Hit the slopes

It’s winter-time down here, and some are thinking about skiing. Not your humble correspondent, who remains faithful to his obsession with language.

Nevertheless, the seasonal discussions have dented my bubble and that, along with a challenging couple of days with Arabic, have got me thinking about slopes and language.

The expectation at the beginning of the language journey is that it will be difficult. Indeed, that expectation is one of the barriers to more people seriously taking up a foreign language. But let’s drill down a little further; certainly learning a new language will be challenging, but in what way?

More specifically (hang in there, I will get to my point in just a moment), how consistently challenging will the new language be? On a scale of 1-10, will it be a constant 8?

Why does this matter? I think that very few (if any) language students commence with a clear idea of the amount (or profile) of challenge when they commence their language. I am an experienced language student, and I certainly didn’t think about this when I started.

I knew that I was commencing 5 new languages, but I didn’t have any kind of sense of the difficulty, absolute or relative, of any of them. Other than a few generalised received wisdoms; Chinese is tough because of the writing and the tones, Arabic will be OK because I already know some Hebrew; Korean?

Even more importantly, I didn’t think about the difficulty profile of each language. Is the language initially easy, but gets more difficult as you get further in? Does it start with a steep slope, but level out? (I’ve been watching the Tour de France)

This thinking was triggered by a conversation between a couple of work colleagues, one of whom is about to go to China to study, while the other is very keen to travel to Japan. In amongst the usual chat about whose language was harder, they came to an interesting conclusion; Chinese is initially more challenging, but reaches a kind of plateau of difficulty – the grammar and structures don’t get more complex, while Japanese is reasonably straightforward at the beginning, with simple pronunciation and the option of learning a syllabic alphabet, but the degree of difficulty increases as you progress further into the language, with more complex verb types, sentence structures and the introduction of the kanji Chinese characters.

Check out this blog post by John Pasden which delves more deeply into the challenges of Chinese, and graphically represents the different slopes of Chinese and Japanese. You can also click here to read an article by David Moser on the challenges of learning Chinese. I particularly like the game of pulling out random Chinese books and seeing who can be the first to guess what the book is about. One to try with radio news stories in a foreign language.

This got me reflecting on my previous experience learning French and German. I started on both at the same time, and found that the initial German was easier to recognise and understand than French. This was due to the nature of English, lots of Germanic “core” words (like eat, drink, go, come) but plenty of Latinate words in the more advanced “elegant” language. Even the word “elegant” is essentially the same in French.

What this meant in practical terms was that I was able to get a quicker grasp of the first thirty words of German, but once I had the basics, it was far easier to learn the more advanced French. German started smoothly, but then ramped up the difficulty; French was an initial challenge, but then got easier (in learning vocabulary – grammar is a different matter). If you are trying to learn “advanced” vocabulary, adjectives such as curious or jealous, the French equivalent is easy – essentially just the English word but in a French accent; the German equivalents are “neugierig” and “eifersüchtig.” Quite a lot more work to learn the German words.

And this is where I find myself in a number of my languages. Arabic was the most recent example of a classic language-learning dilemma. You start at the beginner stage, learning a couple of introductory phrases, some basic word-order and maybe a conjugation or two. It all feels pretty straight-forward, and you wonder why the teacher takes it so slowly and how much you can speed things up. Then all of a sudden, you hit the learning wall; you can’t remember the content you learned four weeks ago, the structures become more complex, and you feel like your brain has overflowed.

This is where the slope kicks in. If you are working hard, not just on learning new stuff, but also on revising what you learned 4-6 weeks previously, it should be manageable. If you are like me and most other students, and are just hanging on in between the rest of a full and active life, you start to struggle.

The message out of all of this? Be aware of the slope; don’t be fooled by any “false flats,” plateaux where the learning seems too easy and you just want to speed up. Take every opportunity to revise, because making your knowledge unconscious will diminish the slope by giving you more “brain space” for the new content.

Or to put it more simply; do the homework, regularly. Like I wish I did.

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This entry was posted in Arabic, Grammar, Learning styles, Lessons learned, Vocabulary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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