Australian languages hard to learn?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Who can learn language?
the ability to learn an Australian language. They are not
to learn. The major difficulty is finding a
teacher and getting enough practice.
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
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.
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.
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.
Indigenous Australians learn language faster?
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
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.
language hold children back?
express concerns that learning an Australian language will
disadvantage their children. There is no evidence to support this.
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
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.
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.
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 way – not 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.
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
What are first and additional
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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
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
is only because the older students have mastered the school system
of learning and the complex organisation of information in tables
and generalised statements – they
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!
learn language faster than adults?
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?
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.
quickest way to learn language?
way to learn a language is by spending as much time as possible
trying to use it for meaningful communication. It’s hard work!
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.
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.
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.
language interfere with learning good English?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.