The OF Blog: Questions regarding languages

Monday, February 21, 2011

Questions regarding languages

As many of you know, I have a fascination with languages and how people communicate, both verbally and non-verbally alike.  I never am satisfied with having only one way to communicate (I write in English most of the time so monolinguals can understand me, to the detriment of my writing skills in Spanish) and my recent experiences with reading Easton Press' often-atrocious translations of French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Russian writers has led me to consider renewing and broadening my study of languages and their literatures. 

Since I have had several multilingual people respond on this blog in the past, here is a little questionnaire (English monolinguals can also answer some of these):

1.  Which language(s) that employ either the Latin or Cyrillic script do you think would be the most challenging for an English native speaker to learn and why (I'm excluding most other scripts due to availability and my inability to distinguish letters in Arabic script)?

2.  Which language(s) have the richest variety of written works in the three traditional genres (prose, drama, poetry)?

3.  If you are aware of it, which language(s) have a healthy or at least growing SF/F scene(s)?

4.  If you want to learn any other language besides the one(s) you already know, which one(s) would that be and why?

Very curious to hear your thoughts.  I know I'm having to focus a lot more on French and German at the moment, due to having students enrolled in elementary levels at the drug rehab center where I teach and those certainly will receive first priority in the coming months, but I am tempted to learn at least the reading rudiments of at least one other, so comments might sway me a bit here.


Fish Monkey said...

1. I think Russian would be difficult to learn, because of the declensions and perfective/imperfective verbs. It will also fit your 2. and 3.

I would like to learn Spanish or Portuguese, because I do like Romance languages a lot. Spanish would be handy, but Portuguese sounds very appealing to my ear, and the pronunciation seems most intuitive to me.

Jen said...

1. Hearsay: Russian (an American friend of mine learned it recently).
Experience and bias: Romanian. Compared to what I know of the other Romance languages, the grammar is horrible and full of exceptions.

2 and 3. No idea, honestly. Personally I'd go for Spanish and French.

4. I'm trying to polish my French and I'll go for German next if I have time and don't get bored. But it's for personal reasons (friends), not literary.

Ian Sales said...

1. Vietnamese, or perhaps Finnish or Estonian.

2. Arabic, possibly - since it encompasses the works of many different countries and historical periods.

3. Romanian - they've translated and published two of my blog posts, and are currently advertising a Romanian steampunk anthology.

Ian Sales said...

Oops. Missed off the last question:

4. Hindi - because I'm drawn to the script. Or Hebrew, because it's a Semitic language like Arabic. Or Swedish, because I like many elements of Scandinavian culture...

Lsrry said...

Nice responses so far! Having had two years of college Latin (and progressing up to translating a couple books of the Æneid), the declension part makes perfect sense to me. The biaspectual verbs, however, that might be a problem (I know that's the tricky part with the little Serbian that I've learned over the years), although with some more time/effort, that might make sense.

Romanian grammar, having a textbook on it, is indeed horrible, even worse than French in that regard.

Vietnamese...well, my dad learned a bit of it while he served a tour there in 1967-1968. Finnish might be good for death metal, I suppose ;) Wish I could decipher Arabic script, as that would open up a wealth of poetry to me (I think of Arabic as the language of poetry).

Spanish and Portuguese are both very enjoyable to read and once you learn one, you have already learned 80-90% of the other. Much as I hate to admit it, Portuguese, particularly the Brazilian variety, sounds better than even Caribbean Spanish dialects, which I prefer to speak when communicating in Spanish.

Daniel Ausema said...

Hungarian frequently gets trotted out as at least one of the more difficult languages for an English-speaker to learn. I don't recall at the moment why that specifically.

My younger brother has learned some Russian, and my impression is that it would certainly be up there as well.

I feel for you with your comments on Arabic. I picked up a bit a few years ago, while living in Dearborn and working in the schools there...but that was just oral. I'd watch the parapros write things on the board and just stare at the script and wish I could decipher it.

If I were to learn another language...I'd be tempted with Dutch or even Frisian to honor my ancestry, but it wouldn't be the most practical of choices. Probably Portuguese, though, which would be a quick learn with how similar it is to Spanish, something I could probably teach myself pretty well, if I committed myself to it. I haven't had much luck trying to teach myself a new language in the past, but the only times I've really tried were with spoken Arabic ten years ago and Catalan even earlier, just before I went to Spain (and before I'd heard the lovely Valenciano language, which is quite similar). Teaching myself Portuguese might go more smoothly.

Megazver said...

1. Well, that just leaves you with the Slavic languages, really. (Yeah, okay, also Baltic, Finno-Ugric and I'm probably forgetting something, but I wouldn't learn any of these for the literature.) If you got your French and German to the point where you're fluent enough to add another language, I'd go with Russian.

2. Barring the Romantic languages and German? Russian, probably.

3. Russian. Poles have a few good writers, as well. And Polish is pretty easy to learn, if you know Russian.

4. Well, I'm Russian and I'm fluent in English and Lithuanian. (My Lithuanian's bit rusty, though.) I can read French, occasionally looking up the words and I'm a few months into learning Spanish. Once I get to the "read with a dictionary" level with Spanish, I'll probably start German or Polish. In the distant future, if I master those two and still want more I'll go Italian, Chinese and Japanese, in that order. But that's getting ahead of myself.

Megazver said...

PS I don't think that learning reading rudiments will work with Russian, though. It's synthetic enough (has enough fiddly bits) that you'll probably have to learn quite a bit of it to be able to read.

Anonymous said...

1. There are more candidates for this than you can shake a stick at among Native American languages. Most are written with Latin characters, and there are plenty of texts to read. And they pretty much all offer a wide range of phonological, morphological, and syntactic phenomena not found in English.

2. Just restricting my answer to Native American languages, I'll guess this is a function of how many speakers the language has. Off the top of my head, I think Quechua has the most, followed by Aymara (which may or may not be related), followed by Nahuatl, and I don't know what, but it'll be in Central or South America. Among North American languages, maybe Navajo, Lakota, Cree, or some Inuit dialect.

3. In the sense that most Native American literatures incorporate traditional elements of myth or fable, I'll say all of them have an extant fantasy scene. I had a friend who was a native speaker of Akawaio who would rattle off great stories about their trickster character, Rabbit.

4. I would actually pick a North American language. You're much less likely to meet a native speaker, but you'll easily find texts with English translations. Also, I just think it would be neat to learn a language closely related to what was spoken in my neighborhood 400 years ago.

Lsrry said...

Good points. In regards to Native American languages, I'd be most interested in Quechua (I do have a concise grammar) and Cherokee (being descended matrilineally from Eastern Band Cherokee, even though I don't claim tribal membership due to lack of records. Cherokee also interests me because Sequoyah was born in my native state of Tennessee. Major problem unfortunately is a paucity of literature available in these languages, although Quechua certainly has had some writers use it in Peru.

As for Russian, what I meant by "rudiments" was being able to read and converse at a simple conversational level, not just learning the basics of grammar. Might get to that if I can ever motivate myself to become reading fluent in Serbian. Just have to push on through the tiredness at the end of the work day and make time for it, I guess.

Hungarian is considered to be extremely difficult for Indo-Europeans because of the agglutinative nature of the language (root words with several affixes attached to indicate mood, tense, aspect, noun relationships, etc.) and a large vocabulary that doesn't resemble words in other languages. Have heard that Basque is even harder, though, because it is an isolate.

Gerard said...

1) For most difficult language my vote would go to either Hungarian or Finnish. These two language have hardly anything in common with any other european language, so knowledge of other languages will not help a lot.

2) I think the most variety in genre would be Hungarian. But I'm prejudiced, because I would love to be able to read Márái in the original! (have you ever read him? Highly recommended!) If I can choose any language I'd say Russian.

3) can't really say.

4) pfff, a lot :) Highest priority would be Spanish, but besides that one: Latin, Greek, Italian, Portugese, Old Norse, Old English, French, German, etc.

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