Opinion: The Japanese expression Yoko Meshi captures the stress of learning to speak another language - but also the attitude you need to succeed at it

By Chris MulhallWaterford Institute of Technology

Learning to speak another language can prove to be a challenging task; one requiring dedication, patience, effort on the part of the learner. In the modern world, a knowledge of a second language has become an enviable skill that brings potential career opportunities, enables a greater appreciation of cultural difference, enhances communicative abilities as well as reportedly improving cognitive function. Such a panoply of benefits, however, does not come easy and developing a competence in a second language is not perfunctory.

The Japanese expression Yoko Meshi, literally meaning to eat a meal sideways, gives a particular cultural perspective on the difficulties of speaking another language. Although the unusual image of trying to eat a meal sideways seems an impossible task in many ways, learning another language very much revolves around an attitudinal approach and practical mindset that appreciates difference, embraces diversity and welcomes challenges.

In the early stages of second language acquisition, one of the factors that improves the experience and success of the learner is their appreciation of difference between two linguistic systems. It is said that a true understanding of one's own language can only be realised by studying another language and the mechanical workings of one’s own language often only become more apparent through the prism of another.

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Languages are not perfectly symmetrical in their form or function with grammatical and lexical elements found in one language not always being present in another. A common example of this difference is gendered-nouns, a feature not found in English, except for those denoting physical genders, such as man, woman, bull, cow, but which is a key component of most other languages.

For English speakers learning another language, recalibrating their linguistic thinking to nouns as a gendered-object rather than a gender-neutral unit can be a challenge. For instance, the word ladybird is a feminine noun in French, translating as coccinelle (French) it also requires a gendered article (a/the) to formulate a grammatically accurate noun phrase, such as une/la coccinelle (a/the ladybird).

This basic linguistic difference may be hard to grasp for ab initio learners, however morphological patterns in languages allow for some predictability in this regard, for example, most French words ending in -e are feminine. Such patterns, although unfamiliar, are advantageous to a language learner, allowing them to tackle the complex newness of different languages systems with a sense that a predictable pattern lies in the midst of unknown lexical terrains.

Rewiring our mental lexicon to a different language is effectively updating our software to run on a new system

Appreciating these rudimentary differences are ultimately important in laying the foundations to a more successful learning outcome. However, the effort required in understanding the differences between one’s native language and the target language should not be under-estimated.

Embracing the diversity of learning a second language can be both enlightening and rewarding as well as being daunting and challenging. A recent article published in a UK newspaper reported that students found foreign language learning so stressful that they sought to be excused from these classes. One of the residual difficulties is, however, that learning another language is largely a new and unknown experience.

This can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. On one hand, a learner may have little memory about how they first started to speak their native language, dealing with issues like regularity, irregularity and developing a mastery of its phonetic system. For the most part, such difficulties were overcome through the spontaneity of speech and the unawareness of error. This is positive starting point as it shows that most, if not all, learners can survive in a language without knowing every word or the intricate workings of its grammar.

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On the other hand, having to tag lexical parts, such as verbs and nouns, and rewire our mental lexicon to a different language is effectively updating our software to run on a new system.

Of equal importance to installing a new linguistic software is the using supporting hardware that enables us to express ourselves in another language through speech and writing. Depending on the learning context, the necessity to write or speak more in a foreign language can vary from learner to learner, for example, learning another language for the business purposes may require a greater spoken than written fluency in the target language.

It is in the category of speech that arguably the greatest challenge is faced by the learner as factors of fluency, accent and pronunciation are all relative indicators of our own perceived competence in speaking a foreign language. These are all keystones of an oral competence, but their execution is often impeded by a learner’s own fears or expectations.

"Drawing from our initial experience with language during childhood may hold the key to future success"

Can this be overcome? Certainly. No language exists in a perfect state, likewise no learner has a perfect knowledge of their native language. Thus, is it reasonable to expect a different mode of existence in a second language? Arguably not.

Using this notion of imperfection presents a strong platform to the learner to accept that language can and does exist imperfectly. Equally, acknowledging that every learner starts from an imperfect state of linguistic knowledge can be helpful in alleviating some of the fear and doubt that preludes attempts to speak a second language for the first time. Drawing from our initial experience with language during childhood may hold the key to future success – a complete knowledge of a language is not a pre-requisite to either speaking or writing it.

The merits and demerits of second language acquisition are always topical. Questions around the validity of foreign languages as an academic subject are often dwarfed by the timeless benefits enjoyed by their learners. There is an appreciated wisdom about language learning as articulated by Latin proverb notitia linguarum est prima porta sapientiae (language learning is the first step to wisdom).

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In recent decades, English has become widely accepted as the lingua franca of the modern world, a development which has diminished the need or desire for multilingual competence.

Learning another language creates a new identity; one that acts, thinks, behaves and operates differently to that of the native language. The Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, encapsulates this point in his quotation that 'learning another language is like becoming another person’. Rather than seeing it as a skill or change, the strength of bilingualism lies in it being viewed as an attitude – one that appreciates difference, embraces diversity, encourages change and underpins personal, social and cultural growth.

Dr Chris Mulhall is a Lecturer in Modern Languages at Waterford Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ