Are analytic (or synthetic) languages harder to learn?

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EdwardJ

New Member
Português
There is a mention, in the study I have previously mentioned, of "closed-class forms" errors, relating to Japanese. Can any Japanese (or Japanese speaker) jump in here and explain what type of errors these could be?

Kind Regards to All
 
  • palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    So, in the end you did learn more Russian than Chinese? Are you reasonably fluent in Russian?
    Yes. I learned much more Russian than Chinese, and in a lot less time.

    Of course, I'll allow that there are other factors involved in that too; when I studied Chinese (in the 1970's) the tendency was to push students into reading as soon as possible, and from the second year on much of the class work involved learning vocabulary for reading rather than dealing with new colloquial situations. Things may be different now; there is certainly much more material on colloquial Chinese available now, but I don't really know whether colleges are stressing speaking ability more nowadays.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    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.
    Really? What about all those words with common Indo-European roots? And what about all the recent loanwords from English, like kompyuter, or pay and chizkeyk?
     

    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    Really? What about all those words with common Indo-European roots? And what about all the recent loanwords from English, like kompyuter, or pay and chizkeyk?
    As far as similarity with IE roots, they are about as obvious for the English speaker in Russian as they are in Sanskrit. As often as not, unless the similarity is pointed out to you or you research it, you don't notice it.

    It's true that there are a fairly large number of borrowings from English in Russian, but not nearly so many, I think, as in German, French or Spanish - or Japanese, for that matter. There are, indeed, more than in 1972, but I expect a lot of the newer ones will drop out of usage in a generation or so.
     
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    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Another point where Russian may be more similar to English than you suggest is in its structure. Yes, I know, English has no declensions, and Russian does. But one thing that several posters have argued in this thread is that declensions may be an overrated measure of complexity (and concomitantly of relatedness).

    English and Russian are both Indo-European languages, while Chinese is not. I don't doubt at all that the connections between English and Russian are very thin and subtle, but still there must be some structural similarities between the former and the latter, quite possibly more than between either of them and Chinese.

    Could this not explain why you found Russian easier to learn than Chinese?
     

    EdwardJ

    New Member
    Português
    But one thing that several posters have argued in this thread is that declensions may be an overrated measure of complexity (and concomitantly of relatedness).
    Who is it that provided any good arguments to support this view? I think there is clear evidence, even in the articles posted by those who have argued in favor of this view, that morphological complexity adds to "error rates" of any language.
     

    EdwardJ

    New Member
    Português
    A hypothesis is evidence?
    As I understand it, the excerpt I posted is not a part of the hypothesis. The hypothesis were the following:

    HYPOTHESIS A: "As measured in this way, languages are equally complex."

    HYPOTHESIS B: "The patterns of distribution of different types of errors will be distinct from one language from another."

    Both of these hypothesis were supported by the data, in their evaluation.
     

    Flaminius

    coclea mod
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Reading the two hypotheses, can I conclude that all languages are equally difficult but where one encounters difficulties differs from language to language?
     

    EdwardJ

    New Member
    Português
    I would need to know just what type of error each one of them committed. What type of error did the English speaker make? What type of error did the Japanese speaker make? To make sure they went through the same screening...

    Reading the two hypotheses, can I conclude that all languages are equally difficult but where one encounters difficulties differs from language to language?
    Yes, that's what they think.

    Do you speak Japanese Flaminius? Perhaps you could read the article in full and give an assessment as to what the Japanese speaker' mistakes could be?
     
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    Flaminius

    coclea mod
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    There is a mention, in the study I have previously mentioned, of "closed-class forms" errors, relating to Japanese.
    Ah.... I see what you are wondering. I am afraid only Wells-Jensen would know how Japanese has richer systems of closed-class forms than other four languages.

    Edit: Or it is just I am too familiar with Japanese to realise how it is rich with closed-class forms. :confused:
     
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    EdwardJ

    New Member
    Português
    Ah.... I see what you are wondering. I am afraid only Wells-Jensen would know how Japanese has richer systems of closed-class forms than other four languages.

    Edit: Or it is just I am too familiar with Japanese to realise how it is rich with closed-class forms. :confused:
    So you don't think it even has rich closed-class forms?

    Note also that Wells-Jensen never mentions what are the "loci of complexity" of the English language.
     
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    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    Another point where Russian may be more similar to English than you suggest is in its structure. Yes, I know, English has no declensions, and Russian does. But one thing that several posters have argued in this thread is that declensions may be an overrated measure of complexity (and concomitantly of relatedness).

    English and Russian are both Indo-European languages, while Chinese is not. I don't doubt at all that the connections between English and Russian are very thin and subtle, but still there must be some structural similarities between the former and the latter, quite possibly more than between either of them and Chinese.

    Could this not explain why you found Russian easier to learn than Chinese?
    Not anything I'd feel comfortable quantifying. True, both Russian and English are stressed-timed languages, but then arguably so is Mandarin Chinese (although this is not true for many other dialects).
     

    Flaminius

    coclea mod
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    So you don't think it even has rich closed-class forms?
    Not being on the cutting-edge of anything, I don't share with the experts fine nuances of "closed-class" in the literature. Japanese certainly has a lot of closed-class systems but I am not sure if they are richer than those of Turkish or English.

    The referenced material after all is a collection of abstracts. The details should be found in the respective reviewed works.
     

    MarX

    Banned
    Indonesian, Indonesia
    I need to read through the pages, but in another thread I posted in we were talking about Indonesian being the easiest language.
    I wouldn't say it is the easiest language, but it is certainly one of the easiest.
    Some of the reasons are mentioned in the thread.

    I'm not saying this because I'm a native speaker. I never really thought about the grammar. But having explained to people how it works made me realize how relatively easy Indonesian is.

    Plus, I was struck at how quickly my friend learned Indonesian.
    He told me that all you need to learn is vocabulary, and some imbuhan here and there.
     

    Frank06

    Senior Member
    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,
    I posted in we were talking about Indonesian being the easiest language. I wouldn't say it is the easiest language, but it is certainly one of the easiest.
    It's indeed one of the 6400 (or so) easiest languages spoken on this planet these days.

    Groetjes,

    Frank
     

    trance0

    Senior Member
    Slovene
    A very interesting thread, I must admit. I am glad I stumbled across this forum because I really like languages. Anyway, as my mother tongue is Slovenian I can comment on the topic from the perspective of a Slavic speaking person. I can explain what I find difficult with English(as an example of a mildly inflected language) and another language(I am going to use German as an example of a moderately inflected language) with which I am acquainted.

    First, something about my language skills: I have good knowledge of English, passive, with limited active fluency, knowledge of German, solid knowledge of Croatian/Serbian, very limited knowledge of only written French(acquired through self-education years ago).

    Judging from my experiences I can say that all languages are generally equally difficult. While it may seem that some languages appear to be easier at first or in the early stages of acquisition, it later turns out that progress slows down significantly once one tries to become more proficient. This is my experience with English vs. German. I started learning English somewhere around the age of 10 and by the age of 14 I had gotten very good basic knowledge of English. With German on the other hand, progress was much slower in the beginning, but after 11+ years of learning it(with very long pauses between the start of learning and now) I am beginning to see that in fact I have less problems absorbing new German than new English words. Additionally, many phrases sound more logical to me in German than in English. The following is what I find especially difficult with English:

    - complex orthography and pronunciation(with unclear vowels) and several sounds very foreign to a Slavic language speaking person(German is much much easier in this respect)

    - syntax with a (very) rigid word order and the proper use of many prepositions in combination with many frequent phrasal verbs

    - complex analitical verbal tense system unlike anything in any Slavic language(except for maybe Macedonian and Bulgarian)

    - very large vocabulary and significant discrepancy(lack of consistency) in it(word formation using different germanic/latin prefixes and suffixes on latin and/or germanic stems)

    - correct usage of English articles a/an, the

    And above all, almost every time I come across a new word in English, I have great difficulties with the proper pronunciation(including proper stress position) of it.


    If I compare the above with the subjective difficulties of German, I can say the following:


    - German has a more conservative(from historical point of view!) morphology. Therefore it took me some time to learn several different case endings and declensions and to apply them correctly in practical speech. Even though I understood the case system in German very well from the beginning, because Slovenian has an even more elaborate system, there are a few differences in usage and it takes a while to get the hang of it.


    - Rektion(in German), I won`t go into the details of this, but many here will know it is a complex and inexhaustible part of German grammar

    - word order differences between my mother tongue and German

    - proper use of der/die/das, ein/eine articles

    - and yes, having to learn almost every German noun with the right article(for grammatical gender) + plural nominative form is a pain in the ass. Additionally it is sometimes useful to remember the genitive singular(in order to know whether a noun is weak or strong/mixed).


    I could also go into subjective difficulties of French, but I think I will leave this matter over for next time. :D
     
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    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Outsider:
    English and Russian are both Indo-European languages, while Chinese is not. I don't doubt at all that the connections between English and Russian are very thin and subtle, but still there must be some structural similarities between the former and the latter, quite possibly more than between either of them and Chinese.

    Could this not explain why you found Russian easier to learn than Chinese?
    Not anything I'd feel comfortable quantifying. True, both Russian and English are stressed-timed languages, but then arguably so is Mandarin Chinese (although this is not true for many other dialects).
    I have no experience with learning non-IE languages myself, but I meet many non-native English speakers here in Canada, and I have observed that speakers of non-IE languages sometimes have huge problems with certain issues that are for the most part trivial for IE speakers. This is especially true for non-IE languages that haven't had significant historical contact with IE languages (unlike, say, Hungarian or Turkish).

    The most striking example would probably be the plural of nouns: I have seen many Chinese and other East Asian people who, even after years of life and work in an English-speaking environment, still often omit plural suffixes and have problems with the concept of countable vs. non-countable nouns. Also, many of them slip into omitting tenses and third-person suffixes when speaking quickly and casually, and sometimes even in writing. Of course, beginner-level IE speakers also make mistakes with these concepts, but they tend to internalize them much more quickly and successfully so that they don't have to exercise conscious effort to use them more or less correctly all the time. I've never learned Chinese, but from what I know about its structure, this is consistent with its lack of plurals, tenses, and verbal inflections (in which it is different from, as far as I know, any IE language). Furthermore, when I read English written by Chinese or Japanese speakers, I often get an odd feeling that the sentences I'm reading aren't ungrammatical, but still reflect a very strange underlying reasoning on how thoughts should be expressed.

    Of course, I'm sure that the situation is completely symmetrical when it comes to how native Chinese speakers perceive Chinese spoken and written by IE and other non-Chinese speakers. I'd say that this does suggest that there are still many underlying similarities between IE languages that we take for granted and don't even notice normally.

    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.
    I agree that a study involving adult non-native speakers would be the really critical piece of evidence. The problem is that doing such a study properly would be a Herculean task because of so many confounding factors. Some of them are obvious and could be controlled for relatively easily, such as the level of similarity of languages and the previous linguistic experience of learners. However, there are also many factors that can skew the results, but would be extremely difficult to control for. For example, due to various economic, political, and cultural factors, it may well be the case that immigrants in one country have a much greater incentive and opportunity to assimilate into the mainstream society, rather than sticking to their own ethnic enclaves. This will obviously result in greater proficiency of an average immigrant in this country, everything else being equal. Or, to take an even more intricate situation, even if we control for "serious" economic incentives and cultural barriers, it may still be the case that pop culture and entertainment in one language is more appealing to immigrants and foreigners on average for purely subjective and whimsical reasons, and this will do wonders for their success in learning, perhaps even more than serious economic necessity.

    It would certainly take a truly ingenious and versatile mind with immense resources to lead such a study successfully.
     
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    Kanes

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    It all depence on what is your native language and how you are used to think. But the difference is important. For example I'm Bulgarian but learning other slavic languages is very difficult, because they are all synthetic. I don't think one or the other is harder though. They have cases, strange grammer... but we have more complex verbs.
     

    vince

    Senior Member
    English
    Someone mentioned spelling as making certain languages difficult.

    This can make learning a second language difficult, but the writing system shouldn't matter when acquiring a language as a first language. Many languages do not even have standardized written forms but people still grow up speaking them.

    Just because a random ESL student in Japan can spell "totalitarianism" and a little kid in 5th grade in New Jersey can't, doesn't make the Japanese person a better English-speaker than the American.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Based on this, it would appear that we need to revise our definition of what an analytic language is.
    I think the definitions are there, but are not used consistently. "Isolating" and "analytic" are often used interchangeably, when perhaps they ought not to be.

    Languages may be classified according to how they form words (a question of morphology) and how the function of words in a sentence is shown (a question of syntax).

    Morphologically, a language may be classified according to where it comes on the spectrum from "isolating" at one end and "fusional" or "agglutinating" at the other. An isolating language is one that has a tendency to have a one-to-one correspondence between words and morphemes. A fusional language is one that uses affixes, where the affix is "simple" and may imply more than one thing. (I shall not go into discussing the difference betwen derivational and inflectional affixes.) An example is Latin "amo" where the "-o" indicates (a) first person (b) singular (c) indicative and (d) active, as opposed to "amemur", where the "-emur" indicates (a) first person (b) plural (c) subjunctive and (d) passive. An agglutinating language will typically indicate person, number etc with different affixes.

    Syntactically, a language may be classified according to where it comes on the spectrum from "analytic" to "synthetic". An analytic language typically shows the relationship between words in a sentence by word order and/or by using prepositions. A synthetic language typically shows the relationship between words in a sentence by altering the words in some way.

    There is clearly a relationship between morphology and syntax. An isolating language must be analytic since it has no means to change words to show syntactical relationships, whilst a synthetic language must be fusional and/or agglutinating, since it needs to be able to change words to show syntactical relationships.

    So, "isolating" and "analytic" are not synonomous. Whilst all isolating languages must be analytic, not all analytic languages are isolating.

    Ideally, languages would be classified with a binomial system. Thus:

    Chinese - isolating and analytic

    English - fusional and analytic

    Latin - fusional and synthetic

    Turkish - agglutinating and synthetic
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    It seems as though you view isolating/fusional/agglutinative as terms that refer to the structure of nouns, and analytic/synthetic as terms that describe the structure of verbs...
     

    Noise_in_the_Brain

    New Member
    Croatian
    I think, aglutinative languages are easier to learn than fusion language. But I didn't learn nothing exept English, German and a bit Spanish.

    What could we recomend me, which aglutinative language I should try to learn? It must be language spoken by larger number of people and what's desirable, must have latin letters (or cyrilic). I have no ambition to be deply involved in learning it. Only for gaining a bit experience learning any exotical language.

    Turkish seems me hard language to learn due to dynamic stressed acords in words. Which other aglutinative language I should try to learn? I was interesting in learning Georgian, but it has diferent letters, and is spoken by relative small number of people.
     
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    Noise_in_the_Brain

    New Member
    Croatian
    (Attempt to) split off from this thread[/url].
    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.
    Ha! I find English grammar fair harder to learn. But, numerous phrasal verbs idioms, and vocabulary seems easy, at least for me. Grammar, spelling and ortography ar far harder to me. Because of lacking cases, English syntax is much harder to learn.
     
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    raptor

    Senior Member
    Canada, English
    I think that all the posts here capture a very good sense of how difficult quantifying language difficulties would be but personally, I don't believe it would be entirely impossible.

    In the example of cases, one could firstly count them, identify the differences between these (ie extra - or lack of - cases, exceptions to grammatical rules, etc) and the native language, and make note of how similar the cases are phonetically. Is it very easy to slip from one phonetically similar case to another? How about how the sounds are integrated? Does this present tongue-twister complexities?

    Are there genders or necessary 'agreements' between words? Is there any way to identify parts of speech with limited knowledge of the language? (I think here, 'limited' would be a few lessons, maybe two weeks?) For example, Spanish has verb endings (-ar, -er, and -ir, along with the conjugations that generally allow for identification).

    How difficult are these conjugations? Is there a separate conjugation for each pronoun? Each case? Each tense? Again, how ponetically similar are these, and will similarities hamper comprehension or speaking easily?

    In fusional or agglutinative languages, how are the isolated forms integrated into the word/sentance, and what kind of rules apply? How difficult will it be for someone native of an isolating language to learn one such as this, or vice versa?

    Unfortunately, any 'difficulty' quantity would have to be relative to the native language of the person in question, and if necessary, take into account any contact/study etc that person has had with other languages. I think that, for each linguistic/morphologic topic, a 'difference' quantity would have to be assigned, and then the difficulty quantity (possibly used in a logarithm) multiplied or raised to the value of the difference.

    As was mentioned earlier, spelling and orthography would also need to be considered. The Arabic script might be a medium difficulty to a native of (for example) the Latin alphabet, or even the Hebrew alphabet, and Chinese/Japanese might be the most extreme in this respect.

    Unfortunately, even after identification, and the assignment of phonetic similarity values, all other necessary components, and then the integration of those values into some sort of equation, you still only have a number. Then the native language would be considered, and contact/study with other languages guaged as helpful or harmful to the learning of the language in question, finally revealing a value of 'difficulty' for this person.

    I know I have not identified all the topics or identities of language necessary to guage the net difficulty of learning the language, and that all steps of the process I outlined would be very labour-intensive and lengthy. I don't even know if it would yield any useful results until we can identify, quantify, and use the intimate (native) knowledge of the language easily.

    Of course, immersion in the language, ideally at a young age, would make for a much faster understanding of the language. As a result, age and psychological makeup may also have to be taken into account in order to accurately judge the difficulty in learning the language.

    So an overall difficulty rating would be very difficult to devise, but isolated topics, such as conjugation, or syntax, or cases may be feasible relatively soon. The major barrier I think would be the immense amount of time, labour, and knowledge of each language necessary.
     

    Todessprache

    Senior Member
    Some Kind of English
    Ehmm...no one has mentioned Hungarian. There you go, possibly a clear winner or what about the polysynthetic Mohawk language?
     

    Wilma_Sweden

    Senior Member
    Swedish (Scania)
    I do think that the simplicity of the Modern English language helped the USA to attain the position it has today.
    No, EdwardJ, there are all sorts of economic, historic and other reasons, and language is not one of them. However, the reverse is true: The position of the USA as a major superpower certainly helps keeping English as the preferred international/global language. Source: David Crystal (2003): English as a Global Language, (pp 9-10 for starters.)

    I have read the whole thread, which is very interesting, and don't feel I have much to add except this: I do believe that all languages are - roughly - equally easy for native speakers to learn as children. I also believe it is impossible to prove scientifically which language would be the easiest or hardest to learn for non-native adult learners. If I find any additional literature supporting these statements above and beyond what has already been quoted, I shall be happy to provide the source(s).

    /Wilma
     

    Diaspora

    Senior Member
    USA
    Serbocroatian, English
    As I said before, nobody is going to convince me that one language is naturally harder than another one. The easiest language is your mother language, everything else is a personal opinion. It is somewhat offensive to call English or for that matter any language "simple"
     

    MarX

    Banned
    Indonesian, Indonesia
    As I said before, nobody is going to convince me that one language is naturally harder than another one. The easiest language is your mother language, everything else is a personal opinion. It is somewhat offensive to call English or for that matter any language "simple"
    I think we need to remember that a language being easy or "simple" doesn't necessarily imply its being inferior. Which you didn't say, but I see no reason to be offended by someone's saying that one's language is "simple".
     

    Frank06

    Senior Member
    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    9th June 2008 : birth of this thread.
    22th April 2009: end of this thread.
    Requiescat in pace.

    Frank,
    Moderator

    PS: After almost 9 months and 5 pages, a whole range of interesting ideas and viewpoints, we have the impression that this thread is coming to an end. We therefore decided to close it.
     
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