Friday, February 20, 2009

What languages are "easy to learn"? and why?

"Hmm, they've changed the menu," said my husband the other day, as we were preparing to order at one of our favorite local restaurants.

After a second, we discovered that, no, in fact they hadn't changed anything -- it was just that they'd given us the real menu (in German) for the first time, instead of the special English or French menu. The hostess was new, and we'd actually managed to get through the opening info (four for dinner; no, we don't have a reservation) without saying "What? Sorry, we don't speak German -- English or French, please." So we'd passed for people who speak German!

Then -- to live up to the expectation placed on us -- we ordered in German and spoke to the waitress only in German all evening! And I don't mean just pointing at items on the menu (though that helped). We used whole sentences. Relevant sentences, even.

After a year and a half living in a German-speaking country, finally being able to order in a restaurant is a pretty pathetic milestone. And note that this doesn't mean I can carry on a normal conversation in German, it just means that ordering in a restaurant is a pretty standard and structured type of dialog that is covered extensively in my "Teach Yourself German" recordings. (Actually, I wish I knew how to say "I'd like the same thing as that guy" -- it would really help out when ordering at cafeteria-style places...)

But I'm learning new words every day. As predicted, as soon as I learned of the existence of the word "Entschuldigung" I started hearing it everywhere. And the same thing keeps happening with other words. Every day I make a little more progress at deciphering the newspapers and billboards. It shouldn't be so hard, right?

Whenever it's time to make small-talk in a professional or business context, this topic (learning German) is golden!! Everybody has an opinion on High German vs. Swiss German or on the Swiss version of High German (which people think is the same as how people speak in Germany, but *haha* it isn't!). I always end up giving some variant of my usual story about how it's hard to get any exercise in German since everybody immediately switches to English as soon as they notice that I don't speak much German. I can count on one hand the few times people have insisted on continuing to speak to me in German after it became clear that I was stumbling over the simplest things. (Actually on one finger, now that I think about it.) And on that one occasion, I was surprised by how much I really did understand. But it's like with physical exercise -- it's easier to go out waking if you need to in order to get somewhere, but if you have to get out of your easy chair and force yourself onto the treadmill, too often you think "I'm tired, I'm busy, I'll do it tomorrow." Then there's the added complication that everybody's speaking in Swiss German but everything is written in High German, and they're not the same, and I don't understand either one of them.

"Well, German is a very hard language to learn," remarked one Swiss German guy at a business-social I was attending. Is it? I think he was just being nice, giving me an excuse for my pathetic level of progress. Learning German shouldn't be so hard for an English-speaker -- the two languages are related! The real problem is just that the call of reading blogs is so much stronger than my desire to listen to "Teach Yourself German" recordings. On the other hand, languages do vary in difficulty, and German has its drawbacks.

Here's my list of "what's wrong with German as a foreign language":

Too many verb forms (per verb) to memorize, and especially too many irregulars. And if that weren't bad enough, the nouns have different forms too, and they have three genders. For most words, the genders are distributed pretty randomly, and, notably, they don't align with the French genders of the same words. (What's with the neuter "das bier"? Everybody knows beer is feminine! "la bière," aah, perfect!) Continuing in the tradition of Mark Twain, I should now make fun of the word order in the sentence (all the verbs at the end...?), but at least the word order seems pretty consistent once you've learned a short list of amusing rules about it. Not like the forms of the word "the": If you say "der X", then X must be masculine... unless we're in the dative case, then saying "der X" means that X is feminine. Becuase the whole genders-and-cases thing wasn't challenging enough on it's own, they've decided to make your brain play Twister.

On the other hand, the common wisdom says that with English, it's easy to learn enough to get by, and then -- on top of that -- you can keep learning more and improving indefinitely. This may well be true. Unlike many languages, English words really don't have a lot of grammatical forms to memorize. Instead, English does a lot with helping words. A surprising thing I've found when comparing languages is that English has more verb tenses than the average language, but forms them in regular ways using helping words. As a fun little exercise, try and explain the different nuances expressed by the following:

  1. I waited.

  2. I've waited.

  3. I'd waited.

  4. I was waiting.

  5. I used to wait.

  6. I used to be waiting.

  7. I've been waiting.

  8. I'd been waiting.

Then tell me if there are any other standard past forms I've missed...

English has a few strikes against it for newbies, though. For one thing, the spelling is completely insane. I used to think that all languages have wildly irregular spelling, but, in fact, no. Try explaining a "spelling bee" to a Brazilian. In Brazil, it wouldn't make sense to try to compete over who can guess a word's spelling because in Portuguese, words are spelled exactly as they sound. French is also a big offender in the crazy spelling department ("beaux" = "bô"???), but I think even French is more regular in terms of limiting the number of ways a given phonetic syllable can possibly be spelled. And it's not just the common, little words in English that have bizarro spelling. When reading the word "apostrophe," could you guess the pronunciation if you didn't happen to speek English (or Greek)? In English, not only are archaic forms preserved in the amber of spelling rules, but multitudes of foreign words are welcomed in without being wholly assimilated.

So, how do your language experiences stack up?


helensotiriadis said...

i learned a bit of mandarin with a private tutor during my 1 1/2 years in beijing. i can carry on a simple conversation (very simple) such as ordering in a restaurant and telling a taxi driver where to take me, or introductory chitchat -- where i'm from and such.

now that i'm back in athens, i want to keep learning mandarin, so i'm listening to audio lessons -- i have a set that i burned onto CDs and i listen to it while driving.

as for greek, i knew some basics when i came here to live. it's been a pretty rough ride. without formal lessons, i managed to become fully bilingual just by living here and coping with everything -- but i still feel i make occasional mistakes, mostly with grammar. naturally, i prefer to write in english because i know i won't make mistakes, but also because i can express myself more fully.

gustav said...

I can just relate my experiences with German, as I don't really speak French. Also German is the only one I have been forced to speak during an extended period. I did learn English mostly before German though, so I have been able to lean on that crutch a bit. Also, knowing Swedish is a very big plus when learning German, as most archaic and many used Swedish words have a German origin due to historical exchanges.

A plus with German is the spelling when attempting to put an overheard word on paper. It is pretty regular and not too many odd forms exist - not at all like Swedish, which has many and unintuitive ways to spell the "sh/ch" sounds (as in "shine" and "cheap"), among many other examples.

You're right with the amount of verb forms and pronouns though, that can get pretty crazy. However, there is a certain order to the genders, and it is not all random once you start to figure out certain groups of words that share common traits (and subsequently genders). But even Germans do them wrong, so it's not really easy!

And about the word order, at least you can never really do terribly wrong by putting all your verbs last, for safety... ;)

Languages are fun, but take soooo much time to study properly. I wish I could take up Spanish and Russian again, and perhaps some day I will.

Craig said...

Honestly, I think German is really easy to learn, though I do sort of have a thing for languages, and I've been speaking German for a long time - actually more than half my life now that I think about it. Wow, time sure does fly.

The genders and case system does take some getting used to, but once you learn the rules, there are very, very few exceptions, which is why I think German isn't all that difficult. English on the other hand, aside from the fossilised Middle English spelling uses a combination of Germanic and French grammatical rules which is why grammar in English is constantly contradicting itself - why it has so many freaking exceptions.

My French is pretty bad, but aside from the spelling, I will admit it does seem easier than German for English speakers - the word order is much closer to English (or rather, English word-order changed from Subject-Object-Verb like German to SVO as a direct result of the influence of French after the Norman Conquest).

The hardest for me (of the languages I have any proficiency in) was Hebrew, but only because it's so dramatically different from my native language (English).

Language difficulty has less to do with aspects of individual languages themselves, and more to do with the starting language of the learner, as well as the age at which a learner begins to learn his/her first additional language apart from the native language. That is, learning Japanese for an English speaker is easier (statistically speaking) if they start it early, and/or have significant proficiency in another language besides the native language - even if none of the previous languages learnt are related to Japanese.

Sorry for the long comment. I'm a linguists student so I get really excited by anything remotely related to linguistics. And since I'm also fluent in German, well you picked a topic which I could go on (and on and on) about for hours... :) Not to mention that SLA (second language acquisition) is an area I've a lot of experience in and have done quite a bit of research in.

Craig said...

By the way, what did you order?

I soooo miss German food, and Germany/Austria/Switzerland in general.

Anonymous said...

I thought French was pretty easy to learn, but I had some exposure to romance languages by virtue of growing up less than 100 miles from Mexico.

I had to learn Mandarin on my mission, and it was a SNAP when it comes to things like grammar and syntax: Chinese doesn't conjugate its verbs or decline its nouns (which is what you call changing things for cases), and the syntax is very logical and regular.

HOWEVER there's the matter of pronunciation and literacy. Mandarin tones are often hard for western speakers to master. Plus, in few other languages are fluency and literacy so different. I was fluent in Mandarin, but very nearly illiterate, because characters don't give you much sense of how their meaning or pronunciation unless you already know Chinese and can identify the radical. But because westerners tend to learn second languages in school, we can usually read any second language about as well as we can speak it.

I studied German and thought all the case endings and noun declensions were nuts. I did like all the funky compound words, though.

By the way, there's an OK book that discusses the level of difficulty of learning various languages, and argues that English is easy--Russian, it claims, is very hard. It also addresses something that sorta freaked me out for a long time--the way we use "do" for questions and emphasis and negation, as in "do you like learning German?" and "Did you wash your socks?" and "I certainly do know where he lives" and "I do not like tomatoes." The book is called "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" by John McWhorter. It's a quick read and might be worth your time.

p.s. Add to your list of nuanced verb tenses

I do wait
I did wait
I'll be waiting
I'm waiting
I would've waited

I'm sure there are even more. McWhorter addresses some of these funky nuances in his book.

Christopher Smith said...

Having studied Spanish, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German, I can honestly say that German was one of the easier ones to obtain a working knowledge of. That's because it doesn't have that many verb and noun paradigms to learn compared to the other languages I've studied. But of course, German has a huge vocabulary and likes to combine words in confusing ways, so I imagine that to become fluent once your working knowledge is acquired would be more difficult.

Lorry said...

English is my first language. When I was in college, I studied (to varying degrees) German, French, Spanish, Latin, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, and Finnish. I still thought that English was the screwiest language on Earth.

Then I married a Dane. Danish is now in the lead. I've been here a year and a half, and I still haven't successfully ordered a meal in Danish. I have tried a couple times, but there are only so many times I'm going to say "en fransk hotdog" after "hvad???" Especially when I really thought I had "en fransk hotdog" down by now. Gah.

B. Spinoza said...

>could you guess the pronunciation if you didn't happen to speek English (or Greek)?

you misspelled speak :)

Miguel said...

Having spoken Spanish as my native language it really wasn't that hard to learn English--30 years ago while I was still a kid!! I took some French in college and found it similar in syntax with Spanish, but I only lasted 1 semester. I can manage a conversation with a Brazilian with me speaking Spanish to them and them speaking Portuguese with me, faily easy, as long as you have the imagination to go with it, almost the same in Italian, but that's as far as I've ventured.

I'd feel very lost trying anything else.

Varina said...

As to your difficulties with German verbs, my question is are they really pronounced radically differently? My grasp of French verb conjugation is simplistic at best, but I am rarely misunderstood (and it is certainly true, you can always tell if you've made a mistake in Switzerland because they will switch to English immediately) simply because the pronunciation of verb endings is more or less the same what with all the silent letters and whatnot. You could probably fudge your way through and be understood most of the time.

I was always a little bit miffed in China because everyone went on and on about how difficult Mandarin is, as if I, as a foreigner, could never hope tp understand it and might as well not try, and anyway they have their Princeton English exams coming up so could I please discuss the weather and famous English authors with them rather than pathetically attempting to ask where the entrance to the metro is. My Mandarin, except that directly related to bargaining and explaining to cabbies where my apartment is, actually deteriorated after going to Shanghai, and I really didn't think it had anywhere to go but up. I myself thought Mandarin (spoken) was easy-ish (the tones come with practice and context) but Chinese (written) was tremendously hard.

School French is relatively easy (minus all the stupid tenses, which are not so important to speak correctly, I find) but real French has some truly bizarre synatx, like "me, I like it", "him, he do it", etc. What's most fun is trying to explain to a five year old why that sounds ridiculous in English.

Andrew S said...

Mandarin has been talked about a lot, but I guess I'll just join the club.

Spoken Mandarin = so easy. I mean, tones are basically the hard thing here. but I mean, no verb conjugation, very simple grammar (in most cases), not bad at all.

Written Mandarin = I really don't know how Chinese people do it. I mean, I understand that once you get the hang of radicals and character construction, it's not bad, but what's really terrible is that for the *most* part, from looking at a character, you have *no* idea what it's sound should be (unless the construction has a radical that gives it its sound). At least, if you're learning something like Spanish, you can look at a billboard, sound it out, and kinda have a gist even if you've never seen the word before (cognates, etc.,) I mean, even for French and German, you had an example of beer (biere and bier). Really now? But 啤酒?

gburnett said...

I agree with the verb issues of German - I took a summer course in German just after the wall fell and was very frustrated trying to keep all the genders correct. In the end, I mostly gave up and just used "das" if I couldn't remember and they understood that, even if it was clear I was a foreigner!

I also had trouble getting anyone under 50 to speak German to me - as soon as it became clear I was American (most of the time they thought I was Dutch? Weird) they insisted on "practicing" their English. And yes, I believed them, because while my German was not great, for many of the (especially East) Germans their English was not great either.

The best things I got out of the whole experience were a few good curse words, a better appreciation of English, and an interest in language's sayings - those things that make sense to a native speaker but not to others - like "Has the cat got your tongue?" Those are endlessly fascinating; the French seem to have a ton of them!

Anonymous said...

but real French has some truly bizarre synatx, like "me, I like it", "him, he do it"

Spoken English also has this construction. "Tom doesn't want to go. Me, I'd love to go" is a perfectly acceptable phrase in English. Or "Dave's a jerk, but Tom, he's a nice guy" is also acceptable. As is, "That guy, he's impossible." OK, it's not as common in English as in French, but it's not unheard of or unintelligible.

helensotiriadis said...

i'd like to add that learning another language, especially greek, german, or one of the romance languages such as french or spanish (if not latin) will give a person very deep insight into what they're saying in english, as it's been influenced by so many cultures.

C. L. Hanson said...

Haha, see? I knew this topic would generate lots of discussion! This is why I always start with this when I'm in a social situation with people I've just met.

And now, I'd like to respond to each comment (especially since I can't hang out on MSP since it's down, and I hope we haven't lost all our data...).

TooManyTribbles -- I know how you feel about sticking with your first language even if you speak your second language well enough to be considered bilingual. I mean, I suppose it depends on your definition of truly bilingual, but in my case, I have no difficulty or hesitation in French, spoken or written. Yet, still, I feel like I can capture more nuance in English. With, say, stories I've written, I wouldn't want to translate them into French myself without the help of a native speaker.

Gustav -- I'm not surprised that there are lots of connections between Swedish and German. I can also see the parallels with English.

And I know there are some logical groupings to the noun genders, but it's still work to learn them! And, weirdly, the fact that they don't align with the genders in French is more of a distraction than I expected it would be. One guy told me that the solution is just to systematically add the diminutive ending to every noun because it turns them neuter! :D

Craig -- I used to think that I have a thing for languages, too. After I learned French, I went on to learn a bit of Italian and even some Hindi! This was before having distractions like kids and the Internet. But no matter how well you can describe the language structure intellectually, getting to the point of understanding and responding in real time just takes a ton of (boring) memorization and exercise...

I don't think word order is that big a deal when learning a new language -- it's one of the easier things to get used to. I think memorizing lots of forms for each word is trickier. And I don't really think that French should objectively be easier for an English speaker than German, since they're both related to English (in somewhat different ways).

Actually, I think the biggest plus for learning French is the huge overlap in vocabulary. So, once you get over the hurdle of basic fluency with the common words, the next stage of building the rest of your vocabulary is handed to you basically for free. If you don't know the French word for something, just say the English word in a French way, and voilà ! -- it usually works.

Oh, and here's my magnificent sentence that I said at the restaurant:

Ich möchte der Schweineleber mit rösti und zwei mal pouletflügeli mit pomme frites für die kinder.

Holly -- That seems to be the consensus about Chinese: the writing is difficult and you have to get used to using tones, but (because of the lack of forms) it's not as hard as one might expect.

And it's true about romance languages, that once you're familiar with one, the others become easier. I've never studied Spanish, but reading the billboards and ads here in Zürich, I can make out the ones written in Spanish more easily than most of the German ones. (Not that there are a lot in Spanish here, but I've seen some ads in Spanish for wiring money home to your loved ones.)

I've heard the same thing about Russian being hard because of all of the forms. Same for Icelandic (which apparently retains tons and tons of forms for every word, which other Scandinavian languages have dropped).

I think the use of the word "do" as a helping verb in English is really interesting, so perhaps I'll look for the book you suggest. Here's my guess about it:

Assimilating lots of foreign speakers has a strong effect on a language's evolution, regularizing it and simplifying a lot of the grammatical forms. (Isolation has the opposite effect, eg. Icelandic.) Using "do" systematically in negations and questions actually simplifies a lot of constructions since it means you do exactly the same thing regardless of which verb is used in the sentence.

On the verb tenses, even just listing past forms, I should have remembered "I did wait." Actually, I'd be curious to have an exhaustive list of all of the nuanced tenses in English, including the various conditional and subjunctive forms. I'd really like to try writing a dialog that uses all of them strongly, just to see if it's possible. :D

Chris -- You're right, I probably shouldn't be complaining about the number of verb forms in German because I think it's probably less than in French or Italian.

Lorry -- English is definitely special. It sounds like you're at about the same level I'm at after a year-and-a-half in a new country, so I don't feel so bad. ;^)

So, what's so screwy about Danish?

B. Spinoza -- Oops, and I thought I'd spell-checked that article! I mean, you speek Greek, right?

Miguel -- That's interesting that Spanish and Portuguese can almost be mutually intelligible.

Sabayon -- Re: You could probably fudge your way through and be understood most of the time.

Probably true. And from what I understand, a big difference between High German and Swiss German is that the Swiss fudge a lot of the grammatical forms, yay!

Andrew -- So you and Sabayon add a couple more votes for the consensus about Chinese (especially Mandarin, but I've heard the same about Cantonese).

Pope Gregory -- Here in Zürich it isn't that people want to practice their English. As far as I can tell, every single person in all of Zürich speaks English better than I speak German.

I totally agree about the expressions and idioms -- they can be so much fun!!

Holly (again) -- So true. I think the "redundant" pronouns in French can make it simpler to understand and express emphasis. Even when the same construction is possible in English, it seems like in English you're more likely to just use stress.

Actually, stress is quite important in English. Which words in a sentence are stressed can affect the meaning, and which syllable in a word is stressed is the sort of thing that foreigners have to memorize, like the genders of nouns in other languages. I think it's another weakness of written English that it's impossible to express the stress. It's something that's really missing, almost like Semetic scripts that skip the vowels.

TooManyTribbles (again) -- so true!

mathmom said...

Let me join the fray! When I lived in Hungary, I learned the words in Hungarian to order meals, get train tickets, etc. but no one could understand me because I didn't pronounce it properly. From what I understand, variations in pronunciation are much more accepted in English. My friends who were trying to learn English really didn't understand that if you pronounce "cookie" like "kooky," you'll still be understood given context.

My favorite language experience was traveling in Italy. I speak no Italian (although I do know some Latin and French) but a travel guide suggested speaking English with an Italian accent and waving your hands. It worked surprisingly well! Many people I met there didn't speak English at all, but they were able to make themselves clear with expression, gesture, and overlapping vocabulary. These were not earth shattering conversations, but one museum guard explained to me that the nearest toilet was under construction so I'd have to go across the courtyard into the first hall on the left, past the large scaffolding, and it was perfectly clear.

Craig said...

OMG that sound delicious. I want that right now.

I love Rösti.


So good with sour cream and spring onions. Or just salt. Or gravy. Or goulasch. Or speck and onions. Or anything.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

That's funny about the pronunciation having to be right on the money in Hungarian, whereas there's a bit more leeway in English. I suspect that it's another result of the fact that English is learned as a second-language by so many people, not to mention lots of mass communication among different versions of English worlwide.

The pronunciation has to at least be reasonably close. I remember when my (now) husband first arrived at Rutgers (straight from France), and I was telling him that I never take the elevator in the Hill Center because it's slow. He added "and chaotic," but it took a bit of back-and-forth exchange before I got what he'd said. It sounded like "cow-tick," and I was like "what...???"

Hey Craig!!!

I love rösti too!! I thought for sure that after reading my restaurant order you'd come back and say "That's not German. That's just Swiss German." Rösti is a big specialty here in the Zürich area, and I'm pretty sure they don't say "pouletflügeli" outside of Switzerland. ;^)

Craig said...

Well, Rösti may be "Swiss German" but they're really just "Kartoffelpuffer" which are just the German name for Rösti. It's all good, and so, sooooo good.

Also amazing with a great piece of Schnitzel, a little lemon and salt and Kohlsalat. Good god I miss Europe.

C. L. Hanson said...

Well, you should come visit, then!

We have a small apartment, so I can't promise we could put you up, but we could definitely take you out to dinner! :D

Anonymous said...

I think the use of the word "do" as a helping verb in English is really interesting, so perhaps I'll look for the book you suggest. Here's my guess about it:

Assimilating lots of foreign speakers has a strong effect on a language's evolution, regularizing it and simplifying a lot of the grammatical forms. (Isolation has the opposite effect, eg. Icelandic.) Using "do" systematically in negations and questions actually simplifies a lot of constructions since it means you do exactly the same thing regardless of which verb is used in the sentence.

That's a better guess than I would have come up with on my own. But it's not the theory McWhorter argues. He says it's a syntactic legacy of the Celtic language spoken in southern England at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. This is important to recognize, McWhorter argues, because for so long linguists have claimed that Celtic had virtually no influence on the evolution of English--a claim he dismisses as both patently false and foolish, and due primarily to the fact that so few linguists want to learn Welsh. Certainly when I took a class on the history of the English language as an undergrad in the early 80s, we were told that aside from a few vocabulary words, Celtic had no impact on English. I found McWhorter's argument compelling, if somewhat overargued.

I think it's another weakness of written English that it's impossible to express the stress. It's something that's really missing, almost like Semetic scripts that skip the vowels.

I guess this is one of those blind spots native speakers don't notice until it's pointed out to them--it never occurred to me that English might benefit from syntactic or grammatical ways to express stress. I keep trying to think of a way to express stress, and all I come up with are typographical flourishes--italics, bold, caps. And you're right, those aren't built into the language in the same way. And I remember in a journalism class being told to avoid them at all costs--certainly you don't see a lot of that kind of emphasis in journalism.

Hmm. I'm going to have to think about this more. (as opposed to, "I must think more about this.")

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

Wow, now I totally have to read that book! I really like reading about the history and evolution of the English language, and it's true I've never heard anything about the Celtic influence (though one would suspect there would have been some influence from Celtic). And it's true that novel grammatical structures can arise when non-native speakers literally translate constructions from their own language. If using "do" as a helping verb is common in Welsh, then it's very possible that's where it came from.

As far as stress is concerned, I had no idea that other languages don't use stress in quite the same way as English until I started learning other languages. I was surprised to learn that French poetry doesn't have meter since it's not relevant in French. Similarly, I'll bet lots of Chinese people have no idea that lots of other languages don't use tones.

But stressing the wrong syllable is a common mistake for foreigners speaking English, and even native speakers sometimes guess the stress wrong when reading an unfamiliar word. And then there are the made-up words -- what's the "correct" syllable to stress in "Abinidi"? ;^)

I know the style guides say not to indicate stress with italics, but it's a shame that there's no unobtrusive way to indicate that you mean for a given word or phrase to be stressed. If you write "Moi, je l'ai fait," it goes without saying that "moi" is emphasized, but there's not a natural way in English to indicate that you want to stress the "I" in "I did it." Using a question mark indicates a rising tone (even in a sentence that isn't grammatically a question, the question mark turns it into one), and an exclamation point indicates emphasis. There's no logical reason we couldn't have more nuanced stress-markers built right into our written language, and I think it would help.

Allan said...

I think you left out some subjunctive conjugations.

I've studied Russian and went on a mission in Bolivia so I've also learned Spanish.

Spanish is ridiculously easy to learn for an English speaker. The hardest thing to learn in order to be a fluent speaker is to stop using all the extra phonemes that don't exist in Spanish. Other than that the language is very regular and even its exceptions are regular.

Russian was a bear to learn. First you have to learn a completely new alphabet. At least it's phonetic and it was somewhat easier for me to learn as an engineering student because cyrillic is based on Greek characters which are used extensively in science. But the way sounds are strung together were unnatural for me and gave my mouth cramps. Plus in the grammar they conjugate fricking EVERYTHING. I think I could have learned it in an immersion program or on a mission, but in an academic setting where my focus was on engineering classes I didn't learn a lot in the 15 credit hours I took.

Maybe Spanish was just ridiculously easy in comparison to Russian.

Lorry said...

A few things that come to mind regarding how Danish is screwy… ;)

Spelling in Danish is awful. A long "u" sound might be a u, v, g, or an f, all of which can be at least one other sound. It seems like any letter can be silent in SOME crazy situation. They have about 50 different vowels sounds, but "only" eight written vowels.

Probably anyone who's tried to learn a language well has had that experience where someone is trying to correct you and you really just canNOT hear the difference between what they're saying and what you're saying. That's what happens about every five minutes when I try to speak Danish to my husband.

"No, no… æ!"
"Noooo… Æ!"
"No no no!" etc.

Also, the horrible habit of English to completely change the meaning of a verb by adding a preposition? (put off, put on, put down, etc.) Danish does that too, but more, and I'm probably wrong (just because I'm not used to them), but they seem less sensible than the English ones. Like "close" by itself, is, naturally "close" but "close up" = "open." Wha?

Danish has two genders, common and neuter. There are NO rules. At all. No "words ending in e are usually feminine" or "words ending in -chen are always neuter." It's just a guess. In fact, native speakers have discussions about which one a particular loan words should be, and they can't agree.

Sometimes the d sounds like an l, but everyone swears it's a th sound.

I do appreciate its small vocabulary though. In English, you just have to KNOW what pneumonia is, but in Danish "lung infection" is at least indicative of the situation, even if you don't know the exact meaning. Then again, I would have NEVER gotten "placenta" out of "mother cake," so that only helps some of the time.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Allan!!!

Very true, I haven't even started on the subjunctives....

And from what I've heard, your assessment of Spanish vs. Russian seems pretty accurate.

Hey Lorry!!!

lol, that is too hilarious!!!

I know that in French, one of the things that makes it hard (as romance languages go) is that there are all these crazy vowels that don't exist in English, and it's tricky to learn to distinguish them. I hate to think there could be a language that's worse on that count!

That's funny that there wouldn't be any kind of rules on how to determine gender. I would think that at least there'd be a default gender that all the foreign loan-words go into. I know that Stephen Pinker wrote a book on regular vs. irregular forms, showing that the two are processed differently by the brain (using German verbs as an example, actually). And his research seemed to imply that foreign loan-words are typically regular by default, but that implies the language must have some sort of "default" choice. He may be wrong, though, if Danish is a counter-example. ;^)

gburnett said...

Hey Lorry,

I am an acoustic scientist and have learned a little about speech development during my research over the years. The human brain can learn languages fluently up until about the age of eight, but beyond that the brain changes for most people and we lose the ability to distinguish between the subtle sounds of languages (makes you wonder what else we lose!). So, it's not that you're aurally challenged, it's just that your brain is not capable anymore of hearing what a native speaker can. The most famous (and overused) example is the inability of many native Asian-language speakers to understand the difference between "r" and "l". It is the major reason why that it is near-impossible to learn and speak a different language fluently after about the age of eight.

Lorry said...

Oh, I've studied language acquisition, too. :) That's a very good point. I have, though, successfully trained my brain to hear differences it did not hear before. It takes a lot of patience and repetition, but I DO hear more of the vowels in Danish than I used to. There is, though, still the problem of learning to reliably reproduce them. I find myself trying to repeat what my husband says, and I can hear that I did it wrong, but I have no idea how to correct it. Maddening!

My husband has learned to distinguish the s and z sounds in English now, too, after much effort, but he doesn't always say the right one at the right times. I think it's the same situation I'm in. Even if the KNOWS that "zebra" starts with a "z" that doesn't mean he will be 100% sure that what comes out of his mouth won't be "see-bra."

Just one more roadblock to adult fluency, I suppose!

Unknown said...

My mother's ancestors came from Thuringia, or Thuringen, in Germany. I once told two German guys this. They corrected my pronunciation: Thuringen. I said it their way: Thuringen. They said, no, no, Thuringen. Never did get it right.
Those "do" constructions are interesting. I have ordered McWhorter's Tower of Babel book from my state library; they don't have the Bastard Language one. I am more puzzled by used constructions, like, "I used to go there", or even stranger, "I am used to it." How does someone learning English make any sense of this?
Incidentally, pidgin speakers in Hawaii (linguists insist we should call it Hawaiian creole)who have acquired nearly flawless standard English are tripped up by this. They say, believe it or not, "I am used to to it." That extra "to" is really jarring, and inexplicable to me. They also are tripped up by the word film: "I am using Kodak fillum."

Unknown said...

Also, had a Chinese progfessor of cartography, who kept going on about "pair-a-wax". We finally figured out he was saying, parallax.

C. L. Hanson said...

So true about how your ability to distinguish and reproduce foreign sounds diminishes with age.

Hey Bussen!!!

That's true, "used to" is a weird one. "Going to" and "about to" have some logic to them, but "used to"? Maybe McWhorter has a theory for it...

Anonymous said...

Also, had a Chinese progfessor of cartography, who kept going on about "pair-a-wax". We finally figured out he was saying, parallax.

Hi Bussen--are you sure the prof was Chinese and not some other Asian nationality? The surname Li (or Lee) is one of the most common in China, across virtually all dialects--and there are plenty of other Chinese surnames beginning with L, like Lin, Liu, and Lu. So it's unlikely that a Chinese speaker would have trouble pronouncing an L.

I know there are Asian speakers who have difficulty with R's and L's, but having learned Mandarin and taught English in China, I can attest that native speakers of Mandarin aren't among them. The language has both R's and L's, and Mandarin speakers don't usually have much trouble saying them correctly in English. Given that Mandarin is the standard language of the entire country and is now used for almost all education, if there were any Chinese speakers who had trouble with L's and R's, chances are they're pretty old.

The consonant that really drove my Chinese students crazy was "th," both the hard and soft version. Given the trouble I had teaching that to them, I wonder if anyone in China is every born with a lisp.

by the way, people in Hawaii aren't the only ones who say "fillum" for "film"--the Irish do too. In fact, the name Colm is two syllables, pronounced Collum.

Anonymous said...

Holly--His name is Sen-Dou Chang, He is still listed as faculty, emeritus, at the Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa, Geography Dept, as a China specialist.
Are there Chinese words with an L sound in the middle of the word?
Thanks for your interesting comments.

Jenny Williams said...

I'd have been waiting?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jenny!!!

You're right, I missed the whole family of conditionals!

Anonymous said...

Are there Chinese words with an L sound in the middle of the word?

L's are always at the beginnings of syllables, but syllables beginning with L can definitely occur in the middle of the word--at least in Mandarin. In fact, an extremely common syllable tacked on to other words is one meaning "done to completion," pronounced "le" in Mandarin, and showing past tense. You'd say, for instance, "I eat-le," meaning, "I'm full" or "I'm done eating" or "I ate."

Instead of "How are you?", the polite inquiry into someone else's well-being in Chinese is basically, "Have you eaten?" There are a few variations. In Taiwan, the standard one sounded like "Ni chrbaule ma?" I don't remember exactly what it was in Shanghai--maybe "Ni chrfanle meiyou?" Anyway, the point is, yes, speakers of Mandarin are accustomed to running together syllables in which an L sound occurs in the middle.

It might have been something besides the mere L sound in "parallax" that gave your prof problems--perhaps it was putting the L only a little bit before the X, which isn't a sound that occurs in Mandarin. Consonant combinations can be pretty funky if you haven't grown up used to them. For instance, in English we have P's and S's, but it's still a bit tricky for Americans, who make the P in "psychology" silent, to learn to pronounce it the way the French do, pronouncing both the P and the S.

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: For instance, in English we have P's and S's, but it's still a bit tricky for Americans, who make the P in "psychology" silent, to learn to pronounce it the way the French do, pronouncing both the P and the S.

So true! It's not that hard, but it was definitely a fun and unexpected variation! :D

Anonymous said...

I do what Pope Gregory, above, does -- only I use "die" as my universal article. I don't know why, it's just the one I like best. I also try to use "diese" whenever it is even remotely possible, in lieu of an actual article of any kind, because it is so hard to mess up.

Also, maybe Zuerchers are all cool 'n shit, but a lot of native Schwyyzerdueuetsch speakers COMPLETELY FINESSE THE ARTICLES. Don't EVER call a Swissy on it, but they SO do this. There's a bit of a "duh" thing that is sort of thrown at most nouns and if you ask whether it was "die" "der" or "das"? They will totally gloss it over. LOL.

Also, pork liver? I did't even know that was a thing you could eat! I haven't seen that one on the menu before, I don't think. Is it good?

Pouletfluegeli -- what are these even called in high German? I have no idea. Also, I hope you pronounced "pomme frites" as "pumice." That's proper you know, no "frites" needed.

Strange Landli, no? :-D

- wry

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry!!!

Absolutely a strange landli! ;^)

I think you're right about the articles in Swiss German. Everything I've read and learned about it indicates that some of these grammatical points are simplified. In particular, they don't really bother to distinguish among the differently-gendered articles.

The pork liver isn't bad. Apparently it's a common local dish.

Craig said...

I've only ever had pork liver paté (or Schweineleberwurst), and it's really quite tasty. It's good on a nice crusty piece of bread with spicy mustard. But the best leberwurst is made from Kalb (veal).