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Let’s face it: We humans like things better if they’re familiar.

If something is
completely alien to us, we’re hesitant toward it – even afraid of it. This affects language
learning more than it affects anything else, I believe.
Let’s say you’ve attained fluency in Latin. Congratulations! Well, now you want
to learn another language. If you’re like most people I know, the obvious next step would
be to learn French, Spanish, Italian, or German. After all, they’re related. (Yes, yes, I
know German is not a romance language. That’s not what I’m saying here.) They have
almost identical words, and similar grammar conventions. Easy!
But, is it worth it? Learning Spanish, you’re just learning Latin with alternate
vocabulary, and different endings for the same grammar conventions. French might be a
little further off, but it’s still a gendered, inflecting language with familiar-sounding
words to an English speaker. I’m not saying it’s not difficult to learn these languages (I’m
a Latin learner who always had trouble with Spanish), but what I am saying is that it
seems a lot less rewarding to.
I bring this up because – and I’ll come back to this topic a lot in my writing –
when I ask my fellow currently-monolingual English speakers, “If you could learn any
language in the world, what would it be?” the answer is always in the Indo-European
language family. And the only reason I say “Indo-European family” instead of “Romance
and Germanic family” is that I’ve had – as a pleasant surprise – one person say “Greek”. I
get “Spanish” at least seventy percent of the time, and “Italian”, “French”, or “German”
all the others.
I believe this taps into the theory that we think along these lines: What is familiar
to us is easier than that which isn’t, even if the familiar is more complicated. We are
much more likely to want to learn a language is the word for “night” is “nuit”, “noche”,
or “nacht”, than if it is “éjszaka”.
Now, in response to that, most people would say “Well, that’s because the last
word looks harder to say.” I’ll give that yes, maybe it does to us. But, here’s what I want
to muse about for a minute: What about when the familiar isn’t really easier?
Let me try to explain. The two most frequent complaints I hear in Latin class are:
“Why does everything have to have a gender? This is too hard!” and “Why does there
have to be so many endings? This is too hard!” Now, these are the same people that
declare that whey want to learn Spanish, and that it would be “Soooo much easier than
this stupid dead language!” When I hear these complaints, I try to explain to them that
not only does Spanish use gendered words, it’s even more difficult to form a sentence, as
you have to worry about what gender form of “the” and “a” you use. (As opposed to
gendered but article-free Latin.) I also try to explain that Spanish has just as many
endings as Latin. What happens when I do this? I get completely ignored. The standard
response is “Yeah, right. Spanish is WAY easier than this.”
My desk in that class has many marks from banging my forehead against it in
The reason for this false (and lamentably common) conception is that, well, we
see Spanish every day here. We walk around seeing wet floor signs that say
“CUIDADO!”, but not “CAVE!” We constantly hear people saying “Hola!”, but I’ve
never seen someone go up to a friend and say “Salve!” And so, since we’re so exposed to
Spanish, we automatically think it’s easier.
Now, how about the really foreign to English speakers. I think the reason most
people don’t believe me when I say I’m trying to learn, on my own, Hungarian and
Finnish is that they aren’t exposed to them. Ever. If Americans don’t go searching, we
aren’t going to be exposed to languages like those. And if they know that they’re really
not related to our “familiar” languages at all, then the question I usually get is “Why?”
I think all these reactions are understandable. But what I don’t understand is why
people who learn a little about the languages then think that learning them would be more
difficult than learning a familiar language. To demonstrate what I mean, let’s compare
the structure of a sentence in both Spanish and Hungarian.
Spanish: “Ella es una mujer.” First, there is a specific form of the third-person
singular subject based on gender. This sentence requires a verb, conjugated to the third
person. The indefinite article “a” also must be gendered.
Hungarian: “Ő nő.” The third-person singular subject doesn’t need to be changed
according to gender, it’s exactly the same as “he” and “it”. Since this sentence is a
copula, it does not require a verb. There is no need for an indefinite article. Handy, huh?
Linguistically, the second sentence is much easier to make. Yet, if asked, the
people I know would all say that the Spanish was simpler. It’s that that I don’t
understand, that’s where the familiarity trap comes in.
So my mission is to try to get people to avoid falling into the familiarity trap. As I
say, branch out, and I guarantee you’ll feel more accomplished once you conquer