December 7, 2016 10:57 AM   Subscribe

What features make languages most difficult for native English speakers?
posted by Chrysostom (16 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I've looked at related topics in my own research...One thing that might seem counterintuitive is that it's the sounds that are similar to ones in our native language, but slightly different, that are especially hard for language learners. One good example are the three plosives in Korean: strong/fortis (/kk/), weak (/k/) and aspirated (/kʰ/). The latter two are particularly troublesome for English speakers to distinguish...not because they are really different from English sounds, but because they are so similar (they both sort of sound like English /k/).

Thanks for posting!
posted by k8bot at 11:17 AM on December 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

I love this: "Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know."

Wow. Imagine how this would change so much about most western (and other) communication, and necessarily, therefore, so much more about our cultures generally. Fantastic, thanks!
posted by taz at 11:18 AM on December 7, 2016 [13 favorites]

From my own observation, the tonal aspects of Chinese were a real sticking point for many of my classmates, as were the aspect markers for completed, ongoing, etc. action. To where some people gave up and spoke in an aspectless monotone that I'm sure made for many surreal, delightful faux pas once in-country.

From my own experience, the if-then changes to words in Biblical Hebrew and all those damn dots stymied any autodidactic run at that language.

Fun article. Thanks.
posted by the sobsister at 11:28 AM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

A fellow linguist posted this the other day (with a "hey, this is pretty good, as far as pop-linguistics journalism" stamp of approval). Some discussion ensued about the actual hardest language to learn; there was a vote for Sentinelese being the actual hardest language to learn (since, y'know, you need to be able to talk to people without fearing for your life to learn a language); somebody else suggested Gaya, an extinct language with the corpus consisting of grand total of (maybe) 13 toponyms.
posted by damayanti at 11:57 AM on December 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

Anyone who speaks Turkish care to write out the phonetic pronunciation for "Evlerindemisçesine rahattilar" for me? Because that seems like it'd be a great motto to hang above the entrance door to your house - but I can't have a conversation piece like that without being able to ... you know, say it aloud.
posted by komara at 12:08 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the part about evidentiality in Tuyuca is fascinating. I've often though that English could benefit from similar tools. I wonder how conversations about religion in Tuyucan work?
posted by escape from the potato planet at 12:13 PM on December 7, 2016

Also, I just started reading The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt and though I'm only on page 68, many of the things in this article have already appeared in those pages, and I'm not gonna lie, it's kind of weird to read the words "inessive, elative, adessive" in that order in two different sources twice in one day.
posted by komara at 12:14 PM on December 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

there was a vote for Sentinelese being the actual hardest language to learn (since, y'know, you need to be able to talk to people without fearing for your life to learn a language);

Wow. I had no idea there was a tribe (or tribes) left like that on Earth - still almost totally without contact to the outside world. Fascinating.
posted by dnash at 12:28 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Turks often take offense at the example of çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız, since proper Turkish orthography requires separating the question marker "mi" from the rest of the word, making (the single word) properly written as çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdan mısınız. Of course, Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore as such, so it's a moot point anyway.

Those inspired by the exercise have since proposed Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine, although I see others objecting that Muvaffakiyet (meaning 'success' is a pretty rare word in Turkish (in place of the more common 'Başarı'), and I found this example, which is 13 letters longer, of
kuyruksallayangillersizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine, which of course would come out to something like "As if you were one of the unsuccessful agents that was trying at the time to quickly cleanse/purify the motacillidae [birds] of mine", which of course comes out much more nicely in the original Turkish.

For a bit of Indo-European relief from this Turkish business, you can be enlightened about the fusional aspects of German through a nice quick story about Barbara, who makes rhubab pie loved by a group of barbarians, who get their beards trimmed by a barber, who likes to drink a beer that is served only by at a specific bar by a woman named Bärbel, who of course everyone now knows when they're speaking of her offhand as "RhabarberbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbierbarBärbel".
posted by Theiform at 1:27 PM on December 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

Double. (Fun fact: I found the earlier post by putting "!Xóõ" in the search box!)
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on December 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

People in the previous thread really pushed back against the idea of languages being harder or easier to learn in general, but the article in its current form is about languages being harder or easier for an English speaker. Even if you don't want to consider languages as having "positions" in some hypothetical space with a metric characterizing their distance from one another, surely there is some sense in which Dutch is "closer" to English than !Xóõ is.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 2:42 PM on December 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Jpfed: yes!
posted by k8bot at 8:22 PM on December 7, 2016

Oh absolutely yes the overall difficulty of a second language is determined by similarity to one's first. I still remember back in college how my Japanese classes had a lot of Korean students taking them for the easy A, because Japanese has grammar that's eerily similar to Korean despite being unrelated languages.

I also remember how, when I first started studying German in middle school, the first-year textbook was cleverly structured to avoid having to explain to students that the pronoun used to refer to an inanimate object depended on the gender of the noun, rather than just all being "it." That was an unpleasant surprise when they finally got around to letting us know about that fact.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:04 PM on December 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

It kind of reads like someone took the answers to a Linguistics 101 essay test and submitted them as an article after deleting the actual questions. So... above average for a magazine article about linguistics.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:00 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

That said, I was hoping to read something about language difficulty along the lines of John McWhorter, who has a theory about languages with a history of being acquired by adults or used extensively as a second language (like English!) being less complex. And he actually has some criteria for language complexity that aren't just "distance from your native language". I guess I just changed the topic from difficulty to complexity. But there's a relationship there! I apologize to magazines; my favorite magazine is books.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:11 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I first read this, I thought, "Hey, this looks like a decent article on linguistic variation... dressed up to get clicks."

I made a slightly annoyed comment on Reddit about it, saying that there seems to be a strong tension between writing an informative, balanced article, and making pat claims about "hardest languages" that people are likely to want to share. It's a really good example of how good science journalism is incompatible with a click-based model.

The article is better than most, but, for example, there's no reason to say that Tuyuca is the hardest language for English speakers to learn. It has some unusual or challenging features, but so do many others. It's not the only language with evidentiality (it's pretty common), and the effect of having evidentiality on a language and a culture is not as dramatic as people imagine. Turkish has both evidentiality and journalists, imagine that.

John McWhorter, who has a theory about languages with a history of being acquired by adults or used extensively as a second language (like English!) being less complex

This isn't just McWhorter's view. Trudgill is probably better known among linguists for this view, and has some interesting work about it. His Social Determinants of Linguistic Complexity is, I think, the standard reference for his work. Sociolinguistics work can be pretty accessible once you have basic descriptive vocabulary down, so it's worth checking out if you're interested. Here is a chapter of his that covers some of the same concepts [PDF].

It's important to note that "complexity" can be defined in many different ways, some of which are mutually exclusive, so you have to be really careful when you make claims about the relative complexity of languages. Especially given the history of exoticizing/characterizing non-European people in racist ways based on their languages: it is a simple language (how primitive they must be), or it is a complex language (how inscrutable). English, for example, has lost a lot of its morphology, which can be used in some measures of grammatical complexity, but it has also an immense and often redundant Latinate vocabulary that you have to master to write in a a professional register. Depending on your definition of complexity, the vocabulary may not matter, even though it is something that has real consequences for speakers.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:58 AM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

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