HOW TO LEARN LANGUAGES.

Via MetaFilter (the post has many other things besides language learning), a Lifehacker essay called “I Learned to Speak Four Languages in a Few Years: Here’s How,” by Gabriel Wyner, that you may find interesting. He links to this Foreign Service chart of how hard various languages are to learn; I presume it reflects their vast experience with teaching people those languages, and thus that the times given for language-learning are more or less accurate, but it bothers me that Hebrew is put in Medium (“languages with significant differences from English”) and Arabic in Hard (“languages that are difficult for native English speakers”), the only explanation for the latter being that Arabic “has very few words that resemble those of European languages” and “uses fewer vowels, which can be difficult for those learning to read the language.” Hebrew uses just as few vowels; is there really such a difference in European loanwords that Arabic should take twice as long to learn?

Comments

  1. There’s a more thorough listing here: http://www.effectivelanguagelearning.com/language-guide/language-difficulty
    The FSI system is not a very good system in general – it seems that category IV is just too broad to be of much use. “Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” – well, welcome to most of human language. Plus you have things like Mandarin being booted up to level 5 because of the writing system – to learn to speak and listen, it’s certainly no more difficult than level 4 Thai or Vietnamese, and very probably easier.
    My understanding, gleaned from an ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview testing trainer, is that these standards (and the Oral Proficiency Interview and associated rankings) came about not because linguists or pedagogues thought they made sense, but because the Cold War-era U.S. government demanded them.

  2. The answer to the loanword question (Assuming the “Arabic” under discussion is Modern Standard Arabic, which exists almost exclusively in written form) is affirmative, but I don’t think it’s what makes the difference. The vowel point is actually correct – Arabic exhibits more consonant clustering than Modern Hebrew. Expanding to Phonetics in general, there’s no doubt Arabic is more difficult for European-languaged learners. It has pharyngeal and uvular consonants which are virtually impossible for English speakers to produce, all of which have been discarded from Hebrew during its revival.

  3. Yes, Hebrew picked up a lot of European influences during its revival. In many ways, it’s a member of Standard Average European.

  4. And I’m pretty sure this has been discussed in this forum before.

  5. I was just having a discussion with my wife of the difficulties of learning Hindi over Kannada. I told her that since the alphabet is basically pronounced the same, there should be no such difference, but she always insisted that kannada was harder than Hindi. And then I realised that in Kannada you can join up words while in Hindi you can’t. Perhaps the perceived difficulty in learning Arabic is that the letters don’t appear discrete, whereas in Hebrew the letters are distinct.

  6. I’d guess the diglossic situation for Arabic is a big factor. MSA is learnable, but having made the long slog, you learn you have to learn a second language (quite distinct) just to be able to have a conversation on the street, or watch a film.

  7. I was going to suggest that Arabic script is harder, because it is cursive, each separate letter can have multiple forms, and the Hebrew characters are more easily differentiated by someone used to a Western script.
    I believe that the pharyngeal sounds are more indispensable to Arabic than Hebrew.

  8. Expanding to Phonetics in general, there’s no doubt Arabic is more difficult for European-languaged learners. It has pharyngeal and uvular consonants which are virtually impossible for English speakers to produce, all of which have been discarded from Hebrew during its revival.
    This is true, of course; I guess I think of phonology as a preliminary hurdle that shouldn’t really affect the general difficulty score of a language, and that goes double for alphabets (though not of course for the Chinese system of writing).

  9. I’ll go with diglossia as the real reason: to speak fluent Arabic you basically have to learn two languages, one of which there seems to be a collective conspiracy not to acknowledge the existence of, much less teach. But the SAE issue is obviously also relevant; Modern Hebrew basically emerged from the way that mostly European 2nd language speakers spoke Hebrew, whereas European 2nd language speakers have had no opportunity to influence the development of Arabic.

  10. Bathrobe says:

    So how difficult is it for Arabic-speakers and Hebrew-speakers to learn each other’s languages? Is the SAE thing very noticeable to people who speak those languages, and does it interfere at all in learning to speak the other language?

  11. Tom Recht says:

    It’s true that modern Hebrew phonology is basically central European, and that a lot of syntax and idiom is calqued from European languages, and that this influence is ongoing; I read Hebrew blogs regularly and hardly a week goes by that I don’t come across a new-to-me English calque. But Hebrew’s SAE-ness shouldn’t be overestimated. Wiki gives a list of SAE features compiled by Martin Haspelmath; of the twelve defining features, Hebrew has four by my count (2, 7, 9, 10), and of the further list of characteristic but less definitive ones, it has seven out of fourteen (3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13). By those criteria it’s at best moderately SAE in basic syntax (and not at all in morphology).
    I don’t speak Arabic, but I’d love to know how Arabic scores on these features.

  12. “Assuming the “Arabic” under discussion is Modern Standard Arabic”
    Several local variations are offered, at least in the old FSI courses that are now in the public domain.
    http://www.fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php?page=Arabic

  13. As mostly a product of FSI’s Arabic program (Hebrew was just down the hall), I’d have to say the diglossia is one of the bigger factors. The other is, I believe, vocabulary. Not only is it massive, with any word, apparently, once having been used being open for reuse, but the complexity of meanings.
    It was a (not funny) joke among us students that every word in Arabic had at least four meanings:
    1. Its principal meaning
    2. Its opposite
    3. Something to do with camels
    4. Something to do with sex
    Choosing the right word — in any dialect — was difficult. And then you run into the works that are perfectly fine in one dialect and grossly anatomical in others. As FSOs were always shifting among countries and dialects, the errors were inevitable.

  14. So how difficult is it for Arabic-speakers and Hebrew-speakers to learn each other’s languages?
    My mother tongue is English; I learned Hebrew beginning in Grade 1 at a Jewish day school, continuing through Grade 7. (I also know some Yiddish, courtesy of my grandmother, and some French, through several years of required study in a Canadian high school. I learned the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets independently, and possess a smattering of Judeo-Aramaic gained through a bit of Talmud study at the Jewish school.)
    I have lived in Israel for 18 years, which has greatly improved my Hebrew. It’s far from mother-tongue level, though I’m often complimented on my ability with it. On a number of occasions I have tried independently and without success to learn the Arabic alphabet. The letters — some have three forms depending on position — just run into one another. To my eye, the Syriac (“Northeastern Neo-Aramaic”) script is much easier to decipher. I’ve heard that language at a Maronite church service and was delighted that I could understand bits of it.
    Over the years I have attempted to learn a little Arabic from an Israeli textbook with transliterations of local-dialect Arabic text into a slightly modified Hebrew alphabet. I was surprised to see how little vocabulary Arabic and Hebrew share — no more than about 30 percent. That’s about the same as I recognize when looking at Assyrian/Akkadian cuneiform texts with English and Latin-script Hebrew glosses.
    All told, I probably know a hundred or so Arabic words but am unable to string together so much as a phrase. Maybe I’d do better with Samaritan Hebrew . . .
    ___________________
    All Arab children in Israel study Hebrew from about Grade 4. As adults, some seem to have mastered it while others can only weakly express themselves. Jewish students can opt to study Arabic in high school but few do and fewer remember much ten years later. Curiosity: I’m told that Arab students at Bar-Ilan University often choose Yiddish as an optional course.

  15. Fascinating! I’m glad I brought the subject up.

  16. Tom Recht says:

    At my high school in Tel Aviv two years of Arabic was obligatory, but the level of instruction was pretty bad; I don’t think any of us ever got to the point of being able to read the script fluently or have the most basic of conversations. I don’t know if Arabic is still obligatory in Jewish Israeli schools. It would be very unsurprising if the policy had changed.

  17. I notice they don’t include Georgian — in terms of difficulty, probably off the chart.

  18. Samaritan Hebrew exists only as a method of reading Torah or saying prayers or similar activities. The Samaritan vernacular is ordinary Modern Hebrew, perhaps with an Arabic accent in older speakers.

  19. I’m in Tom’s boat: native Hebrew speaker, MSA-learner throughout school (pretty sure it’s still mandatory). Teaching level is indeed insufficient, and I’m pretty sure that when taught properly, Arabic (especially the spoken variety, the one they call Palestinian dialect) is fairly easy for Hebrew speakers to learn. The morphological magic is the same that goes on in Modern Hebrew, and since familiarity with Biblical language is acceptable to any Jewish Israeli past the sixth grade, other Semitic quirks are easily acquired as well. Let’s say, it’s around the English-to-Portuguese level of difficulty.

  20. I recently wrote a post on my efforts to learn Amis, an Austronesian language spoken in Taiwan:
    http://savageminds.org/2012/04/16/how-to-learn-a-language-learning-an-endangered-language-part-5/

  21. It’s interesting how people compare the difficulty of learning languages. Of course there are differences, however the way you go about it is going to be much more important than the difficulty of the language. Even the best learner, using ineffective learning practices will find the easiest language very difficult.
    The question of which learning practices and approaches are effective is a topic worth exploring, as the rates of successful second language learning worldwide are so poor.(compared to the success we all had learning L1!)
    I have been addressing this question for a while now. Check us out at http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com

  22. Never tried to learn Modern Hebrew, but I found Biblical Hebrew relatively easy knowing Arabic. However, the situation is asymmetrical: Arabic preserves a lot of proto-Semitic sound distinctions that Hebrew merges, as well as having a much larger inherited vocabulary, so at least in theory it should be easier for an Arabic speaker to learn Hebrew than vice versa.

  23. The FSI rates Persian at the same level as Hebrew, here; and that also has many of the factors people suggested would make Hebrew easier than Arabic; *one* major dialect, people write pretty much the spoken language, phonology easier for English speakers. At the same time, though, it has the same script as Arabic, and much of its vocabulary, so those don’t seem to be the problem.

  24. Eugene says:

    The major factors seem to be:
    1) Typological – if the L2 is similar to your native language, it will be easier/faster. Word order is easier than morphological complexity.
    2) Phonological – if the L2 has a larger inventory of phonemes and phonemic distinctions than your L1 has, it will take longer to hear/learn that language(at least at first).
    3) A new orthography will make the process take longer. Spanish and German are transparent to English speakers. Thai is hard. Chinese is a real problem.
    4) Cultural distance will make things more difficult.
    So per #1, Dutch and Norwegian are in the easy group for English speakers. Spanish is one of the easiest because it’s Indo-European and the orthography (#3) is transparent.
    Per #2, Thai is hard at first, but gets easier. Korean is tough despite the easy orthography(a lot of morphology, too).
    Per #3, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, etc. are not easy.
    Per #4, some groups are more open and easier to socialize with (Thai, Indonesian, maybe even Japanese) while others are more difficult (I’ve heard that Arabic is tough in this regard even for well-motivated learners).
    A point system incorporating such factors could probably be worked out.
    Fascinating topic.

  25. Don’t forget that Arabic also has a case system.
    Plus, the issue of diglossia goes beyond simply the need to learn a dialect. In actual practice, there’s a number of registers between pure MSA and pure dialect that are tricky for a non-native speaker to navigate, and which make it difficult to communicate effectively (especially in a diplomatic context). To break it down roughly, the levels are:
    “Pure” Fusha: the Arabic of newsreaders, documentary narrators, religious preachers, historical TV series, etc. – the chief distinguishing feature of this register is that the case endings are fully pronounced. You don’t really need to learn to speak this way, but you do need to be able to understand it.
    Educated Spoken Fusha: a simplified spoken version of MSA, which retains only certain elements of the case system. This is the Arabic you’ll hear on discussion shows on al-Jazeera, for example.
    Ammiyyat al-Muthaqqafin: the colloquial of the educated. This is a complex hybrid of MSA and the local dialect which generally involves both alternation and fusion between MSA and dialect in terms of word forms, grammar, and lexis. MSA words are usually pronounced according to the dialect’s phonology in this register. This is the educated speech used in contexts where the dialect is too poor to express the necessary concepts.
    Dialect: the Arabic of everyday conversation. Of course, within the dialects themselves there are sociolinguistic registers as well, but that’s another story.
    Now when you consider that the typical native speaker of Arabic learns the dialect as their native language and then adds MSA on top of that, while the typical foreign language learner starts with MSA and then adds a dialect (if any), you can see imagine why they would have trouble achieving anything like a reasonable mastery of the language needed for professional situations. Usually what ends up happening is that they constantly revert into MSA lexis and pronunciation while speaking the dialect, while the dialect’s relaxed grammar tends to infect their spoken MSA. So basically they mix up MSA and dialect in a way different from the way native speakers do it, and in a way which is often confusing for native speakers to follow… and this is after 5-7 years of study!

  26. For me the script was not the real hurdle with Mandarin, the vocabulary was and – is – an ongoing struggle. If there is any kind of derivational system to the lexicon, it is so subtle, diffuse and irregular as to be of no use to an L2 learner, so the learner ends up memorizing each compound as a free unit. In fact there just may be a lots and lots of formatives, because over time some kind of pattern does appear, if only mistily. Then of course there is the issue of synonymy with, due to modern-day dialect mixutre and for that matter dialect mixture going all the way back. it is like finding oyur way through a huge mansion that millions upon millions of people have been building hundreds of generations.
    That chart focuses on a narrow group of languages. It would be interesting to see where a lot of American languages fit on it. This is an issue for langauge revival efforts. The tribal schools hereabouts have the money and the interest to have a very ambitious and energetic Lushoostseed program, but Lushootseed is about as different from English as it is logically possible for a language to be. Navajo also looks pretty ferocious – phonology, morphology, lexicon and all the rest.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    Scary! I would have loved to learn Arabic, but which Arabic?
    There are a number of textbooks for teaching the Arabic of different countries, eg Lebanese Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, etc. I think many if not most of them are published by Georgetown U Press.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    a huge mansion that millions upon millions of people have been building hundreds of generations.
    An excellent metaphor for a language!

  29. @Jim: Lushoostseed! I can’t even imagine something akin to Israeli Hebrew coming out of the Lushotseed revitalization campaign. Can’t they just make a kindergarten and have native speakers working at the kindergarten instead?
    @Brian: Thanks a lot for the Arabic information. I’m trying off-and-on to learn Tibetan, a language that is diglossic and polydialectal in a way much like Arabic. You convinced me that I should learn the dialect first before reading too much the literary language to spoil the effort.

  30. Lushootseed (aka Puget Sound Salish), for those who (like me) are curious. And yes, it looks pretty ferocious.
    If I were to make a serious effort to learn Arabic (I dipped my toe in the water years ago), I think I would start with Levantine/Syrian/Lebanese/Eastern Arabic, for which I have several textbooks.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Can’t they just make a kindergarten and have native speakers working at the kindergarten instead?
    This would be OK if there were native speakers of a young enough age to be working in a kindergarten, or, even better, at a daycare centre for kids younger than two. But most places undertaking a language revitalization program have few (and sometimes zero) speakers, and the remaining ones are very old.

  32. i am curious about Tibetan too, had a chance to learn it when in the med school studying our traditional medicine, but didn’t, a pity
    i wonder whether our buddhist monks’ Tibetan is understandable for Tibetans themselves, when they recite buddhist texts in Tibetan, it sounds a bit different it seems to me, no?
    om mani padme hum would sound like um mani badmi khum, and when i read the description of the words i recognize the words in our vocabulary which came from Tibetan/Sanskrit, mane comes from Sanskrit sintamani, wikipedia says, and we have a word chandmani meaning jewel too, padme lotus is badamlianhua, two words, Tibetan and Chinese, combined to mean lotus, just simply mani and padme are not meaningful in my language though
    now i am trying of course to see whether writing this gets me banned forever too
    just the objections Mr. LH has against comparing Arabic and Hebrew learning difficulties seem not that different from what i say about Mongolian and Turkic language comparisons and yet i get banned whenever i say a word about my perceptions

  33. More on So how difficult is it for Arabic-speakers and Hebrew-speakers to learn each other’s languages?
    Druze in Israel, whose first language is Arabic, often learn Hebrew to mother-tongue level. For many years the news director of Channel One, flagship of the public Israel Broadcasting Authority, was Rafik Halabi, a Druze. A Wiki entry about him is in Hebrew only. He has a Facebook page that is largely in Arabic.
    Unlike Israeli Arabs, Druze men by communal assent are conscripted to the army, where they often serve with distinction, and the aide-de-camp of the president is traditionally a Druze.
    So, without straying into the dismal ethnic and religious divides of the region, one can say that social factors can play a role in second-language acquistion.
    _______________
    I should have noted in my previous post on this subject that after learning Hebrew as a child, I seldom used it for some 35 years.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Can’t they just make a kindergarten and have native speakers working at the kindergarten instead?
    (follow-up to my comment above)
    This was tried in one Haida community with “grandmothers”. They may have gotten the idea from the Maori and Hawaiian “language nests” which employed older, native-speaking women to use the local language with the babies and toddlers, something they had perhaps not done with their own children since they wanted them to learn English. I have not looked up recent results, but reports on those programs could most likely be found on the internet. As older, fully fluent speakers die out, programs which seemed promising 20 or 30 years ago may run out of speakers to replace the original caregivers.
    Once you have started in one language with your children (or anyone actually), it is psychologically very difficult (and disorienting for the kids) to switch to another one. That’s why it’s better to start as early as possible, before the children have acquired one language as part of their own identity. In the early stages, how adults speak to a child is part of their identity as perceived by the child, not the child’s own identity. That’s how small children can acquire more than one language by being spoken to by different people who speak different languages.

  35. “@Jim: Lushoostseed! I can’t even imagine something akin to Israeli Hebrew coming out of the Lushotseed revitalization campaign. Can’t they just make a kindergarten and have native speakers working at the kindergarten instead?”
    Minus, stop and think a moment – what would you say to an English language program that consisted of some kindergarten instruction and left it at that? It takes years to become fully competent in English. Kindergarten level English is not what anyone would consider adult competency.
    Aside from the fact that there simply is not time in a school year to cram in anything close to a working lexicon, there is the small matter of setting up appropriate pedagogical settings for specific semantic domains. How many seasonal salmon runs – annual, remember – do you think it is going to take to learn all the extensive salmon terminology, for instance?
    “I can’t even imagine something akin to Israeli Hebrew coming out of the Lushotseed revitalization campaign.”
    I know! But something really could come of it. Lushootseed would be a very useful cryptolect for a community that is going to become fairly wealthy – several of these tribes are on track to becoming trust funds and the whole membership trust fund babies – and a cryptolect could be a real asset. The language of course needs a lot of development of lexicon to handle finance and legal terminology.
    And besides that, the rest of us could benefit. Even for non-Salish people it could become a marker of regional pride and take on the same kind role that Hawaiian has, with people using set phrases. Yes, I am aware that “Aloha” is a lot easier to pronounce than “Haʔal ti adsɬicil”. But that’s kind of the point. Anyway, it would at least look nice as a sign at the airport.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Lushootseed is about as different from English as it is logically possible for a language to be.
    Lushootseed is a Salishan language (spoken in Northern Washington State). I think that Wakashan languages (spoken on the Western tip and across into the Canadian West Coast) are even worse! At least some of them use pharyngeal sounds, which are rare in the world, though commonly found in Arabic and (most likely) Ancient Hebrew. This does NOT mean that there is any likelihood of relatedness between the Wakashan and Semitic language families.
    Navajo also looks pretty ferocious – phonology, morphology, lexicon and all the rest.
    Navaho is one of the Athabaskan languages (most of the others are in Alaska and Northern Canada). I greatly admire Athabaskanists, linguists grappling with languages which seem to me to be fiendishly difficult but that some linguists have mastered (and there are now also a number of Athabaskan speakers who have become linguists or are in the process of doing so).
    I think that I am correct in saying that Athabaskan languages have such an unusual structure that they admit very few loanwords. Most of their words are clearly analyzable, but foreign words are often unanalyzable by their own speakers, let alone by potential borrowers, so Athabaskans tend to coin new words for newly introduced things and concepts rather than borrowing the foreign words for them. On the other hand, the neighbouring languages have often borrowed Athabaskan words (which of course are not analyzable by speakers of those languages).

  37. Etienne says:

    Jim: actually, when I was in Victoria just over five years ago I picked up a bus schedule, printed by the city, with a multilingual introduction to the basic workings of the transit system. In this introduction Saanich (a dialect of Straights Salish) was the first language in which the introduction was written, followed by English and then by several immigrant languages. I found the symbolism quite appropriate.

  38. In this introduction Saanich (a dialect of Straights Salish) was the first language in which the introduction was written, followed by English and then by several immigrant languages.
    I like that a lot.

  39. Christopher Burd says:

    I live in Victoria, and haven’t seen Saanich or other Salish-language materials, other than some signage in First Nations settlements. Not that I doubt you! But as far as I know, all the local native languages are dead or dying, so this sort of usage is likely symbolic rather than practical.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Jim, CB: The native name of the place where the city of Victoria now stands is Ts’amis (stress on the a). Was this name mentioned in the materials you described?

  41. Bathrobe says:

    Since there are so many Victoria’s around the world (Victoria Hong Kong, State of Victoria, Victoria Falls, Port of Victoria in Texas and the Seychelles, Port Victoria in Australia, Victoria Island in California, Chile, Russia, Canada, and Nigeria, Great Victoria Desert, Mount Victoria, etc.), wouldn’t it be more sensible for Victoria to change its name to Ts’amis?

  42. marie-lucie says:

    wouldn’t it be more sensible for Victoria to change its name to Ts’amis?
    Ah, but the Canadian city of Victoria is not about to relinquish its link to the fabled Queen. For decades it was a choice destinatino for the retirement of old India hands who could no longer tolerate the British climate but tried to recreate British life on the Pacific coast (it is still a desirable destination for Canadian retirees). There is a larger than life statue of Queen Victoria near the Inner Harbour (next to the downtown area), in front of a Parliament building which looks somewhat Indian (from India of course) and close to the ivy-clad Empress Hotel. Victoria Day (a Canadian holiday on the supposed birthday of Queen Victoria) extends into a whole week, with public rejoicings of many kinds. The city also deliberately cultivates its Britishness in order to attract American tourists who can buy genuine Scottish tartans, among other real or fake British artifacts. There is also some emphasis on native art (again, both real and fake), but “Ts’amis” would be hard for English speakers to pronounce correctly. It would be nice to see it written on road signs along with “Victoria”, though. (I don’t live in Victoria but spent three years there about 30 years ago and have been back a few times for visits. Things had become more modern and less sleepy since I lived there).

  43. Christopher Burd says:

    The name Ts’amis is not widely used. In pioneer lore, “Camosun” was the native name for Victoria. Wikipedia says it was a village near the current of the Empress Hotel; others say it refers to a reversing tidal rapids nearby (a stone’s throw from my house, in fact).
    In my communications work for the provincial government, we’ve discussed incorporating First Nations languages into various project, effectively for symbolic purposes, but I’ve never found a project where it makes sense. There’s no single language that would make sense province-wide for example, or even for Vancouver Island. The Saanich language might work for the Greater Victoria area, and of course Haida would work for Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). Mind you, these kinds to projects need to be driven by the people whose heritage languages these are.

  44. Christopher Burd says:

    The British connection is as real as the native connection. As for pronunciation, there’s a local name Tsawwassen that’s pronounced tə’wɒsən or sə’wɒsən, but never tsə’wɒsən, so I imagine we could manage Ts’amis.

  45. Etienne says:

    Christopher Burd, Marie-Lucie: this was in fact the only instance of Saanich (or of any of British Columbia’s many aboriginal languages) that I saw used in Victoria (outside the Department of Linguistics, that is!). The Dave Elliott orthography (which uses mostly upper-case letters with diacritics, creating a very distinctive visual effect) was used, which is why I am sure the language was Saanich. I don’t know/remember whether Victoria was called “Ts’amis” in this introduction: I do recall that there were no obvious recent loanwords.
    And having lived in Victoria too, I quite agree with Marie-Lucie: the locals would never consider relinquishing the name of their city. In some ways the British connection is stronger than ever: when I was there some airline companies had direct flights to London (!)
    Just to clarify something Marie-Lucie wrote above, if I may: when she writes that Wakashan languages are spoken “on the Western tip”, I believe she means the Western tip of Vancouver island (the island where the city of Victoria is located: the city of Vancouver, in turn, is located on the mainland. And one of the earliest European trading posts in the region in the nineteenth century, Fort Vancouver, was of course located on the mainland, in what is today the State of Washington. I hope that’s all clear now).
    Hmm, now here’s a thought: let Victoria keep its name, but change the name of Vancouver island, and call it by an indigenous name, just to reduce the confusion a little. Something similar did take place recently, actually: a group of islands North of Vancouver island, which used to be known as the Queen Charlotte islands, are now officially called Haida Gwai (Haida being the indigenous tribe living there, whose language seems to be an isolate).
    As for Athabaskan languages…I think the greatest tribute to their complexity comes from Edward Sapir, possibly the most brilliant scholar ever to work on Native North American languages, who I believe once referred to either Navaho or some other Athabaskan language as the “sonovabitchest” (sp.?) language he had ever worked on.
    When Edward Sapir finds a language frustratingly difficult, be afraid. Be very afraid.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, I didn’t know you were an ex-Victorian yourself! of more recent date, I suppose.
    As for Wakashan: by “Western tip” I meant the Northwestern tip of Washington State, home of the Makah tribe and their Wakashan language. Of course the bulk of these languages is spoken on Vancouver Island and over across to the continent. But Southwestern Vancouver Island is Salishan, including Ts’amis. (I think Ts’amis and Camosun referred to different locations which are now both included within the city).
    Haida Gwai was named easily because only one language was involved, but Vancouver Island is or was home to many languages, belonging to two different families, so it would be very hard to satisfy everyone.

  47. This thread has meandered in the direction of the westernmost point of the 49th parallel in North America, bringing with it an excellent opportunity to mention Point Roberts, an exclave of the United States reachable by land only by traveling through Canada.

  48. Kobi Haron says:

    I grew up into the Hebrew language and at sixth grade I started learning English. I think it wasn’t too difficult except for the tenses. Hebrew has past, present, future and imperative, and one was supposed to make do with them. As much as the teachers tried to explain that, I didn’t have any use for past perfect, perfect continuous and the rest. Later I started reading in English and after about 20 books I have figured this out. In the meantime I started learning French and I realized that English is a piece of cake.

  49. J.W. Brewer says:

    Are there Chinook Jargon toponyms for Victoria and places like that (which would sidestep the tribal-specificity problem), or did CJ just use the English names (but perhaps with some alternate pronunciation that could be reflected in alternative spelling)? According to wikipedia, the then-new Lieutenant-Governor of BC threw a few lines of CJ into her inaugural address about a decade ago, so it may still have some cultural resonance even if it’s largely moribund in terms of actual speakers.

  50. michael farris says:

    Getting here late, but it was always my impression that the FSI is fine for what it is: A rough classification of relative difficulty for teaching adult English speaking Americans to a level of reasonable functional fluency.
    It has the faults of being only concerned about those languages that the FSI teaches (so it will leave off lots of languages that are of interest to linguists) but has the benefit of being based on practical teaching experience rather than abstract theory.
    I don’t read too much into it, but I think it’s okay for it’s purposes. The rationale doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes but is probably based on learners’ perceived difficulties.
    And given FSI goals, it’s going to be necessary to include the writing system. Producing adult second language illiterates is not part of their mission and so difficulties in learning different writing systems have to be taken into account. For the great majority of adult learners Chinese characters are going to require more time and effort than Cyrillic.
    I’m sure the difficulties in Arabic result from the diglossia (though I think a better description is polyglossia with similarities to the Creole continuum). And the fact that traditinal teaching practice is the reverse of what all native speakers do doesn’t help.
    As for relative difficulty of Hebrew vs Arabic script I think that’s largely a case of idiosyncratic preferences. I don’t imagine my experience has much implications for everybody else but they were starkly different. I learned the Arabic alphet easily and can still decode (and write) the letters easily (though I don’t understand the words).
    On the other hand, the Hebrew alphabet has defeated me more than once. I found the letters hard to remember and distinguish despite expending much more time to trying to learn them.
    On yet another hand, spoken Israeli Hebrew seemed quite learnable to me because, grammar aside, the sociolinguists/language ecology are very similar to that of most of Europe with the formal and everyday colloquial varieties basically in line with each other rather than working against each other. The thicket of distinct varieties necessary for Arabic keep me from finding a way in.

  51. Paul Ogden: I know that the article you link to defines exclave as a detached, but not necessary enclaved, part of a country, but that definition seems much too broad to me: it would entitle one to claim that Alaska (bordering only on Canada) and even Hawaii (no land borders) are exclaves of the U.S., which I find hard to swallow. It is in that sense, and only in that sense, that Point Roberts is an exclave: like both Alaska and Hawaii, you can reach it from the contiguous U.S. by boat through international waters.
    Michael Farris: The trouble I have with Arabic script is its continuous nature: I don’t easily and naturally see where the letter boundaries are. This is not a problem in Hebrew, not even handwritten Hebrew. Devanagari script also appears continuous, but as soon as you learn that the top line is written first and corresponds to the baseline printed on lined paper in the West), there is no difficulty in seeing the distinct letters, and then it’s just a matter of learning all the ligatures, which vary from language to language.

  52. “In this introduction Saanich (a dialect of Straights Salish) was the first language in which the introduction was written, followed by English and then by several immigrant languages. I found the symbolism quite appropriate. ”
    Damn skippy! That is cool as hell.
    Wakashan languages are distant from English for the same reason Salishan langauges are – it’s all one Sprachbund after all. Question for ML and Etienne – with all the TAM stuff suffixed to Wakashan verbs – well, Nuu Chah Nulth at least – does their verb-first position look to you like an areal feature? Verb first makes sense with Salishan verbs, where the suffixes are applicatives and transitivity/intransistivity suffixes, but the Wakashan arrangement looks a lot messier, looks like the ancestral arrangment being contorted to fit a new arrangement.
    Side note – you see either Lushootseed or Twana used here and there on the small but nearly urban reservations in the Puget Sound. The Tupalips – Dxwliplap – use it in ads for their casino resort in Sunset magazine, and their police department uses it to mark their police cars. The street signs on Squaxin Islansd and the adjoining reservation on the mainland are in Twana.

  53. Christopher Burd says:

    “Are there Chinook Jargon toponyms for Victoria and places like that?”
    Yes, some. Tillicum Road, for example, crosses the Gorge waterway (a tidal inlet) right at those “Camosun” rapids I mentioned. Tillicum = ‘friend’ in CJ.
    You’re probably all aware that a few CJ words have entered colloquial English around here, “skookum” (excellent) being the most common.
    Like, I suppose, most non-Natives, I’m not really aware of the specific origins of pre-European toponyms around here, except that the Coastal ones seem to have a different flavour than names from the interior: Saanich, Metchosin, Sooke, Malahat, Qualicum, Comox… quite pretty, to my ear, almost Romance/Latin-sounding.

  54. “Are there Chinook Jargon toponyms for Victoria and places like that?”
    Yes, some. Tillicum Road, for example, crosses the Gorge waterway (a tidal inlet) right at those “Camosun” rapids I mentioned. Tillicum = ‘friend’ in CJ.
    I think the question was whether there are Chinook Jargon toponyms that mean “Victoria” and places like that—in other words, is there a Chinook Jargon word that could be used in place of “Victoria.”

  55. marie-lucie says:

    the then-new Lieutenant-Governor of BC threw a few lines of CJ into her inaugural address about a decade ago, so it may still have some cultural resonance even if it’s largely moribund in terms of actual speakers.
    CJ was never a first language for anyone in BC, but was actively spoken by many in the adult male population until the end of WWI, which brought large numbers of English immigrants and changed the ratio of natives vs non-natives, upsetting a social and linguistic balance that had existed for several decades. There is currently widespread interest in learning or relearning CJ among non-natives, many of whom remember grandfathers or other relatives who spoke the language.
    a few CJ words have entered colloquial English around here, “skookum” (excellent) being the most common.
    I never heard anyone say “skookum”, but “saltchuck” (the sea), yes. (The initial syllable is English “salt”, while ‘chuck” or “chuk” means ‘water’ in the real Chinook language, formerly spoken along the Columbia Rier).
    Are there Chinook Jargon toponyms for Victoria and places like that?
    CJ is likely to have used the native names of the places, with a somewhat simplified pronunciation in the speech of non-natives.
    is there a Chinook Jargon word that could be used in place of “Victoria.
    “Ts’amis” was known up and down the coast, probably propagated by CJ speakers.
    Saanich, Metchosin, Sooke, Malahat, Qualicum, Comox… quite pretty, to my ear, almost Romance/Latin-sounding.
    Of course, these are English approximations of native words. I don’t know the originals, but in most cases the Coastal languages have many more consonants than what the English names indicate.

  56. Tillicum Road! Haven’t heard that name in decades! Stands to reason, of course, since I haven’t been to Victoria since 1990 and last gave the place a good drive-around in the early 70s.
    Dave Elliott orthography: I found what looks like an example here. No question that it’s distinctive.
    It even displays properly at the Hattery:
    MEQȻEĆIL I U QUWÍC̸ TŦE SPOL. ṈEN TŦE ṈENṈENEs TŦUNIȽ SPOL. QÁQI. QÁQI OL UWENE STÁṈ S,IȽENs. NEȾE SC̸ÁĆEL I EX̱ITES E TŦE SNEW̱EȽ TŦE MÁNs. EX̱ITES TŦE SNEW̱EL TŦE MÁNs IȻȽ ŦILEĆ E TŦE SKOLEȽ. SU TOLNEW̱Ȼ SU I,ȽENs TŦE MÁNs EȻSI,E SHÁWE. SU TOLNEW̱Ȼ SU I,ȽENs TŦE MÁNs EȻSI,E SQUWÍC̸.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    It does not display everyhing here.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: Question for ML and Etienne – with all the TAM stuff suffixed to Wakashan verbs – well, Nuu Chah Nulth at least – does their verb-first position look to you like an areal feature?
    It is quite possible, but I don’t have enough knowledge about these languages to hazard an answer.

  59. Etienne says:

    Jim: I think Marie-Lucie is being too modest here. From what (little) I know of the linguistic scholarship on the languages of the area, I strongly suspect even top scholars’ opinion(s) on this and related issues would qualify, at best, as “educated guesses”.
    Indeed, I sense that a lot of work remains to be done (Descriptions, including dictionaries, of individual languages; Reconstruction of proto-languages; Linguistically-informed studies of toponymy; Cross-linguistic studies of various specialized types of vocabulary) before firm conclusions on the linguistic history of the area can be drawn.
    Oh, and while I never heard anyone use “skookum” for “excellent”, a student of mine from inland B.C. assured me the word was widely used in her (small lumber mill-dominated) home town, and was quite surprised to learn of its Chinook Jargon origin: on the basis of this and other exchanges with students I *suspect* (in BC at any rate) that those whites who use the most Chinook Jargon words are also, ironically, the ones with the most hostile (to put it mildly) attitude to aboriginal Canadians.
    Christopher Burd: actually, some Chinook Jargon place-names ARE Romance in origin! Canadian French, in fact, thanks to some of my forefathers’ participation in the fur trade out West. For example, the Chinook Jargon word for “Indian”, SIWASH, derives from French “sauvage” (non-pejorative at the time): hence such place-names as SIWASH ROCK in Stanley Park, for example.

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  61. are they talking about learning the written language or spoken?

  62. Bathrobe says:

    Why the hell is Baidu spamming blogs? It’s a bit akin to Google spamming blogs in order to raise the click rate to Google.

  63. Treesong says:

    From Wikipedia:
    Skookumchuck is a word in the Chinook Jargon that is in common use in British Columbia English and occurs in Pacific Northwest English. Skookum means “strong” or “powerful”, and “chuck” means water, so skookumchuck means “rapids” or “whitewater” (literally, “strong water”).
    I didn’t know that the English meaning had shifted to ‘good’. Seems like a natural change.
    I love the sounds of words with lots of /k/ in them.

  64. Thanks, Etienne. It doesn’t surprise me that answer to my question is probably a generation off.
    “…. before firm conclusions on the linguistic history of the area can be drawn.”
    Yep. Part of the definition of a Sprachbund is that it is hard to pinpoint where, in which member language, its distinctive features originated.
    I have heard “skookum” used around here – Seattle – to mean “excellent” as in “He’s a skookum guy.”

  65. In response to those wanting to learn Hebrew and/or Arabic, I am an immigrant to Israel who learned more Arabic before I started really learning Hebrew. Knowing a very limited amount of Arabic really helped me pick up Hebrew, as the word structures, conjugations, etc. are very similar, as are some vocabulary words. I imagine for those who go in really know one language or the other, it is much easier for them to pick up the new language than for people who have no background in either. Some other things I found to be quite helpful were listening to Hebrew music, watching Hebrew movies and using easy to read Hebrews newspapers like Hebrewtoday. Hope it helps/answered your questions!

  66. nausher says:

    I believe it has a lot to do with your own mother tongue (Source language). For me, with Urdu as my mother tongue, (MSA/Classical) Arabic vocabulary has been easy to pick up.
    Regarding the script, the Hebrew script does look a lot like a roman/alphabetic script which helps, but the Niqqud’s do have some variability (Kamatz sounds both like an ‘aw’ and an ‘oh’) and I am still not sure what the Chataf does. The Arabic Niqquds(Tashkil) does have a certain regularity to help with the phonetics.
    I agree with the consensus here, that the strongest (only?) reason for the difference in classification is perhaps the diglossia of Arabic.
    It perhaps just tipped the balance from medium to hard.

  67. Stephen says:

    Language difficulty takes more into account than just the script, lexicon, and grammar. An important factor is the availability and quality of learning resources (teachers, grammar books, etc.), and especially, the ease of access to communities where the language is spoken, and to appropriate movies and other media in the language.

  68. marie-lucie says:

    Stephen, you are right. This is why it is especially difficult to learn a little-documented language, such as the endangered native languages of the Americas and many other parts of the world.

  69. Trond Engen says:

    the department for orange river eggs
    The spammers are touting your blog now, Crown.

  70. Christopher Burd says:

    I’ve heard “skookum” used countless times, always by born-and-bred British Columbians.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    Chris Burd, perhaps there is a generational factor explaining the discrepancies in observations? Some of us are talking about 30 or so years ago. Could it be that with the renewed interest in Chinook Jargon (as shown by the speech alluded to), there is greater use of CJ words in BC English, compared with earlier generations when only a few elderly people still knew it?

  72. Christopher Burd says:

    That’s an interesting idea. Off the top of my head, I’d say that people I meet who use these CJ words tend to be some combination (1) born in BC, (2) heavily into outdoor activities, and (3) from a rural area or small town. In Victoria, it might be a little unusual to hear this vocabulary from someone under 30, unless they spent time in rural/wilderness areas, which of course many people do as part the lifestyle here. On a Gulf Island you wouldn’t be surprised to hear “skookum” from even a teenage girl.
    This is just my impression; I’ll have to keep my ears open.

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