Monday, December 29, 2014

Language Inequality or the Joy of Challenges - Part 1

Learning a foreign language can be one of the most satisfying or frustrating experiences.  Success depends on age, environment, motivation, innate skill and the language itself.  The latter is relevant because not all languages are equally difficult, with several factors influencing the “challenge” factor.

      A.      The first aspect a learner notices is the visual one, the alphabet.  Psychologically, unfamiliar alphabets seem quite daunting.  While they do require some effort, most alphabets can be mastered in terms of sound identification within a month using a decent book and some practice.  The most difficult system is the traditional Chinese (used to a certain degree in Japanese) character writing, which is strictly speaking not an alphabet at all since the pictures has no relevance to the pronunciation.  Even native speakers of Chinese require years to attain a decent vocabulary.  So, a strange alphabet can quickly become comfortable.

      B.      Spelling is a complicated issue.  The easiest languages to read and spell involve few letters, consistent pronunciation and minimum opportunities for error. Italian is a wonderfully easy language to learn how to read.  The rules of pronunciation and therefore spelling are simple, based on consonant/vowel combinations (co = /ko/ while ci = /chi/) and no letters with the same sounds. Other languages are not as easy.  Polish consonant use may be consistent but the combinations (cz, dz, etc) are confusing to foreigners.  It demonstrates by counter example how efficient the Slavic alphabet is, i.e. one letter for each sound.  French is also very consistent with its vowel pronunciation but has too many ways to make the same sound, such as the long “a” sound, which can produced by ai, é, ais, ait, aient, et al. Standard Hebrew avoids the latter problem by mostly not inserting the vowels and trusting the speaker to figure it out.  On the other hand, Hebrew has many letters that once were  pronounced differently but are less and less frequently being distinguished now, including tet and tov, alef and ayin, and het and hof, to name a few, complicating spelling for the foreigner.  English is the monster of the group, failing in all aspects.  There are many letter combinations, many of which are completely different than their component parts, as in the ti in the word “vacation”, pronounced sh.  It is famous for lack of consistency.  Try explaining how to pronounce “gh” in the words enough, though, and through.  The reasons are historical but that does not help the latter. Worst of all, it offers almost endless ways to make the same sound and confuse the foreign learner.  Thank god for spellcheck!

      C.      Verb tense structures vary from language to language and require different amounts of time to master.  The easiest ones have only three tenses: past, present and future. Semitic languages are a breeze in that respect.  Latin languages muddy up the waters by distinguishing meanings within those times and constructing complicated forms.  The ability to understand and produce these various tenses forms does take some time and instruction but learning time is quite finite.  Slavic languages are deceivingly simple, only having two tenses but at least two forms (perfect and imperfect aspect) of each verb, creating all three tenses.  The catch for the foreign learner is in the past form, where both aspects can work. It takes years to understand what a native speaker grasps intuitively in regards to the difference between the forms.  For example, depending on which form is used in the past, perfect or imperfect, if I closed the window, the window is now either open or closed.  So, the complexity of the tense structure does help determine the time and effort required to learn the language.

[To be continued]

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