"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Learning A Second Language Can Be So Hard

In an interesting article in The Atlantic (5.8.13) Olga Khazan cites new linguistic research which shows that if the mother tongue of an immigrant is significantly different from that of the country to which he is emigrating, the more difficult it will be for him to learn this second language and ultimately more difficult to assimilate into a new culture. In other words, a Chinese speaker should have more problems learning English than a German or Danish speaker whose languages share far more cognates. There is more “linguistic distance” says Ingo E. Isphording, and economist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany.

Cognate research is the newest branch of linguistics, and there have been recent articles tracing the origins of language through common words.  The word ‘father’, for example, has cognates in all seven major linguistic groups: Altaic; Chukchi-Kamchatkan; Dravidian; Inuit-Yupik; Kartvelian; and Uralic.  Isphording suggests that the more cognates languages have in common, the easier they are to learn.

This theory, however, discounts equally important socio-economic factors.  A Salvadoran nanny lived with us for ten years.  She spoke no English when she arrived, and could barely manage a few sentences when she left.  She was an intelligent woman who, despite a fourth-grade education, had negotiated her way through the tangles of US immigration and municipal law and ended up with a house, citizenship, and a decent savings account.  We enrolled her in an ESL course here in Washington, but despite months of hard work and informal tutoring on our part, English remained beyond her.

She often told us how well the Chinese students did, and how quickly they picked up their new language.  “They are smarter than us”, she concluded.

According to cognate theory, there should be a significant advantage for Spanish-speakers, for there are many words in common with English; whereas Chinese is like Martian.  However, the Chinese in this and other ESL classes always performed better than students from other countries.  The answer is related to many factors.  First, the educational level among immigrant Chinese is often higher than that of Hispanics. It is logical that a Chinese who has completed high school will be more accustomed to the process of learning and the types of intellectual skills necessary to master it than a Salvadoran with just a few years of school.

I speak many languages, most of them fluently; and while people often attribute my ability to a good ear or a certain theatrical flair and easy social skills, I know that it is more due to my ability to analyze grammatical structure and to quickly understand the underlying internal logic of language.  This ability, I think, came from my very early studies in Latin where learning that language was more an exercise in logic than linguistics. Immigrants who are fully literate and reasonably well-educated, have used their minds in this same analytical, logical way; and they are therefore prepared to dissect, disaggregate, and organize their new language.

Second, Chinese students always outperform white, Hispanic, and black students in secondary school regardless of income.  The cultural emphasis on study, discipline, and success – as common among new Chinese arrivals as it was amongst Jewish immigrants 100 years ago – is a major intervening variable. There is no such tradition within the Hispanic community.

Third, and perhaps most important, is literacy.  Those immigrants who are fully literate in their own language will perform better in acquiring new languages because they are familiar with the printed page. An illiterate immigrant whose world has been only a three-dimensional one – that is, no familiarity with the concept of two-dimensional information – will be severely handicapped.

Last, a feudal peasant from rural El Salvador who has always been on the economic margins of society, disenfranchised, and with little social or political power, comes to America with little understanding of urban ways; and with a sense of inferiority. He is easily intimidated, and is hesitant to even make an effort to penetrate this English-speaking, modern, literate, urban country so different from the land of his birth.  “How can a poor, illiterate peasant like me possibly understand the ways of the gringo and El Norte?”

Our nanny would always leave the car with the gas tank on Empty, and only until I realized that she felt intimidated by Self-Service and even more so by the English-speaking attendant for Full Service did I understand her reluctance to fill ‘er up.

Asian immigrants, and in particular the Chinese, suffer much less from these debilities. They are socio-culturally better able to handle the challenges of a complex new country than their Latino counterparts.

There is one aspect of cognate analysis which is misleading. While there may be more cognates in English and German than among other languages, any English-speaker who has tried to learn that devilishly complicated language knows that recognizing a few words – wasser (water), vater (father), haus (house) – doesn’t help at all with the complex grammar and syntax. It is common knowledge among secondary students that Spanish is the easiest language to learn.  It is spelled just like it sounds.  Its structure is straightforward and very similar to English, and there are only a few subjunctive twists and turns to master.  While there may be fewer cognates in common between Spanish and English, students looking for an easy ‘A’ will always pick Spanish over German.

In conclusion, while cognate analysis gives clues to the origin of language, it does little to shed light on the process of acquiring a second language.  It is to socio-economics, culture, and history we must turn to understand that.

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