What really makes a language difficult? Some traditionally ‘difficult’ things can be very easy…

We had a particularly interesting comment on the SSiLatin thread on the forum from Peter (RedGreeninBlue) – you can get involved in that conversation here:


What Peter had to say was:

Can I just say, having listened to the first few minutes of lesson 1, that I do like the way that SSi* just tears up the rule book and throws it out of the window. Start with the easy stuff? Nonsense – we wouldn’t insult your intelligence like that! Here’s yer first-ever Latin word: a irregular verb, and a defective one to boot (volo, velle, volui, —). Now here’s yer second: a deponent verb – yep, using passive endings to express an active voice (loquor, loqui, locutus sum).

From a traditional point of view, of course, he’s entirely correct to see it in this light (and, of course, he’s being as entertainingly playful as ever!) – but I imagine that almost anyone who had ever studied Latin in detail would agree with him.  Kick-off with an irregular, defective verb (I don’t even know what defective means in this context, but I rather love it), and then a deponent verb with passive endings?!  For heaven’s sake, will no-one think of the children?!

Traditional courses don’t inflict that kind of pain on learners, of course.  In many cases, that’s because extremely hard-working course authors have gone to huge lengths to make sure that they pull together all the most regular, easily ‘understood’, easily predictable material to help you get started.

There’s only one slight (okay, when I say ‘slight’ I mean ‘gigantic’) problem with that…

They work so hard to take all the complicated stuff out, they leave you unable (sometimes for years!) to say stuff like, er, ‘I want to speak Latin’.

How can any attempt to teach someone a language leave out such fundamentally useful things in order to avoid material that is ‘too difficult’?

It hinges, I believe, on a fundamental (and unfortunately quite widespread) misunderstanding about learning languages.  A great many course authors believe that ‘learning a language’ and ‘learning about a language’ are the same thing.

But they’re not.

When you’re learning about a language, you want to understand how it works – how it’s put together, what its rules are – in other words, you want to have an intellectual understanding of its grammar.

When you’re learning about a language, it makes perfect sense to deal with the simplest and most regular/predictable grammatical forms first – exceptions of any kind increase your learning load, and are best left until later.

But this is NOT the same process as ‘learning a language’.  To learn a language, you need to be able to internalise the language itself – you need to be able to speak and comprehend it.  You can have a perfect mastery of the details, the grammar, of a language, without being able to speak it or to understand a single spoken sentence – as the world of Latin shows so clearly.

If you try to cope, when you’re acquiring a new language, by learning some structures and then predicting how they will affect other words, you’ll find yourself stumbling every time you hit a new word, and taking a great deal of time to say a sentence.

To speak a language, you need to map its patterns to the patterns of the language you already speak – and when you do this, your (probably hard-coded) natural capacity for seeing patterns in language will kick in and give you a lot of the benefits of the grammatical approach as a bonus to your ability to speak confidently (you’ll often hear people who’ve learnt by matching patterns talking about a particular grammatical construct as ‘just sounding right’).

Now here’s the happy news:

When you acquire language by matching patterns, no single word (unless it’s got too many syllables!) is any harder to learn than any other word.  We’re really good at hearing meaning in sounds, although most of our education doesn’t use that ability any more – it’s been a key evolutionary tool for us over a very long period of time.

So when I tell you that ‘wollow’ is the Latin for ‘I want’, and that ‘lokwee’ is what you need to say for ‘to speak’ as in ‘I want to speak’, you’ll find it very easy to hear that ‘wollow lokwee’ is going to mean ‘I want to speak’.

‘Wollow lokwee Lateenay’.

Yup, no great shocks there – ‘I want to speak Latin’.

Of course, those are not exactly standard spellings!  They’re just how the words sound to an English speaker.  But the key point here is that you can acquire these words, and acquire an accurate understanding of what they mean, without needing to know what the word ‘deponent’ means.

And excitingly, if you keep on learning in this way, and getting used to variations in structure one at a time, you’ll end up using the passive or the active voice in the right places, and using completely irregular verbs entirely correctly, just because they’ll ‘sound right’.

Oh, and when you do, anyone who’s been studying Latin grammar will think that you must have dedicated several decades to your learning process…;-)

In summary: grammar is only hard when you’re trying to learn grammar.  Words, by contrast, are always easy.

Well, apart from pendramwnwgl…;-)

9 responses to “What really makes a language difficult? Some traditionally ‘difficult’ things can be very easy…

  1. There is nothing difficult about the word pendramwnwgl, I use it often and people understand what I mean when I use it. It is only difficult when one tries to translate it, or explain it’s orthography. Indeed when you try to dissect the biology of the word you lose all of its meaning – in the same way as tits up, balls up, head over heels, don’t know his arse from his elbow are meaningless in physiology but make sense in common English.

    I would suspect that I don’t have a deep understanding of 90% or more of the words that I use in everyday English or Welsh. The words that I do fully understand are technical terms that I have professional competence with – the terms that I have to explain their meaning to lay people (most of which are bloody Latin in origin!)

    The wired thing about pendramwnwgl is that it is a word that suggests the confusion of miked up body parts, like arse over tits, but its literal meaning “head over neck” puts the head precisely where it should be – over the neck!

    • I was being a little playful, I admit…;-)

      The key point I was trying to make, though, isn’t about meaning per se – meaning is, I would claim, comparatively easy to acquire to the point of functionality – but we have a great deal of evidence by now that generously polysyllabic words cause real difficulties for learners, and should ideally be left until the learner is more generally comfortable with the sounds of the target language.

  2. Often find that having a mix of learning tools helps the memory, coming away from SSiW audio lessons, the sounds fade from memory but supporting written matter can more readily recalled.

    • I’d be interested in knowing how often you’re using the lessons, and how far you’ve got. A lot of people believe that they learn/remember better with written material, and a recognition of learning styles is certainly very important in general education – but I no longer believe this to be the case in the acquisition of languages.

  3. “A great many course authors believe that ‘learning a language’ and ‘learning about a language’ are the same thing. But they’re not.”

    Exactly! This post is spot-on Aran, and explains precisely why I love SSiW. I want to be able to USE my Welsh as soon as possible, and firmly believe that I would not be having the brief Welsh conversations that I’m currently having with strangers after three months of learning with any other course. They’re tentative and error-strewn but they’re happening! I have very little knowledge of the theory of English grammar but obviously understand it well enough to speak the language fluently, so I’m very happy to acquire Welsh grammar by stealth too!

    • Diolch, Jonathan! And that’s exactly the kind of attitude that will make learning easier and more enjoyable for you – because of your willingness to throw yourself in at what is traditionally seen as the deep end (but which turns out to be lovely and warm…;-)).

  4. Pingback: ~~WORD OF THE DAY~~ | YouthVoicesTT·

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