I have noticed that my posts on language are generally ones people enjoy reading, so I’ve decided to try and do more of them. The thing is, I know a ton about language, but because of that I always run the risk of making things too complicated. I have had so many ideas for language related posts in the past, but they always ended up being super long or complicated. However, as of today I will try to pick topics that I think I can explain in 500 – 1000 words without too much difficulty. Of course, if you have any questions or particular language related subjects you are interested in, please feel free to ask in a comment below and I can see what I can do with it. Okay, so now on to the actual post.
Learning a foreign language is no easy picknick. It by no means compares to the ease you have learning your first language, or mother tongue, when you are a child. A foreign language is acquired later in life, after mother tongue acquisition has been finalized, and that causes problems. For one, you are afraid to make mistakes and have a harder time storing all of the language items in your memory. You have to make a conscious effort to try to make the language stick so you’ll be able to use it. You usually feel restricted in what you can do or say in the foreign language depending on the stage you are at, which can lead to frustration and lack of motivation. So why is it that learning a foreign language is so difficult?
Your mother tongue is acquired with ease. You learn the language from your parents and the other people around you simply by doing it. You repeat, imitate and observe other human beings with the same language and from their continuous feedback you learn your first language. The fact that you are a small child when you do so (your first language major acquisition takes place between 1 and 5 -7 years old and continues until your early teens) also helps. Children have less inhibitions as they are less aware of social rules and they don’t have the same concept of right and wrong as grown ups do. That is why they don’t care when they have the notorious t/ k problem, only use singulars, use bad grammar etc. They simply don’t know it’s wrong yet!
Thus, learning a foreign language suffers from your preconceptions of right or wrong. You usually learn a foreign language in school or after being at school for a period of time. This means you are very much aware of right and wrong and the consequences of language mistakes. Even worse, when you learn a language in school your level of school success will even depend on the grades you get for said foreign language. This puts tremendous pressure on anyone learning a language later in life. Many of my students say: when I go to England I can speak just find, but when I have to do an English presentation for a grade I completely black out. It’s the fear of failure, rather than inability or incompetence, that is causing the problem.
The reason why learning a first language is so easy is because all human beings are born with the innate ability of learning a language. According to research, human beings are different from animals because they have language. Noam Chomsky dubbed this innate ability Universal Grammar. Each human being is born with a system in their brains that allows them to learn language simply by being exposed to it. However, after a while the system shuts down (starting as early as 7 years old) and the language because fixed in people’s mind. The brain is now hard-wired for understanding this one language and no other. That is why you can only become truly bilingual if you grow up speaking two languages. If you learn a language later in life all you can try to do is fake it.
Because that is actually what you are doing when you are using a foreign language. There is a theory, called the Sound House Theory as coined by Lippi-Green, that states that learning a language is like building a house. Your first language (i.e. house) is a breeze: you have all the tools you need, you have a blue print, the right materials etc. When the system shuts down you lose some tools, your concrete dries up and the blue print fades. So by the time you are trying to learn a foreign language you cannot build an entirely new house: you don’t have the right tools anymore. All you are left with is the house you built in the first place, which you are going to have to use as a basis. You can redecorate a room here and there, maybe build a small extension, but you can never make it as solid as your first house.
It is why a foreign language learner can never be dubbed a native speaker. The highest attainable level is near-native and it takes a long time and hard work to get there. And the worst part is: you can never get it the way you want. As soon as you get tired, or old, or you are simply having an off day, it will be very noticeable that you are not a native speaker. Keep me up for 36 hours and I will start mixing things up. When I hear too much Dutch, my English suffers and in Australia there are special Dutch communities for elderly people with dementia because they have forgotten how to speak English. It’s the battle you’ll never win, the class you won’t excel at, or the life you could have had if you had made other choices. Learning a foreign language is difficult, but if you can accept the fact that you will always make mistakes and it can never be perfect, i.e. that there is no right or wrong, it will become easier.
What type of language related posts would you like to see? More on language learning? More on Dutch? More on English? More on Dutch vs English or the other way round? Language as communication? Why we have language? Why languages are so different? Loan words? History of the English language? How accent can give a clue as to who you are and where you come from? The link between language and identity? The options are endless! Just let me know in a comment below what you’d find interesting and I’ll see what I can do for you.