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Re: Most challenging features of languages?

From:Julia "Schnecki" Simon <helicula@...>
Date:Thursday, June 23, 2005, 11:39

On 6/21/05, Joseph B. <darkmoonman@...> wrote:
> I'm curious to know which feature of a language (nat-, con-, or aux-) that > individuals here found the most difficult to understand and/or master.
I've had difficulties with many of the things that the others mentioned (learning aspect for the first time, tones, irregularities, and so on). And I won't even mention my feeble attempts at dealing with Sino-Japanese writing. I can tell kanji from kana, and both kinds of kana from each other, and I will usually find the radical in a kanji/hanzi, but I won't be able to remember, let alone reproduce, most of these signs. (If I ever learn a South-East Asian language, it probably will be Vietnamese. ;) Sometimes, though, it's not the unfamiliar that's the problem, it's the familiar. Apparently there's a part of my brain that is convinced that foreign languages better be reasonably foreign, dammit, and if they seem to have some feature that's too similar to my native language (German), then I must be mistaken. This happened to me when I started learning Swedish. Until then, I'd only looked at foreign languages with more or less fixed word order (such as English or French) or with sort of free word order (freer than in German, that is -- Latin, Sanskrit and the like). Then I started learning Swedish, which is V2, just like German. This confused the heck out of me, until I realized that (a) V2 is probably more "Germanic" than, say, SVO and English, not German, is the "odd man out"; and (b) all those other languages had apparently "taught" me that in order for a language to be foreign (i.e. not some sort of German dialect), it can't possibly have V2 syntax (for which only Germans are crazy enough), it needs either something much more fixed or something much less fixed. ;-) I eventually managed to "unlearn" that "rule"... but before that, I went through a very awkward phase where every grammatical Swedish sentence looked to me like some weird construct of my German brain. Surely _snart ska vi börja med kursen_ (lit. "soon shall we start with the.course") can only be a stupid word-by-word translation from German, as opposed to grammatical Swedish? I also have some problems with phonemic length in Finnish (and probably in other languages with phonemic length as soon as I start learning the next one). I can hear and (as far as I know) produce long vowels and consonants just fine, both in isolation and in actual words; but I often have trouble remembering them if they don't fit neatly into the familiar German rules (i.e. no long consonants ever, and long vowels only in stressed syllables, or in unstressed open syllables if the vowel in question isn't anything that could conceivably be spelled as <e>) and if they can't be deduced from the usual Finnish morphonology rules ("this suffix always lengthens that part of the stem", "this consonant, when surrounded by vowels, can only ever be long", etc.). Which means that I'm usually lost with loanwords. (For example, I usually misspell _teatteri_ "theater" as _teaatteri_ or _teaateri_, and I make the corresponding mistakes in the pronunciation (['tEA:t:Eri] or ['tEA:tEri] instead of ['tEAt:Eri]). Some words, such as _persoonallinen_, I tend to avoid altogether.) This may sound strange, but part of the problem seems to be the (more or less) phonemic orthography -- or rather, my knowledge of the fact that Finnish orthography is more or less phonemic. I've never had much trouble with English spelling, maybe because it's so irregular that I tend to remember words as whole words (sort of like hanzi -- one combination of squiggles or lines, one word/lexeme) instead of sequences of letters. With Finnish, on the other hand, my brain apparently wants a clear phoneme-grapheme mapping, which works most of the time -- until I try using one of those words where I can never remember the right long/short sound pattern because it clashes too strongly with my brain's "default settings". The one big problem I've had with every foreign language so far, though, is having to remember all those strange new words. I can deal with grammar (most of the time), I can deal with phonetics (most of the time), but don't ask me about vocabulary. All my old language teachers probably still remember that student who confused _aptitude_ and _avalanche_ (both in English and in French), or _vasikka_ "calf" (the animal) and _lusikka_ "spoon" (in Finnish), because they're apparently too similar. On the other hand, "false friends" (such as English _snake_ and German _Schnake_ "moskito") were never a problem for me... <scratches head in confusion> Regards, Julia -- Julia Simon (Schnecki) -- Sprachen-Freak vom Dienst _@" schnecki AT iki DOT fi / helicula AT gmail DOT com "@_ si hortum in bybliotheca habes, deerit nihil (M. Tullius Cicero)