this comment that my statements are incontrovertibly false, a simple introductory course in descriptive linguistics could be in your best interest by dint of saving face as well as other peoples' time if you're ever to participate in a formal dialectic on this issue.
It's not. It's defined as being incorrect, according to some definitions. According to other definitions, your assertion is demonstrably incorrect; ISO 639-3 defines Hassaniyya (mey), North Levantine Arabic (apc) and South Levantine Arabic (ajp) to be separate languages, and neither the Summer Institute of Linguistics nor the International Organization of Standardization are groups that are dismissible with a handwave.
they're still considered dialects
You almost had it there. "They're considered". It's not "they are"; it's only true if you accept certain definitions that are useful in some arenas and are useless in others.
If you’re still convinced hereinafter this comment that my statements are incontrovertibly false
I never claimed your statements were incontrovertibly false. I claimed they were too overarching and ignoring the real details of the facts on the ground.
But while we're being all confrontational, let me point out that at least of one of your statements is incontrovertibly false.
#78: In seeing such models of linguistic evolution and then being asked which of the model's included languages one thinks they'd find the most arduous to learn, people will invariably pick those that lie the furthest genealogically from their own . What language typically constitutes an Anglophone's list of the world's most difficult major languages? Japanese, Mandarin, Hungarian, Finnish, Icelandic, Arabic, Korean, Basque, Albanian, etc. What about the easiest? Spanish, Italian, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, etc.
Of course, Icelandic is a North Germanic language, and since English is a Western Germanic language, Icelandic and English are genealogically closer to each other then English and any of the Romance languages on your list. And if genealogical distance is the prime distinguishing factor, Albanian, as an Indo-European language, should be easier then any non-Indo-European language.
First, I’d like to apologize for this belated response. Second, I’d like to begin by addressing the following remark of yours for the sake of setting a proper tone:
“But while we're being all confrontational…”
While in text my responses might seem confrontational, it’s worth saying that none of my posts in this thread were written with the intention of conveying anything other than mere banter at worst. Take, for example, the concluding sentence of my last comment, in which I issued to you the following advice in jest:
”If you’re still convinced hereinafter this comment that my statements are incontrovertibly false, a simple introductory course in descriptive linguistics could be in your best interest by dint of saving face as well as other peoples' time if you're ever to participate in a formal dialectic on this issue.”
So, I also would apologize for my poor attempt(s) at writing with perhaps an unambiguous tone. Now, on to linguistics. Observe the following two quotes:
”It's defined as being incorrect, according to some definitions. According to other definitions, your assertion is demonstrably incorrect; ISO 639-3 defines Hassaniyya (mey), North Levantine Arabic (apc) and South Levantine Arabic (ajp) to be separate languages, and neither the Summer Institute of Linguistics nor the International Organization of Standardization are groups that are dismissible with a handwave.”
”You almost had it there. "They're considered". It's not "they are"; it's only true if you accept certain definitions that are useful in some arenas and are useless in others.”
In essence, these incompatible definitions of what actually constitutes a language are the result of what I think is the most salient plight of the social sciences –their conclusions aren’t always scientific. The degree to which a particular science adheres to the scientific method and the degree to which it prioritizes objectivity over conjecture is even used to distinguish the so-called “soft sciences” and “hard sciences” from each other, with the hard sciences, such as chemistry and physics, being putatively more scientific than the less rigorous and more equivocal soft sciences, such as linguistics and sociology.
The question of what constitutes a language is contingent on what one thinks should be the case rather than anything that is falsifiable or independent of interpretation, because of how the question cannot be answered objectively. Any distinction between languages cannot possibly be anything but subjective. To illustrate this, I implore you give the words "language" and "dialect" definitions such that the two terms are distinguishable and supply sound and scientifically incontestable evidence to support that definition. After you fail enough times to recognize the impossibility of that challenge, ask yourself what then, if not incontestable evidence, could determine that definition’s acceptance among academics. The answer can be found in how disencumbered and malleable the social sciences are allowed to be in terms of empiricism because of how discordant the scientific method and the social sciences are. To get any answers at all, the scientific method can't be regarded the same way as in other sciences.
Thus an answer’s conformance to the scientific method is used only as the preferential way of deciding that answer’s truthfulness and adoption by the consensus, whereas it is the only permissible way of establishing truthfulness in the hard sciences. Outside academia, however, the most convenient answer or the one espoused by the most appealing authority is typically used to substantiate an argument.
This type of quibbling we’re engaging in over definitions wouldn’t be taking place had this discussion been about the correctness of some supposition in, say, biology or mathematics, because personal bias and appeals to authority wouldn’t interfere with fact or dictate consensus; if you’re wrong, you can be unequivocally proclaimed as such and that proclamation can–through the scientific method –be soundly defended against any objections irrespective of the influence or prominence of the authority that raises them.
Given all that, my point is that the existence of a contrary definition of something (such as what constitutes a language) cannot be used by itself to rebuke another one of the term's definitions as well as to further your own argument; contrariety is mutual. One can use the fact that person A prefers definition 1 over definition 2 that's favored by person B as both a refutation of definition 1 and 2. The problem is that you're solely relying on the contrary opinions espoused by certain authorities to refute statements I've made as well as to further your own argument. How is this not mere cherry picking of definitions? What decides which definition is more precise than the other? If nothing can, we both lack a leg to stand on and neither of our arguments are more correct than the other one. Such is the irreconcilable nature of many questions in the social realm and the issue should be with the unavoidable subjectivity in linguistics rather than any of my comments which are affected by it.
”Of course, Icelandic is a North Germanic language, and since English is a Western Germanic language, Icelandic and English are genealogically closer to each other then English and any of the Romance languages on your list. And if genealogical distance is the prime distinguishing factor, Albanian, as an Indo-European language, should be easier then any non-Indo-European language.”
Once again, my assertions regarding what factors best serve to determine the degree to which two languages are similar don’t consider those sociolinguistics variables that are mainly responsible for the dissimilarities between modern English and other West Germanic languages. The reason why I don’t consider sociolinguistics is because how much two languages are related or mutually intelligible can be better predicted through a framework that only considers the two languages’ genealogical connection rather than the manifold sociolinguistic factors that might affect them.
In other words, analyzing a language’s evolution is the only reliable method through which that language can be related to another language and through which that relation can be measured. It’s succinct, it’s more reliable than anything else (though obviously not perfect), and it’s less cumbersome than having to analyze every single sociolinguistic factor that might have affected the language throughout its history and then somehow fitting that into a reliable methodology that gives predictable outputs and that is also applicable to all other languages.
If you know a better way than evolution, I'd love to hear it. If you don't know a better way, what all can really be said of your argument's productiveness? Eschewing the most reliable means of systematically relating languages because of its imperfections, yet offering no viable alternative, contributes nothing to science.
For some cases, sure. That was never a point of argumentation. You're the one who claimed in #94 that the distinction between languages was not subjective.
The reason why I don’t consider sociolinguistics is because how much two languages are related or mutually intelligible
You're assuming those are connected. Prove it. It seems self-evidently wrong to me; Germanic languages are equidistant from Romance and Celtic languages, but French is much easier to understand for most mono-lingual English speakers then Irish is.
“Ach nílim ag iarraidh dul i measc daoine atá as a meabhair,” a dúirt Eilís.
« Mais je ne veux pas fréquenter des fous, » fit observer Alice.
In other words, analyzing a language’s evolution is the only reliable method through which that language can be related to another language and through which that relation can be measured.
Which has what to do with anything? It is not inherently obviously true that a speaker of one language will learn languages closely related to it easier then languages farther away. The question here has nothing to with language relationships or any of that crap. Does vocabulary transfer and chance phonological similarity have a significant effect on language learning?
Once again, my assertions regarding what factors best serve to determine the degree to which two languages are similar
Stop. You claimed that people will invariably pick those that lie the furthest genealogically from their own . What language typically constitutes an Anglophone's list of the world's most difficult major languages? ...Icelandic ... What about the easiest? Spanish... That's a contradiction, since Icelandic is close genealogically to ours, and Spanish is father away.
This is an arrant fabrication. I've only made some uncontroversial assertions and given reasons as to why I think they're decidedly more coherent and studied than their alternatives. Not even once, however, was objectivity used to substantiate those assertions.
"You're assuming those are connected. Prove it."
"...but French is much easier to understand for most mono-lingual English speakers then Irish is."
Is it not patently obvious that only something other than a language's evolution could give it more commonality with an entirely different family than its own linguistic siblings?
I dare say that evolution isn't to fault if you're to ever find a dog that's more similar to a bird than a wolf but is still scientifically provable to genetically be a dog.
"Does vocabulary transfer and chance phonological similarity have a significant effect on language learning?"
Of course they do. However, you're now ignoring the purport of my last comment and giving the subjective soft sciences the same treatment as one would give the hard sciences by using exceptions and isolated instances–such as the relatively few languages in the world that have no close relationship to another language but bears more of a semblance to it or is less difficult to acquire than that languages own relatives are–to disprove a hypothesis. If carping over a few exceptions to a hypothesis within the largely interpretive social sciences was enough to renounce it, there would be no social science.
If it seems I'm now stating the obvious, why then do you keep shoehorning this same insubstantial objection into every one of your comments as though it matters?
"Stop. You claimed that people will invariably pick those that lie the furthest genealogically from their own . What language typically constitutes an Anglophone's list of the world's most difficult major languages? ...Icelandic ... What about the easiest? Spanish... That's a contradiction, since Icelandic is close genealogically to ours, and Spanish is father away."
Invariably doing x and only doing x are two different things. You'd have a case had I instead stated that Anglophones invariably choose only those languages that lie the furthest genealogically from their own. Icelandic is an illustration of, yet again, an exception. All the other languages I named are more or less congruous with the point I've maintained; argue against those.
In language, my admittedly limited understanding is that there are limited language features that our brains are designed to handle and they repeat during language evolution. So over time a language may lose most case endings on nouns but at some point that may reverse and it gains them back again.
If that is the case then geneological distance between languages is not a predictor of the differences in the features of those languages.
That's an unproven assertion. (And before you start demeaning me, pull a fucking reference out of your ass. Online, because this is confontrational and I'm not going to head down to the university library to find you've twisted a reference.)
In any case, the most interesting cases are many times those exceptions. The question of the ease of French versus German for English speakers is one faced by students every year.
You'd have a case had I instead stated that Anglophones invariably choose only those languages that lie the furthest genealogically from their own. Icelandic is an illustration of, yet again, an exception.
I randomly selected by computer 12 languages from the ISO 639-3 list. They are Ayizo Gbe, Babanki, Bolango, Bilakura, Michif, Dulbu, Kannada Kurumba, Laba, Laghuu, Metlatónoc Mixtec, Lower Tanana, and Maay. None of them are Indo-European, and thus they all diverged from English at least 5,500 years ago. Given that over 7000 languages are on that list, and only 487 of them are Indo-European and only 48 Germanic, the fact that 2 out of the 9 on your list are Indo-European and 1 was Germanic indicates that your list was created with a bias towards closely related languages, not against.
Again, more than 90% of the languages in the world are non-Indo-European; a list of 9 languages with 2 Indo-European languages does not indicate in any way a bias against languages closely related to English.
Moreover, linguists don't believe that your argument has any weight for languages that are related sufficiently distantly. No linguist has tried to figure whether the Altaic hypothesis is valid by measuring the relative difficulty of learning Mongolian, Korean, Japanese and Thai by Turkish speakers.
So for any Indo-European language speaker, you're only talking about 487 languages, and at that point you can't dismiss "exceptions"; if in those 487 languages, a few of them are misplaced, then your theory is substantially incomplete. If we bias our sample by dropping the distant Indo-Iranian languages (and since they did separate some 4,000 years ago, it's questionable whether your hypothesis holds), we're left with 177 languages... and then those "exceptions" of Celtic languages and even some Germanic languages being harder to learn then some Romance languages for English speakers, and Russian being harder to master for Ukrainian speakers then more distant languages* become a big deal.
* Oh, you want to consider those one language? Good. Looking at http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=2-16 , you've dropped up from 177 languages to maybe a couple dozen languages, and the exceptions have become the whole pattern.
Russian (I'd add that cyrillic alphabet is the easiest part of learning Russian)
Albanian is definitely the hardest on that list. Not a lot of cognates (though that's also true of Turkish, except for Turkish words in Serbian, which helped). But the grammar seems to be nothing but exceptions to the supposed rules.