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Thread: "My language difficult." What does it mean?

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    Question "My language is difficult." What does it mean?



    What does it mean to say that a language is difficult?
    This can mean a million different things depending on the context.
    Let us limit the context to a native speaker's idiosyncratic use.

    For example, a native speaker of English can say, "English is a difficult language."
    Now does (s)he mean it is difficult to learn for a foreigner?
    Does it mean although it may be easy to speak it, learning to write properly is difficult?
    Does it mean although writing properly may be doable, learning to write with excellence is difficult?
    Or does it mean casual talk is okay, but learning to articulate all modes of life is difficult?

    Whatever your native language is, what do you mean when you say your mother tongue is difficult?

    On this forum I often find references to the Japanese person saying that Japanese is a difficult language.
    What do they mean exactly?
    Do they mean it is a difficult language for a foreigner to learn to listen, speak, read, and write?
    Do they mean achieving a high level of command of it is difficult even for a native speaker of Japanese ?

    I sometimes think my Korean is difficult, and that is when certain parts of a book by someone older than me is unintelligible.
    I feel that the tradition of knowledge (of the language) is blocked by the fast paced change in my society.

    I have heard quite a few native English speakers say that English is difficult.
    I often wonder what they truely meant by it.
    How about you ? Have you ever wondered ?
    Last edited by lexico; 20-02-05 at 19:48.

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    Difficult languages... huh... I don't think Japanese is difficult. It's quite simple - the grammar, honorifics (I don't have problems with keigo), pronunciation. The writing system isn't complicated at all. It's demanding for you to learn. I know, when I write kana to people who never had anything in common with Japanese thay say "how could you learn this". It's hard for them to imagine writing anything in systems other than romaji. (It applies to other languages too).

    I suppose that Korean is more difficult than Japanese. The pronunciation is hard for me, it's hard for me to write from listening, and it's hard to pronounce properly. Luckily sonsen-nim (sensei) stopped trying to teach us exact pronunciation (when for 1/3 of time, you correct pronunciation, it's hard to learn anything). There are more exceptions in Korean than in Japanese. I suppose it's harder for me to learn Korean, cause I was forced to learn this, I didn't want to learn this language.

    English may be difficult because of these time aspects and it's irreagularity. Still, I wouldn't say it's an difficult language.

    French looks difficult for me.

    Russian is not a difficult language. Sometimes it can be misleading because of it's similarity to Polish... Other than that, I don't think so.

    And Polish. Yes, it's difficult language. Because of the pronunciation, because of the grammar (gender, plural form, irregularity etc.) and writing can be misleading, like in Korean. :)

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    May I interprete you comments on native speakers' language difficulty as follows ?
    Quote Originally Posted by Kama
    Difficult languages... huh... I don't think Japanese is difficult. It's quite simple - the grammar, honorifics (I don't have problems with keigo), pronunciation. The writing system isn't complicated at all. It's demanding for you to learn. I know, when I write kana to people who never had anything in common with Japanese thay say "how could you learn this". It's hard for them to imagine writing anything in systems other than romaji. (It applies to other languages too).
    "When a Japanese says, 'Japanese is difficult,' it means that 'The writing system is demanding, almost impossible for a foreigner to learn.'" ?
    Quote Originally Posted by Kama
    I suppose that Korean is more difficult than Japanese. The pronunciation is hard for me, it's hard for me to write from listening, and it's hard to pronounce properly. Luckily sonsen-nim (sensei) stopped trying to teach us exact pronunciation (when for 1/3 of time, you correct pronunciation, it's hard to learn anything). There are more exceptions in Korean than in Japanese. I suppose it's harder for me to learn Korean, cause I was forced to learn this, I didn't want to learn this language.
    "When a Korean (先生님) says Korean is difficult, it means Korean is difficult to teach. The pronunciation is complicated and the exceptions are more numerous." ?

    What kind of exceptions are you referring to ?
    Who forced you to learn this Korean ?
    Quote Originally Posted by Kama
    English may be difficult because of these time aspects and it's irreagularity. Still, I wouldn't say it's an difficult language.

    French looks difficult for me.

    Russian is not a difficult language. Sometimes it can be misleading because of it's similarity to Polish... Other than that, I don't think so.

    And Polish. Yes, it's difficult language. Because of the pronunciation, because of the grammar (gender, plural form, irregularity etc.) and writing can be misleading, like in Korean. :)
    "When a native English speaker says English is difficult, it means the times aspects and irregularities (in spelling?) are diffuclut." ?

    "When a native French speaker says French is difficult, it means the orthography is difficult." ?

    "When a native Polish speaker says Polish is difficult, it means the pronunciation, grammar, and writing are comlpicated and with many exceptions." ?

    Did I understand you right?
    Last edited by lexico; 20-02-05 at 18:54.

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    Learning Chinese is easy breezy. There is no such things as so many tenses, regular verbs and irregular verbs. All you need to do is memorizing Chinese characters, annoying but at least you don't need to apply logic like dealing with all the tense changes in French and English.

    What??? You are still not convinced by now???

    Go and try it youself. Go and learn Chinese. Immediately! Now! And I am sure you will agree with me that Chinese is one of the easiest languages in the world. ^_^

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sally_Hawn
    Learning Chinese is easy breezy......Go and learn Chinese. Immediately! Now! And I am sure you will agree with me that Chinese is one of the easiest languages in the world. ^_^
    Are you saying now that no Chinese will ever say that Chinese is difficult, Sally ?
    Are you trying to make me look dumb or what ?
    Pure slander !!!
    And you're hijacking my thread and turning it into something totally different !
    The same goes for you Kama !
    I can understand this is how you relate to the question.....I guess it's difficult to talk about difficulty with people who have it so easy-breezy, eh !!

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    Chinese is easy. If you don't believe me, you can ask former American President George Bush Senior yourself. He speaks very good Mandarin.

    For the rest of you who still don't believe Chinese is easy that's because you are JEALOUS! You are jealous that your mother tongue is more difficult than Chinese!

    Ha ha I'm glad that I can have it EASY.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sally_Hawn
    Go and try it youself. Go and learn Chinese. Immediately! Now! And I am sure you will agree with me that Chinese is one of the easiest languages in the world.
    I disagree. At least for a lot of Europeans it is quite hard. Yeah, grammar is a piece of cake, but the tones? Esp. if you are as unmusical as I am, they can be a pain in the arse.
    & memorising may not be as simple either, if your memory doesn't work so well.

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    Please let me restate the question.
    The question is not about whether a language is easy or not.
    The question is;

    "What does it mean when a NATIVE speaker says that his/her language is DIFFICULT ?"

    For example, let's say a Japanese said Japanese is difficult.
    What is this person actually trying to say ?
    Why would a native speaker of Japanese say that Japanese is difficult ?

    Is this person talking about writing a doctoral thesis on Medieval Japanese history in academic Japanese being difficult ?

    Or is the person only saying that he has not mastered the 1945 Kanji readings back in high school as he/she should have ?

    Or is the person saying that the Japanese language is so varied, say in terms of dialectal vocabulary, that learing all the local varieties of speech is difficult ?

    Or is the person saying that although every day speech is relatively easy, being able to converse in all social occasions, such as giving an impromptu speech at a toast masters in fluent, knowledgeable, and articulate Japanese is difficult ?

    Or is the person saying translating a highly ethnic and complex Japanese passage in a novel into a foreign language without losing the original sense and aesthetics is difficult ?

    What does the person really mean to say ???
    Last edited by lexico; 20-02-05 at 19:51.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sally_Hawn
    He speaks very good Mandarin.
    Sally, I highly doubt that.
    He probably had good interpreters during his stay in Beijing.
    I happen not to trust his ability to communicate in any language.

    I once sent him a letter in plain English demanding a definition of his "New World Order."
    He replied, "Thank you for your support."
    That was literally a stupid response on his part.
    So how can I trust his linguistic intelligence when he can't even read English?
    By inductive reasoning, I would say his Mandarin also sucks.

    It's more than just language actually.
    General intelligence is at risk in this particular individual...his letter is proof of this...a native speaker of English challenged by it !!
    Last edited by lexico; 20-02-05 at 20:01.

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    Personally, when I say that a language is difficult, I usually take both the native speaker and learner's point of view, but especially the latter. I try to consider all the aspects of the language : pronunciation, grammar, richness of vocabulary, spelling, writing system, number of variety of slang, dialects and regional accents, etc. I also differentiate the difficulty for a zero beginner and advanced learner, and also based on what is the learner's mother tongue (eg. Italian is easier to learn for a French or Spanish speaker, than for a German, or even more Japanese speaker).

    Interestingly some languages are difficult for most people at the beginning, but once you know the basics, it gets much easier. These languages usually have a grammar that is complicated or very different from other languages. The best examples are German, Russian (both have declinations), and Japanese (different syntax and particles).

    Some languages are only partly difficult. Chinese, for instance, has an easy grammar and not a huge vocabulary (due to the writing restrictions), but is difficult for the tones (well, not for speakers of other tonal languages) and kanji. Italian's grammar is relatively difficult, but the pronuciation and vocabulary are much easier.

    Then you have the languages that are easy at the beginning, but get more and more difficult as one learns them, even for native speakers. The best example here is English, due to its huge vocabulary, number of idioms and regional varieties (which are not necessary for a beginner).

    There are also languages that are easy for about anybody (like Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia), and those that are difficult for everybody at any level, native included (definitely French, and maybe also Classical Latin). I haven't learn Suomi or Hungarian, but I heard many times that these are very complex languages too, especially grammatically (and for being so different from other European languages).

    And regarding Japanese, I don't think the writing system is difficult, as Kama said. The kanas are extremely easy. The kanji just take a bit of time, but not more than memorising the right spelling of many French, Italian or English words. Well Italian would be the easiest, as the double consonnants are pronouced and the spelling is regular and there are no silent letters. English comes second - although it is very unphonetic, I personally have very little problems with the spelling (not even BrE vs AmE differences). But French is by far the worse, and I think it is much more difficult to spell words (including silent grammatical changes like the final "s", "x", "nt", etc.) properly than type Japanese on a PC/keitai. The difficulty is that French has many silent letters and equally inaudible, annoying double consonants.

    For non-native speakers, it is certainly as difficult to read French or especially English words with the right pronuciation than to read kanji. For example, many (non-British) native English can't pronounce such place names as Gloucester ("Gloster") or Marlborough ("Mohlbreh"), or family names like Chomondley ("Chumley") or Featherstonehaugh ("Fanshaw").

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    Thumbs up Old George Bush can really speak Easy Breezy Chinesey.

    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    Please let me restate the question.
    The question is not about whether a language is easy or not.
    The question is;

    "What does it mean when a NATIVE speaker says that his/her language is DIFFICULT ?"
    I am sorry I cannot answer your question because I always think Chinese is easy. Therefore, I’ve never have the experience to tell foreigners that it's difficult for them to learn Chinese.

    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    Sally, I highly doubt that.
    He probably had good interpreters during his stay in Beijing.
    I happen not to trust his ability to communicate in any language.

    I once sent him a letter in plain English demanding a definition of his "New World Order."
    He replied, "Thank you for your support."
    That was literally a stupid response on his part.
    So how can I trust his linguistic intelligence when he can't even read English?
    By inductive reasoning, I would say his Mandarin also sucks.
    See! That’s because even Old George Bush finds English more difficult than Chinese. He really can speak Mandarin very well. He used to be the American Ambassador in Beijing. And I’d seen him on Hong Kong television answering Chinese reporters’ questions in Mandarin. Next time you should write to him in Chinese. That way it will smooth things out for him.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bossel
    I disagree. At least for a lot of Europeans it is quite hard. Yeah, grammar is a piece of cake, but the tones? Esp. if you are as unmusical as I am, they can be a pain in the arse.
    & memorising may not be as simple either, if your memory doesn't work so well.
    Exactly, the tones are a real pain
    Learning the hanzhi is quite annoying too - even if you know already what one character is read in Japanese, you still have to learn how it's read/pronounced in Chinese...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lina Inverse
    Exactly, the tones are a real pain
    Learning the hanzhi is quite annoying too - even if you know already what one character is read in Japanese, you still have to learn how it's read/pronounced in Chinese...
    It's all a matter of perspective you know.
    I was fascinated by the 4 Mandarin tones, and the 8 Cantonese tones.
    It took me only two yrs to master the 4 tones before even starting the primer.
    And hey, some people are musical.
    But the pain factor's what really hooks you.
    No pain, no gain!

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    When somebody say my language is difficult to learn it has probably got something to their perception of their language. Usually most people are told by teachers and scholars that their language is difficult that they will say to anyone thet their language is difficult.
    It really depends on the person learning the language on whether they are good with languages or not. I am not particularly good with other languages. I have to work at it, and being lazy I don't like to work at it. Other people , like Lexico-san appears to be a natural linguist. I do like language and how it has developed over the years, but I am not a linguist. I know to learn Japanese I am going to have to really work at it. It's a case that I really want to know this language. I have already learnt the Kana, I'm just not sure what they say. I do try to laern at least yes, no, hello, goodbye and thank you. I can also ask for one beer plaese in about six languages. Damn useful that.

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    Lexico, yes, you did understand me. I can only say for sure how I as a native see Polish, and yes, it sucks. Even damn journalists, not talking about this stupid politicians, can't use it well sometimes.

    I tried to find what can be difficult for a learner of that language. I can't help that I like learning languages, and I am said to have talent for this.

    And about Korean - it's obligatory language to learn at my faculty.

    Sorry, that I haven't helped you a lot. Maybe all the native when they are saying the language is difficult mean that it's difficult foir natives too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kama
    I can only say for sure how I as a native see Polish, and yes, it sucks. Even damn journalists......can't use it well sometimes......Maybe all the native when they are saying the language is difficult mean that it's difficult foir natives too.
    Thank you for your sincere reply. Your answer was quite revealing, and I find your last remark highly relevant to the topic. I can understand from your example now that a Japanese person saying that Japanese is difficult can be referring to the genuine difficulty that the person is feeling when trying to be precise and articulate in his own language rather than proud, exalted self-glorification. Of course the hyper-nationalists aside.
    Last edited by lexico; 21-02-05 at 17:24.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    Are you saying now that no Chinese will ever say that Chinese is difficult, Sally ?
    Actually, a Chinese person told me once that Chinese is difficult. So there you go

    Chinese grammar may be easy but you get into trouble with the tones and I also found the way of thinking (in the language) different, hence slightly "difficult".

    In my oppinion languages are easy or difficult depending on how much they differentiate form your own language or other languages you know well. In Japanese, I get little help from other languages when it comes to the vocabulary. So in that sense Japanese is difficult... And of course the particles. People sya that Finnish is difficult to learn but they also say that it's quite regular, so I would say that the difficulty is that it's different from well-known languages.

    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    For example, let's say a Japanese said Japanese is difficult.
    What is this person actually trying to say ?
    Why would a native speaker of Japanese say that Japanese is difficult ?
    When people say this kind of stuff they it could be that they either don't know many alnguages themselves or are trying to add somekind of special value to their language. "This is what I know well and reaching my level is difficult." Also it doesn't include only grammar but also other aspects of the language (social aspect e.g. manners, jargon, idiosyncratic use etc). So like Mycernius said, it's linked to their perception of their language.

    I wouldn't tell people that their language is easy because I think saying something like that is a bit insulting... Languages have so much more to them than just grammar. Maybe it's like Maciamo said: "Some languages are only partly difficult. " But I wouldn't say that either because it leans too much on "your language is easy breezy". But maybe I'm thinking too much about whether it would insult someone or not!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mycernius
    When somebody say my language is difficult to learn it has probably got something to their perception of their language. Usually most people are told by teachers and scholars that their language is difficult that they will say to anyone thet their language is difficult.
    I was suspecting that junior high or high school techers of the native languages might have something to do. And you also seem to suggest that scholars of the language can spread the idea that the language is indeed difficult by making comments about the language's being rich in history, varied in register and dialects, and sophisticated in all its literary achievements. National pride, as some people have suggested, could also play a role when mixed in to these comments.

    A native speaker who is not often asked the question by another native speaker might simply repeat what was told in school or in an academic setting whenl asked the question by a foreigner. This may be the case with the Japanese confessing that Japanese is difficult.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    I was suspecting that junior high or high school techers of the native languages might have something to do. And you also seem to suggest that scholars of the language can spread the idea that the language is indeed difficult by making comments about the language's being rich in history, varied in register and dialects, and sophisticated in all its literary achievements. National pride, as some people have suggested, could also play a role when mixed in to these comments.
    Heh, I wouldn't say that. Of course, we learn about old language, we know that we have dialects (now almost unused)... but do you think that we think about this all when we use it everyday? It's not like we have always a response ready because someone may ask us this question.

    I can hear that foreigners have difficulty with pronunciation, grammar and so on. I can hear natives have problems with language. When I hear this, I don't think about history, dialects and so on. I don't even think that Polish is difficult. This comes later, when somebody asks me if the language is difficult. Why pride? It's just a matter of fact.

    Ah, they don't teach us at school that Polish is unique. They teach us it's a part of a language group. Japanese is quite unique. Maybe they are proud of their language because of this. And if it's unique, it means it's difficult for every other people? It's just a guess. Don't bother about this.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    proud, exalted self-glorification
    I think you have a pretty good guess right there, lexico.
    For the last decade, more and more people have started to learn Japanese, which a lot of Japanese people are aware of, and they have been hearing that it is a difficult language to learn from people who are studying it.
    Being fluent in a language, that is said to be hard to learn, gives a lot of Japanese people superior feelings.


    That is my point of view. I am not sure what other Japanese users think of this; I haven't noticed they had made that statement either because I don't usually go to the language forum.

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    I would say English is difficult because the different pronunciations in parts of England. Like bath is said ba-th or bar-th (or ba-f or bar-f depending on how you pronounce 'th'). There's also words like wind, which has totally different meanings depending on pronunciation, one means to wrap around somthing and the other is breeze. Things like that confuse me and im english, so i imagine its worse for people just learning the language.

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    Nah !

    English ain't difficult ! I never had no problems wiv it ! Did you ?

    Seriously though ....

    I don't think English is difficult at all l That's why it is so universally used and so well known.

    We do not have to learn a complex process of verb conjugations. Neither do we have to decline our nouns (.... except for, perhaps "thou" and "thee", "us" and "we" and "I" and "me" ... and they're bloody pronouns, anyway !)

    Plurals are mostly made with the addition of an "s" .... and the rest is vocabulary !

    There are all sorts of stupid "non-rules", of course - like not ending a sentence with a preposition - most of which you can safely ignore. ( Even Winston Churchill once commented on this, facetiously calling it "the sort of English up with which we should not put ....")

    The great wonder of a "mongrel" language like English is that you can learn a few words, butcher it, maul it, kick it around, mispronounce it, .... do what you want. And people will still understand you !

    Sure - there are a few problems; but different accents and dialects exist in all languages ! Just try speaking Calabrese Italian in, say, Sardinia ! Or Parisienne French in Provence.

    No - try Polish, or Czech, or Inuktituk if you want something to really challenge your mind !

    Regards,

    ジョン

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    Quote Originally Posted by misa.j
    For the last decade, more and more people have started to learn Japanese, which a lot of Japanese people are aware of, and they have been hearing that it is a difficult language to learn from people who are studying it.
    Being fluent in a language, that is said to be hard to learn, gives a lot of Japanese people superior feelings.
    Interesting. I always told Japanese people that it wasn't that difficult, just very foreign, and I still feel that way. I never heard a learner say that it was difficult, aside from some of the more foreign aspects of the language.

    As an aside: I think a lot of Westerners who haven't studied the language just assume that it's difficult because of the writing systems, and they never give it a chance beyond that. My family was shocked when I told them that I was learning Japanese because they thought it was impossible, but they don't know anything about it.

    Quote Originally Posted by misa.j
    That is my point of view. I am not sure what other Japanese users think of this; I haven't noticed they had made that statement either because I don't usually go to the language forum.
    I haven't seem them make any comments about the difficulty of the language at all, so I don't know what they think of it either, and I do visit the language forum. As far as I can tell they don't think about it.

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    Talking

    Quote Originally Posted by Sensuikan San
    No - try Polish, or Czech, or Inuktituk if you want something to really challenge your mind !

    Regards,

    ジョン

    Ah, I feel so proud now, that I mastered such a difficult language at a native level

  25. #25
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    Interestingly some languages are difficult for most people at the beginning, but once you know the basics, it gets much easier. These languages usually have a grammar that is complicated or very different from other languages. The best examples are German, Russian (both have declinations), and Japanese (different syntax and particles).
    By the way, sorry to sound ignorant about this but what are declinations ? Is it something related to verb changes for person and tense like 'habe,bast,hat,haben,habt,haben' in German ?

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