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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Have I Mastered the World's Hardest Language?

It's been one of those mornings where I just sit around on the computer and let Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia lead me wherever they want.

Facebook: Laura mentions speaking Swahili.

Wikipedia: Swahili looks pretty interesting. Only 5 vowel sounds, and no diphthongs? 22 noun classes, which we would call genders if the language were French or Spanish or German? Verb affixes and noun-class concord? Fascinating stuff!

Google: World's hardest language? Not because I expect a decent answer, but just because I want to see what people say. Proposed candidates: Icelandic, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Hungarian, English, Hindi, Tamil.

My take: I don't doubt that these languages are tough, but they are almost all wide-spread and widely spoken. Surely, though, out of the world's 6000 languages, in terms of pure probability, the odds are that the hardest language is one most of us haven't even heard of. Furthermore, if perhaps counter-intuitively, languages become easier as they mix with others and spread and are acquired by non-natives; this is why English has lost so many of its noun classes and so many of its inflectional rules. Thus, the most difficult language is probably one that's been isolated for generations and generations, learned only by little magic-brained-and-malleable-tongued babies capable of internalizing ridiculous grammatical systems and learning to manipulate their uvulae with precision.

Wikipedia: a search for Hardest Language proves interesting. It first debunks the possibility of an objective definition of "Hardest Language," given that so much depends on which one the learner speaks natively. And it becomes even more complicated if we take in non-lexical/grammatical obstacles like, say, whether or not there are books published in the language, whether or not its speakers have spread around the world, and whether or not there are opportunities to enter the speech community and learn by immersion.

What brought me to this post, though, was the following (still from the Wikipedia entry):

"The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean". The Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be the most difficult of this group.[3]"

Wowsa. If you consider that I did two one-year contracts between late 2006 and 2008, and that I was away for three weeks in Europe, one week in Thailand, and one week in Japan during that period, I don't think it's unfair to say that I achieved proficiency in speaking and reading in less than 100 weeks (52*2 - 3 - 1 -1 = 99), without the help of a US DOD-designed curriculum or intensive training. On the contrary, I did it with absolutely no help from (professional) teachers, and with very little help from native speakers of English - just books and sentences and friends and time and lots of annoying, annoying questions.

Because of this, I really doubt that Korean is one of the hardest languages to learn. That said, it's far from easy. In case you're interested, then, here are some tough things about it, of course from the perspective of an English-speaker:

1) Vocab - With Italian, when we see a word like, say "vomitare," [to vomit] we can more or less guess its meaning without much trouble. And, if you're strong on your Latin roots or GRE vocab, you might even recognize a word like "temere" [to fear]. Thus, actually, the more Italian you learn, the easier it is to pick up vocab, since the advanced words tends to look and sound similar to their English counterparts. In Korean, there's no chance of this. The only way to get good at decoding new Korean words is to...learn Chinese roots, which is of course no help, since that's another foreign language. No hints, no shortcuts.

2) Word order - English is, generally, SVO (Subject, Verb, Object). "I eat the bread." Korean is SOV. "I bread eat." This is manageable at the start, but as it goes on, it gets more complicated. "I bread buy to store to going be." "I tasty bread buy to store to going be." "I sister wanting tasty bread buy for to store to going be." "I tomorrow sister buy please say tasty bread buy for to store go think be." "I tomorrow sister buy please say tasty bread buy for to store go not hesitating middle be" Can you decode that last one?*

3) Implied subjects and objects - Often, Koreans will just leave out topics and subjects and expect that the meaning of the sentence will be clear from context. Something like "Downtown go think is" is relatively clear - someone is thinking about going downtown, and it's probably the person speaking. I saw a sentence the other day though, in reference to the TV show Dexter: "Quinn kill." My English mind, expecting the first word to be the subject, translated it as "Quinn kills..." (Korean doesn't bother conjugating its verbs to agree with their subjects) I assumed that the missing object was Dexter, because who else would Quinn kill? Actually, though, the real meaning was "(Dexter) Quinn Kill;" where I thought an object was missing at the end, the truth was that the subject was missing from the beginning. The Korean friend I was watching it with said that, somehow, the context made it clear to her. I kind of see her point, knowing what I know about the show and the characters and t the plot, but...it's a stretch.

4) Formality - Korean has four levels: plain, informal, polite, and formal. Many of the levels have different endings for declarative, interrogative, suggestive, and command forms. For instance, there are: 4 ways to say "He's going."; 4 ways (actually, more) to say "Where's he going?"; 2 ways (actually, more) to say "Let's go."; and 4 ways (actually, more) to say "Go." You can speak plain and informal levels to people who are younger than or the same age as you, or who are a little older but who you're on close terms with, or with members of your immediate family; you speak polite to people you don't know well, or with whom you have a professional relationship, or with someone who's a fair deal older than you; you speak formal when you're wearing a suit and schmoozing. Of course, if you want, you can speak formal in an informal situation just as a joke or as to emphasize something, and you can speak low level to your boss if you want to get fired. I often go back and forth between speaking informal and polite forms to my students - they're younger than me, and I want them to feel like they're able to approach me, but on the other hand, our relationship exists inside of a certain set of rules and roles and power dynamics that they need to understand and respect. And what do I do if there are fifteen 18-year olds and one 50-year old in my class? Do I have to speak politely to the whole class just because of that one lady?

5) Titles - The most awkward of all. For people who are younger, you can use names or say "no," which means "you." For people who are older but still close, you can usually use "brother" or "sister," though the words are different depending on whether you're a male or a female. People who aren't so close, maybe you call "aunt" or "uncle" or by their title. This results in extreme awkwardness, because, as with the speech levels, you kind of have to specify exactly how close you think are to someone when you address them. But what if you think you're closer then they think, or what if they think you're close and you address them distantly? People are also often identified by their title at work, such as "owner," "manager," "teacher," "professor," but I don't even know the difference between a chief and a deputy and a vice-whatever in English; how can I possibly remember in Korean?

6) Connections - Korean seems to have finer distinctions than English when it comes to expressing how two or more actions are related, whether in terms of space or time or causality. There are probably about 10 ways to say "because." "-nikka" is used in spoken language, but not generally while writing; "-so" seems a little weaker; "-neurago" is compatible only with actions (not with descriptions) and is used to make an excuse for failing to do something; "-baram" is also usually used with some action that has negative effects; "-godeun" is often a kind of defensive response; "-ddaemun" seems kind of factual and formal; "-deoni" means that you have first-hand knowledge about the cause; and there are probably more that I just don't know or which aren't coming to mind. Not to mention that several of these have other, non-causal uses: "-so" and "-nikka" can also be temporal, and "godeun" can be used when you want to stick your tongue out at someone and shoot spittle at them.

7) Other distinctions we don't make or make differently - Korean often uses suffixes to express what we Englishers would use separate words or intonation for. For instance, we'd say "Wow, that car is fast!" If we put the sentence stress on "fast" - say it to yourself out loud - we mean we are surprised at how fast the car is. In Korean, you'd put the suffix "ne" on the end of the word for "fast" to express this. If we put the stress on "is," then we mean that we had some doubt about the speed of the car, maybe because it looked slow, but that the doubt has been vanquished by recent evidence. For this, Koreans would put "goon" on the end of the word "fast." [And then maybe another ending depending on whether it's your little sister or grandmother who's listening to you.] This is the sort of thing you might not even be aware of until you learn a language that does it differently.

On the other hand, here are some things that are, not as tough as one might expect

1) Spelling - Unlike Chinese and Japanese, the writing system - an alphabet just like ours, but better thought ought - is unbelievably simple: 10 basic consonants (ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅㅁㄴㅇㄹㅎ) and 6 basic vowels (ㅏㅗㅓㅜㅡㅣ). There are some strong consonants (ㅍㅊㅌㅋ), as well as some double consonants (ㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆ), as well as some iotized vowels (with a y sound in front) (ㅑㅛㅕㅠ) and some diphthongs (vowel combos) (ㅐㅙㅔㅞㅚㅟㅢ) and some iotized diphthongs (ㅒㅖ), but all of these latter things are clearly just slight modifications of the basic ones. I know it looks like a lot of new stuff, but it's all quite systematic and consistent and can be learned quickly.

2) Pronunciation - The characters look funny and foreign, but in fact, they are super easy. First of all, most Korean sounds are present in English, even if we don't quite know it. No clicks, no tones, few weird tongue contortions necessary. Second of all, 99% of the time, letters correspond to only one sound. No worries about soft C's (cereal, car) and G's (gate / garage), long and short E's (be / bet), or silent K's (knight) . Furthermore, all sound correspond to one and only one letter. Bernard Shaw once wrote that "GHOTI" could be pronounced "Fish," if you think about the sounds in "cough," "women," and "application." There's no way this could happen in Korean. PLUS, there are sounds in Enlglish that can't be represented by any of our letters; it takes us two letters to make the sound at the beginning of "cheese," despite that fact that it is just one sound, and has nothing to do with the standard sounds of the letters C or H themselves. Nor is there a way to look at the letters "th" and know what sound they make. The "th" in "think" and "that," may look the same, but they don't sound it. Korean does of course have some odd pronunciation rules, but they are much more systematic than English ones, which at times seem wholly arbitrary.

3) Honorifics / Humilifics - Admittedly, they seem weird at first. But the basics of it are that you throw a "she" sound into the middle of your verb when talking to someone to whom you'd like to show respect (this is an honorific). You can also use a humilific form of "I" ("cho" rather than the informal "na"). There are a few other things, like using a special words for "sleep" and "give" and "eat," but these are the exceptions rather than the rules.

4) Helping verbs
- are maybe the hardest thing about English grammar. Why the hell do we need "do" in questions and negative sentences, but not in plain ones? Why is the opposite of "I go" "I do not go" rather than "I not go."? What does the "do" do that the "not" doesn't? And why do we have to say "Do I go?" rather than just "I go?", when in either case we use rising intonation to express the question? Why does tense in positive sentences get expressed by changing the main verb - "I walk / I walked" - but in other sentences by changing the helping verb - "I didn't walk / Did I walk?"? Wouldn't "I not walked" be OK? And why does the same word act as both a helping verb and a lexical verb sometimes? What do you do? How do you do? What do you have? How long have you had it? This Friday, will you have had it for four days, or won't you have? Will you will yourself to make it to the end of this post? Well, will you?

5) Tenses
- Tenses are generally more straight forward in Korean than in English. We have all this strong and weak verb stuff, where some verbs get "ed" (the pronunciation of which varies, by the way; think of "called" and "walked") and others get a vowel change in the middle (sing, sang, sung, never singed). Korean verbs just put a double s on the end of the verb stem (there are often pronunciation issues here, but they follow rules). Furthermore, we mix up helping verbs to create difficult tenses, like "As of tomorrow, I will have been living in Korea for four years and 3 weeks" or something. Three helping verbs, one verb with meaning. This sentence is hard to replicate in Korean.

I could go on and on. There are a million simplifications above, places when I could have gone on about an example or counterexample or exception or revaluation of some statement. But I think I'll let you off the hook for now.

According to the most recent TOPIK test I took, I am higher than level 4 (intermediate) but not quite up to level 5 (low-advanced). Can you believe I know all this stuff and I've still got two levels to go? If I'm not up to level six (the max) by the end of year five, I think I'll have to go home for a while.

*Translation: I'm hesitating about whether or not going to the store tomorrow to buy the delicious bread that my sister asked for.

** To answer the title question: No. I highly doubt it.

*** This is all one of the primary reasons I love living abroad. I get to think about this crap all day every day. Languages are easily the most interesting things on the planet.


Andy said...

Languages may be the most interesting thing on the planet, but might they also be the most divisive thing on the planet?

Here's an interesting thought: I've always thought there is a right way and a wrong way to do most things. Does that apply to language? Which language(s) does it right and which do it wrong? Obviously I think English is right and everything else is backwards. How can we tell which is most correct?

Mike said...

Interesting point about languages being divisive but...if they were, doesn't that mean people would be closer to one another without them? Can we even imagine how people would interact in a world without language? It certainly seems to me that language enables most of the closeness that I experience, though far from all. Would it be more accurate to say that the lack of a common language is divisive? Is that the same thing as language itself being divisive?

As for your second thought, I think most linguists would say that there's absolutely no right and wrong when it comes to language, though there are some things that are common and some things that are not, and there is evidence for some sort of historical trending. If you want to answer the question, though, first pull it apart a little bit. What is the "thing" that language is supposed to do? Are you sure that such a thing exists, or that there's only one, or that that one is stable? What would it mean to do that "thing" well or unwell, or right or wrong? What sort of things would you look at? What sort of evidence would you need?

The more exposure you have to other languages, the more you know about the huge varieties of sounds and grammars and systems that people have come up with (not intentionally, but still), the less likely you'll be to think that your own is the best. The incredible arbitrariness of languages is astounding!

Laura said...

Glad I inspired you to get distracted by the internet for hours on end. Don't even get me started on Swahili's noun classes- they drive me insane. Yesterday I made an elderly woman in a rural village fall over because she came over to see what the white woman was doing and I explained everything in Swahili (and greeted her in the local dialect) which I felt awesome about and horrible about at the same time. I'm sure you sometimes experience the same response when speaking Korean.

thesnowleopard said...

Oh man Korean grammar is so fun! There is something so streamlined and potent about all the yin-yang geometry. BTW did you know that in 'old hangeul' there was a letter for 'v'? They totally shouldn't have stopped using that.

Oh and MIKE I came across this http://chrisinsouthkorea.blogspot.com/
blog. This guy produced an 'Ebook' with a section about common phrases for foreigners to learn in Korean. Most of them are at best awkward, at worst totally wrong. His phrase for 'Where's the bathroom' is 어디에 있는 화장실?' He's selling his ebook for $30. I know you could make something much more thoughtful and interesting, not to mention correct.