Which language would a lazy Martian linguist learn?
April 30, 2008 4:27 AM   Subscribe

Are some languages objectively harder than others? If so, which ones?

This has been bothering me for a while now. Obviously Japanese is harder to learn than French for us English speakers, because French and English are related languages. But what about Japanese compared to, say, Mayan?
When I was in Malaysia a few years ago I learnt that Malay had no tenses, which farely amazed me, but also led me to believe that it was a simple language. Now I'm not so sure, as I've noticed that all languages tend to have hard elements and easy elements. For example: French has a difficult conjugation system, but a relatively small vocabulary, whereas in English the situation is reversed. So I now tend to think that there was probably some other aspect of Malaysian that was crazy difficult.
Does the human mind adapts language to an approximate level of complexity, so that all languages are of a fairly similar objective difficulty, or are there any natural Toki Ponas out there?
posted by greytape to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Japanese has no tense, no plural, no masculin/feminin. It's a lot easier to learn than french or english. Its only complexity comes from the writing, which you'll find easier than you think if you look into them more.
I recommend you try to learn japanese.
posted by PowerCat at 4:58 AM on April 30, 2008


Best answer: I believe, although I can't find the citation at the moment, that some languages are more difficult as measured by the time it takes for native children speakers to become fluent.

The article I read claimed something like children could speak fluent Spanish by age 8-10, but that speakers of the Gaelic family of languages may not be fluent until their middle to late teens.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 5:00 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I doubt this question is answerable, since all second-language learners are coming at the target language from their own native language. Linguistic interference is going to help and/or hinder the learner based on the interaction between the native and second language. The interaction will be different for different languages. Since it's not possible to remove this variable, it's not possible to answer the question. On top of that complication, though, there's also the problem of coming up with a way to measure progress. When, exactly, is a second language "learned?" When can I say that I "speak" a language? Is accuracy or fluency most important? To what extent? Further complicating things, there's an important distinction between high and low context languages. Languages that are apparently easy to learn can be quite difficult once unspoken cultural norms factor into the equation.

However, with all that said, it's certainly true that reading/writing Chinese is extremely difficult to learn for just about everyone--especially compared to, say, Korean.

On preview: the time it takes a baby to learn their native language is one measure of a language's difficulty, and maybe it's the best we've got, but it's not the only one.
posted by smorange at 5:09 AM on April 30, 2008


Learning any language is made more difficult by how removed the language is from yours. For English speakers, used to speaking a language that is relatively flexible, with relatively few inflections and easy to mess around with, learning a more rigid language is often difficult which is why, contrary to current wisdom, French is often difficult for English speakers, certainly compared to Spanish or German. As regards Malay, Teach Yourself Malay comments that, after one year, you think you know it all; after ten years you know that you never will. Complexities such as tones in East Asian languages, the Russian perfective/imperfective, agglutination (e.g. Finno-Ugric languages) and so on make matters difficult as does learning a language where there are few words related to English or borrowings from English but the real difficulty is getting into the thought process of the language which makes Asian languages more difficult for English speakers. However, I speak fluent French and still don't understand the French!
posted by TheRaven at 5:17 AM on April 30, 2008


In actual fact your question is completely unanswerable, for the simple that it is almost impossible to do anything objectivly in language without in some ways being open to one prejudi these things and how is it that they know them?

You might find Sapir-whorf [wiki] intresting.

@ Spanish v.s. Gaelic - atleast some of the difference could be subscribed to the differing positions that Gaelic and Spanish hold in the countries where they are spoken can't it?
posted by munchbunch at 5:31 AM on April 30, 2008


Ignore above


In actual fact your question is completely unanswerable, for the simple that it is almost impossible to do anything objectively in language without in some ways being open to one prejudice or another.

Like what is a language, what is fluency, who is it that decides these things and how is it that they know them?

You might find Sapir-whorf [wiki] intresting.

@ Spanish v.s. Gaelic - atl east some of the difference could be subscribed to the differing positions that Gaelic and Spanish hold in the countries where they are spoken can't it?
posted by munchbunch at 5:33 AM on April 30, 2008


Somebody smarter than me is going to really answer this question, but I remember having a chat with my instructor while I was struggling with Russian in college. My complaint was along the lines of "I've been at this for almost two years and can barely order a meal but my friends who took Spanish seem practically fluent."

She explained that some organization, maybe the US State Department, had done a survey of how long it generally took for a native English speaker to achieve a certain level of fluency. She may have even had a big list to show me. Anyway, as I recall, Spanish was pretty much at the bottom (fastest to learn), Russian was in the middle or upper middle, and at the top (hardest) were languages like Arabic, Basque, Finnish, and Japanese.

This led to my pet theory, which is that the difficulty of going from language A to language B is largely a function of how far back in time you have to go before you've got a common ancestor. I guess that's another way of saying "how related they are."

When you learn Russian, for whatever it might be worth, one immediately notices how really old words are "weird" but that as you get into the 19th and 20th century the language starts importing words like crazy, especially nouns, from French and English. That makes life a bit easier if you want to talk about computers instead of, say, farming. The big moment for me was when those old Russian words stopped looking like random collections of letters and started feeling normal, even if I couldn't explain why.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:34 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's a blurb from the director of the National Foreign Language Center saying Japanese is the hardest language for English speakers to learn...in his opinion.

It is intensely subjective. We just had a thread with some people saying that Chinese was "easy" for them to learn--I personally find any tone language to be a huge uphill climb, so I stay away.

On the other hand, I've done some dilettante dabbling in Arabic, supposedly a very difficult language, and I don't see what the fuss is all about. But that's just me. French conjugations aren't that bad either (try the original Latin sometime).

Note that Malay (or standard Indonesian, which is very close) lacks verb conjugations....but there's a lot of use of prefixes, which means that to a newbie a lot of words will look "alike", and looking words up in a short vocabulary list is difficult, because you have to snip off the prefix first. Would you remember that 'penyakit' derives from 'sakit'? (That said, I thought picking up a bit of Indonesian for travel years ago was fairly easy.)

There are lots of reasons for non-English-speakers to complain about English:

--silly, archaic, inconsistent spelling
--strong verbs (sing/sang/sung)
--flexible but long and bizarre verb formations (will have been driving)
--three or four words for things due to the history of English (kingly, royal, regal)
--slang, slang, slang and all the cultural shibboleths associated with being the language of London, Hollywood, Motown, Australia, etc.

And probably more. Each of those things isn't really unique to English, but they can come together to make an English language learner's life miserable as soon as they try to follow, say, a VH1 reality show.
posted by gimonca at 5:41 AM on April 30, 2008


Barry Farber, who wrote "How to learn any language", and is a student of 25 languages, claims that Finnish and Korean are his 2 hardest languages:

http://www.meadowparty.com/farber.html
posted by blueyellow at 5:48 AM on April 30, 2008


Note that Javanese--not that far removed in theory from Malay--is famous for its different levels of polite speech (wiki). The grammar isn't the difficult part, it's keeping track of the krama/madya/ngoko distinctions and what words you're supposed to use in what situations. Think about the tu/vous distinction in French, but in at least 3 levels, and spread across most of the core vocabulary of the language.
posted by gimonca at 5:48 AM on April 30, 2008


From my Russian friend who fluently speaks four languages, Hebrew is the one that scares her the most. According to this page, there are some that are more difficult for us English speakers.
posted by JJ86 at 5:49 AM on April 30, 2008


A native speaker of "Gaelic" isn't fluent in the language until that person is in their teens? That's most ludicrous thing I've heard this week.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:54 AM on April 30, 2008


Why Chinese is So Damn Hard
I think I might have bookmarked this after it was linked in a post on the blue
posted by winston at 5:58 AM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Shit. Meant to add:

You can tell how non-expert the answer is by referring to a language family that doesn't exist. The language family of the "Gaelic" languages is the Indo-European language family, and the branch is called "Celtic." The subsection of those languages are the Q-Celtic languages. Amongst people with any linguistic training, "Gaelic" refers to a single language-- Scots Gaelic. The Irish language is referred to colloquially by some Americans as "Gaelic", but using it like that is severely antiquated at this point.

Sorry to come off as a pedantic nerd, but the response marked as "best answer" is thoroughly, hopelessly retarded.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:03 AM on April 30, 2008


In terms of first language acquisition, the brain has to be ready to be born in Japan, Kenya, Iceland, or wherever. If you take the Chomskyian point of view, we all have an innate "language acquisition device" and universal principles of language built in. There are slight differences in the timetable of language acquisition across languages, but this is generally due to cultural differences, such as how much exposure to speech the infant gets.
posted by supramarginal at 6:09 AM on April 30, 2008


There's an interesting table provided by the Defense Language Institute here.

According to that, four languages fall into Level IV, which is the most difficult level : Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean.

Of course, this leaves out all the other languages they don't teach - I found Tamazight to be the hardest.
posted by Liosliath at 6:27 AM on April 30, 2008


Learning any language is made more difficult by how removed the language is from yours. For English speakers, used to speaking a language that is relatively flexible, with relatively few inflections and easy to mess around with, learning a more rigid language is often difficult which is why, contrary to current wisdom, French is often difficult for English speakers, certainly compared to Spanish or German.

But wait a minute, that example proves the opposite point, since Spanish is about as rigid as French, right? I haven't learned Spanish, but I learned French and Italian as a native English speaker. Italian is much easier than French, but just as rigid in spelling, pronunciation, accent marks, etc. This is just anecdotal, of course, but that does seem to show that French is objectively harder than Italian (and I assume that Spanish is about the same as Italian since they're so similar).
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:27 AM on April 30, 2008


Response by poster: Major Curley
Should I unmark it as best answer? That seems cruel. It did introduce the issue of an objective method of assessing language difficulty, that of how long it takes a child to learn a language. Most comments so far, interesting as they are, have been based around second language acquistion, which will always be biased by the learner's native language and thus unobjective. The time frame for Gaelic fluency did seem a little ungenerous though I'll grant you.
posted by greytape at 6:29 AM on April 30, 2008


Best answer: One more thing about Malay/Indonesian: Malay was used for a long time as a trade language, among different peoples who didn't speak Malay at home. Indonesian was more or less artificially standardized from Malay in the 1920s or so during the Indonesian independence movement to be a common national language--which it was already somewhat suited to do, since it was commonly known, didn't really "belong" to any ethnic group, wasn't European, and had smoothed over a lot of the baroque difficulties of other major regional languages like Javanese (mentioned previously).

So the answer to your original question might be a language used for trade or standard communications between nations, communities, ethnic groups, etc. Standard Arabic as opposed to the wide variations between Gulf Arabic, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, etc. could be one example.
posted by gimonca at 6:35 AM on April 30, 2008


Best answer: Check out Language Myths by Bauer and Trudgill.

Synopsis here, Myth 7

I don't have time to answer in full right now, but many of the responses here are misleading at best. I'll try to get back to this later.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:45 AM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've noticed that all languages tend to have hard elements and easy elements.

Yeah, that's basically it. But some languages are definitely harder than others depending on your starting point. If you're starting from English, Russian is going to be harder than Spanish and Georgian harder than either.

Japanese has no tense, no plural, no masculin/feminin. It's a lot easier to learn than french or english. Its only complexity comes from the writing, which you'll find easier than you think if you look into them more.


This is utter nonsense. Japanese is extremely difficult for English speakers; the politeness levels are only one stumbling block. And the writing system is "easier than you think"? Give me a break. The only writing system I know that's got more built-in complexity and ambiguity is ancient Hittite.
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


As an addendum, in response to the first "answer" by Powercat:

Japanese most assuredly does have tenses! It does not necessarily have all of the same tenses as English, but you can also decline verbs in ways that English needs "helper verbs" to express.

At the least, compare "tabimasu" (I eat/you eat/etc) to "tabimashita" (I ate/you ate/etc.)

Verb declensions do not depend on subject, but tense is even more important as a result.
posted by explosion at 7:14 AM on April 30, 2008


As a native Japanese speaker, of the 4 languages I am familiar with with varying degrees of fluency (Japanese, English, French, German) I think that Japanese is still the most difficult to really master - and it's not just about the 3 (or 4) writing systems and grammatical rules. There are so many different ways of expressing oneself depending on who you are in relation to who you are speaking to - that is the biggest stumbling block. Non-native speakers are most often forgiven for any verbal/social faux pas though (mostly, we're just happy to see anyone even try).

(also explosion, not to nitpick but it's "tabemasu" and "tabemashita", not "tabi...")

English is difficult in the sense that the spelling often has no relation to the way a word sounds like. At least in German (or rather Hochdeutsch, or standard German-German) what you hear is generally close to how you write it.

What's really difficult to learn in another sense are languages or dialects that are not written down, except informally. Schwiizerdütsch (Swiss-German) for example...I've been here in the Zürich area off and on for more than a decade, and while I can understand about 80% of what I hear, I can only say more than a handful of phrases. Written German here is all Hochdeutsch (mixed liberally with French words, but that's ok) so the only way I can really learn anything new is aurally. E.g. a piece of butter is 'äs mödeli Anke'. Where's die Butter?
posted by thread_makimaki at 7:55 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Hello, I'm a computational linguist who did most of her graduate work in language elicitation. That means that most of my research focused on ways to catalog and detect language features. I've studied dozens of languages and how they use grammar to encode meaning.

Just the way that software will always use all of the available computing power, language will always try to fill as much of the brain as it can. However, there are a lot of axises along which a language can be easy or hard: syntax (including morphology), vocabulary, regularity, available phonemes and tones, among others. Languages might be easy or hard in any one of these areas, but usually it evens out. For example, most really morphologically complex languages like Finnish have a great deal of regularity. English has fairly simple syntax, but complex usage systems and lots of irregularity. In fact, no one has found a language that has more irregular verbs than English. Even a language like Thai, which has almost no morphology has a complex system of count markers.
posted by Alison at 8:21 AM on April 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


English turns out to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, and the main reason is the vocabulary. To even be able to engage in casual speech in English you have to have a working vocabulary of more than 100,000 words, because it is the norm in English to routinely use synonyms in order to prevent ear fatigue.
posted by Class Goat at 9:08 AM on April 30, 2008


Another thing that makes English tough is the way we combine verbs with other words to create new verbs. Compare "to run" with "to run into" (collide, or meet), "to run over" (trample), "to run past" (inform), "to run through" (impale). There are hundreds of those in common use.
posted by Class Goat at 9:15 AM on April 30, 2008


Class Goat--

The same is true with French. Prepositions can vastly alter a word's meaning--look at 'manquer' and 'devoir' for two headache-inducing examples.
posted by nonmerci at 10:16 AM on April 30, 2008


To even be able to engage in casual speech in English you have to have a working vocabulary of more than 100,000 words

More like 4000-5000 word families. The average college-educated native speaker is lucky to reach 20,000. Most abridged dictionaries fall substantially short of 100,000.

English's pronunciation and spelling may be hellish, and the number of irregulars very, very high, but it's also much simpler than other languages in many ways. Only a few nouns are gendered; there's almost no gender agreement for adjectives; only pronouns decline (save for nouns differing between singular and plural); there's only one conjugation family (with no variation by gender, and little variation by number or person -- third person singular varies for the present tense, and there's only one form for the other tenses, off the top of my head.)

It would be really, really hard for an adult to learn to speak flawless English as a second language. It wouldn't be all that hard to learn enough English to communicate in a few simple cases (however obviously broken the English may be.) As near as I can tell, this much would be true for any language. (Of course, some things are predictably harder than others depending on where you start -- for instance, I can't reliably hear, let alone reproduce, tonal distinctions in tonal languages.)

I have often heard the claim that English is harder to learn as a second language than other languages. I have never heard it backed up by citations to a study claiming to prove this.

Shorter: see iamkimiam's Myth 7 link.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:34 AM on April 30, 2008


I don't get the absolutist claim, made several times in this thread, that this question is fundamentally unanswerable, merely because the ease of learning any particular language depends upon the languages that you already know.

There is no reason why linguists couldn't build a big huge chart of "known languages" versus "unknown language" giving the amount of time that it takes the average adult knowing those known languages to learn passably speak that unknown language.

Given such a chart, it may then become clear that certain languages are fundamentally more difficult to learn, in the sense that they are across-the-board more difficult to learn for speakers of all, or nearly all, other languages.

For example, if English speakers find French more difficult to learn than Spanish, and German speakers find French more difficult to learn than Spanish, and Thai speakers find French more difficult to learn than Spanish, and ..., and speakers of just about every language out there except for Haitian Creole and Cajun English find French more difficult to learn than Spanish, then French is more difficult to learn than Spanish.

Also, please note that the common claim (which was also mentioned multiple times in this thread) that "English is one of the hardest languages to learn" is directly at odds with the "this question is unknowable" claim, and, I believe, is based upon a nonscientific version of the method that I described above.
posted by Flunkie at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


To be clear, I'm not saying that such a chart would make it clear that certain languages are more difficult to learn than others. I'm just saying that it's possible that such a chart would make that clear, and that therefore this question is not necessarily fundamentally unknowable.
posted by Flunkie at 11:28 AM on April 30, 2008


To even be able to engage in casual speech in English you have to have a working vocabulary of more than 100,000 words

That's one of the most ridiculous statements I've ever heard.

Given such a chart, it may then become clear that certain languages are fundamentally more difficult to learn, in the sense that they are across-the-board more difficult to learn for speakers of all, or nearly all, other languages.


I don't think you've gotten the idea. Italian is easy for Spanish-speakers because they are closely related, with similar grammar. It is not as easy for English-speakers because English and Italian are more distantly related, but they're both Indo-European and have a lot of loan words in common. All of those are hard for Thai speakers, but Lao is extremely easy, since Thai and Lao have diverged very recently and dialects of Thai are very close to Lao; on the other hand, both Thai and Lao are equally hard for the speakers of European languages. Georgian is bitching hard for you and me, but not that hard for a speaker of Mingrelian, which is closely related. Are you getting the picture?
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on April 30, 2008


But wait a minute, that example proves the opposite point, since Spanish is about as rigid as French, right? I haven't learned Spanish, but I learned French and Italian as a native English speaker. Italian is much easier than French, but just as rigid in spelling, pronunciation, accent marks, etc. This is just anecdotal, of course, but that does seem to show that French is objectively harder than Italian (and I assume that Spanish is about the same as Italian since they're so similar).

No. Please don't use a language as an example if you have no familiarity with it.

Spanish has a very flexible word order. While English is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language, it has some play; Spanish statements can very easily be expressed as VSO or OSV depending on what the speaker wants to emphasize. Spanish also has a very simple phonemic inventory, remarkably regular verb conjugations (with only about two dozen of the more commonly-used ones being irregular), a highly predictable syllabic emphasis structure, and a relatively small vocabulary. The biggest challenge is the different vocabulary used in the dozens of countries where it is spoken natively, but that's still minor.

Italian has irregularities out the wazoo.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:42 AM on April 30, 2008



While English is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language

*whistles* "here comes the sun, dobadobadodoo here comes the sun."
posted by munchbunch at 12:18 PM on April 30, 2008


The United States government categorizes languages on the degree of difficulty for a native speaker of English to gain practical fluency. Category 3 is the most difficult; there are four of them. They are Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

And having just thrown my hands up in the air and given up on Arabic classes, I can say... HELL YEAH.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:24 PM on April 30, 2008


I've studied both French and Japanese. I found conversational Japanese much easier to learn the conversational French. Japanese writing is another matter; even native Japanese need to devote considerable effort to acquire and maintain a command of kanji.
posted by SPrintF at 12:53 PM on April 30, 2008


English turns out to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, and the main reason is the vocabulary. To even be able to engage in casual speech in English you have to have a working vocabulary of more than 100,000 words, because it is the norm in English to routinely use synonyms in order to prevent ear fatigue.

Oh boy, is that an uninformed comment! In my case, that would mean that I was learning more than 750 English words per day - not to mention English grammar, idioms, spelling and so on - since I could do better than speak "casual" English after only four or five months of coming to America. And my native language, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, isn't anywhere as near to English as Spanish, Italian, German, etc. So I'd like everyone to bow to my mastery! Ha ha.

Obviously, the truth is nothing like that.

In my case, Russian was easy for reasons of similarity (though I've forgotten much of it from lack of use, but even so I can understand it well as a "cousin"), English tougher than French or Spanish or Italian, German about the same as English, Romanian easier than everything but Russian (partially because by then I'd studied other Romance languages, but the healthy dollop of Slavic words helped too), and Hungarian pretty tough. It's about what one would expect given what my native tongue is.

A mitigating factor in the difficulty of learning languages is also in the writing systems employed relative to one's own. I've studied enough Arabic (casually) to find it a little easier than Hungarian, but Arabic's writing system complicates (or slows) learning the language in a way that isn't a factor (for me) with Hungarian. I've also found that languages with more regularized and "simpler" grammar tend to make up for that by having more impenetrable subtleties in other ways, such as idiomatic structures.

One of the hardest things to master in a secondary language is "doing maths" in a new language. It was the last thing I could do effectively ("thinking" sixty-four divided by three in English, for example.) I've heard this from others, too - despite the fact that, compared to other things, counting systems aren't all that different in most languages. So I would think that some of a language's difficulty is overcoming things so easy that they are rote in one's native tongue. This puts a different spin on the question, at least for me.

While English is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language

*whistles* "here comes the sun, dobadobadodoo here comes the sun."

Idiomatic structures such as this are tough at first. It hardly changes the fact that English is really an SVO language though. I mean, one can say "To Bill I gave a puppy," but that's really just a little bit of underemployed poetic license. I can read a lot of quite complicated things in English quite well - and I do - but Mother Goose's Tales still seem quite hard for me for this reason!

If some languages *are* truly more difficult than others from an objective view, then I suspect that the differences are slight indeed, or limited to specific areas of the language and not the whole. To a Martian, they're probably all about the same.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2008


I don't think you've gotten the idea. Italian is easy for Spanish-speakers because they are closely related, with similar grammar. It is not as easy for English-speakers because English and Italian are more distantly related, but they're both Indo-European and have a lot of loan words in common. All of those are hard for Thai speakers, but Lao is extremely easy, since Thai and Lao have diverged very recently and dialects of Thai are very close to Lao; on the other hand, both Thai and Lao are equally hard for the speakers of European languages. Georgian is bitching hard for you and me, but not that hard for a speaker of Mingrelian, which is closely related. Are you getting the picture?
I don't think you've gotten the idea that I've gotten the idea.

I'm well aware that certain languages are easier or harder for speakers of certain other languages to learn. I think that that fact should have been clear from what I wrote.

I am also well aware that a lot of this is based upon the mutual relation between the pairs of languages. I also think that this fact should have been clear from what I wrote (for example, choosing the closely related languages Spanish and French as the ones being tested, and hypothesizing that perhaps French is more difficult than Spanish for just about everyone except for speakers of Creole and Cajun, both of which are more closely related to French than to Spanish).

In fact, I'm somewhat surprised that you think that anyone doesn't get these incredibly obvious points, even ignoring that I think it's clear from what I wrote that I do get them.

What I am saying is merely that it is not inconceivable that language A is more difficult to learn than language B across the board, with the exception of speakers of languages that are significantly closer to languge A than to language B. And, if this were true of some pair of languages, I think it would make sense to say that one is generally harder to learn than the other.
posted by Flunkie at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2008


Actually, we have a lot of evidence that every human language is equally easy (or difficult) to learn: all the native speakers of those languages, who did in fact learn (actually "acquire" is the term used by linguists) their languages. If you're asking about how hard it is for an adult human to learn a new human language, then (with a few sad exceptions) every adult is a native speaker of some language, and what that is will have an effect on ease of learning a new language.

If you're asking about how hard it is for a child to learn a human language, then the answer is that every human child before the critical period is equally capable of learning every human language with equal ease. As all human languages are equally expressively capable, then they are probably of equal complexity as viewed by a Martian, who presumably is not endowed with Universal Grammar.
posted by tractorfeed at 2:07 PM on April 30, 2008


I've studied both French and Japanese. I found conversational Japanese much easier to learn the conversational French.

Well, I see this comment and I accept that it's true for the writer. After all, French has mega-homonyms due to the silent endings, for example, while Japanese pronunciation is pretty much unambiguous.

My experience OTOH has been the opposite. I learned conversational French pretty much effortlessly starting at the age of 11 or so, and my French is still completely serviceable. But Japanese is nothing but a struggle, for many reasons, such as studying it for the first time in my 40's, and conflicting family and career obligations.

Also I haven't seen any of you experts define what it is to "learn" a language.

So, this question may not be susceptible to a simple answer.

Are you looking for a foreign language to study? Study the one you want to study. If you don't feel any affinity for a specific language, choose another and don't waste your time.
posted by JimN2TAW at 2:16 PM on April 30, 2008


There are LOTS of variables involved with learning a language, and ease of learning. Just to name a few:
• Learning context and environment
• Learner motivation
• Positive and negative reinforcement
• Practice
• Means of learning about (self-awareness), and catering to, individual learner's needs
• Age (Critical Period Hypothesis, etc.)
• Educational background
• Individual learners being able to grasp and apply different aspects of the language (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, phonotactics, sociolinguistic factors, etc.), at different rates and levels, dependent on a wide range of other factors.

Also, there are a number of variables that would make a language more or less similar than another language (as well as "easier" or "harder" to learn, depending on your perspective). Here are a few:
• Sociopolitical context between the languages in contact
• Sociohistorical context between the languages in contact
• Power dynamic/shift between the languages in contact
• Coincidental similarities between the languages being analyzed/studied (ex. the languages use similar inflectional systems, or the languages being accessed are tonal languages, etc.–this would lead to familiarity with the features being studied.)

Also, if it were true that one language were objectively "simpler" or "easier" than another, what would that say about its speakers? Why would their language be ANY LESS COMPLEX than the one you learned? Think about that every time you make a judgment about somebody with an accent, or speaking a foreign language, or a different dialect than your own.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:39 PM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, and to answer the original question posed...I believe that the lazy Martian linguist would learn the first language it came in contact with on Earth.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:42 PM on April 30, 2008


Also, if it were true that one language were objectively "simpler" or "easier" than another, what would that say about its speakers?
It would say they speak a language that's objectively easier to learn than the other.
Why would their language be ANY LESS COMPLEX than the one you learned?
I don't know. Why does that mean it's inconceivable?

Why would it be completely inconceivable that there is some language that is, in a general sense with obvious exceptions for speakers of specific related languages, easier or harder to learn than some other language?
Think about that every time you make a judgment about somebody with an accent, or speaking a foreign language, or a different dialect than your own.
Please. Just because something, if true, could be virulently twisted by racists who assign undeserved implications to it (like the undeserved implication that you are assigning to it) does not mean it cannot possibly be true.
posted by Flunkie at 6:11 PM on April 30, 2008


Here is a wonderful and informative essay about linguistic prejudice (also covers some language myths too!).

The truth is, we all make judgments and assessments about people everyday. Some of that involves noticing the way others speak, and drawing conclusions about them from that. And often, this is the type of stuff that leads to language myths.

The danger of saying that one language is easier to learn than another is in the fact that language is indexical of the identity and culture of its speakers. Saying that a language is "simple" is a slippery slope away from the false conclusion that its speakers are uneducated, simple, stupid, etc.

My comment was an attempt to politely point out the dangerous slide into linguistic prejudice territory. I wasn't accusing anybody of being racist, or making any such other claim.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:15 PM on April 30, 2008


winston: "Why Chinese is So Damn Hard
I think I might have bookmarked this after it was linked in a post on the blue
"

These are the headers to the 9 sections of the (long) article linked above, claiming that Chinese is objectively hard...even for Chinese people:
1. Because the writing system is ridiculous.
2. Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet.
3. Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic.
4. Because you can't cheat by using cognates.
5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.
6. Then there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen).
7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.
8. Because tonal languages are weird.
9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.

There are a couple problems with David Moser's (author of the article) argument. I'm only going to tackle a few of 'em here.

The major bulk of his essay is based on the orthography (writing system(s)) of Chinese–five of his sections above are focused on this. This is not a good metric for discerning the difficulty of a language–especially when you are claiming that one is objectively harder than the rest. Of the 7000+ spoken languages today, there's a fair chunk that aren't standardized, don't have a writing system, are in major flux, are developing/changing/losing/improving their orthography. There are even many learners of these languages who never pick up a book, or download learning tapes! How DO they do it?

#2. "Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet." The 'language' doesn't use the alphabet, its speakers and writers do. He should just come out and say it, "Because Chinese-speaking people don't have the common sense to use an alphabet." There, fixed that for you.

#3. The writing system just ain't very phonetic. Yeah, neither is the English writing system anymore. It's why spelling bees are so hard. Us English writers use an incredibly deep orthography system. You'd think that because English and Chinese have that in common, learning Chinese would be a snap!

#4. doesn't support his argument about Chinese people thinking their language is hard.

#9. Well, he's sorta got a point there, and I like how he's bringing historical context into the argument, but I still think that a higher percentage of Chinese people know who Santa Claus is than the Shiki-speaking people of Africa. But that's just a guess! Wheeeee!
posted by iamkimiam at 8:04 PM on April 30, 2008




The answers posted so far, if not the original question, are conflating two questions:

a. are there differences among languages with respect to how hard they are to learn as a first language
b. are there differences among languages with respect to how hard they are to learn given that you already know a language (e.g., English).

the answer to the first question is that it depends on what you mean by "learn," i.e., to what degree of competence. There are eastern european languages with ungodly complicated inflectional systems that take a long time to master, much longer than, say, the corresponding system in English. But, the speakers of those language can communicate just fine anyway.

the answer to the second question is, the degree of overlap between L1 and L2, how long one has used L1 before being exposed to L2, and many other factors affect individual results. In general, similarity between the languages is helpful; English speaker better at learning a related language like dutch or german than an unrelated language like japanese. And the outcome depends massively on age: younger is better.

so the answer is, it would depend on how the Martian's language related to particular languages, and how old he/she/it is. Assuming Martian brains work anything like ours.
posted by cogneuro at 1:07 AM on May 3, 2008


Regarding Japanese, I agree with the first poster. Japanese is one of the easiest languages I've ever learned, and English is my first language. Romance languages, and other languages that English borrows from, tend to have lots of rules and exceptions to those rules, plurals, more tenses, gendered words, etc. I took French for two years and I sucked at it and hated it, even though some of the words sorta kinda sounded like their English counterparts. Similar vocabulary words don't take me very far, personally. I'll take a different writing system any day over that stuff, and Japanese has a relatively simple (compared to Chinese) and efficient writing system. Plus Japanese is it has a decent amount of words borrowed from English anyway, so more of the vocabulary I learned was more often similar to English than was the vocabulary when I learned French.

I don't think there's a way to say a language is objectively harder. I think it depends on the person, and and perhaps not even their native language. If someone is intimidated by a different writing system, it will be harder for them to learn the language. Chinese intimidates me because of the tones and more complex writing system. Many African languages, like !Kung and !Xóõ have the highest amount of phonemes seen in languages and include tones. However, !Kung for example, is structured similarly to English, so if an English speaker happened to be good with sounds, !Kung might seem easier than other languages.

The hardest language I personally ever tried was Russian, though. It has all the rules, exceptions, tenses, and a different writing system. I only have any experience with Japanese, Korean, French, Russian, and Spanish, though. I know German is a nightmare for some people, as well. In my experience, though, no matter what language class I've been in, there have been plenty of people who have trouble, and it doesn't really matter what their native language is. For example, there were lots of a fluent Chinese speakers in my Japanese class, and while they could recognize the many characters borrowed from Chinese, a lot of them were still awful at the language overall. Some were awesome at it, though. It just depends.
posted by Nattie at 2:13 PM on May 3, 2008


Reading the above responses... I think people are correct in that you could have studies and see which language people find more difficult to learn compared to their native language, and you could say it's an "objective" measure of language difficulty.

But since I've seen how much this varies on an individual basis, I don't think it's all that useful for someone (or a Martian) if they want to make a decision about what language to learn. Like I said, Japanese is the easiest language I've ever learned (and hence the one I've studied longest) but Spanish was difficult for me. This seems to be the opposite of most people's experience. Conventional wisdom says Japanese should not be that difficult for a Chinese speaker, but I've seen it go both ways.

Languages with hard and fast rules and few exceptions are easiest for me, it seems, and writing systems are no obstacle. I can memorize anything based on rules, so the varying levels of politeness in Japanese are easier for me than other people. (There are different words used for verbs sometimes so one might say this is an "exception," but my brain handles it as it handles synonyms, it seems.) People who have trouble with writing systems but don't have trouble memorizing exceptions to multiple rules will fare differently. Some English speakers can be perfectly good with tones and learn Chinese fluently -- two of my friends come to mind here -- while others do as badly as you'd expect.

Also, I suspect that different teaching styles play a big part in learning languages. Japanese was difficult for me to learn on my own from textbooks, but then I got a teacher who made it easy. The same explanations did not help other people as much. I have found that many popular methods of teaching language are ineffective for me because they often focus on memorizing things with only a weak connection to rules. The same methods that help me can be too theoretical for some other people, who do well under conventional methods. While some languages lend themselves better to one method or the other, I think a lot of the difficulty people have with languages comes from how it is being taught to them.

I think, for example, I might find Russian easier if I had been taught differently, instead of in disconnected pieces. When I learned Japanese, I was told upfront all the tenses that existed, for example. I didn't know how to conjugate them yet, but I knew what they were, so I had some idea of which tense I would pick in a certain scenario. Soon thereafter, I was given a good idea of how clauses are formed, even if I didn't know all the rules yet. I had blanks in my head to fill in, and this works for me. I felt like there was a context for what I was learning, and a logical place to "file" the information away in my head. More importantly, this information was just available to me; it was nothing we were quizzed on, it was just there if I wanted it. Other people found this overwhelming, even though we didn't have to look at it.

When I was taught Russian, I had no clue what all the tenses were. I was just given a tense and told to learn it. I didn't know if there was a similar tense or not for somewhat different circumstances (like "perfect" tenses in English, for example). I knew how to conjugate a tense, but I didn't know the extent of what I could communicate with it. Instead of having a lot of potential blanks in my head that formed a whole, I just had these pieces of information that were relatively confusing and useless to me. For other people, this is the only way it's manageable.

I don't think the way I approach languages like this has much of anything to do with my native language, especially since it's different from the way plenty of people in my classes approach things. It's the way I tend to approach learning anything new, and lots of people with different native languages process information similarly. (I had trouble learning math with teachers that just went in tiny, seemingly disconnected steps too. Same with sciences. I did well if the teacher gave us a broader view of what we were going to study going in, poorly if they did not.) It seems to me there is a neurological component that's more general, separate from language altogether, that influences things, but that's not based on anything official. Other people might know if there's a term for it, or studies, etc.
posted by Nattie at 3:03 PM on May 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


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