Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

IMG_2906

Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!

Viva Rumantsch!

I would like to congratulate Julian Tsapir again for solving my SECOND riddle so quickly. I took forward to the day in which he represents his country/hometown/family in puzzle and riddle competitions.
Anyhow, the clues for said riddle:

“• This language is the official language of a country, but not the only language with this status.
• This language is also an official language of a part of said country
• This language is endangered
• Judging from the FSI’s standards, this would be very easy for an English speaker to learn (although I do have problems using “hard” and “easy” to describe language projects or languages in general).
• The language is very closely related to some of the most popularly studied languages.
• The language’s name sounds very close to an adjective used to describe its classification.
• On paper, the most common language in the area where it is spoken is one that is on my list already (it is one that I know well)”

The language in question is Romansh, the fourth official language of Switzerland.
If you have read anything about it, you may know that it is often said that it is the “closest living language to ancient Latin”. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that statement quite yet (I think that I may need to dabble in some Italian dialects first…I don’t intend to do that for a while yet…)

switzerland

But perhaps you are asking “why?”

1. I realized that I had trouble maintaining some of my Romance Languages, especially with less-than-helpful progress in both French and Italian. European Portuguese is definitely my favorite of the commonly spoken Romance Languages, but I realized by the sheer amount of hours that I poured into Greenlandic that I had a burning passion for understudied languages (again, much of the reason that I started this blog).

While studying Northern Sami, I realized that my command of Finnish became stronger when I was using the dictionaries on Giella Tekno. Before I took polyglottery very seriously, I knew that my mind tended to work in highly associative patterns.

New York is probably the one place on earth where I really shouldn’t forget many of the importantly spoken Romance Languages, and I have trouble motivating myself to fall in love with something that is already receiving a lot of attention.

Therefore, I have my underdog language that is closely related to Italian and to French, and by giving him/her/it appropriate care, I hope that I can not only learn more about Romansh revival efforts and Swiss culture but also ensure that I can maintain some semblance of conversation in the Romance Languages which, admittedly, I did not fawn over the way I did many of my others (especially the Scandinavian trifecta and Greenlandic).

2. I’ve already studied lots of endangered languages: Yiddish was my first, Faroese is going by well, and I will be conversational as soon as I start learning to build sentences together, Northern Sami has slipped by the wayside in the past few days, but I did spend lots of time on it in the past year (after April/May or so) and now, Romansh. Greenlandic is listed as “vulnerable” by UNESCO, so it is somewhat in the league of these languages, but not quite…

I intend to look at how the various revival efforts for each of the languages can be seen in the light of one another. Furthermore, I am curious if there are some traits in Endangered Languages that are usually not seen in ones that are more secure.

Interestingly: in both Northern Sami and in Yiddish there are words denoting outsiders or outsider women in particular: “goy” and “shikse” may be familiar to those of you who may know only very little about Jewish culture, but “rivgu” (a non-Sami woman) and “dáža” (a non-Sami Norwegian) are words that outsiders of Sami culture may not be aware of.

Also: many people are amused by the fact that the word for the Danish Language in Greenlandic is “qallunaatut” – very roughly, “the language of white people”.

Anyhow, next up: a progress report on my language studies and goals before my school begins next week!

Why Danish isn’t as Hard as Google Search Results Make It Out to Be

dansk i graekenland

From the airport in Hania, Crete–a place that has a reputation for getting “planeloads of Danes” during the tourist season.

Hej allesammen!

If there is one language that has been accused of being both very easy and very difficult to learn, it would definitely be the Danish Language. I still have remember the first time I typed in some words into Google Translate and had them read aloud with that recognizable little button…

My mouth dropped, I lightly screamed, “WHAT?!!?”, and I muttered to myself in disbelief. “How does THAT come out to be…THAT?” I wondered…

Nearly a year and a half later after that incident, Danish pronunciation is not the least bit scary to me, after lots of cartoon-watching and media consumption (in fact, the only reason why I would consume media and watch cartoons is precisely for learning a new language—nothing more…)

[TANGENT]

Let’s get this out of the way right now: for media aimed at younger audiences, even in part, there will be dubs of them in the Nordic Languages, “All their media is in English, and that’s why they all learn to speak it excellently…”, you might have heard? No, not quite. Sorry. That would be the schooling systems you have in mind.

In my Stockholm hotel TV where my family was staying, there was definitely very little dubbed material (is that why people get this impression?), but the fact is, that you can find media in the “everyone from the countries where these languages are spoken speaks English” languages, and a lot of it!

Not only that, but you can and will find people willing to speak to you in these languages and will actually be very pleased that you undertook the effort!

Wait, did I go off on a tangent? Yes I did…

[/TANGENT]

On one hand, a quick Google Search in regards to the Danish Language may tell you that you better give up now because all the expatriates struggle with the language, never learn it, always get answered in English, can’t even get the basic street names correctly, etc. etc.

On the other hand, while I don’t particularly trust the FSI’s rating of languages by difficulty (or any such ratings, actually), the fact that Danish is in the easiest category (along with Romanian, the other Scandinavian Languages and the Romance Languages—hey, FSI, possibly put Romansh in there, too?) is telling.

I came across this list back when Danish pronunciation mystified me, back when I thought, “I will never bother with torturing myself with this, I’ll stick to Swedish and Norwegian for the time being”, and I was perplexed. But interestingly, a part of me found it believable…maybe the pronunciation wasn’t so bad after all.

Okay, back up, for those of you wondering what exactly makes Danish so elusive in the eyes of foreigners, allow me to introduce you to the stød, the glottal stop. Mention this to someone who speaks the language, and he or she may make a motion of sticking his or her tongue out slightly and then withdrawing it—in so doing, this creates a certain creaky vibration of the throat. This is effectively what you need to master.

While it took me a number of weeks practicing to practice it, while walking on silent roads or in the shower, I actually encountered someone a few weeks ago (German/British), with no prior knowledge of Danish, who pronounced a perfect stød on his first try! Well, you really shouldn’t judge anyone from first tries, but the fact is: there is hope for you! Not also to mention that there are dialects of the language without it.

Without further ado, allow me to present this, a translation of a very popular Greenlandic song, “Sila Qaammarerpoq”, into Danish:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQwjuScey9s

That creaky voice sound that you can hear at multiple points in the song? Yep, that’s what scares away many prospective learners.

Not the only thing, however—the fact that Danish spelling is deemed a “poor indicator” of pronunciation means that even basic words, like “bedst” (best), “gade” (street), “overalt” (everywhere) and “eventyr” (fairy tale—you know, that’s what Hans Christian Andersen called his own creations…), become very intimidating.

But, in reality, these words are just as intimidating as their English counterparts would be for a foreigner!

Scratch that, the English words would actually be more intimidating!

I don’t see too many foreigners saying how the English language is extraordinarily difficult, and I think that Danish pronunciation and spelling is actually a lot more intuitive than that of English—although let’s be honest, this is not a very high standard.

In summary, Danish’s reputation as very hard can be ascribed to the following factors:

(1)    Stød—not impossible for a foreigner to learn. Obviously this requires some practice

(2)    The spelling-pronunciation disconnect. This, too, requires some practice.

 

And the best way to get this practice is by using the same method that most people who learn English to any degree use: media immersion.

This is effectively how I learned Danish, after learning Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees. Thanks largely to the similarities between Norwegian Bokmål and Danish, the written language was a lot less scary, thanks largely to the fact that Norwegian is very straightforward in its spelling and pronunciation systems, more than both Swedish and Danish are.

I spent the least amount of time with Danish textbooks and learning materials—far fewer than I have with any other language. Because I spent most of my time with materials made for young native speakers of the language, my confidence skyrocketed and my progress was quick. This way, I turned the nightmarish aspects into a boon—I used it as a means to tell myself, “immersion is necessary to be good at this”. And so it was.

My vocabulary was almost entirely gained through immersion, and I even remember some from the food packaging labels from the time I lived in Stockholm, back when I thought, “if I even try to read this gosh-darned language aloud, I’m gonna make a fool of myself…”

But even if Danish is your first Scandinavian language, you have to realize that your journey is very much not impossible, contrary to what the Internet might say (and what doesn’t the Internet say?). You will be amazed with your progress and your journey, and so will you. And so will your friends….even the Danish-speaking ones…especially the Danish-speaking ones!

And actually, I’ll leave you with a secret: I know that there are many people who disagree with me, but I think that Danish sounds beautiful, especially when sung.

If you don’t believe me, watch Walt Disney’s films dubbed into the language. They’re all there!

This might also be roughly familiar to some to you:

Held og lykke!