Are Australian languages hard to learn?

No, Australian languages are no harder or easier to learn than most other languages. Some English speakers have said they find learning an Australian language similar to learning Japanese or Latin. They are structurally quite different to English and express ideas in different ways. They are neither simple, nor especially complex. Everyone has the ability to learn one.
 
For languages undergoing revival there can be issues with a lack of knowledge about how certain aspects of the language used to work, or which words to use for modern things or concepts. However, this is an issue with our knowledge of the language, not the language itself and just means that some language reconstruction is required. There might also be a shortage of materials available to teach the language.
 
Also, if a language is not being spoken regularly, it usually means learners will have less exposure and opportunities to speak to others than they would have with a strong language that is used every day and for everyday purposes. This just means that teachers and learners need to create opportunities for learners to practise speaking to each other.
 
Learning any language takes time and effort. It doesn’t come automatically to anyone. In each of these tasks the advice of a linguist can be very helpful.


Are Australian languages simple?

No. Some people mistakenly have that idea, perhaps because they were not traditionally written down, but all languages are complex systems. They just have different ways of expressing ideas.
 
For example, most Australian languages will have words that mean we (two people including you), we (two people not including you), we (more than two people including you) and we (more than two people not including you). They may well also have specific words for pairs of people who have a mother-daughter or father-son relationship to each other, but who are not necessarily blood relatives. English does not have this sort of complexity in its personal pronouns and kin terms.
 
On the other hand, in some Australian languages an item and the things that produce it can be expressed with the same word. So fire, firewood, matches and lighters might all be called the same word. English speakers have sometimes wrongly thought that means the language is simple. In this case, people do not find the need to use a different word when the meaning is usually obvious.
 
This just means that Australian languages are different from English. All languages differ in the way the words and sentences are structured and the way they express meaning. It certainly doesn’t mean they are too hard to learn.


Who can learn language?


Everyone has the ability to learn an Australian language. They are not particularly hard to learn. The major difficulty is finding a teacher and getting enough practice.
 
Some language groups may choose to apply protocols that reflect who they do and do not want to learn their language. For example, when school revival programs are first introduced, some communities decide they only wanted students from their own language group or only Indigenous students to participate. Often there is a concern that non-Indigenous learners might do better and shame the Indigenous students. In most cases that policy does not last long and all students are allowed to learn. Schools that allow all students to learn an Australian language usually report benefits for their Indigenous students, especially in terms of pride and self-esteem, and for the whole school and community in terms of reconciliation and greater understanding.
 
In remote areas where languages are strong it is often expected that all outsiders who come to work in the community will learn a local language. Those people do not believe they should have to conduct their lives in English just because some English-speakers come to work for them. So it can be quite common for outsiders to learn a local language and to use it in the community whenever they can. This is, of course, what happens when people go to live overseas and it is generally regarded as respectful to make some attempt to lean the local language.
 
For some people the question should not be just about whether or not non-Indigenous people are allowed to learn an Australian language. They think everyone in Australia should have to learn one. They say it would not only promote understanding and reconciliation but would also help keep the languages alive.
 
In NSW schools implementing the Aboriginal Languages K-10 Syllabus it’s up to the community to decide who is allowed to participate in the language program. Advice about how to work with the local community can be found in the NSW Board of Studies’ guide Working with Aboriginal Communities.


Do Indigenous Australians learn language faster?


There is nothing about the brains or genetic makeup of Indigenous Australians that makes them more suited to learning an Australian language. This is sometimes referred to as the 'genetic fallacy'that particular ethnic groups are somehow primed to learn their heritage language better than others.

However, there may be social factors that influence the amount of time and effort Indigenous learners put in to learning their heritage language that help them progress faster. If, for example, others in their community are learning language, they are given recognition by their family, or they are motivated by a strong self of identity, Indigenous people may well have higher motivation than outsiders. Similarly, if there is still some language spoken or heard in the community it may have an effect. But, all things being equal, it's not who you are that matters, so much as what you do.


Will learning language hold children back?

Some people express concerns that learning an Australian language will disadvantage their children. There is no evidence to support this.
 
Learning any language is good for a student’s thinking ability, and there is strong evidence that speaking more than one language actually allows people to manage more complex mental tasks. Learning another language gives learners a perspective on their own languages that monolingual people don’t have. Second language speakers also tend to find it much easier to go on and learn even more languages.
 
Learning an Australian language won’t help with travel or employment overseas; it’s true. But it will help promote reconciliation and understanding. And, as the demand for speakers of local languages grows, it could lead to local employment, especially as language teachers and workers. It can also be an asset is positions relating to local cultural and environmental knowledge.
 
For Indigenous people, learning an ancestral language can help build pride, self-esteem and a stronger sense of community. There is also some evidence to suggest that communities that speak their own language have higher health and economic outcomes.
 
Learning an Australian language definitely won’t hold a child back.


How do children learn their first language?

As long as they don’t have any problem that might interfere with hearing or speaking, or live under unusual circumstances, all children learn their first language in exactly the same waynot by being taught, but by growing up in the presence of people speaking it. As long as they can hear normally and have no interference, children will learn language just by hearing it. This is an amazing process that only occurs in humans, and is believed to only occur early on in life. After this ‘critical period’ learning a language stops being such an ‘automatic’ process.
 
Although many parents believe they taught their children to speak, they didn’t really. Children just acquire language anyway. Of course parents and other carers may substantially enrich their child’s language through language-based activities such as singing and reading to them. Surprisingly, no amount of correcting errors seems to make any difference. In fact, it looks like children actually need to make mistakes in order to work out work out the right way to use language.
 

What are first and additional (second) languages?

A person’s first language is simply the first language they learn to speak. An additional (or second) language is any language that they learn to speak after their first one. Usually a person’s first language is also the one that they speak the best. However, some people who stop speaking their first language may eventually end up speaking another language a lot more. In cases like this they may talk about their ‘strongest language’the one they speak best, regardless of whether it’s their first or not.

People can have more than one first language, if they grow up bilingual and speak two languages equally from a very young age. They can also have several additional languages. This is why many people no longer use the term ‘second language’, since the languages people learn after their first may be their second, but could also be their third, fourth or fifth.

Some people may also have a heritage language, which is one that they have an inherited right to. This may or may not be one that they can actually speak.

In language revival people may sometimes claim their heritage language as their first language when they didn’t learn it first, or can’t even speak it. However, this is only likely to cause confusion. On this site we will stick to using these terms as they are defined here.


Is learning an additional language different to learning your first?

Yes and no. While the learning processes are similar, there seem to be significant changes in ability with age that affect how children and adults learn language. And, if you are already a strong speaker of one language, your second one is more likely to show influence from your first, both in terms of your accent and the kind of errors you are likely to make. Learning a second, or additional, language after your first is different to learning two languages side-by-side from the beginning.
 
However, this doesn’t mean that adults can’t learn an additional language quite well. They just need to accept that they are unlikely to escape having an accent, and may always be detectable as second language speaker, at least to native speakers. They will also find the process takes them longer than it does for a child.
 

Can children learn two languages at once?

Yes. If a child grows up in the presence of two languages, they will learn both of them, as long as they receive roughly equal exposure to both. For example, if both a child’s parents speak different languages and each only speak their own language to the child, the child will grow up able to speak both equally and be bilingual. Similarly, if the language of the home is different to the language of the general population, children will learn both, as long as they are similarly exposed to both.
 
The big danger here is that, as the child grows up and starts spending more time at school and playing with friends outside the family, the language spoken by the majority will start to take over. So, the parents might have to be very strict about only allowing the family language to be used at home to keep their child’s exposure balanced. If, however, the parents cannot speak the language of the wider community very well and want to be able to, they might try and using it at home, rather than their own. This could easily mean that the child never successfully acquires their home language. This is often the case with immigrants who want to adapt quickly to their new country, and is similar to what has happened in many Aboriginal families. The language of the family can be lost in just one generation in this way!
 
It may be the case that while children are acquiring more than one language at the same time they will experience some slight interference from one language to the other. However, this doesn’t last and is just part of the process of learning to tell the languages apart. It certainly isn’t a good reason for restricting children from becoming bilingual.


Does everyone learn language the same way?

It seems not. As with any other type of learning it appears that some learners have different styles. Some learners may be more visual; others may be more verbal, while others may learn better through action and touch. This just means that good language teaching needs to employ a range of methods and strategies to ensure all learners are catered to. There is no single best way to teach language.


Are some people better at learning language than others?

It seems so, and we don’t really know why. Some people definitely find learning a new language easier than others do. They are very lucky!
 
Many studies have been done to try and find out what characteristics of learners might be associated with the ability to learn language easily. These studies have considered factors like thinking ability, mental flexibility, motivation, self-confidence, education, age (youth) and previous language study. While none of them has produced clear evidence that learning language is directly connected to any other single ability, higher scores across a number of these variables tends to be associated with greater success in learning new languages.
 
This has led some to suggest that there might be a special language learning ability that is not strongly connected to anything else. So, the best language learners may just be the people who learn language best!


Do children and adults learn language in the same way?

There is some disagreement on this question. For a long time the view has been that children go through a ‘critical period’ in the first five to eight years when their brains are like language learning machines. All they need to do is to hear language and they will work it out within a few years. However, some have suggested that if adults were placed in similar circumstances – being exposed to a new language all day, needing to understand what’s happening to them, and with not many other tasks to perform except eat and sleep – they would learn just as fast. Of course adults normally already have at least one language, while children are essentially a ‘blank slate’. But, whether this is more likely to help or hinder is unclear.
 
There is also some suggestion that after the critical period has ended, children might not be as good at learning language again until their teenage years. Whether this is biological, or a result of how languages are taught in formal education is unclear. However, it appears where additional language programs are offered across all levels of schooling, high school students can master similar amounts of new language in a much shorter time than primary students. So, while it doesn’t hurt to teach language in primary programs, it may be just as effective to delay it until high school.
 
Perhaps this is only because the older students have mastered the school system of learning and the complex organisation of information in tables and generalised statementsthey can read and understand a grammar book and use it to practise and gain understanding, while younger students struggle. Older students may also be more likely to be engaged with the task of language learning, especially if they have chosen to do it. For younger students it may just seem to be another thing they have to do, and not appear to have any benefit. So their motivation may be lower. We don't really know!
 

Do children learn language faster than adults?

It’s important here to remember the difference between learning first and additional languages. Adults can never really learn a first language; only children can.
 
In terms of learning an additional language, it may be possible that children in the ‘critical period’ can learn more quickly than an adult. However, some suggest that if adults were given the same exposure to an additional language as children they could learn it just as fast. It’s just that adults normally have a lot more tasks they need to complete each day than children do. Also, while children do seem to learn quickly, they still only speak like a four year old after four years of learning. Adult learners are usually expected to express much more complicated ideas than a four year old, even a fluent one, particularly if they have studied for four years full time.
 
A lot of people believe that if you dropped an adult in a foreign country with no food or money, they would learn to speak the local language just as quickly as a child learns its first language!  While motivation and opportunity can help an adult to learn an additional language, there is no guarantee of success whereas, unless they have some disability, all children learn to speak their first language.


How long does it take to learn a language?

The time taken by an English speaker to become proficient in another language can range from 600 hours for French, to 2200 for Chinese. Australian languages probably fall somewhere between these two.
 

What’s the quickest way to learn language?

The quickest way to learn a language is by spending as much time as possible trying to use it for meaningful communication. It’s hard work!
 
People who only spend a couple of hours using a language each week will make very slow progress. Learners who try to use a language as much as possible every day will learn much faster. And learners who use the language for meaningful activities will learn faster still. For example, if an English speaker goes to a foreign country where the people don’t speak English, they will be forced to use the local language every day just to survive. In this case they will learn very quickly. However, students who are only given one or two hours of class each week, spend most of that time just learning new words from lists and don’t practise much in between times, will learn very slowly.
 
Motivation is also important. The person in a foreign country will be highly motivated by their need to survive. Learners in schools also need to be motivated. Learning their heritage language will be enough motivation for some students who feel rewarded by being recognised within their community or having an improved sense of identity. Other learners will require more. Being rewarded with recognition ceremonies, chances to perform in front of everyone, or the opportunity to go on a field trip or language camp might work for some. Just giving praise will work for many. Skilled languages teachers have a range of strategies to keep students engaged and motivated. Highly motivated learners who get lots of practice will always learn much faster than those who have little interest or opportunity.
 
Sometimes people promote particular methods of learning language that promise amazing results, such as CDs with messages buried under music, or intensive solo practice with recordings and workbooks. While some of these might have something to offer, most are either fakes or nowhere near as effective as working in a group with a good teacher. Remember that to be a good language speaker you actually need to speak it to other people. So learning in a way that requires you communicate with other people in the language will always produce the best results. Sitting at home with a book, CD or computer will be unlikely to get you far.


Does learning language interfere with learning good English?

The answer would be different depending on whether both languages are learned at the same time, or one is learned as an additional language, and then, which one was learned first.
 
If both languages are learned together as first languages any interference will be minimal. While there may be some errors that show some interference along the way, learners will usually sort them out and master both languages equally.
 
If English is learned first and an Australian language is learned as an additional language, it will not interfere with their English at all, and is more likely to give them a much better understanding of how both languages work. However, they are likely to have an English speaker accent in their second language and make occasional errors that show the influence of English.
 
If they learn their own language first and then learn English as a second language the opposite will apply. Their English is likely to have a ‘foreign’ Aboriginal accent and they may make some ‘foreigner’ errors in their English. However, as long as they were exposed to a standard variety of English while they were learning, they should be perfectly understandable.
 

Does learning to write language interfere with English literacy?

No, there is no evidence to suggest that acquiring literacy in one language interferes significantly with acquiring literacy in another. In fact, it’s more likely to help. And there has been at least one study which suggests that acquiring literacy in an Australian language actually improves students’ acquisition of English literacy.
 
It’s important to realise there are at least two skills involved. One is learning to read and write in any writing system (literacy). The other is mastery of the specific system used to write a particular language. Once learners have acquired the basic skill of literacy, learning to read and write in a new language only requires learning the system for that language. It should be no harder than learning the language itself, unless it uses a completely different script like Chinese or Arabic.
 
The fact that English spelling is so irregular might mean that students who are literate in an Australian language try to always write the same sounds the same way in English, like they can in their own language. But all learners of English literacy face this same problem. English spelling is confusing and difficult for everyone!


How important is it to correct language learners?

It isn’t; in fact, it’s a bad idea. Correcting learners does little to help them acquire language successfully and is far more likely to make them shamed and reluctant to try. Making errors may even be an essential step in learning the right way to use language!

The main goal in language learning is to get learners to use the language. As they learn they are bound to make mistakes – everyone does. As they develop better skills with the language, most of their errors will disappear by themselves. There is no evidence to suggest that being corrected by a teacher speeds up the rate at which learners acquire correct language. However, many teachers have observed that if they focus on a learner’s errors and single them out for special attention, the learner can quickly lose confidence and slow right down.

The more often a learner uses the language in communication with others, the quicker they will acquire it successfully. As they hear other speakers using the correct form, they will eventually notice that they are doing it differently and correct themselves. Pointing out small mistakes won’t help them; it’s more likely to just undermine their confidence.

Because it seems that making errors is an essential part of learning to use your first language correctly, some people believe that making errors may also be an essential part of learning an additional language. They argue that it is only by learning what makes something wrong, that learners really understand what makes something else right. And, because speaking a language is such a complex skill, it may be that some learners only learn part of the skill at a time, needing to gradually build up to finally getting all the parts right.

Research on second language learning suggests that if a learner makes errors in answering a question, the best strategy for the teacher is just to repeat their answer to them with any errors corrected, and praise them for trying. However, if there are persistent errors that a learner has not self-corrected after a long time, it might be worthwhile taking them aside and alerting them to the problem, discussing the nature of their error; what makes it wrong, and what the right form would be. If this still doesn’t work, then it probably means the learner is always going to make this error. It won’t mean they will be impossible to understand, just that that will speak the language in an interesting and different way.


Patyegarang



This page was first published on August 13, 2013 and was last updated on November 28, 2013. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise. If you have any suggestions for ways in which this document could be improved or made more accessible to users, please do not hesitate to contact the author, John Hobson.