Johnson

Tonguetwisters

Some languages are harder to learn than othersbut not for the obvious reasons

 




May 8th 2021 | words 795

 


WHEN CONSIDERING which foreign languages to study, some people shy away from those that use a different alphabet. Those random-looking squiggles seem to symbolise the impenetrability of the language, the difficulty of the task ahead.



squiggle


squiggle / skwigl /

noun 

a line, for example in sb's handwriting , that is drawn or written in a careless way with twists and curls in it

()

Are these dots and squiggles supposed to be your signature?   

squiggly / skwigli / adj. 


impenetrability


impenetrable / impenitrbl / 

adj. 

1. that cannot be entered, passed through or seen through

an impenetrable jungle     

impenetrable darkness    

OPP penetrable 

2. ~ (to sb) impossible to understand

SYN incomprehensible 

an impenetrable mystery   

 

Their jargon is impenetrable to an outsider.   

impenetrability / impenitrbilti / noun 

impenetrably / -bli / adv. 



So it can be surprising to hear devotees of Russian say the alphabet is the easiest part of the job. The Cyrillic script, like the Roman one, has its origins in the Greek alphabet. As a result, some letters look the same and are used near identically. Others look the same but have different pronunciations, like the P in Cyrillic, which stands for an r-sound. For Russian, that cuts the task down to only about 20 entirely new characters. These can comfortably be learned in a week, and soon mastered to the point that they present little trouble. An alphabet, in other words, is just an alphabet. A few tricks aside (such as the occasional omission of vowels), other versions do what the Roman one does: represent sounds.


devotee


devotee /devti/

noun~

1. (of sb/sth) a person who admires and is very enthusiastic about sb/sth

a devotee of science fiction

2.~ (of sb/sth) a very religious person who belongs to a particular group

devotees of Krishna



cut (sth) down to (sth)



To make something smaller or more manageable.

Thanks to the yard sale, we were able to cut our Christmas decorations down to just one box.

We cut the program down to size and it was very enjoyable.

We cut down the program to a half hour.



Foreign languages really become hard when they have features that do not appear in your ownthings you never imagined you would have to learn. Which is another way of saying that languages slice up the messy reality of experience in strikingly different ways.


This is easily illustrated with concrete vocabulary. Sometimes the meanings of foreign words and their English equivalents overlap but dont match exactly. Danish, for instance, does not have a word for wood; it just uses tree (trae). Or consider colours, which lie on a spectrum that different languages segment differently. In Japanese, ao traditionally refers to both green and blue. Some green items are covered by a different word, midori, but ao applies to some vegetables and green traffic lights (which, to make matters more confusing, are slightly blueish in Japan). As a result, ao is rather tricky to wield.



wield


wield / wild / 

verb [VN] 

1. to have and use power, authority, etc.

,,,(): 

She wields enormous power within the party.   

2. to hold sth, ready to use it as a weapon or tool

,,()

SYN brandish 

He was wielding a large knife.   



Life becomes tougher still when other languages make distinctions that yours ignores. Russian splits blue into light (goluboi) and dark (sinii); foreigners can be baffled by what to call, say, a mid-blue pair of jeans. Plenty of other basic English words are similarly broken down in their foreign corollaries. Wall and corner seem like simple concepts, until you learn languages that sensibly distinguish between a citys walls and a bedrooms (German Mauer versus Wand), interior corners and street corners (Spanish rincn and esquina), and so on.



baffle


baffle / bfl /

verb 

to confuse sb completely; to be too difficult or strange for sb to understand or explain

:

[VN] 

 His behaviour baffles me.   

[VN VN wh-]  

I'm baffled as to why she hasn't called.   

 

I'm baffled why she hasn't called.   

bafflement noun 

His reaction was six of bafflement.   

baffling adj. 


corollary


corollary / krlri; NAmE krleri; kr- / 

noun (pl. -ies)

~ (of / to sth) (formal or technical ) a situation, an argument or a fact that is the natural and direct result of another one

(



These problems are tractable on their own; you dont often have to refer to a corner in casual conversation. But when other languages make structural distinctions missing from your native tongueoften in the operation of verbsthe mental effort seems never-ending. English has verbs-of-all-work that seem straightforward enough until you try to translate them. In languages like German, put is divided into verbs that signify hanging, laying something flat and placing something tall and thin. Go in Russian is a nightmare, with a suite of verbs distinguishing walking and travelling by vehicle, one-way and round trips, single and repeated journeys, and other niceties. You can specify all these things in English if you want to; the difference is that in Russian, you must.


nicety


nicety / naisti / 

noun (pl. -ies) (formal

1. [C, usually pl.] the small details or points of difference, especially concerning the correct way of behaving or of doing things

2. [U] (formal) the quality of being very detailed or careful about sth

the nicety of his argument    

SYN precision 



Sometimes verb systems force choices on speakers not only for individual verbs, but for all of them. Many English-speakers are familiar with languages, such as French and Italian, which have two different past tenses, for completed actions and for habitual or continued ones. But verb systems get much more exotic than that.



habitual


habitual / hbitul / 

adj. 

1. [only before noun] usual or typical of sb / sth

They waited for his habitual response.   

 

(formal) a person's place of habitual residence   

 

2. (of an action ) done, often in a way that is annoying or difficult to stop

habitual complaining     

the habitual use of heroin    

3. [only before noun] (of a person ) doing sth that has become a habit and is therefore difficult to stop

a habitual criminal / drinker / liar, etc.   

habitually / -tuli /adv.

the dark glasses he habitually wore   



Evidential languages require a verb ending that shows how the speaker knows that the statement made is true. Turkish is one of them; others, such as a cluster in the Amazon, have particularly complexand obligatoryevidentiality rules. Many languages mark subjects and direct objects of sentences in distinct ways. But in Basque, subjects of intransitive verbs (those that take no direct object) look like direct objects themselves, while subjects of transitive verbs get a special form. If Martin catches sight of Diego, Basques say the equivalent of Martinek sees Diego.


In the end, the hard languages to learn are not those that do what your own language does in a new way. They are the ones that make you constantly pay attention to distinctions in the world that yours blithely passes over. It is a bit like a personal trainer putting you through entirely new exercises. You might have thought yourself fit before, but the next day you will wake up sore in muscles you never knew you had.


blithe


blithe / blai /

adj. [usually before noun] 

1. (disapproving) showing you do not care or are not anxious about what you are doing

He drove with blithe disregard for the rules of the road.   

2. (literary) happy; not anxious

a blithe and carefree girl    

blithely adv.

He was blithely unaware of the trouble he'd caused.   

, 

'It'll be easy,' she said blithely.   

""





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Economist | The real reasons some languages are harder to learn

 

 

Johnson

Tonguetwisters

Some languages are harder to learn than othersbut not for the obvious reasons

 




May 8th 2021 | words 795

 


WHEN CONSIDERING which foreign languages to study, some people shy away from those that use a different alphabet. Those random-looking squiggles seem to symbolise the impenetrability of the language, the difficulty of the task ahead.



squiggle


squiggle / skwigl /

noun 

a line, for example in sb's handwriting , that is drawn or written in a careless way with twists and curls in it

()

Are these dots and squiggles supposed to be your signature?   

squiggly / skwigli / adj. 


impenetrability


impenetrable / impenitrbl / 

adj. 

1. that cannot be entered, passed through or seen through

an impenetrable jungle     

impenetrable darkness    

OPP penetrable 

2. ~ (to sb) impossible to understand

SYN incomprehensible 

an impenetrable mystery   

 

Their jargon is impenetrable to an outsider.   

impenetrability / impenitrbilti / noun 

impenetrably / -bli / adv. 



So it can be surprising to hear devotees of Russian say the alphabet is the easiest part of the job. The Cyrillic script, like the Roman one, has its origins in the Greek alphabet. As a result, some letters look the same and are used near identically. Others look the same but have different pronunciations, like the P in Cyrillic, which stands for an r-sound. For Russian, that cuts the task down to only about 20 entirely new characters. These can comfortably be learned in a week, and soon mastered to the point that they present little trouble. An alphabet, in other words, is just an alphabet. A few tricks aside (such as the occasional omission of vowels), other versions do what the Roman one does: represent sounds.


devotee


devotee /devti/

noun~

1. (of sb/sth) a person who admires and is very enthusiastic about sb/sth

a devotee of science fiction

2.~ (of sb/sth) a very religious person who belongs to a particular group

devotees of Krishna



cut (sth) down to (sth)



To make something smaller or more manageable.

Thanks to the yard sale, we were able to cut our Christmas decorations down to just one box.

We cut the program down to size and it was very enjoyable.

We cut down the program to a half hour.



Foreign languages really become hard when they have features that do not appear in your ownthings you never imagined you would have to learn. Which is another way of saying that languages slice up the messy reality of experience in strikingly different ways.


This is easily illustrated with concrete vocabulary. Sometimes the meanings of foreign words and their English equivalents overlap but dont match exactly. Danish, for instance, does not have a word for wood; it just uses tree (trae). Or consider colours, which lie on a spectrum that different languages segment differently. In Japanese, ao traditionally refers to both green and blue. Some green items are covered by a different word, midori, but ao applies to some vegetables and green traffic lights (which, to make matters more confusing, are slightly blueish in Japan). As a result, ao is rather tricky to wield.



wield


wield / wild / 

verb [VN] 

1. to have and use power, authority, etc.

,,,(): 

She wields enormous power within the party.   

2. to hold sth, ready to use it as a weapon or tool

,,()

SYN brandish 

He was wielding a large knife.   



Life becomes tougher still when other languages make distinctions that yours ignores. Russian splits blue into light (goluboi) and dark (sinii); foreigners can be baffled by what to call, say, a mid-blue pair of jeans. Plenty of other basic English words are similarly broken down in their foreign corollaries. Wall and corner seem like simple concepts, until you learn languages that sensibly distinguish between a citys walls and a bedrooms (German Mauer versus Wand), interior corners and street corners (Spanish rincn and esquina), and so on.



baffle


baffle / bfl /

verb 

to confuse sb completely; to be too difficult or strange for sb to understand or explain

:

[VN] 

 His behaviour baffles me.   

[VN VN wh-]  

I'm baffled as to why she hasn't called.   

 

I'm baffled why she hasn't called.   

bafflement noun 

His reaction was six of bafflement.   

baffling adj. 


corollary


corollary / krlri; NAmE krleri; kr- / 

noun (pl. -ies)

~ (of / to sth) (formal or technical ) a situation, an argument or a fact that is the natural and direct result of another one

(



These problems are tractable on their own; you dont often have to refer to a corner in casual conversation. But when other languages make structural distinctions missing from your native tongueoften in the operation of verbsthe mental effort seems never-ending. English has verbs-of-all-work that seem straightforward enough until you try to translate them. In languages like German, put is divided into verbs that signify hanging, laying something flat and placing something tall and thin. Go in Russian is a nightmare, with a suite of verbs distinguishing walking and travelling by vehicle, one-way and round trips, single and repeated journeys, and other niceties. You can specify all these things in English if you want to; the difference is that in Russian, you must.


nicety


nicety / naisti / 

noun (pl. -ies) (formal

1. [C, usually pl.] the small details or points of difference, especially concerning the correct way of behaving or of doing things

2. [U] (formal) the quality of being very detailed or careful about sth

the nicety of his argument    

SYN precision 



Sometimes verb systems force choices on speakers not only for individual verbs, but for all of them. Many English-speakers are familiar with languages, such as French and Italian, which have two different past tenses, for completed actions and for habitual or continued ones. But verb systems get much more exotic than that.



habitual


habitual / hbitul / 

adj. 

1. [only before noun] usual or typical of sb / sth

They waited for his habitual response.   

 

(formal) a person's place of habitual residence   

 

2. (of an action ) done, often in a way that is annoying or difficult to stop

habitual complaining     

the habitual use of heroin    

3. [only before noun] (of a person ) doing sth that has become a habit and is therefore difficult to stop

a habitual criminal / drinker / liar, etc.   

habitually / -tuli /adv.

the dark glasses he habitually wore   



Evidential languages require a verb ending that shows how the speaker knows that the statement made is true. Turkish is one of them; others, such as a cluster in the Amazon, have particularly complexand obligatoryevidentiality rules. Many languages mark subjects and direct objects of sentences in distinct ways. But in Basque, subjects of intransitive verbs (those that take no direct object) look like direct objects themselves, while subjects of transitive verbs get a special form. If Martin catches sight of Diego, Basques say the equivalent of Martinek sees Diego.


In the end, the hard languages to learn are not those that do what your own language does in a new way. They are the ones that make you constantly pay attention to distinctions in the world that yours blithely passes over. It is a bit like a personal trainer putting you through entirely new exercises. You might have thought yourself fit before, but the next day you will wake up sore in muscles you never knew you had.


blithe


blithe / blai /

adj. [usually before noun] 

1. (disapproving) showing you do not care or are not anxious about what you are doing

He drove with blithe disregard for the rules of the road.   

2. (literary) happy; not anxious

a blithe and carefree girl    

blithely adv.

He was blithely unaware of the trouble he'd caused.   

, 

'It'll be easy,' she said blithely.   

""





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