Strengths and weaknesses of different languages?
October 3, 2015 8:51 PM   Subscribe

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of certain languages? I'm most interested in English and French but if you have knowledge of another that would also be fascinating!

Off the top of my head, English has a vast vocabulary which enables a lot of nuance in meaning - but that's something of a downside too, because it makes mastery of the language quite difficult, even as its relative grammatical simplicity makes intermediate skill easy to acquire. English and French both have orthography that doesn't match pronunciation - my understanding is this is actually quite rare and frustrating for language learners.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Masculine and feminine words often make things much easier in other languages. For example, in French I can say "copain" or "copine," but in English I have to say "male friend" or "female friend."

And I looove Italian, because it is very, very phonetical. What you see is what you get.
posted by Melismata at 9:01 PM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

French tenses can be a bit of a nightmare. "The Imperfect," "the More-Than-Perfect"... There are so many that the most common punsihment in school would be to conjugate a complex sentence in all the tenses. It would take forever!
posted by STFUDonnie at 9:25 PM on October 3, 2015

and passé simple. French seems like it's somewhat better in conveying weird specific time based details in verbs, but it also tends to be way more verbose on explaining ownership or function.
posted by Ferreous at 9:38 PM on October 3, 2015

It doesn't cover all of what you're interested in (e.g. writing systems, differences in recorded lexicons, or specific difficulties in second language acquisition based on the language you know), but "Are all languages equally as 'effective'?" is a relevant /r/AskScience discussion with a top answer that basically says what you'd hear in a linguistics 101 class about the relative effectiveness and complexity of different grammars. "'All languages are equally complex': The rise and fall of a consensus" by John E. Joseph and Frederick J. Newmeyer provides an overview of how and why linguists arrived at that point of view and also of the few special cases where they've partially diverged from it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:55 PM on October 3, 2015 [8 favorites]

English verb phrases are a real problem for ESL. Compare "run", "run over", "run into", "run along", "run around", "run in", "run on", "run through", "run out of", "run up"...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 PM on October 3, 2015

A good thing about English is that a writer can choose to use short plain words of mostly Anglo-Saxon roots or, when necessity intrudes itself, modulate one's vocabulary into a florid and more magniloquent mode appropriate for the interpellation of the haute monde.

French doesn't really have those two registers. You can speak correct French or you can talk in joual or argot, basically.
posted by zadcat at 9:59 PM on October 3, 2015 [10 favorites]

I've always liked German's compound nouns. Need a new word? Just string together some words that describe it, capitalise the first letter, and you've got a new noun.

Contrast this to English which tends to repurpose an existing noun (and sometimes turns it into a verb). Consider that "bar" means different things to gymnasts, alcoholics, lawyers...
posted by girlgenius at 10:02 PM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

So many silent letters in French -- spelling bees must be nearly impossible for shorter words or words without context.
posted by amtho at 10:09 PM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Chinese has the best numbers. They are all short, distinctive sounds, and follow absolutely clear and logical rules. There are no strange numbers like 11 or 12 in Chinese-- they are simply "one-one" and "one-two" and "one-three" and so on (this is a somewhat simplified and imperfect translation, but you get my drift...) In fact, the current thinking in neuroscience is that the commonly held wisdom of Asians being "better at math" is almost entirely based on the fact that the numbers are shorter, easier and (most importantly) faster for a human brain to process than the kludge of western number systems. It is certainly true that in my travels in Korea and Japan, I noticed that in addition to native language numeracy, everyone also knew and routinely used Chinese numbers. Their number system is just that good. I am not a linguist or a neuroscientist, but that is my layman's understanding of what is undoutedly a much more complicated and nuanced issue.
posted by seasparrow at 10:18 PM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Chinese strength: verbs are dead simple. There's no conjugation and you use the same verb for past, present, future, and all subjects.
Weakness: no alphabet. Being able to speak doesn't mean you can read or write much at all.
posted by horizons at 10:18 PM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

From speaking with my parents, there are so many amazing, succinct idioms and words in Chinese that simply do not exist in English. To express the same idea in Chinese, could easily take a paragraph of description in English. On the plus side, English's need to explain and be straightforward makes it very easy to read for technical manuals.
posted by yueliang at 10:26 PM on October 3, 2015

seconding the love of German compound nouns. I also like the fact that all nouns are capitalized in written German, so you don't have to worry about proper nouns versus common nouns.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:58 PM on October 3, 2015

English has the neat trick of turning a noun into an adjective: a ring made of gold is a gold ring.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:08 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hebrew doesn't have the verb "to be" Hamlet's speech is translated as :"this or not this".
posted by brujita at 12:12 AM on October 4, 2015

No one's mentioned this yet - French tu vs vous lets you signify how close you are to someone, and how polite you're being. In English conveying politeness seems the same regardless who you're talking to.

Because so many French words sound the same, there are lots of opportunities for puns and clever turns of phrases (like in music lyrics, names of stores).

Polish is a very precise language - the use of declensions indicates exactly the object's function in a sentence. Whereas English can cause more ambiguities.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:23 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

In Japanese, you can just put tons of crap in front of a noun, which in English (or German, yikes! German translations are always longer than originals) would make for one hell of a relative clause.
Example: The running down the street while drinking juice boy waved riding the bus classmates.

Japanese also has great words that would take a whole sentence or more to explain in English, like gyakugire, which means someone getting mad at you when in fact you are the one who has the right to be mad (e.g. someone at work screws up and you ask him why and they yell that you're a suck boss), or irusu, pretending to be out while actually being home.

What's hard is that since sentences don't necessarily need subjects and "go" can mean I go, you go, he/she goes, they go, we go, it's sometimes really hard to understand something without a lot of context, and translating can be a giant pain in the ***. It makes it a lot easier to learn, though, because unlike German, there are no complication flexions etc. So while German is a hard to speak at first because you have to be mindful of all the cases etc., I think its grammar makes meaning pretty clear.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:25 AM on October 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

The tonal nature of Cantonese means you can construct elaborate puns based on words which are only separated by tones. It also means you can speak in numbers which is cool.
posted by frumiousb at 12:46 AM on October 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Masculine and feminine words often make things much easier in other languages. For example, in French I can say "copain" or "copine," but in English I have to say "male friend" or "female friend."

This turns into a weakness when you want to talk about a person but are not interested in their gender: in Greek, you cannot say things like "the president" without mentioning whether the president is a man or a woman. Τhis mostly works out to using default genders, e.g. the default president is usually a man (ο πρόεδρος), but the default nurse or schoolteacher is a woman ( η νοσοκόμα, η δασκάλα).
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:10 AM on October 4, 2015 [9 favorites]

English's lack of a formal/informal you drives me nuts, since it's present in pretty much every other language I speak.

However, it's more than made up for by how gender neutral the language is, relatively speaking; like Dr Dracator mentions, in French or Spanish you pretty much HAVE to specify gender, and I can't think of any gender-neutral pronouns off the top of my head.

Someone else's comment about register is spot-on as well; French really only has two, maybe three - argot, grammatically correct French, and literary French, while English is much more varied, especially when you take into account, say, British vs American English. I grew up going to private schools and speaking the Queen's English; to this day my base register is noticeably higher than my equally well-educated/well-read American friends'.

Also, thanks to English's omnipresence and its colonialist history/link language status, it's varied and rich in a way that I don't know that many other languages are (Spanish might be a close competitor in this regard, given Latin America, but I'm not sure) and the sheer variety/amount of loan words is amazing.
posted by Tamanna at 2:28 AM on October 4, 2015

A while back I had a job where I dealt with a lot of Spanish-speaking customers, mostly from Mexico. It was very frustrating indeed. My Spanish is bad, so I tried to have a couple of Spanish-speaking co-workers write me out some phrases that we needed to use every day. It was a disaster. A co-worker would write out a list of phrases, then another would look at it and insist the first co-worker had it all wrong and re-write it. More co-workers, more re-writes. I would use the latest round of re-writes, and even though I pronounced everything correctly (according to my co-workers) sometimes customers still wouldn't get what I was saying. I found out that this was because they were from parts of Mexico where they spoke a different dialect of Mexican Spanish that made the Mexican Spanish I was speaking hard for them to understand. Sometimes an emergency would come up and I'd need a quick translation, so I would Google it. Unfortunately Google Translate and other online sources apparently just translate Spain Spanish, not Mexican Spanish, and the two are different enough that Spain Spanish was pretty much useless for me. And then sometimes we'd have a customer from some other country where they speak Spanish but they don't speak Mexican Spanish or Spain Spanish or any form of Spanish I could hope to translate.

Talking to people, it seemed like there were a lot of concepts that nobody had Spanish words for, yet the concept was somehow universally understood by people. The one that comes to mind is the Tooth Fairy. (It was a pediatric dental practice, and the Tooth Fairy would come up talking to kids.) Apparently there is no phrase in Mexican Spanish for the Tooth Fairy, yet somehow the concept of the Tooth Fairy exists in Mexico! How do you have a Tooth Fairy without a word for the Tooth Fairy, Mexico?! There was a lot of stuff like that, where people would just kind of shrug and say, "I don't know, people just... know." (And if somebody is going to jump in here with the Mexican phrase that means the Tooth Fairy, I sure wish you'd been any of the dozen Spanish speakers I'd asked about it, back when it was relevant to my life.)

Add to all that stuff like inexplicably gendered nouns (Hello, Mr. Mango! Hello, Miss Banana!) and the risk of essentially calling a stranger "honey" because you used the wrong form of "you", and I can say that I did not care for Spanish one bit! Spanish speakers are lovely people, and their language is music to the ear. But trying to speak it es un dolor en el trasero!

(Note that trying to look up how to say "a pain in the ass" in Spanish seemingly inevitably led me to a page where people are arguing about how you would say that in different Spanish dialects!)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:02 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

English has a very large vocabulary compared to say, German or French.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:38 AM on October 4, 2015

As mentioned, Italian is pretty much spelled as it's pronounced. The pain in the ass part for mother tongue English, IMO even after 17 years here, are how vowels are pronounced.
English: A as in hay, E as in eek, I like eye, O as in oh, U like you
Italian: A as in ah, E as in hay, I as in eek, O as in oh, U like boo

I always spell things out in Italian military alphabet as a result.
posted by romakimmy at 3:56 AM on October 4, 2015

German compound everything can actually become a bit of a problem.

The possibility to cram whatever comes up in an author's mind into single humungous humanist-tradition sentences can result in, what I'd call, causality leakage: through his concatenations of associations and side-thoughts, the author hints at connections between the elements of a sentence (or paragraph) that are not actually there. The German language's sponge-like ability to include derails in a single structure makes it all sound ok, even learned, but if, for instance, a translator now chops such a sentence into wieldable bits, the lack of real logical flow becomes painfully apparent (you may have noticed that I'm using pretty darn long sentences here. Awful, no?)

Still, this is the lesser of problems. Comparing some notoriously no-synonym-at-all languages (such as Swedish) with others, give me German, French, English any time.
posted by Namlit at 5:15 AM on October 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

Additionally Polish words are spelled exactly as they are pronounced with a 1:1 correlation vs English's 1:many (cough but through? Knife? gait vs gate?). So once you have the symbols-to-sounds sounds mapping memorized in Polish you can read and sound out fairly decently.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:02 AM on October 4, 2015

This NYT article discusses some of these ideas. While some of it is a comparison of common taught-in-school languages, like the effects of gendered nouns in French, German, Russian, Spanish, etc., and the variety of verb tenses in romance languages vs English vs Chinese, parts of the article that I found most interesting were about isolated tribal languages - a group that only uses cardinal directions (eg North), not relative directions (eg left), and a group that requires qualifiers on any information that is not directly provable in this instant (eg "the water is boiling" may be untrue, I say "I hear a whistle that may be the tea kettle"). It would be easy to devolve into just a list of quaint grammar rules, but the interesting part (that the article somewhat touches, but is difficult to pursue) is how the mental habits formed by using those language quirks affect instinctive behavior and emotions. It's definitely not true that we can't understand concepts that our language has no word for, but things like the structure of language may set up mental habits.
"As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue [versus blues being shades of green]."
posted by aimedwander at 6:47 AM on October 4, 2015

and passé simple. French seems like it's somewhat better in conveying weird specific time based details in verbs, but it also tends to be way more verbose on explaining ownership or function.

And it affects French speakers' way in other languages. I have noticed that Francophones I work with will import the passé simple grammatical construction into English when engihs uses a different one for the negative. Je n'ai pas vu ("I didn't see") requires vu the past participle of voir just as j'ai vu ("I saw") does; thus many Francophones using English will render these two sentences as "I saw" and "I didn't saw."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:59 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately Google Translate and other online sources apparently just translate Spain Spanish,

Heh. My go-to source for translation between English ad French does so between London English and Paris French. I cannot fault that choice on a conceptual level, but occasionally trying to get between Toronto English and Montreal French will employ London and Paris terms that are incomprehensible to the both the Torontonian and the Montrealais.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:03 AM on October 4, 2015

In English, technical words are often constructed from Latin or Greek roots, which makes them look very different from more common English words which have Germanic or French origins, and thus have more opaque meanings. This problem is probably much less severe in Romance languages (though I'm not a fluent speaker of any of them, so I can't say). Similarly, technical vocabulary in East Asia is constructed from Chinese characters, making their meanings very transparent for readers of Chinese and Japanese (the same may be true to a lesser extent for Korean and Vietnamese). For example, your average Japanese sixth grader could confidently tell you that "心肺停止" means "heart-lung stoppage". Try asking an American sixth grader what "cardiopulmonary arrest" means. On the flipside, many world languages these days will important modern terms (especially related to business or tech) directly from English. Given that the concepts in question are new to everyone, including native English speakers, the difference in transparency is perhaps not too great, but surely it still exists. But now we're entering the realm of globalization and imperialism, which I don't think is the direction you wanted to take this question.

Speaking of Chinese characters, here's a pretty objective trade-off: learning thousands of them is pretty hard. But once you can do that, you can express some idea or information in a lot less space than the equivalent English expression. Compare the short updates we see on English Twitter posts with the multiple sentences/whole paragraphs possible in Chinese and Japanese.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 7:11 AM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

As someone who speaks English and French, it bothers me that English doesn't formally have a second person plural that is different from the first person plural. There are informal solutions like "you guys" and "y'all" and "yinz" but what I'd like an equivalent to "vous".

Also, as a person with a non-binary gender, French and any language where everything is gendered is a total nightmare for me.
posted by ITheCosmos at 7:34 AM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

English only has two third-person singular pronouns for people, and they're both gendered, which is garbage.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:53 AM on October 4, 2015

Why Arabic is Terrific.

Arabic has a number of very unusual agreement rules. My absolute favorite is that all non-human plurals are grammatically feminine singular:

al-kutub hadra' (الكتب خضراء)

"The books, she is green"

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:56 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

French tu vs vous lets you signify how close you are to someone, and how polite you're being

YES, this. I really love the tutoyer parts of romance languages that let you keep a kind of conversational distance if need be.

On the language downer side I constantly get tripped up by regional spanish variations. I learned conversational/colloquial spanish from eivissenc/mallorquin/catalan dialect speakers and a horde of international central/south american expats and thus the regional diversity in my spoken spanish is hilarious/baffling to everyone who hears it.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:08 AM on October 4, 2015

In Afrikaans, there are only three main verb tenses and verbs are not conjugated differently depending on the subject.
posted by neushoorn at 9:21 AM on October 4, 2015

English only has two third-person singular pronouns for people, and they're both gendered, which is garbage.

Lately, one finds the singular they to be increasingly acceptable.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:28 AM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

English only has two third-person singular pronouns for people, and they're both gendered, which is garbage.

posted by protocoach at 9:29 AM on October 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I also like the idea of "ze" and "hir", although I doubt I'll see real adoption of them or anything like them in my lifetime.

In terms of what I like most about English, the wild willingness to steal any word from any language, tweak it a bit, and call it part of the language. Spanish (at least in my experience, which is limited to South and Central America) shares a lot of that spirit. I find French's aforementioned lack of flexibility to be my least favorite thing about that language.
posted by protocoach at 9:36 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Since American Sign Language (ASL) uses three dimensions it's particularly wonderful when narrating events and interactions. There are eight signs for "between the N of us," where 1 < N < 10. Where English pronouns require reinforcement with a name every couple sentences to keep the "he"s and "she"s distinct, ASL pronouns are non-gendered yet very explicit. The signer assigns specific identities to specific points in space. Then moving verb-signs between and around those points makes it crystal clear who is doing what to whom. Like Chinese, expert signers can create punning shaggy dog stores using just numbers or just the letters of the alphabet.
posted by Jesse the K at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hebrew doesn't have the verb "to be" Hamlet's speech is translated as :"this or not this".

This isn't true. Hebrew only lacks present-tense forms of the "be" verb, not other forms like the infinitive, so there's no problem with translating "to be or not to be" (lihiyot o lo lihiyot).
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 12:07 PM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hebrew is great for poetry because in general it is condensed in meaning and requires fewer words. You see this in the Bible all the time. For instance in David's lamentation over Saul from Samuel 1:21, the line "let there be no rain nor dew upon you" is translated from a total of 5 Hebrew syllables (4 words.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:12 PM on October 4, 2015

A friend told me about a couple he knew that used English most of the time, German when doing the household accounts, and French in the bedroom.
posted by w0mbat at 5:09 PM on October 4, 2015

English is a mongrel language, which cheerfully adopts, bastardises and impresses words from other languages into service. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. There is little consistency with orthography, pronunciation, grammar or meaning. But on the other hand, it is actually a very flexible language which grows, shifts and morphs all the time to suit different purposes. I don't envy someone trying to learn English, particularly as an adult, but as a native speaker it is incredibly exciting.

Although I do agree that at times it would be useful to have a distinction between polite/informal "you" as well as singular/plural "you", the plus side is that we don't have a formal way of saying "I love you" (which would be pretty gut-wrenching to hear from someone you've just tutoyéd (see how I mushed the English past tense marker onto the French one? Either makes you shudder in horror or amuses you.)). I would definitely love a gender-neutral third person, and although I approve of concepts like "ze/zir" and similar variations, they really haven't taken off on a large scale.

The whole phenomenon of one language has a one-word concept that would take a paragraph to explain in another language is pretty much a thing everywhere. Different words, of course, but we all have 'em. I will chuck in one of my favourites: handschuhschneeballwerfer (German, someone who wears gloves to throw a snowball) or, as we say in Australian, soft.

I think another thing to bear in mind about French is the Canadian vs French French distinction. This may just be my subjective opinion, since I live in neither country, but my understanding is that Canadian French is a much more lively language which grows and changes, probably because it doesn't have l'Académie Française dictating what is and isn't allowed to be a word.

Languages where what you see is what you say, once you know the basic rules of how to say it, continued from above: Greek (really not as hard as it seems), Japanese (provided it is written in hiragana/katakana rather than kanji).

I also love that some letters/sounds exist in some languages and not in others. For example, Greek lacks both a "d" (delta = hard th, as in "that") and "j" so some native Greek speakers use "nt" and "tz" instead when reproducing these sounds in, for example, English. "Ntoor" = "door"; "tzacket" = "jacket".
posted by Athanassiel at 9:06 PM on October 4, 2015

Mod note: One comment deleted. Sorry, but Ask Metafilter isn't for debate, discussion, arguing, etc. If you have an answer that is different, it's fine to post your own helpful information.
posted by taz (staff) at 10:32 PM on October 4, 2015

Just a point of amusement... the Canadians are, hysterically, MUCH more anal about purity of language than the French... you can, for instance, get away with sending a mél on le weekend to your friend asking if she'd like to do a liitle shopping in France , but god forbid you send anything but a courriel during la fin de semaine about magasinage to your amie from Quebec.
posted by Tamanna at 9:12 PM on October 6, 2015

Tamanna, it's more that Quebec and France have accepted different sets of anglicisms into the language. Admittedly the role of Quebec's Office de la langue française is a little more prescriptive than that of the Académie and it would frown, for example, on "parking" instead of "stationnement" (even though the symbol of a P in a circle is understood to mean parking – all over Montreal at least). The Office is always poised to pounce on too much English on signs and in general commercial use and can fine businesses that stray too far from their rules.

As far as I'm aware "courriel" is a Quebec coinage and "magasinage" is never used in France either.
posted by zadcat at 11:25 AM on October 12, 2015

Although Chinese doesn't have tense, many intermediate+ learner friends have complained about the complex aspect system. It's a fundamentally different way of thinking about time, and I don't think one is better than the other (plus many languages, including English, have both).
posted by serelliya at 1:57 PM on October 17, 2015

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