Desbladet, a frequent purveyor of language nougats in between bouts of prinsessor-worship, has today (after one fit of the latter) published two excellent packets of the former (gift-wrapped, as always, and I’m sure he’ll be glad to add a personalized card should you wish to send one or both to the Someone of your choice). The first (in point of time, though the second in descending order on the vertical axis, counting from the top of the page—damn these confusing modern devices!) describes a discussion going on among “the nicer sort of Engleesh rightwing nutjob” about whether it booteth one to attempt learning the sort of jabber that foreigners (inexplicably) use to communicate among themselves; this is chock-full of quotey goodness and will be found under the rubric “If you learn Forren, you’ll end up talking to Forreners, mark my words!” The second, or uppermost—known to its friends and creditors as “Language me harder!”—discusses the burning question of “whether native speakers of (say) an Indo-Yoorpean language find it significantly easier to learn another Indo-Yoorpean language as opposed to a language from another family”; the far-flung Des finds evidence that this supposition, besides being intuitively attractive, may in fact be “true” (although we all know “objective” “truth” is at bottom a con game benefiting the Powers that Be, a sort of epistemological three-card monte; for the sake of discussion, however, we will pretend that the world exists and spite both Berkeley and Deconstruction).


  1. Eh. I wanna see more study. The language I know myself to have picked up quickest is Quichua, which despite a heaping helping of Spanish borrowings ain’t Indo-Yoorpean by any stretch of the imagination.
    But for whatever reason, agglutinative languages click with my language-learning brain gizmo better than others. I had a hell of a time trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. Latin wasn’t any better.
    I’d also like to see studies that break this down by language skill. Of bloody *course* it’s easier to pick up vocabulary of closely related languages — more cognates. How much does that extend to syntax, though? I don’t know.

  2. Interesting blog entry, but what a quagmire to slog through. And I thought *I* had a bad case of hyperparentheticalism.
    On the second, earlier point: I learned Romanian (tolerably well) at DLI in Monterey (courtesy of the US Army in 1969-70), and never understood why they allocated 9 months to teach Romanian, but only 6 months to teach the other Romance languages, and (IIRC) 8 months for German. I believe it took about 12 months for Russian (and probably other Slavic languages), and the same for aural-only Chinese. The only thing that makes Romanian a bit harder for English speakers than the other Romance languages is its rather abundant stock of Slavic roots, which may be why the Slavic languages were allocated even more time. Romanian also has very many Romance-Slavic near-synonym pairs not unlike the Germanic-Romance near-synonym pairs in English.
    Course duration was an important factor in my list of language preferences. I listed only languages where schooling lasted at least 9 months, on the assumption that language school was the least unpleasant duty one could ask for in the military, so it would be better to spend more time there than elsewhere the Army might send me. And so it turned out. (I served out my time as a company clerk in a do-nothing, stateside Civil Affairs unit.)
    At the top of my list of 8 preferences were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Russian, all a year or more. Romanian was 7th, right above Kurdish, and that’s what they gave me. I can’t remember how long Kurdish was supposed to take. I suppose it must have been a yearlong course, too.

  3. I was at DLI as well (2000 – 2001), and studied Chinese. Although less time is required for Romance languages, I got the impression that the short duration wasn’t due only to the perceived easiness of languages closely related to English, but also because of the significantly more intense workload. While students of Chinese had easy-going instructors and only a little homework each evening, Spanish and French students seemed to suffer under unforgiving teachers and be greatly burdened with things to do at home.

  4. 1) It’s perfectly ordinary banter, Squiffy
    2) Dorothea: More study for sure. But it does get memed around that exofamily learning is oh so much harder, and I haven’t seen a credible study (perhaps partly because I don’t know where to look.) To what extent does typology recapitulate phylogeny, anyway? Would Tocharian or Hittite be a cinch for the Engleeshes of today?
    3) Derrida, in particular, gets a lot of flack for denying the existence of any extra-textual world, which is odd considering that (a) he really doesn’t, and (b) there are so many things for which he richly deserves all the flack he can get, not least his prose style.

  5. I think Indonesian is fairly easy to learn for English speakers, despite the lack of cognates. The verb morphology is pretty simple (no tense marking or person agreement, only marking for active/passive voice and some preverbal aspect markers) and the word order is often similar to English (both are SVO languages, the major difference being that Indonesian has noun-adjective and noun-demonstrative order, the opposite from English).

  6. Cliff,
    I’m glad to hear you say that. I’ve often thought Indonesian/Malay would be a far better global lingua franca than, say, Esperanto (or Chinese), but my familiarity with other Malayo-Polynesian languages no doubt prejudices me. Indonesian incorporates foreign words just as readily as English does. The orthography is no problem (well, unless you revert to using Arabic script). And Indonesian/Malay speakers are used to a very wide range of dialectal differences and rather tolerant on that score. (Nor, at least in Riau, does there seem to be any grammar to learn!)

  7. I’ve only worked w/ French & Arabic, but Arabic is so much harder than French I have a hard time even comparing the two…not only is there the vocabulary problem (there are *no* giveaway words in Arabic, and there’s no sense in trying to pronounce an English word Arabic-style and hoping someone will understand) but the process of trying to figure out cases is totally escaping me. Case markings have a huge effect on grammar and all of a sudden I’m drowning in a sea of distinctions I’ve never had to make before.

  8. Interesting…my L1 is Hungarian, but I find Finnish amazingly difficult to keep in my head; conceptually I see and understand the relations to Magyar, I just can’t keep it in…of all the Uralic languages I’ve tried learning, I’ve kept most of Votian, oddly enough.
    Easiest for me to learn was Icelandic, in 6 months I was fairly conversational (my only prior exposure to Scandinavian languages was spending a month in Sweden), and Serbian/Croatian, which I learned without much effort over three trips to ex-Yugoslavia lasting a total of about 2 months. As ungrounded in reality as this might seem, but Serbocroat seems rather ‘instinctive’ to me (in the sense of, I learn a word, and it seems obvious that that should mean what it does, unlike with learning other languages, where I might have to make effort to remember the word…)
    Conversely, the most difficult for me is Hebrew, though not as difficult as Finnish (in the sense that I can probably say more in Hebrew than in Finnish, after less time studying). Nouns, adjectives, not a problem, but the verbs…
    What does any of this mean? I don’t know. Observations…my L1 is agglutinative, yet I’ve immense difficulty learning other agglutinative languages, I think maybe due to my exposure to English since age 3? Perhaps its not L1 what matters when learning another language, but the language you’ve had most exposure to? My Hungarian is as good as my English if not better, but living in Canada all my life my exposure to it has been limited to a small group of people (family etc, and a few visits to Hungary), whereas English is a constant…
    Sorry for rambling, I hope I made some amount of sense…

  9. Don’t apologize, that’s a fascinating comment — it’s great to hear from a native speaker of a non-IE language. On balance (of the anecdotal evidence here, that is) it’s looking like the theory (that the same language family is easier to learn) is moonshine.

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