Are analytic (or synthetic) languages harder to learn?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Tim~!, Jun 9, 2008.

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  1. Tim~!

    Tim~! Senior Member

    Leicester, UK
    UK — English
    (Attempt to) split off from this thread.
    Frank, moderator

    I think there's more to it than that, though it's very kind of you to give us some (undeserved!) credit :)

    English has advantages over the other languages that I know that mean that making progress is relatively easier in the initial stages.

    Conjugating verbs is very easy, be that the present tense (which features few traps), or easy-to-use futures and conditionals, very regular past forms (such as "used to" and "would"), and other past forms that, though irregular, don't have a different form for each person.

    There are no agreements to make on adjectives, no gender-dependent articles, few instances where you have to worry about switching mood, and so on.

    Because of these features, I imagine that it's easier to become reasonably proficient in English than would be the case for French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and so on.

    After a while, I feel that things level off: Once the hard work's out the way, the other languages throw up few things that would cause problems. English, on the other hand, is riddled with the horrors of phrasal verbs, a huge vocabulary, and irregular spelling, which make it harder to progress from a level of competency (acquired reasonably easily) to full-on mastery.

    That's the way I've seen things for years and years anyway.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 11, 2008
  2. palomnik Senior Member

    Not to mention a subtle and quite complicated syntax in the verbal system. You mention phrasal verbs, and there are the additional bugbears of the perfect tenses (which are pretty confusing in English) and the infinitive/gerund/participle confusion.
  3. EdwardJ New Member

    Still, Classical Chinese is nowhere as difficult as Ancient Greek or Latin. [ad hominem remarks snipped, Frank, Moderator]

    In the end, "synthetic" languages do require more mental activity than "analytical" languages. There are a lot more nuances to keep an eye on.

    I do agree with the thesis that is supported by some linguists: languages follow a ‘downhill’ simplification in inflections, etc. by natural processes. Grammatical improvement comes only through conscious human intervention.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 10, 2008
  4. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Let's not start (or rather, continue) comparing the perceived difficulty levels of language X and Y. That's an endless exercise in futility.

    Interesting thought, but can you please back this up with some arguments (any research in this area, maybe)?

    Can you please explain what exactly 'grammatical improvement' is?


    Last edited: Jun 11, 2008
  5. EdwardJ New Member

    Maybe it is futile, but I do think that it can be objectively said that some languages are harder than others. This is by no means an attempt to depreciate any language.

    An argument to back up the case that an inflected language, like German, is harder than a non-inflected one like English? Well, frankly, I think this goes without saying. When writing in English, you don't have to worry about the word's syntactic function. When writing (or speaking properly :) ) in German, you do have to think about that, if you want to get your declensions right.

    To have more features.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 10, 2008
  6. Toma Member

    Hallo to everyone.
    I allow myself to add my oppinion to the wonderful things you discuss.
    I personally regard all languages, be they synthtic or analytic, as hard.
    If that was not the case then there would have been a marked tendency towards a preconceived goal, i.e. simplcity. This would sound too teleological and convenient.
    The reason things don't stand this way is that languages transcend the concepts of complexity and ease and are there to serve a goal, i.e. communication. We are all slaves to communication and to the langauge which binds us to its present concepts and to the universe that can be defined thorugh it. This nature of language as a tool in communicaton is also what makes langugae learnign possible.

    Back to the question originally asked. There are no languages that are perfectly synthetic or only analytic. Even the most analytical langugae in the world has some synthetic elements in it. Each language also has at its disposal a huge instrumentarium of ways of expressing one and the same thing. This may be regarded as a redundancy, but this redundacy is exactly what provides the building blocks for future language change and for the development of new categories. I am tryign to think of an example and the only thing that comes to my mind is the post-positive article in Bulgarian, whcih comes from an old deictic pronoun. Another thing that comes to mind are the three voices in Indo-European and the subsequent loss of the middle voice, only to see it sticking around in the reflexive forms. And if we regard the Spanish and Italian way of adjoining the reflexive pronoun to the verb, well in a few hundred years we may come to find a new verbal category springing out of it.
    I personally prefer to think that a lot of this has to do with mental categories, which find different ways of expression and would recommend to everyone the wonderful book of Charles Kahn on the verb 'to be' in Greek.

    We should not forget that languages also serve a political and maybe (religeous) function. This is what made possible to revive a dead language and to institutionlaize it as the language of the Jewish state, a feat by itself, or to create a completely artficial rule, such as the accord between the direct object and the transitive verb in French.

    I think I wrote a mess of an oppinion, but I prefer to leave it as it is, so that I may read the cherrished oppionions of the other memebers.

  7. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    It certainly is off topic :).

    Please do say...
    But any which way, I was more thinking in the direction of native speakers learning their language...

    You previously wrote:
    Grammatical improvement? I'm sorry, I still don't get it. Can you be a bit more specific and give some examples, please.
    What would be an instance of 'grammatical improvement'?


    Last edited: Jun 10, 2008
  8. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    English, Canada
    Sure you do, if you want to get the order of words right. What's so different (in terms of complexity) between indicating a word's syntactic function through its position in the sentence and indicating it through a change of ending? And I have to say that as a speaker of English and Greek, I haven't noticed any extra thought being necessary in the latter in order to put sentences together.
  9. palomnik Senior Member

    Edward: Inflections that reflect differences in meaning that your native language does not differentiate can make a language harder to learn. Hence, most English speakers have a hard time internalizing Russian case systems and verbal aspect. However, I don't think English speakers have much difficulty with verb tenses in French or German, since English has tenses too, although it may form some of them more easily than other languages do.

    Having said all that, I have to say that I agree with your thesis about some languages being harder than others. However, I don't agree that inflections are the major difference. I think that If we were to imagine an alien landing on Planet Earth and trying to learn the way earthlings talk, they would find the easiest languages to be the ones with 1) a fairly simple phonetic system, 2) mostly multisyllablic words, 3) a straightforward grammatical system with few irregularities, and 4) relatively relatively little differentiation in speech depending on social structure.

    For myself, the easiest language I ever studied was Swahili, which fulfills all of the above requirements, and which is quite synthetic. Japanese would fulfill them, but item (4) blows it out of consideration, and there is the extra issue of the writing system. English falls down in (1) and (2) - and of course the writing system again.
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2008
  10. EdwardJ New Member

    It doesn't really matter, in this context, whether you are a native speaker or not. German has extra features, that English does not have. Hence it is harder. It will certainly be easier for a German speaker to learn English than the other way around (given that both have similar levels of intelligence, obviously).

    I made a reference to "grammar" as the whole set of rules that govern a language. These rules will expand, making the language richer. Sokol gave a few interesting examples of what I would consider to be improvements to languages.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 10, 2008
  11. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Okay, so you're not going to back up the claim that "'synthetic' languages do require more mental activity than 'analytical" languages'", also for native speakers. No problem.

    I still don't get it... Why the use of 'richer', 'improvement', 'downhill' and other adjectives denoting an evaluation, assessment.
    I fail to understand the concept of a 'richer' or 'improved' language.

    Which examples? Please...
    What I do find in Sokol's post is "the loss of complexity is being balanced with new developments", hence putting the idea of 'richer', 'improvement' on a slope, at least if I understood both well.


  12. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Not quite (please read my post carefully, the answer is already there), and German is not the best of examples really, if it comes to that. But anyway discussing what is easier and what not really does not contribute here - there exists already a thread elsewhere on WRF (I just can't find it right now); easiness hugely depends on your mother tongue, and on how many additional features the language you want to learn has.

    Oh, did I?
    Then please read my post again.

    It doesn't say that 'analytical' or 'synthetic' is better but only that if means for expressing something get lost (as when we have a loss in declension) then this loss of complexity many times is balanced with new features: what I said that what a synthetic language becoming more analytic adopts other means of expressing the same, basically.
    There isn't any value attached here to any means of expressing anything; I am fanatically egalitarian as far as languages and grammatical structures are concerned.

    So if you have got the impression that I am speaking of 'improvements' then I am sorry: this wasn't intended. I only speak of change. Which is something altogether different.
  13. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    To convincingly claim that, you'll have to devise some plausible way to quantify language difficulty and then demonstrate that for some languages, the measure ends up higher. When it comes to all objective measures I can think of -- for example, how long it takes native children to master the language, or how long it takes adult learners speaking unrelated languages to reach near-native fluency -- the results, to the best of my knowledge, turn out to be roughly the same for both analytical and synthetic languages.

    Do you have any empirical data to back that claim?

    Then how do you explain the fact that English spoken by immigrants and foreigners here in Canada is on average no less broken than German spoken by immigrants and foreigners in Germany? And the fact that even after 17 years of learning English and five years of living in an English-speaking city (which included teaching at an English-speaking university), I still wouldn't bet $50 that I got the articles right in the English sentence I just wrote? Or the fact that foreign learners of my native language, which is almost as synthetic as Latin, usually still have problems with its analytic aspects (i.e. syntax) years after they've learned to readily recite all the declensions and conjugations?

    There is more to language than just inflectional morphology. :)
  14. EdwardJ New Member

    Just because someone is German, has learned German declensions from his youth and thus by now they seem to him ridiculously easy, it doesn't detract from the fact that non-declined languages are easier (at least on this aspect - declension). Is that clear?

    Declined languages are harder on this aspect and thus require more mental activity. Even native speakers DO make mistakes regarding declensions.

    Frankly, I'm not sure you are being honest. Seems more like you are making an attempt at political correctness. But here we go.

    A richer language has more possibilities of expression.

    Let me put it in the clearest possible terms, maybe then you will be able to grasp it. Let's compare the conjugations of the verb "to love", in english and in portuguese:


    Present----- Presente
    I love------- eu amo
    you love----- tu amas
    he loves----- ele ama
    we love----- nós amamos
    you all love--- vós amais
    they love ----- eles amam

    Past--------- Pretérito
    I loved------- eu amei
    you loved----- tu amaste
    he loved----- ele amou
    we loved----- nós amamos
    you all loved--- vós amastes
    they loved----- eles amaram

    Future--------- Futuro
    I will love------- eu amarei
    you will love----- tu amarás
    he will love----- ele amará
    we will love----- nós amaremos
    you all will love--- vós amareis
    they will love----- eles amarão

    The English variation comprises 3 different endings. The Portuguese variation comprises 18 endings. 18 > 3. Hence the Portuguese conjugation is harder. I hope that is understood.

    No, that is not quite what he said before, though now he appears to have changed his mind somewhat. :D

    Let it be quite clear, that I love all languages myself, as many of you do. I do not think that any language is "better" than others, but some are harder than others, this is an obvious fact. It is not my intention to come of as rude or anything.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 11, 2008
  15. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)

    It's clear that you cannot substantiate your claims. You're just repeating things.

    Arguments, please.
    Listen, you might be completely right. But is it really asked too much to substantiate your claims with some references to scientific and linguistic publications on this? That's all I am asking.

    I'll politely ask you one time to skip this kind of personal attacks. Thank you.


    Last edited: Jun 11, 2008
  16. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    For what that's worth, I certainly have no problems calling spade a spade even when it's highly un-PC to do so. In fact, I have opinions on a variety of subjects that would make a typical politically correct person scream in shock and disgust. However, in this case, the prevailing opinion of experts is firmly grounded in objective fact. By any reasonable measure of complexity, there is little, if any difference between human languages, even when the opposite might seem "obvious" to most people who have thought about the subject only casually. In all fields of human knowledge, there are many things where thorough and exact examination leads to highly counterintuitive and seemingly paradoxical results.

    But you keep comparing particular traits of languages and then jumping to the unjustified conclusion that the same conclusion follows for the these languages overall. In Portuguese as in English, conjugations are in fact a minuscule part of the overall complexity of each language. With enough dedication, one can memorize the entire Portuguese conjugation tables and drill them to perfection in a few weeks, with irregular verbs and all, and yet, it takes years of incessant practice to become a fluent speaker of either Portuguese or English (and even then, there will be things that any non-native speaker will still be tripping over -- and these are the really difficult ones).

    Your above argument is akin to claiming that since it's easier to learn to play the C-major scale on the piano than on the violin, it must be easier to become a virtuoso pianist than a virtuoso violinist.
  17. EdwardJ New Member

    What experts are those? What "objective facts"? Where is the data?

    What exactly are you measuring? What is a "reasonable measure of complexity" to you?

    This is not my field of research, but I have more than a casual interest in languages. I have written and spoken fluency in 3 languages, and I can read in another 2. I can distinctively tell that some of the languages I know are harder than others. Many people agree with me (some of them apparently inhabit this forum).

    You tell me... I work with cutting edge science and sometimes I feel like I can't trust my senses. But I don't think this is the case here.

    Where exactly did I "jump to an unjustified conclusion?" You are the jumping to conclusions, not me.

    I don't think that verb conjugation is a "minuscule part of the overall complexity" of a given language. In fact, it is one of the points that I would take into account if I were to "quantify" the complexity of a language.


    There will be things that even native speakers will still be tripping over - these are the really difficult ones. :)

    Completely false assertion.

    Maybe you could give me some "empirical data" to back up this one? :D

    Kind Regards to All
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2008
  18. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Why that one? Shouldn't monosyllables be simpler than polysyllables?
  19. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Well, polysyllables are easier to distinguish from each other. Speaking from my own experience, I don't have much problem with Latinate polysyllables but I always confuse Anglo-Saxon monosyllables such as "stack" vs. "stuck."
  20. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I don't think the problem there is the size of the word, so much as the vowels that make it up, which do not exist in Japanese.
  21. palomnik Senior Member

    I agree with Flaminius' observation in post #19. I have consistently found that languages that have mostly polysyllables are easier for a learner to comprehend aurally than languages with a lot of monosyllables. It's one reason why English speakers consider Spanish to be "easy."

    I don't think I understand your point, Outsider. It sounds as if you're saying that Japanese has no vowels.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 11, 2008
  22. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Even when it's a language with mile-long polysyllables, like German? :)

    The English words that Flaminius mentioned have vowels that do not exist in Japanese. At least, one of them does ("stuck"), and the other ("stack") has an "a" which may be more front than the Japanese /a/.

    That would indeed settle the discussion, as far as I'm concerned. I would be interested if you could list a couple of references.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 11, 2008
  23. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Let me put it in most simple terms:

    - YES, the Portuguese endings are harder to learn, because there are more of them
    - NO, the English tenses are not easier to learn, because easiness depends on wether the tense system of the language you intend to learn roughly corresponds to the tense system of your mother tongue or other languages you already speak very well

    Easy to learn always is what is not quite new but known to you from your mother tongue (or other languages you already know).

    For speakers with Slavic mother tongues (to don't complicate things I should probably exclude here Bulgarian and Macedonian, but that just as a sidenote) it is very easy to learn the conjugation and declension of other Slavic languages. This is due to the fact that they are rather similar up to even some fine details. They mainly will have to substitute the endings of their mother tongue with the ones of the Slavic language they intend to learn (except BG+MK) and adjust to some irregularities and specialities of the language they intend to learn.

    For speakers with Slavic mother tongues, which are quite synthetic (except for BG+MK), this however does not mean that for them it would be much easier to learn Sanskrit than English; I would expect that this were not the case. Nevertheless, for Slavic language speakers it would be much easier to learn Sanskrit as it would be for German or English language speakers, because in Slavic languages quite some of the old Indoeuropean declension system which of course is present in Sanskrit has survived.

    So it is not 'just' synthetic or analytic languages being easier - it's not as simple as that.
    And I would ask you to please not refer to grammatical categories as being 'richer' or 'poorer' because this brings biased thinking into this discussion even if it weren't intended by you.

    Grammatical structures have no 'moral' value as such; they have only syntactical value. So let us please keep emotions out of this, yes?

    I only can support this opinion.
    Concerning the comparison with Latin you made, for what it's worth*) I still think that for people with Slavic mother tongues (except BG+MK) it is easier to cope with the five cases of Latin than for native speakers of German where technically we have four cases of which in some dialect regions only two to three are actually used in colloquial speech.
    *) Of course, as I am no native speaker of a Slavic language I can only guess here.

    Oh, but they're dead easy! :D
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2008
  24. Joannes Senior Member

    Belgian Dutch
    I agree :thumbsup:, although I don't quite like the idea of reaching "near-native fluency" in that matter because it's hard to define. It had struck me before in threads with similar topics, btw, that Athaulf's idea of proficiency in a language must be a quite firm one. The fact that he seems to be a terrible gambler illustrated this to me once more :D :
    (I just called at [a certain bookmaker's office - snipped by Joannes, before Frank does] and they calculated that the rate for Athaulf making articles mistakes in English in WRF in his next 15 posts is 1.1, i.e. you'd have to bet $500 to win only $50 if he does make such mistake. :cool:)

    I think an assessment in terms of the possibility to perform certain speech acts would be a better one - but I'm afraid we'll just have to settle with the research that has been done. I know little about language learning (L1 or L2), and even less about 'empirical data' in it (which seems to be very necessary in this thread), so I'll go back to 'reading and learning' modus. ;)
  25. EdwardJ New Member

    The argument you are trying to advance here is very old - namely that the difficulty of any language depends upon your previously known languages.
    That is only partly true. Remember: eighteen is greater than three. If an alien landed here from outer space (completely ignorant of any earthly language - just to make sure :) ) and had to learn English and Portuguese verbs he would still find the Portuguese conjugation harder because, remember, 18 > 3. I have a couple of Japanese friends who speak flawless English but less than perfect Russian and german. Their first tongue didn't help them to learn these languages (that is what I heard from their mouths). They agree with me that Russian and German are harder than English, even taking into account the fact that they grew up surrounded by English.

    So do you think that English is easy, but only compared to German? :D No need to reply...

    See above... I of course agree with this point. The English speaker grows up without a clue of what declensions are and hence when he has to speak German he encounters difficulties. The German speaker, on the other hand, just shoves the declensions off his head when he has to speak English. Modern English doesn't add a whole lot to German (or to any other European language, for that matter). English phonetics, perhaps, could be considered harder than German phonetics.


    Certainly not! :)


    Huh? :confused: This sentence doesn't seem, to me, to follow logically. Maybe I misunderstood, could you explain? So it is not 'just' synthetic or analytic languages being easier -- but rather "the more synthetic they are, the harder". Would that be it?

    As for the "ratings" of languages, it is as simple as that in a given point: declension, for example. It could be the case that some non declined language has another aspect that is harder than the declined language's and thus balances things out. But I don't think this happens often! Almost all declined languages are harder overall, in my opinion.

    Slavic languages are even more synthetic than German and thus are harder than German.

    To say that grammatical categories are "richer" or "poorer" does not necessarily imply bias. But I will comply with your wish.

    Uh? No I guess not.

    I'm not the one bringing emotions into this, but yes let's drop it. :)

    I think you are right here, too. We agree on many points.

    Kind Regards to All

    PS: Frank06: I am sorry, I don't know what you are talking about. I do use capitals and they seem fine here.
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2008
  26. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    But it is true.

    Would your Japanese friends not have been surrounded by English in many parts of everyday life, but instead the language of modern pop culture there would have been Russian, or Chinese, or whatever, then certainly for them it would be much easier to acquire proficiency in Russian, or Chinese, or whatever.
    Proficiency in a language is very much about using (and getting used to using) a language; this nowadays is rather easy with English, in Western society countries, but rather difficult with German or Russian (unless you live permanently or at least for some years in one of the German or Russian speaking nations).

    No I don't, not at all.

    English is especially easy to native speakers of German, but this is mainly because both languages are closely related.
    Same goes for Scandinavian languages.
    But for Berbers in Algeria, for example, who will be used to Arabian and (if they are educated) French English won't be that easy - would be my guess.

    Apart from that, yes there are some factors which contribute to English being not so difficult to learn as quite some other languages, but don't you ever forget that English has a huge vocabulary which compensates for the loss of inflection.

    There's some compensation, you know, for the sheer number of endings with substantive declension and also derivative suffixes in languages like English where you do have to learn more phrasal verbs and vocabulary to express the same meanings. (And then some additional vocabulary, in the case of English, like with food: two names for a) the flesh still walking on its two or four legs: flesh and b) the meat on your plate: beef, pork, etc. one with Germanic origin - the walking one - and the other one with Romance origin.)
    Oh, you can get by with a basic English vocabulary and grammar, that's the beauty of international languages like English: you do not have to acquire proficiency for being able to communicate with sufficient success.

    So, to cut a long story short, a predominantly analytic language may be easier to learn - especially to acquire only basic knowledge - even if it is not related to your mother tongue and not an international language like English, but synthetic languages also have an element of easiness: you learn a declension paradigm and it is essentially the same for all substantives (with the odd exceptions of the rules as they do exist in all languages) - so with a paradigm of endings which, admittedly, is at first easier to learn you cover much more meanings.
    This becomes even more obvious if you know a Slavic language and have learned at least the basics of the Slavic verbal aspect: it is extremely difficult to learn for anyone not knowing the principle from his mother tongue, but if you have achieved it you can cover more meanings with it than a rather analytic language like German (let alone Enlish) can. (The English progressive form is not quite the same as verbal aspect, by the way.) In more analytic languages you need much more vocabulary to express the same.

    No, it's not.
    It also depends on what level you do compare.
    On a level of basic knowledge analytic languages most likely always will be the easiest to learn; on a level of proficiency this may not be so and may depend on other factors (as described above).

    They are for me, and they are for you.
    But this may not be true for speakers of other languages.

    For me Slavic languages are very hard to learn, which I know from experience (I tried very hard with Slovene and only acquired slightly above basic knowledge).
    But for a hypothetical Old Aryan (Sanskrit) speaker Slavic languages would be rather easy except probably concerning phonetics.
    And for speakers of Finnish and Hungarian probably a Slavic language wouldn't be too difficult too even though structures between both language families differ vastly; but Finnish and Hungarian are languages with even more grammatical cases, so probably the six ('and-a-half' with vocativ) Slavic cases would be neither unfamiliiar nor (probably) unwelcome to them (because if you are familiar with the concept of putting new meanings to words with putting endings to them then you may appreciate learning a paradigm of be it even 25 endings to use on several thousands of words). However, of course, Finns and Hungarians would have to answer this point, I can only guess here.
  27. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    I have already mentioned two reasonable measures: the average time that native children take to acquire the language, and the time that adult learners who speak unrelated languages take on average to reach near-native fluency. If there is indeed a significant difference in the overall complexity of two languages, then it would be reasonable to expect a drastic difference in these times across them. Of course, both definitions are fuzzy and imprecise, and it's difficult to establish what counts as roughly the same level of proficiency across different languages, but still, if there are really significant differences in language complexity, then some measurable effect should exist. So far, however, as far as I know, none has been found.

    Now of course, this by itself is hardly a conclusive argument, but at least it indicates that the mental effort necessary to learn and use any human language is roughly the same if one is starting from scratch, which could be taken as a reasonable definition of "equal complexity".

    On the other hand, you have claimed that "an inflected language, like German, is harder than a non-inflected one like English" and that "this goes without saying". However, you have neither provided a useful definition of "hardness", nor any evidence for this claim.

    I don't know what languages these are, but people's experiences with learning foreign languages are usually heavily biased. For example, if some of these languages have greater similarities to your native one or other languages you've learned previously, or even if you're just studying your second foreign language after the first one has taught you to think outside the box of your native one, your impressions of difficulty will likely be very skewed.

    I had in mind your above cited claim that supposedly "goes without saying", and your other statements in which you assumend that it's plainly obvious that analytic languages must be easier/less complex overall.

    But the conjugation tables in Romance languages comprise a relatively small amount of information, which can be learned by heart and drilled to perfection in a time that is certainly much, much shorter than the time necessary to start speaking anywhere near native level. Therefore, it seems obvious to me that they can't contribute much to the overall difficulty of the language.

    Not necessarily. Native speakers usually trip over things where prescriptivist standards are different from the actual spoken language, while foreigners will often be taught according to the prescriptivist standard in the first place. But that's beside the point - I had in mind things where even very advanced non-native speakers will make mistakes that sound ridiculous to any native speaker, such as e.g. articles in English or verbal aspects in Slavic languages. These are the very hardest ones, and even in highly inflected languages, people will trip over them long after they've mastered all the inflection tables.

    You're right that there is no objective measure there, but I really didn't see any significant differences.
  28. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    This is what I had in mind in my above post when I used the C-major scale as a metaphor. The key words in the above paragraph are "at least on this aspect". Of course that if language A has complicated noun declensions, and language B does not, then B is easier when it comes to declensions. That's just a tautology. But to conclude that B is easier than A overall, you have to make two additional assumptions:

    (1) That B doesn't have other issues, some of which may be entirely outside of inflectional morphology, that are more complicated than the corresponding issues in A and therefore compensate for the simplicity of B in the issue of declensions.

    (2) That declensions, or inflections in general, are a significant part of the overall language complexity, i.e. that they stand out significantly alongside other (especially syntactic) issues. Because if they don't, and the main difficulty lies outside of them in both languages, then simpler inflections are no more significant for someone who aims at near-native proficiency than the fact that playing a scale on the piano is simpler compared to violin for someone who aims at being a virtuoso player.

    In my opinion, and in my experience, both these assumptions are likely to be false. So far, you haven't offered any arguments to the contrary.
  29. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Hello EdwardJ,

    Here are the results of an empirical research by a US government agency regarding learning difficulty levels for English native speakers. Not surprisingly, the smaller the linguistic and cultural distance between English and the target language, the shorter time learners to take to achieve intermediate proficiency. Comparing the study with my experience in Japan, it seems that Indonesian and Swahili are easier languages independent of learners' background (Until one hits the glass ceiling, that is. For near-native level of Indonesian proficiency, distinction of very subtle vocabulary nuance is indispensable). However, I wouldn't rate Chinese as "exceptionally difficult," nor would a Chinese rate Japanese as such. This is presumably due to a large common ground that the CJK languages share in regard to vocabulary and writing system. As Athaulf has noted immediately above, measuring learning difficulty or distance between languages isn't an easy job. The only conclusion that at present looks plausible is that language learning is influenced by languages that one knows already. In other words, cognition is largely subject to experience.

    Correct me if I am committing gross generalisation but I seem to hear you say that complex morphology enables richer expression by the language. Latin has 10 tense/aspect categories for active voice paradigm. I am not really familiar with Portuguese, but I hear it has some 18 categories. If having more categories means having more nuances and, therefore, a stronger expressive power, can we not conclude Portuguese achieved this richness by simplifying verbal conjugations that it must have inherited from Latin? Here, a shift from synthetic to analytical means a few more items for students to learn.
  30. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Well, whenever I read anything written by real linguists on this topic, I always find these facts mentioned casually in passing as a well known matter of consensus. For example, I just did a Google search with a few relevant keywords, and here is the first serious reference that came up:
    Studies comparing acquisition rates of children learning different languages show slight differences for certain kinds of structures, but all kids still turn out to be fluent speakers of their native tongue by age 7 or so. [13]
    The only time I encountered an opposite claim from a serious source was in a thread on this forum, but unfortuntely, I was unable to obtain any further references. In any case, I have yet to see a concrete account of a language whose speakers still grapple with morphology and syntax -- of their native dialect, of course, not the official prescriptive standard -- when they've already reached elementary school age. (Of course, when it comes to finer points of semantics and pragmatics, one learns until much older ages, perhaps as long as one is alive, but this has nothing to do with synthetic/analytic oppositions.)

    The author of the above cited book chapter admits at one point that "ltimately, statements about the equal complexity of languages may owe more to political correctness than they do to any empirical evidence", arguing that "a fundamental quantitative problem with the claim [of equal complexity] remains: we have no established way to measure complexity within a single language or across multiple languages." Still, I believe that even just by a priori reasoning, it's possible to establish that human languages should have equal complexity by any reasonable measure, absent some strong evidence to the contrary. I have written extensively on this topic in this old thread. And the reason for my opinion is certainly not political correctness -- anyone who has read my old posts on this forum knows that I have huge quarrels with many fashionable PC attitudes :D, but in this case, it really seems to me that the available evidence does support the equal complexity hypothesis.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2008
  31. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Here is another interesting reference that I dug out during the above mentioned Google search (don't be put off by the silly-sounding URL :) -- it's someone's personal website, but the document is an actual collection of abstracts of academic papers and theses):

    Particularly interesting is the abstract 2.4., in which the author measured rates of accidental errors in the speech of native speakers of several languages as a complexity metric. The rationale is that in a truly more difficult language, even native speakers can be expected to produce a greater number of accidental errors. The conclusion: "No overall differences were found in the numbers of errors made by speakers of the five languages in the study [English, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish and Turkish]."

    It would certainly be very interesting to perform a similar experiment on groups of foreign learners of different languages while carefully controlling for various confounding factors.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2008
  32. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    I can certainly confirm this. Getting the intuition for Latin cases is indeed relatively easy for (non-Eastern Balkan :)) Slavic speakers; after all, they all have pretty much the same old set of PIE cases. I had two years of Latin in high school, in which we never got very far, and it's been many years since then, but even nowadays, I can usually spot mistakes with cases in misquoted Latin proverbs.
  33. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Not really. :D I'll readily admit that you have near-native proficiency if you can -- with a chance of success of over, say, 90% -- talk to Joe Sixpack for 10-15 minutes about some trivial everyday topic without either (1) having such horrible pronunciation that he has to make extra effort to be able to understand you, or (2) saying anything that's going to make him think that you made a mistake in grammar or choice of words that sounds just plain weird and/or ridiculous. Of course, it's harder than it might sound.

    (By the way, I still couldn't pass this test in English, at least when it comes to No. 2. So much for the venerable simplicity of its analytic grammar. :rolleyes:)

    That would depend on how well I'm proofreading what I write. :D When I'm writing anything in English, including my posts here, I often stop and think where to put the articles, and sometimes I even google for similar phrases to resolve my doubts. The reason is not (well, not only :cool:) perfectionist vanity, but rather hope to improve my language skills further.

    In any case, when speaking, I still make ridiculous mistakes with prepositions and articles all the time. Frankly, I have yet to see an example of a synthetic language whose morphology would be so complex to come even remotely close to the difficulty of syntactic issues such as English articles or Croatian clitics (although I've read that Georgian and Navajo might be candidates).
  34. EdwardJ New Member

    That being submersed in an English pop culture helped them? Of course it is true, I said they took that into account. But even then they said they find German and Russian harder (one of them had spent some time in Germany, but never in an English speaking country).

    Of course. But it would still be much harder than to acquire proficiency in English. I do think that the simplicity of the Modern English language helped the USA to attain the position it has today.

    Yes... I would say that spoken proficiency is even more dependant on this, obviously.


    Oh is that so? Then I will let you on a secret - Modern English is not exactly a "Germanic Language" (as I'm sure you know!). The huge masses of French/Latin comprise about 80% of the vocabulary, or so I read. Take my own relationship with the English language as an example: I am a Brazilian of German ancestry and I grew up bilingual (Portuguese/German). I am pretty sure that most of my English vocabulary is drawn from my Portuguese, NOT from my German!

    Don't know a whole lot of Berbers. But I would tend to disagree.

    OOOOOH, thank you. :D

    Hehe, that is what is usually said, that English is the simplest European language in terms of grammar, but has the largest vocabulary "to compensate". It is usually said that there is always a "compensation" for any simplification that languages go through... That is hard to measure, though. :)

    Well, to me, the necessity of having to learn more phrasal verbs and vocabulary to express the same meanings only denotes lack of expressive potential, it doesn't make it harder than other languages.

    This is also the case for any language whose nation has been subjected to foreign invasions. Portuguese, for example, has many words of Arabic origin. It also has many words of Germanic origin.

    I think you do have to acquire a certain level of proficiency to be able to communicate with any success. It's not impossible to speak incomprehensible english, you know. :) It's just that to acquire a certain level of proficiency in English is not as hard as it is in other languages.

    Oooooh okay! ;)

    Well, again, in non-declined languages this "element of easiness" does not exist for the simple fact that there aren't even any declensions in the first place. If the error rate regarding declensions for Germans is 0,001% for English speakers it is zero because there are no declensions.

    I agree, but I fail to see how this favors your side of the argument.

    And you think this is good?

    Please elaborate further on this. Thanks.

    It depends on where they are on the ladder?

    That is the basic point I'm trying to make in all my posts: for a hypothetical Sanskrit speaker all European languages would be rather easy, excepting, probably, what concerns phonetics! I realize where I am going here - but I can't help but think that all european languages could be arranged in a hierarchichal fashion with PIE on top and perhaps English at the bottom. This is what I was talking about in my first post: it seems that languages, left by themselves, follow a ‘downhill’ simplification process.

    But who "made" PIE? Questions along that line are what I find fascinating. If anyone has any interesting links/articles and would like to contribute to my education, please message them to me.

    As someone who comes from an area with many "endangered species" I sure can appreciate sokol's position. I think everything should be preserved.

    Thank for the replies folks.

    Kind Regards to All

    Lol, of course! You sure are not going to find any "scientific" article stating that language X is more complex than language Y!

    Well the author of the article you just posted (the only solid reference you have posted so far) hints that he disagrees with you. He is probably more knowledgeable than you or me.

    Again, Athaulf, just because someone is trained in something hard, and somebody else is trained on something easy, and by measuring the error rate of these 2 groups you can't find any significant discrepancy, it does not follow that if you pick one of the people who had initially been trained in something hard and put him/her to execute the easy task, that he will present the same error rate that the people from the second group had been presenting.

    The quality of the research that has been conducted in this area is very questionable by scientific standards.

    Take a look at "Hypothesis B", from that abstract, Athaulf.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 15, 2008
  35. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I do know that English has a huge amount of Romance vocabulary, but it is not nearly 80% - or it only could be anywhere near this percentage if you include all scientific vocabulary which predominantly is of Romance origin.
    If you count basic English vocabulary (probably about the 10.000 words used most) then this would be closer 50%:50% would be my guess - but anyway: this would be splitting hairs, and is off topic here anyway.

    One thing however certainly is true: English is really rather easy to learn for speakers with German mother tongue, much easier than for speakers of Romance or Slavic mother tongues.
    And certainly French or Italian is so much more difficult for speakers with German mother tongue than English, and Slavic languages even more.

    (Concerning compensating lack of declension and other means of expressions with more vocabulary in analytic languages)
    I didn't say anywhere that this is good or bad.
    It's neither.
    It is only different. Meaning: different types of languages mean different means of expression. This makes for differencies concerning easiness. If you are accustomed to the one type (synthetic languages) then you easily adopt to another one of that type (another synthetic language). If you are more accustomed to analytic languages then it is especially difficult for you to adopt to any synthetic language.
    And if your mother tongue is rather synthetic and you are learning an analytic language then typical faults in expressivity occur (especially with vocabulary and phrasal verbs and, if you take English, especially with the progressive forms); thing is that these errors usually are not so grave as far as communication is concerned as errors with declension and conjugation with synthetic languages.

    This is one of the main causes why to most people synthetic languages look so very difficult, the other main reason (and probably the most important one) is that the most important languages of our times are rather analytic (like most Germanic and Romance languages) or extremely analytic (like English and Chinese), so naturally there are more people speaking rather analytic languages.

    No they aren't!
    And I really have to admit that I won't reply my arguments over and over again.

    It is not just 'downhill' development synthetic towards analytic.
    The whole concept is wrong from the beginnning: first, development away from synthetic is not 'downhill' at all, but only just 'change'.
    Secondly, there are developments of new synthetic elements in European languages - in French already shown above, and I could show further examples from colloquial Austrian German.

    But really I don't see the point of repeating the same all over again if you do not want to see the point.
  36. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    But you keep ignoring one particular area that is, in my opinion and in my experience, the greatest source of difficulty in the grammar of any language: syntax. My favorite example are English articles: how many non-native English speakers do you know who are able to write five pages of text or speak for several minutes without making a single mistake with articles that will sound awful to a native speaker? I'm not sure I know a single one, and I live and work surrounded by highly proficient non-native English speakers. Do you really think that mastering this particular area of English grammar is not vastly more difficult than, say, mastering Portuguese conjugations?

    The problem with syntactic rules is that unlike inflections, they often can't be presented and explained fully and precisely at all. Even the most complicated and irregular inflections still comprise a finite amount of information, which can be learned and drilled in a finite period of time with enough work and dedication. Compare that to the issue of e.g. articles: you can give only an approximate set of simplified rules that will always have exceptions, because the real rules are not just mindblowingly complicated, but in fact unknown. Even though native speakers will agree on what is correct and what not, their feeling for what's correct is totally subconscious, and linguists are capable of reverse-engineering it only partially. You can learn only by very long constant practice, and even then, you're unlikely to ever learn to mimic a native speaker with full accuracy.

    If that were true, then all the world's languages would have become analytic many thousands of years before the first inscriptions were made in ancient Sumer and Egypt. :) And your generalization isn't true even for Indo-European languages. For example, Tocharian language had reworked and expanded the PIE noun case system to nine cases, which probably wouldn't be that easy to master for a speaker of Sanskrit or Latin.

    Why not? If you think that the reason is political correctness, I'm sure one could find a language spoken by a group that the PC-inclined academics are so fond of that they wouldn't mind extolling its superiority. :D

    But he doesn't mention any measure of overall complexity except the time it takes native children to acquire the language, and in this regard he mentions no evidence to the contrary. I wouldn't say that the disagrees with my opinion - my impression is that he merely argues that it's a shame that we're losing languages that have unprecedented (and thus highly interesting) levels of complexity in some particular areas, not in general.

    But at least the author is trying to come up with some reasonable metric of complexity. You just keep repeating your claim that synthetic languages are "harder" and that this is supposed to be plainly obvious, but you propose neither a useful metric of hardness/complexity nor any arguments except your personal experience.

    People's personal experiences with learning languages are usually so skewed as to be worthless for any objective metric. When I tried learning Spanish -- and I did it as a hobby to which I dedicated a very small amount of time -- I got further in a few months than in the first several years of learning English. But of course that my perspective is skewed, because of many factors -- English was the first foreign language I ever learned, I started Spanish with a much larger Romance vocabulary base, I had learned some Latin in high school, Croatian pronunciation is surprisingly similar to Spanish but horribly different from English, etc. Of course that it would be worthless to use this experience as an argument that Spanish is overall much easier than English.

    Hypothesis B: “The patterns of distribution of different types of errors will be distinct from one language to another.”
    Well, duh. You can't make errors with articles in Croatian, because there are none. How does this refute the author's main point in any way?
  37. Tagarela Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
    Português - Brasil

    Athaulf, please, explain better this kind of English articles errors?
    I'm not saying that they're easy or hard, it's just that I'm not understanding what kind of error you're talking about.

    Good bye.:
  38. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    I mean simply omitting "the" where it should be used and using it where it shouldn't be. And I don't have in mind nitpicking, but mistakes that really sound awful and/or ridiculous to native speakers.

    In my experience, it takes many years of practice before you can get the English articles even approximately right, and I have yet to meet a non-native speaker of English who never makes mistakes with them. In fact, my very first post on this forum was about one particular sort of English phrases where the logic behind article placement was completely eluding me (which I realized only after a native speaker warned me that my usage sounded awful!).
  39. Tagarela Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
    Português - Brasil

    Thank you, Athaulf. Well, I must confess that I bother myself very little about it - sometimes I stop and think a little, but in general I use or do not use without thiking, and I cannot say if in most of times I am right or wrong.

    But, for sure, my relation to article is a little bit difference from yours, since your mother tongue has none of them.
    Anyway, I'm sorry to disagree, but I wouldn't say that it's much more harder to master than Portuguese conjugations. Not that Portuguese conjugations are one of the hardest things on languages, but this English article thing, I guess, isn't that much also.

    And, as Athaulf has said, telling which languages are hard to learn without concerning the origing language of the learner, may be dangerous, although, analysing many different groups of learners, we could tell which languages usually are easier for different origins.

    Good bye.:
  40. james. Member

    USA; English
    I agree with several posters above that determing and comparing languages' overall difficulties based on varying degrees of synthesis is an oversimplification. The goal of language is expression, and there are countless factors that make communication between two people easier of more difficult. For example, one that hasn't been mentioned is the degree to which native speakers, with whom non-native speakers would presumably be trying to communicate, are accustomed to hearing their language mis-pronounced. I've heard English speakers who have a good command of Spanish grammar and vocabulary communicate easily in Spanish with native speakers while making no attempt to de-anglicize their pronunciation (no rolled r's, no soft consonants, nothing). Try saying Norwegian words to a less-than-cosmopolitan Norwegian with English-style pronunciation and you won't get anywhere, even if your listener is trying to be accomodating. I believe many Spanish speakers may just be more accustomed to hearing their language mispronounced by Americans than Norwegian speakers would be, although there are clearly other factors involved as well. Anyway, we could go on forever trying to account for all of these factors, but I don't think anything can be conclusively proven.

    I would like, however, to respond briefly to a few of the above entries:

    It has been stated several times that childhood acquisition of a first language, under normal circumstances, generally takes about seven years, regardless of the language. This seems fairly obvious to me, though I know little of cognitive linguistics, because conscious awareness of grammatical structures is totally unnecessary for communication in any primary language. The study of a second language, however, particularly in adulthood, is governed by completely different rules. So we should at least clarify what hypotheses our arguments are attempting to defend, as citing studies of phenomena related to acquisition of natural language in a comparison of languages learned later in life makes little sense, at least to me.

    It also seem self-evident to me that a language with greater similarities to one's natural tongue will be easier to pick up than a totally unrelated one, just as all humans who use some formal of verbal speech would find the transition to a complex communication system based on, for example, eye twitching, rather more challenging than the study of any other human language.

    While synthetic vs. analytic morphology has been the focus of this debate, my understanding (gleaned only recently from readings on wikipedia) is that these classifications of languages along the spectrum of synthesis, with isolating languages on one end and polysynthetic languages on the other, are based on a simple ratio of morphemes to words, with isolating languages containing words with just one morpheme (e.g. girl) and synthetic languages employing single words comprising many morphemes (e.g. suicidal, egalitarianism). While English doesn't have the complex fusional morphology of, for example, Latin or Lithuanian, its varied lexical influences have created countless words that comprise smaller morphemes joined together from Latin roots. In this sense, English is far from an isolating language. This is also true to a large extent in the Romance languages, but in my studies of Spanish, I have found that the formations of an enormous number of vocabulary words follow fairly obvious patterns, and complex concepts can be expressed using consistent combinations of simpler, familiar vocabulary. This is the case in any language where the more technical, complicated terminology is formed from simpler, native roots, e.g. Icelandic, or, to a lesser extent (though in a language with which I am more familiar), Norwegian. The average English speaker may have a fairly large vocabulary of polysyllabic words, but the etymololgies of these words may be a total mystery without significant study of the various and completely haphazard ways in which Latin and French prefixes and suffixes were cobbled together to form new English words. So, while a student of Portuguese may have to spend hours studying conjugation tables and memorizing a handful of irregular verbs, the synthesis in English, if I may use that term here, found in its polysyllabic vocabulary, is far less regular and must be memorized almost on a word-by-word basis.

    Finally, a brief, perhaps slightly off-topic comment on the classification of English as a Germanic language, which has been called several times into question here: I have never seen any figure stating that English comprises anywhere near 80 percent Latinate vocabulary (contrary to Edward J's claims above). The highest number I've seen from any respectable study is close to 60%, and that includes vast numbers of literary and even technical words (a computerized sample of 80,000 words). In studies of the 1,000 most commonly-used English words, the figure I've seen is ~85 percent Germanic, and of the 100 most frequently used words, all are of Germanic origin. I can think of many things we say daily that have only English words in them, but I would say that speaking with only Latin words in English likely can't be done. (That last sentence, by the way, used only Germanic vocabulary with little effort or compromise.) So I think we have less grounds to doubt the "Germanicness" of English that many believe. All the above information, which I've seen in various sources, is summarized well by the following Wikipedia article:

    Thanks, by the way, for a very interesting discussion.


  41. james. Member

    USA; English
    I find with learning Spanish that the omission or inclusion of definite and indefinite articles, particularly in set phrases and idiomatic expressions, is one of the most challenging nuances that separate functional but clumsy Spanish from more native-sounding language. The most common mistakes made in English by non-native speakers absolutely vary according to a given speaker's language of origin. I find that Scandinavian speakers, who generally speak excellent English, rarely make errors in syntax or with articles, but often forget to conjugate verbs for person and number, as that concept no longer exists in their languages ("I were on a train", "you was...", etc.). Also, many expressions are very similar between English and Norwegian or Danish, often just using a different preposition, so this can lead to amusing errors.
  42. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    But to native English speakers, such mistakes often sound no less bad than Portuguese with wrong verb suffixes would sound to you. :)

    In the beginner stages, definitely. Using English articles the way you use the Portuguese ones can serve as a useful first approximation. But later, you get to realize that there are in fact many differences, and learning all those differences is very, very hard (in fact, in more advanced stages, you might even be disadvantaged, since you'll have to unlearn some assumptions that you unconsciously carry from your native language).

    Well, it's not just my personal experience. I know many advanced-level non-native speakers of English (you get to meet many such people when you work at a North American university), and articles are definitely an issue over which most, if not all of them are stumbling at least occasionally.

    This is an excellent point! Just observe, for example, the English negation prefixes (un-, dis-, non-, in-...). You have to learn by heart which one to use for each adjective, and sometimes there are even subtle differences in meaning depending on which one you choose (e.g. "unengaged" vs. "disengaged").

    Another chaotic morphological mess is the English derivation of adjectives and ethnic names from geographical names. It's so wildly irregular that even native speakers will often stumble over less known ones.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 15, 2008
  43. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    How about this test:

    How common is it for foreigners to completely change the meaning of a sentence through a common non-native grammatical error?

    An example in English would be:

    "I am looking over your research" vs. " I am looking up your research".

    In French, one would be:

    "Tu me manques" vs. "Je te manques"

    In German, one would be:

    "Ich bringe sie bei" vs. "Ich bringe sie um" :O

    Note: These errors have to be realistic errors that people actually hear foreigners committing. For example, no one, even if they're in Level 1 Ultimate Beginner English is going to confuse "I love you" with "I hate you".
  44. palomnik Senior Member

    Based on this, it would appear that we need to revise our definition of what an analytic language is.

    If we consider the morphological structure of words, then Chinese, presumably the analytic language par excellence, isn't really very analytic at all; most vocabulary in modern Chinese involves at least two morphemes, and possibly five or six; verb forms frequently require three morphemes. Of course, there is an ongoing debate about what constitutes a word in Chinese...
  45. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    That's a nice observation that goes straight to the heart of the matter: in analytic languages, it's simple to form individual words, but this doesn't make the job of combining words into a meaningful utterance any less difficult. Extreme isolating languages show this very nicely, since in order to express the same information carried by a single word in a synthetic language, one still has to solve a complicated task of combining several morphemes, even though each one of those is formally considered as a single word. I don't know anything about Chinese, but even English, with its paucity of inflections, is enough to demonstrate this principle. Yes, there are no noun cases in English, but you still have to use prepositions to convey the information that would be carried by the case endings -- and the choice of prepositions is an issue of nightmarish difficulty.

    Why then are so many people under the impression that analytic languages are "simpler" and "easier"? My personal theory is that in analytic languages, it's much easier for people to overestimate their level of proficiency and underestimate the grossness of their mistakes. Missing the right verb conjugation or noun case is an undeniable mistake whose seriousness also cannot be denied. On the other hand, people are apt to underestimate or even deny their syntactic mistakes and perceive it as smart-ass nitpicking when one points them out.

    This certainly is a powerful psychological impulse, to which I'm not immune myself. Just the other day, I was watching the football game between Croatia and Germany in a pub, and there was a group of German girls at the table next to ours. At one point, I wanted to shout some witty (well, at least in my opinion :cool:) remarks in German, but then I realized that I would probably get the genders wrong and I felt like I would sound ridiculous instead of cool, so I remained silent after all. Yet, several years ago, when my English was just as lousy as my present rusty German, I definitely wouldn't have hesitated to use English in a similar situation, even though I would have surely made equally bad mistakes.

    As I've already remarked in other threads in this forum, this overconfidence of learners of analytic languages isn't necessarily bad. In fact, it's often beneficial -- it's good to have courage to jump into communication fearlessly, because that's the only way one can ever improve. But it certainly does leave many people with a very skewed perspective.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2008
  46. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I agree with this. Incorrect use of the articles (especially the definite article) in English is one of the mistakes I notice most often. And I'm sure I still make this mistake every now and then.

    Another frequent mistake is incorrect choice of progressive versus simple tenses. And don't get me started on the present perfect, or the prepositions in/on/at!

    None of this has to do with synthesis, it must be admitted...
  47. Tagarela Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
    Português - Brasil

    I would say in some cases even the native speakers wouldn't have a answer for this matter.

    In or on the street (and there are a lot of other threads about it)

    Perhaps, it's because of lack of a real rule - and one may say - as in a way it has already been said here - that it, lack of rules, happens in many English aspects, and thefore, it would be hard to learn - since one have to learn word-by-word, verb-by-verb, preposition-by-preposition.

    If it is harder or easier, better or worse, higher or lower, I prefer not to say.

    Good bye.:
  48. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I'm not so sure that they would find them that easy. My guess would be that for speakers of Finnish or Hungarian (two very regular agglutinative languages) all the irregularities of Indo-European languages would be a serious hindrance. But yes, it would be better to hear from them.

    Well, I for one am not fully convinced that English does have a larger vocabulary than other languages in any honest sense. And in any case counting how large is the vocabulary of a language is
    a can of worms in itself. On this point I would tend to agree with EdwardJ.

    About the composition of the lexicon of English, see the previous threads English: The weight of the Germanic component and English words having their origin in French.

    I don't believe that. Speakers of Indo-European languages today don't find other IE languages easy, for the most part. How could someone from another time, speaking a language with a very different structure and vocabulary, find all of them easy?

    As for the difficulty of synthetic versus analytic languages, let's examine the evidence:

    If the only factor that determines how easy or difficult a language is to learn is its "closeness" to one's native language, then that's evidence against some languages being intrinsically more complex than others. Otherwise, we would expect other factors to influence the ability to learn, besides similarity.

    Now, I admit that "similarity" and "analysis" are somewhat confounded in this case, as many of the languages closest to English are somewhat nearer the analytic side of the spectrum than the synthetic side. I am not claiming that the evidence here is definitive -- but it does seem suggestive.

    Again, very suggestive. I agree that if some languages were inherently more complex than others, we should expect native speakers to struggle a little bit more with them, too. Yet these findings indicate that no measurable difference is found in practice.

    It's not necessarily so. It might be, as I think EdwardJ and James meant to say, that all languages are pretty much equally easy for native speakers, but that the differences between them become important only for non-natives. But the evidence so far does seem to point in the opposite direction.

    That is the kind of study that seems to be missing...

    And another common kind of error, in English as well as in French, are spelling mistakes. This isn't even a linguistic feature in strict sense, but can anyone be called proficient in a language when their spelling gives them away? My aim here is not to criticise Vince, but to make the point that, even if different languages have different linguistic (morphological + syntactic) complexities, that still won't be the last word on their difficulty. :)
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2008
  49. palomnik Senior Member

    This reminds me of an ongoing debate that I had in college with the handful of students that, like myself, tackled Chinese and Russian at the same time. Most felt that Chinese was much easier; I disagreed - to me, Chinese was much more difficult than Russian.

    My logic was not based around the writing system - after a couple of years' study you learn to cope with that - nor was it the phoemic or morphemic structure, or the absence of related words, since Russian and English really don't share that many related word either. For a long time I wondered whether it was just a tempermental eccentricity on my part, but I finally realized that the real problem was that learning the syntax of good, fluent Chinese was ultimately much more difficult than it was in Russian. Many differences that are expressed in Russian (and in English too) by the grammar are replaced by knowing the correct word or phrase in Chinese; not infrequently, one word in English will translate into several in Chinese, because Chinese frequently will use one word to represent a concept in the abstract and another to show its meaning in a particular situation.

    In fact, Russian and English bear a similar relationship to each other as English has with Chinese; the difference between a perfective and imperfective verb in Russian is often expressed by two different verbs in English.
  50. EdwardJ New Member

    So, in the end you did learn more Russian than Chinese? Are you reasonably fluent in Russian?
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