Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Asian Languages, and Why People Find Them Hard

Now, I think I'm actually going to do what this blog promises, and write about languages.
Me, I'm an Asian language person. The two languages I know with any familiarity (apart from my mother tongue) and Japanese and Chinese. But a lot of people I know would rather kill themselves than learn an Asian language. These same people the go off to Spanish, or French, or something else European.

I, for the life of me, can't get my head around other European languages. It just does not compute. So this got me to thinking - what is the difference? If you learn Italian, it's easier to learn Spanish after that. But if you learn Italian, and then try you hand at Chinese, then you'll have just as much trouble as when you first learned Italian.

So what makes them different, and rather incompatible?

Well, to me the most marked difference is cultural. Obviously, Asian languages are not from the same culture, but they are from a group of cultures that have influenced each other over the time through war and trade and other national pursuits. Same in Europe. You can hardly say French culture is like English or German culture, but they have influenced each other.

Has Asia influenced Europe, or vice versa? Over the past 100 year - yes. Over the past 1000? Minutely. This was of course due to the sheer distance between the two cultural blocks. And while these days planes and other means of transportation can get you from one place to the other quickly, these things didn't exist, or were too expensive in the days gone past.

Now, some may say that culture doesn't really relate to language all that much. I mean, things can be translated, can't they? We can watch Japanese, Chinese and Korean movies with subtitles, and you understand what's being said.

Well, that's because translators are brilliantly smart people. They don't translate things word for word - if they did, you would have all sorts of strange words and phrases running about. They translate from culture to culture as well. This is the only reason, in my view, that computers can not be relied on to do the translating for us. Culture has a huge effect on language. On its grammar, its word choice, the way words are put together in phrases - the influence of culture can not be denied.

Therefore, in my mind at least, Asian languages are hard for European based foreigners to compute because culture almost has to be learnt hand in hand with the language. For example, in Japanese, there and heaps of words and phrases that begin with 気 (ki). Ki, loosely translated, means "spirit, mind, heart." But Japanese words such as care, pay attention, like, weird, calm down... all these words are basically descriptions of "ki". You won't find them in a dictionary, because they're sentences rather than words. So anyone trying to learn Japanese by reading Manga, say, is going to have an awful lot of trouble figuring out what "drop you heart" actually means (it means calm down). There are all these things that either have to be either explained, or understood culturally.

So I think maybe not coming from the same cultural background hampers people in learning languages. Although, I am most definitely of Anglo-Saxan background, and I can't for the life of me figure out European grammar (the feminine and masculine words ect... nope.) But I can think with my words all twisted around in Japanese. Maybe that's just me - I'm found to be fairly weird :p

No comments: