Learning foreign languages, according to some teachers, is a means of gaining access to cultural knowledge and becoming familiar with a different way of expressing one’s thoughts. In fact, there are some theorists who have espoused the concept that your native language shapes what you are able to express, and not all languages can express the same ideas and concepts (see linguistic relativity/Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and linguistic determinism).
This is a very intriguing notion, one which may motivate some learners to find out why. Think about words that do not translate well into English, for example, the German word Gemütlichkeit. This word has specific definitions listed in dictionaries, but they do not cover the nuanced cultural meaning embedded in it, which is a complex sense of comfort and hominess related to one’s home or Heimat – another heavily weighted term in German that exceeds its meaning of “home” or “homeland.” Translating directly from one language to another on a word-for-word basis yields an incomplete and inaccurate representation of the original expression, whether written or spoken, as many words are imbued with culture-specific meaning(s).
Have you ever felt frustrated when attempting to express complex thoughts and ideas in a foreign language? Did you attempt to look up the words in a dictionary and slap them together, only to get confused looks from a native speaker? Don’t be frustrated – there are reasons adults struggle learning foreign languages. In order to understand what causes the difficulties adults have learning foreign languages, it might be helpful to take into consideration some of Noam Chomsky’s insights into linguistics and language acquisition.
For example, Chomsky’s notion of a Universal Grammar posits an underlying and fundamental capacity to learn language as predicated on deep-seated cognitive structures unique to human beings – we all have a language acquisition device in our brains. In fact, Chomsky’s theory is a direct counterpoint to the behaviorist/empiricist models of the mid-20th century (especially B.F. Skinner) that saw language as something external to be absorbed through one’s environment. When viewed in light of the Critical Period Hypothesis, the ability to produce a new language after a particular age becomes increasingly more difficult. According to this theory, children are best able to create and produce their native language from two to seven years of age, a time of experimentation with the grammar rules of their native tongue, during which they choose those linguistic structures out of the entirety of the Universal Grammar specific to their language.
If you wonder why it is harder as an adult to learn a new language, it is precisely because once you are beyond this Critical Period, you are no longer able to assemble a language easily and with little to no instructional input. As adults, we have to rely on our conscious choices about what to say when – as opposed to drawing on a Universal Grammar – which necessitates a lot more mental processing power and makes the whole enterprise seem extremely difficult.
So, if you feel that learning a new language takes a lot of time and effort, you are not wrong. However, it is rewarding in many ways. As I wrote previously, studies show that learning a foreign language can increase cognitive abilities and improve overall mental health. A language is also a portal into a new way of viewing the world, as Germans call it Weltanschauung – literally, the way one looks at the world (got to love compound German nouns J )! Indeed, it is a healthy goal to understand where someone else is coming from and to develop empathy for people of differing cultural perspectives.
Given the rewards, why aren’t more people flocking to learn foreign languages? One reason is that over the last century, teaching in the U.S. has increasingly become less about learning from an individual about how they conceive of their expertise in a particular subject or subjects (and, in fact, their culture or world), and more about being able to memorize standardized material and regurgitate it in an – often – unreflective manner on a test, exam, or quiz. There is little to no motivation possible in this kind of a scenario, which is completely understandable. After all, isn’t learning a language supposed to be fun and open up new possibilities?
To be fair, the advent of content-based and student-centered instruction, which includes imparting cultural knowledge, has served as a corrective to this unfortunate trend over the past few decades; however, learning a language is often treated as a pragmatic task (basic communication with native speakers to accomplish basic, everyday tasks), instead of the rich cultural exploration it really is. If you want to just have your words translated directly into the target language in order to get across a general idea of what you are saying, without regard to intelligibility or cohesive thought, just use an online translation website or app. This is a functional approach that is rather devoid of cultural diversity, complexity, and understanding, and it rather misses the whole point of learning from one another in an era of globalization.
It has been said many times, but I think it is worth repeating: Nothing worth having comes easy!