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Month: April 2024

Vocabulary Items – The Squatters of the Brain

By Kateřina Fuková

Look at the picture below. Imagine you are having a conversation in your native language and your talking partner asks you what the image depicts. Your brain would instantly know the correct answer and let you say it out loud at once – if you are a native English speaker, it is a ‘cat’. If your mother tongue is Czech – like in my case – you see a kočka, and if it is Vietnamese, you would call this ‘con mèo’.

Whatever your first language (L1) is, this image is strongly connected to, or maybe almost interchangeable with, the couple of letters and sounds that make up your language’s variant of ‘cat’. It seems like a very natural process of transmitting what we see with our eyes to the brain, and sending it out again through the mouth.

But what if this bizarre chat – pun totally intended – about animal doodles was not led in your L1, but a certain second language (L2) you are learning? The information must surely take a bit of a different route when you are having this discussion in English. For example, Turkish intuition might be screaming kedi, but you likely end up succeeding and saying ‘cat’. How we get from our L1 word to its L2 equivalents has been a discussion in linguistics for many years, especially recently since multilingualism has seen such an increase in the last century or so. Contemporarily, experts give a variety of possibilities of how this way from one word to another could be happening in our heads. Let us consider the individual options in the context of an English L1 and a Māori L2 – let us keep the ‘cat’ and therefore employ the counterpart ngeru.

Giving languages their space

Especially in the early stages, many second language learners will need to think of the word in their L1 first, in order to reach the corresponding element of the target language. Some linguists think this could possibly be a general pattern for any route. The information travels to where you store your English words to pick up ‘cat’ and then takes a bridge from there straight to where you keep ngeru in the Māori store. This kind of hints at the fact that you keep your English words somewhere else than your Māori words.

In a similar manner, languages might be completely disengaged in the mind, each totally separate from the other, but without any interaction between them at all. That would mean that if you see a cat, knowing the word ‘cat’ will not help you – or make you – think of ngeru, as this realisation is independent of your native word. You would have to think of it without the connection. That sounds pretty rough.

A multilingual mishmash

More likely, there is some overlapping contact between the bundles of words we keep in our heads. In a perfect world, we would have one space for all languages we know. ‘Cat’ and ngeru would then be bound together so closely that with one, the other comes instantly, and vice versa. The words are of one entity, together in a little bubble of meaning. Realistically, this complete integration is rather unlikely – but in contrast, a partial overlay seems highly plausible. Some words might be connected and symbolize the meaning equally, and some not – therefore, we must try a bit harder a look where they are hiding.

Recent studies have really been arguing for the credibility of the last proposition. One finding showed that we likely do not “turn off” one language, when communicating in another, meaning they must be rather close to each other for this to be possible. This proximity could also be supported by the fact, that sometimes by learning an L2 we also change our L1. All one’s language regress and progress as one studies them. This surely would not be possible, if our mind kept the ability to speak them in very different places.

What if they leave me?

Nevertheless, either of these options remain very hypothetical because we have still not figured out a way to measure and access these internal routes empirically. It is only a theory, indeed, and one with some flaws, already. One might point out that this supposed principle somewhat assumes that learning new words is a one-time thing, which it obviously is not. Sometimes you need to be in contact with a vocabulary item up to 100 times, in order for it to finally stick, and even then, I guarantee you a very high chance the word will not stay with you forever. Since there is so much dynamism in the process, I find it hard to believe this potential for change would not project into how the stores of words are maintained.

Regardless of which theory is more likely to be true, one thing is sure already. Engaging in multilingualism – in this case, having to figure out how to find what you need in the mess you have created for yourself – does not only increase your skills of a linguistic sort, but in entirely non-linguistic disciplines, too. Your efforts improve your abilities to learn and control other stuff way past the scope of languages making you perform statistically better than monolingual speakers on top of that. Needless to say, this fact adds some extra points in the friendly competition of past time and learning activities. If you study languages, your brain will be getting better and better, it will stay healthy and support you endlessly!

Does Language Affect the Way Our Brain Works?

By Brenda Lee Intignano

Have you ever thought about how your native language shapes the way you think, how your brain processes data and how it expresses concepts when talking to someone else?

Scientists and linguists have been interested in this topic for a long time, and many studies have claimed that the language we were born in makes us see the world in a different way compared to the vision of another language’s native speaker.

The examples are everywhere: try to think about how Italians have different ways to say “I love you” according to the relationship they have with their interlocutor – romantic/deeply connected or just friendly – or how the Guugu Ymithirr tribe from Northern Australia have no concept of “left” and “right” since their vision of the world is not centred on their position, but focuses instead on the environment – using cardinal directions to express locations.

So, whilst in Italy might be much easier to detect whether you are in the friend-zone or not, the Guugu Ymithirr people develop an astonishing spatial memory and navigation skills at a very young age.

Although knowing more than a language does not – generally speaking – improve your mental ability, there definitely are many perks in becoming part of the polyglot family, like understanding some every day phenomena even without being particularly knowledgeable in the topic.

A striking example of how the language you speak molds your brain in understanding concepts without even being fully aware of them, is the use of Chinese language and their philosophy when talking quantum physics.

If you’re familiar with the ancient Chinese worldview, you probably already know about the Tao symbol: the black and white representation of opposites such as, for example, positive and negative and their coexistence to maintain balance in the creation; feminine and masculine energy, good and evil, and so on. Positive and negative are also present in magnetism, and the Chinese have a specific word to describe the magnetic tension between Yin and Yang, the two dependent opposite forces of the Tao: qi, a term also widely used in the study of Chinese martial arts.

The word qi (/ˈtʃiː/ CHEE simplified Chinese: 气; traditional Chinese: 氣; pinyin: qì qì) has been imported in western culture under different names, from “ether” to “vital force”, and lastly, thanks to British biochemist and historian Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham – whose life was dedicated to the research and writing on the history of Chinese science and technology – the word translated as “matter-energy”. Although it seems that the ancient Chinese did not theorise about gravity, one of the quantum forces, their character to represent it in pictograms is the lovechild between “heavy” and “force”, which pretty much sums up the concept without going deeper in the mechanics of physics.

Asian languages have something else to teach us, and it’s that language is culture and culture is language. Through the words that we learn when learning another language, we can understand many aspects of the way of life of its native speakers: Chinese language and its many idioms regarding family show us how this value is important in their culture. In Italy, a country well known for its history and art, there are dozens of differently named colours, and this shows how important is in their culture to describe and represent things in their true tones. Russia, similarly, has for example two very different categories of “blue”; the light blue shade is called goluboy, whilst the darker shade is named siniy.

This distinction tends to be learned very early by Russian children, and it positively affects their ability to quickly distinguish colours when competing against speakers of a language that doesn’t teach that distinction to its children.

Another thing that the Italian and Russian languages seem to have in common, is that they tend to say “thank you” less. A case of rudeness? Not at all. Instead, it seems that culturally wise, cooperation is considered a basic expectation when interacting with fellow humans in need. So no need to thank – for some people, helping is simply a pleasure and one of the many things we give and receive. Similarly, in some other places, “please” and “thank you” don’t follow the same etiquette of English related cultures.

In India, for example, relationships are very important – so much, in fact, that a close friend or a family member can be considered like an extension of one’s self. Their way of thinking is far more collective than in western cultures, and certain politeness can give a sense of estrangement when misused with family and friends. For instance, the Indian website dedicated to tourism in India, teaches us that in their country if you thank a close friend of yours that just gave you a lift to the train station, this would make it look as if you’re treating your friend like a cab driver, since in Indian culture it is assumed that being friends means being there for each other, and formality would only mean that you do not feel comfortable.

So, ultimately, do languages actually affect the way we think and approach the rest of the world? Lera Boroditsky, cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition, tells us that this is one of the questions between the major controversies in the study of the mind. Her research at Stanford University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has helped reopen the question that many before her left partially unanswered, and by collecting data around China, Europe, Indonesia, South America and Aboriginal Australia she was able to determine that people that speak different languages do indeed have different ways to think, and how even the slightest difference in our grammatical choices can change the way we see the world.

Rosetta Stones: Reconstructing Languages

By Emmeline Burdett

In my previous article, I looked at ways of making films and television productions set in the past seem more ‘authentic’ by using particular types of language – such as eighteenth-century slang. There have, however, been many examples of reconstructing whole languages, and this has happened for a variety of reasons.

In keeping with my previous article, I’ll start with a language which has been reconstructed for the purposes of a film, and then go on to look at one of the most well-known language reconstructions of them all – that is to say, how the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone enabled scholars to make enormous advances in their understanding of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic scripts. Finally, I’ll look at Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli professor of linguistics based in Australia, who has considered some of the issues around the reconstruction of languages.

Ӧtzi the Iceman:

‘Ӧtzi’ was the name given to the mummified body of a man found in September 1991 in the Alps between Austria and Italy. At the time of his death, which occurred when he was shot in the back with an arrow somewhere between 3400BC and 3100BC, he was about 45 years old. In 2017, an Austrian feature film – ‘The Iceman’ – was made about him, and which speculated about how he might have come to be shot in the back. This little-known film was in Rhaetic, an ancient language of the Alps.

Whilst there is no direct evidence that Ӧtzi spoke Rhaetic, neither is there anything to say that he did not. Katherine McDonald, an academic specialising in the languages of pre-Roman Italy, wrote in her blog that, though it wasn’t really possible to say with certainty anything about Alpine languages until the first millennium BC, but that the decision to use Rhaetic was an interesting one.

The film’s director, Felix Randau, stated in an interview that he had decided to have the dialogue for his film in an ancient language because he always found it ridiculous when a film was set in, for example, Ancient Rome, but the actors were speaking what he referred to as ‘BBC English’. He turned to a linguist for help, and the linguist suggested that Rhaetic might be a good candidate. According to Randau, the linguist reconstructed Rhaetic ‘back to some ancient form’, but it isn’t a real language – although at some point it obviously was.

There are frustratingly few details of how this reconstruction was achieved, but Katherine McDonald’s blog suggests that Rhaetic might have been related to Etruscan, on the basis of an antler inscribed with a Rhaetic text which reads ‘Pitale lemais zinake’. On the basis that the word ‘zinake’ is so similar to the Etruscan verb ‘zinake’, which means ‘to make’ or ‘to establish’, McDonald suggested that the film – which she had not yet seen – might show Rhaetic as having other links to Etruscan. Another article – which does not speculate on the way in which Rhaetic was reconstructed for the film – nevertheless transcribes three words used in it.

The words are used in the context of mourning someone, and they are ‘Pitamei, Pitamos’, to which the response is ‘Bala’. To be quite honest, I haven’t found anything to say how these words were created (to me ‘Pitamos’ sounds vaguely Greek, but that’s just my impression), and so I’d be really interested to hear if anyone has any other ideas.

The Rosetta Stone:

The Rosetta Stone’s importance to the study of language is well-known – apart from anything else, there is a language school called Rosetta Stone. But where does the name come from? The Rosetta Stone itself is in the British Museum in London, and is a large granite tablet with the same text engraved in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Ancient Greek, and Demotic (which, like hieroglyphics or picture-writing, was used in Ancient Egypt, but was known as ‘document writing’, even though its name actually comes from the Ancient Greek word dēmotikós (‘popular’).

The Stone was created in 196BC, and the text engraved on it is of a decree from the then pharaoh, Ptolomy V Epiphanes. Fast-forward 1800 years or so, and it became an important weapon in the struggle for dominance between France and Britain, which came about as a result of the French emperor Napoleon’s expansion into Egypt and competition with the British Empire.

The Rosetta Stone had been rediscovered by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt’s Western Delta, and though its importance to linguists was immediately apparent (given that the Ancient Greek text could be read by those with a knowledge of the classics) it took years for the hieroglyphic and demotic portions to be translated. Copies of the text were sent to Paris, but the Stone itself went to London under the terms of the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria.

The starting point for deciphering the hieroglyphs (as well as the demotic text) was that a number of kings and place-names were mentioned in the Greek text, and though these were in Greek, their position in the text enabled a rough guess to be made as to where they were to be found in the other portions of text on the Rosetta Stone. However, this relied on the assumption that one hieroglyph or demotic symbol was equivalent to one Ancient Greek word. This method was not 100% reliable, and was not used by everyone trying to decipher the two remaining portions of text.

Another approach was to translate Ancient Greek words on the stone into Coptic (the language of the Egyptian Christians), and this was taken further by a Swedish linguist, Johan David Åkerblad, who managed to identify all the Greek proper nouns in the Stone’s demotic section, as well as the words ‘temples’ and ‘Greeks’. Unfortunately, due to the fact that he erroneously believed that the demotic text was composed of individual letters, Åkerblad was unable to get any further.

Still, the use of Coptic was a step in the right direction, as a seventeenth-century German linguist had already surmised that Coptic was the same language used in Ancient Egypt, and thus integral to deciphering hieroglyphs, a theory that was further developed by both Jean-François Champollion of France, and Dr Thomas Young of England. Amongst the breakthroughs Young and Champollion made (separately) was Champollion’s realisation that there were three times as many hieroglyphs as there were Greek letters, and Young’s realisation that whilst demotic was not entirely alphabetical, it did use alphabetic characters to spell out foreign words such as ‘Ptolemy’. A large chunk of the hieroglyphic segment of the Rosetta Stone was missing, meaning that it was sometimes useful to measure one’s progress by attempting to decipher segments of other hieroglyphic texts. This was when Champollion was able to make another breakthrough.

One day in 1822, when he was looking at copies of texts 1500 years older than the Rosetta Stone, he looked for the cartouches that denoted royal names, and, as he had already deciphered the word ‘Ptolemy’ on the Rosetta Stone, he could read some of the hieroglyphs on the more ancient texts too. Another text at his disposal was that of an obelisk known as ‘the Bankes obelisk’, and Champollion noticed that the ‘T’ was written differently in the word ‘Ptolemy’ from in the word ‘Cleopatra’. Champollion realised that this meant that hieroglyphs contained homophones – letters with the same sound which could be written in different ways. A language has to be highly complex to include these sorts of details. After his untimely death ten years later, Champollion’s papers were (eventually) bought by the French state.

Though he had not enabled the decipherment of every single hieroglyphic text, he had made great advances. One question he did not answer, though, is that of whether you should talk about ‘hieroglyphics’ or ‘hieroglyphs’! In fact, both terms are correct – whilst Egyptologists prefer ‘hieroglyphs’, because it was the term used by the Ancient Greeks when they entered Egypt in the late 4th Century BC – ‘hiero’ means ‘sacred’, and glyphs’ means ‘carvings. But ‘hieroglyphics’ is just the adjectival form of ‘hieroglyphs’.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann: Dead Languages or ‘Sleeping Beauties’?

The study of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics (and, in particular, the importance of the Rosetta Stone) does raise a number of questions – why, for example, was the Bankes’ Obelisk referred to by Champollion so called? The short answer is that it belonged to William Bankes, an early nineteenth century Egyptologist who had had the good fortune to come across an obelisk inscribed in both hieroglyphs and Ancient Greek. Bankes’ own insistence that the obelisk should go to his own estate of Kingston Lacy in Dorset rather than to the British Museum raised eyebrows, but some might say that it was really no different from the expectation that artefacts like the Rosetta Stone should go to the British Museum rather than staying in Egypt to be studied.

One person who has considered these questions is Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli professor of linguistics who has been based in Australia for a number of years. As a native speaker of Hebrew, he was already familiar with a reconstructed language, but as an adult he became increasingly aware that languages are reconstructed for many different reasons: his own was reconstructed both to link the present Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land with the Ancient Israelites, and to produce a language that was useable in the modern world.

The same could not be said for Australian Aboriginal languages, 250 of which were spoken before Europeans arrived. The ‘stolen children’ policy of taking light-skinned Aboriginal children away from their communities to be brought up by white families, speaking English, was just one way of suppressing Aboriginal culture and identity. The reclamation of identity is an important component, and one reason why ‘linguicide’ – the killing of language – is one of ten forms of genocide recognised by the United Nations.

To address their still-unequal status in Australian society, Zuckermann gathered together a group of people from Bargarla country in Southern Australia, and together they reconstructed the Barngarla language, the last native speaker of which died in 1960. Their basis was a Barngarla dictionary compiled in 1844 by Robert Schürrmann, a Lutheran missionary, and they also pooled together words that they had heard their parents and grandparents use, and discussed how they could make Barngarla relevant to the modern world. The resulting language, like Hebrew, could not be the same as its ancient forbear, but it is one that modern speakers can feel proud of, especially in light of the sustained attempts to eradicate it.

Glagolitic – God’s song-like language and a linguist’s personal devil

ByJoana Atanasova

When you Google “Glagolitic alphabet” and click on “Images” you’ll be stunned by the sheer beauty of the glyphs that will come up before you. Round script, elements of triangles and crosses throughout every letter – truly an alphabet made for the word of God, its originally intended use, especially when skillfully copied by a monk with outstanding calligraphy skills.

Created around 855 to 863CE by brothers Cyril and Metodius, the purpose of the alphabet was a follow up to the Christening of the Bulgarians and creation of an independent church, detaching itself completely from the Greek Orthodox church at the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it sounds absolutely gorgeous, especially when you’re learning the alphabet itself as the different letters are represented by different words rather than phonemes, but the devil is in the detail, here are some examples so you can experience it for yourself:

Ⰰ – азъ (az) which means ‘I, me’,

Ⰱ – буки (bouki) meaning ‘letter, word’

Ⰲ – веди (vedi) meaning– ‘know, to know’

And it continues for the rest of the 40 letters, in fact, when saying the separate letters in the alphabet, you involuntarily say this beautiful piece of text, creatively interpreted by Stoyan Radulov to make a consistent and understandable text, which translates in English to:

‘I, knowing the words, will know how to speak! It’s good to live firmly on the ground! Because as people think, He is our support! Say the words firmly! Upwards and anyone can fly! Go! Avoid the worm (note: ‘worm’ – as in ‘low life’)! Conquer the heights! You, man, you, youth, you people! Person! With wits and smarts! In the right direction and a clear mind! Forward! Glory!’

The Glagolitic alphabet was made, not only for functional use, but as a statement of freedom and independence, a declaration of a desire to be remembered, to leave something behind and tell the generations to come that here stood Bulgarians, proud of their heritage and who they are. In the 9th century, Bulgarians relied on the Greek alphabet for archiving and religious texts as we were under the govern of the Greek Orthodox Church, however after some tumultuous events, the then khan Boris I, later turned tzar after the enforcement of Christianity, assigned the creation of a Bulgarian alphabet to brothers (later turned saints) Cyril and Metodius.

The alphabet ended up being the base that all Slavic languages used at the time, that was the catalyst for turning into the individual languages we know today, as it spread like wildfire throughout the Slavic tribes and nations, which now allows us to, albeit not knowing our neighbours’ language, to be able to loosely understand each other and communicate! I’ve found that with people from Western Europe and those, whose mother tongue is English, unless someone has studied or knows more than one Latin–based language, they don’t have the odd little superpower of the Slavic nations (aside from the renowned squat, which you’ll be surprised to know is an anthropological trait, called the Dalmatian hip) – you don’t have to know any other language aside from your native one, in order to understand Macedonians, Serbians, etc.

For example, if you’re Bulgarian, with your starting point being Bulgaria, the further west you travel through the Slavic countries, the more complicated it gets to understand your neighbour, but not completely impossible – you’ll have a harder time understanding Bosnians than Serbians, but if they speak slower and you know a lot of dialect words, you’ll be able to understand the general meaning of what they have to say to you, without you personally knowing another language aside from your own. You can apply that rule with any other Slavic country by traveling in the other direction and it works.

Why ‘knowing more dialect words’ is something that matters in this case? Simple, dialect words are formed from the common, non-dictionary language, from one person to another – kind of like tradition. These words are usually formed way before the official recording of the language and their roots are very, very old, surviving through folklore songs and tales. As we already know, all Slavic languages share the same roots, and those roots are very, very old as well, so the more dialect words you know in your native Slavic language, the closer you get to understanding the root language. In fact, when we studied Glagolitic in class, the kids that knew more dialect words, understood more and rarely reached for the dictionary when translating.

Why is it a linguistic hell, you ask? Simple – unfortunately due to many cataclysmic historical events, the sources and most of the grammar was lost. Most, if not all the sources that remain for it are Eastern Orthodox Christian texts, Bible copies, life stories of saints, and some stone monoliths, which unfortunately don’t give us enough information to thoroughly have its grammar finished and organized – some words remain untranslated, some grammatical rules are unknown as to why this is written the way it is, and many others.

This creates chaos with the learning process, as you need to check up on your notes about every single thing, you’re not sure of, because hey, this word might only be written like this in this tense and mean this exact thing and nobody really knows why. Which is an absolute shame, as it’s one of the few alphabets, in my opinion, that is not only representing an extremely useful language, if you’re keen on Slavic culture, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing in all aspects – from writing to speaking the language it represents.

The alphabet itself is beautiful and holds the spirit of one of the oldest nations on the continent of Europe, however the fact that it was eventually replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet, which is basically a transcript of the Greek alphabet with added sounds that are obligatory for the language like ‘Ч’, ‘Ш’, ‘Щ’, ‘Ъ’ etc. doesn’t help the poor linguist that has decided to dedicate time and effort into learning it. Why? Simply because texts stopped being written in Glagolitic and, like we mentioned before, sources are scarce.

That being said, learning to write the letters is… a surreal experience. Now, due to my education, I was forced to learn that as well as Ancient Greek the year before, which naturally entails learning how to write down the letters by hand. I swear to God, I had an easier time learning how to write the Greek letters in cursive, than to learn how to write in Glagolitic and I have a feeling that it’s mainly because it was intended to look beautiful when copied. Which is all good and great if you’re a monk, living in a monastery with a significant amount of free time to write down each and every letter to perfection, but when you’re living in 2021, juggling work, hobbies, family, pandemics and your personal sanity, you can see how it might be troublesome. If, however, you find the time to devote, learning to write this beautiful alphabet down and actually start writing texts in it, and you manage to do it as it was intended, you’ll find true linguistic satisfaction, that I’ve personally found there.

If you decide to learn the language, of course keep in mind it’s a dead one, and worry not! You won’t have to use the Glagolitic alphabet if you don’t want to, because, like I mentioned, it relatively quickly switches to the Cyrillic, which is easier. What you’ll get from it? Aside from the cultural and ethnical insight that each individual language gives you, you’ll get the neat skill of loosely understanding a large part of all modern Slavic languages like Bulgarian, Serbian, Bosnian, Russian etc. as they share this ancestor, but the Dalmatian hip doesn’t come with 🙂

Balancing Acts

By Georgie O’Mara

One of my favourite hobbies is reading the Chinese translations of signs around my city. Mandarin, mostly. They’re not particularly common (sadly), and I don’t actually know how to read Chinese characters, but I have a thing for non-Latin scripts. Very mysterious. What secrets do they hold? A menu? A train timetable? I stare in wonder at these glyphs while my friends tap their feet impatiently, already four steps ahead of me. ‘You could just learn Chinese,’ they tell me, ‘if you’re so interested.’ I would very much like this, but I am not here to kid myself; language learning is, for me, a nigh-impossible task, and would certainly be a Mission Impossible for a language as complex as Mandarin. My friends look at the unfathomable characters and tell me I have a point. Of course, Chinese is very hard. We keep walking and the sign remains undeciphered.

It is a curious habit of humans, to categorise and rank languages in terms of their complexity. It’s almost innate, and aptly seen throughout European history. During the 19th century, literary languages like Ancient Greek and Latin were placed on pedestals, regarded as the best languages spoken by the best people – a marker of refined cognition and thought. Notions of Orientalism were also rife, spurring beliefs that Semitic languages were less ‘organic’, to quote philologist Edward Said, than those spoken within Europe – despite the fact that the latter were used prolifically throughout the entire Middle East. Classical Chinese, with its non-inflecting grammar, was once noted by linguist and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt as being an apt vehicle for conveying ideas, but inferior to inflecting languages like Latin, which could properly convey human thought.

Inherently, there is an obvious undertone here that connects language ‘complexity’ with its speakers’ cognitive processing capabilities, and this of course has led to much racial and ethnic bias throughout history. This is less salient today, and there is a general consensus that either a) all languages are equally complex, or b) they aren’t equally complex, but it doesn’t matter – every language can convey exactly what it needs to convey. That’s its purpose, after all.

One of the most baffling things about defining language complexity is that it is almost totally subjective, and anything can be marked as ‘complex’ if you want it to be. I do a cryptic crossword every morning, in preparation for my grandmotherly years. Many people find these too complicated because the clues are kind of funky; but each clue technically comprises two clues, so it actually provides double the amount of information from which to deduce the answer. Just because someone perceives something to be complex, does not necessarily meant they are correct. It’s based on what we already know and what is different to what we already know, and what we already perceive to be difficult. Whilst I may claim Mandarin is a difficult language to learn, I’m doubtful a native speaker of Cantonese would share that view.

But surely there must be some reason to class one language as more complex than another, right? Languages uncommon with click phonemes? Words that can go in any order? Scripts that look like tiny pictures? Letters that can be pronounced any number of ways (I’m looking at you, English vowels)? In blanket terms, yes. A language that has thirty consonants, for instance, will be more complex than a language with only, say, eleven consonants, simply because there’s more stuff to remember. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it any easier to quantify, because languages have a habit of balancing complex and simple structures within different parts of their grammar – sometimes even within the same part. Let’s take phonology, for example – the sounds of a language. We can consider a language with thirty consonants compared to one with eleven, like we saw before. We’ll call them Languages A and B, respectively. What if Language A only has three vowels, and Language B has five? What if Language A has tone distinctions? What if Language B has a lot of allophones – a sound that is realised a little differently depending on what surrounds it, but which is still perceived as the same sound? Suddenly it’s very difficult to crown Language A as more complex than Language B, even if we’re only looking at phonology. Imagine what’s going on in the rest of its grammar!

This is a jazzy little phenomenon called trade-off theory, and it’s at the core of our modern assumption that all languages are equally complex – every language system is just a big balancing act. This is something that’s easily overlooked when we classify one language as ‘harder’ than another, particularly for English speakers. For instance, highly-inflecting languages – those that use affixes instead of separate words to encode information – are often regarded as quite complex; they usually have pretty long words, and they come in a bunch of different forms depending on number, gender, case, as well as any number of other properties. What it does mean, however, is that you can sum up what would otherwise be a whole sentence in English – like “my dogs did not eat your shoes” – with only a few words in a language like Turkish – which would be köpeklerim ayakkabılarını yemedi. And this shorter sentence is, well, shorter, so naturally it’s quicker and easier to understand, even though internally it’s a little more complicated.

I like to consider the trade-offs in Mandarin Chinese before I decide whether or not I should tackle it. Obviously, the Chinese script is the first hurdle; it’s intricate, artistic and largely logographic – you can’t read them phonetically, but they also don’t usually resemble anything. Some, however, do resemble their meanings, like the characters for “up” 上 and “down” 下. The character 休, which means “rest”, is made up of the radicals for “person” 人 and “tree” 木, and it vaguely looks like a person sitting underneath a tree. Very relaxing. And in these sorts of characters, we see a trade-off between how hard they are to read or memorise and how much semantic information they’re automatically offering us.

The second hurdle for me is tone – phonemes in Mandarin are differentiated depending on whether you say them with a high pitch, a low pitch, or even a rising pitch. We don’t have this in English; it’s not a very easy phenomenon to pick up. Mandarin does, however, have a markedly simpler tense system than English; verbs aren’t inflected for past tense, for instance, and are instead marked by an adverb like “yesterday”. So, the energy one might spend on conjugating a verb can instead be redirected to ensuring the tone is correct, although of course this isn’t a conscious process. The brain works in mysterious ways.

The moral of the story is that there’s no fool-proof method of determining if one language is more complex than another, and whether you find it easier to learn is simply going to be based on what you already know. This is almost comforting to me – one day I might decipher those signs, and you’d best believe I’ll bask in the praise and admiration lauded to me for cracking such an intimidating code. After all, my friends don’t need to know about the balancing acts.

The link between goal setting and motivation within language learning

By Em Horne

Learning a language has always been a common interest and hobby for many people, even more so within the last few months with the up-haul of normal life and lockdowns in many countries and a need to fill up time. However, in many cases language learning is started with the best intentions and desire to learn yet slowly fades away and can become tiresome and demotivating without the right mental approach and use of goal setting.

Within language learners a common pattern seems to be intense interest and motivation towards learning a new language, perhaps spanning for a few weeks or months, before entering a slump – a dismal chasm of learning where nothing seems to be as interesting, effective, or inspiring anymore. Often this stems from the lack of feeling of achievement, after all no one can learn a language fluently within a few months, especially considering the lack of real life exposure to your target language in most learning cases.

While originally completing a few Duolingo lessons or remembering how that one irritating word is spelled on your first try feels like a goalpost has been reached, these same thresholds appear to shift and become the normal and so lose their rewarding feeling. As a result, this can make learners feel that they aren’t making progress as quickly or as efficiently as they were at the start, and so cause a severe drop in their motivation or the will to carry on with second (or third etc.) language learning. An explanation for this is simply that learners often do not set clear mental end goals and targets for what they want to achieve in learning a second language, as such any progress made towards any sort of end goal is hardly registered, thus giving an overall sense of nothingness or lack of progression even if this is far from the case in reality.

In 2005 Zoltan Dörnyei, a Hungarian-born British Linguist specialising in the nature and impact of motivation within second language acquisition, proposed the idea of the Ideal Self within a second language Motivational Self System in his book ‘The Psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition’. This Ideal Self is the mental vision and representation of all the attributes that a person would like to possess and by associating a trait with your ideal self, whether it be a skill such as cooking or riding a bike or something as simple as a hairstyle or colour.

The suggestion is that through goal setting and a mental realisation and representation of what you’d like to achieve it inspires a more powerful sense of motivation to reduce the discrepancy between ourselves in reality and our Ideal Selves. As such, by associating a mastery of or fluency within your target language with your ideal self your internal desire to gain communicative competence and become an effective second language learner is increased massively. Furthermore, any progress made towards this goal consistently feels like an achievement and something to be proud of, thus providing a positive reinforcement towards language learning which was previously missing, and as a result increasing the desire to continue your language learning journey.

Additionally, a sense of achievement and acknowledgement of progress in your language acquisition, especially when going through a rough patch of learning, increases motivation to continue and move forward and overall creates a more supportive learning environment and experience for yourself. However, fluency or full acquisition of a second language can seem like a daunting task or overall goal to set for yourself so breaking down individual mental goals to be updated as you go may be a more beneficial approach for some; perhaps those who prefer the feeling of constant development and goal achievement in place of simply progression towards a goal.

Consider smaller goals at the start such as the mastery of a certain grammar, the memorisation of a specific set of vocabulary, or the ability to introduce yourself in your target language and hold a small conversation, and work to bridge the gap between reality and these targets. Then once achieved, repeat and set new goals for what your ideal language learning self is.

While motivation is one of the most elusive concepts within the social sciences it underpins the direction and magnitude of human behaviours; the choices behind, the persistence with, and the effort expended on particular actions and events. And so, it can rightly be considered as one of the most influential individual differences when studying and learning a language, thus one of the most vital things to maintain for a consistent attitude towards and eventual successful outcome of second language acquisition.

Good luck with your newly motivated language learning!