Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

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Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Ciarán12 » 2018-05-10, 16:14

I’ve noticed that my ability to remember vocabulary items in other languages varies considerably depending upon the language. For languages that are related to ones I’ve already studied (or my own native language), this makes sense - cognates are often easier to remember. But that’s not the only factor I’ve seen influence my success.
For example, I’ve tried memorising Finnish vocabulary (on more than one occasion) with limited success, I found that after a while it all just melted together and I couldn’t recall words I used to know, let alone memorise new ones. This could be explained by the lack of cognates with any language I knew before, but I’ve started memorising Turkish vocabulary recently (equally cognate-less) and I’m not finding it nearly as hard to remember the vocab. At first I thought this might have to do with the fact that Finnish sounds more “samey” to me, i.e. there are fewer distinct syllables, and Finnish differentiates syllables based on vowel and consonant length (“sata”, “saata”, “saataa”, “saattaa”...), which is unintuitive to an English speaker, and Finnish also uses vowels and vowel combinations that, while different, don’t (for whatever reason) “feel” as different to me as the Turkish vowels (e.g. äy in “käydä” and au in “kaupunki”).
But then again, I didn’t have quite the same issue with Japanese - Japanese also sounds “samey” (i.e. very restrictive phonotactics and limited phoneme inventory), also has long vowels and long consonants differentiating syllables, but this wasn’t as big a problem for me, and in fact kind of helped at times. Another counter-example to the “sameiness” point is Russian (or Polish, or any Slavic language really) - the consonant clusters permissible are so alien to me that the words don’t even look like words, they seem to have no difficulty finding new syllables to use because almost any random combination of consonants can occur anywhere in the word (maaaassive exaggeration guys, calm down!), but rather than helping me differentiate the words it just makes my brain reject them as words at all.

What are your experiences with memorising vocabulary in your target languages? Do you notice any differences between how easy it is/how successful you are in one language versus another? What do you think the relevant factors are?

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby voron » 2018-05-10, 16:37

Ciarán12 wrote:What are your experiences with memorising vocabulary in your target languages? Do you notice any differences between how easy it is/how successful you are in one language versus another?

Absolutely. I can memorize Turkish words 1000 times easier than Arabic ones. I could have ascribed it to Arabic using a different alphabet (so it's harder to memorize the graphical representation of a word), but no, even with Arabic loans in Turkish (which are spelt with the Latin alphabet), I find them much harder to memorize than the native Turkish words.

What do you think the relevant factors are?

Phonotactics probably plays a role -- I tend to think that the Turkish phonotactics is "closer" to the Russian one -- but then I would need to provide the definition of "closeness" to make this statement grounded. Does a standard one exist?

Another factor is that the Arabic words often differ by just one or two sounds -- much more often than Turkish or Russian ones. It's due to two reasons:
1) The triliteral root system of Arabic. Change just one consonant in a word, and chances are high that you'll get another valid word
2) Derivation often consists of changing just one or two sounds in a word. For example, doubling the second consonant in a verb produces its causative aspect.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Car » 2018-05-10, 19:44

voron wrote:
Ciarán12 wrote:What are your experiences with memorising vocabulary in your target languages? Do you notice any differences between how easy it is/how successful you are in one language versus another?

Absolutely. I can memorize Turkish words 1000 times easier than Arabic ones. I could have ascribed it to Arabic using a different alphabet (so it's harder to memorize the graphical representation of a word), but no, even with Arabic loans in Turkish (which are spelt with the Latin alphabet), I find them much harder to memorize than the native Turkish words.

I also felt that way when learning MSA and even with Arabic loans in Spanish. I can also relate to what Ciarán wrote about Japanese and Polish.
I definitely find new Dutch (obviously I'm excluding cognates/ loans from German, English or French I recognise) or Romance words I don't know (with the exception of the aforementioned Arabic loans in Spanish and Italian words starting with sb, sv etc.) much easier to remember.
Please correct my mistakes!

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Vlürch » 2018-05-11, 20:43

Well, words in English are the easiest to memorise. Even though most of the new ones I come across are obscure loanwords or coinages from Latin or Greek parts that I'm not familiar with, they're easier to remember than their equivalents in Spanish or whatever. Of course, this is because I've been exposed to English my whole life and have been learning it since I was five, so...

For me, it's a thousand times easier to memorise words in Japanese than Mandarin, even when it comes to Chinese loanwords. A big part of it is phonology; Japanese is pretty close to Finnish and Mandarin is really different. Still, it's not easy to remember words in Japanese, either, and I keep forgetting even the basic ones in the annoying way that I know I know the words but just can't remember what they mean no matter how hard I try, often with the meaning right at the tip of my tongue (or ear? ...brain?). The same happens in Turkish (and other Turkic languages).

Anyway, a part of why Japanese sticks better is also that I'm infinitely more interested in it than Mandarin and have been learning it for over a decade, unfortunately with barely any results...

I remember some Arabic words and recognise them in writing (or often at least that certain words are related to words I'm familiar with, even if they aren't exactly the same), but I won't be able to pick them up from speech most of the time. It's interesting how certain words are immediately recognisable in writing, mostly the obvious ones like سلام, الله and عربي, etc.

There are a few Persian words that I've picked up, but they're simple ones like گل and آدم (which also exists in most Turkic languages, and the latter in Arabic as well; I don't remember how to spell them, though... I misspelled them as گول and عادم just now, so it's good I checked).

In Russian, I often mix up all the words except simple ones like яма, день, кот, дом, etc. I remember a few multi-syllable ones, but none with crazy consonant clusters. :?

Thanks to my huge interest in Latin some years back and it being the source language of so many wrords in so many languages, I still pick up a lot of words and often get the general idea of sentences. I have no hope of writing anything in it anymore, though, which is a shame but I'm sure it'll come back and I'll start picking up new vocabulary. I hope, anyway. The same is true of Spanish, French and Italian; I've never been huge on the former but loved the shit out of the latter two around the same time as I was obsessed with Latin, although it often takes me a while to remember just what words mean, but once I remember them, I'll remember them again for longer than Japanese, Turkish, Russian, Arabic, etc. words.

Writing French, though, is something I absolutely couldn't do now since I've forgotten literally all French words and at this moment they're not sticking nearly as much as Spanish ones, and also the orthographical conventions. I'd mix it up with so much Spanish that it'd make Portunhol look like a standardised language, if that makes any sense... it doesn't, but well. :lol:

In a nutshell, I can't learn other languages and keep forgetting all the words in all of them.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Naava » 2018-05-11, 21:23

Vlürch wrote:-- I've been exposed to English my whole life and have been learning it since I was five, so...

Oho, miten sä niin nuorena jo? Pistettiinkö sut kielikylpyyn vai? :D

#kade #utelias #rakastaakieliä #mutvoikolöytääenääykskielisempääpaikkaakasvaakupeltokeskelläpohjanmaata

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby IpseDixit » 2018-05-12, 12:03

Although there are probably a few characteristics that make words easier to remember (for example: shortness, a simple vowel system and syllable structure), I also tend to believe that it depends more on your brain rather than the language itself. E.g: your level of motivation, your level of concentration, how many other stuff you're learning at the same time, how tired and stressed out you are and so on.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Vlürch » 2018-05-12, 16:26

Naava wrote:
Vlürch wrote:-- I've been exposed to English my whole life and have been learning it since I was five, so...

Oho, miten sä niin nuorena jo? Pistettiinkö sut kielikylpyyn vai? :D

Vanhemmat oli sitä mieltä että tietokonetta tai pleikkaria ei hommata ennen kun olin 7, eli Pokemon-kortteja kerty aikamoiset kasat (luultavasti vuodesta 1999 tai 2000 alkaen?) ja tietysti halusin ymmärtää mitä niissä luki. Isä osaa englantia ja kuunteli kaikenlaista amerikkalaista rokkia vinyyliltä (ja tuputti mullekin, mistä oon todella onnellinen :D), joten siitä englannin opettelusta tuli semmonen harrastus. Sit joskus seittemänvuotiaana sain pleikkarin, hurahdin ihan täysin johonkin Toy Story-peliin ja johonkin muihinkin ja kyselin sitten kirjaimellisesti koko ajan mitä jokahelvetinikinen sana tarkottaa. :lol:

...mut suunnilleen 13- tai 14-vuotiaaks asti mun englanti oli todella, todella paskaa. Siis niin paskaa että kukaan ei ymmärtyny yhtään mitään mistään mitä mä selitin jossain foorumeilla ja spämmäsin yhellekkin foorumille muistaakseni yli sata postausta ekana päivänä... oli ihme ettei mua bännätty, ja oon edelleen melko aktiivinen siellä (tai sen seuraajalla; vaihdettiin uuten vuonna 2008, vähän sen jäkeen kun rekisteröidyin)... tai siis niin aktiivinen kun voi olla, kyseinen foorumi kun on suunnilleen yhtä kuollu kun zombi etelänavalla. (Vai oisko zombi etelänavalla enemmän elossa kun zombi Teksasissa tai jossain? Ainakaan se ei mätänis yhtä nopeesti... :P )

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Naava » 2018-05-13, 18:13

Vlürch wrote:Vanhemmat oli sitä mieltä että tietokonetta tai pleikkaria ei hommata ennen kun olin 7, eli Pokemon-kortteja kerty aikamoiset kasat (luultavasti vuodesta 1999 tai 2000 alkaen?) ja tietysti halusin ymmärtää mitä niissä luki.

Mun vanhemmat oli sitä mieltä että tietokonetta ei hommata ennen kun olin 11 v ja kärttäny sitä tauotta. Väsytystaktiikka toimi... Lopulta. :D Ei kyllä auttanu mua oppiin enkkua yhtään, mut selvispä sekin miksei toi toiminu yhtä hyvin ku sulla: pokekortit ei ollu meillä koskaan nii hirveän suosittuja. Kattoin kyllä Pokemonia mut en ees tienny et niistä on korttejaki ennen ku ekalla, ja sillonki se oli enemmän poikien juttu. :hmm: Muistan vaan ku ne kulki joka välkkä kansiot kainalos ja tappeli siitä kuka vaihtaa minkäki kortin ja mihin ja se oli elämää suurempi asia, mut sitten ne vaan yhtäkkiä hävis sen vuoden jälkeen eikä kukaan enää puhunu niistä mitään. Kortit siis, ei pojat.

Vlürch wrote: Siis niin paskaa että kukaan ei ymmärtyny yhtään mitään mistään mitä mä selitin jossain foorumeilla ja spämmäsin yhellekkin foorumille muistaakseni yli sata postausta ekana päivänä...

:rotfl: Kiva tietää etten oo ainoa joka on spämmänny kersana foorumeilla. Onneks sen aikaset foorumit on jo kadonnu tai ainaki muuttanu sen sata kertaa eri osotteeseen.

Vlürch wrote:. . . yhtä kuollu kun zombi etelänavalla. (Vai oisko zombi etelänavalla enemmän elossa kun zombi Teksasissa tai jossain?

Tää on kompa, zombit ei voi olla elos tai kuolleita koska ne on epäkuolleita! Mut toi mätänemisjuttu on kyllä hyvä huomio. Oisko Walking Deadissä ja muissa tälläsis zombimaailmanloppuelokuvis ja -sarjois mahdollista vaan mennä piiloon johonkin kellariin pariks viikkoa ja ootella siellä et zombit mätänee omia aikojaan? Ei ehkä ois niin jännää mut turvallisempaa kylläkin. :hmm:

------------------------------------------

Since I'm already writing here, I could tell about my experiences.

I've noticed that I learn new words faster if
- I'm really motivated to study the language or
- the language sounds familiar (either because I've been exposed to it constantly or because it's a close relative of another language I already speak) or
- the words are short

I never had troubles with English even though there were days when I had to learn 2-3 pages of new words at once. I guess it helped that I was like 11 years old at the time, but I believe that hearing and seeing English all the time everywhere (tv, radio, net...) made it even easier.

When I started to study Swedish, I suddenly had to fight to learn the words. The only explanation I have is that I never heard Swedish anywhere. It was also more difficult than English because with English, I had to learn a word and its meaning, but with Swedish I had to remember the gender and declination, too. (In the end, I gave up and every time I couldn't remember more than the word, I just decided that the article has to be en and the declination is always -er. :lol:

Estonian was super easy because many of the words were identical or close enough to their Finnish translation, most of them looked like they could be Finnish (so it felt more like expansing my Finnish vocabulary rather than learning a new language), and the rest of the words were loans from German, English or Russian. (NB: I never took more than one course, so I guess it would've gotten more difficult if I had studied more.)

Russian was somewhere between Swedish and English: I was very motivated and interested in learning Russian, but those words were so long and there were so many consonants... And some of them weren't even pronounced, or they were pronounced differently than what I expected. (Eg. assimilation) I had no troubles with short words, though.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby vijayjohn » 2018-05-13, 19:08

Doesn't this mostly boil down to familiarity, though? Hasn't Ciarán been studying Japanese for years but not Russian or Finnish? So then why would it be surprising that Japanese comes across as easier for him than Russian or Finnish? Similarly, voron is fluent in Turkish, Naava is a native speaker of a language that's closely related to Estonian, and Car is fluent in at least one Romance language (or at least has three stars in it) and a native speaker of a language that's closely related to Dutch.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby voron » 2018-05-13, 19:25

vijayjohn wrote:Similarly, voron is fluent in Turkish

Yes, but what's the cause and what's the effect here? Maybe I am fluent exactly because the vocabulary is easy to memorize, and with the same number of hours spent for Arabic I'm not even the halfway of where I was with Turkish?

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby vijayjohn » 2018-05-13, 19:43

But you live in Turkey and have been living there for years. You don't live in a primarily Arabic-speaking country.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Ciarán12 » 2018-05-13, 21:11

vijayjohn wrote:Doesn't this mostly boil down to familiarity, though? Hasn't Ciarán been studying Japanese for years but not Russian or Finnish? So then why would it be surprising that Japanese comes across as easier for him than Russian or Finnish? Similarly, voron is fluent in Turkish, Naava is a native speaker of a language that's closely related to Estonian, and Car is fluent in at least one Romance language (or at least has three stars in it) and a native speaker of a language that's closely related to Dutch.


I agree that motivation to learn a language and familiarity with the language, and certainly whether or not you have studied a related language before are all relevant factors, but I think even if I control for that, I think there are "objective" differences in how easy they are to learn. For example, in the Turkish vs Finnish situation for me, both had exactly the same learning method, were equally unrelated to languages I'm familiar and I had equal motivation for both, yet I noticed a big difference in how much easier memorising vocab was. I would have even expected that Finnish long vowels and long consonants would be more intuitive to me given my knowledge of Japanese, but I still found it a hurdle.

I think word length is definitely a factor. As is how well differentiated vocabulary is, and whether or not the language has unfamiliar sounds or sound combinations. One technique I use a lot for completely unrelated languages is mnemonics based on other languages I already know, so how easily/reliably I can form mnemonics for words in a given language makes a big difference for me. I think that's really why äy in “käydä” and au in “kaupunki” were a problem; I was equating both käy and kau to "cow" in English for mnemonic purposes, and thus I couldn't differentiate them. But even with that, I found I really needed mnemonics for Finnish, as the words didn't have their own "character" to me when I read them (they all sounded the same), whereas with Turkish, I used mnemonics sometimes, but often I just feel like I won't confuse the word with another because it looks unique enough.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby vijayjohn » 2018-05-13, 21:45

Ah, yeah, I did miss the part where you talked about Turkish. :oops:

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Linguaphile » 2018-05-13, 23:55

I think it must be a combination of all of the factors mentioned here: cognates, phonetics, motivation, learning styles, and unknowable factors unique to each individual. One thing I've realized about my own learning is that I remember words more easily when the pronunciation is easy to figure out from the spelling and vice versa, and less easily when it's not. I am a very visual person, and tend to "see" written words in my mind when I hear them. Basically, if I don't know how to spell a word that I hear or if I don't know how to pronounce a word that I see, it doesn't "stick" as easily. Languages in which those two parts tend to go together in a systematic way are easier for me to learn. I suspect it's different for every person, and involves a combination of factors.
Last edited by Linguaphile on 2018-07-16, 21:34, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby Karavinka » 2018-05-15, 17:06

I'm going to suggest markedness.

A lot of Finnish words, as Ciaran pointed out on the first post, can be distinguished from each other by vowel and consonant lengths. If your known languages don't bother too much with them, then they will sound all the same to you.

I guess the same can be said for Chinese or Vietnamese with "all those goddamn monosyllables" -- if the tonality is a foreign concept to you, then the words lose the distinctiveness in your brain and they all melt down to gibberish.

Regarding Turkish vs Arabic (and even Arabic loans in Turkish), I think it's at least partly due to it. Turkish syllable patterns are simply more diverse than Arabic or Turco-Arabic syllable patterns, which usually (not always) makes each word more distinct from each other.

Maybe another reason why Arabic doesn't stick is the triconsonantal system, that a similar looking word may be a loosely related derived form, but since the derivation comes from the vowel pattern, it's not so easy to break it down and say "this is the base and this is the nominalizing suffix" as you can in Turkish. ...Hmm, but Finnish is also agglutinating so this has to be only a part of the reason.

When it comes to Japanese, a lot of native Japanese nominal roots are multisyllabic to begin with, so maybe that's a help. ..Though I can also see how the Sino-Japanese words all start looking the same. But if you're learning Kanji along with the new words, maybe that serves as a visual reminder to tag the words differently. You just have to Kanji in order to Japanese.
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Re: Memorising Vocab - why are some languages easier than others?

Postby vijayjohn » 2018-05-16, 2:56

Actually, the fact that I know Chinese fairly well makes learning vocabulary in other East Asian languages harder for me, precisely because I know some words are from Chinese and some aren't, but it's not intuitively obvious which are which. This goes for Vietnamese, too (maybe even more for Vietnamese. And then you have complications like Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary vs. "non-Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary" (which is still of Chinese origin!) vs. Vietic. It strikes me how even out of what little Vietnamese I remember, an awful lot of words are of Chinese origin: chào (朝), ông (翁), (婆), (姑), không (空), sinh viên (生員), gia đình (家庭), nhưng (仍), (和), đang (當), anh (英), chị (姊), học (學)...and cơm may even be related to 饭, but in that case, it seems it's probably due to some kind of Mon-Khmer substrate influence in Chinese, not the other way around!).


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