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Thread: Difficulty in Learning another Language?

  1. Top | #21
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Proto-Indo-European verbs - it also had related-verb aspects, but formed very differently from Slavic ones. I can't find any good lists of reconstructed examples, however. The PIE system has lots of relics in the dialects, like irregular past-tense formations in Germanic, Latin, and Greek.

    There's a notable bit of suppletion in PIE: "to be": imperfective *h1es-, perfective *bheuH- They show up as English "is", "be", and Latin "est", "fuit", for instance. "Was" is further suppletion in Germanic.

    Suppletion is full of examples.

    English "go" also has suppletion: its past tense "went" from "wend".

    The Romance conjugations of their words for "to go" are a crazy quilt of suppletion, from these five sources in their ancestor, Latin:
    1. vādere ‘to go, proceed’,
    2. īre ‘to go’
    3. ambitāre ‘to go around’ -> Spanish, Portuguese andar "to walk"
    4. ambulāre ‘to walk’
    5. fuī suppletive perfective of esse ‘to be’


    I consulted Verbix:
    • French: aller (4), present je vais (1), (boot verb) nous allons (4), future j'irai (2), others also (4) including the subjunctive
    • Spanish: ir (2), present yo voy (1), impf. yo iba (2), past yo fui (5), future yo iré (2), past part. ido (2)
    • Portuguese: ir (much like Spanish)
    • Italian: andare (3), present io vado (1), (boot verb) noi andiamo, impf. io andavo (3), others also (3)
    • Catalan: anar (much like Italian)

    Subjunctives are usually parallel to indicatives.

  2. Top | #22
    Contributor DrZoidberg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    Here is the main source that I've found for difficulty of (natural) language learning for English speakers.

    Foreign Language Training - United States Department of State
    FSI’s Experience with Language Learning

    The following language learning timelines reflect 70 years of experience in teaching languages to U.S. diplomats, and illustrate the time usually required for a student to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in the language, or a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale. These timelines are based on what FSI has observed as the average length of time for a student to achieve proficiency, though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom.
    Wikibooks:Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers - Wikibooks, open books for an open world has an earlier version of this list.
    • I (24 weeks) Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, Galician, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish
    • I' (30 weeks) French
    • II (36 weeks) German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili, Javanese, Jumieka
    • III (44 weeks) (most languages)
    • IV (88 weeks) Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean


    Is that ranking even halfway plausible? Has anyone made any similar lists for native speakers of other languages? I can imagine the KGB and its successors doing so for speakers of Russian, but I haven't found anything on that.
    Sounds weird that it's so hard for English speakers to learn German. English is basically a German dialect with French words added. I'd assume it'd be on par with Swedish, Danish and Dutch. Which also are German dialects.

  3. Top | #23
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DrZoidberg View Post
    Sounds weird that it's so hard for English speakers to learn German. English is basically a German dialect with French words added. I'd assume it'd be on par with Swedish, Danish and Dutch. Which also are German dialects.
    The FSI lists most Germanic languages at 24 weeks, with two exceptions: German at 36 weeks and Icelandic at 44 weeks (the number for most langs).

    I suspect that the main difference is more inflection in German and especially Icelandic.

  4. Top | #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by steve_bank View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by steve_bank View Post
    Kan shu ma translates literally you read books? Spoken Chines communicates more with less words.

    Ni hau ma, are you felling OK?
    I'd like to see the absolute literal translations of these. From the looks of it it's

    Read book
    You feel OK
    Learning a language like Chinese and Spansih is to understnd thoughts abd feelings which are epressed diffently in language and culture.

    Spanish has a fluid syntax as opposed to more rigid English. In Spanish unless you are being formal pronouns are optional.

    Latino immigrants who are not proficient in English speak with Spanish syntax and grammar using English words. I understood that when I began to learn Spanish. Chinese do the same at times.
    This happens in general, not only in those specific examples. From what I've seen learning a language is actually three separate things.

    1) Learning words.
    2) Learning grammar.
    3) Learning word concepts. This is by far the hardest.

    An example of #3 to clarify: In Chinese "open" and "turn on" are the same thing. (Likewise, "close" and "turn off".) For an English speaker learning Chinese it's no problem--both words are represented by the same sound. For a Chinese speaker learning English, though, until the separate word concepts are learned (which is much harder than learning the words) it's a matter of having to pick the correct way of saying it and errors are common. (It took a long time before she wouldn't ask me to open the light.) This is also why Chinese speakers are notorious for getting gender wrong--in spoken Chinese "he", "she", and "it" are all the same sound. With the light there was at least always the same pairing so in time she learned it by repetition, but gender doesn't have a pairing like that. "It" always pairs with objects and gets learned by repetition, but "he" and "she" don't--virtually anything that can be a "he" can be a "she" and vice versa. Learning by repetition isn't possible, you either have to stop and think of which is right in this context or errors will abound. Note that we get something of a taste of this when learning a language with gendered nouns--although there is a pairing so it's akin to my light example, not the he/she problem.

    ni hau ma? is 'you good?' ma is the question word and ni is a pronoun. We translate as a number of contextual meanings. A Chinese not fluent in English might say 'You good?'.
    This reminds me of a letter my FIL wrote me something like 30 years ago. 100% correctly spelled English but I utterly couldn't understand it. My wife was able to read it much easier than she could read proper English, though--it was Chinese transliterated into English. She could convert the words back into proper Chinese and it was clear. (There was also the problem that he had used multiple idioms, which of course utterly fall apart when transliterated.) After that disaster he didn't try any more, anything he wanted to communicate he wrote to her and let her translate.

    Some say English is the hardest to lean as a second language.
    Probably.

  5. Top | #25
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by steve_bank View Post
    The context of any language is learned as you grow up in it. In Chinese as I remember 'you go store' could mean go right now,
    go in the future, or you went in the past.
    In Chinese, one indicates tense with adverbs, so if one omits them, one expects tense info to be filled in with context.
    More generally, Chinese does not modify words. The concept doesn't exist. Anything we do with modifiers they do by adding another word. Thus they only have "waitperson". "Waiter" and "Waitress" translate as "male waitperson" and "female waitperson". (This goes along with my previous post about gender issues--since we rarely say "waitperson" in English it's once again one concept in Chinese, two in English and thus ripe for errors.) (Note that they have gendered words for family relationships--and thus it's a one-to-one translation so they don't get messed up.)

  6. Top | #26
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    As a general principle it is somewhat easier to learn a language closely related to a language one already knows very well.

    However there is diminishing returns on that. When languages have been out of touch for, say, 15 centuries the learning advantage of that kinship will be MUCH smaller than even with a 10-century separation. (Naturally this is not an absolute threshold.)


    The languages of Western Europe still spoken today, comprise descendants of just five languages spoken 1 AD. These are Vasconic-Basque and 4 Indo-European languages: Gaelic (Irish), Brittonic (Welsh). Germanic, Roman.

    In 500 AD the Romance languages were still unified. Dialectic variations were developing, but there would be great mutual intelligibility and bilingualism for many further centuries. Germanic, OTOH, had split into West, North and East branches much earlier and more abruptly. By this time there were a dizzying number of distinct German tribes and dialects. (Of course there were several Celtic languages but all but two went extinct.)

    Surely {German, Norwegian, English, Gothic} are more different than any Romance trio (or quartet, throwing in Latin as counterpart to Gothic) you can name. There is a diminishing return on genetic closeness; G & E diverged about 1600 years ago. (Can you name two Romance languages more different from each other than English is from German?)

    Anglo-Saxon began life as a group of West Germanic dialects that became established in (and gave its name to) England. A dozen different dialects of this Old English were spoken in England -- and some of the dialectal differences are said to persist to the present-day, at least a millennium later!

    Old English written language was more-or-less standardized in its Wessex dialect, but beginning about 1100(?) an Early Middle English emerged in London and eventually became the Standard. Many of these Londoners were immigrants from the Danelaw, immediately to London's North. It is somewhat controversial what language the Danelaw people spoke! A consensus view is that Scandinavian immigrants had learned the local English dialect(s), and this Norsified East Central English went on to become Early London (or Standard) Middle English.

    HOWEVER there is notable evidence (but a minority view) that the Danelaw people had retained their North Germanic language. There were TWO different polities operating in England: The Danes and the English. These Dane rulers would continue to speak Danish, if only to demonstrate their power. Often two languages will be kept separate for political purpose, and this was the case in England prior to 1066 AD. After Billy the Bastard arrived, the dynamic reversed. On the principle that "My enemy's enemy is my friend", the English and Danelaw resistance to Norman rule naturally wanted to unify. In the hypothesis a sort of "koiné" of Central Old English and Danelaw Norse developed, with an almost deliberate(!) 50-50 mixture. Perhaps it was this clever combination that led the C.O.Engl and D'w.Norse koiné's result in London to become Early Standard Middle English. Early Middle English developed throughout the 12th century. It was mostly after 1215 that the language accelerated borrowing from French (mostly Parisian French rather than Norman French). NB: The professors espousing this hypothesis do NOT consider the resultant language to be a koiné.

    ETA: Note that the West-North split in Germanic would have been only 950 years old when the koiné allegedly developed. This is closer(?) than the same-named Greek koiné and closer than Romance connections, e.g. French-Italian today. AFAIK only I am speaking of koiné but I think this perspective may be correct.


    TLDR: I'm not surprised that English speakers learn Romance and Danish more easily than German.


    Meanwhile, I continue the claim that if conversational near-fluency is good enough without requiring to read/write the written language, then Thai is (significantly!) easier for the English speaker to learn than German.

  7. Top | #27
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Lugubert View Post
    Regard the 'ma' as a question mark.
    Look book ?
    You good ?
    Russian uses "li" and I once saw it explained as "whether". Japanese also uses a "question particle", as it's sometimes called: "ka".

    I've tried Arabic. Some classical, some Modern Standard Arabic. The absence of vowels in just about everything written but the Qur'an, children's and learners' books means that you more or less have to know the (grammar of the) language before you're able to read a text. I can't rank the difficulty of these three languages even for myself. Much depends on what resources are available, your motivation, your environment and which language skills you are aiming for. If the need were to arise, I would probably find MSA the easiest to revive and improve, then CH and hardest JP.
    What the US FSI gives are averages from its experience, so one's experience may differ.

    Lugubert, I'm curious about how easy or difficult it is to learn English. Here are some possible difficulties:
    • Spelling: it's semi-logographic though letters have no marks on them.
    • Phonology: lots of vowels and voiceless and voiced th.
    • Grammar: numerous compound verb tenses, numerous irregular past-tense forms.

    The past-tense irregularities are shared with other Germanic languages, I must note.

    Has anyone in Sweden done anything analogous to the FSI's classification for Swedish speakers? Did the KGB ever work out anything analogous for Russian speakers?
    Regarding the difficulty to learn English, I personally can't tell. My father was in the merchant navy, which contributed to my being exposed to some English from an early age. As a kid, I just absorbed foreign (and unusual Swedish) words. I'm told that I taught myself to read at the age of 4.

    Generally speaking, I think that the main problems for Swedish speakers apart from the spelling are the 'do' constructions and the progressive forms, with tag questions slightly lower on that list. Lots of vowels in English? We, too, have around 20 vowel phonemes.

    My 'daughter' now lives on the other coast; I might ask her some day how she found her five languages following her two early childhood languages. Her collection spans three language families, including two sub-families for Indo-European.

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no FSI-like list in Sweden.

  8. Top | #28
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Swammerdami tries to speculate on what makes some languages especially easy for English speakers, but there are problems. He uses a lot of history, but there are language difficulties that don't fit.

    Germanic:
    • West: (English), Afrikaans, Dutch I, German II
    • North: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish I, Icelandic III


    Romance:
    • Ibero-Romance: Portuguese, Galician, Spanish I
    • Occitano-Romance: Catalan I
    • Gallo-Romance: French I'
    • Italo-Dalmatian: Italian I
    • Eastern Romance: Romanian I


    One has to ask: what makes Spanish and Italian easier than French, and what makes Dutch as easy as Danish.

    Also, what makes Icelandic much more difficult than other North Germanic languages.

  9. Top | #29
    Super Moderator Bronzeage's Avatar
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    I graduated high school fairly good in conversational Latin, but now I have little more than Salve and Vale.

  10. Top | #30
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpetrich View Post
    Swammerdami tries to speculate on what makes some languages especially easy for English speakers, but there are problems. He uses a lot of history, but there are language difficulties that don't fit....

    One has to ask: what makes Spanish and Italian easier than French, and what makes Dutch as easy as Danish.

    Also, what makes Icelandic much more difficult than other North Germanic languages.
    You greatly exaggerate my post -- no general recipe was offered. I only suggested that the Romance languages are much closer to each other than English is to German. English has also had much contact with both Norse/Danish and with French/Latin: Obviously English will have some eased connections with Romance and Scandinavian languages.

    Icelandic is particularly isolated. (E.g., the half-life of its Swadesh List is much longer than that of most languages.) Does it best preserve North Germanic morphology?

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