Monday, January 3, 2011

High heels on a rocky path!

How language learning can be a real struggle. By Thomas Leverett
(the following was published by Global Studies Magazine and is being backed up here).

The expression "to walk a mile in my shoes" (or someone else's shoes) has an interesting history, but it very effectively conveys the difficulty of seeing the world from another person's perspective. We can practically feel the pain of someone else's shoes, which are likely to hurt even after only a short distance; even if you use kilometers instead of miles, you don't have to translate much to understand that pain directly. And, if language learning represents a journey, this problem, the difficulty of seeing the world from another's perspective, is probably the hardest part of it.

The language learning journey is full of sharp rocks and obstacles, though you may have a pretty good idea of most of the difficulty before you start. You know there will be memorization, the drudgery of writing out and figuring out new sentences. You may be fascinated by the new sounds but afraid of not being able to make them successfully, or of not being understood well by native speakers. But worst of all, you may be afraid of the grammar- it's too difficult, it's impossible to understand!

True, millions of people give up learning languages quickly, or never even start, for that very reason. New languages make them feel stupid, unable to figure out the simplest sentences or get right what even children can get right in the native culture. And that's not a feeling we enjoy or want to experience over and over again. People become afraid of new languages, afraid of failure, and ultimately they rob themselves of the joy of visiting new places or meeting new people.

Are these grammars really too complicated for reasonable adults to master? I don't think so. Almost 100% of native speakers become fluent in their own languages, and that proves one thing: grammars are at their heart simple. They have to be, because they have to be used by people who don't know each other and these people have to be able to understand each other clearly, every day. And they do, almost every time.

So why are they so difficult for us outsiders to understand and master? I feel that it's mostly a sense of cultural flexibility that people lack, that keeps us from really getting out of the framework that one language puts us into, and into another. This sense of cultural flexibility is probably the most important trait of the language learner; if we have it, we succeed, and if we don't, we can't. Beside it, other traits, even intelligence, are far less important; we almost all have the intelligence, and most of us would have the diligence and the perseverance too, if only we were having some success with the rest of it.

For example, English has a maddening habit or requiring an article (a/an or the) in front of count nouns such as tree or rock. Very few other languages have this as a requirement; from a worldwide perspective, who cares whether you specify whether speaker and listener know which rock? But in English, this information is always specified; it's a requirement; it happens almost without exception to every count noun in every sentence.

Most English learners have no problem understanding this requirement, but deep down, it surely seems unnecessary to most of them. "Why should I have to do this - it's ridiculous!" you might say, if you were learning English, though I've never heard a student actually say that. You can get by for a while just ignoring the rule, as other things are so much more important; perhaps no one will notice, or they'll figure out your meaning, as they do in other languages. But sooner or later, misunderstandings occur; frustrations build; and you become aware of your own shortcomings. The successful language learner at this point just takes the requirement and imposes it upon himself/herself; as silly or ridiculous as it may appear. After all, one needs it to function well in most English-speaking cultures, so we have to see the flexibility to just adapt to this requirement as just another rock in the road.

It's a rock, as it turns out, that is far harder than the others. With listening, you'll naturally pick up more and more; everyone does; success will come to you. With speaking, you'll sound better and better, passable in time, if you keep at it, though you probably won't lose some trace of accent. The grammar gives you pain though, like wearing high heels on the rocky path. It makes you suffer. And if you didn't know better, you'd blame it on its difficulty. It's not the difficulty. It's all in your mind.

A man I know came back from Asia saying that he had a hard time taking off his shoes when he entered people's houses. It wasn't that he didn't understand the custom- it makes perfect sense- it was more that he didn't like being seen in only his socks, which felt very personal! When I went to Asia, I was thinking about that, one day in the threshold of a friend's house, when I was fumbling with my shoes, trying to take them off. Suddenly the piano movers came to the house, delivering a piano; I got out of their way just as one slipped off his shoes while he was still holding the piano! I thought to myself, if only it were so easy for me!

Don't give up. Remember, flexibility is something you can teach yourself, unlike intelligence or mathematical ability. That's why you can succeed; you can probably learn any language that you apply yourself to. You can have all of the benefits of experiencing beautiful places, new cultures, and interesting people. It's not without pain; you'll feel the pain. People who have done it can all tell you about the pain. But you never find anyone who says it wasn't worth the trouble. It's the trip of a lifetime; don't pass it up!

Thomas Leverett is a Lecturer, at CESL (Center of English as a Second Language) at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

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