Thursday, December 17, 2009

Glossophilia

The second word of this blog's title refers to my love of languages. Linguistics will probably be a recurring topic here. I'll start with a table showing the current state of my knowledge of various tongues. I used a 0 to 10 scale with 0 meaning no knowledge and 10 meaning native-level fluency.


Reading

Understanding When Spoken

Speaking

Russian

10

10

9.5

English

10

10

9.5

German

7.5

1

0

French

8.5

2

0

Spanish

8

5

2

Portuguese

7.5

1

0

Italian

6

1

0

Chinese

5

0

0


I spent the first 17 years of my life speaking Russian, and the most recent 18 speaking English. Russian words don't come as easily to me as they once did, and yet I never got rid of a light Russian accent while speaking English. Therefore I don't speak any language well enough for a 10! Isn't that scary?

The table below shows my estimates of the difficulty of learning language X by a hypothetical native monolingual speaker of language Y. The X ("to") languages are arranged horizontally, the Y ("from") languages are arranged vertically. I used a 0 to 25 scale with 0 being easiest and 25 hardest. For those who don't know, zh is Chinese. This table is extremely unscientific and was created strictly for fun.





T

O






X

ru

en

de

fr

es

pt

it

zh


ru

X

4.5

4

4.5

3.5

4.5

3.5

25

F

en

5.5

X

4

3

2.5

3

2.5

25

R

de

5.5

3

X

4

3.5

4

3.5

25

O

fr

5.5

3

4.5

X

2

2

2

25

M

es

5.5

3

4.5

2

X

1

1.5

25


pt

5.5

3

4.5

2

0.5

X

1.5

25


it

5.5

3

4.5

2

1.5

2

X

25


zh

7.5

6.5

7

7

6

6.5

6

X




5 comments:

  1. You're right on about Chinese. I say why even try to learn it. It's so ugly.

    You're wrong about English to German vs English to French. French is a lagado langauage with more vowels (impossible for me to learn) not found in English.

    English dialect has the u umlaut. The So Cal pronunciation of "dude".

    These jusdgements aren't so subjective. How well do the from speakers speak English or Russian? The Chinese unless from HK or SG are totally unintelligble.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I do believe that it's easier for English speakers to learn French than German.

    English picked up a lot of its abstract vocabulary from French and Latin, while German developed its own.

    History: Geschichte in German, histoire in French.
    Society: Gesellschaft in German, socie'te' in French.
    Message: Botschaft in German, message in French.
    Hour: Stunde in German, heure in French.
    Change: Veraenderung in German, change in French.

    A list like that could go on for pages, which incidentally reminds me that page is page in French, but Seite in German.

    French borrowings into English are still mostly spelled like French originals, but English-German cognates are often a little harder to recognize (tooth - Zahn, clothing - Kleidung, eye - Auge, I - ich, etc.) All of these words are related, but 1,500 years of sound change have obscured that fact at least somewhat. French borrowings into English are more recent.

    English speakers hate long words. They're intimidated by them. German has lots of them, French doesn't.

    Grammatical cases are confusing to English speakers. Sure, English has the possessive 's, but few ordinary people recognize it as a grammatical case. When confronted with declension, English speakers are scared. German has cases, French doesn't.

    The unpredictability of German plurals confuses English speakers too. French, at least in writing, has something very similar to English on that score.

    The way German often splits its verbs and then puts the most important part of the verb at the very end of long sentences is again confusing to English speakers. Yes, French puts adjectives after nouns, but that's easier to get used to. At least the French noun and adjective are still next to each other.

    The long German sentences. I've never seen that in any other language. It's impressive, but one has to get used to it. I often forget what the start of the sentence was all about before I reach the end.

    I could probably go on.

    "The Chinese unless from HK or SG are totally unintelligble."

    I think I should have put up higher numbers for Chinese -> European languages. You're right, it's much harder for the Chinese to learn European pronunciation than for Europeans to learn other Europeans languages' pronunciation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I know all that BUT as a native English speaker I say

    It is a little easier to learn to read French but much harder to learn to speak and to understand spoken.

    I hear much stronger accents in native French speakers than native German speakers.

    English is a West Germanic language and its nearest relatives are Frisian and Dutch. What exactly that means I haven't a clue.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Pentagon's Defense Language Institute assumes that German is harder for native English speakers to learn than French. Quoting from this site:

    "DLI courses are categorized by their level of difficulty for a native English speaker. Languages most familiar to English speakers, including Spanish, French and Italian are category I languages and require 26 weeks of instruction. Category II languages, German and Indonesian, require about 35 weeks of instruction. Category III languages include a swath of diverse languages, two of which are Russian and Persian Farsi. The courses for category III languages are about 52-weeks in duration. The four category IV languages (Chinese Mandarin, Modern Standard Arabic, Korean and Japanese) take about 18 months to teach."

    This implies that they consider Chinese to be only 1.5 times harder to learn for English speakers than Russian. That can only be true if they skip Chinese characters altogether and only learn the spoken language.

    "I hear much stronger accents in native French speakers than native German speakers."

    I do too. I think this is partly because the French are still massively convinced that their culture is superior to all others and that they shouldn't have to learn any foreign languages at all - they think foreigners should learn theirs. That kind of an attitude does not exist anywhere else in Europe.

    "It is a little easier to learn to read French but much harder to learn to speak and to understand spoken."

    French pronunciation is weirder than German pronunciation, and not only to English speakers. However, German grammar is more complicated than French grammar. Most of the ordinary, non-bookish English vocabulary is Germanic, but over time its spelling and pronunciation have drifted away from German equivalents. Many of the correspondences are no longer recognizable. Most of the bookish English vocabulary was borrowed from French and Latin, and those words are still spelled (though not pronounced) exactly or almost exactly like in modern French.

    "English is a West Germanic language and its nearest relatives are Frisian and Dutch."

    There was a long period (1066 to roughly 1400) when the English elite preferred French to English. This is when most of the borrowing occurred. English is a branch on the Germanic tree, but it has a lot of French and Latin grafts on it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh come on !! I'm french and we don't think we're superior to all others ! I come from Normandy and people make fun of me because I say "pô" instead of "pas" (and I generally turn "a"s into "o"s). When I hear someone from Liverpool of Ireland I'm totally scared by the difference. Every country has that kind of accents. :'(

    We don't learn language, I give you that. But it's not because we don't want to (who in his right mind could think it would be better to learn french that spanish, english or chinese) but because we are unable to. For exemple the number of sounds in english is daunting. I can't even chose an accent. Should I mimic the CNN english ? The BBC one ? The Game of Thrones one ?

    I spent 9 years trying to learn German and ended up only able to read with a dictionary. I can't remember their word because their sounds are to complicated, I can't understand their grammar because it's too weird, and contrary to english, they don't have a lot of common words. But I don't expect german to learn french. They should rather learn italian because it's the purest latin language, spanish because it's the most useful or romanian because it's the most exotic. They can learn french if they want to live in the country for more than a year... Which is rare anyway, nobody has any incentive to come live in France :D (At least I would not leave Germany to go work in France ahah)

    Please stop spreading these rumours about our supposed hatred towards other countries. You can tell people about our general grumpiness if you want :D We think we are inferior to other, that we should learn english despite our genetic incapacity, that we should mimic germany, that we should fight better economically against the USA, that we should stop unions from blocking the country when they only represent 5% of the workers etc. Oh and we shave, wash, don't eat snails and don't want Napoleon to come back. We don't even drink as much wine as we used to :D

    ReplyDelete