The most difficult language

Prof Bhaskar sent a mail today wondering why a horrendously complex language like English got to be chosen as a link language in India, and how, despite its almost chaotic complexity, millions of children nonetheless master it effortlessly.

This got me thinking about a quirky little paper that I read about a year back, by a linguist working at the NSA in the US. (It had the curious distinction of being the only paper I have seen which has the author’s name and acknowledgment section censored out in the interest of national security!)

The paper aims to sort the world’s major languages in increasing order of difficulty for an English speaker to learn. Granted, it doesn’t deal with more than about 15 languages, and there are vast linguistic worlds that he leaves unexplored (only Hindi makes an appearance among the various Indian languages). But nonetheless, I found it a very interesting paper.

The author evaluates languages based on six parameters: morphology, syntax, phonology, vocabulary, writing system, and system of politeness and honorifics. On these six parameters, she identifies how different languages are from English.

The differences are interesting. For example in phonology, she writes about how certain sounds are not present in certain languages, or are uniquely present in some languages. Those of us who speak Tamil (or Malayalam) know that the sound transliterated as ‘zha’ is one such. The Japanese language has no words that end with ‘ts’, and so Japanese people learning English would have to learn a new sound altogether to be able to say ‘cats’ without an accent. (Unless they say ‘catsu’, sounding remarkably Telugu.) However, Japanese (and Russian) have several words that begin with ‘ts’ – which English doesn’t.

Another is the way a word is said, from a stress point of view. Most foreigners who have difficulty pronouncing my last name, for example, find it difficult to understand that the first two syllables have stress on them, and the last two don’t. So time is divided in a 2:2:1:1 ratio between na, ra, ya and nan. In Japanese, the overwhelming majority of words have the same stress for all words (so that time is divided in a 1:1:1:1 ratio).

Morphology is the way words are modified to create new words. Indian languages are notorious for this, particularly the South Indian ones. The same word may be said in more than 20 different ways depending on person, tense, aspect and mood. Chinese is the opposite extreme: words have no variations at all, not even for tense and plurality. These are indicated by separate ‘function words’ (‘men’ and ‘le’ respectively for plural and past tense).

Syntax is the way words are arranged to form sentences; lexicology (or vocabulary) relates to whether words from two languages have the same root, which may make them easier to remember.

On the basis of these parameters, the author concludes that the simplest languages for an English native to learn are Italian, French and Spanish. German comes next, then Vietnamese. Then come the languages where the syntax is different; for example, Russian has many possible combinations of subject/verb/object which are acceptable – SVO, SOV, OSV, VSO etc. After the Russian-like languages (including Czech and other Baltic languages), I would put the Indian languages, which the author regretfully ignores.

Then come the difficult ones, with Turkish and Hebrew being the ‘simplest of the most difficult’. Then the top 4 are rounded out: Chinese, Arabic, Korean, and finally the ‘most difficult of the most difficult’, Japanese.

Omeshiagarasekanemashitaraba, as the Japanese say!


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