Learning a foreign language is never easy. Even if you enjoy it, even if you’re good at it, it is always a hard job. You have to grasp the pronunciation, understand the grammar, memorize the vocabulary, and then put it all together to be able to make the simplest sentence. But the funniest thing is that all this isn’t the worst. So what is?
Imagine a box of a jigsaw puzzle. You open it and see hundreds or thousands of small pieces that don’t look like anything. They are the language you’re learning. When you begin, it’s total chaos, nothing makes sense, and you have no idea how you can get from that to the completed picture. As you proceed, the puzzle pieces start clicking together. You are excited, happy, proud of what you’ve managed to achieve. But then you find two pieces that are very similar to each other. You begin to wonder where you should put them. Suddenly, you are unsure, unconfident, hesitant. And, for the very first time, you meet your biggest enemy – uncertainty. Become friends, because I can assure you that you will meet regularly.
In my case, the further I get into learning, the more doubts I encounter. Which, you would think, should be the other way round. But it’s actually logical. At the very beginning, there’s not much more than simple words and phrases. If you study grammar, it’s at a basic level. Nothing’s difficult, nothing’s incomprehensible.
I remember well that at the start of my adventure with Marshallese, vocabulary – not grammar – posed the biggest challenge for me. Well, vocabulary and pronunciation. To be honest with you, I am still not sure how to pronounce half of the words I already know.
At this moment, well over a year into my journey, everything seems to be a challenge. Vocabulary (not as much as in the first few months though), pronunciation, and grammar. This is not to say that I don’t understand what I’m learning. I understand all the rules perfectly. Unfortunately, understanding and remembering the rules accounts for… maybe 50 per cent of your language knowledge. The rest is the ability to use them in practice. And here’s where the problem begins.
My textbook of choice, which I absolutely love, doesn’t explain everything in detail. For example, a while ago I learnt how to make yes/no questions. It’s quite easy. All you have to do is add a word “ke” to the sentence. However, the placement of the word is somewhat variable – you can put it before or after the verb, noun, or adjective. The textbook says: “(…) as you listen to the language, you will get a better feel for where it is usually placed (…).” Welcome, doubt number 1.
Then I learnt more about the verbs “know” and “can”. Again, easy thing. But – here’s my question – if you want to embellish your sentence with “lukkuun” (“really”, “totally”, “absolutely”), where exactly should you put it? Welcome, doubt number 2.
I am also not sure where to place adverbs of time. Should they appear at the beginning or at the end of the sentence? Is their position set in stone? Welcome, doubt number 3.
I could multiply the examples many times over. I am aware that the biggest part of my problem is the fact that I don’t have a teacher. Yes, you can learn a foreign language all by yourself, but it’s so much easier and so much less stressful when you have a person to help you. I don’t (regrettably), so I have to be patient and believe that one day I will know the answers to all the questions that are troubling me right now.
Language learning involves a lot of uncertainty, and we can do nothing about it. Pronunciation will never stop surprising you. You will always find words with a hidden meaning. For each grammar rule there will always be an exception. Either you’ll accept this, or you can quit altogether. A language learner can’t afford to be a perfectionist. Mistakes, trials, and doubts are part of the process. They are frustrating, I admit, but you have to learn to love them. Don’t be afraid to fail, and sooner or later you will speak the lingo of your choice.