May 10, 2012 | Review Period

Don’t Pretend Learning a Language Isn’t Hard

But the fact that something is difficult doesn't preclude pleasure.

A few days ago, in the introduction to the book Spanish Verb Tenses by Dorothy Richmond, I read the following reassurance: “…this careful study of the verbs need not be the drudge work so commonly associated with verbs, namely, memorizing a zillion conjugations.” 

Some Suffering Is Inevitable

Some Suffering Is Inevitable

This statement kind of annoyed me. You cannot function in a language without memorizing stuff. Including a zillion conjugations.

Step 1 is for the learner to accept that there’s some work involved. And Step 2 is for publishers to stop trying to simplify grammar or make it seem as if there is a way to skip it, if only you hold the magic key.

There is no magic. If you want to learn a language, there is some suffering involved. Therefore, if you can bring a little masochism to the undertaking, it’s helpful.

What’s so great about easy anyway? Easy weight-loss products. Easy fitness programs. Easy drive-through meals. Easy learning. Ugh.

Minimal input yields minimal output. “This might be hard, and I don’t mind”—now that’s a slogan to live by.

Okay, now that I am done with my language-learning diatribe, I will say that a frustrating thing in language learning is when a teach-yourself kind of book gets too hard too fast. I have just begun using another of the “Practice Makes Perfect” series, French Vocabulary by Eliane Kurbegov, and I am amazed at some of the vocabulary one is expected to acquire.

The beginning of the book says it is designed as “a review and enrichment tool for the advanced beginner and intermediate learner of French.” But by page 9 I was being taught, as part of a health section, how to say, “Sometimes I have an abscess.”

For future reference, here it is: Quelquefois j’ai un abcès.

And is “slight sprain” (foulure) or “inner-ear infection” (otite) technically beginner or intermediate vocabulary? I never learn those things in any language but my native one. In fact, my ability to describe medical things even in English is embarrassingly bad.

Also regarding my French vocabulary book: I do not feel I need to know the French equivalent of “She has a trumpet nose.” In case you do, however: Elle a un nez en trompette. (Actually, it is not totally clear from this text whether I should say le or un before nez, but that’s another issue.) Not one time in my entire life have I ever said anything about a trumpet nose, in English or any other language, and I expect that state of affairs to continue indefinitely. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, such eccentricities, the McGraw-Hill vocabulary books amuse me. I get a kick out of the wacky word lists, even though they do not always coincide with my most significant life needs.

Yesterday, by 8:00 in the morning, I had already spoken English, French, and German, if only to myself. I am very happy. 

Comments (2)

Katherine • Posted on Tue, January 29, 2013 - 12:24 pm EST

Spending thousands of hours memorizing a zillion conjugations WILL make you life easier! I definitely agree with you on this Ellen! I find that the more I memorize to the point that I can easily recall it, the less I have to struggle to recall information when I am speaking or reading or writing.  In fact, I noticed that the information that I work the hardest on to memorize is the information that will stay in my brain the longest.  I still remember Spanish grammar that I struggled over as a teenager better than Russian grammar that I absorbed through use a few years ago. Make you life easier by making it harder- study grammar! (I like that as a grammar slogan what do you think?? ;))

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, February 05, 2013 - 11:18 pm EST

Yes, I think you should make bumper stickers immediately.

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