Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"This language is hard"

It's all relative.
While a language might seem hard to you, or harder than another one, it's really all literally relative. But relative to what?
To what you already know. It should be pretty obvious why it's easier for a native English speaker to learn French than a native Chinese speaker, and why it would be easier for a Muscovite to learn Polish than it would be for an Afrikaner to do the same. Similarities go a long way.
A friendly invitation at a Western buffet in Tokyo, 2007. Language is confusing.
I can't remember which book it was in, but I want to say it was in Barry Farber's How to Learn Any Language, a book which I loved reading but take issue with some parts of at this point, that he talked about discounts.
It's not 100% dead-on accurate, but it's a nice way to think of it. The lexical similarity between French and Italian is even more than that between Spanish and Portuguese, (79% and 72% respectively, according to one account, if I remember correctly). The only issue is that Spanish and Portuguese sound much more similar to one another than the sounds and pronunciations of French and Italian. That means it is likely much easier for someone from Paris to read and understand a text in Italian than it is for him to listen to the same text spoken, assuming we're speaking of someone using only the knowledge of their mother tongue.
That being said, then, you could, in some ways, argue that if you're a fluent French
speaker and you've decided to tackle Italian, you get Italian at a huge discount, perhaps as much as 79% off! You have to do far less work than someone who has absolutely zero familiarity with it, and most of the heavy lifting is done. So much of the vocabulary is the same, much of the verb structure will be quite similar, so the only difficult parts left will be perfecting your accent and making note of all the quite tricky areas where it's not the same, learning false cognates, etc. We'll talk about that another time, but it's easy to see how a native speaker of Thai has a huge head start learning Laotian over a falang running into that alphabet for the first time.
But what we're focusing on today is the opposite of that. The same holds true though. The corresponding degree of unfamiliarity is going to make that language more difficult for you if it's less like your mother tongue (or another language you already speak). My point is this:
No one language is more difficult than another.
If it were, kids in China and the Middle East and Hungary and Finland would be learning to speak and read at like three or four years old, while infants in Indonesia or Kenya or Malaysia would already be having basic conversations. Healthy kids all learn to speak at more or less the same rate. They have the environment to speak their language, the time to practice it, and the humility not to care about making mistakes. Chinese and Arabic and Hungarian and Finnish are very complex languages, the kind that make English speakers' heads spin with their alphabets or incredibly complicated grammar. By contrast, Malay and Indonesian are considered some of the simplest languages on earth (excluding pidgins and creoles), but children seem to have few problems picking them all up.
My point in saying all this is that things are only difficult because they're different, or unfamiliar. The 'L' sound in Mongolian is weird, and I don't know of any other language that has it, but it could maybe be sort of similar to the "LL" in Welsh (?). I had a few conversations with people recently about how the English "Th-" is actually quite a rare sound, and how those two letters actually represent two sounds: a voiced one as in "this" and an unvoiced one as in "think."
That is a sound that only shows up in a handful of languages. Greek uses the theta to represent only the unvoiced sound, while Icelandic has a separate character for each of the sounds. Aside from that, I don't know of any others that have that sound.
There are sounds in Cantonese, Thai, Korean, and even French that are kind of difficult for me to pinpoint because we just don't have them in English (or Mandarin). That's not memorizing vocabulary, it's just muscle memory. To be honest, accents may (and likely will) never be native, especially if you start learning much later in life, but know that most of these hurdles in learning and communication can be overcome.
I've been surprised at how helpful when I'm banging my head against a wall and not getting something just to walk away for a while, sometimes a long while. I remember when I'd decided I was going got try to learn Urdu. I'd printed out a chart of all the letters and their four forms (independent, initial, medial and final) to learn their sounds and forms, and it was overwhelming. I couldn't get it at all. It was at that point that I set it aside. Turns out I didn't pick it back up again for a few months, but when I did, it was like... an entirely different system. It made so much sense, and the difficult part was figuring out what I didn't understand before. It seemed so logical, and I hadn't done any study of Urdu or even Persian or Arabic in the meantime. Now, I wasn't on a deadline of any kind then, but it's also interesting to consider that there must be, somewhere in the world, someone who speaks both your mother tongue and your target language, and if you're looking at any material in your mother tongue teaching that native language, then it's almost (obviously) a guarantee that there is.
That is to say it's possible.

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