There’s a Wall Street Journal blog I read often about, what is to me, the most interesting part of the world called Emerging Europe.
Normally the articles are political and economic based and don’t have any real value here. But today I noticed this post from a few days ago.
What do you guys think, is English too easy to be your first foreign language, does it trick you into thinking language learning is easy?
The Wall Street Journal - Breaking News, Business, Financial & Economic News, World News and Video (thanks steve)
Interesting. I think many would argue the exact opposite position though. Starting with a relatively easy language to learn can be a great confidence booster as you realise that it is very possible to learn a language to a reasonable level without having to go through years of slogging to achieve any sense of proficiency as could happen with more tricky languages when taught in classrooms and after learning one language you will have gotten better at learning languages in general making it easier to approach more difficult languages without too much trepidation.
One has to wonder exactly why they are learning English so quickly. It could be that they have a wealth of English media readily available in the form of subtitled English language TV programmes so they are continually getting exposure and relating what they learn in class to what they see on TV and end up picking up new things from the TV.
One of the reasons why the likes of Norway has such an incredibly high percentage of people with conversational English skills is due to the amount of English media you find there. Every day there are various films and TV programmes in English, your average newsagent has A LOT of English magazines on a variety of subjects. With the sheer amount of exposure they have to English it is no wonder people in general have such good English. I doubt that English media is quite as omnipresent in Hungary as it is in Norway, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a large part of the reason why they find it easy to learn if it is continually reinforced on a daily basis.
Compare that situation with the likes of the UK where we have an awful record of teaching languages which isn’t so surprising when everything you find around you will be in English. You really have to hunt hard for the likes of foreign magazines and newspapers and non-English language films are relatively rare to see on TV or in the cinema.
I just hope their plan doesn’t backfire on them.
I read this article and cannot imagine a more nonsensical approach to language learning. Don’t let people learn the language they want to learn, the one that opens up greatest opportunities. Force them to try to learn a language they have less interest in and which is, supposedly, although I doubt that this can be objectively demonstrated, more difficult.
Are they mad in Hungary?
Well in their defense, it was just a bill. I doubt it has much support.
While I agree with your Steve that you shouldn’t block a student learning the language they want to learn, I don’t see it as a bad thing to learn a different language first (if that’s what you want to learn).
I know it’s more difficult to demonstrate but if we assume that English to a conversational level is in general easier, then learning a different language, one you’re more interested in, then learning English, the one that will do you the most good, might be a good idea.
With that said, any kind tightening of educational requirements usually annoys me and almost never is beneficial. I’m always for as much autonomy as possible for teachers who want to teach and for what interest students the most.
I’ve yet to listen to the radio interview that is cited on the post. I’m not sure if it’s in Hungarian or English.
Here is what I said on my blog.
What absolute nonsense. In any case, is English really that easy? In the article it claims that neo-Latin languages (I imagine it means Romance languages) are harder due to the more complex declensions and conjugations that fulfil most people’s idea of what constitutes ‘grammar’. However, I’d say that these make the language harder at the start, but once the forms have been mastered, which would necessarily be at a relatively early stage, you’re left with the same challenges in all languages. In fact, English is perhaps likely to be harder, because it uses innovations not present in strongly inflected languages to compensate for the lack of inflections.
I’ve heard many people say that English doesn’t have much grammar, but this is because we’re still hung up on the idea that Latin is the basis of all things grammatical. At an introductory level English may be easier, but in any language intermediate/advanced grammar is often about understanding the subtleties of certain function words. ‘Paleontology’, ‘thresh’ and ‘hue’ are not difficult words because they are well defined and are likely to have a one-to-one correspondence in most other languages. Correct usage of words such as ‘get’, ‘as’ and ’ on’ is the sign of a truly fluent speaker.
Maybe the Hungarians will introduce Romanian as their first foreign language since it is a Romance language, or Finnish if they want to challenge their students.
I’ve often heard that “phrasal verbs” can be a nightmare for learners. Heres just one of thousands…
come down with
come in for
come up against
Do other languages use these as we commonly do in English?
In German the particle floats to the end of the sentence. (I’m assuming they’re called particles like in English)
I remember my Polish students hated them, but then I just pointed out how they had something similar with their words that included prefixes to common verbs.
The only part that was harder was the way some of our phrasal verbs can be split eg: take the cookie back. (take back).
I think this bill misses a crucial point: difficulty is a relative concept. Ask anyone “Is German easier than English?”, and he’ll probably reply “No”. Still, I find it is easier: verb construction is pretty straightforward, and pronunciation is immensely easier, because it follows some rules. Government cannot speak on behalf of 10 million people on matters like these, as if all people were clones.
“A Eurostat survey from 2009 found that 74.8% of Hungarians aged 25 to 64 don’t speak any foreign languages whatsoever. Only 6% of respondents said they speak a second language fluently”
Looking at the statistics, I guess English is still not easy enough…
Don’t listen to Hungarian politics, we have one in France who is president and they like saying stupid things. ^^
Well, let’s be serious. Here, lots of young people say that “English is too easy”. And the most difficult languages are Chinese and German, according to people who don’t know any word of those languages. Although he doesn’t know what he is talking about, the French is expert in everything. ^^
However, I’ve never met someone speaking English correctly. I don’t think it’s that easy. When I write, I struggle to figure if a sentence is right or not. Of course when one wants to describe simple things with a poor vocabulary, English is easy. But when it comes to more elaborated sentences…
We hear/see English all the time, on the TV, on the Internet, on ads. English is becoming omnipresent, it is the “less foreign” of foreign languages. Moreover, English conjugation is simple compared to the French one that scares the large majority of French people. Therefore, we tend to think that English is easier than others languages.
To me, it is very tricky because of the particles, as Rjtrudel wrote. It’s not too far but not too close to French, and it’s the international language nowadays, so I’d say it’s an ideal foreign language to start with.
@adalbertolito “Government cannot speak on behalf of 10 million people on matters like these, as if all people were clones.”
Yeah I agree. They seem to like to do that.
Your post too hits it right on. Simple ideas in simple English is probably easier than any other language. A lot of what makes English a little more difficult in later stages is because there is less grammar. Why do we say it like that? Well we just do. There’s never a “this verb takes the genitive case” or a “this is the direct object so it often times goes in this area.”
I’d still say that the lack of grammar though in general makes it an easier language and most people really don’t need to get to an extremely high level of English for it to be useful in today’s world.
English doesn’t lack grammar. When first learning Japanese I remember being surprised that grammar books were not filled with verb endings but were basically explanations of certain expressions and function words. Just because it isn’t like Latin doesn’t mean that the language has any less grammar. Grammar includes the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language, not just morphology.
rjtrudel - Swedish (and probably our neighbour languages too) have a lot of of these “particle verbs” (as they are called here), several hundreds of base verbs and then anything from one up to half a dozen of possible prepositions. Some particle verbs have combinations of prepositions (like up+to in “look up to”).
I lived quite a bit in Hungary, and I wouldn’t say they speak speak english badly… Young guys (20-30) speak it quite well, all my hungarian friendq re fluent in english and some of them even know a third language (Italian and Spanish are very popular languages over there).
I remember reading similar articles in the past, and such surveys were quite critized because they said Hungarians has the bad habit to underestimate their language skills, they would always say they don’t speak a language fluently, even if pratically it is the case… Well, people who know Hungary a bit know about their pessimism…:)))
Anyway, I woud say for a Hungarian, pretty much all languages are hard to learn. The hungarian language has nearly nothin in common in terms of grammar and vocabulary with any other European language… Only some stuff like possession is similar to Russian, for the rest… I learn Hungarian for 2,5 years now and I still struggle… and I learn everyday, I am crazy about it :)))
By the way, it would be nice if in the future we get Hungarian as a Lingq language
However, I do agree this theory about forcing people to learn languages that seem more difficult is completely stupid… fun is the first motivation, they should let people learn what they wanna learn.
Laurent, thanks for clearing that up. I myself was quite surprised when I read that English skills were so low in Hungary – Wikipedia lists the number of speakers at around 10% – especially when you consider that so much of Europe has rates much higher than this.
I voted for Lithuanian myself, although it appears one can vote several times so I added one for Hungarian and some others. I agree it would be wonderful to get a comparatively minor world language added to LingQ and I think I would be sufficiently tempted to have a crack at it as soon it were added. But it seems Latin has the edge over them all at the moment.