A Tale of 20 Languages in 7 Years (pt 2/2) | Languages Around the Globe

A Tale of 20 Languages in 7 Years (pt 2/2)


Fun and games are great, but hardcore linguistics isn’t bad either


This might come off as a little dry, but I would have liked for my beginner level language course not to have started with a famous pop song (like this Flight of the Concords’ song for French) or learning those precious first few words that you’ll then practice with a language buddy, but rather that the teacher would have presented a short overview about… grammar.

What’s the tense system like? How many cases does the language have? Does this language have genders? And so on. These days, even before I start learning the language, I read a little about the grammar of the language and think on, whether or not I want to learn this language in the first place, with the kind of grammar it has.

Most students seem to be terrified of grammar; many teachers too. That is why getting through all of the grammar of a new language can be dreadfully slow – in a classroom this can sometimes take years.

I usually take five minutes on Wikipedia, because you don’t need to know grammar by heart to understand the basics. As for games and other interactive exercises, yes, they do improve your communication skills but they also draw a lot of resources (often those resources are limited to two 90-minute seminars per week) away from the actual purpose of being in class – learning the foreign language. I think in that sense, quantity is quality – the more time you spend learning a foreign language, the more you’ll have learned of that language. 

#2 Active communication doesn’t have to be the primary goal 

I’ll play for a moment the apologist for the scholar in the ivory tower, the kind who’s full of theory but helpless in practice. After all, isn’t language a tool for communication? What point would it be to learn a language, if you don’t intend to speak it? While that is certainly true (unless you’re studying a classical language, such as Latin or Sanskrit), it’s also true that active communication is much more difficult than passive understanding.

Yet the attention of modern language teaching, be it in the classroom with a teacher or independent, is overwhelmingly placed upon active communication. The language learner is encouraged to express themselves in a foreign language with the limited knowledge they have – it’s okay to make mistakes; if you don’t know the word for “tiger”, say “big orange cat with stripes” etc… And that is all very sensible, but we also have to recognize that this will be all the more resource-consuming the less we know the language.

So, is it worth the limited time and energy you have to teach yourself formulaic sentences, such as “where’s the bus station?”, if you couldn’t really understand the answer at the time?

After having studying Hungarian for two weeks, I still had no idea, how to say “hello” or “my name is…” in Hungarian. I could have checked them out in an online glossary of useful phrases in Hungarian, but chances are I would have forgotten them as quickly as I’d looked them up. What I did learn during this time was to passively recognize most of the Hungarian case system and the key elements of the Hungarian sentence. So, as I was one day watching cartoons (which for language learning is really one of the best things) on M2 , I recognised “mi van?” ["what is it?”], not because I’d checked it out as a phrase, but because I recognised “mi?” for the interrogative “what?” and “van” 3. person singular for the verb “to be”.

This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try to speak the language when I have the chance (and yes, it is absolutely okay to make mistakes), and having the courage to improvise in an unknown situation is a good skill to have in any case. But from a language-learning perspective it really isn’t the priority, and it might take a rather long while – perhaps a few years – before I can start speaking a language regularly. When that does happen, however, I would already like to be able express rather complex ideas on history, politics or whatever, even though I still might have trouble ordering coffee and biscuits in a café.    

#3 Seeing the bigger picture helps to fill in the details

 No language exist apart from other languages. That is true even for language isolates (such as Basque) that don’t seem to have any genealogical relationship to any known language, as they still interact with neighbouring languages. There are plenty of Romance loans in Basque, despite it being an isolate.

I would make distinction between two types of relationships. First, there’s genealogical relationship – the division of languages language families (such as Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Altic) and its branches (Germanic, Romance, Semitic etc…). But there can also be merely lexical relationship, when genetically different languages share a common vocabulary.

It’s because of the genetic relationship between Romance languages, why French, Spanish and Italian have so much in common in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but it’s a purely lexical relationship between Arabic, Turkish and Persian, why these languages have so much common (Arabic) words, even though they belong to different language families and differ a lot in grammar. Somewhat related is the concept of Sprachbund, which denotes that languages in a close geographical area tend to become alike in grammar and vocabulary, even though they aren’t necessarily genetically related.

The Genetic relationships within the Indo-European language family http://bit.ly/1OJUj2F

Language relations can certainly be taken into account in language study, as languages of the same sub-family overlap tremendously both in grammar and vocabulary. So once you’ve mastered Swedish, Danish really isn’t that high a mountain to climb. If you’re studying Polish and it truly seems like the most difficult language in the world, then perhaps learning some Bulgarian, which has none of the grammar, but still much of the common Slavic vocabulary, would give you that extra push?

To give an example, I was extremely surprised to discover a few months back that I can now more-or-less freely read a book in Italian, even though it’s been years since I’ve seriously studied any of the Romance languages (and Italian I’ve studied practically none at all). I suppose that by learning a variety of different languages, it has somehow improved my ability generalise the Romance language system, thus making Italian more transparent. Perhaps getting acquainted with a foreign system helps to solidify the system you already know?

In a similar vein, even though I still struggle when I open up a text in Arabic, learning some Persian and Turkish has made it somehow more comprehensible. Little learning may be a dangerous thing (according to Pope), but I feel that this doesn’t really apply for language study, as even the smallest, most superficial acquaintance with a language gives way for associations you didn’t have before.

#4 English is a valuable resource, but it also changes the way you think 

This next issue will relate to you more if English is not your native tongue. For me, that language is Estonian – a relatively exotic thing when compared to the big languages of the world (this both in terms of speaker count and grammatical properties), so the internal logic of the language stands well apart from English. Still, it would be completely impossible for me to learn other languages without using English, already from the fact that most online resources are available only in English.

So being proficient in English has helped a great deal in learning other languages, particularly French and Spanish – I remember, how I never had trouble understanding French words such as oublier, (“to forget”), regarder (“to look”) or mouton (“sheep”), because these reverberate through English in words such as “oblivion/oblivious”, “to regard” or “mutton”. When learning French, I was constantly surrounded by  “true friends” (as opposed to “false friends”) from English.

That being said, there are many languages with which being stuck in English logic does not really help.

I think English really struggles in describing case or conjugation systems, simply because these concepts do not exist. In Estonian, a language with a 14 case-system, I have no trouble understanding the concept of cases, but it’s not that easy to translate a prepositional system.

To give an example, I would perhaps think of the French preposition de as the rough equivalent to the English “of” (as opposed to the Estonian genitive case/omastav kääne, which would also apply), whereas the Russian instrumental case/творительный падеж I would think as the equivalent Estonian comitative case/kaasaütlev kääne (as opposed to the English prepositions “with” or “by”, which would also apply).

As for vocabulary, even though I use English-based dictionaries, I would try to take apart the foreign language elements and translate them separately to Estonian. The Hungarian word for “president” is “elnök” – a German loan translation of “Vorsitzender” that literally means “the one who sits in the front”. Etymologically, these two elements also exist in modern Hungarian – “elő” for “the front” and “ül” for “to sit”.

A similar loan translation also exists in Estonian (“ees” + “istuja”, which would mean “chairman” in English. This is also the second meaning of “elnök”), so when coming across “elnök” in a text, I would not only think for the Estonian equivalent for “president” (which is actually the same as in English: “president”), but I would also make a note of this similarity to the Estonian word “eesistuja”.

#5 The language reflects the time and the society of its speakers 

When learning a foreign language, we often come across concepts unknown in our own language. A typical example for an English-speaker is the German word Schadenfreude – “the joy derived from the misfortunes of others” (not so much in Estonian, though, which has loan translated this as “kahjurõõm”).

Explaining “Schadenfreude” takes a whole sentence in English…

but just one word in Estonian.

Yet the reality is that the vast majority of modern languages are exceptionally uniform in the system of concepts they use. Since I usually start off with a new language by reading newspaper articles on daily events, I come across rather early words that are hardly the common vocabulary of the language, such as “the government”, “the media”, “the economy”, “legislative” and so on. In a traditional classroom environment, this would be the kind of vocabulary you’d start learning only in very advanced classes.  But since these concepts are very common for the kind of texts I happen to read, they just crop up.

One of the things I found most difficult in learning Ancient Greek – asides the overwhelming amount of irregular grammar – was the fact that the system of concepts was so alien to me. Homer’s “Iliad” starts off with the Greeks sacrificing a hecatomb to Apollo. “What the hell’s a hecatomb?” you might ask. “How can you possibly not know that?” someone from that period would ask you in response. “Why it’s the burnt offering of a hundred bulls and/or goats to the gods, naturally.”

Because, you know, the burnt offering of a hundred bulls and/or goats is such a common thing these days that there’s actually word for that.

But come, let us ask some seer or priest, or some reader of dreams—for a dream too is from Zeus—who might say why Phoebus Apollo is so angry, whether he finds fault with a vow or a hecatomb; in hope that he may accept the savour of lambs and unblemished goats, and be willing to ward off the pestilence from us.” (Iliad 1.62-67)

The element of time touches language-learning on another level as well – once you get to know enough languages of the same family group, it becomes clear that not only do related languages have strong grammatical and vocabulary similarities, but that they are often subjected to certain general trends. This will perhaps seem more clear in the context of a specific example – for instance, not only do all Germanic languages have a certain likeness to one another, but they’re also moving at the same direction, with different speeds[i[i]strong>, becoming increasingly more analytic.

In that sense, English has progressed the fastest, since it has lost entirely its cases, genders, and has an extremely comprehensive tense system based on auxiliary verbs. Swedish lies somewhere in-between, since it too has lost its cases, but still maintains two genders and requires the adjective to agree (in gender and number) to the noun they describe. German is far more conservative, as it still has a system of four cases, three different genders and the adjective has to agree in gender and number to the noun they describe.

And somewhere at the very back, there’s Icelandic, which too has a system of four cases and three genders, but there’s also the full declination for all nouns (something which exists in German only in very limited and archaic forms). In many ways, the grammar system of modern Icelandic is the same as that of the Old English before the Norman Invasion. That doesn’t mean Icelandic hasn’t become more analytic in the past millennium (for instance there’s no longer dual voice which still exists in Old English), but the pace of the changes incredibly slower than in English. Modern Icelandic speakers can still understand the ancient sagas of the 10th and 11th century.

In Conclusion 

Coming back to where I started, I suppose what I’ve learned the best during these past 7 years is that language learning doesn’t have to be a linear process, which starts with learning to say hello and ends with a standardized test 5-6 years to the future. It doesn’t have to be about setting specific goals like learning 10 new words each day and using them in a sentence. It doesn’t have to be about learning grammatical forms by heart and being able to reproduce them on paper.

You can be as unsystematic as you want – if a certain technique suits you better, or a certain aspect of the language seems easier, you can pursue that and ignore the hard parts.

The reason, why I put so much emphasis on reading, is because it’s simply the easiest, the most flexible method I can use. It doesn’t matter, if on a particular day I read a foreign language for 5 minutes or for 6 hours, I will still have made progress. It’s also okay to drop a language (perhaps to study other languages) if you don’t feel like it, for a year or two, and come back to it to discover that you haven’t actually forgotten that much and the obstacles you might have encountered, weren’t really there at all.

[i[i]              I recently discovered that the Hungarian linguist Daniel Abondolo has expressed the same idea about (the speed of) language change through the concepts of peripheral and core languages. This means that – primarily due to the socio-political context – some languages change faster (thus belonging to the core of language change) than other languages. The opposite would be the periphery of language change where languages retain the archaic characteristics of that particular language family/group.

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Norman Kuusik is a freelance interpreter and an assistant lecturer for conference interpreting in the University of Tartu, Estonia. He is also a long-time independent language-learner and maintains an Estonian-English dual language blog “Tõde minemisel” for translations, reviews and essays on a variety of subjects.


  • Ксения Синяговская

    Oh, it’s so funny (in a good way) that you think that Polish is one the most difficult languages ) cause it’s so simple for Ukrainians 🙂 And Finnish and Estonian are considered one of the hardest too. I’m learning Finnish and I like it despite a complicated grammar. I think, Finnish is very easy for you, as Polish for Ukrainians. However, your article is very inspiring.

  • magner

    where is Portuguese in the tree of languages? Or you think Portuguese is a dialect of Spanish. We do not understand each other in both languages what is a proof that we have different languages. The fact that written formal european Portuguese is similar in some points to formal european written spanish does not make them one only language. That is outrageous.

    • I doubt very much that the author made this map, nor do I think he chose it due to some misconceived notion about whether Portuguese is a language or not. Nobody here is arguing that Portuguese is a dialect of Spanish.

      It’s simply a flawed tree, don’t take it too far, it was probably a dumb mistake on the part of the artist.

      • magner

        ok, did not mean to offend anyone. The site is great. Thank you for the reply.

        • Norman

          Yeah, the tree is to illustrate, what I mean by ‘genetic relationship’. The link to the original source is in the caption 🙂

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