Monday, October 2nd, 2017...20:57

Fact: All natural human languages are complex.

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Yin Liu

Fallacy: Some languages are more complex than others, or harder to learn.

Language is complex, but so is your brain. You can handle it. Image: NICHD/P. Basser. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

One of the basic ideas of modern linguistics is that all natural human languages are equally complex, or at least that you can’t measure complexity in a way that would allow you to rank languages from most to least complex. By ‘natural human language’ here I am including all human languages that have been used as primary languages (i.e. a person’s ‘first’ language, the one a person probably learned first and uses most often in the greatest variety of contexts), and excluding secondary language forms like pidgins or invented languages, and non-human ‘languages’ like computer code. If you think about it, the idea that all natural human languages are equally hard (or easy) to learn makes sense from the point of view of language acquisition. Human children learn their primary (spoken) languages at approximately the same rate, no matter what the language is. You don’t find that, on average, children who grow up speaking Tagalog acquire their language faster or slower than children who grow up speaking Spanish. You don’t need to be more intelligent to speak Gitxsan now than you did to speak Old Norse a thousand years ago. (You might need to be more determined, though: Gitxsan is an endangered language.)

Chinese writing, Mi Fei, Song Dynasty, Jiangsu province. Image: (cc) Naus, Wikimedia Commons.

But again, if you go to the World Wide Web, that vast repository of misinformation (as well as a bit of good stuff), you’ll find self-confident lists of the hardest languages to learn. If it’s true that all natural human languages are equally complex, then, why do people claim that, for example, Mandarin Chinese or Tuyuca are the hardest languages in the world? Investigating these claims, it becomes clear that in some cases a language is considered hard to learn for reasons that have nothing to do with the language itself. In the case of Chinese, for example, it’s often claimed that it’s hard to learn because there are so many different ‘dialects’, but these are in fact mutually unintelligible and separate (though related) languages that share the same writing system. Saying that ‘Chinese’ is hard to learn for that reason is like saying that ‘Germanic’ is hard to learn because you have to master English, Faroese, Low German, Yiddish, and Afrikaans to learn it. Well, yes, but learning a lot of different languages is always going to be harder than learning one language. Another claim is that Mandarin or any of the Chinese languages is hard to learn because you can’t tell by looking at the writing system how to pronounce the words. That’s simply because Chinese writing is nonalphabetic, and it has nothing to do with the languages themselves. (Remember that languages aren’t writing systems.) Ironically, I found a ‘Chinese is the hardest language’ claim on a Chinese website; perhaps the journalist was hoping we’d infer that Chinese people are all geniuses. But common sense should tell you that Chinese can’t possibly be the hardest language in the world to learn, if only because Mandarin, the most common Chinese language, is by far the most commonly spoken language in the world. About 900 million people can’t be all that stupid, but they can’t be all that smart, either.

Latin or (Old) English: which one looks harder? London, British Library MS Harley 3271, fol. 8r, detail (Ælfric’s Old English grammar of Latin). Image: British Library.

Let’s compare two languages that are (very distantly) related, and ask ourselves which is more complex: English and Latin. First, we should ignore the fact that Latin is an extinct language, that is, it has no primary speakers today; that doesn’t mean it was so hard to learn that it killed the Romans, but that it actually turned into its own very living language subfamily, the so-called ‘Romance languages’ such as French, Italian, and Spanish. We should also ignore matters of spelling and pronunciation, because, again, a language isn’t responsible for the writing system that people foist on it, and we don’t really know how fluent primary speakers pronounced Latin before audio recording, although we can make very intelligent guesses. That leaves us with what many people think of as ‘grammar’, or what linguists call syntax and morphology. Here it seems that Latin is more complex, because, as anyone learning Latin will attest, you have to expend huge amounts of time and energy learning long lists of inflectional forms, whereas English only has eight or nine inflectional endings. But wait. When people actually spoke Latin as a living, everyday language, they didn’t learn it by memorising lists; they learned it as they were growing up, listening to and interacting with the speakers around them, just as primary speakers of English learn their language today. If you are a primary speaker of English, you probably didn’t have to memorise a set of paradigms for personal pronouns before knowing the difference between ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, and ‘mine’, not to mention ‘we’ or ‘ours’ and other related forms. Latin speakers who grew up with the language probably also internalised the difference between amo and amas and the rest of it without having to think about it too hard.

The grammatical information that is communicated in the inflectional forms of Latin is conveyed in a different way in English: by syntax rules, such as rules of word order. These are actually quite complex in English, and this should not be a surprise, because there is usually an inverse relationship between morphological and syntactic complexity. In other words, you should expect a language with a lot of inflectional forms to have a freer word order and more flexible syntax, whereas a language that has few or no inflectional forms should have more rigid rules that govern syntactic phenomena such as word order. This is certainly the case (no pun intended) for English. In a sentence such as ‘the dog bit the man’, English relies entirely on word order to indicate who is doing the biting and who is being bitten. In Latin, this information is communicated by the inflectional forms; homo would mean that the man was doing the biting, hominem that he was being bitten. (This is the difference between the nominative and accusative cases.) Having these forms means that you can move these words around in Latin without changing the meaning of a sentence. But in modern English, ‘the dog bit the man’ means something completely different from ‘the man bit the dog’. You’re not allowed to mess around with the word order, because a lot more depends on it.

Ultimately, though, the misperception that some languages are harder than others is completely subjective. It depends on how similar a language is to the languages that you already know. If you are a primary speaker of English, for example, you’re going to have a comparatively harder time with tonal languages like Burmese, or agglutinative languages like Turkish, or languages with click phonemes like Zulu, not to mention highly inflected languages like Latin. But other people might find one of those languages easier to learn, and English more difficult.

Many misguided claims about language are based on uninformed prejudices. When studying a complex and global phenomenon such as language, it’s wise to remember that your perceptions will usually be based on your own experience, and there are lots of other possible experiences out there that may change your views. In particular, remember that the language(s) that you know best can’t represent all the languages of the world, or even, except in a limited way, language itself. Just because English has a default subject-verb-object word order, for example, doesn’t mean that’s the way language works in general, or that it’s somehow a ‘natural’ linguistic structure. It’s only one option, and even English in the past has been much less committed to that option than it is now.

What makes far more of a difference to language learning is not what language you learn but how you learn it. There’s an easy way to learn a language, and a hard way. The easy way is to grow up with it. The hard way is to study it in school.



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