Not all languages are created equal

juldasThis picture was taken at a recent wedding of some friends of mine, Juldas and Pajo Makanga.  They are from Gabon and the Congo, which means that the wedding party included about 200 French-speaking Africans.  I had a great time at the wedding. I am sad to say that among all the languages that I have studied, I still don’t speak French, I know, it is sad to confess.

So, their wedding, and the evening with all of these French-speaking friends, got me in the mood to look into learning a little French.  My usual strategy in learning a language has been to find a good textbook that can serve as a resource, listen to podcast lessons to get me started, and then find a tutor to practice with.  That has worked in the past with other languages.  The problem is that French is the first language that I have ever studied where the “textbook” phase brought on a new challenge, namely, French spelling.  How can a word that is spelled with so many letters be pronounced without 90% of the letters!  It has totally changed my strategy.  The textbook just hasn’t helped as my starting point. I have never studied a language where it was absolutely essential for me to hear the words, much more than simply reading them to get me started.

All of this got me to thinking about how each language that I have studied, has some unique aspect or twist.  Bottom line, we just cannot suppose that the way that we study one language will work for another language.  I cannot use the same strategy and procedures.  Here’s a short list of what I mean:

Portuguese – Since I learned Portuguese in Brazil, as a missionary, the learning experience was totally focused on “language for specific purposes.”  My learning was very task based.  When you learn a language to teach someone to believe in the atonement of Christ you are taking a very different path from the average language learning experience. I have had no other language learning experience similar to that of Portuguese.

Spanish – Basically my starting point for Spanish was to  learn to conjugate verbs, and then conjugate them again and again!  Next I had to learn how to throw in “se” all over the place.  Man they use “se” constructions a lot in Spanish (compared to Portuguese where these drop out a lot).  My experience in learning Spanish is one continual comparison with Portuguese.

Catalan – Here I learned that it is not enough to study grammar, but I need vocabulary too.  When I started Catalan, I assumed that I would know lots of words, because many look like Spanish.  However, when I got to Barcelona, I found myself being able to conjugate a bunch of verbs, but I was continually searching for vocabulary that I didn’t have.  I learned that I needed to give  both attention.  My Spanish verb conjugation strategy wasn’t working as well for Catalan.

German – In high school I took a couple of years of German.  Adjective endings killed me, and as a result I kind of gave up on German.  Later, when I went back to German again as an adult, I basically ignored the adjective ending agreement problem.  OK, so my adjective ending agreement is not stellar, but now I enjoy German a lot more, and who knows, maybe someday if my German gets to be more advanced, the adjective endings will get better too.  In the meantime, I learned that grammar shouldn’t be a total progress stopper. Some grammar concepts need to wait for general proficiency, and I’m happy to wait for my general proficiency to get better before I worry about advanced grammatical issues.

Japanese – Japanese is the most “rule” based language that I have studied.  There are very few exceptions, but there are tons of rules.  It’s also one of the easiest languages to get started, but then it gets deceptively difficult after the survival phase.  In the end, I fossilized at survival level, mainly because I realized that advanced levels were going to take way more energy that I was willing to put into it. I honestly believe that beginning Japanese is easier in some ways than beginning Spanish, but then there is a gigantic flip where intermediate and advanced levels become much more demanding.  My strategy was to learn the rules.

Chinese – Chinese is the language that I have studied that has the fewest number of cognates.  If I don’t know the word, I just don’t know the word.  It’s not like Italian, for example, where it is easy to understand phrases like “museo nazionale di architettura.” With romance languages, we are able to understand much more than we can speak.  What happens in a foreign language when there is vocabulary that we do not understand, however, is that sounds turn into a quick garbled stream of unintelligible noise.  That happens to me a lot in Chinese, even in simple conversations that I should be able to handle by now.  It is just important to be more patient with Chinese, because the cognate crutch is not available.

Italian – Before studying Italian, I had supposed that it was going to be more similar to Spanish. To my surprise, however, what I know of Portuguese helped me much more than what I know of Spanish.   My textbook resource was an easy starting point for Italian.

All this is to say that languages are not created equal, and we shouldn’t assume that the same methods will work exactly the same for all of them.  Now, let’s see if I can get back to learning a little French.

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One Response to “Not all languages are created equal”

  1. jp 吉平 Says:

    I’ve had a couple of native-English speaking, 2nd language Chinese speaking friends (who didn’t know each other) ask me to teach them Spanish. I was amazed by all the habits/coping strategies that they shared that must have come from successful Chinese learning, that just didn’t work for Spanish.

    They were both VERY lexically-focused, they wanted to rote memorize a crazy stacks of words from the very first day. They were at any moment ready to grab the steering wheel, rather than stick with the curriculum and see where it goes (that’s what you have to do with a Chinese tutor, you have to take the reigns). They were both stunned by communicative method; they though their teachers were amazingly energetic, chatty, and had a very rare talent of being able to make themselves understood. I would tell them, no, that’s our method, we’re all trained like that, but they wouldn’t believe me.

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