I'm a PhD student in Linguistics. Ask me anything

Hi Everyone!

My name is September Cowley, I have a B.A. and M.A. in Linguistics, and am currently in the 3rd year of my PhD at UCSD in San Diego. I’ve studied many different areas of Linguistics, but I’m most interested in those that can tell us something about miscommunication, as well as Second Language Acquisition.

One main goal I have is to make knowledge about language and language science more widely available, in part by writing articles about it here at Chatterbug:

Ask me anything!

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Hi September, welcome to the community! My question is: how is it that some people find languages easy to learn, and become fluent in multiple over their life, while others find foreign languages difficult or even painful to practice, yet can learn other complex things easily? is there a language talent gene?

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That’s great to have you here.
I’d like to know if it’s possible to forget your native language (especially when you live many years abroad and don’t use your native language a lot). Would the brain always memorize your native language or is it really possible to lose it?

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Hi Will,

Thanks, I’m glad to have a chance to interact with members of the Chatterbug community!

This is a great question, and gets at a common misconception that adults can’t learn second languages (as discussed in this article). What studies actually find is that in general, you’re more likely to “fully” acquire a language the younger you are - up to about puberty. After this, what we see is a lot of variation in adult learners.

Researchers are still trying to figure out what causes this variation, and there are lots of possibilities. One possible factor is “foreign language anxiety”, the idea basically being that if you tend to get very anxious about performing in a second language, it might be harder for you to learn it. A number of studies support this idea, although it’s important to note that some studies also report a reasonable level of anxiety in all learners they tested, so it’s probably a pretty natural feeling.

Another thought is that your level of extraversion might matter too, with some studies indicating that extraverts perform better overall than introverts. Introverts shouldn’t feel too discouraged, though. For one thing, I’m an introvert myself, and I think I’m pretty decent with second language learning :slight_smile: Less anecdotally, though, some studies suggest that extraverts are only better on some tasks, with introverts in the lead for others.

Finally, a factor that very clearly seems to matter is motivation. Young children sort of just “pick up” language if they’re around it enough, but for adults, learning a second language is a more conscious, effortful process. So as with any sort of long-term learning, motivation matters. Motivation of course can be broken down into a number of other factors, but some important take-aways are that people who have good long-term goals (and break them down into short-term goals), positive attitudes about learning, and who believe improvement is possible are more likely to do well with second language learning, so it’s worth practicing these skills! You can read more about how to stay motivated in my last blog post.

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Hi SKrausser!

Thanks, and that’s a really interesting question, with a not-so-simple answer.

A very short version of my response would be that the answer is both “yes” and “no”.

On one hand, language attrition (the gradual ‘loss’ of a language) is a real phenomenon . You may have noticed this in yourself or other multilinguals you know if your native language is not the language you use most often in daily life: you may find yourself forgetting words in your first language, for example, or making minor grammatical errors.

One study that I found particularly interesting used native German speakers to rate the “nativeness” of German speakers who had moved away from Germany to the speech of those who had remained, and found that the German speakers who had moved away were rated overall as less “native-like” than the speech of native German speakers who had remained in the country.

Of course, this sounds a bit worrying if you’ve moved to a country where your second language is dominant, but you still want to retain your first language. But it’s probably not as bad as it sounds.

For one thing, in that study, the biggest predictor of how “native-like” they sounded was not how long they had lived in a different country, but rather how often, and how intensely, they still interacted with native German speakers. So people can help to retain their first languages by maintaining good contact with other native speakers, either by chatting with old friends and family at home often, or by making friends with other native speakers in the area.

Language attrition also seems to depend on the age at which you move away from the place where your first language is spoken. Children seem much more at risk to “lose” their first language than adults, and this isn’t really surprising: many aspects of language are actually acquired quite late in childhood, so if you move away young, you may well not have actually finished learning your first language in the first place.

Perhaps it will comfort some people to know, however, that even if you move away extremely young, you still don’t “lose” your first language completely. A number of studies have found that people who were internationally adopted as children have a clear advantage when it comes to relearning their “lost” first language, even after many years. So clearly, traces of the language remain even if you barely got any exposure in the first place.

In summary, yes, you can start to forget parts of your first language, or get mixed up between the two, but you will never truly “lose” your first language. Plus, there are always things you can do to keep your first language strong - mainly just by making sure to still use it often. This would preferably be done by talking to native speakers, but it would also help to read, write, and listen to music or watch tv shows in your first language.

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This is so interesting. :smiley: I lived abroad for 4 years and that’s how I experienced it. I didn’t feel that I was losing my language skills, it was rather a setting some parts of them (mainly words) on stand-by. Since later on, when I moved back to Germany I rediscovered structures and words that I wouldn’t have used for a long time, I didn’t have to relearn them though.

I have also a question regarding your expertise in miscommunication. Do you know if there is any research on how your native language influences the number of misunderstandings when learning a second language that belongs to a different language family?
For instance, I’m a German native speaker and I would like to start learning Persian. Is there a higher probability of miscommunication than I would encounter when learning Swedish?

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Hi Francine,

First, thanks for sharing your thoughts from your personal experience! That sounds right to me - I would think that if you’d moved as an adult (or close to one), it would be pretty easy to regain your first language skills if you were to move back to a place where your first language was spoken.

Regarding your question - what a cool question! It’s also a complex question; I’m sure you could easily write a book on this topic, because there are lots of different things to consider when thinking about different ways miscommunications can occur between different languages.

For example, you picked up on one point straight away, which is that perhaps it’s harder to learn to communicate well (and therefore easier to miscommunicate) in a language that’s not closely related to your first language, simply because the words and grammar are very different, and you have to spend more time just learning those parts of the language. I imagine you’d overcome this after you studied the second language for long enough, though perhaps that would take longer than it would in a more closely related language - say, Dutch, for example, or Swedish, as you mentioned.

However, communication is about more than just the words and sentence structures you use - a lot of it has to do with cultural norms, because different cultures have different assumptions about how we should communicate. I talk about this near the end of my article on the importance of conversation practice in second language learning. The basic idea is that even though we tend to feel like conventions about how to speak are obvious and the same for all cultures, they actually differ quite a lot culture to culture. In some cultures, the general convention is to not talk much, so if you speak a lot, people might think you’re pushy or rude. On the other hand, in other cultures, it’s considered normal to speak a lot, even to people you don’t know; so if you don’t speak very much, people might be suspicious of you and think you’re hiding something, or that you just don’t like them. You can see how easy it could be to miscommunicate if the assumptions about how to speak are different in your first and second languages! In fact, this is how cross-cultural stereotyping sometimes happens - each culture has its own assumptions about how to speak, and they each come to conclusions about the other culture based on their own language’s “rules”.

As to whether there’s research on this, there is definitely research! If you wanted to read more about how cultures can differ in their basic assumptions about how we should talk, I highly recommend this short but really interesting paper by Deborah Tannen. It’s really informative, and just a fun paper to read. As for the other point you mentioned - regarding the level of relatedness of the languages - I’m not sure anybody has specifically studied this with a focus on miscommunication, but I am sure people have studied which languages take longer or more effort to learn than others, depending which language you’re coming from.

In terms of learning Persian - I would say, go for it, and don’t worry about the potential for miscommunication! I think communication is more about aiming for mutual understanding than it is getting the “perfect” words or sentences - after all, we miscommunicate an awful lot even with people in our own languages, and you can also have great exchanges with people without really being able to say much at all. What would probably be helpful is to find native speakers to chat with, not only to practice your conversational skills, but also to understand the culture, as well as the “conversational rules” associated with that culture.

Thanks for your thoughts and your question, and good luck with your Persian learning!

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Hi @scowley,
What is the hardest language to learn for an English native? Maybe people are still looking for a new year’s resolution… :wink:

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Hi,
I am always curious when I hear that people are learning a language that has a different alphabet than the Roman alphabet whether it is significantly more difficult to learn that language. Do you have any thoughts on this? Would it for an English native speaker take much more time to learn a language outside a European originated language?
Thanks,
Kurt

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Hi @kjanina,

First of all, sorry for the late response! I actually didn’t know this AMA thread was still going, but I am happy to continue answering questions as long as people are asking.

That’s an interesting question, and it’s actually more complicated than it looks at first glance. The simple answer is that there are lists of “hardest languages for English speakers” all over the internet (some examples can be found here and here), and these lists probably do give a pretty decent idea of widely-spoken languages that are, overall, difficult for English speakers: for example, as noted in the babbel article, Mandarin Chinese, which is often named as one of the hardest languages, is a tonal language, meaning that what sounds like the exact same word to an English speaker could actually be three or four different words depending on the sort of “melody” (tone) you say the word with. Since English doesn’t use tone, it can be hard for English speakers to keep track of.

The longer response, however, is that it’s just a bit difficult to say. For example, it’s unclear exactly how these rankings are generated, and in some cases, they’re based on things that aren’t technically related to language itself. For example, one of the reasons Mandarin is often cited as being difficult is the writing system, which is character-based instead of expressing rough correspondences between sounds and letters, like English. And while you might want learn the writing system if you were learning Mandarin, strictly speaking, the writing system isn’t part of the language. You could still theoretically learn Mandarin without learning the writing system (e.g. by sound alone, or by learning Pinyin, a different writing system which works more like written English).

The other thing to consider is that these lists typically only consider languages that are really popular to learn or that are spoken by lots of people. That’s why you’ll repeatedly see languages like Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic, but you’ll probably never see languages like Cree or Mohawk (North American indigenous languages) on those lists, even though they’re actually even more different from English than Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, or most other languages you’ll see on those lists. They’re referred to as “polysynthetic” languages, which means that the language can basically express the entire sentence in a single word, a concept that’s pretty unheard of for most English speakers. On the other hand, fewer people are likely to try to learn these, so they don’t usually make it on these lists.

Finally, different things are difficult for different people. For example, although tone is notoriously difficult for English speakers, someone with musical training might actually not find it very difficult at all. And if you have a lot of interest in the culture, that might be a lot easier than trying to learn a theoretically ‘easier’ language you don’t really want to learn.

TL;DR: “Hardest languages for English Speakers” type lists are decent guesses at what languages are hardest for English speakers, and Mandarin is a reasonable choice for being one of the most difficult widely-spoken languages (for English speakers). But if you’re really interested in just learning a language that’s very different from English, look up polysynthetic languages and try learning one of those!

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Hi Kurt,

I really like this question! First, I should clarify that most linguists do not study writing systems; though for a lot of people (me included), writing and reading are so ingrained that they feel like part of language, most linguists would say they only study spoken language ability, and therefore don’t usually look at writing. However, I think written language and writing systems are very interesting, and do affect spoken language, and I have researched on the history of writing and writing systems a decent amount.

I would say that yes, it probably is harder to learn a language that uses a different alphabet, just because it means learning a new system, since most language learning techniques involve a lot of reading and writing. If the writing system still expresses rough sound-letter correspondences (i.e. each symbol represents a sound, more or less), then this shouldn’t be too bad for an English speaker, however. But the more different a writing system becomes, the harder it will be for an English speaker, just because they have to learn a brand new system for reading. For example, languages like Mandarin will be difficult because they’re just so different from how our alphabet works. While English has 26 letters which more or less represent certain sounds, Mandarin uses thousands of characters, and they don’t represent sounds, but rather a mix of meaning and pronunciation. This blog gives a great basic explanation of Mandarin characters if you’re interested in learning more about that.

In terms of how long it would take to learn a language with a different writing system, yes, it probably would take longer, and how long it takes probably corresponds to how different the writing system is. But I don’t think this should discourage people from learning these kinds of languages - it’s probably still going to be easier to learn a more ‘difficult’ language you’re really interested in knowing than an ‘easier’ one that you don’t really care about, after all!

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Thanks so much @scowley, this thread is so great! :slight_smile:

On the topic of Mandarin, I can only encourage others to give learning a language like that a go. I studied Sinology, much of the focus of which was centred around learning Mandarin, and have to say it gave me a fantastic insight into how language can work and it’s such a fulfilling and enriching experience. It was so much fun to completely start from scratch and learn to read and write again :smiley:
It upsets me a little when languages are deemed “the most difficult” and thus swept off the table of possibilities. Don’t get me wrong, Mandarin is really damn hard, but far from impossible! Just like any language we learn, it takes a lot of work and patience.

Which brings me to my question: I noticed in Mandarin that English speakers had more trouble than say Thai speakers to reproduce the language’s sounds. Is this the case in other languages too and is it impossible to get over this hurdle? I feel I will forever sound weird :sweat_smile:

Hi @antomorr,

No problem, I’m glad you like the thread! I’m always interested in hearing about what kind of language questions people have.

I agree - supposed difficulty level shouldn’t discourage you from learning a language if you really want to learn it. A big part of language learning is motivation, so if the language you’re really motivated to learn happens to be ‘difficult’ for someone with your native language, it probably is still in a sense ‘easier’ to learn it than a language you’re not that interested in, just because you’ll enjoy the process. And you make a great point: learning a language very different from your own does teach you a lot about how language works in general! This is one of the reasons linguists study different languages - it gives us a sense of what things are and aren’t possible for human languages, which in turn teaches us something about how language must be organized in the mind and brain.

Regarding your question: what you’re noticing is the difference between the languages’ phonemic inventories (and possibly that Mandarin - and Thai - are tonal, while English is not). There’s a limited set of sounds that are used in human languages. You can play with fun interactive charts if you want to hear what they all sound like; the consonants will always be surrounded by vowels in the recordings (or you wouldn’t really hear much).

Each language uses only a subset of all these possible sounds, and babies seem to be able to hear all of them. But as you grow up and learn your native language, your brain focuses in on the sounds you need for your language, and kind of mushes the rest all together, so you don’t really hear the differences that well anymore. So if you’re trying to learn a language that has a lot of sounds that aren’t used in your native language, this is a lot harder than learning a language that uses mostly the same sounds as your first language.

For example, an English speaker will find Spanish sounds pretty easy: there are only a few consonant sounds English doesn’t use (like rolled ‘R’ and the sound that sounds like a mix of ‘B’ and ‘V’ in, e.g. ‘cerveza’); and Spanish only uses 5 vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u), all of which we have in English (though they do sound a tiny bit different). But going to French from English might be a lot harder, because French has 11 vowels, many of which aren’t shared with English. The process of learning how to pronounce all of these then, is basically the process of reorganizing sound categories in your brain. Your brain has specialized for English and learned to ignore those French vowel sounds (since they’re unimportant in English), so when you learn French, you’re forcing your brain to re-analyze those categories it had set in place for all those years.

No, it’s not impossible to get over that hurdle! While phonology (‘accent’) is something you learn very young and that’s considered one of the harder things to learn in a second language, people definitely are able to do it. Accent training is shown to help, so one thing you might consider is looking for YouTube videos that specifically train you on those sounds, like this one.

[reply continued in next post…]

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[…continued from previous reply]

If you like getting a bit technical, you can also search “Mandarin Phonology” or “Mandarin Phoneme Inventory”, for charts like these .

You can then look at the sound charts for Mandarin, and compare them to those that show what sounds appear in English (scroll down to find the charts). If you look for the Mandarin sounds that don’t appear on the English charts, these will be the ones that are tough for you. You can then locate them on the interactive chart I mentioned above, and practice listening to them and trying to mimic the sounds. There are even interactive charts like this one (which helpfully includes tone!) for Mandarin alone, where you could just try listening to all the sounds and noticing which ones are hard for you to tell apart, then paying special attention to these.

Finally, of course, just listening to lots of media (tv, radio, podcasts, music, etc.) should help your brain to learn these new categories. It’s not necessarily something that will just happen naturally, but if you are willing to put the time into focusing on this part of language learning in particular, then yes, I think it’s possible to get rid of (or at least strongly reduce) your accent in a second language!

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