Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

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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!

“I’ve Heard It’s Really Hard…” : On The Finnish Language

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I began my journey with the Finnish Language in March 2013, during a few weeks off in the United States.

After having spent eight months in Sweden, I remember that many of my friends (Swedish and otherwise) found the Finnish Language odd, interesting, and completely unintelligible, despite the fact that there were Finnish translations on almost every single piece of food packaging in the country.

“Strange Language. Double Letters. Long Words.”

One time I asked a Swede why the Finnish language was understudied in Sweden. His answer: “You don’t study Cherokee in the United States, do you?”

And that was nothing to say of the fake Finnish thrown around by some Swedish comedians. What follows is likely the best-known example (with English subtitles):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAl9OyGYxOg

I’m not passing judgment on any of these phenomena. They are what they are.

I did research in Finland for my MA Thesis—an effort I will submit later this week. Obviously it made sense to show commitment to the culture by learning the language. While I was not fluent by the time I arrived in November 2013 (and I still am not, but I am almost there…), my efforts were appreciated by everyone whom I interviewed , and the following exchange I had with the Rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch in Helsinki was priceless:

 

Rabbi Wolff: “You obviously know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you first arrive here?”

Jared: (with a smile) “…just a couple of hours ago…”

 

Only last night did I hear for the I-stopped-counting-how-many-th time that Finnish is super-hard. There is one thing in common with everyone that I hear this from:

None of them have tried!

Interestingly even for a few people who learned about twenty words of the language, they don’t find it especially difficult—just different.

I’ve had significant struggles with language grammars. Modern Greek’s future tense system gave me nightmares. The Hebrew binyanim became something I never wanted to think about. And then there was Finnish’s lesser-known relative, Northern Sami, which had consonant shifts across the board that I still struggle with.

I can tell who is informed about the Finnish Language if he or she uses one word to describe it: logical. Some have even said that it is a language that is possible for an outsider to learn perfectly (I would never say this about American English).

The grammar does take some effort to learn, but I found that in comparison to the grammar of Modern Greek and Modern Hebrew especially (not also to mention those of the ancient languages that I had forgotten), Finnish was an easy ride. It is true that there are about thirty-five different noun categories for declination (Greenlandic only has ten). Most of these are intuitive, however, and I couldn’t have said the same thing about anything regarding, let’s say, Classical Greek.

And then we get to the second part about what I constantly hear from outsiders about the Finnish language:

“lots of cases”

I always counter this with the following: “most of them are straight-up prepositions”

In the Slavic Languages that I have learned (Russian, Polish, and one Czech lesson), when there is a preposition, there is a case that goes with it:

 

“Polska” = Poland, “w Polsce” = in Poland.

 

Now note the equivalent in Finnish:

 

”Puolassa” = in Poland

 

The information about the preposition is contained within the case itself.

When I was first immersing myself in Finnish, I found it difficult to absorb native material because I felt that my brain was trying to watch a ball being thrown back and forth by professional athletes with unnatural reflexes. Namely—I couldn’t absorb all of the case information very quickly.

This, too, comes with practice. And this brings me to my next point about the Finnish Language:

As the accent is always on the first syllable, distinguishing words in spoken speech is very easy.

Even if you are relatively inexperienced, you can use this principle in order to type in words you hear into Google Translate just by hearing them.

The Finnish Language, in comparison to others that I have heard, is spoken slowly.

I’ve noticed very much the same in most instances of spoken Swedish as well.  This definitely isn’t Brazilian Portuguese or Andalusian Spanish that you are dealing with.

Maybe FinnAir stewardesses speak very quickly sometimes, but most of the time, I have noticed a significantly slower tempo—in both spoken speech and in the media.

Are you afraid of learning a language because people speak too quickly and that you can’t make out the words? Both problems solved! Just choose the Finnish Language.

There is only one real difficulty, however, and that is the fact that most words are not Indo-European at all. Never fear, there are a handful of Swedish import words (luvata = att lova = to promise), German idiomatic structures (pääkaupunki = Hauptstadt = capital city), internationalisms (dramaattinen, poliittinen), and English words (rooli, mestari).

Aside from that? Mostly it is an issue of getting out the flash cards, or the right software to assist with your memory. But you can do it!

You would have to be doing memorization like this anyway. I don’t see people complaining that Hebrew is an extraordinarily difficult language, and I know why not: it is more commonly studied.

Another reason why some people might believe Finnish to be difficult is because of the long- and short-vowels. The difference between these two sentences is well-known, and this paradigm was my first-ever exposure to the Finnish Language, back in 2008:

Minä tapaan sinut huomenna ´= I will meet you tomorrow

Minä tapan sinut huomenna = I will kill you tomorrow

Back when I was younger I was ready to give up right then. There would be no way I could manage anything like that! Or so I thought…

But one thing that I didn’t think about was this: I played lots of piano at the time and it never occurred to me that it was merely an issue of holding a note for longer. That is the same difference you would find between the long and the short vowels, not also to mention the long and the short consonants (valita = to choose, vallita = to govern).

Both of them, just like everything else in a language, takes time getting used to—and you’re not going to get people angry by accidentally using the short vowel when the long one should be used. Context is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Therefore, pronunciation isn’t actually a problem. In both Finnish and Hungarian I have heard that is it quite easy to sound like a genuine speaker (I still have yet to have extended experiences with Estonian and Northern Sami, not to mention the other Finno-Ugric Languages). My friends who would struggle with a few words of a Scandinavian Language like Norwegian could easily pronounce Finnish words with no difficulty.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Finnish pronunciation could very well be easier than that of Esperanto.

Then there is the issue that the written language is quite different from the spoken one, but start with the spoken language and then you will be able to read the billboards and even the newspapers with enough discipline and practice. The difference between the two sides of this language is no different than between the spoken and the written German Language.

And here’s a secret: the German Language and the Finnish Language, despite their differences, are very similar idiomatically!

Even better: almost everything you will need to become fluent is contained in one site: http://www.uusikielemme.fi/index.html

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use other resources—hearing the language is essential, and my progress in the language would have been impossible without it. There is lots of material to be found, American children’s classics included.

And here’s the best part: even if you learn the language to an “okay” or even rudimentary level, the mythology that the Finnish Language is extraordinarily hard means that you will command respect from people, most of who have never tried!

Aren’t you excited?