Cracking the Code of Language Learning

3 min read

Why Do We Struggle with Learning a New Language?

Ever wonder why some languages seem more accessible than others, or why children find language learning fun while adults might find it daunting? Stick around, and we’ll unravel these mysteries.

First off, let’s address why learning a foreign language can be such a formidable task. It’s not because languages are inherently complex; in fact, humans have the remarkable ability to acquire any language from a very young age. Babies can learn any language in the world. It’s obvious but we must stress it: the primary reason a language feels challenging is that it’s different from your native tongue.

Diplomats, those language masters, understand that the time needed to learn a new language can vary significantly. Easier languages, those closely related to your native tongue, might take as little as 24 weeks of study. But when you venture into the realm of distant languages, such as Chinese Mandarin, get ready for an epic journey that could take up to 88 weeks! So, what’s behind the difficulty for speakers of European languages such as English or Spanish? I’m using as source here an interesting article I found on the British magazine, The Economist. 

First let’s start with the writing system. Imagine trying to learn a language that doesn’t even use the same alphabet as your own. For instance, in Chinese or Japanese, you must memorize around 2,000 characters just to read a newspaper. Now, that’s a challenge. Arabic, on the other hand, while having a different script, is relatively straightforward because it’s alphabetic, with just a few dozen letters. However, it gets tricky as the letters change shape depending on their position in a word, and short vowels aren’t written. As for Korean, the characters in “hangul” are technically a syllabary, with each character representing a syllable rather than a single sound. But “hangul” is widely admired for its simplicity and logic.

Then there’s the issue of sounds. Sometimes, languages include sounds that don’t exist in your mother tongue. If you speak a European language, attempting to pronounce the clicks and snaps of many African languages can be quite challenging. But it’s equally tough when languages make distinctions that your language lacks. In Hindi, sounds like “t” and “d” can be “retroflex,” meaning the tongue rolls backward, or not, creating two distinct letters that can differentiate between two words. Mandarin and Cantonese have tones, which means that a word like “ma” with a flat tone and “ma” with a falling tone have entirely different meanings.

Next, let’s talk about vocabulary, or lexicon. Most European languages share a common ancestor known as Proto-Indo-European, leading to frequent word relationships. For example, “wine” in English is “vino” in Italian, “vinho” in Portuguese, “Wein” in German, and “wijn” in Dutch. However, if you venture beyond the European family, those similarities disappear unless they are recent loanwords or related to fields like science or technology.

Lastly, we come to grammar—the complex set of rules and exceptions that characterize each language. Don’t expect these rules to follow a mathematical logic; it’s more like navigating a thorny path. Take verb conjugation, for instance. In most languages, highly used verbs like “to be” or “to have” tend to be particular and don’t resemble regular verbs. Why? Simply because they’re used so much that their structure has become irregular and must be memorized.

In summary, we all know that learning a language requires a significant investment of time and effort. You’ll need to overcome obstacles related to writing systems, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. However, don’t be discouraged; it’s an incredibly rewarding journey. As one Chinese teacher noted, Mandarin might be the most challenging language to write but surprisingly one of the easiest to speak.

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