Friday, May 21, 2010

There is no such thing as "difficult" in language learning

Not applicable to languages.
I'm currently reading through Benny's Language Hacking Guide, and one of the points he makes is that he labels language issues as "different" instead of "difficult" (p. 30). This is dead on.

If a five-year-old native speaker can figure it out, you can too. And they usually can. When I took Russian back in high school, my teacher told us that five-year-old kids were doing just fine with many of the cases that foreign learners struggle with. And I can tell you that my own five-year-old daughter is doing just fine with Japanese, English, and Chinese. If you're reading this, I'm pretty sure your cognitive abilities are superior to just about any five-year-old, and if they can do it, you can too.

When something is different, it means you need to spend some time to figure it out. Depending on how different something is, the amount of time you need to spend will vary. Saying something is "difficult" is really just drawing an arbitrary line in that amount of time and considering anything past that line to be difficult.

But it's not difficult (remember the five-year-olds). It's just takes more time.

There is no such thing as "difficult" in language learning.


  1. If you want to look at it that way, then I guess this applies to almost anything that is a skill.

    It isn't difficult to play the violin, I just need more practice.

    It isn't difficult to walk on my hands...

    The problem is that when you are 5 you are a different creature than when you are older. A shape-shifting, mind-melding, creature. It is easier for an alien to change colors, but if I keep trying long enough I might learn to do it.

  2. If you've got the basic facilities to do something—like we all do with languages—then, yes, all we need is time. We can all learn the violin too, so that's a good example as well. If you've got the strength to walk on your hands, then that's a good example as well.

    And a five-year-old is just one example. Take a ten-year-old, a 15-year-old, or even take an adult. If they can do it, then I have a hard time seeing why you can't.

    Something is only truly difficult if the likelihood of you being able to do it, given sufficient time, is low. Getting a hole-in-one in golf is difficult. Becoming the best in most fields is difficult.

    People can make language learning difficult (i.e., make success unlikely) by using ineffective learning methods. But saying that language learning is difficult would be like saying turning a doorknob is difficult if you're not allowed to use your hands, arms, legs, feet, or mouth to turn it.

  3. Katz has an interesting take on children and language learning.

    Basically, they have nothing to do but listen to hours and hours of native input.

  4. Five-year-old Spanish kids can get the subjunctive right every time but their parents are stunned when I tell them that hundreds of millions of people around the world find the use of English phrasal verbs perfectly natural and simple.

  5. I think Khatz's numbers are off. First of all, you ever notice how much little kids sleep? Basically cut Khatz's numbers in half. Then how much time do they spend during the waking day actually hearing language? You might need to cut the time by another 1/3 or more. So rather than the 40,000 hours he puts forth for the example he used, we might be talking about 16,000.

    Then you gotta look at how kids use that time, and they use it very inefficiently. If you expand the little circles in the graphics of this post to include all aspects of a language and apply it to kids, kids will have lot of red circles before getting to yellow and green, i.e., they'll hear things a lot before they get it. Doing the same as an adult is wasted time, especially when answers are almost always at your finger tips via the internet.

    Regardless, he's still right that kids get a lot more exposure than the average person who takes a class, and I'd argue that those in a class are also getting very inefficient exposure, but that doesn't change the fact that the kids understand the rules, i.e., they can apply it to totally new situations where they've never heard them used before (so are not simply repeating things rote).

    And if they can, so can we.

  6. I don't think the logic here makes sense. A kid's brain is wired for effortless and perfect language learning (the hypothetical "language module"), while an adult's may not be. Of course your daughter is doing fine with 3 languages, what does that have to do with an adult trying to do the same thing? The brains are different -- the most obvious proof of this is that it is impossible for most adult second-language learners to remove their accent (even after achieving fluency) while a kid won't have that problem.

  7. To repeat what I wrote above, a five-year-old is just one example. Take a ten-year-old, a 15-year-old, or even take an adult. If they can do it, then I have a hard time seeing why you can't.

    Of course children learn very differently, and their advantage is largest with accents. I took that as an extreme example to show that anyone can understand it, but even if adults get it, you should be able to as well.

  8. I always say that "difficult" is just another word for "not yet familiar with" and "easy" means "I've done this so many times I could do it while sleeping"

  9. Do these kind of posts really help?

    Yourself and Benny are just playing with words. If I say that Korean is a more difficult language to learn for me compared to German, as opposed to saying that it will take me a lot more time to become familiar with aspects of Korean, what is the difference?

    Most people equate difficulty with time spent on task, or can be taught to and that it applies to just about everything. But the key difference between different types of task is what you seem to be missing here (or rather your title conflicts with the potential message).

    Juggling a three ball cascade in one hand is more difficult than with two hands. Yes it takes more time but also even though I can do both comfortably, the timing aspects means that it always more difficult. When I start to deteriorate with age there may well be a point where I can do it with two hands but not one.

    Riding a unicycle is more difficult than a conventional bicycle, even if I master it, physics backs me up here. It is always more difficult.

    Once I have mastered a certain level of Korean or German however neither will be more difficult. At the same level of mastery each language will be just as easy (unlike the one handed juggling or unicycle riding). What will have been more difficult for me (as a European with no initial familiarity), is learning Korean to that level. Or you could say take more time if you have too ;).

    I humbly suggest that this is the message for new language learners and not the message suggested by the title of this post.

    Having explained this clearly to someone is it beyond the wit of man to accept that learning Korean will be more difficult for me than German? Do we have to sugar coat everything these days?

    So sorry, I contend there is a most difficult language for me, it will be a language that is most far removed from mine, that there is only a small number of native speakers in, that has few or no on-line resources, that will take the most time to understand the culture...... crikey this is getting clumsy, I will just call it difficult (or is that toooo negative of me ;)).

  10. I think the reason that both Benny and I push that languages are not difficult is because (1) they're not and (2) languages' alleged "difficulty" can be a motivation killer. I don't think anyone would disagree that motivation is key to learn a language (or key to doing anything, frankly), so if playing with words will can help increase motivation, then I'm happy to play with words.

    But I don't really think I'm playing with words here. I would only call something difficult if it's highly unlikely that you can pull it off, given what you can reasonably do. Korean might take more time than German, but that doesn't make it harder.

    Look at it this way. Let's say you have to dig two ditches, and the only difference is that one ditch is 30 meters long and the other is 40. Is it harder to dig the 40-meter ditch? No. It just takes longer.

    Languages are like that. You're programming different patterns of the sort of linguistic information your brain evolved to suck up. There's very little chance of you running into anything that the average native speaker can grasp that you can't (i.e., there's very little chance of you being unable to pull it off), if you put enough time into it. Grammar rule x in German might take 30 seconds for you to grasp, while grammar rule y in Korean might take 120 seconds. Add up the time required for each little piece of information that you need to learn through exposures and you'll get the time difference between German and Korean, but you won't get that Korean's more difficult; it's just more time consuming.