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PhiNotPi's avatar

If a person speaks a very complicated language as his native tongue, would this make it easier to learn other languages?

Asked by PhiNotPi (12161 points ) January 10th, 2012

In most languages, there are certain rules that are obeyed most of the time. In many Romance languages, verbs usually end with one of a few different verb endings, which are conjugated by uniform rules. English is more uniform when it comes to the gender of nouns. Almost all English nouns are neuter, except for when the object is physically a male or female. In the Romance languages, there can even be two nouns that are spelt the same but have different genders and mean completely different things.

In the above examples, a native English speaker might find it easier to know exactly how to conjugate a verb, while a speaker of French might find it very easy to learn the gender of English nouns.

Let us pretend that there is a made-up language Complexinese. Complexinese is a very irregular language, meaning that there are very few rules that are uniform throughout the language. It would have many noun genders, a lot of irregular verbs, complex pronunciation rules, and any other features that might make it more unpredictable.

To a native speaker of Complexinese, most other languages would seem to be simpler and more predictable. Does this mean that other languages are actually easier for this person to learn than for other people to learn? Or is it just an illusion, that while it seems easier, it doesn’t actually speed up the time taken to learn the language?

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22 Answers

sliceswiththings's avatar

Yes. If the person has access to a lot of phonemes (if vowels have a lot of different sounds in Complexinese, for example), then that person will be naturally better at differentiating phonemes in other languages. If it’s just complicated because it’s crazy and chaotic, like English, than maybe not.

The_Idler's avatar

Yeah, I don’t think it’d be too difficult for a Latin speaker to grasp all the verb inflection in Japanese.

It’s difficult for English speakers, because most of them simply don’t have proper equivalents in English

Example:

look at all the verb inflections of the Latin word for appear: appareo
now look at all the verb inflections of the Japanese to be seen: 見える
Note this could itself be considered an inflection of to see, 見る

Now think about how many English usually has:
appear
appearing
appears
appeared

That’s it. It is clear that a Latin speaker, well used to verb inflection, would be more comfortable with the Japanese system of inflection, than would an English speaker, most of whom don’t even know the names of the inflections they DO have.

dappled_leaves's avatar

I asked my linguistics teacher this once, and she said there was no evidence that it was true. I never looked into it further, but intuitively it feels true, doesn’t it?

morphail's avatar

I don’t think a language like Complexinese exists. All languages have systematic rules. All languages are roughly equal in complexity.

I tend to think that the difficulty of learning another language depends on how similar it is to the languages you already know.

DominicX's avatar

There are many linguists who don’t like to describe languages in terms of “simple” and “complex”. Certainly, it isn’t any easier for a developing child to learn English natively or to learn Chinese. It just depends on what language they are exposed to. And even though some languages may seem “simple” in one regard, it will probably seem “complex” in another. The only reason languages like French or German would be easier to learn than Chinese or Turkish for an English speaker is because those languages are more similar to English and they can relate those languages more to English than they can something like Chinese or Turkish.

But if we had a language with 20 noun cases, 10 conjugations, 8 noun classes, etc. things that are relatively foreign to English (and excessive, and in real life would most likely not even exist), it would depend on how similar another language is to this “Complexinese”. Even if English, without any of that stuff I just listed, seems “easier” in that regard, it might not be simply because it is so different from this hypothetical language.

The_Idler's avatar

Surely it’s easier to learn that you don’t need to inflect in some cases (in the language you’re learning), than to learn an entire new set of inflections, plus their translations.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Another question that is related: At what point do you think that a complex language could be so complex that it would make it hard to learn a simpler language? I know that natural languages can’t really be described as a whole, but that is why I created “Complexinese” to be complex in as many different ways as possible.

laureth's avatar

If there is a language that doesn’t seem complex, it’s probably because you speak it already. :) In other words, @morphail nailed it – languages have roughly the same complexity all around.

the100thmonkey's avatar

In terms of phonology, English has a relatively rich complement of phonemes and a staggeringly large vocabulary, but relatively simple grammar: it’s a lexico-syntactic language rather than a morpho-grammatical language like Latin, which, on the other hand, has about 120 different verb forms (conjugal bliss!) and six noun declensions with twelve cases each. The Romans seemed to do just fine with it.

@The_Idler – inflection is not really a major problem for English learners; the word order, insertion of auxiliaries for main verbs, choice of determiner (quantifiers and articles, for example) and collocation are what matter most. To make things even more complex, English often uses a different quantifier for affirmative utterances than interrogatives and negatives. In short, word choice and order in English are often a clusterfuck for learners, particularly non-European language speakers.

This conversation reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect – highly competent people tend to underestimate the complexity of the tasks they perform and the skill that goes into it. We think English is easy because we are so damned good at it, whereas in reality, it’s bloody difficult!

VoodooSocialite's avatar

The “complexity” of one’s native tongue has no bearing on their ability to learn a less “complex” language. All languages are equal in value, although some studies have shown that the time it takes to learn a language can vary based on the language that is being learned, as well as how many languages the speaker learned as child. It is believed to be true that children who learn more than one language as a child pick up languages faster, with better understanding.

Something I thought was interesting, someone I met during my study abroad in Russia said one of the hardest things for her to grasp was the idea of non-gendered nouns, as they have three: masculine, feminine, and neuter. That, and the fact that English does not have an active case system, but instead makes use of 12 tenses, whereas Russian uses 6 cases.

the100thmonkey's avatar

English has two tenses and four aspects.

VoodooSocialite's avatar

Maybe I am confusing it with something else?

Sunny2's avatar

Another ability one needs to learn another language, if one wants to speak it, is to be able to hear the different sounds the language uses and be able to produce those sounds. People who are tone deaf are not going to be able to speak well. Not being able, for example, to differentiate between eh and ah, will be a real handicap, regardless of how complicated the native language was.

skfinkel's avatar

The best way to learn languages not your own is to learn them young. The younger the better. If a person speaks two languages, I believe it is easier to learn more.

citizenearth's avatar

Not so. Every language is different in terms of its usage, idioms, nuances and other particulars. If a group of languages are related to each other, then knowing one of the languages will surely shorten the learning curve and time of the other related languages. If the difference is huge, then learning the other language will take much more effort.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

lifeflame's avatar

As someone who has their mother tongue as Cantonese, and is effectively bilingual in English; and who has had to pick up French and Polish, I can say that:

1. Knowing French (a gendered language) beforehand made the idea easier for me when I learnt Polish, but did not prepare me for the number of cases that I had to learn. Chinese did not help me with either of this, because our grammar system is relatively straightforward. This supports what several jellies have been saying: the ease of learning a second language depends on the similarality between the mother tongue and the target language. So it would be easier for a Japanese person to learn Chinese writing (as there is overlap in kanji); but easier for a Thai person to learnt to speak Mandarin or Cantonese (as it is tonal).

So I’d like to disagree with people who say that “all languages are equal in value”—because some grammar systems do require more memorisation and care than others; some pronouciation systems that are harder than others (e.g., tonal is harder than non-tonal, phonetically consistent is easier than phonetically inconsistent).

2. In reference to @PhiNotPi‘s follow up question—could it ever be harder for someone of a very complex language to learn a simpler language… I think the answer here is no. But where you can trip up is when there is overlap in languages that you assume are similar (oh, must be easy!), but you find out, oophs, not really. So what we haven’t discussed so far in this thread is about the complexity of culture expressed through language. For example, the Japanese are very strict in the formality of their address and you have to use completely sets of vocabulary depending to whom you are addressing. The ease of learning a language depends also on exposure, which in some instances are related to power. (The dominance of English as world-language is an example in point) But how hard a language seems depends a lot on motivation and the necessity of needing to use a language. Because once you accept the rules of the new game (ok, so I got to learn the 12 cases and 3 genders), you just get down to it. I have to say though, nuances in pronouciation seem harder to alter than grammar—I think as babies we start out with a large range of sound and we get more and more specialised. So for example, it’s very hard for me to say the sound that is between ‘l’ and ‘r’ in Japanese, I have been conditioned to hear/think in either ‘l’ or ‘r’ terms.

morphail's avatar

@lifeflame You seem to contradict yourself. You say that the ease of learning a second language depends on the similarality between the mother tongue and the target language, which I agree with. But then you seem to say that this means that some languages are intrinsically more complicated than others. But this doesn’t follow.

Yes, learning tones is hard if your native language is not a tone language, but that doesn’t automatically mean that there is something intrinsically more complicated about tone languages.

mattbrowne's avatar

Not necessarily. Because the type of complexity can be quite different. There are complex aspects about English which are equally hard for Germans to learn (e.g. verb tenses). I think it’s more about the number of complex aspects and in this respect German has more than English and Finnish has more than German.

fundevogel's avatar

I read a book last year about endangered languages and it made me realize just how closely related the most common languages are. Sure, there’s variation in case, gender, word order and all the nitty gritty details, but most of these languages have common roots and are organized on very similar grammatical principles. It’s really wild when you encounter a grammer from an entirely different language system. I swear, the grammatical systems of obscure Aboriginal and Native American languages seem about as alien as the language of Tlön, which has no nouns.

Reading about such exotic languages made the prospect of learning any European language seem a lot more feasible by comparison. Not that I’ve properly learned any of them aside from the one I was raised with…

@the100thmonkey What is an aspic aspect? I’ve never heard of such a thing.

the100thmonkey's avatar

D’oh! Gramma t ical

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