Tag Archives: English language

The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.

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Wherein I talk to Australians about accent shift

I was interviewed a while ago by Anthony Funnell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for his show Future Tense. I was talking about the subject of an article I wrote for The Week: How accents are shifting, and how young women are the best people to look to if you want to know how we will sound in the future. This isn’t ground-breaking research, but it’s something most non-linguists don’t know about. The show that was recorded for has just been broadcast, so you can listen to it now. My segment is at the 10-minute mark, but all three segments are worth a listen:

LANGUAGE, ACCENTS AND WE ARE WHAT WE EAT ON FUTURE TENSE

Hello, LA, this is your future talking

My latest article for The Week, “What Americans will sound like in 2050,” has drawn some attention. In particular, it caught the attention of some folks at KPCC, an NPR radio station in southern California. They did a live interview with me this afternoon (this morning their time). They also recorded it and transcribed some of it. It’s 7:23 long, so it won’t eat too too much of your time…

Predicting the future of American English

 

The sounds of historical English

A couple of weeks ago, I did an “English language time machine” piece for The Week. This week, it’s up as a podcast, for those who prefer to listen:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

 

English language time machine

Hop into a time machine to travel back in the history of the English language! How do you think it will go? Step out and talk with people from olden times who use quaint words and a bit of thou and –eth? Heh heh. Find out what’s really waiting for you as you travel back through the history of England in my latest article for The Week:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

Complete with video clips!

(And yes, before you say it, “the English of King Arthur” is, shall we say, a trick question.)

What’s wrong with “anyways,” anyway?

One word that gets some people in a lather is anyways with an s. It’s illogical! Senseless! Illiterate! Etc. But none of them ever seem to bother looking up its origins and history. So, for those who want to know, I’ve given the details in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

In defense of ‘anyways’

 

Our changing language: When does wrong become right?

Iva Cheung has done up a nice, cogent, accurate summary of my presentation at the 2014 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. You can read it at www.ivacheung.com/2014/06/our-changing-language-when-does-wrong-become-right-james-harbeck-eac-conference-2014/.

The PowerPoint I used for the presentation can be downloaded from www.harbeck.ca/James/harbeck_wrong_right.pptx.