Five myths about languages and how to learn them

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Update 30 August 2008: This entire post is now also available en español.

Map of countries by GDP per capita, often a better way to ascertain the financial usefulness of a language than the total speaking population or geographic extent.


My last post on Norwegian being the easiest language for English speakers garnered quite a bit of attention, and in the midst of all of the responses and comments I noticed quite a bit of false information about languages and how to learn them that you hear quite a bit both on and offline, and I decided to write a fairly detailed post on some of the major myths about languages, and how and why to learn them. I started out with seven but two of them were similar to another two and thus ended up with five. Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on the subject has probably heard a lot of these, and many believe them to be true. Here they are, in no particular order:



Myth #1: Languages are all difficult to learn / languages are all pretty much equally difficult to learn.

This is one of the biggest myths out there, and it comes from stories heard from others or personal experiences when learning a language. The most common example given to back up this assertion is that someone (often a friend or a friend of a friend) spent some time in another country like Norway or France, and found out that learning a language takes a huge amount of time, and since Norwegian and French are supposed to be not all that challenging to learn, that all languages are therefore difficult to learn.

Stop right there though: time-consuming does not equal difficult. All languages are time-consuming, no exceptions there. Even constructed languages like Occidental, Interlingua and Ido that take very little time to learn the grammar still take time to learn all the vocabulary you will need to have a conversation without having to check a dictionary, and it takes a while to get used to the flow of a sentence, what words are used in what contexts, and so on. This does not make them difficult, however. The difference between a language that is difficult to learn and one that is simply time-consuming is the difference between typing up a 100-page document in a language that uses Roman letters (time-consuming and perhaps tedious but certainly not difficult), and typing up the same document in some other script, like Bulgarian or Georgian. It's the same document, but all of a sudden you have to hunt and peck for every key, and it takes you about a week before you can even type a single word with any measure of confidence. That's the difference between the two.

Or if you like, it's the difference between walking 100 kilometres on a gradual slope versus walking the same distance on a steeper slope. Either way it's a pretty long walk:

Here's our stickman a year or so into learning Norwegian. He didn't think it was going to be such a long walk, and he spends a lot of time learning vocabulary and trying to practice every day. However, all this new vocabulary and practice fits in very nicely with the English grammar that already exists in his head, and he's never really shook his fist at the textbook and asked whether he's ever going to figure out what makes this language tick. He knows that most of what he needs is to keep learning and keep finding ways to practice, to make sure he doesn't forget to pay attention to when a verb is common (en) or neuter (et), and other small points like small differences in word order, remembering that Norwegians will use av (of) sometimes where English uses from (Norwegian fra), and other points that have more to do with paying close attention than trying to learn a whole new language from the ground up. The hardest part for him was actually just setting up an environment where he was able to practice the language every day, but luckily he has set up a schedule where he is able to converse with people in Norwegian only for at least a full hour every day in exchange for helping them in their studies for the next hour. Sometimes he just pretends to be Norwegian online too and gets a lot of practice there.

Here's the next 100 km journey:

Here's our second stickman, and he's studying Arabic. Look at him go. You'll notice he also has the same distance to travel from left to right (distance along the x-axis, that is), but this time the slope is much steeper because he is dealing with a grammar, writing system, culture and everything else that he's not familiar with. That doesn't necessarily mean he's having a worse time though; for all we know Stickman 2 may enjoy the challenge of Arabic and would find himself bored with Norwegian. If he's good at languages he might also arrive at the right side of the image before Stickman 1, but if we are to assume that they both have the same linguistic skill and motivation (and therefore time put into study), Stickman 1 is definitely going to arrive first.

Another way to visualize how not all languages are equally difficult to learn: you're in German class, and your next few chapters are about genders. Now all of a sudden let's imagine that German no longer has three genders but has only one. Would the textbook grow in size or shrink? Or let's say the cases disappear too and you don't have to learn this part anymore:
Der Hund beißt den Mann. The dog bites the man.
Den Mann beißt der Hund. The dog bites the man.
Because now the only correct way to say it is Die Hund beißt die Mann. Would the language be easier to learn? Most definitely. Would it now no longer be time-consuming? Not at all. That's the difference between the two.



Myth #2: Language (insert language here) is difficult because it has dialects.

This myth is one of the first to pop up in forums and other sites online when a discussion on learning languages appears. Somebody will come along and say "you think my language is easy to learn, but we have some crazy dialects that nobody can understand!", and in some cases succeeds in driving the prospective student away because of this. The thing is though, almost every language has dialects. Not only that, but most of these dialects are on regular television as well, nationwide television. That means that when you're living in a country you'll come into contact with these dialects quite often.

In fact, and this is important, a certain familiarity with one or more major dialects is almost always an absolute must when learning a language. Exceptions to this are few. We are not talking about complete fluency in a dialect, but an understanding of how it differs from the 'norm' and some of the major expressions used in it. Generally, the rule goes as follows: if a dialect is known well enough that even a person that has grown up using only the standard version of a language can understand some of it, the student of the language will need to understand it to a similar extent as well.

One good example is a show in Japan called Koi no karasawagi (恋の空騒ぎ) hosted by a comedian named Akashiya Sanma (明石家 さんま), who is pure comedic genius. He was raised in Nara though, and that means he speaks in a Kansai dialect, something you'll rarely find in a textbook. To learn the dialect you generally have to go to Japan and live there or watch a lot of tv until you get used to it. Shows with people talking in the dialect are on tv all the time, and when you go to Osaka people will generally be unable to switch to standard Japanese without a bit of effort, but does this make people stop learning Japanese or lower the value of the language? Of course not.

Here in Korea you'll find the Gyeongsangnam-do (Busan) dialect everywhere, in shows like Gag Concert (the corner 대화가 필요해 in particular), a ton of movies, tv, everywhere. And yet nobody recommends against learning Korean for that reason.

Then there is the very obvious example of a language such as English with multiple standards, most of which people are used to to a certain extent, which is why the average English speaker has no problem understanding a range of standards from CNN to Dr. Phil to BBC to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (most parts there anyway) to the dialogue in Blood Diamond to Crocodile Dundee, Once, and all the rest. This is certainly equal to the number of major dialects you'll find in a lot of countries, and yet nobody is discouraging students from learning English for this reason.

The fact is that every language comes with a certain range of ways to use it, and only certain languages like Icelandic have managed to exist with largely a single standard. The only exceptions to this rule about dialects might be languages that are used as second languages in countries where most people have a different first language, such as Indonesian, Tok Pisin, and so on. Languages like these often vary by region to a much larger extent than simple dialects, so it's only with these languages that I'd put any credence into the idea that it might be hard to make use of due to being used differently region by region.

The same thing goes with slang, which every language has. Slang is pretty much just a dialect that exists among common ages and occupations instead of regions, and only those that have common interests are interested in learning and using it.



Myth #3: You need a perfect accent to be fluent in a language.

Myth #2 and myth #3 actually cancel each other out, which is interesting because I've actually seen them both brought up in the same post as proof that a language is impossible to learn. "My friend has been learning (language) and it's so hard because it has so many dialects and he still can't get the accent right after a year." First of all, a dialect is composed of the following:
  • A different accent from the official language, and
  • Different vocabulary from the official language.
Now, if a language has so many dialects, and therefore so many accents, what is this 'perfect accent' that a person needs to have to be fluent? Do the speakers of the dialect not count as fluent speakers as a result? A language with a number of dialects implies a language with a certain range of acceptable pronunciation that deviates from the norm, which means that you don't need a perfect textbook accent to be fluent.

This is not to say that you can claim fluency with a horrendous accent, of course. No English speaker could claim fluency in French with a very English-sounding "je voodray oon bilett see voo play". A certain amount of accent, however, when not to the extent that it impedes comprehension at all, can sound very nice. You can also become the governor of California with an accent, so the idea that a person needs to speak in the exact same way as native speakers of the language is absurd. An accent is fine as long as you can be understood without any difficulty, and as long as it doesn't result in you making mistakes like saying bitch for beach. Enough exposure to the language will help you avoid that.



Myth #4: Everybody in (country x) is good at English so it's a useless language to learn. / That language is only spoken by (insert number) million people so it's useless to learn.

Huge myth right here. I can't count the number of comments I saw on the Norwegian language post that were of this nature. Let's take this myth apart, piece by piece.

The idea that a language is useless to learn because most people can get by with English is based on using a language for its most basic of uses: getting from point A to point B, talking about simple concepts, and so on. Now the first use here, getting from point A to point B, can and is accomplished almost without language most of the time. Getting a train ticket from one city to another can be accomplished by saying the name of the city, handing over the money, and nodding or shaking your head when they ask whether you want a one-way or two-way ticket. Buying a newspaper can be done by handing over money without a word, coffee at Starbucks is always easy to order, hand gestures work from time to time, and people in general are kind to travelers so the actual amount of language that has to be learned to explore a country is close to nothing.

The second basic use for a language, talking about simple concepts, is admittedly one place where the above claim is true. Simple questions like "How old is this statue", "Can people who are 19 drink beer in your country" and the conversations that come from that are easily done in English in most cases.

However, people do not put the time into languages that they do in order to carry out simple conversations. The largest motivations for learning a language include: love of a country and its culture, friends and family, and career advancement: i.e. money. So the question is: is a language spoken by 5 million people (again using Norwegian as an example) necessarily less useful for one's pocketbook than a language spoken by many more? Let's use Spanish as an example of the latter.

Spanish is spoken by some 500 million people as an official language in 21 countries. Norwegian is spoken by 5 million people in one country and is closely related to two others with a total population of 20 million for the three. Spanish obviously has a lot more content than Norwegian, including tv, news, music, just about anything. But what about the financial benefit for a person learning Spanish?

It's never bad for one's career prospects to learn another language, but Spanish is a bit overrated in this area for two reasons:
  • On a per capita basis, Spanish isn't all that remarkable. The countries it is spoken in are generally places that are not able to offer much more opportunity than one would have back home (we'll say the US or Canada). Even Spain has a lower GDP per capita than the US and Canada.
  • In the US as well there's a huge Spanish-speaking immigrant population, meaning that there are already a huge number of jobs that pay less than the average, and yet have a person already bilingual in Spanish and English filling it.
In other words, supply is high and demand is relatively low. How about Norwegian? Well, Norway has a GDP per capita of $83,922, almost twice that of the United States. The number of jobs is scarcer than the jobs you could get using Spanish, but then again Wal-Mart employs far more than Silicon Valley but the latter is definitely the place most people would rather work.

(and no, I'm not implying that Spanish is the Wal-Mart of languages. I like Spanish a lot.)

This brings us back to the first part of myth #3, that people in Norway already speak good English so learning the language would be useless. Let's take a look at this job posting for example for Opera (the company that makes the browser of the same name), based in Norway:

Requirements

  • Must be able to travel 25% of the time
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • English required, multiple languages are a plus
  • Excellent teamwork skills
  • Knowledge of Web technologies and mobile Web
  • Bachelor's degree
  • Minimum 3-5 years professional experience
As you can see, Norwegian alone won't get you the job; however, in addition to multiple languages being a plus, the number one concern a company has when hiring employees from overseas is whether they will be able to live in the country over the long term. Is the prospective employee really going to enjoy living here? Will he or she be able to adapt to the culture? Will he or she get along with the other employees? Knowledge of the language of the country you are applying for the job in is a huge benefit in these interviews, because the prospective employer already knows that you have put in a large amount of time into studying the language, and thus aren't just applying to overseas positions on a whim.

To conclude here: in terms of basic communication with hundreds and millions of people Norwegian loses out, but in terms of making more money, which is why a lot of people study languages in the first place, a language like Norwegian is possibly even a more useful tool than a widely-known language like Spanish or Portuguese. This punch a language packs per capita is also why a language like German remains so usefull careerwise in spite of being used in a limited geographical area: every country that uses German is stable and has a highly developed economy.

Myth #5: Children are really good at learning languages, adults are not.

I'm always surprised that this myth is brought up so much, because basic math alone tells us that this isn't the case. Let's pick a random language on Wikibooks: we'll go with Turkish. Turkish is a so-called Category II language, meaning that it will take an estimated 1100 class hours to learn the language.

Okay then, how long does it take a child to learn their mother tongue? People learning a difficult language are often amazed at how a child of five years old or so can speak the language so well. Okay, but how many hours of practice has the child had so far? Subtracting eight hours a day for sleep (and even that's being generous since people dream in their native tongues all the time while asleep) and the first six months of life when a baby is pretty much in a daze, we have a total of 26,280 hours of exposure to the language so far for this child. Babies also have no responsibilities whatsoever besides talking in and being talked to in the language, and they never have to go out of their way to practice it. Their life is a total and complete immersion in this language. Of course they can speak it after 26,280 hours of immersion. So could any adult put into the same situation.

The problem with learning a language as an adult is simply one of:
  • Motivation: you have to want to learn the language enough to stick with it over a period of time;
  • Sacrifice: you have to want to learn it enough that you'll change your schedule to study it, meaning less time for other things you might otherwise do with the time;
  • Learning to let go of your L1: the one definite advantage children have over adults is that they are good at accepting reality as is. Some adult students have a very hard time coming to the realization that they are not simply learning a different code to express their L1 (1st language or mother tongue) but rather a completely different language. Some never get past this.
The other clear advantage children have over adults is pronunciation and tone. However, as far as I know there have been no comparative studies made where an adult is thrown into complete and utter immersion that children are subject to, and I seriously doubt that an adult that is put into the same situation -- 24 hours of immersion a day, no contact whatsoever with the outside world and his native tongue, having to talk in and being talked to in the language by family, friends and schoolmates -- would still have a problem with pronunciation and tone after 26,280 hours of this. Adults simply have a much harder time breaking away from the responsibilities they have, most of which require using their mother tongue, and that's why children seem to be such gifted students of languages when really they are nothing special in this regard.

Two last points:
  • 5 to 6 year olds have a working vocabulary of 2,500 to 5000 words. That works to about one word every 5 or 10 hours, a shoddy performance for any person immersed in a language all day.
  • Children take forever to learn to write. Adults can familiarize themselves with an alphabet in about a week, and can read at a fair speed within a month or two, and that's not even their native tongue. Children spend far longer learning to read and write in the language they already use every day.

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good article, except that in your graphics, the slopes are too smooth. Certainly there are concepts that are difficult until internalized, and that present themselves at various stages in learning, and these might be depicted as cliffs.

Indeed, I'd be interested to see your assessments of the difficulty curves of various popular languages. One might go so far as to say that some languages would be best charted three-dimensionally, considering the many teaching methods available and fluency goals one might have. There would be one summit for tourists, one for literature, one for businessmen, and so forth.

Anonymous said...

So, I read this article and I have to say, your myth #5 is totally incorrect. As a neuroscientist, I can say that children are extremely well equipped to learn languages, especially given the fact that they learn them passively. Also, your point about children taking a long time to write.... confounded. Find an adult who doesnt know how to write but speaks one language, then teach him to write and speak another and see how long it takes him/her.

Spike said...

Very good, but I would agree that children do have an advantage. As a native speaker of French, I learned Dutch at age 4 without even knowing I was learning it, and learned English at age 12 in a space of a month. This is well documented, and Noam Chomsky has postulated a biological basis for it. Children have an innate advantage that goes beyond immersion. Some people retain this ability into adulthood.

adimit said...

I agree with the two previous posters that kids have a very improved performance in picking up skills to acquire a language - but there's more to it than meets the eye. For example, I picked up Devanagari in one single day. Maybe four hours. I started, I didn't know anything about it and after four hours I was able to read and do some basic writing (while skipping over some ligatures, mind you). A kid can't do that. Why? Well, kids may have some neurological advantages over adults in learning something entirely new to them, but the adult has the advantage of language not being something entirely new to him! That's why an adult will usually pick up a language he's exposed to much quicker than a child.

Steven G. Harms said...

In high school I took spanish and did pretty well: A's, etc.

Then at 18 I took Dutch and even journeyed to the fair Netherlands to complete my education. I still can still speak and read it.

I then learned French, and while my verbal has atrophied, reading still is fairly easy.

Now I'm studying latin and I love the exercise. It's a question of dedication. Children have weak dedication, but outstandingly sympathetic nervous systems. I have great discipline and great passion, and I've managed to learn a whole new world each time I've learnt a new language.

Harald Korneliussen said...

I'm very interested in this you say about Turkish being a "category II" language and being so and so difficult to learn. I have been looking for hard numbers on this, how difficult various languages are to learn for various people, for a long time.

Could you direct me to some more information on this?

Anonymous said...

Children do have a distinct advantage as to pronunciation because they can hear the difference in sounds more readily than adults. There have been studies (sorry I don't have them on hand) that have shown with age you lose the ability to distinguish between different sounds. IE a non English speaking child can readily hear the difference between man and men but an adult can't or the difference between avó and avô in Portuguese.

sfanetti said...

I had a really hard time learning russian. I took it in school and I never got the hang of the way it works. I studied for a long time in the classroom, but I never got anywhere with it. I had a really hard time until my mom bought me that Rosettastone software. Once I started using it, it worked like a charm. I have to say it is totally easy to learn a new language when you have the right teaching tools. I am going to vacation in Moscow this year and I can't wait!

Anonymous said...

Harold, this link has a list of languages the category and an explanation of how they arrived at that ranking.

http://www.nvtc.gov/lotw/months/november/learningExpectations.html

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with those ratings. Turkish 50% longer than German? I studied both in college (native English speaker here), and Turkish was *far* easier. No genders, no articles, no irregular verbs, no irregular plurals, etc.

I guess for a little while it was nice that "schuh" sounds more like "shoe" than does "ayakkabı" (though after 5 years of German I still can't remember the gender of "schuh"). But eventually I always found, in every language I've studied, grammar is the limiting factor, not vocabulary. If you told me shoe=schuh, I still wouldn't know how to say "the shoe" or "two shoes".

I wonder if this is one of those cases where interpersonal differences dwarf any inherent differences in the material? I like the phrase "learning to let go of your L1" -- I think this is big. Maybe I had trouble with German because it was so similar I was using it like Pig-Latin?

Jason said...

I really like your articles. Keep it up

Seymour said...

Here's a good example for you regarding myth #5. I have lived in Japan for 6 years, and am a pretty good Japanese speaker even though I haven't been studying academically. A friend of mine had a baby just before I came, so the kid's had about the same time exposed to Japanese that I have. Maybe it's an unfair advantage because babies aren't even physically capable of using their mouths when they first get here, but I am a much better Japanese speaker than her, even though I can spend a lot of my time using English. She can't even write her own name yet. However, I have already taught her some English, and she picks it up really quickly. And her pronunciation is much better than her parents, who are presumably more entrenched in their native Japanese, while the daughter is more flexible mentally.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article & definitely thought provoking. In respect to the dialects, i believe it makes things more difficult for me. I am living in China and attempting to learn as i go along, what i learn from one person will be contradicted by another hours later. Sometimes it's something subtle, like a slightly different meaning (Mai wen ti vs Mai Guan Xie; )(pardon my spellings) and sometimes it's a completely different pronunciation fro something that is spelled the same. (yiyang vs yiyanda, both mean "same"). eventually it makes it 2x as hard to learn, as so many words have multiple ways of saying them (you can express in one way, but understanding other people needs both)

Alejandro said...

well i kind of agree with most but i do believe that some languages are far easier than others, im fluent in spanish (native) elish and italian, italian being my third language it was incredibly easy to learn because of its similarity to spanish, so for me it was 3 times easier to learn than to my english speaking friends, on the same basis i want to learn arabic and russian, the use a diferent alphabet and pronunciation so i would need to take extra time to learn the new alphabet and pronunciation and if instead i went for portuguese or french the time invested i those two areas would be much less.

bez_zatej said...

this is certainly a very good article, thanks!

Toby Sterling said...

Hmm.

I'm usually not a stickler for credentials _ and in any case knowledge trumps academic papers _ but I wonder what yours are?

You make persuasive arguments based on what appears to be a broad but spotty understanding of languages, language acquisition and linguistics.

I believe Frisian is generally considered to be the easiest foreign language for a native English speaker to learn, but then, I'm no expert :)

Never heard of Dutch being put head to head with Norwegian, but along with Frisian it has certain advantages in terms of vocabulary and grammatical structure _ no doubt due to its geographical proximity to England & France.

A nice post in any case.

Regards,

Toby

Babel 2.0 said...

I really like this article. I was thinking in writing something similar, but I have to confess I am a bit lazy . Would it be OK if I posted a translation in my blog ?

Anonymous said...

The only thing is that the stickman doesn't travel 100km along the slope in either graphic. In the Arabic graphic the diagonal is longer than the diagonal in the Norwegian graphic. (Pythagoras)

NZ-Teacher said...

Here in NZ we have Te Reo Maori as an official language. It is always emphasised that correct pronunciation is paramount and that any trace of an accent actually disrespects and devalues the language.

Mithridates said...

Anonymous two posts up:

Yes, the distance is greater because the slope is not only greater but there's slightly more to learn, but the x-axis is pretty much the same in every language in that they generally work out to the same in terms of overall content to know. A language like Scots for example would be the smoothest line but it still takes some time because you have to check over each word you know in your L1 (English) for its Scots equivalent while picking up some new things along the way.

For example this sentence:

Guid tae see ye at the Scots Wikipædia, the first encyclopædia in the Scots leid!

There's nothing new to learn there in terms of grammar or sentence structure, so a person learning Scots just has to remember where the spelling differs from English, and a single new word (leid). In that way learning a language that similar to English is just a long process of checking what is the same and what isn't.

Mithridates said...

Babel 2.0: sure, post a link back to here as the source and you're welcome to translate any of the posts here. If you do so I think I'll probably use that to make an Interlingua translation, since having the two languages as a source makes it that much easier to find the best Interlingua term to use.

Klara said...

great article.
I found out there are huge differences in the way people pick up languages.
a. Everybody has different brains, maybe there exists something like LI, Language Intelligence? But motivation is more important.
b. A fifth language is easier to learn than a second.
c. Adults keep their ability to discern sounds strange to their native language on condition that they were (even passively) exposed to other languages from childhood on. I have been working in a truly international context and was amazed by the differences in pronunciation of L2 between countries that have dubbing (horrible practice anyway) like France, Germany, Italy ... or subtitling like Belgium, The Netherlands, Israel ... for films and TV.
d. I heard from colleagues who are teaching Dutch as a second language to immigrants that it is much harder to learn to speak a second language for people who didn't learn to write their first language.

Anonymous said...

whether or not an accent sounds nice largely depends on how possessors of that accent are viewed.
ex.) in english we think an italian or spanish accent is nice because of the cultures they remind us of. however, we think a russian or german accent sounds "harsh" because we think cold-war and nazi's respectively. i've been told here in japan that foreign accents in japanese aren't thought of as "cool and exotic," they're just thought of as "not normal". partially because most japanese people can't distinguish an american from a frenchman if they're both speaking japanese. most japanese people have just been exposed to too few foreign japanese speakers to tell the difference among them.

stevefoto said...

SIXTH MYTH
a proficiency certificate means yourjob candidate speaks english well...FALSE
as this certificate never expires and a job candidate might have this certificate from a few years ago and might no longer speak well..
Get a toefl certificate since it does expire and if a candidate for a job has a valid toefl,he or she will have an english level that has been recently tested.

In 2010 proficiency will begin to expire its exams in 2 years as to compete against the TOEFL exam..

All proficiency certificates will expire and require retesting.

NATIVE ingles murcia spain.

Miklos Hollender said...

I think Myth #2 isn't a myth. Certain dialects of British English, such as Black Country dialect, are amazingly hard to understand. The problem is not the usual one: that people articulate words differently. It's rather than they don't articulate at all, just spit out a few sonds. So "but" becomes "bo" or "po", "Are you all right?" becomes "Y' o'royt", "s", "z", and "sh" melts together into some sort of an effortless, inarticulate "zsh", and so on.

Mackenzie said...

Klara said:
"c. Adults keep their ability to discern sounds strange to their native language on condition that they were (even passively) exposed to other languages from childhood on. I have been working in a truly international context and was amazed by the differences in pronunciation of L2 between countries that have dubbing (horrible practice anyway) like France, Germany, Italy ... or subtitling like Belgium, The Netherlands, Israel ... for films and TV."

I wouldn't say that's entirely true. I've been exposed to many languages throughout my life, and for things like Russian's "funny" sounds, I can hear those (but then I heard Russian as a small child from my grandmother and her sisters). For Chinese, though? I have an extremely difficult time pronouncing the 3rd tone. I hear my friends say it, I try to repeat it...and I just can't make it happen.

Mayor of Kentonville said...

Thank you for the article very interesting

klara said...

@mackenzie

Point taken, it's not because you were exposed to European languages that you'll discern Asian sounds and vice-versa.
But absolute hearing as needed for Chinese (hearing a sound and recognising that it's a C sharp for ex.) can be learned by most people before the age of five. Later is next to impossible it seems.

Anonymous said...

Re: Myth #4

I concur.

Even when a large percentage of a given country's population speaks English, that doesn't mean you will not encounter situations where no one speaks English.

I spent some time in Finland and found that English was spoken at most businesses. However, I ended up at a bus station in Lahti, Finland and *nobody* spoke English. None of the ticket sales people spoke English. I asked several people around me if they spoke English and they looked at me like I was crazy. Fortunately buying a bus ticket isn't that difficult. So without knowing a word of Finnish, I bought a ticket from Lahti to Helsinki.

I ran into the same problem at a grocery store in Tiberius, Israel.

If "everyone speaks English" is the reason you don't learn a language, think again. The further you travel from major cities, the less you find English spoken.

Anonymous said...

Yep, I've live ind Ifnland for a while and, even if almost everyone seemed to speak English to some degree, train conductors and bus drivers did not, almost as a rule ... really odd.

Many Finns would claim they did not speak English, but this was part of their natural shyness and their "don't be prudish" attitude.

Septem Trionis said...

Hi, please find the translation at this address:

http://babel20.blogspot.com/2008/08/cinco-topicazos-acerca-de-las-lenguas-y.html

There is a short introduction, followed by the translated text in blue.

Mithridates said...

Nice work! I'll put up another post here referencing that to try to get it some more attention. That must have taken quite some time to do.

hater depot said...

"Some adult students have a very hard time coming to the realization that they are not simply learning a different code to express their L1 (1st language or mother tongue) but rather a completely different language. Some never get past this."

That is so, so true. Very well put.

Elindomiel said...

About kids learning languages: I totally agree for the most part with you. However, there are studies showing that when it comes to pronunciation, it is much more difficult for people to learn to distinguish tones and sounds after a certain age, because their minds automatically redirect similar sounds to the one they already know.

And, of course, if one doesn't learn any language at all in their 'critical childhood period', then they can't really get the hang of languages at all. Obviously this doesn't happen often, but there have been a few recorded cases of feral children, etc, who were never really able to use language effectively after being found and educated.

Still, this is more or less irrelevant to any other situation. :D

Thomas said...

...it is much more difficult for people to learn to distinguish tones and sounds after a certain age, because their minds automatically redirect similar sounds to the one they already know.

to address comments like these and myth #5, I would like to say that I think as long as one's mental hardware is motivated and committed to learning the sounds and tones, adults can be better learners than children. Children "speak like babies": they mispronounce and garble words all of the time.

And we should keep in mind that no one can ever know a language perfectly: there is always more vocabulary, more etymology, more nuanced meanings, more grammar to learn. Even "native" speakers make mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I learnt Latin over 7 years (3 of them productive) at highschool in what would be called an unconventional manner - I still don't know all the grammatical rules, but rather focused on vocabulary. 3 years later and all my friends who did languages in highschool have forgotten them, and I am still relatively sharp, now I'm helping some siblings. I attribute this to taking an immersive approach and reading Latin written by real Romans in Latin, focusing on understanding rather than de-coding and translation.
A few years ago I was silly enough to go to Siberia and do the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was actually a lot of fun. You can get tickets almost anywhere by saying your destination and looking lost - with a little effort, you can get them cheaper than anyone else as well! On the train, I was unable to speak English (except to my journal), for about 10 days in total, in this time I learnt the basics of Russian grammar (though admittedly I was familiar with IE inflectional patterns) and a large amount of vocab that I retain to this day. I familiarised myself to with the alphabet (a one-off effort) and spoke, I'm told, with a reasonable (though Siberian) accent. By the time I arrived in Moscow I was dreaming in Russian (and dreaming that I could speak it better than I could...)
So from personal experience, I'd say communicating in a language has little to do with grammatical perfection (which afterall is a summary of patterns inherent in language, rather than imposed rules), and a lot to do with perpetual embarrassment, trying out new constructions, using new vocab, and avoiding the use of other languages.
It may require 1100 hours to learn Turkish (I never progressed beyond the basics), but you can do pretty well with 100 well spent hours, or even less. It's a cumulative process.
As for children learning languages better, I agree with the comment here - adults speak better English than 6 year olds, and learning an accurate accent is a matter of imitation and learning how to listen - easier for those with musical training, probably.
Probably the easiest way to learn a language is to speak it, write it, then focus on spelling (if it's irregular). Start with TV shows and movies if travel is not an option, then work up.

Anonymous said...

I learnt Latin over 7 years (3 of them productive) at highschool in what would be called an unconventional manner - I still don't know all the grammatical rules, but rather focused on vocabulary. 3 years later and all my friends who did languages in highschool have forgotten them, and I am still relatively sharp, now I'm helping some siblings. I attribute this to taking an immersive approach and reading Latin written by real Romans in Latin, focusing on understanding rather than de-coding and translation.
A few years ago I was silly enough to go to Siberia and do the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was actually a lot of fun. You can get tickets almost anywhere by saying your destination and looking lost - with a little effort, you can get them cheaper than anyone else as well! On the train, I was unable to speak English (except to my journal), for about 10 days in total, in this time I learnt the basics of Russian grammar (though admittedly I was familiar with IE inflectional patterns) and a large amount of vocab that I retain to this day. I familiarised myself to with the alphabet (a one-off effort) and spoke, I'm told, with a reasonable (though Siberian) accent. By the time I arrived in Moscow I was dreaming in Russian (and dreaming that I could speak it better than I could...)
So from personal experience, I'd say communicating in a language has little to do with grammatical perfection (which afterall is a summary of patterns inherent in language, rather than imposed rules), and a lot to do with perpetual embarrassment, trying out new constructions, using new vocab, and avoiding the use of other languages.
It may require 1100 hours to learn Turkish (I never progressed beyond the basics), but you can do pretty well with 100 well spent hours, or even less. It's a cumulative process.
As for children learning languages better, I agree with the comment here - adults speak better English than 6 year olds, and learning an accurate accent is a matter of imitation and learning how to listen - easier for those with musical training, probably.
Probably the easiest way to learn a language is to speak it, write it, then focus on spelling (if it's irregular). Start with TV shows and movies if travel is not an option, then work up.

Miklos Hollender said...

I think Myth #2 isn't a myth. Certain dialects of British English, such as Black Country dialect, are amazingly hard to understand. The problem is not the usual one: that people articulate words differently. It's rather than they don't articulate at all, just spit out a few sonds. So "but" becomes "bo" or "po", "Are you all right?" becomes "Y' o'royt", "s", "z", and "sh" melts together into some sort of an effortless, inarticulate "zsh", and so on.

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