Which is the hardest language?

or “An Introduction to Language Distance”

I have been teaching English for about 10 years, and not rarely do I hear from my Portuguese-speaking Brazilian students comments like “learning English is harder than learning Spanish, right?”, “I was told Portuguese is the most difficult language in the world” or “American English is easier than British English, right?”. What we are talking about here is language distance and, more specifically, people’s perception of language distance. Although the space of a blog post is not in the least enough to address such a complex subject, I will try to be brief, straight to the point and only address a few main ideas.languages

When we are learning a new language, there is absolutely no way we can turn off the languages we already know. Like it or not, they are going to influence how we make sense of new language features and how we use them. This is called cross-linguistic influence, a phenomenon present in virtually every language learner’s speech and writing. There are several factors determining if, when and how this influence happens, but most researchers agree that the most important of them is cross-linguistic similarities or language distance.

Let’s not get too technical. To put it simply, language learners create hypotheses, both conscious and unconsciously, about how their first language works and what connections there may be between the languages they know and the one they are learning (the target language). If learners perceive (or assume) that a certain feature of one language is also present in the language being learnt, they may be led to transfer this feature, and the outcome may be positive (when the feature actually exists in the target language) or negative (when it does not exist or is not used the same way).

For example, a German-speaking learner of English may read the sentence “I am 29 years old” in a coursebook and notice that both languages use the verb BE to talk about age in sort of the same structure:

ENGLISH: I am 29 years old.
GERMAN: Ich bin 29 Jahre alt.

He may then assume that this pattern should work as some kind of general rule and start producing other sentences, such as “She is 15 years old” and “Mr. Kent is 40 years old”, all of which correct. On the other hand, a Portuguese-speaking learner of English that does not speak German may want to transfer his first language’s pattern into his English and say:

 I have 29 years.     Or even: I have 29 years of age.
PORTUGUESE: Eu tenho 29 anos (de idade).

In his first attempt, his assumption of cross-linguistic similarity will have led him to make a mistake in English, but what about his second attempt? It would be grammatically right, but certainly not the natural choice of a native speaker of English.

In the function above (talking about age) German bears closer similarity with English than Portuguese, and this is actually what is going to happen in almost every other case. This is because German and English are in the same linguistic branch, the Germanic languages, while Portuguese belongs to another branch, the Romance languages. Actually, both branches developed from the same ancentral language, the highly unknown, mostly theorised Proto-Indo-European, and that is partly why there are also some similarities between Germanic and Romance languages. Of course, the whole dynamics of how languages develop and come to influence one another in history and in the language learner’s mind is a lot more complex and, as I said, I cannot fully explain it here. But I hope you are following my brief considerations.

Now back to the comments which I said I often hear from people. It is impossible to say which language is the most difficult, or which variety of English is easier. The answer depends on who is asking. If you are learning a language that is more closely related to the languages you know, especially your first language, you are more likely to find it easier to understand and learn. On the other hand, if your target language is a language that is not related to any of those you know, it will probably feel harder to get to grips with. For example, speakers of English will find Norwegian way easier to learn than Finnish, because the latter is a totally unrelated language which, by the way, has no relative within the Indo-European languages (a group that represents +90% of the languages in Europe). If you are a speaker of Spanish, you will find Portuguese, Italian, French and Romanian much easier than Hungarian (and even if you are not, just check out the table below for the sentence “I drink wine” in those languages and draw your own conclusions).

Spanish Yo bebo vino.
Portuguese Eu bebo vinho.
Italian Io bevo vino.
Romanian Eu beau vin.
French Je bois du vin.
Hungarian Iszom bort.

Don’t be scared of learning distant languages, though. Learning a language which is not closely related to yours is like getting a special key into secret chambers where dozens of other languages hide. If you learn Russian, you will be amazed to see how short a step you are from Ukrainian. If you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you will be able to communicate with people from 22 countries and easily learn any of the dozens of local varieties of the language, even though most of them are not mutually intelligible. As for myself, I am currently a learner of Russian. When I achieve an advanced level in it, I intend to venture on Belarussian or Ukrainian, but not before I pick up at least one more Romance language, perhaps Italian.

How about you? Which language are you going to learn next?

SUGGESTION: A History of Languages: an introduction by Tore Janson is a very nice, easy-to-read book about how languages are born, develop and die. It is filled with examples and maps and the author gives lots of suggestions of further reading on different topics.

Do you fancy some coffee?

Are you having some coffee right now? I am. As a Brazilian, I have a close connection to this energetic drink. My country has been the highest global producer of coffee beans for over 150 years. A Lebanese friend of mine once proudly told me coffee had come from the Middle East, which is true. Partly true. Although the plant is native from Ethiopia, the drink was created in Yemen. It coffeemade its way onto our tables by “subdueing” several cultures throughout the past 600 years. There is this very cool book about the drink’s history. In today’s post, however, we are going to talk about the word coffee.

Have a look at the picture on the left, or google something like “how to say coffee in different languages” and you will notice the word changes very little, regardless of which language you pick. Apart from very few exceptions, the world uses a lot of variations of an Arabic word: قَهْوة (qahwah), but even this one might have come from another language’s word.

The English word came from Italian caffè in the 1600s. On its turn, the word cafe (meaning a small restaurant selling light meals and drinks) only appeared in English two hundred years later, coming from French café. As we can see, Romance languages appears to have quite a pervasive impact in the lexicon of English language. I intend to write about that in a future post.

Back to the history of the word coffee, where did Italian get its caffè from? It is mostly agreed that it comes from Ottoman Turkish kahveh, which, on its turn, comes from Arabic qahwah mentioned above. As for the origin of the Arabic word, there are several theories. One of them suggests that the word qahwah – originally used to refer to wine – derived from the verb qahiya (قهي), “to lack hunger”. Another theory holds that the root of the word, q-h-h, comes from Proto-Central Semitic and means “dark”. There is also a possible connection with the region of Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the plant comes from.

The drink (and its name) got to Europe with the Ottoman Empire, and from there it traveled westward to the New World. Meanwhile, coffee accompanied the Muslim spread to the East. Now, the whole world drinks it and calls it basically the same.

How would you like your coffee today?




Discovering the linguist in myself

…So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

The other day, while sitting around with a couple of books on my lap, I had an idea. ‘What if I create a blog to write about languages, linguistics and the like?’, I pondered. My next thought was that it would be a stupid idea. Too many more experienced, important people had already dedicated their time to something like that. Who would read me? Who would even find me in this endless sea called the Internet?

Another big drawback with my idea was my previous tries, all of which deemed fruitless. I had already had other blogs (about my side job as a musician, aresearchbout my travel experiences, about English language learning), but I could not find the will to commit to them for too long. Most of them did not reach their second year. I realised that, if I was to commit to a blog, it had to matter to me more than somewhat. It had to be closely connected to my current work and research. So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

That exercise rekindled fond memories of my childhood years, when I first came across linguistics. It was about 16 years ago, when I was 13. At that time I was obsessed with the Ancient Egypt and I was sure I was going to do History in university and eventually become an Egyptologist (I was not aware of how hard it is to get into the mainstream of Egyptology). I had a magazine about Egypt and one of its articles was about hieroglyphs. I learnt that scholars only managed to “break the code” of that mysterious language after finding the Rosetta Stone. I really wanted to learn how to read the Egyptian script, but I simply had no access to coursebooks so specific, and the Internet was still precarious where I lived.

My interest in the Egyptian language eventually waned, but another language piqued my curiosity. In my teenage years, I was lucky to be in a close-knit group of friends, and one of those friends belonged to a family that had immigrated from Lebanon in the beginning of the 20th century. He would tell me how his grandparents spoke Arabic at home, and how he and his parents could understand most of the language but were unable to speak it (a phenomenon I later learnt to be called “passive bilingualism“). This friend of mine had tried to study the language on his own, and I made him teach me what he knew. Still, to this day, I can understand and use the Arabic alphabet and have a short basic conversation in Levantine Arabic.

Meanwhile, other less committed attempts to pick up foreign languages included some contact with Latin, through old missals found on a dusty bookshelf in the church I used to go to; Spanish, with some coursebooks I had been given and in a year of short weekly lessons during my second year in secondary school; and English, as it was the main foreign language taught at school.

My last year in secondary school played a determinant role in my choosing of career. It was 2005, I studied in a state school in the town of Pedro Osório, and we had one 60-minute lesson of English language a week. Obviously, I could hardly yield any learning results from those lessons, as most of the students were not really interested in the language. But I was! So I found out that my teacher also owned a small English language school. He eventually saw how interested and motivated I was about learning English and invited me to work as a language assistant at his school. I would be able to attend lessons there if I helped with the school’s organisation during the week. That was my first work experience and I had the chance to see how a language school worked. At the end of that year I passed the university entrance examinations and moved to the city of Pelotas to study TEFL (Teaching of English as Foreign Language) at the Federal University of Pelotas.

My four and half years as an undergraduate student had a major role in shaping my professional profile. I understand many people end up dropping out and trying other programmes before they can finally find their vocation, but for me it was love at first sight. When I entered university, there were about 25 people in my class, most of whom had already studied English for many years. I was one of the few odd men out. Apart from the not very effective secondary school lessons, I had had just about 20 hours of formal English language instruction at my former teacher’s school. And now I was in a programme that would teach me how to teach a language I barely knew myself. Quite a challenge! I took it on and got round it! During my undergraduate years I managed to work for four consecutive terms as an English language teacher at the university’s extension courses. I also taught myself some Spanish, had a one-year course of Latin and did a six-month course of German.

From 2009 to 2010 I worked in a small language school in one of the suburbs of Pelotas. Then I graduated and got a new job in Yázigi, a high-profile language school chain, the oldest in Brazil. Still in 2010 I met (on a penfriend website for language learners) the person who would become my wife a couple of years later, a Russian girl called Ekaterina. When we first met in person, in 2012, she gave me a Russian coursebook, and that is how I started learning one more language.

Two years ago, when I was trying to make up my mind about what to investigate in my Master’s degree research, I remembered all those foreign languages I had had any sort of closer contact with – namely, Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, English, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. On several occasions while studying one of those languages, I felt that what I knew about another language could help me. I used my previous linguistic knowledge countless times, both consciously and unconsciously, to get hold of new vocabulary or structures in the language I was learning. That was it! My research was going to be about cross-linguistic influence in foreign language learning.

Today, somewhere halfway through my dissertation research, I am sure that was the right choice. I am more and more convinced that second/foreign language learning and teaching depends a lot on the knowledge teachers and learners have about language contact and crosslinguistic similarities, so I am going to use this blog to share with you my research and talk about other interesting topics related to multilingualism, language contact and foreign language teaching.

See you next time!