I think I will start this post by saying I dislike the term “foreign language” especially when it refers to a language close to home (for me this would be Spanish, Portuguese, Hmong, and Vietnamese especially). I feel as though using the term “foreign” implies that it is far away and strange. I suppose that this works to an extent though since when you start out learning a language it is often very confusing and unfamiliar.
Getting back to what this post was originally about, I wanted to briefly discuss some of the challenges that I have been facing in learning languages.
Social Pressure: many may not even consider this when it comes to learning a language! Even if you live in a linguistically diverse area and have access to great language materials and speakers, you may never take the steps to actually learning the language. This was me for the longest time. The problem wasn’t laziness or lack of discipline, it was that every time I tried to learn someone would try to put me down. They would make fun of me because I said a word wrong, respond to me by saying a phrase too fast or complicated for me to understand and then laugh, or tell me that it would take many many years of intense study before I could even consider myself decent at the language. I try to stress to everyone I meet to focus on the goal and ignore anything that would prevent them from reaching their goal. Something you need to understand is that these people likely are feeling insecure about their own language abilities for whatever reason and that it has nothing to do with you. You have no room in your life for people to put you down and stop you from reaching your goals.
Fluency: I get a headache every single time the topic of fluency comes up. This goes back to the previous paragraph’s idea that it will take a lifetime to become fluent and years to become decent. There’s this misconception that you have to learn a language as a child to be fluent. If this were the case we wouldn’t have remedial English classes specially for English speakers and we wouldn’t have non-native English speakers teaching English. No you don’t need to memorize a dictionary full of vocabulary in order to say you know the language. English is my first language and I still have to look up words in the dictionary now and then or make mistakes in spelling, grammar, or pronunciation! This does not mean that I’m stupid or lack fluency in English, it simply means that I’m a human being and no one is perfect. Please remember this, no one is perfect and you don’t have to be in order to speak a language. I think a better idea of fluency is your ability to create unique sentences and express yourself as well as converse with others. This goes beyond the simple “Hi how are you? My name is…” structure for starting out. While it can be fun and useful to know slang and idiomatic expressions (i.e. cat’s out of the bag) they certainly are absolutely necessary for being fluent. However, you will certainly want to learn pragmatics for the language, especially if you are planning to stay in a language community for work or school (in other words, know the cultural meanings behind refusals, acceptances, and covert comments. Although you may offer someone water and they refuse, it is possible that according to their culture you must refuse three times before accepting or say something is tasty even if you don’t like it.
Grammar: Some people find grammar easy while for others it is very challenging. For me personally, grammar has never been much of an issue. First step is figuring out what order the Subject Object and Verb are in for making a grammatical sentence. Once you know this then it is a matter of knowing smaller grammar things such as where prepositions go (words such as to, at), where demonstratives go (words such as those, that, these), along with tensing (past, present, future), and conjugations (I sleep, she sleeps). Grammar used to be difficult for me until I had to start drawing tree diagrams in my Linguistics classes (literally a tree with each branch showing the grammatical relations within the sentence).
Spelling: I have trouble with spelling in English, now I have to do it in other languages! For phonetic languages (such as Spanish and German) this really isn’t an issue. Once you memorize the sounds associated with the letters the words really are spelled exactly as they sound. For languages such as French this can be challenging (and has been for me) because there are so many silent letters. Just keep practicing! Reading passages in the language helps a lot!
Pronunciation: I have always considered this the easiest thing about learning a foreign language! All you have to do is mimic a native speaker/signer over and over! Maybe this sounds hard but after the third try most people get it correct! Some language learning programs, such as Mango, will show you how the word looks phonetically in your first language. I don’t really recommend this because most likely the two languages don’t include the same sounds (i.e. English does not have the trilled ‘r’ found in French or Spanish). For learning pronunciation, just focus on getting your mouth (or hands if it’s signing) to move in the correct ways to make the correct sound. When you first start learning a language you may have to train your mouth to make new sounds, but you can accomplish this faster than you think! Some people are afraid to learn tonal languages such as Vietnamese or Mandarin because they think it is too hard. Many people don’t realize that English is tonal in many respects because by changing where you stress the word you can make it a noun or a verb (example: a part, apart or a way, away). English also uses tone to indicate sarcasm or a question. Something else to consider in learning a tonal language is that the tones are relative to individual speaking levels. In other words, they are not “set” in that you have to dramatically alter your style of speaking in order to achieve them. If you are trying to accomplish a high rising tone (in which you raise your pitch) and you have a low speaking pitch naturally that doesn’t mean you have to raise it to be super high pitched, just raise it enough that people can tell you are doing a high rising pitch.
Time: Probably the greatest challenge in learning a language is finding the time to study! With work, school, families, friends, and all that it can be hard to schedule in some time for learning a language. There are ways to make this happen though! You can always take a class (not only scheduled time but also at the risk of hurting your GPA if you don’t study!), get apps on your phone, or take a book or audio with you to read/listen to while you are waiting for class or an appointment or on break at work.
I hope this post has been helpful and inspiring! Please feel free to share your own challenges or progress in learning a language! Good luck!