So how hard can it be, learning a new language?

Jun 11, 2010 by

Some time ago I was asked by a former student of mine if there is a scientific confirmation to the idea that speakers of certain languages may find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn a certain other language. Or perhaps speakers of a certain language might find it difficult to learn any foreign language, period (many Americans I talk to think that this is true of English speakers!). The short answer is no, there is no such thing as one’s native tongue stopping you when it comes to learning a new language. So if you are struggling with Latin declensions or French pronunciation, it is certainly not your native language that is to blame. Then what?

Two major factors seem to be at play in determining how difficult it would be for a given person to learn a given language, and they have to do with both the person and the language.

First, it is often forgotten that in language learning — as generally in life — attitude is everything. So those pesky Latin declensions might be so hard because… you are not motivated enough to learn them. After all, who would you talk to (other than your teacher, of course) if you did succeed in becoming proficient in Latin?! From this perspective, learning Spanish, Arabic, Chinese — or whatever language your girlfriend/boyfriend speaks — is a much easier project (everything else being equal, of course).

The second major factor — and the one linguists more than psychologists are able to address — is the similarity between one’s native language and the language one is trying to learn. From this point of view, for an English speaker it is easier to learn German, Dutch, Norwegian — anything in the Germanic family should be close enough to English. And because of the heavy Romance influence (blame the Romans, the Normans and the French!), English speaker might find a Romance language — Spanish, French, Italian — relatively easy to get a handle on.

Note, however, that similarity is a two-edged sword: if the two languages are quite dissimilar, it is hard to make progress at the initial stages, but if the two languages are pretty similar, research shows that it is difficult to attain a high degree of accuracy, especially at the later stages of learning. This is because when the target language is similar to one’s native language, it’s just too easy to slip into the patterns familiar from the native language. For example, Lydia White of McGill University has shown that French speakers find it extremely difficult to “unlearn” the grammaticality of putting an adverb or a prepositional phrase between the verb and its object. Thus, for a French speaker, the sentence I eat often chocolate sounds perfectly normal because the overall patterns of word order are similar and it’s hard to latch onto such a small nuance as the position of adverb/prepositional phrase (in French between the verb and the object, as in Je mange souvent le chocolat, and in English it must come after the object or before the verb, but not between the two).

Speaking of this sentence, there is another subtle difference between English and French which causes difficulties in language learning: the use of articles. Unlike many other languages in the world, both English and French have definite and indefinite articles. However, their use is subtly different. For instance, when talking about a type of object, an English speaker would use an indefinite article (as in A table has four legs), while a French speaker would use a definite article (as in La table a quattre pieds).

And of course, subtle mismatches in the meaning/use of words may be difficult for a language learner to latch onto. For example, an English speaker may learn that a French word for ‘leg’ is jambe, but not realize that it applies only to a human leg: a leg of a table is pied (it also refers a human foot), a leg of an animal is patte and a leg of a journey is etape. Conversely, it is equally perplexing for a French speaker that the same French word pied is translated into English as leg if talking about a piece of furniture and as foot if talking about a human being.

Another thing to note is that the two factors — the personal motivation and the similarity of the target language to one’s native tongue — may be at odds. So if you are considering whether to learn Latin (similar enough to English, but who needs it anyway?) or Chinese (quite dissimilar from English, but you’ve always wanted to understand the culture, etc.) — which is an easier project? Alas, science is silent on this one: since both motivation and similarity between languages are difficult to measure and quantify, there is not much research on this issue. But I would say, motivation matters more. So go for it! Try it. You might not attain ultimate fluency, but learning a new language is worth it anyway.

And speaking of learning Chinese, a reader of my blog Samantha Miller has sent me an article she’s written entitled “100 Useful Tools to Teach Your Child Chinese”. You might find it interesting and helpful.

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