The Pains of Learning a New Language

I have always found it difficult to learn new languages! And this is not the English in me speaking; not the disposition, if it exists, that English language is superior and so everyone else should learn to read, write and converse in it.

Maybe I should add, very quickly, that this ‘disposition’ may not necessarily be on the part of the English but that it is rather a perception of others. A perception that is mainly based on the assumption, I dare say, that the way Great Britain carried itself, when it dominated others with her empire, is the same way she encourages the evolution of the English language; particularly, its indispensability, as The Economist tells us online with “It’s English world, and every other language is just living in it.” (Of Two Worlds”, 7 April 2016). That many, many people speak the language today certainly does nothing to dissuade from this assumption, I think? Whether the language is, really, indispensable is a different matter altogether!

So why do I find it so difficult to learn a new language? Perhaps, an example might give an insight?

I learnt to read and write Arabic by the age of 12, without knowing how to speak the language. Not only did this equipped me with the ability to read the Quran and pray in Arabic but because completion of the Quran is an important milestone, a cultural rite of passage, if you like, in my part of Nigeria; an event that is celebrated with pomp and pageantry, as a welcome into the fold, of ‘proper Muslim’. An event that is very daunting, because you must go to all the elders of you extended family and recite the last Ayat of the Quran from memory. Elders who know the Ayat by heart and would regard you incompetent if you miss out or mispronounce any part of it.   

I have tried and tried again to learn to speak the language for some time now, without much success. Maybe because I did not know many people who spoke the language until very recently. Still I find it difficult to string the words into grammatically correct sentences. And before you ask, yes, I have used some of the best “Learn Arabic” apps around. And yes, none of them has been able to help me retain anything for more than a fleeting moment.

I can only put my difficulty down to the fact that learning a new language is also about syntax and how the language strings its words together. A fact that is not helped by vernacular variations or culture. A fact that is very glaring in the English language, with its variants of standard and non-standard English. An example of this happened in 1990, when The Sun newspaper screamed “Up Yours Delors”, in support of Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to Britain’s greater involvement in the European project.

This is important, because The Sun, more than any other tabloid of the time, was steep in the non-standard English vernacular speak. Which means that the headline was, and still is, as ambiguous as the fact that its real meaning is not restricted to the wording. A fact that made the headline very difficult for non-native speakers of English to understand indeed. The French press was, understandably, up in arms. Yet it took me some considerable effort to explain to some of my French friends, who were at a loss as to what the hullabaloo was all about, that the term is not very complimentary.

Furthermore, that many great cognitive scientists are of the view that speakers of second languages first think in the native languages before converting the thought to expression in the language they are trying to learn, does not help matters. It makes the construction of grammatically correct sentences near impossibility, at best, because of the different places many languages stick imperatives, including clauses and phrases, in sentences. This is, arguably, why some languages start sentences with words that are only grammatically correct in the middle or end of their English translation.

That brings me to Accent, the part, more specifically, the way we speak foreign words and the, assumed, impression this creates in the minds of others. I could write a whole book on this alone, but there is no space here. I will, therefore, limit my take to the lack of confidence that conversing in a language that we are still learning creates in us; especially when speaking with fluent or native speakers of the language.

This lack of confidence is certainly responsible for my lack of staying power with the Arabic language. The fear that I would never be able pronounce or string sentences together the way native speaker do. And that the inability will mark me out as different,  the way I assumed that not speaking with the mainstream English accent, in my younger years, attracted ridicule.

Blog by Daud Ona