Language’s Equal Status

I’ve grown up hearing people say and thinking that the English language was a “complex” language, even more complex than other languages. Now, after minimal reading in linguistics, I know this is a misconception. English may be irregular but it’s no more complex than any other language. The linguist Dan Slobin summarized this point nicely in a Qualia interview.

There’s no way in which you can define one language as being more complex than another. If you look at all of the devices available in a language, my guess is they’ll balance each other off. So, if you lose case-inflection then you’ll have more complicated word order laws and richer uses of prepositions. (Slobin, 2005)

Case inflection is a linguistic device that varies between languages. In English, there are very few case inflections. For example, if English speakers saw the word “cleaned” they would not know who or what cleaned, whereas in Italian the word “cleaned” would change form to indicate who was cleaning and when the cleaning occurred. On first reading, one might think this English is more difficult for this reason, but this is wrong because there is a trade-off. Perhaps the trade-off is that in English sentence requires a strict word order (e.g. noun-verb-noun), whereas in Italian it is allowable to switch word order.

Another interpretation of case inflection in English and Italian would be that Italian’s abundance of case inflection would make it a more difficult language, but the “rich inflection morphology” makes words easily distinguishable (Bates, Devescovi & Wulfeck, 2001, p. 373). On the other hand, English’s paucity of case inflection causes ambiguity for users, but context and word order resolves ambiguity. Also, consider Chinese, where 80% of words are compound words, which might be difficult for listeners to interpret if it weren’t for lexical tone, or the way the words are said (Bates et al.). Bates and colleagues write “all languages must have achieved a roughly comparable degree of learnability and processibility across the course of history, or they would not still be around” (2001, p. 374).

I wondered if my belief that English was the most complex language was unusual. Am I the only one who has ever thought English was the most difficult to use? I developed a short survey to help me answer this question. In the survey, I asked individuals what their first, or native, language was, if they knew more than one language, I asked about their awareness of several other languages from Indo-European, Asian, and other lines, and finally I asked them what they thought the most complex language was.

I predicted individuals who were monolingual would have a higher likelihood of saying their own language was the most complex, and those who are bi- or multi-lingual would be more likely to report a language other than their native language as most complex. I’ve collected data from 6 individuals that vary in their native language, age, gender, and linguistic abilities. Respondents include 3 men and 3 women, of which, 3 are native English speakers and 3 are non-native English speakers (Malayalam, Spanish, and Chinese). Three are monolingual while the other three are at least bilingual.

Of those six people, two thought English was the most complex language – both were native English respondents. Clearly, data from 6 respondents is hardly enough to come to a general conclusion about a population’s beliefs regarding language. However, I don’t think I’m alone in ever thinking English was the most complex language, certainly not among monolingual English speakers. It will be interesting to continue collecting data to explore this question. There are problems with my survey too. For example, I didn’t ask people to consider a particular form (i.e. written, spoken) when they reported what they thought was the most complex language. Chinese was the most oft reported complex language; my guess is respondents were imagining Chinese script. Interestingly, the only Chinese native speaker thought Spanish was the most complex language because “Spanish speakers speak so fast.”

Probably the most important finding though, is the fact that everyone reported a “most complex” language, and that they all readily did so. To me that indicates language’s “equal” status among linguists is not well known in the public.

-Posted by Tyler

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  1. A fair argument can be made that English is the hardest for a non-native learning to acquire in the sense that the vocabulary is enormous, the spelling is chaotic (to know a word, you need to now its sound, the language it entered from, and when it entered), and collocation means that multi-word phrases often act as if they were words.

    By this argument, grammar can be picked up for easier than vocabulary.

    Of course, English does not have tones or clicks.

    Perhaps instead of saying one language is the most difficult, or all are equally difficult, there are several dimensions of difficulty on which languages vary wrt to the first-language one is coming from.

  2. Thanks for your comment TDAXP.

    A fair argument can be made that English is the hardest for a non-native learning to acquire in the sense that the vocabulary is enormous, the spelling is chaotic … and collocation means that multi-word phrases often act as if they were words.

    Can you pass along a citation from those who make this argument?

    Good point though, linguists generally study three aspects of Language 1) Language Development or acquisition, 2) Processing, and 3) Production. The act of learning a second (or third) language and its effects on other aspects of cognition is a hot topic.

    I think everyone can agree about English’s irregularities, this seems to be the crux of the argument you summarized. And adult-acquisition or second-language learning is indeed different from learing one’s first language. You’re probably right that the “first-language one is coming from” effects the acquisition of another language. Bates and colleagues write on something similar which they call “linguistic xenophobia”:

    “Tuning in” to language-specific speech contrasts appears to be related systematically (and perhaps causally) to “tuning out” of phoneme contrasts outside child’s language, a process that begins around 8-10 months of age” (p. 375)

    In essence, it is difficult to learn other languages because, at least to some degree, we cannot hear the phonemic contrasts of the second language like a native speaker can.

    On what dimensions would you rate difficulty based on a person’s first language? Maybe, if you were coming from Italian and learning English, Word-Order would be a difficult concept? I could get on board with this…

    p.s. “wrt” does this mean “with regard to”?

  3. The argument’s entirely my own — it’s strikingly impressionistic.

    Functional literacy in a first-language probably is equally effortless in all human languages. The question then moves onto which languages are particularly hard to learn in adulthood with a basis in the other.

    I think the term of ‘linguistic xenophobia’ is an examplde of reflexive and mindless political correctness that encompasses much of psychology (female-based-dispersion, the neologism for patrilocality, being another), but the substance

    In essence, it is difficult to learn other languages because, at least to some degree, we cannot hear the phonemic contrasts of the second language like a native speaker can.

    is surely correct.

    On what dimensions would you rate difficulty based on a person’s first language? Maybe, if you were coming from Italian and learning English, Word-Order would be a difficult concept? I could get on board with this…

    Off the top of my head..

    Grammer
    Vocabulary
    Phenomes
    Tonality

    Of these I think that grammer would be the simpliest, but perhaps then you have working memory issues come up.

    Given the slow-rate of learning words in a second language in adulthood, the very large vocabulary of English would make it difficult to be proficient — though this would be negated in ‘basic english,’ or by some training program that just sticks to Germanic words in the language for everyday use.

    p.s. “wrt” does this mean “with regard to”?

    Of course! 😀

    Language order

  4. I believe it was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who imagined a neo-German language fashioned to be “the perfect philosophical language.”
    One’s perception of the “ease” of an unknown language could be influenced by such a thing as simple as the availability of Berlitz or Rosetta Stone products.
    T$, in this informal research, aren’t you researching cultural perceptions more than language difficulty? To me, the “equal status” principle for languages seems self-evident: the amount of information the human brain can hold has been the same for about 100,000 years across all cultures.

  5. Adam,

    Absolutely, I’m measuring cultural perceptions more than language difficulty. My intent was to explore the idea that “English is the hardest,” because this is what I originally thought.

    I guess I’m not quite sure what you mean about the Rosetta Stone and other products. Do you mean knowing about available language learning products (e.g. Spanish) will make a person think Spanish is harder? or easier? What is your prediction?

  6. My idea was that walking through an airport (for example) and seeing “Learn Spanish” products would make people think Spanish is “easier.” I’ve never seen Rosetta Stone for Arabic and Chinese, although they’re out there probably.

  7. “the amount of information the human brain can hold has been the same for about 100,000 years across all cultures”

    This is questionable. Human cognitive differences are heritable within populations, and act as if they are heritable between populations. Regardless of the latter point, human cognition has been under heavy natural selection for the past 10,000 years.

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