Relative difficulty

On a typical day, I listen to RaidiĆ³ na Gaeltachta in the morning, and Radio nan Gaidheal and Radio Cymru in the afternoon. Of the languages spoken on these radio stations – Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh respectively, I understand Welsh the best, and the other two quite well, though my Irish is stronger than my Scottish Gaelic. I find that after struggling to understand the two Gaelics, Welsh seems much easier.

Similarly if I listen to Cantonese or Taiwanese, and then Mandarin, the Mandarin seems so much easier. My strongest Sinitic language is Mandarin, followed by Taiwanese then Cantonese. Although I don’t understand much Taiwanese, I’m much more familiar with it than with Cantonese as I’ve spent a lot longer in Taiwan than in Hong Kong or other Cantonese-speaking areas.

Among my Romance languages, French is my strongest, followed by Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Spanish becomes much easier to follow if I’ve been listening to Portuguese or Italian first.

This phenomenon applies not just to languages – after trying to juggle six or seven balls, juggling five or fewer seems like a piece of cake in comparison, and relatively simple skating moves seem much easier after attempting more complex ones.

This entry was posted in Language.

7 Responses to Relative difficulty

  1. Polly says:

    Then, the question becomes – Are some languages INTRINSICALLY more difficult than others? Not just to learn, but to use.
    Since all languages serve to fulfill the same function, if there are languages that are more difficult, efficiency would suggest that they be disgarded. But, human culture and civilization don’t exist for efficiency purposes. They are ends in and of themselves, not means to an end, though they may be useful.

    Then again, how should efficiency be measured? A language may tax the mind a little more, but if it conveys ideas in fewer syllables or with more precision, maybe it’s MORE efficient.

    Questions like this keep me up at night.

  2. Zachary says:

    Yeah, languages tend to be naturally changed over the course of time to adjust newer expressions which later change word meanings, and borrowing words create a much more difficult vocabulary. – In the end, there is no real way of telling which language is more difficult, it all depends on your native language, others you know and your will to learn that extra language.

    -I find that after looking at some Latin words and how they relate to French ones, I understood immediately much more about my own language and then, learning Spanish became fairly easier.

  3. TJ says:

    Well, me myself I tend to say that every language is a culture by itself and it makes no sense to say that “this culture is difficult” … this phrase has no meaning and so the same thing applied to languages I guess.
    Most of what we would say easy or hard about some language is relative to what we used to. I learnt some german and in the beginning I said it is hard not because of the pronunciation, but mainly because of the words and sentnece order which is something I didn’t use to in English or Irish for example, but then I’ve found some points that are familiar between german and arabic, like in saying the numbers and that made it easy for me to memorize numbers and saying them. Then I realized that maybe for a Dutch or a Swedish speaker German might not be that hard for them in case of sentence order, but they might face some hardness lil bit concerning the pronunciation I would say, so I can say that I’ve figured out that all the hard stuff concerning languages and learning them is something relative to our base culture, and it might be better if we just open up our minds and take a new language as it is directly instead of measuring it against some other language we know, unless it was for memorizing purposes!

  4. Polly says:

    I think some cultures are more difficult than others nad not just relatively, but in an absolute sense. A person can walk into a generally lax society like America or Canada and not have to worry too much about making mistakes in ettiquette (since hardly anyone else knows and much less cares about such things anymore). But, in other parts of the world, especially where old traditions remain, one can easily SHOCK others with their ignorance of basic protocol which can be very specific and rigid and not at all intuitive for a foreigner.
    Case in point: My wife, of all people, chastised me for sitting with one leg crossed over the other in public. She says that in the Middle East it’s very rude to point the bottom of your sole at someone. I’d never heard this before. I would’ve never guessed. In the U.S. where it’s not uncommon to see bare feet jutting out the windows of moving vehicles in summer, this seemed a bit extreme.
    So, it seems to me that some cultures have a longer list of protocols than others. Some are tolerant of mistakes while others judge ignorance harshly. And some require more complex action and speech as a part of every day interaction – there’s more ritual to living.
    The same thing goes for religion. You can basically sit back and listen in many protestant churches like a spectator. But, you’d better know what’s going on in a Catholic / Orthodox church or you’ll be sitting while others are standing, or kneeling. Or, worse, singing along with the priests while everyone else is silent!
    I don’t know if there’s anyone who has ever studied the difference in brain activity when speaking one language or another. I would guess that different languages, based on different concepts, would use different parts of the brain more intensely.

  5. TJ says:

    Tru Polly, but I would say it is not a hard thing but it is something that people developped in their culture because of their attachment to their surroundings. For example, I believe if I was born in America I would act like an american but if I was born in Iran I would act like an Irani and if an American, of american parents was born in Iran and lived there, still he would get some of that culture, so this is the situation with people and their culture and their environment and it is not really a hardship for foreigners, it is just something to learn and I myself find it amusing to learn about some tiny details of other cultures, and how do they show respect and what is not respected for them. Yet, Japanese language has lot to do with respectful terms and I believe if this language was considered without looking at those terms, I can say maybe that 50% of the difficulty of Japanese that people talk about most of the time would vanish, but it just their culture that they appreciate every single moment of showing respect! I’m not much into japanese but I think the dialect of Tokyo has much less to do with the complexity of respectful terms since this is the usual case for capitals in general as it seems!

  6. Polly says:

    It’s fascinating to learn the “secret handshakes” of other cultures. I love the technical aspects of language – the grammar. But, I now realize that language provides a peek into the other cultures as well through vocabulary that usually isn’t translatable because there’s no such act or concept in my own language/country.