A Look at the Southern Nambikwara Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Southern Nambikwaran language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Nambikwaran
Mamaindê

This is actually a series of closely related languages as opposed to one language, but the Southern Nambikwara language is the most well-known of the family, with 1,200 speakers in the Brazilian Amazon.

Phonology is complex. Consonants distinguish between aspirated, plain and glottalized, common in the Americas. There are strange sounds like prestopped nasals and glottalized fricatives. There are three different tones. All vowels except one have nasal, creaky-voiced and nasal-creaky counterparts, for a total of 19 vowels.

The grammar is polysynthetic with a complex evidential system.

Reportedly, Nambikwaran children do not pick up the language fully until age 10 or so, one of the latest recorded ages for full competence. Nambikwara is sometimes said to be the hardest language on Earth to learn, but it has some competition.

Southern Nambikwara definitely gets a 6 rating, hardest of all!

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7 thoughts on “A Look at the Southern Nambikwara Language”

  1. “Reportedly, Nambikwaran children do not pick up the language fully until age 10 or so, one of the latest recorded ages for full competence”.
    What is the age of fully competence for average language in earth ? English ? Polish ? Mandarin ? And what THE lastest recorded ages of full competence ? Are there any study on that subject ?

      1. Tsez children struggle with noun classes and presumably other aspects of grammar.
        http://www.linguisticsociety.org/document/statistical-insensitivity-acquisition-tsez-noun-classes
        I think it would help to define “get” one’s native language. Mine is English. I think at age 5, I was able to express in an understandable way most of what I wanted. But, I certainly had nowhere near the amount of vocabulary I have now and made more grammar errors than I do now.
        Is that enough to “get” one’s language? Can one be considered to “get” one’s native language if one makes grammar mistakes sometimes (which it appears, as you have said, even Tsez adults do) Do you have ideas for a more detailed definition?
        When you say Navajo and Arabic children do not “get” their languages well until maybe age 12, Nambikwara children do not pick up theirs “fully” until age 10 or so, do you mean that English speaking children are as far at 5 as those children are at those ages?

  2. Wow! Before age 5, I had some understanding of math, science, social studies,etc. But, I really think I could not have advanced nearly as far in those subjects as I did by 12 had I not picked up my language well.

    This could have serious implications for language preservation. Complex languages can encompass great beauty and culture (and be entertaining to read about in a light way). If a language dies, a huge part of a culture dies.

    But, if children take that long to pick them up well, that could seriously delay their intellectual progress in many areas.

    I hope such cultures can find innovative ways to both preserve their language and reach great intellectual heights.

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