A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Familiarity Trap

Let’s face it: We humans like things better if they’re familiar. If something is completely alien to us, we’re hesitant toward it – even afraid of it. This affects language learning more than it affects anything else, I believe.
            Let’s say you’ve attained fluency in Latin. Congratulations! Well, now you want to learn another language. If you’re like most people I know, the obvious next step would be to learn French, Spanish, Italian, or German. After all, they’re related. (Yes, yes, I know German is not a romance language. That’s not what I’m saying here.) They have almost identical words, and similar grammar conventions. Easy!
            But, is it worth it? Learning Spanish, you’re just learning Latin with alternate vocabulary, and different endings for the same grammar conventions. French might be a little further off, but it’s still a gendered, inflecting language with familiar-sounding words to an English speaker. I’m not saying it’s not difficult to learn these languages (I’m a Latin learner who always had trouble with Spanish), but what I am saying is that it seems a lot less rewarding to.
            I bring this up because – and I’ll come back to this topic a lot in my writing – when I ask my fellow currently-monolingual English speakers, “If you could learn any language in the world, what would it be?” the answer is always in the Indo-European language family. And the only reason I say “Indo-European family” instead of “Romance and Germanic family” is that I’ve had – as a pleasant surprise – one person say “Greek”. I get “Spanish” at least seventy percent of the time, and “Italian”, “French”, or “German” all the others.
            I believe this taps into the theory that we think along these lines: What is familiar to us is easier than that which isn’t, even if the familiar is more complicated. We are much more likely to want to learn a language is the word for  “night” is “nuit”, “noche”, or “nacht”, than if it is “ejszaka”.
            Now, in response to that, most people would say “Well, that’s because the last word looks harder to say.” I’ll give that yes, maybe it does to us. But, here’s what I want to muse about for a minute: What about when the familiar isn’t really easier?
            Let me try to explain. The two most frequent complaints I hear in Latin class are: “Why does everything have to have a gender? THIS IS TOO HARD!” and “Why does there have to be so many endings? THIS IS TOO MUCH!” Now, these are the same people that declare that whey want to learn Spanish, and that it would be “Soooo much easier than this stupid dead language!” When I hear these complaints, I try to explain to them that not only does Spanish use gendered words, it’s even more difficult to form a sentence, as you have to worry about what gender form of “the” you use. (As opposed to gendered but article-free Latin.) I also try to explain that Spanish has just as many endings as Latin. What happens when I do this? I get completely ignored. The standard  response is “Yeah, right. Spanish is WAYYY easier than this.”
            My desk in that class has many marks from banging my forehead against it in frustration.
            The reason for this false (and lamentably common) conception is that, well, we see Spanish every day here. We walk around seeing wet floor signs that say “CUIDADO!”, but not “CAVE!” We constantly hear people saying “Hola!”, but I’ve never seen someone go up to a friend and say “Salve!” And so, since we’re so exposed to Spanish, we automatically think it’s easier.
            Now, how about the really foreign. I think the reason most people don’t believe me when I say I’m learning Hungarian and Finnish (that is, if they’re not one of the people asking “What’s that?” Yes, it’s happened.) is that they aren’t exposed to them. Ever. And if they know that they’re really not related to our “familiar” languages at all, then the question I usually get is “Why?”.
            I think all these reactions are understandable. But what I don’t understand is why people who learn a little about the languages (they ask me, I try my best to explain) then think that learning them would be more difficult than learning a familiar language. To demonstrate what I mean, let’s compare the structure of a sentence in both Spanish and Hungarian.
            Spanish: “Ella es una mujer.” First, there is a specific form of the third-person singular subject based on gender. This sentence requires a verb, conjugated to the third person. The indefinite article “a” also must be gendered.
            Hungarian: “Ő nő.” The third-person singular subject doesn’t need to be changed according to gender, it’s exactly the same as “he” and “it”. Since this sentence is a copula, it does not require a verb. There is no need for an indefinite article. Handy, huh?
            Linguistically, the second sentence is much easier to make. Yet, if asked, the people I know would all say that the Spanish was simpler.
            So please, if you’re anything like these people I know, don’t fall victim to the familiarity trap! Branch out, and I guarantee you’ll feel more accomplished once you conquer something.
            Bonsoir! Víszlat!
            (Quick! Which one is “easier”?)

1 comment:

  1. This is Probably the best writing I've seen of you.