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Follow-up to “Hard Languages,” November 13, last month’s topic.
What is an easy language for English speakers to approach and immerse in? Since language is such a basic key to culture, familiarity or fluency have a great enabling effect in opening up an entire cultural dimension, either in one country or across a wide cultural empire (as Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Arabic provide). The issue here is the time and exposure needed to achieve the needed level of comfort and speed in sending and receiving--or speaking and decoding. The artificial intelligence revolution was jump-started by the US government goal to develop a machine program that could learn to translate and transcribe natural language.
Babies under six months can distinguish speech sounds from any language in the world. But the brain soon begins to focus on a single language practice and its sound differences and starts to ignore other distinctions less important in that language. Young children can learn two languages equally well. The window to learn any language seems to be 12 years—beyond that, language acquisition doesn’t map well to the maturing brain as its patterns become set (Linden, The Accidental Mind, 2007). Acquiring everyday facility in a language is one thing. Mastering its nuances, its cultural structures, is quite ornate, involving a long process of immersion and practice in context. That is the principle behind the idea of shibboleth, a difference in pronunciation that separates native insiders from outsiders.
Languages within the same language family are typically the easiest to learn because of familiar cognates (roots in common), grammar, written form (Latin alphabet), conjugation rules, tonality, and pronunciation. For English, that is West Germanic. This branch includes English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Yiddish. 80% of the most-used English vocabulary, and the grammar, is Germanic. The larger family grouping is Indo-European, spoken by the largest percentage of speakers worldwide—close to half. English worldwide has 1.5 billion speakers, of which just under 400 million (about a quarter) call it their native language. And for non-native speakers from other language families, English is not an easy acquisition.
Selecting a new language also depends on its useful cultural position: where the language is spoken, how widely distributed, and its global media influence. Non-European languages that use the Latin alphabet, like Malay and Swahili, are cases in point. Malay is the lingua franca across several southeast Asian countries; Swahili is the trading language of East Africa (as a second language) with a rich Arabic vocabulary, sharing our Latin alphabet. Indonesian also uses Latin script and has a simple grammar.
Since the first century BCE, Swahili has served 50 million people as it developed as the lingua franca of trade and the national language of Kenya and Tanzania, influenced by Arabic (Swahili means “coastal “) widely used in Uganda, Burundi, DRC, and the islands of Zanzibar and Comoros—the standard version is based in Zanzibar City. Because pronunciation is regular and the alphabet Roman, Swahili is one of the exotic easy language to approach and acquire. It has a wide range across several cultures and a long history. It can also be heard in south Ethiopia and Somalia and northern Zambia and Mozambique, and even Madagascar (Lonely Planet phrasebook, 2008).
Then there is the cultural aspect: what does the language afford as access to the richness of history, literature, religion, art traditions, and connections with other cultures within the language and beyond? French and English have been historically important in the West because of their status and portability in diplomacy. As the world turns increasingly toward the Eastern cultural dimension (India, China, Japan) this ratio is shifting from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean.
Proximity to English is one index of easiness. Frisian is the most similar to English, but has just a half-million speakers in northwest Europe. Spanish, however, has over 534 million speakers worldwide, and is the official language of 21 countries. English speakers already have the greatest range as the language of business, science, and world politics in the form of “Globish,” basically acting as the universal auxiliary language. Legacy of the British Empire, it is already the official language of 29 countries. Considering the time-intensive demands of learning a completely new tongue, there is little incentive to acquire one. From an English-speaking perspective, most Romance and Indo-European languages take about 600+ hours to learn, while tonal languages or those from the Sino-Tibetan language family can take 2000+ hours to learn. (ScienceABC).
Unless language links you to your family’s heritage. Our research director has become an Italian “citizen living abroad” (in the US for now) through his mother’s ancestry, an option that several other countries (like Ireland and Mexico) are introducing with the goal of attracting Americans back to the mother country to live with their incomes. The European Union opens the borders dramatically, since citizens of one member country can live and work in any of the current 27.
Some of these languages are close to English (like the Germanic family members Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish); others seem far afield (Romanian, Afrikaans, Indonesian) (FSI source) . Of course there are constructed languages and ancient languages that are mostly academic, not spoken, or extinct, like Gothic. These open out to other cultural worlds, peoples, histories, a kind of hyperreality across time. Ancient languages are still spoken or written today, or are direct ancestors of those spoken today, like modern Greek, the easiest to learn with a non-Latin script (already familiar through science), and a basic medium of Western Civ. A more familiar example is modern Hebrew, based on the ancient model but updated.
The US Foreign Service Institute, beginning with its mission in language training after WWII for its in-country staffing, has been a good source of language manuals and tapes available free online.