On 6/21/05, Joseph B. <[log in to unmask]> 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

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>


   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)