Category Archives: Language

Is policy on Irish language self-defeating?

Eoin Butler, a Gaeilgeoir from Mayo, has put out a challenging video on Irish Government policy with regards to the Irish language.

Essentially, he argues, it’s nonsense.

The arguments made to explain the decline of the Irish language (to minority status even within the Gaeltacht) – essentially that it does not receive enough government support and that it is not taught properly, and that in any case any nation needs a language of its own – are flawed. In fact, he continues, its decline is for the simple reason that the Irish have made the English language their own (as a matter of fact), and indeed it is only being kept on life support to encourage tourism in areas of the country with no industry and artificially to maintain a translation service. This is an issue because it causes confusion over the law, and indeed is even outright dangerous (in the case, for example, of warning signs put in heavily touristy areas in a language no tourist will speak).

Objectively, it is very hard to argue with any of that (although I may challenge a little of it). However, Mr Butler’s point (remember, as a Gaeilgeoir) is that the whole issue is not dealt with objectively. My own view is that he needs to build on that point – human beings are not objective; and even less so when nationalism (or general “group-think”) comes into play.

This is the thing: every nation has its completely irrational aspects – but these aspects are deliberately distinct from any other nation, and thus form a national bond. England has lots of them, from the use of miles rather than kilometres to the odd terminology in its parliament. France has a linguistic issue of its own. Germany has a determination not to have upper speed limits. Almost any country of standing has them, in other words.

So, in my view, that is what this is about. It is an incredible aspect of human nature, particularly when combined as “groups” or “nations”, that we engage in “debate” on such irrational terms around particular subjects.

Put that “irrational national distinctiveness” together with the vested interests of which Mr Butler speaks and there is not much chance of change. What Mr Butler says about the likelihood of knowledge of the Irish language being enhanced by removing the compulsion to learn it is absolutely correct. But Irish Government policy is not about enhancing knowledge of the Irish language. That is probably where the “debate” needs to begin.

Should we learn Esperanto first? / Cxu ni devus unue lerni Esperanton?

[English translation below]

Paroladoj TED-aj ofte estas strangaj kaj ekscitaj, kaj tio cxi pri Esperanto kiel ponto lingva ne estis escepto!

Post miaj aliaj artikoloj pri Esperanto, intereson esprimis multaj, cxu Esperanto vere estas tiel uzebla.

Bedaurinde, mia respondo honesta estas, ke mi ne scias! Sed se mi devus decidi, mi jesus.

Mi ne scias, cxar mi ne lernis Esperanton unue. Mi faris interreta kurso de Esperanto antau kvindek jaroj, sed jam parolis Germanan, Hispanan, kaj iomete Francan. Do mi ne povas diri, se plejbone estas antaue lerni Esperanton. La plejbona gvido estas sperto persona, kaj tiun sperton ne havas mi!

Mi ja povas diri, ke eblas, ke estas avantagxo antaue lerni Esperanton kiel ponto lingva. Lau mi, tio estas ne kial multaj diras. Esperanto gxenerale estas ja simpla, sed kiel mi pasinte diris, la bono lingva de gxi estas, ke gxi ne estas tro facila. Por la mankoj kaj neperfektoj de la lingvo, igxas defio perfekte lerni gxin.

Mi ne volas diri, ke mi multe scias pri la instruado de infanoj. Aliaj povas pri tio paroli plu. Sed mi povas kredi, ke infanoj en la lernejo preferas lerni Esperanton ol Francan au Hispanan, cxar estas pli facila rapide antaueniri en Esperanto ol en aliaj lingvoj pli strukture kompleksaj. Infanoj komence povus multe diri, kaj poste lerni pri akusativo kaj subjunktivo (avantagxo kiam ili volos poste lerni Germanan au Hispanan). Por infanoj, do, mi estas preskau certa, ke plejbone estas unue lerni Esperanton, kaj do mi sxatas, ke tio okazis en iuj lernejoj Anglujaj.

Por plenkreskuloj, mi simple ne scias. Mi supozas, ke ne samas por cxiu individuo. Se oni havas motivon (ekzemple, ke oni volas rapide lerni plurajn aliajn lingvojn), tio versxajne estus bona ideo. Se oni nur volas lerni unu lingvo aparta, mi ne scias, se indus la tempo.

La plej grava estas, ke lingvolernado onin amuzas! Do, se helpas Esperanto, penu lerni gxin! 

TED talks are often odd and exciting, and this one on Esperanto as a linguistic bridge was no exception!

After my other pieces on Esperanto, some have expressed an interest in whether Esperanto really is of use in this way.

Unfortunately, my honest answer is I do not know! But if I had to call it, I would suggest it is.

I do not know, because I did not learn Esperanto first. I did an online course in Esperanto 15 years ago, but already spoke German, Spanish and a little French. So I cannot say, if it is best to learn Esperanto first. The best guide is personal experience, and I don’t have that experience!

But I can say that is it possible that it is an advantage to learn Esperanto beforehand as a language bridge. For me, this is not for the reason many state. Esperanto in general is indeed simple, but as I have said previously, the good thing linguistically is that it is not too easy. Because of its linguistic omissions and imperfections, it becomes a challenge to learn it perfectly.

I do not want to say that I have much knowledge about children’s education. Others can go on to talk about that. But I can believe that children at school prefer to learn Esperanto to French or Spanish, because it is easier to get somewhere in Esperanto than in other more structurally complex languages. Children would be able to say a lot to start with, and then learn about the accusative and the subjunctive (an advantage when they go to learn German or Spanish later). For children, therefore, I am almost certain that it is best to learn Esperanto first, and thus it is good to hear that this has happened in some schools in England.

For adults, I simply do not know. I suppose that it is not the same for every individual. If you have the motivation (for example, because you want to learn several languages quickly), it could be a good idea. But if you only want to learn a particular language, I do not know if it is worth the time.

The most important thing is that language learning is fun! So, if Esperanto helps, make the effort to learn it!


Esperanto – more complex than Afrikaans?

Mi ankau plenesperante skribos venontsemajne!

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece in (and about) Esperanto, to which some correspondents responded by making the “marginal gains” point. People generally do not learn Esperanto because even though the time taken to learn it may be shorter (because it is simpler), the gain for doing so is extremely limited given the relative lack of speakers (even optimistic estimates suggest this is no more than 2 million worldwide – the same as Slovene or Latvian).

That does bring us to another issue: it is taken as read that Esperanto is easy to learn because its structure is simple. Yet, in fact, much of what determines how easy a language is to learn has nothing to do with its structure. Motivation is the real primary determinant; and, of course, if you don’t really have anyone to talk to, your motivation will in practice be limited.

Even then, there remains the assumption that Esperanto is “simple”, and thus easy to learn. The structure is so remarkably regular that there is surely no “natural” language, with all the complications that come with “nature”, to challenge it in that regard. Not even Afrikaans, for example.

Well, let us have a look. Esperanto, of course, is gloriously regular:

  • Ni ordonas ‘We order’
  • Ni ordonis ‘We ordered’
  • Ni ordonos ‘We will order’
  • Ni ordonus ‘We would order’

The ending determines the tense or mood. This could not be easier! Let us have a look at Afrikaans:

  • Ons bestel ‘We order’
  • Ons het bestel ‘We ordered’
  • Ons sal bestel ‘We will order’
  • Ons sou bestel ‘We would order’

The word before the verb determines the tense or mood. So, okay, Afrikaans is pretty easy, but… oh, there’s more…?

  • Ons kan bestel ‘We can order’
  • Ons moet bestel ‘We must order’
  • Ons wil bestel ‘We want to order’

… so surely Esperanto has stuff for this too? Well, yes, but…

  • Ni povas ordoni ‘We can order’
  • Ni devas ordoni ‘We must order’
  • Ni volas ordoni ‘We want to order’

… ahem, if anything Esperanto is the more complex of the two here. Afrikaans allows mood, up to and including ideas such as possibility, obligation and volition, to be expressed through one short word before the verb. Esperanto switches for those things to a structure involving another verb plus an infinitive. Neither is complex, but Esperanto is certainly not the clear winner.

Still, things remain regular in Esperanto even if we are the ones being ordered:

  • Ni ordonas ilin ‘We order them’
  • Ili ordonas nin ‘They order us’

That is nice and straightforward – the object simply adds -n. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all, perhaps…

  • Ons bestel hulle ‘We order them’
  • Hulle bestel ons ‘They order us’

Would you look at that? Afrikaans manages perfectly well without adding anything, relying solely on word order even with personal pronouns (just as most European languages do with general nouns).

Still, Esperanto is really clever because it is so easy simply to turn that personal pronoun into an adjective:

  • Nia amiko ordonas ‘Our friend orders’

Superb. Just add -a. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all again, but surely…

  • Ons vriend bestel ‘Our friend orders’

… that’s ridiculous! Afrikaans still does not amend the word ons at all! The word ons in Afrikaans carries the full range of meanings covered in English by ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ and even in Esperanto by ni, nin and nia.

Actually, Esperanto even has a fourth form that English lacks:

  • Ili ordonas nian amikon ‘They order our friend’

Afrikaans is still quite content with the same one:

  • Hulle bestel ons vriend ‘They order our friend’

Indeed, Esperanto has fully six forms here:

  • Niaj amikoj ordonos ‘Our friends will order’
  • Ili povas niajn amikojn ordoni ‘They can order our friends’

Afrikaans still manages with just one for all of this. Note well also that the verb form in Afrikaans has not changed once either (versus five different endings in Esperanto) – just a word in front determines everything:

  • Ons vriende sal bestel ‘Our friends will order’
  • Hulle kan ons vriende bestel ‘They can order our friends’

So, forgesu Esperanton ‘forget Esperanto’! 

Afrikaans for Internasionale Taal ‘International Language’ immediately!

It is not quite that straightforward, of course. Ons is the only personal pronoun which does not change form at all in Afrikaans (although none has more than two forms); the above word order, including bestel appearing after any object except in the present tense, must be strictly observed (whereas it is optional in Esperanto). Most verbs in Afrikaans in fact add ge- after het (Ons maak ‘We make’; Ons het gemaak ‘We made’) and wees ‘to be’ is markedly irregular. Most notably of all, Afrikaans has a fairly complex double negative (Ons het nie gemaak nie ‘We did not make’), varying adjectival forms, and three main plural forms which simply have to be learned with each item of vocabulary.

For all that, however, Afrikaans is not hugely less structurally simple than Esperanto. Even if we accept that, overall, Afrikaans is marginally more complex, it is beyond doubt that Esperanto could be still simpler – for example, as shown above, it exhibits variation in personal pronoun forms and verb forms which Afrikaans seems to manage perfectly well without. (For reference, Esperanto also differentiates between adjectives and adverbs; at least in the case of predicate adjectives, most Germanic languages including Afrikaans get by without such a distinction.)

Let us then consider that Afrikaans is a national language in a regional economic power (and in some neighbouring states); Esperanto is not. Afrikaans has ten times as many speakers as Esperanto; and of these, a third are native (only a handful of Esperanto’s are). Afrikaans is in widespread use in government, in sport, in administration, in business; Esperanto has much more limited reach in such areas. It is true that if you are travelling in general Esperanto will probably be marginally more likely to be understood than Afrikaans, but even that is debatable (given Afrikaans’ direct proximity to Dutch and even German). So, given Afrikaans is barely more complex structurally, what about those “marginal gains”? There is little doubt which is the winner.

Given that this “marginal gain” in favour of Afrikaans also means the average learner will be more motivated to learn it than Esperanto, and that there is a location where someone can go to be exposed to Afrikaans (to hear Afrikaans on the radio; to see Afrikaans on public signage; to have access to it everywhere from in newspapers to on the side of milk cartons), Afrikaans is surely the “easier” language to learn overall.

It depends on the user of course – some may still find Afrikaans hard to tolerate as the language of Apartheid, whereas others may be drawn to Esperanto precisely because it plays to boneco homara (‘mankind’s goodness’). Online courses seem easier to come by in Esperanto than Afrikaans. However, the case that Esperanto is innately “easy” (especially if the objective is near fluency), when considering the whole range of issues involved in learning a language including motivation and exposure, is nothing like as clear as some of its advocates would have us believe.

It is worth being absolutely clear that, taking exposure and motivation into account, English is in fact vastly easier to learn – to any level beyond basic – than Esperanto. I fear Esperantists who deny this obvious fact are missing the whole picture.

Or what about both?! Ni povas kompreneble ambau lerni, se iu nin volas instrui… Ons kan natuurlik beide leer, as iemand ons wil leer… (wait, the same word again in Afrikaans?!!)

“Fluent in three months” is unrealistic for most

Irish polyglot Benny Lewis is among several enthusiastic linguists who have cleverly used social media platforms to promote the notion that you can learn a language in three months (as well as to promote themselves of course – no harm in that, if you are doing something of service that you are passionate about).

Essentially, their proposition is quite straightforward. By immersing yourself in the target language and not making any excuses, you can essentially become fluent in three months.

Well, not quite…

It is of course entirely feasible that if you move to, say, Spain, and you live with a Spanish family, and you are determined to learn Spanish, you will end up conversationally proficient. Indeed, I did so myself in 1998. And it is worth noting that it takes very little skill – motivation combined with exposure will generally suffice.

Easy. Well, no…

It is probable that my own example – which consisted of five months living with a family while doing two modules of a university course in Andalusia – was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For many, such an opportunity will never arise. Anyone going on the relatively regular academic and professional career path while building a family will likely never have the opportunity to take three months or so in a given location and immerse themselves in the local language. There is almost zero chance of anyone having the opportunity several times in a lifetime – unless of course they choose to make an entire business out of it perhaps by running a blog, doing a few sponsored videos, and writing a few books!

To say the least, therefore, I would urge caution. I am the first to argue that anyone can learn a language (that it is like driving a car – some will learn more quickly than others, but anyone can learn). However, I also caution that it cannot be done without effort (hence the absolute need for motivation, even in the unlikely event that you do live in the country of your target language for a period).

I would go further an even state some concern that language learning is being presented by some as somewhat easier than it is. Many people, believing that fluency is possible in three months, will give up when it becomes apparent that there is a little more to it than is sometimes presented. Also, it is somewhat unhelpful to present “immersion” or “no excuses” as the main drivers of success, when in fact there are techniques and priorities that language learners should follow if they wish to maximise the impact of whatever effort they do have time to make.

Fluent in three months? Probably not unless you have nothing else to do. Proficient in three months? Maybe, but stay motivated for longer and success will be even greater!

Why did peaceful Esperanto fail? / Kial malsukcesis paca Esperanto?

[English version below]

Hierau estis la ,internacia tago de paco’, sed estas unu de la tordajxoj kruelaj de la pasinta, ke la inventisto de la plej sukcesa ,helplingvo’ (dezajnita por esti la dua lingvo en cxiuj landoj tutmonde, por tiel helpi komunikado internacia, kaj eble finigas malkomprenojn por tiel antauenigi la pacon) mortis dum la unua milito tutmonda.

Kutime kun Esperanto, oni emas auskulti nur tiujn, kiuj gxin vehemente antauenigas kiel la rimedon perfektan por aliri al la paco tutmonda, au tiujn, kiuj gxin atakas kiel lingvon neuzeblan kaj tute malgxustan.

Kial gxi malsukcesis?

Ja, gxi nur ,malsukcesis’ gxian pracelon (por igxi cxies dua lingvo). La ideo estis ke, se cxiuj parolus Esperanton kune kun la lingvo denaska, la komunikado internacia igxus facila. Oni ecx povus sendi leteron kun sxlotilo simpla por kompreni Esperanton (tiuj sxlotiloj mem haveblis 19 grandajn lingvojn, sed ampleksis nur unu au du pagxojn), kaj la ricevanto povis kompreni gxin (kaj eble respondi, cxar Esperanto sxajne estis tiel facile lernigxi). Principe tio ne estas ridinda ideo. Do kio malgxustas kun la lingvo, ke tio ne okazis? 

Unue, debateblas cxu iu lingvo konstruita povas plenigi tian rolon. Lingvistiko ne estas matematiko; do lingvoj devas esti naturaj (evoluigata tra tempo) por gajni akcepto largxa. Iu lingvo konstruita donos al oni la senton, ke gxi estas nur ia kodo (ne gravas, kiel gxi estas farata). Fakte, ju pli perfekte iu konstruita lingvo estos farata, des pli kiel nura kodo gxi sxajnos. 

Due, Esperanto ne estas perfekta, kion ecx Zamenhof konfesis. Li relative estis juna viro kun la eliro de liaj regoloj kaj vortaro je 1887, kaj li tiam faras bona laboro, kiam aliro al la scio lingva (ecx ankau socia) havis multajn pli da limoj ol gxi hodiau havus. Iuj liaj decidoj estis tamen ridindaj pro lia celo deklarita.

Do, kion oni dirus pri la aliaj eblaj celoj? Esperanto nun estas uzita en iuj lernejoj elementaj en Anglujo, kiel unua ,ekstera lingvo’. Miaopinie gxi estas perfekta por tio, gxuste cxar gxi ne estas perfekta (kun tiel komplikajxoj kiel akuzativo kaj subjunktivo, kiu Angle apenau ekzistas). 

Esperanto ankau povas uzigxi studojn pri evidento de la sxangxo lingva. Krom ciuj lingvoj naturaj, la reformo Esperanta cxiam havas kontauulojn inter gxiaj parolantoj, kaj tio cxi ankau interese montras, ke Esperanto vere ne estas nur artefarita lingvo!

Do la pracelo vere ne okazos, parte pro la neperfektoj en la lingvo. Sed tiuj neperfektoj cxi signifas, ke estonteca rolo Esperanta eksistas en studo lingva. Almenau lau mi, gxi ja estas nenia malsukceso!

Yesterday was the “International Day of Peace”, but it is one of history’s cruel twists that the founder of the most successful “auxiliary language” (designed to be everyone’s second language and thus aid international communication, potentially ending misunderstandings and thus promoting peace) died during World War One.

As usual, with Esperanto, exposure generally goes to those who either promote it vehemently as the perfect driver of world peace, or who decry it as completely flawed and useless. Of course, as ever, the truth is somewhere between those two, but you rarely get prizes for pointing that out!

Why did it fail?

Well, it only “failed” in terms of its pracelo (“original goal”) of becoming everyone’s second language. The idea was that if everyone spoke Esperanto alongside their own native language, international communication would become easy – you could even send a letter with a simple key to understanding Esperanto (such keys were themselves made available in 19 major languages, but took up only a page or so), and the recipient could understand (and perhaps even reply, such was the supposed ease with which Esperanto could be learned). This is in principle not a ludicrous idea. So what was wrong with the language that it did not happen?

Firstly, it is debatable whether any invented language could fulfil such a role. Language just is not mathematics; thus languages need to be natural (i.e. developed through time) to gain widespread acceptance. Any invented language will create the feeling that it is really just a code, no matter how well it is done. Indeed, the more perfectly such a language is designed (without irregularities and such like), the more code-like it will seem.

Secondly, Esperanto is not perfect, something Zamenhof himself admitted. He was still a relatively young man upon publication of its rules and vocabulary in 1887, and he had done a very good job in an age where access to linguistic (and even social) knowledge was much more restricted than it is now. Nevertheless some decisions he made were simply ludicrous, given his stated goal. The phonology is particularly flawed, for a number of reasons, including:

  • there are simply too many consonant sounds, particularly affricates (typically represented in English by <ch> or <sh>);
  • a significant number of sounds are extremely rare (for example, French and Italian lack either <h> or <hx>);
  • there are lots of difficult consonantal clusters (sometimes even for simple words – scii “to know” is almost impossible to pronounce clearly and in a natural language would inevitably over time become simply ci);
  • the presence of diphthongs (vowels sounded together such as English”boy“) is an unnecessary complication, unknown in major languages such as Spanish and Arabic;
  • the principle of “one sound, one letter” is broken right from the outset (in Esperanto, /ts/ can be written <ts> or <c>); and
  • there are accented letters (represented by necessity here by a following <x> because there is no means of marking the required circumflexes correctly even on a modern tablet), and to make matters worse they often bear no relation to the unaccounted one (so <j> has nothing to do with <jx>).

This is a huge frustration, because such complications are just unnecessary and they so obviously spoil an otherwise good effort!

So what about other celoj (goals)?

Esperanto has now been used in some primary schools in England as a first “foreign language”.  Arguably, it is perfect for that precisely because it is imperfect. As noted above, it requires some sounds which are rare or even absent in English (as do other languages), and it even has some quirky complications, such as:

  • an accusative – objects of the sentence or (usually) words towards which there is motion are marked with an additional -n; and
  • a subjunctive – the verb in subordinate clauses expressing desire or command is placed in the subjunctive, marked -u.

Thus, “I am at home” is mi estas hejme; but “I go home” is mi iras hejmen; and “I wish that you would go home” is mi volas ke vi iras hejmen but “I want you to go home” is mi volas ke vi iru hejmen. That is all a bit tricky – even a bit real!

Esperanto can also be used in academic studies for evidence of how languages change. For example, for “I am tired” is fundamentally mi estas laca, but now simply mi lacas is allowable. As noted above, inevitably some words would change too due to awkward pronunciations (even esti “to be” is generally now pronounced sti). There is also lively debate about vocabulary, notably around gender reform (as with many languages, but particularly relevant in a supposedly global language of peace) and the overuse of the mal– prefix to make opposites (so dekstra “right” becomes maldekstra “left”, but many writers now prefer liva for “left”, at least informally). As with any language, deliberate reform draws resistance from language users, and this is in itself an interesting issue – and a marker of how Esperanto is not so artificial after all!

So the pracelo will never realistically be met, partly because of the language’s imperfections. But it is these very imperfections which mean there is still a role for Esperanto in language study. Maybe it is not such a malsukceso after all!

Learn a language’s basic structure to learn a language

One of the things which trips up language learners is that they expect the target language to be structurally the same as their own. They make an apparently natural assumption, for example, that word order is pretty much the same in any language – probably basically ‘subject, verb, object’.

Let us just take basic word order, to demonstrate the point.

In English, it is assumed that the word order is ‘subject, verb, object’ (also known as ‘SVO’) – “I love you”, “the farmer saves the sailor”, and so on. English speakers assume this to be normal generally.

In fact, it is not absolute even in English. Nor is it in most languages (see what I did there?!)

In English, ‘interrogative clauses’ (questions) are basically ‘Verb, subject, object’ (‘VSO’). Certain conjunctions or other markers (such as “nor” above) also require this change, even where there is no question.

The assumption that ‘SVO’ is ‘normal’ is backed by the first language many English speakers encounter, typically French or Spanish. These are both basically ‘SVO’ too, although there is of course one notable pecularity: when the ‘object’ is a personal pronoun, they become ‘SOV’ (this is not usually taught this way, but that is in effect what happens). Thus le marin sauve le fermier does translate “the sailor saves the farmer”; but “I love you” becomes je t’aime (literally “I you love”).

We should be unsurprised by this ‘SOV’ form. Latin, from which French and Spanish are derived, allowed any word order in theory (subject/object relationships were demonstrated by endings, thus nauta servat agricolam and agricolam servat nauta both mean “the sailor saves the farmer”, even though in the latter case these are place ‘object, verb, subject’). However, in fact ‘SOV’ was typical in Latin (nauta agricolam servat). Thus the ‘SVO’ used when the object is not a personal pronoun in its daughter languages is the aberration; ‘SOV’ was the original norm.

Interestingly, only a minority of languages in the world are ‘SVO’; in fact more are typically ‘SOV’ than ‘SVO’, although it is close (and it depends a little on how you count). Both account for around 40-45%, with other orders also found. Close to home, an obvious variation is Irish, which is typically ‘VSO’. The other possible variations (‘VOS’, ‘OSV’ and ‘OVS’) are found, but are much rarer.

Some languages defy categorisation. German is ‘VSO’ in ‘interrogative clauses’ similarly to English; but it is ‘SOV’ in subordinate clauses, and ‘V2’ in main clauses (meaning the verb must be the second element in the sentence, regardless of what the first is). This is confused further by the point that if a subordinate clause comes before a main clause, it is taken to be the first element (or, alternatively, the main clause becomes ‘V1’ or ‘VSO’), and by the fact that cases are marked anyway (allowing theoretically free word order as in Latin) – als der Seemann den Bauer gerettet hat, war ich am Strand “When the sailor saved the farmer, I was on the beach” (literally “When the sailor the farmer saved, was I on the beach”). This sounds confusing, but is noteworthy because it is typical of Germanic languages (and retained also fully, with only minor differences, in Dutch; it was even present in French due to the aforementioned Germanic influence until the 16th century). Highly relevantly, English was originally this way too (hence the remaining apparent aberrations such as “nor is it” above).

Even languages which are categorised may be much freer than at first apparent. Spanish, for example, is quite frequently ‘VSO’ (Ha marcado Messi “Messi has scored”; literally “Has scored Messi” – though Messi ha marcado would also be acceptable, depending on emphasis), particularly in subordinate clauses (el gol que ha marcado Messi, literally “the goal that has scored Messi”, would be much preferred to el gol que Messi ha marcado).

Basic word order is one obvious aspect of a language’s structure you need to have at least some idea about before you can really learn it. There are other aspects to word order alone, of course – do adjectives come before the noun (as in English and German: ein starker Seemann “a strong sailor”) or after (as in Spanish and French: un marin fort)? Is the language “pro-drop” (strictly “null subject”) or does it require personal pronoun subjects (Spanish te quiero alone means “I love you”, even though there is no word for “I” in that clause; Latin was like this, and so are all its daughter languages except French, for reasons discussed in part here).

(We are talking basics here. The details of the order of adjectives, and the fact we do not give them any conscious thought, have startled lots of people on Twitter recently…)


There are of course other issues too, beyond word order (although word order is probably central). Does the language prefer nouns to verbs, for example? What tenses do its verbs possess, and what cases do its (pro)nouns have? Are there genders, and do adjectives have to agree (sometimes or always)?

If these things are known, at least basically, the learner is better prepared for the challenge ahead!

What is “learning” a language?

A sensible question raised after last week’s post was: what does “learning” a language mean?

This is, of course, quite similar to the question: what does “speaking” a language mean?

As with so many things on matters linguistic, there is no concrete answer to it. It depends from circumstance to circumstance.

Nevertheless, there is a question that anyone should ask before embarking on learning one: what is the purpose of learning this language?

Language learning is a surprisingly under-researched subject. Nevertheless, one thing which is clear (and intuitive even without research) is that a prime indicator of success is motivation. So, as with anything, if you do not know why you are doing something, you are less likely to succeed in doing it.

Then there is the need, having established the purpose, to be realistic about the goal. As established in my “speaking a language” post, native proficiency is not a realistic objective for an adult, even if resident in the country where the target language is spoken. This in itself may put many people off; but that would be a little like saying you should not take up a sport aged 39 because you will never be an Olympian. That is not, surely, the purpose.

Clarity about the purpose is important for anything, of course. So, are you trying to “learn” Italian so you can get by when ordering a meal or reserving a hotel room while there? Are you trying to “learn” French because you have seen a university course there you want to take up? Are you trying to “learn” Dutch because you want to try your luck seeking employment in the Netherlands or Belgium?

Then it is necessary to assess what exactly that means, given not just the level to which you wish to “learn” the language, but also the socio-linguistic situation.

For example, with a fairly widely spoken language such as Italian, it will be relatively easy to find a course and a phrase book to “learn” it to be proficient enough to go there on holiday and have a clearer idea about what is going on around you. (A course or a phrase book may not be the best way to achieve this, however!)

With French designed for use on a university course, you will want the basics but not necessarily much more than that as you will be able to “learn” once there through immersion (for many people, this is the best way). Many evening courses will deliver such an outcome; online courses or tapes are also possible, although they may in fact focus too much on vocabulary.

If you were to approach a language like Dutch, however, the socio-linguistic situation becomes very pertinent. A comfortable majority of people in the Netherlands and Flanders, particularly in the services industry where you may be seeking employment (as per the above scenario), speak good to excellent English. This is a serious problem, not just because it denies you the chance to practise (and “learn” through immersion), but also because it takes away motivation. If it becomes apparent that you may be able to get by without Dutch, then that becomes a tempting option over making the effort to “learn” it. That this denies you the chance to immerse yourself fully in the local culture may not be such a big issue, given in any case there is no sense of loss because “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

For all that, no matter what is meant by “learn”, there are a few universals which apply to “learning” at any level for any purpose. For example:

  • you will make mistakes, and indeed they are necessary to “learn” (just as you would if you took up a sport or any other sort of hobby);
  • it is good to know the socio-linguistic situation of the language compared to your purpose (a little like the New Year gym subscription, ask yourself honestly: are you really going to make the effort?);
  • it is good to establish if (and how) the target language is related to any other language you know (this may make it easier, and of course familiarity breeds motivation – I would happily have a go at Portuguese given my knowledge of Spanish, but Polish is rather more distant and Chinese is hopelessly unfamiliar);
  • it is good from the outset to establish the character of a language – whether it has a preference for noun phrases over verb phrases (as with German v Spanish); whether it places adjectives before or after nouns; whether it likes to end words in vowels or (certain) consonants; what sort of differentiation between tenses it makes; what intonation it uses (this is hard to explain in writing, but listen to a French person, a Swede or a German speak English and you will hear the different intonation from their native tongue); etc etc;
  • music (with lyrics in the target language) is always good;
  • focusing on areas of your own interest for reading articles or listening to reports will always maintain motivation and interest; and
  • remember, generally native speakers are keen to help you “learn”, although they too may make mistakes (and they may be hopeless for explaining why certain things are the way they are).

If you are realistic and clear about your objectives, learning a language is like learning anything else – with motivation and effort will come success. However, it does pay to be clear about the purpose, and thus what “learning” the language with your particular goal actually means.

Which language should I learn?

Linked to recent posts on here, and also an article in The Economist two weeks ago, is the question of which language a willing learner should choose.

Experts in The Economist made the case for French (on the grounds it is still widely spoken as an administrative language in various parts of the world), Spanish (on the grounds of rising numbers of native speakers and access from it to Italian and Portuguese), Brazilian Portuguese (this one lost me a bit so we will leave it there!), Mandarin (on the grounds of the rise of China) and Latin (as a conduit to lots of other languages).

Of these, I find only the case for Spanish convincing. On top of that, one obvious candidate was missed – German.

The article was extremely good but one really obvious issue – touched in last week on this blog – was missed altogether. You have to assess how motivated you will be to learn the language.

Are you really going to learn Mandarin? I mean, really? This cannot reasonably be done taking half an hour in the evening to do an Internet course from a flat in Bristol. It will require spending a considerable length of time in (a relevant region of) China – like, living and working there – and even at that being committed to immerse yourself rather than just seek out Westerners while teaching English to get by. Even in hugely favourable circumstances with real dedication, you will still probably come away with at best conversational proficiency (and very limited literacy), which you will then have to dedicate yourself to maintaining (by regular trips back to China, in all likelihood). How likely is that?

The same applies, in a way, to Latin. It appears more familiar of course, but in its case you really have no way of using the language (unless for some reason you have engaged in learning a language to reading fluency just to read ancient literature). I am not against a grounding in Latin by any means, but the best language you can learn? Dubious…

French is, of course, a fascinating language, but is at an immediate disadvantage because historically it differs markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent is limited, covering only North Africa and, at a push, Indochina. Compare that with the social and economic might of the whole Spanish-speaking world (or even the Portuguese in the longer run), and it comes out unquestionably worse. It has its uses no doubt (not least its retention as a formal administrative language by the likes of the UN and IOC), but its practical 21st century extent is restricted.

There is undoubtedly a case for Spanish. First of all, there is the motivation almost no matter where you are in the world – both Europeans and North Americans can find it instantly useful at a range of common holiday destinations for a start. Secondly, it has remained fairly close to Latin, as have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for Spanish-language hits to make it into the US or UK charts, and Spanish is increasingly used in US drama series (the main language of “Narcos”, a significant language in “Power”, and a peripheral but important one in many more). Nothing succeeds like exposure! Tie this to a large and growing number of native speakers with increasing economic influence, and the case for Spanish being the language to learn is close to unanswerable.

However, there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and complex case system initially suggest. It is also, by far, the language I have found most useful – I have found it necessary to fix electronic items (shipped with menus set in German), to set up TVs (I received one with instructions only in German), help out tourists (both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere), operate on holiday (this year in Italy German was a lingua franca at our site and locations around it), and manage business (there may be something of a bias here, but I am asked for German translations or courses more often than any other, by far). This is scarcely a surprise. German is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world’s largest trading bloc, and the language of the world’s second biggest exporter – and is thus of vastly more significance than French and potentially ahead of Spanish (particularly from a European perspective). It is also a conduit to Dutch, and to some extent to Scandinavian, thus covering all Europe’s most prosperous economies. It is important to maintain motivation (so that visits to Germany or Austria result in you practising German on the natives and not natives practising English on you), but there are a lot of reasons for doing so.

Faced with the choice between Spanish or German, a lot of other considerations come into play. However, on the basis of geographical proximity, social use, economic value and linkage to other languages in the longer run (and thus basic motivation, the most important thing of all), the “language to learn” is definitely one or the other of those two.



Why is German more complex than Spanish?

I have written many times before on how German (as a Germanic language) is more closely related to English than any Latinate language (like French, Italian or Spanish), and is indeed fundamentally the same. In some ways, this makes it easier to learn.

However, much though professional linguists will dispute my claiming this so definitively, the fact is German is a harder language to learn than Spanish for the average English speaker. How and why?

Consider the Spanish phrase:

con el perro

Here, my core vocabulary as even a novice would tell me that “con” is a preposition meaning something like “with”, and “el” is an article, “the”, marking masculine singular in this case (as, like most Latinate languages, Spanish distinguishes between two genders, masculine and feminine). We may also know, or be able to work out from the context, that “perro” in most instances means “dog”.

The advantage with Spanish is we now know not only what the word “perro” means but also how to use it. Nearly all words ending in –o are masculine and the plural in Spanish is formed by -(e)s, so we not only know that “dog” is “perro” but also that “dogs” is “perros“. This is the same regardless of the use of the word (whether it is a subject, and object, comes after a preposition, or whatever).

If we turn to German, life suddenly becomes a lot more complex.

mit dem Hund

For similar reasons to the above, we can work out that this means “with the dog”. We know from this what it means, and in particular what the word “Hund” (cognate with English “hound”, to make things even easier) means. However, we have a problem – we still have no idea how to use the word!

Firstly, even the article “dem” tells us only that “Hund” is masculine or neuter (German nouns have three genders, unlike in any other major Western European language). Secondly, worse still, we have no idea what the plural form is – it could be “Hund“, “Hünd“, “Hunde” (which is fact it is), “Hünde“, “Hunder“, “Hünder“, “Hunden“, conceivably “Hünden” or maybe even “Hunds“. This may be before we have come to learn that the dative plural (German also has four cases, two of which in the modern spoken language may be used after prepositions) generally adds –n – so, notwithstanding the above, the plural form would actually be “Hunden” in this case (literally!)

The immediate difficulty with German, therefore, is that it is not as easy to “absorb” in a way which means you can then use it accurately. Spanish has a much clearer and simpler set of markers than German has, making it more instantly accessible to learners.

This is not to say that Spanish is straightforward. The average verb in Spanish has over 50 distinct forms (invariably approaching 40 in common use), compared to just four in English and six in German. The point is, however, that once the patterns and irregularities are learned, they are clear; whereas in German, particularly with nouns, there are simply fewer reliable patterns and things like gender or plural form just have to be learned individually (even if some can be reasonably guessed).

That is the “how”. What about the “why”?

The reason that German has been more conservative with nouns and less so with verbs than Latinate languages such as Spanish (and indeed more conservative than other Germanic languages generally) is not easy to determine.

Broadly, German is a more noun-based language, which may explain why it has retained its complexities predominantly around them (effectively retaining only partially predictable “noun classes”), while simplifying verbs.

Nevertheless, there is no clear reason why German is quite so conservative, even versus similar languages such as Dutch. It was not a deliberate ploy around the time of standardisation (as it was for Italian), nor has German been particularly isolated (like Icelandic).

That German is tougher to reproduce accurately than Spanish for English speakers despite its closer family links may simply by luck of the linguistic draw.


What is a language?

Actually there is perhaps one question more scary for a linguist (professional or amateur) than “How many languages do you speak?

It is, simply: what is a language?

As noted in the above-linked article, in the same way astronomers cannot really define an apparently simple term like “planet”, linguists cannot really define an apparently simple term like “language”.

In any attempt to answer it, it is worth re-emphasising a core point at the outset. When we refer to “English”, usually (particularly when we refer to the language in teaching or administration) we in fact mean “the standard dialect of English based on the form deriving from the variety spoken by the educated classes in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle at around the time of the invention of printing”. French has a similar story to the area around the Sorbonne; Spanish to Salamanca; Portuguese to Coimbra; Italian a notably complex one back a little further in time but based around Florence; German an even more complex one involving Frankfurt (written) and Hanover (spoken). Regardless of the exact history in each case, in most cases we are generally referring to an agreed “standard” written variety and how that variety is reproduced in contemporary speech. There is, notably, a degree of artificiality to this, and yet any “standard” could not survive if it did not represent a variety of the language widely understood and accepted by its users.

Then, in most of Europe (and most places which speak languages of European origin) and parts of the Indian Subcontinent at least, it is worth noting that nearly all “languages” derive from a common source, most likely somewhere in modern Ukraine around 4000-5000 years ago. At that time, in that location, there was a tribe which spoke what we now refer to as “Indo-European”, which was of course never “standardised”. As that tribe broke out, notably westward (from a European point of view) and southward (from an Indian), its language dispersed. As speakers entered new areas, they had to describe different things (new types of tree, sorts of landscape, or even shades of colour, for example); and they came across other tribes from whom they borrowed words and who influenced grammar and pronunciation. The real issue here is that the difference between languages is not just one of space (notably through modern mutual intelligibility), but also time. At some stage Indo-Europeans were speaking a single language, and later they were speaking Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit; later still Italian/Romanian/French/Spanish/Portuguese, Modern Greek and Hindustani.

Additionally, at certain times but in very different epochs we find the first written examples of each tree, and then the first published examples – all of which may have an impact of our perception and sense of what is and is not a language. The issue here is that our instinctive Western bias towards defining “language” very closely alongside “Standard written variety” is problematic. Did “Latin” only exist once it was written? Did “German” only exist once it was published? Do Amazonian tribes with no concept of writing not speak “languages”? In future we may find generations rejecting any language which does not have at least 1,000,000 Wikipedia articles as evidence of its existence!

We also have to consider further the distinction between written and spoken varieties. Clearly, they are connected. However, they are also differentiated in ways which to many of us are simply intuitive. How often do you use the word “therefore” in daily speech, for example? If we take this further, we find that a majority of people globally in fact do not only switch between spoken versus written and/or formal versus informal registers, but actually between languages. A rural dweller in Morocco, for example, may well speak Berber at home, Arabic at the market, and French in education and government dealings. Does that person speak three languages, when they are not each used in all contexts? Indeed, if Berber is never used for commerce, education or administration (and is never written), is it a “language” at all? And then, if that person meets a trader from Syria who also purports to speak “Arabic” but they cannot understand each other at all, who is speaking what and are they different “languages”?

Most of the terminology around this issue is in fact borrowed from German – Abstand refers to language differentiation by linguistic distance (“Irish” is clearly linguistically different from “English” but not from “Gaelic”; “English is clearly different from “Irish” but not from “Scots”); Ausbau is the notion of how far a language is deliberately developed (not just towards written standards, but that is an obvious issue); Dachsprache is essentially a person’s sense of which language they are speaking (or writing) regardless of context (so a northwestern German farmer may linguistically speak something closer to Standard Dutch than Standard German at home, but if he regards himself to be speaking German then, arguably at least, by definition he is); and Halbsprache is a term used for a linguistic variety which is not fully developed as a written standard language of a community or communities, but has some sense of development and commonality (perhaps, for example, in literature) which goes beyond a perfectly regular non-standard regional dialect or similar.

It is here that we find “language” status, in the West at least, is an intensely political thing – the old maxim is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. At the time of the French revolution, Parisian French would have been easily understood by only a minority of the population, many of whom spoke completely different languages (from Breton to Dutch) and most of whom spoke a different variety originating from Latin; at the time of Italian unification it was openly admitted “We have created Italy; now we have to create Italians”. Of course, this political-linguistic emphasis can go the other way too – the successful revivals of Catalan and Welsh are tied, with different levels of connection and comfort, to nationalist/separatist political movements (as are many rather less successful ones). Countries such as Spain generally struggle with the challenge of so many languages at different levels of development and with different levels of popular support.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! However, I would suggest the best solution I have seen is a language pyramid:

Spanish Arabic French
Japanese Russian German Hindi Indonesian
Thai Swahili Polish Dutch Gujurati Korean Wolof
Kannada Zulu Irish Catalan Afrikaans Papiamento Belarussian Maori Icelandic

Here, we can see (if formatting allows!) that English has a unique status as the foremost language of global trade, knowledge and diplomacy. Even here, this presents challenges, however. How different are the varieties and should we specify which one (American, British, or even a different non-native version) predominates? For how long has English had this unique status? Which language had it before and how did it lose it?

In the next level, purely by way of example, I include three languages of unquestionable global reach and cultural relevance. That said, even here they have attained this status by different means. Spanish has it by weight of numbers; Arabic due to its religious role; and French due to its previous role as the high language of Royal elites and global diplomacy. Some of these may not stand the test of time.

At the next level we have significant national languages, not only because they are spoken by a lot of people in globally relevant economies, but also because they have some degree of reach (Pokemon, vodka, Vorsprung durch Technik, guru, nasi goreng etc.). Even here, we have some challenges. What exactly does Russian cover? Do we allow for Austrian German in any way? Is Hindi to be considered distinctly from Urdu, and why? Is Indonesian to be considered alongside Malay, and does this affect its status?

At the next level we have significant national languages which perhaps do not have quite the same reach, or significant international trading languages in particular regions. These are quite distinct issues, and we are now touching on just how far our Western bias towards “Written Standards” takes us, versus the practical reality of trading and living in some form of “lingua franca” for hundreds of millions of people.

At the final range we have a lot of distinction: established regionally significant languages, national languages in restricted use but of historical significance, growing regional languages in large economies, languages in administrative use in regional powers, significant inter-regional trading languages, national languages whose status distinct from other languages is disputed, national languages within nations, and linguistically significant national languages of small countries. Maybe these do not all belong at the same “level”, but they show a range of uses and challenges in terms of definition of a “language” and why it may (or may not) be so defined – globally, nationally, regionally; socially, politically, economically; never mind linguistically!

Of course, most of the world’s languages would not even make it on to the above pyramid. From tribal languages of restricted range to languages of uncertain status (Ulster Scots anyone?), the challenges only multiply below the pyramid! This is to say nothing of constructed languages such as Esperanto or Klingon; or indeed codes or systems which meet some of the common definitions of “language”.

We may, in practice, never be able to agree on the definition of a “language”. We should at least reach some agreement, however, on the complexities which surround the challenge of agreeing that definition!