In upcoming weeks, I’ll go more into the details of the Mongolian language (hoping to look at writing and grammar structures in a couple of different posts), but I thought this week might be a good time to explain language learning challenges that we’ve faced in acquiring Mongolian.
Let’s start by saying that English is a nonsensical language that acquires vocabulary easily and decides on grammar rules arbitrarily with multitudes of exceptions to any one rule. It is a challenging language to learn, and I have apologized many times to my students about the impossibility of nailing down hard and definite rules for everything–except for adjective order, which is really useful. (Did you know English has an adjective order? If you’re a native speaker, I bet you weren’t even aware of it! [I wasn’t until I had to teach it.])
For me, English is easy because it is my native tongue. However, having it as my native tongue means that other languages present a variety of challenges to acquire. This handy dandy guide at Effective Language Learning ranks languages on their ease or difficulty to learn for native English speakers. There are five categories of difficulty, ranging from ~600 hours of study to proficiency up to ~2200 hours of study. The easier languages for English speakers to learn are those like French, Spanish, and Swedish. The hardest languages to learn are Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. No real surprises there, right? Mongolian is in Category 4, requiring ~1100 hours of study to achieve general proficiency. If you go to the website linked above, you’ll notice an asterisk next to Mongolian on the list, which denotes that it is more difficult for English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category.
Our first two years in Mongolia, we took Mongolian language classes part time while teaching English full time. The nature of being an ESL teacher is that when you are at you work, you’re strongly encouraged only to use English to push your students to use English as well. So practicing Mongolian at school was pretty much out. When in the city, once people learned that we were American and spoke English, that’s about all they wanted to speak with us so that they could practice their language skills–fair enough, we sound like toddlers in Mongolian. The places where I practiced most of my language was in taxis–limited to giving directions or making small talk (where are we from, what we’re doing in Mongolia, do we have children, are we married, etc.). I also learned a decent amount of medical terminology due to giving birth to both of our kids in UB and for dealing with sickness. I can navigate a pharmacy pretty well, if I say so myself. 😉 Anyway, after becoming parents at the end of our second year in Mongolia, we stopped taking formal language classes due to the impracticality of trying to internalize grammar while sleep deprived.
All this to say, we’ve done about ~200 hours of study (I’m guessing here), and still have many more needed hours of practice and study to become basically proficient. Studying the language will be our primary goal once we return to Mongolia.
What challenges have you face in language learning?