Distance between different languages

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Bamboo Grove
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Distance between different languages

Post by Bamboo Grove » Mon Jul 01, 2013 3:36 am

While doing research on another topic, I came across this article about linguistic distance from English language to other languages, done by Joel West and John L Graham in 2004. The scale was 0-7, where 0 meant no distance i.e. English in England vs English in America to 7 meaning the biggest distance.

The closest to English with a value of 1 were f.ex. German, Dutch and Creole, followed by Norwegian, Swedish and Danish with value of 2. Now the interesting point is that Thai has a value of 7, which is the greatest distance possible in this study. Malay has the same value of 7 but f.ex. Taiwanese and Cantonese have the value of 6.

Now, my question to you who are English speakers and also speak or know at least some basic Thai and some other foreign language, would you agree on this study?

You can find the results on page 11 of the study
http://www.globalnegotiationbook.com/Jo ... R-2004.pdf
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Re: Distance between different languages

Post by Ratsima » Mon Jul 01, 2013 7:13 am

Interesting article. At first I assumed that this was going to be about the structural aspects of language, but it's really about the interaction between language and culture.

For those not interested in reading the whole thing, a few quotes from the article:

"The English language is better set up to directly deliver the required, precise information, even if it upsets."

"...the American conversational style [reflects] an 'argument culture', wherein preserving 'face' and warm social relations is far down the list of requirements for good communication."

"... English does not so much depend on the Social relationship between speakers. However, speakers of many other languages literally do not know how to talk to one another until the social relationship is defined." (Thais sometimes have so much trouble figuring out which pronoun to use that they simply leave it out.)

Thanks for the link.

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Re: Distance between different languages

Post by Nereus » Mon Jul 01, 2013 5:13 pm

Bamboo Grove wrote: The closest to English with a value of 1 were f.ex. German, Dutch and Creole, followed by Norwegian, Swedish and Danish with value of 2. Now the interesting point is that Thai has a value of 7, which is the greatest distance possible in this study. Malay has the same value of 7 but f.ex. Taiwanese and Cantonese have the value of 6.
Now, my question to you who are English speakers and also speak or know at least some basic Thai and some other foreign language, would you agree on this study?
You can find the results on page 11 of the study
http://www.globalnegotiationbook.com/Jo ... R-2004.pdf
I have not waded through the whole link, a bit heavy going for an old fella! But I have to ask how they come up with the figure quoted for Malay? It is a very simple language, closely related to Indonesian, and both languages are a lot less difficult to learn and use than Thai. And as a consequence the social structure is a lot easier to absorb. :?
I worked in both Malysia and Indonesia over a period of about 10 years, and picked up and used a lot more of the language that I have ever been able to do in Thailand. Maybe I am missing the point completely?
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Re: Distance between different languages

Post by Somchai Turdsak » Mon Jul 01, 2013 5:47 pm

Good stuff Bamboo Grove. I find this topic interesting and generally agree with the study, though admittedly didn't read it all.
Certainly, geography plays a role in how close languages are to each other. I imagine before many European languages were exported, they were probably much more closely related. Spanish/Portuguese, Dutch/German. Various scripts served to distinguish geographically proximate societies: Russian Cyrillic - Chinese - Korean.

Of course Thai-Lao/Khmer/Burmese cultures are related and so too are the languages. I would like to know if their management cultures are likewise similar. I find Laos even less likely than Thais to show much emotion about anything.

A few of my wife's friends insist Isaan is a distinct language. I'm not so sure. The vocabulary of words that are neither Thai nor Lao, from what I can discern, is sparse indeed. I think it's more like Tex-Mex, which nobody would consider an independent language from American-English and Mexican-Spanish (which also are not distinct languages).

I studied Japanese at University for three years in Tokyo. I would guess it's a linguistic distance far removed from English on the West-Graham scale. Sentence structure does your head in. SOV rather than our familiar SVO. Japanese also has three alphabets, one of which (kanji) Chinese use, but the characters are pronounced differently and sometimes don't have the same meaning. There are upwards of 60,000 Japanese kanji characters. You can read a standard newspaper if you know about 2,000.

I find Thai the exact opposite. It's a cakewalk learning the characters and how to write them. Speaking is the challenge here.

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Re: Distance between different languages

Post by Ratsima » Mon Jul 01, 2013 6:18 pm

The article is not about how languages are related to each other, or whether or not the speaker of one language has a hard or easy time learning another language. Nor is it about sentence structure. If you don't want to read the whole article, then at least have a look at the few quotes I posted above.

The gist of the article is that a language reflects the culture and social norms of the people who use it.

American English serves us well because we are brash, up front, non-deferential and really don't care if we cause someone to lose face. Thai serves the Thais well because they generally are the exact opposite: painfully aware of social standing, unwilling to assert themselves and horribly fearful of causing some to lose face.

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Re: Distance between different languages

Post by Somchai Turdsak » Mon Jul 01, 2013 6:49 pm

Yes I read most of it, and I get it. But the paper also addresses how languages/cultures are related and others are dissimilar and how language might have a bearing on that relationship. Your points are valid.

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Re: Distance between different languages

Post by Bamboo Grove » Mon Jul 01, 2013 7:09 pm

Nereus wrote:
how they come up with the figure quoted for Malay?
I was wondering about that myself, as well. The culture is also closer to western culture than that of Thailand because they have had more interaction between, for example British culture than the Thais in their history.

Somchai T wrote:
A few of my wife's friends insist Isaan is a distinct language. I'm not so sure. The vocabulary of words that are neither Thai nor Lao, from what I can discern, is sparse indeed.


I took a short course in Thai-Kadai languages last spring. Once the sample texts were written in phonetical way, you could see the connections with many of the southwestern branch languages. You can find examples of these languages on youtube. Here for example is news in Ahom. It sounds more like Lao or Isan than Thai.



Here is also link to the lecture I participated concerning the family tree of Tai-Kadai.

https://wiki.helsinki.fi/download/attac ... 405&api=v2

The family tree is on page 2.
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