25 December 2016

what's easy?

as the year draws to a close, i can reflect on the fact that, in a year that is going to be puzzled over by historians and mystics who try to decipher how everything was sucked into the shitter at once, i made a new year's resolution and stuck with it for the only time in my life. [and judging from how 2016 turned out, it might be in all our interests if i never make/ keep a resolution again.] of course, as i pointed out in my original post on the subject, i was cheating a little, because i actually started studying one language [german] before the new year, so the resolution was more or less to just continue doing what i was doing. nonetheless, i have continued doing just that, and have turned the practicality of learning a third language into a bit of an obsession with learning every language.

nonetheless, i am kind of proud of what i've learned, and excited to keep going. i've completed three language "trees" on duolingo, although it's really more like two and a half, since one of them was french. it still helped me brush up on my second language, though. and i've got what i'd consider to be a solid base in spanish and german as well. one of my goals for the coming year is to do a language course using french as the base language.

a few friends/ acquaintances/ random passersby on the internet have asked me which language has been the easiest to learn, which does seem to be one of the most popular language learning questions. i have to admit that i'm a little puzzled by it, because it's not like there's some list out there that says which languages are easier or harder than others.

oh wait, there is.

that list, put together by the foreign service institute, is pretty much the bible of how easy or hard a language is to learn. the fsi is one of the few places that has been able to see unilingual anglophones taking all the language courses the institute offers [although by no means all languages, or even all major languages, which is one of the list's principal drawbacks]. therefore, they have a lot of insight into how long it takes the average learner to master each language, plus, they have an understanding of what makes each language different.

their logic is pretty unassailable: english speakers will find it easiest to learn a language that has both grammatical and lexical similarities to english. that means that dutch and close-cousin afrikaans should be very easy, as well as the three major scandinavian languages- swedish, norwegian and danish. and, since about one third of english words are of french origin, and there is a certain latin influence as well, it's also fairly easy to grasp romance languages like french, spanish, italian, portuguese and romanian.

but logic doesn't always translate terribly well to reality [president donald j. trump]. for me, i'd say that, while i agree that the groupings in the fsi list are more or less a guide as to what's easiest, a lot is going to depend on the individual. so here's a few questions i'd recommend asking yourself before choosing a language mate:

1. what's your ultimate goal? most people who learn languages do so because they want to give themselves a leg up in the job market, in which case you want to select something that's widely spoken and becoming increasingly important in international business or diplomacy. the downside of that goal for an english speaker is that the languages for which there is likely to be the highest demand in the coming years- chinese, japanese, arabic- are all among the hardest for an english speaker to learn. if you're looking for something that's in demand, but that you can learn faster, my advice would be to go with spanish.

2. how good are you at memorising vocabulary? if you really hate it, or just can't commit a lot of different words to memory, you'll probably want to stick to a language where the words are pretty similar to english to begin with. dutch is probably your best bet, since a lot of the most commonly used words are virtually the same. 'vad is dat?' means exactly what you think it does. french has a  lot of common vocabulary as well, but the commonalities tend to be with words that aren't used as often in everyday speech.

3. a. how comfortable are you with grammar? when you're learning a language, grammar gets pushed front and centre. the good news is that most languages are a lot more regular than english. the bad news is that most of us know a lot less about english grammar than we'd like to admit, so the comparative ease of other languages might not be that much of an advantage. languages like hungarian and turkish often trip people up because the verb goes at the end of the sentence: i the ball threw. as a writer, i find that sort of fascinating, because it means that your sentences are kind of suspenseful, with the action not revealed until the end [most of the time]. but a lot of people are going to find it confusing.

if you want something that's very regular and that's not going to take you to places you don't feel comfortable, the 'scandic triad' of swedish, danish and norwegian are pretty easy to take. word placement is pretty regular [verb comes second], there's no verb conjugation, and sentences are formed a lot like english. on the other hand, if your answer to question two was that you didn't much care if you had to learn a lot of vocabulary, you might want to look into indonesian, which has incredibly regular, simple grammatical structure, so that learning it is more a matter of learning the vocabulary and dropping the words in the right place.

3. b. verbs: do cases, moods and tenses scare you? i think that cases scare english speakers in general because we're not quite sure what they are. here, go check wikipedia. as they mention, english has shed most of its cases, so using them can feel kind of foreign. [hardy har har.] a grammatical case is basically just a change made to a word to reflect its role in the sentence. we do retain cases for pronouns- i becomes me when it's the object rather than the subject, my or mine when it's possessive, etc.- but other languages change the form of regular nouns as well, which forces us to think about the role of the word we're saying. that doesn't come naturally to an english speaker. the reason that german is considered harder than languages like dutch or swedish is because it has a lot of case endings that take some getting used to. and german has nothing on languages like finnish or basque.

english speakers also struggle a little when it comes to verb tenses [e.g., past, future] and moods [e.g., conditional], since we're used to using auxiliaries- additional little words- to express a lot of them. other languages tend to change the verb itself. for instance, in english, you would say 'i will eat', whereas in french, it's 'je mangerai'. the verb 'manger' ['to eat'- again english uses an auxiliary, even to form an infinitive] changes its ending to indicate that the event will happen in the future.

moods express things like conditionality [i will do something if, i would have done something except], commands [do this!], opinion, desire... again, wikipedia can help. these also require special verb forms in some other languages and, romance languages in particular are stuffed with them. spanish seems really easy until you're trying to remember when you're supposed to use the subjunctive mood.

of course, you can't avoid these entirely. something is going to be different and it's just going to come down to your personal preferences as to which of these things will cause you the most trouble. in general, cases tend to trip people up the most, because they can affect a lot of words in a sentence.

the germanic languages- swedish, danish, norwegian, dutch and german- are the easiest in terms of verb mastery, since their cases, moods and tenses look a lot like ours. however, french is pretty anglo-friendly as well.

4. do you want to speak, read, or write? the answer here is probably all three, but think about which you're going to want to do the most. reading is almost always easierst since you can get the gist of things with even a basic knowledge of a language. writing will always be hardest, since any mistakes will be very visible. but what about speaking?

while it's highly unlikely that you'll ever speak a foreign language without an accent, most of us would like to be able to communicate without sounding like the english version of inspector clouseau. therefore, you'll want to choose something that you can pronounce with relative ease. this is where the fsi list starts to break down for me.

see, dutch and swedish are definitely friendly in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but i find the accents- especially the dutch one- nearly impossible to replicate. my inability to get the sounds right distracts me from what i'm learning, which tends to slow the learning process down. romanian, which is also included among the 'easiest' group of languages by the fsi, has me totally stumped.

spanish is extremely regular in its spelling and pronunciation patterns, which means that, for me, it was a lot easier to learn. likewise german, while grammatically more difficult, is phonetically easier than dutch or swedish. notoriously difficult hungarian is a cinch to pronounce, once you've practiced the sounds that aren't found in english, because every letter sounds the same every time. [this channel has a pronunciation guide that worked really well for me.] for my money, though, the easiest accent to master is italian. all those ridiculous movie stereotypes might be useful for something after all.

asian languages not only present a challenge in terms of pronunciation, but in terms of tone. word meanings shift depending on the "shape" of how you say them [voice rising towards the end or in the middle, voice flat, voice falling, etc.], and adding that extra layer of "stuff i have to think about' can be a deal breaker for many. that said, if you want to add a language that will add money to your bank account...

5. how do you feel about the alphabet? most other languages at least add a few characters with diacritics [accents/ marks] to account for different sounds, while many use completely different systems. you haven't felt like a complete idiot until you've tried your handwriting in another script as far as i'm concerned, but technological advances mean it's a snap to switch your keyboard and type. [what's not such a snap is remembering where the different keys are, especially using cyrillic.]

if you want to keep things as close to english as possible, dutch is your best bet. if you'd like to try a different script, but are still a bit nervous, consider greek; you're used to seeing the letters anyway, the sounds are fairly easy to master and even figuring out the positioning on the keyboard is a snap.

for a different perspective, here's what canadian ex-pat polyglot paul jorgensen [langfocus], who gets asked this question a lot more than i ever will, has to say on the subject:




and, just to confuse things more, here are a few other points you might want to factor into your decision:

consider whether or not you might want to learn more than one other language. they come in nice little groups, after all. a lot of people will tell you that, if you know french or spanish, other romance languages will be a breeze. i don't necessarily agree, or at least, i don't think it's as easy as making the connection between some other groups. swedish, norwegian and danish are so close that people have debated whether they even are separate languages, or simply dialects. but for me, if you want linguistic bang for your buck, learn russian.

the slavic languages branched off from each other much later than other european groups, meaning that there's a far higher rate of mutual intelligibility among all of them. it also means that the words are often similar from one language to another. the advantage with russian is that it's also just polluted with borrowings from english, so you'll have a head start.

when you're done, you'll be skilled in a language that is in high demand in business and diplomacy, plus you'll likely be able to pick up almost a dozen others [belarusian, ukrainian, serbian/ croatian/ bosnian, slovenian, bulgarian, macedonian, czech, slovak, and polish]. not bad.

and finally, don't be put off by what other people say about the difficulty of learning a language. hungarian is frequently touted as being one of the most difficult languages to learn, but for me, polish is a lot harder and a friend of mine who has lived and worked in both gdansk and budapest had the same experience. likewise, i've found dutch to be harder than french, spanish or italian.

tl;dr

i want to learn a language that's as close to english as possible: dutch
i want to learn a language that will help me get a better job, but nothing too hard: spanish
i want to learn one language now that will let me learn other languages faster: russian
i want to learn a language that seems exotic, but is actually easy: indonesian
i want to learn a language with a different alphabet, but i'm nervous: greek
i want to learn a language and sound like i know what i'm talking about when i speak it: italian

so, if you've ever wanted to add some linguistic skills to your repertoire, maybe that helps you choose one, or at least one to start.


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