When Words Get in the Way (or how NOT to fail at learning a foreign language)

A huge jumble of bricks does not a house make.

That, I believe, is a statement we can all agree on. It is also a good explanation of why is it that most attempts at mastering a foreign language tend to fall short.

In a nutshell, we tend to think of words as the building blocks of language, and when trying to master a foreign one our first instinct is to try to gather as many of those blocks as we can. In some instances that is not a bad idea. In others it is a recipe for disaster. The reason is simple enough: different languages are different, but they are not all different in the same way. If the language you are trying to master is close enough to your native one, then that words first approach may work, even if it leaves you with a few unusual linguistic quirks, but the farther afield you stray from your native tongue, the more likely you are to get into trouble.

For argument’s sake let’s take English as our starting point.

If you want to learn French or German, then the brick gatherer’s approach can actually get you there because the language structure is more or less recognizable, and can be transferred in a way that is understandable, if not elegant. Try the same approach with Japanese and… well, and chances are that you will run into a brick wall. The structure is just too different. When you switch to Japanese you are suddenly confronted with a world of postpositions rather than prepositions –the technical term is ‘particles’, but that is neither here nor there– in which both verbs and adjectives have to be conjugated, only they are not conjugated into first, second, and third person, singular and plural, like you would expect them to be, but rather they are conjugated into affirmative and negative, formal and informal. Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, even the word I is different for men and women. Say what?

Now add to that the fact that some multilingual language learning methods –especially those that are software based– take a one size fits no one approach, going so far as to try to use the exact same exercises across the board, and you will soon realize why it is that you are getting nowhere fast. So, assuming that you can’t actually afford to hire a human teacher, what can you do?

The best thing you can do is go back to the house building analogy, and remember that even if words are your building blocks, there is more to building a house than gathering a huge pile of bricks. You need to have a plan, a foundation, and a structure in place before you can start piling on those bricks… and even when you get to that stage you have to do it in an orderly fashion.

In other words, the first thing you need is something that is likely to make you cringe: a good grammar book that is meant specifically for the target language, preferably one that is written with English speakers in mind, because that is another thing that is different: speakers of different languages are likely to be tripped by different things, so translations can be less effective than they should be. For instance, English speakers tend to struggle with the fact that, unless it is unclear from the context, Japanese tends to leave the subject implied, assuming that you are smart enough to figure out who is supposed to be doing what. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, don’t usually have a problem with this particular concept because for them too leaving the subject implied is a common practice. The end result is that when relying on a book that was originally intended for English speakers, Spanish speakers are more likely to find themselves stumped by the utterly needless explanation –why would anyone go to such lengths to state the bleedingly obvious if there is no real mystery behind it?– than by the concept itself.

The next thing you have to do is take that book and read it. And yes, I said read it. I didn’t say study or memorize it. What you are trying to do here is get a general feel for how the language is put together, not to master the blasted thing in one go. Remember, you are building a foundation at this stage, not a house.

Okay, let me take a step back, because while the use of that grammar book makes for a sensible foundation, before you even start laying that one you need to do something else: you need a plan, hopefully one that is realistic enough that won’t leave you feeling incredibly frustrated, and the key to doing that is to answer a few basic questions, like why are you trying to learn that language in the first place, and what do you intend to do with it.

It is not the same to learn a language because you are being transferred, and need to be able to get by in a specific country ASAP, than it is to learn a language because you want to read your favorite book in its original form. It won’t hurt you to come to terms with the fact that you will make mistakes either, and that chances are that no matter how hard you try, you will never sound like a native. Your initial goal has to be to be able to get by, hopefully without embarrassing yourself. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that you won’t get better over time, but at least at first you should probably focus on figuring out how to ask where the bathroom is… and then on learning to understand the answer. Being able to debate War and Peace may sound awesome, but believe me when I tell you that it will never hold the same kind of urgency… especially not when you are quite literally trying to hold it in.

So what are some of the things you will never be able to master, especially not with a language that is not closely related to your own? Well, in addition to pronunciation, there are also the countless cultural cues that make up human interactions… and some of those details that are impossible to translate.

To give a couple of very simple examples from Spanish you may actually be familiar with, trying to figure out whether you should use ’tú’ or ‘usted’ –the formal and informal forms of you– in any given context is likely to drive you up the wall, as is the fact that the verb to be becomes two completely different verbs in Spanish, ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ (and if you think that’s bad, keep in mind that in Japanese those two become three… and they do so along completely different lines). The key here is to realize that the fact that you don’t have the appropriate bins to keep those two forms of the verb to be separate in your mind makes the difficulty in telling them apart all but impossible to overcome.

Another two areas that will drive you crazy, and where embracing the fact that you are never likely to get it quite right will go a long way, are idioms –a problem that goes back to the fact that they are a cultural thing that doesn’t usually translate well, or even make sense– and prepositions, because at the end of the day there is nothing logical about those little critters.

Will these tips be enough to guarantee your success? Nowhere near it, but they can help you make failure a little less likely.

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