Tag Archives: inflections

The hardest language

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

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presenting the future

In an article in Slate that makes rather much of a little interesting observation in television news topic introduction syntax, Michael Kinsley tosses in this remark: “Long part of vernacular English: referring to the future as the present.”

I think it’s fair to guess that Michael Kinsley has never actually studied the topic, nor really spent all that much time thinking about it. The truth is that English, not just vernacular but all sorts, use present-tense inflectional forms to refer to pretty much everything that’s not the past – even our “future tense” (which we use only sometimes) is really a present auxiliary plus an infinitive. (I discuss this in a bit more depth in “How to explain grammar.”)

But that doesn’t mean we’re referring to the future as the present any more than saying “two fish” refers to the plural as a singular. It just means we have a semantic distinction that is not matched by a strict formal distinction. As with many things, we use our linguistic bits more loosely – English is a real ductape and WD-40 kind of language. Look, Chinese doesn’t have tense inflections at all, but that doesn’t mean that Chinese speakers are talking about everything as though it’s happening right now. Context!

Here’s a little poem, from my forthcoming Songs of Love and Grammar, illustrating our common use of present-tense forms to talk about the future and about timeless and durable states.

Christmas present

Now, Christmas has twelve days, of which the first one is tomorrow,
and I’m giving to my true love all that I can beg or borrow.
She knows that I’m a poet, so I’m giving her my words;
I know that she’s allergic, so I’m giving her no birds –
no swans, nor geese, nor turtledoves, nor even partridge one;
I know she’s introverted – lords and ladies are no fun.
Loud noises give her headaches. Drummers? Pipers? Please, not now!
And I’ll give her maids a-milking when she wants to have a cow.
But every year I give her something more than just a rhyme,
and I hope that she says yes to what I’m giving her this time:
on Christmas she is getting all the joy that I can bring,
for tomorrow I am giving her not five, but one gold ring.
She knows I don’t have money, but she knows she has my love;
with her I know I’m gifted by an angel from above.
So tomorrow I am proving what tonight I’m here to tell:
there’s nothing like the present to begin the future well.