Tag Archives: Linguistics Frankly

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.

Calling them what they want

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada.

We’re all professionally attentive to detail, so I’m sure we all appreciate that, having earned a PhD, I am technically Dr. Harbeck, and it could be rude to call me Mr. Harbeck. My wife, having a master’s, is Ms. Arro — not Miss Arro, because she’s married, and not Mrs. Arro, let alone Mrs. Harbeck. Letters addressed to us as “Mr. and Mrs. Harbeck” will be received as uninformed or rude, depending on who they come from.

Now, if I were a judge, you would call me “Your Honour”; if I were a lord, I would be “sir” or “my lord”; if I were a king, I might be “Your Majesty.” When we refer to politicians, nobility and high-ranking ecclesiastics, we have to make sure we include, as appropriate, “the Right Honourable” or “His Eminence” or whatever. We’re in the business of calling people the right thing: the title to which they are entitled.

Or calling them what they want to be called. Even non-editors know it’s rude to call someone something they don’t want to be called. We don’t call Sir Edward “Eddy baby” unless he asks us to. We also don’t call people who have changed their names by their old names, especially if their identity has changed. We don’t call Chelsea Manning “Bradley Manning” or Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce Jenner” (although we may use that name historically, for instance in stories on the Olympic Games).

We don’t always call people by names and titles, though. Sometimes we just use pronouns. There are languages (such as Turkish and Finnish) in which the sex of a person makes no difference in the pronoun, but English is not yet one such. Since the binary distinction is an unnecessarily restrictive imposition, the singular they is gaining currency (since number sometimes is relevant, however, expect to see they-all becoming popular in its wake). But some people do want to use pronouns for gender presentation. There are a few different pronouns in use, not just heshe and they, but also others such as zey. But not nearly as many as there are honorifics, let alone names.

And yet, some people — even ones apparently capable of attaining and requiring “Doctor” before their names — find it beyond endurance to have to keep track of these pronouns. They deride it as silly faddism or political correctness — terms of abuse for people who refuse to stay in the boxes you have made for them. They can manage to remember who is Mr., who Dr., who Your Excellency; they can get a grip on who is Alex, who Sandy and who Alexandra; but keeping track of pronouns is just too much for them.

Of course it’s not really. They just don’t want the dominance of their paradigm challenged.

As editors, we like to ensure adherence to chosen sets of arbitrary standards. But we also like to check our facts and get the myriad nice details right — such as what pronoun a person has asked to be called by. It’s not all that difficult, and it’s good manners, too.

In the original article, I didn’t include some further remarks on “freedom of thought,” which was a line taken by a professor who is a prominent opponent of following people’s choice of pronoun. But I would like to add them briefly here:

In the case of the professor in question, it’s obvious to onlookers that he’s incensed at having to defer rather than always be deferred to; it threatens his freedom of thought only inasmuch as it makes it difficult for him to maintain his hyperinflated self-estimation. (He has been heard to lecture women on the purity of his feminist bona fides. Not really the cuttiest butter knife in the drawer, this guy.)

But just to address the broader question: If you are of the opinion that strict nativist two-valued gender normativity is the only truth, I assure you that using requested pronouns will not force you to think otherwise. You are still able to think such things. If you are concerned about your reputation, lest you be mistaken for someone who respects others’ choices of gender identities, you are still free to make it clear that you are actually quite rigid in that regard, and are conforming to university policy out of respect for civility. You are even free to think that civility is stupid; your freedom to be a jerk in your mind is not impaired by a requirement to act nice. Most of us are jerks in our minds more often than we are in our words and deeds.

For a parallel: We can’t force people not to think racist thoughts (though we can do what we can to encourage them to revise their views), but we sure as hell can require them not to say racist things. Especially within the ambit of an educational institution, for instance. Part of existing in a civil society is agreeing that, however little you may like or agree with some people, you must at least recognize that they have certain rights, which must necessarily be extended to all for the functioning of society. One of which is to be treated like a human being, and not as something less due to some intrinsic part of their person.

See? You can think whatever you want. But you act in a way that shows the required acknowledgement of others’ humanity. This may threaten your freedom of thought if if interferes with your holding the view that you are already being more than accommodating enough for these people, or forces you to confront the possibility that, in spite of what you tell yourself, you do not view everyone equally. But I do not think freedom from having your thinking challenged is a freedom worth fighting for.