Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why are languages so hard to learn?

I don't mean programming languages which seem trivial to pick up once one has seen a few. After all, one of my lecturers once said "anyone can program - even I can program".

So I mean natural languages. I've primarily used English since an early age. Since then, I've seriously tried to learn French, Mandarin, Japanese and now Mandarin again i.e. I spent a couple of years on each.

However, I usually only get as far as the basics like "My name is ...", "I live at ..." and "My grandmother is ... years old". After that, I get swamped in too much vocab and cannot remember anything. Did I start at too old an age? I hear that people in Europe learn a lot of languages at an early age (e.g. German, French, Italian and English) and they're very good at it.

What is it that makes natural languages so hard to learn compared to programming languages? Most programming languages are Turing complete after all! Even C++ templates at compiletime but that's another story...

So the only things I can remember now are:

je ne parle francais pas [I'm missing the circumflex under the 'c', sorry]

Any tips on how to pick up a language in the shortest possible time? I only need to be able to participate in conversations and read.


Flink said...

I don't have a miraculous method for you but I can tell you that in France, we don't easily learn a lot of languages (not at school anyway) ;)

PS: you made a little mistake: this isn't "je ne parle français pas" but "je ne parle pas français" :)


Tom Deblauwe said...

spending a week in france for example, and try to order things in french, not falling back to english, so people will correct you if you're wrong, although not explicit, but you can hear it in their answers :)

Anonymous said...

Another frenchman here.

I think the problem you're running up ageins is the 'only' in 'I only want to talk and read'.

Sarcasme aside, I think the only way to really progress in a language, is to use it. Try learning the basic menues in Japanese, and then switching your interface over for starters, basic texts and videos help too.

This isn't the whole story (you need to work on grammer and vocab of course) but the heart of it is to use wha you've learnt.

icemaze said...

I studied japanese for some time and here's the most important lesson I meta-learned (that is, what I learned about learning new languages): studying by yourself will only get you so far. I think there's no way around it. With japanese I could only learn the basics, exactly like you did. Then I made myself a favour and began attending a japanese course.
It was sponsored by my municipality, so it was affordable (about 600euro/year). It's a 8 hours per week course, but it included lessons of japanese culture (which I enjoyed tremendously), so you could get away with 6 if you were only interested in the language.
Having a native speaker available was incredibly helpful - as was having weekly tests (which helped keeping a bit of pressure on lazy people like me).
After a couple of months I experienced a terrible boost in my japanese-fu. After all, a natural language is all about communication. How can you pretend to learn it without people to interact with? ;)
I'll keep an eye on this thread, so feel free to ask questions. ^_^

Anonymous said...

1. Read a grammar for beginners to get a basic understanding of the structure of the language. I think this is a much better starting point than trying to learn lots of new words.

2. Go somewhere where people use and speak the language - and refuse to answer anyone who try to speak English to you :).


Anonymous said...

Well, firstly, with Mandarin and Japanese you picked two languages which are extremely hard to learn for an native English speaker. Dutch, German, but also the romanic languages should be easier for you...

Secondly, just learning only takes you so far... As soon as you've reached some basic level you definitely have to at least start reading newspapers/books in that language and eventually go to the country and speak to people (without falling back to English all the time).

Jeff said...

I'm Swedish and we ften get praised for being pretty poficient in English, by native speakers, compared to many other European nationalities. The generally greatest accepted reason for this is that we never dub television shows. That means that English, French, German or Spanish shows are broadcasted in their native tounge, with subtitles. This may seem obvious to an American, but most European countries actually dub their tv-shows.
By not dubbing, and by importing alot of shows from other countries (mostly English speaking ones, though) exposes us to many different languages from an early age and forces us to understand. Another bi-prodct of being exposed to many different languages are that we hear many different accents and learn to pronounce things in many different ways, making speaking in other languages easier.
We also study English for at least six yerars in elemenatary school and a second language (German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Russian) for at least for years. After that, in high school and later on uni, we have tons of extra language courses that are very popular. Most High Schools have at least one compulsory year of language study, no matter what programme you study (we don't pick individual subjects in High School, we pick programmes wit a preset number of clases within one subject area, for example I studied Natural Science, meaning I read alot of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics).
As a small country, we need to be able to compete in the global market, so the state and all companies are pushing hard at learning languages. Man companies arrange languages travels, where you go to a different country just tolearn the language. Theese trips are very popular. We need to be good at languages to be able to stand out, in todays mega-corporate world.

So, concluding: We are good at languages beacuse we expose ourselves of them. Try to watch french movies with englih subtitles, listen to french music or get a french pen pal. When I was studying German, I also used small notes, word cards, on which I wrote words and grammatical rules, and tried to memorize each and every card at breakfast and before going to bed, every day for a week. When the week wasup, I threw all the cards in a pot and drew at random, to see if I remebered them correctly. Helped me alot.

Anonymous said...

Hi Clarence,

The previous commenters have it spot on: you don't want to learn so much as you want to practice. Practice, practice, practice.

A friend of mine devised this method to help himself learn English: he'd start reading a series of books from an English author, translated in his native tongue; then he'd read them again, straight in English this time, without a dictionary. He'd already know the general meaning of the stories, which made reading in English feasible; by avoiding the use of a dictionary, he'd acquire the colloquialisms and the way words work together, rather than the sense of each word individually. And then he'd carry on reading the more recent books of the series, that haven't been translated yet.

It worked very well for him. However, it requires you to find a series of French books that you like that much, and that still has untranslated volumes. :)

But then, perhaps the old classics -- Jules Verne, St Exupéry, Victor Hugo, etc. -- would work just as fine. You will probably want to read Le Petit Prince in its original tongue, because... who wouldn't? :)

And then, start hanging out on French-speaking online places. Explain people that you're not a native speaker and would appreciate corrections; they'll understand. In general, people are very impressed when someone goes to such length to improve their French, because, let's face it, it's a pretty weird language at times. :)

Myself, I've mostly learned English on social MUDs; I don't think there are a lot of those in French, however, so you'll probably be safer with forums and such.

Good luck, at any rate, and enjoy yourself!

-- S.

Anonymous said...

I'd say: The vast amount of vocabulary is the main problem at the beginning, later it's grammar and subtle differences in the usage of words.

For basic understanding and communication, I think learning vocabulary being exposed to the language (passively and actively) are the keys.
Grammar is nice, but overrated.
The problems I had when learning languages in the last years (being German, trying to learn Polish and Russian):

- language courses at university are only 2-4 hours a week, that's not enough to learn a language if you don't have the chance to speak it in your daily life.
- grammar-centered: In my experience courses concentrate on grammar, which gives you a good background, but is nothing you can quickly apply. To rougly understand a text (written or spoken), you seldom need grammar, understanding the single words already helps a lot.
- vocabulary: learning vocabulary isn't exactly fun, so in a course people visit voluntarily, it's the first thing they neglect (at least I did). One can learn new words on the fly e.g. when reading texts, but I think that works better if you are already advanced.
- the result of more grammar than vocabulary is that you can form proper sentences, but you are missing the words to say the simplest things. Proper inflections doesn't help to order a meal in restaurant, to make a little conversation, or to tell a clerk what you want.
- exposure: A few lessons a week isn't a good way to learn a language. The learning situation in school is artificial, and as soon the course ends, one forgets the details because one never uses it in daily life. In lessons, people construct simple phrases which mostly follow a certain pattern, and combine a very limited set of elements. Maybe a good way is to expose oneself at least passively to the language and to buy a foreign magazine (newspaper, IT magazine, whatever), or watching/listening to radio/tv/podcasts in the respective language. It's a very high level for a beginner, but even understanding of single words or phrases and "guessing" about topic and content is often more interesting and motivating for me than reading just another time about Mr. A talking to B about their pets, name, age, and favorite meal.
It also gives a better feeling for real-world usage of the language.

To sum it up, Id suggest, although without scientic base and not having applied it consequently and successfully myself:

learn vocabulary, expose yourself to media in the language, find native speakers you can talk in the language from time to time (maybe there are native speakers around trying to improve their English?)

Anonymous said...

Just learn Esperanto, a simple, auxiliary language. Then you can talk with Esperanto speakers in any country.
Tutored course:

Cindy Mckee

Anonymous said...


> Just learn Esperanto, a simple,
> auxiliary language. Then you can
> talk with Esperanto speakers in
> any country.

Yes, you can, if you find any :-)
Unfortunately esperanto hasn't yet got the critical mass to take off...

Quintesse said...

Like someone said before: practise.

It's the only thing that will work.

I don't agree with something that was said by yet another "anonymous" contributer who said that grammar is overrated and you should focus on vocabulary.

I think it depends on the type of person you are, for a lot of technically oriented people it's actually easier to learn rules and try to "understand" the language. I'm one of those and I suck at memorizing things, so learning long lists of words just doesn't work for me.

But you can manage with a limited vocabulary!

Problem is though that not all language have a nice set of rules, Spanish for example is pretty systematic compared to most other European languages. It is the one I managed to learn mostly by myself for example but having several Spanish friends really helped a lot because it gives you people to practise with (and the fact that all of them were very nice girls probably helped to keep me motivated he he).

On the other hand I tried Japanese as well but never got very far and I think the biggest reason for that was just that I had no "reason" to continue, I didn't know anyone, nobody to practise with. And courses where you go to "school" once a week for 1 or 2 hours just don't fit my personality, I need to be able to these kind of things when _I_ feel like it.

Anonymous said...

OK, most has been told by now. Just to be complete, you may note much individiual differences among people as regards the ability to learn languages. Like you have maybe noted that some persons adapt to local accents perfectly well in short time, others never do.

Here is my view on language learning, thanks for making me think about it:

(1) "learn" the language (at school, take lessons, ...)

(2) practice the language, whitout help of your mother tounge else than through books (dictionary, grammar, etc.). For example, go to France, stay among the people.

Doing (1) as young (before 20, say) founds a basis that may permit the next step (2) later in your life.

Doing (1) as middle-aged may require that (2) comes quite close in time; if not, too much from (1) may be lost.

Doing (1) for at least one foreign langage in young age is an enormous advantage. Any language enough far from your own will do (opens your mind).

The required time for (1) and (2), respectively, is very individual and also depending on the language, for the first few, at least. Some people learn easily dozens of languages; many of us have a hard time learning very few.

Tore (European)

Anonymous said...

Since you already know a little french, you should probably focus on a romance language, such as Portuguese or Spanish. These are not that difficult to learn (much easier than oriental languages, that's for sure), and if you know one, you'll probably be able to communicate in other latin languages. For instance, if you speak spanish, you'll easily understand portuguese, and probably italian and french. Some african and south american languages also descend from portuguese or spanish.
Anyway, you're lucky you're a native english speaker. If you're not really insterested don't bother too much. Half europe speaks english anyway. Not american english, we learn british english.

Anonymous said...

well, I wouldn't count being a native speaker of English as being lucky. It's one of the easiest to learn languages (lot's of resources, the whole net, etc.) and if it's not your native one you already got two, cause you'll need to learn it anyway. Keeping the motivation up for other languages is way harder.

But yeah, go to france, it's kewl there :-)

Anonymous said...

As a french man who can speak reasonable english, is working in Japan, and speak conversational chinese, I though my opinion might be of some intrest.

I'd advise you not to waste time and money on langage classes. Get yourself good books ( or web sites ), and teach yourself grammar and basic vocab, but above all, practice. Practice, practice and practice again.

Why do I advice not to atend language classes? Well, in groups, some learn faster, some slower, and not everyone have difficulties with the same stuff. By doing it on your own, you can spend just the right amount of time on what is usefull. And especialy at beginner levels, there is nothing the teach can tell you that you wont find in a good book. If you think that you need a class to get enough motivation to learn, think again. Learning languages is a wonderfull thing, but it takes quite a lot of determination. Whether attending a class or not, you will need to push yourself, and to make efforts. Sitting in a room with a teacher is nice to give you the feeling that you are doing something, but you definetly have to get yourself to do more.

But I do not mean that a text book is all you need to be fluent. If you do not actualy use the language, you will probably never get any decent degree of fluency. Watch cartoons/movies, switch your computer interface in the language, read comic/mangas, read books for children, find native speakers in your area, hand out on irc, go to the country...

Without basic knowledge of the theory, practice will be hard, but without practice, you just wont cut it.

Now, for a bit of advice on the language to chose. There is no such thing as a difficult language, or an easy language. It really depends on your mother tongue (or, more largely, on languages you already speak). Some languages are more similar than others, and learning something similar is easier. You may want to have a look at
this site reviews languages by difficulty for an english speaker, and compares the merits of each. Plus, they discuss good learning methods extensively.

If you are still interested in Japanese, I advise you to visit
this is the best explanation of japanese grammar I ever saw anywhere. Just be aware that it is a bit dense, but still, a great read.

All that said, I wish you a pleasant time learning languages, it is indeed a wonderfull thing to do.

Anonymous said...


> I don't agree with something that
> was said by yet another "anonymous" contributer who
> said that grammar is overrated
> and you should focus on
> vocabulary.

> I think it depends on the type of
> person you are, for a lot of
> technically oriented people it's
> actually easier to learn rules
> and try to "understand" the
> language.

[I am the anonymous you replied to]

Well, I am also the "rule" type. That's why grammar is more attractive to learn than learning vocabulary. As I said, I never learned vocabulary either :)
I don't suggest to memorize one word after another but to learn them by using the language in "daily life" situations as much as possible.

I critize that language learning in school courses is too much centered around the rules without the real-world situations. You learn a rule, you apply them expressing boring things, like saying what your favorite food and colors are. Then you learn the next rule. It's top-down. I more and more get the feeling that learning a language is more a bottom-up kind of thing.
First try to understand and say it _somehow_, then learn the fine art to say it correctly.

When I learn a language, I don't want to learn lots of rules just to tell people the grammatically perfect way how old I am and that I have a cat at home.
The main motivation for me when learning a new language is to
- passively understand conversations and texts
- be able to express myself in real-world situations so people understand me

For passive understanding, grammar isn't that important. One can estimate the rough meaning by understanding the keywords. Telling subject from object in a sentence and some other basic grammatical "patterns" (like verb endings for I, you, he, etc.) should do for beginners.

For active speaking: You can't improve your skills if you aren't able to say anything useful but Yes, thanks, bye, "I am 25 years old" and "I like football and bananas". So better say _something_ wrong than say nearly _nothing_, but that correct.

Anonymous said...

If you don't learn a language at a young age you are never going to be great at it only ok. Simple as.

Anonymous said...

Recently I began attempting to learn a new language online, just to have something else to put on my CV, and I was amazed how many different types of language cds there are available. In the end I decided to purchase some gear that would help me learn Japanese and it has been amazing, I can’t believe how quickly I am picking it all up! Going to give Russian a go next!

Anonymous said...

I've been learning Italian for a few years now and although it was difficult to grasp at first, I have made great strides recently. I started to learn Italian in 2005 after holidaying there a few times and wanting to know more about the culture.

חדרי ילדים said...

I thinks that as we age it gets much more difficult to adjust our mind to a new language, my children can remember much better than me new words in a foreign language so my guess is that they are more open minded... said...

It might sound funny but watching tv in different languages might help.. If you pick a tv series in spanish for example after a while your ears will adjust to the new language and it will become much easier to study the new language..