Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is it hard to learn a new language?

Is mathematics easy or hard?  Is physics challenging or impossible?  Ease is in the mind of the beholder, of course.  For those whom a certain subject comes naturally, what can be simpler?  By contrast, for those who have struggled unsuccessfully all their lives to learn something, understanding always seems out of reach.

Practically speaking, when learning languages, the learner must overcome the following challenges:

a.      New alphabet (sometimes)

b.      New sounds or variations of known sounds

c.       New roots

d.      New endings on words according to grammar

e.      Different grammar rules

f.        Different intonation

While the first one seems quite daunting, learning a new alphabet is mainly a matter of will and drill rather than intelligence and skill.  Even the rather complex Arabic alphabet in which each letter has three forms depending on its location in the word can be learned within a week for the purposes of reading a very simple learning text.  As for sounds, it requires a good teacher, an attentive ear, and a willingness to make “funny” sounds.  For example, there are major differences between the completely flat Russian “r”, the middle of the road English “r”, and the rolled French “r”.  (One of my favorite words to practice in French is serrurière.) Vowel sounds also vary.  For instance, French vowels are in general much more than tense than in English.  Compare the English tutu with the French tu.

The next three are simply a matter of practice.  People who use a language, whether they speak, read, or write it, will improve gradually in all those aspects as long as they are open to constructive criticism.  The most significant issue seems to be adult pride.  We forgot how everybody laughed at our early mistakes in our native language.  Small children are experts in laughing with us, learning from their mistakes, and then pointing out  mistakes, especially to immigrant parents.

In my opinion, the most difficult aspect of a language is the intonation.  Every language has its own rhythm and cadence, rising and falling in a unique manner.  That is how we recognize foreign languages and accents.  We may not be able to tell the difference between the Italian and Spanish words, often quite similar, but the Italian intonation is clearly different than the Spanish one.  It takes great effort to get your mouth to do something that seems unnatural, like die at the end of sentence in Russian or go on a rollercoaster ride as in French.  This can be learned, but most learners are either unaware or unwilling to retrain their voice.  They retain their native language intonation even when speaking the second language quite correctly otherwise.

 Like most matters, learning a new language requires some need, effort, and willingness to make mistakes.  Is that hard?

If you have any remarks, please comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment