Re: Language Learning Is Weird

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Automatic, implicit statistical learning is pretty common. Infants can do it (as you might expect, since they learn language) and adults can do it, even with totally meaningless stimuli.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:04 AM
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Which sounds really, really hard in a language you don't speak -- thousands of words of phonetically memorized nonsense? But I suppose people do it.

On a smaller scale, they do it a lot. I used to sing in a choir that did a lot of Latin church music - requiems and masses and so on - and I would be prepared to bet that a lot of our members had memorised the Latin mass without being able to speak Latin or even consciously trying to memorise it.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:06 AM
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But whether they would then have been able to spot grammatical errors in Latin, I'm not sure.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:06 AM
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Come to think, I wonder how this works in different languages, depending on their structure. I don't actually know anything about Arabic inflection, but I'd think that Latin would be fairly easy along these lines, because so much of the grammar is, how to put it, phonetically transparent? The same word-final syllables mean the same grammatical function, in a way that's not true in English. It'd be really impressive if this was doable in English or Chinese (which I also think, if I remember correctly without knowing much of anything about it, doesn't have a lot of inflected word forms).


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:11 AM
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I have direct experience of this, among other things I studied formal Qur'an recitation and once had a good deal of it memorized but unfortunately I have little time to comment now.


Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:16 AM
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2. Professional singers presumably memorise a whole body of Italian libretti; do they end up speaking or understanding colloquial Italian?

The other thing about children, at least those raised in an English speaking environment, is that they intuit grammatical rules and naturally extend them to irregular examples: a toddler will have "comed" into the room. I'd be interested to know how that plays out in languages with more complex inflection and syntax.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:18 AM
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6 before seeing 4. Yeah but, no but. How did an ancient Roman kid know which conjugation a verb belonged to? Did they really internalise 6 tenses in 2 moods and 2 voices for 4 conjugations, and five or six cases for five noun declensions, not to mention all the odd pronominal forms? Or did they just get it wrong much of the time and nobody cared unless they wanted to be an orator or a poet?


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:24 AM
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My assumption is that they basically never got anything wrong past the age of two and a half or three -- isn't that how kids are everywhere?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:30 AM
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I mean, 'wrong'. There are formal and informal registers and so on, but kids follow grammatical rules for the register and dialect they're speaking in pretty much as soon as they're speaking at all, right?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:33 AM
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Well, at some point the spoken language was simplified to the point that it became Italian or Spanish, or even further in the case of French. To me that suggests a fine indifference to the details of Latin accidence.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:35 AM
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Spanish verb tenses aren't a lot simpler than Latin, are they? I mean, I took four years of Latin in high school, and I'm poking vaguely at Spanish now, and I'm not reacting to the one as vastly less complex than the other.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:39 AM
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8: Not here it's not. I think for instance she/her came in after 3 for Selah and heading toward 4 she still makes some of those standardized versions of words that aren't standard. Mara, who was exposed to tv but not much live human conversation until age 3, still speaks noticeably oddly and has trouble matching plural or singular nouns and verbs and doesn't seem to attach much meaning to whether there's a final s or not. She also has trouble understanding prepositions. Her reading is good, though, and I'm hoping that will push some of the rest to fall into place. She'll be getting another speech and hearing evaluation too to see if she qualifies for services now.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:40 AM
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I think you'll find, though, that the Romance languages have acquired complications that Latin was without. I have a half-assed theory that all languages are on some level equally complicated, but they locate the complication in different places. Swedish, for instance, struck me as German without the grammar when I was first learning it. But actually to speak it well is at least as hard as speaking German. You just have to remember different things.

OTOH there is definitely a process of simplification and smooshing together that languages can undergo, and Latin did -- "Koblenz" out of "Confluenza" or, as you hear in eshry (Estuary) English "litchy" for "literally".

I slike litchy in bits. == I was distressed to hear it


Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:45 AM
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11. They're somewhat simpler, French verbs more so, given that the passé simple isn't used in everyday speech. Nouns and adjectives are a lot simpler.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:48 AM
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I mean, 'wrong'. There are formal and informal registers and so on, but kids follow grammatical rules for the register and dialect they're speaking in pretty much as soon as they're speaking at all, right?

My understanding is that adult Russian speakers make quite a lot of grammatical mistakes (and not in a peevy kind of way - actual misconjugations etc). Russian grammar is pretty conceptually close to Latin's, if very different in implementation. I'll try to dig out a proper reference, but I've heard it from multiple Russian speakers and my own Russian teacher.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 4:53 AM
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Ha. Googling for a reference turned up this a propos quote from Evgeny Onegin (sorry for the translation, can't be bothered to type out the Russian)

As rosy lips without a smile,
The Russian language I deem vile
Without grammatical mistakes


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:00 AM
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I have a half-assed theory that all languages are on some level equally complicated

I would go further than that and say that not only are all (natural) languages likely to be in some sense equally complicated, it's vanishingly unlikely we have a good or correct way to measure the complexity of languages in an unbiased (that is, unbiased by languages that we know natively) way.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:03 AM
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Russian grammar is pretty conceptually close to Latin's, if very different in implementation. I'll try to dig out a proper reference, but I've heard it from multiple Russian speakers and my own Russian teacher.

It is. And with additional wrinkles: Russian has two plurals, genitive singular for "two or three" and genitive plural for "four or more".

Latin has subjunctive and indicative moods, which I don't remember in Russian, but Russian has the imperfective and perfective forms of a verb, which change the verb's meaning and its tense even with exactly the same endings. AARGH. But at least it only has one set of adjectival plural declension endings, whether the adjective is agreeing with masculine, feminine or neuter things.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:11 AM
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From my perspective, learning Russian at school, the guys who had learned Latin first definitely had the edge over the others.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:14 AM
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The reference sought was for the language production errors assertion. I'm quite happy asserting the Latin comparison (I was thinking of, eg, the fully-fledged case system with many direct Latin equivalents).

FWIW, I've found a paper which analyses the types of errors Russian speakers make, but nothing on comparative frequency across languages. Quite possibly it would help to search in Russian.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:27 AM
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I still remember lines of Hebrew from my bar mitzvah and still have no idea what they mean. And you had to learn not only the words but the melody they followed. We learned it by having the rabbi make tape recordings of a few sentences every week which we had to memorize and sing back to him. Hebrew school at age 12 was a bunch of kids sitting on the floor around the edges of a big meeting room with headphones on singing nonsense to themselves.
I'm slowly learning Spanish since I'll need it in the fall, I can read simple things ok but not good in conversations. The kids learn Latin American Spanish in school so we had to teach them vosotros because they've never used it.


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:28 AM
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I'm pretty sure it was stuff about G-d.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:31 AM
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I'm still holed up in Quito, having taken part in a seemingly endless series of meetings where everyone is speaking Spanish but me. I'm at the point where I generally get the gist of whats going on, but completely miss most of the key important details such that, when things are explained to me later, I end up being quite surprised at what was said.

I'm a lot better at picking my way through written Spanish documents though, albeit with loads of help from Google Translate.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:33 AM
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Nah, it's usually so-and-so went here with thirty sheep and spoke to so-and-so who had five wives in the land of wherever.


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:33 AM
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Which will happen first- a true babelfish, in your ear real time universal translator, or self-driving cars?
(How's that for Tweety bait?)


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:35 AM
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Do they ever explain why you aren't supposed to have cheese on chicken? There's no way the milk could be from a chicken.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:45 AM
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Do they ever explain why you aren't supposed to have cheese on chicken?

It doesn't taste very nice?


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:48 AM
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False.


Posted by: Opinionated Politifact | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 5:49 AM
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13: your half-assed theory has the virtue of being accepted as fact in linguistics for quite some time now. (One of the bits of evidence I recall is that children all over the world acquire language at the same rate, which isn't what you would expect if some languages were more complicated in an absolute sense than others.)


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:00 AM
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I co-sign LB. people learn to speak their native language "properly," no matter how hard it seems relative to other languages. roman children in 75 b.c. could just straight speak latin. (people in the vatican today can speak latin! darth pope's sole virtue aside from a skill in choosing hot priest-valets is that he writes and speaks latin extemporaneously quite without error.) no doubt there were roman slang terms and accents that marked you as a rube or one of the poors, but what you said qua latin speaker was correct in some meaningful sense. people speak finno-ugric languages with up to 17 cases. s e v e n t e e n cases. my favorite is the "transformative," which is actually only used when one thing transforms into another. super-useful when talking about werewolves, I guess.

I agree, mostly, with the idea that languages are equally complex in some meaningful sense, but store the difficulty in varying areas. it's true that some languages seem harder/easier than others to non-native students. like, everybody agrees that bahasa indonesia is just plain easy. but native speakers all also speak bali's own language or whatever as well. people think tagalog is pretty easy, but I don't know how they feel about pangasinan. the main languages here are further towards trading pidgins on the long line with actual pidgin at one end and maybe some native american language spoken in the amazon by onle fifty people on the other.

I think english's epic lack of inflection makes it seem to native speakers that inflected languages are stupid hard, to the point that people...doubt anyone spoke latin properly? yes it diverged into the varying romance languages, but it did so in different areas. over a long period. people were speaking "italian" sooner than they wrote in it, but not so much sooner. english is easy to learn to speak badly but maddeningy difficult to speak properly. there are too many words; when you put "the" before words must be memorized separately for each word (seriously, try to formulate a rule); and finally what the hell with spelling.

I have a friend who memorized the quran despite not knowing arabic, by 18, which is when everybody in aceh has to have done so, male and female. everyone must go through a religious ritual in which they are quizzed by their imam. I also have met people who memorized all the vedas which, jesus christ! sorry bro. those people tend to be taught sanskrit more, but by no means always, since they sometimes speak tamil. as in aceh the thing that makes it learnable is singing it. that's how you learn, by singing increasingly long sections. getting smacked around by your dad when you screw up, also, too.


Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:15 AM
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I could recite the Latin Mass as a kid, and used to amuse my elementary school friends by lip-synching the Mass with the priest. I don't think I ever internalized a sense of Latin grammar, though.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:18 AM
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THEN HOW COME ALL THE SMART PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH?


Posted by: OPINIONATED TRUMP | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:20 AM
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I memorized some pretty long sanskrit poems by being taught the tune. it really does make it way easier. my kids study mandarin (and japanese in the case of girl x). AIHSB girl y came home from school in kindergarten or first grade asking could she please be excused from learning to read and write mandarin (the latter especially.) she said that "learning to talk mandarin is easy, but writing it is too hard." I was like, welcome to the world of a zillion other chinese first-graders. if china had started using the "women's" syllabary like japanese does only in part as hiragana, but applied it to everything and got rid of all the characters, mandarin would be famous for being easy, esp. for english speakers. no endings, just stick all the world in a row, separate words tell you the verb tense. stupid counting numbers but, eh.


Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:25 AM
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interpellate an HM to that.


Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:26 AM
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I think english's epic lack of inflection makes it seem to native speakers that inflected languages are stupid hard, to the point that people...doubt anyone spoke latin properly?

I don't think anybody (here) is making that claim. The closest we came was Chris Y's doubt that Roman kids without linguistic callings spoke it properly (which is not a position I endorse). And maybe my passed-on claim that native Russians make a disproportionate number of grammatical errors in speech. But, bear in mind, that is something told to me mainly by native speakers, not an inference I made based on the perceived complexity of the grammar.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:26 AM
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Not all jawns are equally complicated- some jawns are easier to understand than other jawns.


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:29 AM
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Apparently No\am Chom\sky set out to learn the koran by heart at the age of fourteen. He felt a good zionist ought to be able to speak with his Arab neighbours respectfully.


Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:52 AM
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Zionism, is there nothing it can't fix?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:54 AM
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people speak finno-ugric languages with up to 17 cases. s e v e n t e e n cases. my favorite is the "transformative," which is actually only used when one thing transforms into another. super-useful when talking about werewolves, I guess.

And some of those grammatically insane Native American languages, like Navajo:
In this system, nouns are ranked in three categories--humans, animals, and inanimate objects--and within these categories, nouns are ranked by strength, size, and intelligence. Whichever of the subject and object has a higher rank comes first. As a result, the agent of an action may be syntactically ambiguous

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis predicts that native speakers of Navajo should be terrific Top Trumps players.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 6:54 AM
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In this system, nouns are ranked in three categories--humans, animals, and inanimate objects

What about things that belong to the Emperor?


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:03 AM
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nouns are ranked by strength, size, and intelligence

What about wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma?


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:05 AM
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nouns are ranked by strength, size, and intelligence

What about wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma?


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:05 AM
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The Geebies each display very different strengths and weaknesses in their ASL learning. The cumulative effect is pretty adorable.


Posted by: E. Messily | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:06 AM
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Ah, so that's how the double-posting works.


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:06 AM
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I can say two things in ASL. The letter "J" and "Fuck off."


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:08 AM
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This thread has renewed my interest in learning Toki Pona. I'm hoping one of you good people can talk me out of it. My brain is full of enough useless crap already.


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:10 AM
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45 fills me with a desire to learn the ASL for "Yes" and "That would be an ecumenical matter".


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:14 AM
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I might be able to guess at one of those.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:20 AM
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I follow lots of German and French sites on Twitter, it does wonders for keeping my languages fresh and improving them. 140 characters is about all I can take of a foreign language.


Posted by: bjk | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:41 AM
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Embarrassingly low-level, but currently watching an anime series Hyouge Mono from manga that is partly about Sen no Rikyu and his relationship with Totoyomi Hideyoshi circa 1570-1590. Also very much about the aesthetics of the period, the politics, the aestheticization of politics that may lead to the reason I am on my 4th book in a month about (Zen) Buddhism and militarism/fascism in pre-WWII Japan. Anyway.

As far as I can remember, this is one of the few shows in any format that uses contemporaneous language, and it is barely interesting that although I hardly understand a word, by the mere sound of the spoken language I can recognize that. "-gozaru" verb forms for "to be" rather than (-desu/-da) for instance, but more than that, it sounds more kanji than hiragana in a way I can't explain.

The distance might be at least the same as Shakespeare's language to ours, and mildly curious about how Japanese audiences took it. It wasn't a very popular show.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:47 AM
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God. 50: s/b Toyotomi. I still suck so bad at the names.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:52 AM
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47 I'll stick with "girls" and "drink" for now, thank you.


Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:19 AM
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The Geebies each display very different strengths and weaknesses in their ASL learning.

I initially misread this as ESL and got seriously confused.

I just saw that apparently that gee-whiz ASL glove/translator is being programmed by a bunch of guys who aren't deaf and aren't especially fluent in ASL. Great job, guys.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:21 AM
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If no one's mentioned it, I'm finding Duolingo to be good for drilling the early basics of a language. It's helped me get up to a decent base vocab and grammar for Spanish. That's one thing the gamification of education is good for.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:21 AM
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52: "girls" is where you use both hands to indicate a curvy silhouette, right?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:22 AM
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54: Yeah, I've been using it. It's got me to a point where I can puzzle through a Spanish Wikipedia article, and listening to a news podcast, while I don't really understand it, is more than just noise.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:24 AM
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That only works for girls in a column. A line is harder.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:24 AM
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I started learning simple ASL when I worked as a docent, but the only things that have stuck are "pretty," "ha ha" and "cunnilingus." At one point I could give simple directions for evacuating the museum, but somehow none of that remains in my memory.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:31 AM
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I am now assuming that the method for evacuating the building was to inform visitors that pretty people were engaging in cunnilingus on the front lawn, and everyone should go laugh at them.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:34 AM
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5. You and Fermat.


Posted by: marcel proust | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:59 AM
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Russian has a lot of structure to learn but in my experience it was more of a steep initial learning curve than complicated all the way through. Word order, for instance, is much stricter in English, but to be able to move words around within a sentence (or understand it when someone does that) in Russian you need to know a lot about declensions.


Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:10 AM
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I have no ability at all to read Russian. Even in translation, Russian novels give me trouble because the Russians have 15 different words for "Ivan" and every other proper noun.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:12 AM
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I never found English more confusing than when I got to middle/high school-y English classes and suddenly had to learn about English grammar. Using it was easy as anything, but I think having to learn all the various tenses/etc. made me worse at writing for a while because 'just going with what feels right' got trickier. I learned way more about English grammar in French class, I think, which didn't have that obstacle (which meant that for years I remembered the French words for the equivalent English tenses and it caused all sorts of trouble*). I'm guessing the same would be true of people who had grown up speaking conversational Latin, with all the same endless lists of rules/declensions/etc.

One thing that I've always wondered with the more convoluted (grammatical/structural) languages is how they got that way in the first place. It's easy to see how a language would get less fussy over time (like with Homeric - Attic - Koine Greek), because things get a bit looser, words get contracted, and so on. And also it's not hard to see how you get bizarro Frankenstein's monster type languages like English where a whole bunch of other languages get mashed up into one and it starts mutating. But what's the mechanism that gets you from something simple/messy/whatever we start with to something fussy and structural?

*"Oh - I think here in this sentence you should be using the futur anterieur." "...what?"


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:38 AM
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This thread, minus the sex jokes, is basically casual breakfast table chit chat from my kid. Smart and interested teenagers can be exhausting. Sometimes a parent just wants a cup of coffee without a disquisition on comparative declensions.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned here before that I could speak very plausible sounding French before I had the commensurate vocabulary. Including sounding as if I really could manipulate various verb tenses. But for a while I just used various English words run through the French pronunciation generator in my head and delivered with confidence, causing occasional consternation in my French interlocutors. I've always chalked it up to musical training - tell me I need to make sound x and I'll make sound x.


Posted by: dairy queen | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:47 AM
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64.2: Like the proverbial joke of the guy that's claiming to speak French, when he's just speaking English with a phony French accent?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:52 AM
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I could speak very plausible sounding French before I had the commensurate vocabulary

Yeah, I knew someone in a similar position who said she came across as "dim-witted native speaker" rather than "reasonably competent foreigner". It sounded maddening.

I don't speak French, but I did once get mistaken for a French person while conversing in German. I must have been overdoing the r's and ü's somehow.


Posted by: lurid keyaki | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:56 AM
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Do I really have to google the ASL for cunnilingus now?


Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:01 AM
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Yes! NOW! Lives are at stake, and the clock is ticking.


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:05 AM
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I have been taken for German in Spain, which was not a great career move.

On the other hand, a friend who was working in Norway once decided, with an English speaking colleague, to practice their rudimentary Norwegian by talking to each other in it. So they were sitting in a pub, chatting away in Norwegian, but dropping in English words where they didn't know them, and the locals didn't recognise what they were speaking as bad Norwegian, but kept asking them what language it was.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:15 AM
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My mother had that problem as a flight attendant -- never got more than a primitive vocabulary/grasp of grammar in French or Italian, but in forty years of weekly flights got very easily fluent in guide-book phrases and had a respectable accent, so she'd get into interactions where people thought she was fluent.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:23 AM
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I've been studying Irish and I've also come to the "all languages are equally hard but in radically different ways" conclusion. Irish only has a few sounds that aren't found in standard English, and even they are much easier to grasp than the mess of retroflex constants found in Chinese. However, things that would be mere allophones in English are meaningfully different in Irish. And although Irish has a simple case system, the only fully-fledged case (ignoring vestigial vocative and dative) beside the common nominative/accusative is the genitive, which is a mess of irregularities. But in Chinese or English, the genitive is completely trivial. I suppose in some extant Romance languages it might be somewhat less trivial, but not by much.

So they're aways going to be something awful. I'm sure if Esperanto were allowed to evolve for sometime in the minds of native Esperantinoj, it'd develop similar complexity.

I've also been listening to Irish language news podcasts from RTÉ, the Irish national broadcaster. I feel similar to LB in the front page post: I get bits here and there and can usually get the gist, but not the details..


Posted by: dalriata | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:24 AM
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63.1 sounds like me. I've always assumed it was because I enjoyed my middle-school-and-early-high-school French classes more than the contemporaneous English classes, but maybe not. Likewise, one time at the newspaper I was looking for a term to describe both a looming problem and some recent renovations at a certain institution. After I thought of and rejected three English words for one reason or another, I thought of something that was perfect except for the fact that it was in the wrong language. ("Bouleversement.") I had to go to a translation Web site to find the English word I was looking for.

But what's the mechanism that gets you from something simple/messy/whatever we start with to something fussy and structural?

To distinguish the educated from the rubes, maybe.


Posted by: Cyrus | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:30 AM
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I've been told by native Japanese speakers that I have a very good accent and inflection, but I have a weird, scattershot vocabulary and no knowledge of grammar beyond what you would learn in the first three pages of an introductory textbook. So I can string lots of Japanese words together into things that sound like sentences, resulting in a word salad that, to someone who doesn't speak Japanese at all, sounds like fluent Japanese. To a Japanese speaker, however, it sounds like someone with severe aphasia.


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:39 AM
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Sounds about right to me. However it might be that some complications are more or less useful, or at least useful in more or less pointless ways. English has lots of synonyms, which seems more useful than having to memorize a gender for every noun.


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:41 AM
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Anyone read Icelandic?


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:46 AM
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Skimming the comments, I thought I'd drop in. Yes, all languages are equally complex, with complexity not totally transparent to non speakers. A rule in historical linguistics is simplifying any one area (phonology, syntax, morphology) tends to complicate another. English is a great example, we've simplified Germanic/IE syntax & morphology at the expense of regularity, and we have a giant, somewhat superfluous lexicon which has inherited different rule patterns from different language families. To other IE speakers, speaking rudimentary English may not be challenging, but speaking it like an educated native speaker is hard, and learning proper prepositions as an adult is almost impossible.

Unless you've been raised literally by wolves, you'll fluently acquire the language you've been surrounded by, which may or not may not be the standard version. Depending on exposure, effort, and ability, you may never fluently learn your standard.


Posted by: Buttercup | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:55 AM
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77

THEN HOW COME ALL THE SMART PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH?

There was an interesting LRB article about this question.

The argument, as I recall it, was that historically French or German were then languages of the European academy, but that during the cold war there were enormous resources put into constructing a institution of translation -- to have scientific papers in many different languages translated into English and that, on the basis of that, anyone working in the sciences could have access to the entire literature in English.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:59 AM
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The key to language learning, as I've said ad nauseum in the past few days, is Mireille from PBS' French in Action.

I recently "taught" "myself" to "read" German, not from the position of being a total novice but from only a single semester in college in plus about 3 weeks taking a class in Germany 20 years ago. It's surprisingly easy to get to the point of semi-OK reading, I am now doing a real literary novel with only maybe 3-5 vocab lookups per page in a dictionary and can get actual enjoyment from it. But I can't really speak the language at all, can't independently summon vocabulary as opposed to recognizing it on the page, can't conjugate verbs on my own to save my life, etc. Clearly reading is a different skill than speaking and a much much easier to pick up on your own.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:03 AM
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Skimming the comments, I thought I'd drop in.

Bless your heart.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:05 AM
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80

||

Just found out a close friend has been diagnosed with this. Don't bother googling further, you won't find anything good.

|>


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:05 AM
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I'm so sorry.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:06 AM
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Ugh. So sorry to hear that.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:08 AM
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77: From my point of view, the use of English as the international language of science seems really natural. Or at least very convenient. I think you are right that money decided the matter, but I expect that grant funding had more to do with it than translation of older works.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:12 AM
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All the smart people speak English because Americans do, and they have most of the money. Follow the money. Always.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:16 AM
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80

I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't follow orders and googled it, and it does look grim. Did they catch it in an early stage?


Posted by: Buttercup | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:31 AM
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I now speak one word of ASL. But I'm sure my pronunciation is perfect.


Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 1:59 PM
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84

But also because English was the divine language that God handed to Adam in the Garden of Eden.


Posted by: Opinionated 18th century Philologist | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:02 PM
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88

You should have done "21st Century Tea Party" for that.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:08 PM
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Every time I open my mouth to try to speak Spanish, French comes out of it. And my command of French isn't exactly cromulent.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:21 PM
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I am trying to cut down on smartphone use by setting my display to grayscale because I read a headline saying that worked. So far it isn't going well but there isn't much else to do on the bus.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:22 PM
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77: It goes back further than that: German lost its dominance as a scientific language after the end of World War 1 when the victorous nations organized a boycott of German scientists from international scientific associations, conferences, and journals, partly with the aim of making French and English the only languages for scientific research. It wasn't lifted until 1926, by which time English had become firmly established as the primary language of science.


Posted by: Ume | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:34 PM
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77: It goes back further than that:

Looking up some other reviews of the book, it does cover that -- it starts from the mid-nineteenth century (after an introductory chapter about the decline of Latin).


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:37 PM
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Yes. I'm actually partway through, but put it down some time ago and haven't got round to finishing it yet. The chapters on constructed languages (Volapük, Esperanto, Ido) are great.


Posted by: Ume | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 2:43 PM
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Science-English is sort of a constructed language.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 3:00 PM
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To address LB's initial question about Arabic inflection, it does have some similarities to the highly inflected Indo-European languages mentioned above and this could in theory be a factor in Qur'an memorization etc. Classical Arabic has three noun cases marked by vowel endings (they're not found in the modern dialects and there's some dispute over whether they were ever actually part of the spoken language, but they're certainly in the Qur'an the way it's recited and memorized), and the verbal inflections are structurally different but still provide the sort of regularities that might lead someone to pick up on the patterns without understanding the meaning.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 7:15 PM
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I studied Persian many years ago in an intensive summer course with Don St/ilo and Jerome Clinton (PBUH) and they deliberately used this method. A native speaker would repeat some paragraph over and over again. Said paragraph would introduce some new grammatical feature of the language but nowhere in the text was it explained, there was a glossary at the end of every chapter and one at the end of the text book but no grammar. Nor would the tutor or the instructor explain it afterwards (OK, twist their arm after assimilating the paragraph and hence the feature the day after and they'd tell you). What happened was you gained an intuitive feel for what that new feature meant and you really understood it in the way just memorizing the rule didn't give you. This was just a summer intensive program but what I learned there I really knew and never forgot and I wish I'd had the opportunity to study in Iran afterwards (or Tajikistan which was the plan but then a civil war broke out). I did continue in the old Orientalist vein of here's your grammar and dictionary and here's your text go puzzle it out but that class did me a lot of good.



Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:37 PM
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95 The situation for nouns is much more complex than it would appear from the fact that classical Arabic has three cases for nouns. Arabic trilateral (and quadrilateral) roots fit into patterns for nouns and verbs as well. So there's a kind of root concept at base but put it into one pattern and it's a noun of instrument, or of abundance, or paucity, or location, or a verb that means to perform the action to another, or to seek that quality, etc,. So K-T-B which originally meant something like to bore holes in something became to write, hence Kitab is book, maktaba is library or bookstore, kataba is to write....etc.... D-R-S is to study, madrasa is a school, etc, you can guess the ideal form of the noun of place from the two examples above. (And now I'm running out the door to work...)


Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:46 PM
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Anyway my point is it's very complicated but also very heavily patterned.


Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 8:49 PM
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Yes, good point. I sort of alluded to that being the case for verbs but it's certainly true of nouns as well.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:00 PM
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39: And that's not even one of the more complicated parts of Navajo grammar! Nouns are actually pretty straightforward, as they basically aren't inflected at all. The verb conjugation system, on the other hand, is both enormously complex and very different from how Indo-European languages work, which makes it a particularly hard language for English-speakers to learn.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:30 PM
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63: One thing that I've always wondered with the more convoluted (grammatical/structural) languages is how they got that way in the first place.

The fact that dead Indo-European languages are very highly inflected (cases, genders, aspects) while modern Indo-European languages tend to be more analytic (English most of all) is really a pretty good example of the "everything is equally hard" rule, for reasons stated upthread.

I like to imagine Proto-Indo-Europeans herding their goats round the Caucasus and pointing out bears and wolves to each other in VERY! SHORT! INFLECTED! PHRASES! where every grammatical marker is of the essence, because bears. If this doesn't make sense don't disabuse me.

Homer has lots of inflection, including a dual number, but usually a simple sentence structure. As you get into Attic Greek, with someone like Thucydides the sentences are long and periodic with only a slight decrease in grammatical markers (this is "distinguish educated from the rubes" in 72 and maybe the high point of difficulty). After the end of antiquity the grammatical markers get pared down.


Posted by: lourdes kayak | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:35 PM
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I think the most plausible explanation for how highly inflected languages get that way is that the auxiliary words that take on the semantic content of inflections in less inflected languages gradually tend to become phonetically reduced to a point where they get reinterpreted as affixes, then once that happens people begin to notice a pattern developing and they extrapolate so that full paradigms develop. I'm sure there's been actual research on this but I don't know of any offhand.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:39 PM
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Isn't it most parsimonious to assume that the language God gave to Adam had fifty-nine cases and we've been flattening ever since?


Posted by: lourdes kayak | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:52 PM
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Probably, but that doesn't make it probable.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 9:54 PM
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102: "actual research" - ten minutes later I have learned about grammaticalization.


Posted by: lourdes kayak | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:05 PM
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Yeah, grammaticalization is sort of an intermediate step in the process in 102.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:12 PM
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I guess that article presents the whole process as being grammaticalization, but I usually think of it primarily as the earlier steps.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:15 PM
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pointing out bears and wolves to each other in VERY! SHORT! INFLECTED! PHRASES! where every grammatical marker is of the essence, because bears.

I need examples that fall between "Watch out! Bear!" and "Quickly, let's shoot that bear approaching from the northwest in the chest with five or six of your brother-in-law's quiver's sharpest cedar arrows!" for plausibility.


Posted by: lurid keyaki | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:32 PM
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Since modern English lacks an affinal-sagittal case, there's only so much I can do.


Posted by: lourdes kayak | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 10:35 PM
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Before Shakespeare mangled the phrase, it was "Exeunt! You're being pursued by a bear!"


Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 05-10-16 11:15 PM
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Eh: Exumus! we're being pursued by a bear


Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 05-11-16 12:52 AM
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pointing out bears and wolves to each other in VERY! SHORT! INFLECTED! PHRASES! where every grammatical marker is of the essence

They would simply say "Look!" and conjugate the verb in the ursine voice.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05-11-16 1:50 AM
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71: Go n-éirí leat! Ó Dónaill's Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla is a great resource, being full of vivid colloquial examples of word usage, and the online version can be reverse-searched. http://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/giorria
It also has a detailed grammar section although the most useful short online grammar guide appears to be have been written by a German (http://nualeargais.ie/gnag/gram.htm).

My French, such as it is, has the opposite problem to that which people have mentioned - my accent is in my own opinion poor but my written French is ok. I don't think I can make distinct sounds for more than two of (cou, coeur, queue, cul).


Posted by: emir | Link to this comment | 05-11-16 5:52 AM
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113: Hence your treasured French karaoke renditions of "Don't go breaking my arse"


Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 05-11-16 7:03 AM
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114 earworm, please!


Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 05-11-16 7:06 AM
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110, 111: Manete! We were being pursued by a bear. Now it's just you.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 05-11-16 7:20 AM
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