Simplicity of English

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Mon Oct 2 11:54:12 UTC 2000

I don't think linguists believe that all languages are equally difficult
(except in some very general sense about their all having the same
"architecture," allowing them to convey the complexity of human thought),
certainly not at their separate levels (i.e., morphology, phonology,
word-order, etc...). There are old empirical reports of "progress" in
various languages (some "quick starters" which get very slow at advanced
stages' others "slow starters" which quicken their pace later). Seems to me
this may be one of the (few) cases where common sense, experience, and
empirical investigation, and theory all agree (in principle, if not in


>> Rudolph C Troike
>> >Whoever it was commenting on how easy English is to learn
>> hasn't had to do
>> >it as a second language, or taught ESL. Compared to most
>> languages, it is
>> >one of the most complicated, inconsistent, exception-ridden
>> linguistic
>> >systems on earth.
>> As I understand it, you are absolutely right on the
>> inconsistencies and difficulties--if one wants to speak and write the
>> language fluently. But isn't it true that a basic knowledge of English
>> goes a long, long way? Further, than, say, a basic knowledge of
>> Chinese? One need not even congugate "to go" and "to be" correctly
>> to be understood.
>In my subjective and unscientific opinion, a basic knowledge of spoken
>Chinese goes further than a basic knowledge of spoken English. Or put
>another way, it's easier to acquire a basic knowledge of spoken Chinese than
>of spoken English except, of course, for speakers of languages that are
>closely related to English. I've lived in China and met many foreigners who
>picked up basic Chinese on the fly. Chinese grammar is highly analytic and
>easy to learn, regardless of whether your native language is inflected or
>not. I've heard linguists maintain that all languages are equally difficult
>and complex. Not being a linguist, I don't agree. For an English speaker,
>and even for a German or Russian speaker, it is much easier to acquire a
>smattering and a bit more than a smattering of Chinese than of Japanese. I
>would not be surprised to learn that the English phrase "long time no see"
>is a calque from Chinese, because it sounds odd in English and would be
>perfect Chinese grammar, although a literal translation of the Chinese
>equivalent would be "good long no see" (hao jiu bu jian). As is well known,
>Japanese is a highly agglutinative language. Its grammar is very regular
>compared to, say, French, but it is very difficult nonetheless. Having
>studied both Chinese and Japanese in an American school (Harvard), I can
>testify that after a semester of Chinese, American students can say a lot
>more in that language than in Japanese. My guess is that in a year it's
>easier for an English speaker to learn to speak half-way correct basic
>Chinese than half-way correct basic French. However, although in ten years
>of study an English speaker can acquire a very good knowledge of many
>different registers of French, acquiring a very good knowledge of spoken and
>written Chinese is impossible for all but the most linguistically gifted of
>English speakers, no matter how long they apply themselvs to the language.
>In sum, Chinese is an easy language to learn to speak, despite the
>well-known problem of the tones. In many parts of China, people get the
>tones wrong when speaking Mandarin anyway, because their dialects have a
>different tonal structure, but they still make themselves understood with
>people from far-away provinces. However, I don't agree with Rudolph Troike
>that Chinese characters are easy to learn. I've been reading Chinese every
>day for twenty years and still come across characters I don't know, even in
>newspapers. Even native speakers of Chinese find it difficult to learn to
>read and write Chinese. Correct me if I'm wrong: I once read that Chinook
>Jargon was an analytic language used as a lingua franca by speakers of
>highly inflected languages. If this is correct, it would suggest that
>analytic languages are easier to learn, despite their strict word order.
>Paul Frank
>Business, financial and legal translation
>>>From Chinese, German, French,  Spanish,
>Italian, Dutch and Portuguese into English
>Thollon-les-Memises, 74500 Evian, France
>paulfrank at or franktranslation at

Dennis R. Preston
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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