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How Difficult Is It To Learn A Second Language?

By Joshua Brustein

Before the dinner rush, the small Colombian restaurant Pollos y Mas in Astoria is turned into a private study hall. The children of Maria and Jorge Zuluaga spread out their books on the restaurant's tables to get started on their homework while their parents prepare the kitchen for the evening.

For Maria Elisa Zuluaga, the fifteen-year old daughter of the Zuluaga family, English is a particularly important subject. She has just started her second year of classes in the New York public school system, where she takes English as a Second Language classes as part of her regular school day.

Zuluaga had little training in English before her family moved to the United States two years ago. "I didn't speak well [when I first arrived]," she says. "The only things I knew how to say were 'I don't understand English,' and 'I am from Colombia.'"

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, about 850,000 people legally immigrated to the country in the year 2000. More came from Mexico than any other country (173,000), followed by China (42,000), the Philippines (42,000), India (42,000), and Vietnam (26,000). Of these countries, English is widely spoken only in India and the Philippines, where other languages are also prevalent.

Like Maria Elisa, many immigrants arrive in the United States with a pressing need to learn English. But the ability to acquire a second language varies from one immigrant to another depending on their mother tongue, their age and determination to learn English.

A person's first language can have a major effect on how easy it is for them to learn English. According to John Costello, a professor from the linguistics department at New York University, Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian) are the most closely related to English structurally. Languages with a common origin, namely the languages of Western Europe, excluding Hungarian and Finnish, are also quite similar to English. Speakers of these languages will generally have the easiest time learning English as a second language. Speakers of Semitic languages, such as Arabic or Hebrew, will have a harder time. For speakers of Asian languages such as Chinese, Korean, or Japanese it will be even more difficult. The languages that are least related to English structurally are Native American and Inuit languages.

Structural differences can be details like the way that tenses or objects are used, or the way a sentence is structured. Subtle differences can prove a challenge when trying to master a second language.

Henry Ho, a Taiwanese graduate student who recently arrived in the United States to study finance at Baruch College, says that overcoming the differences in the style of writing between his native Mandarin and English has been a major challenge. Ho has been taking English classes in schools in Taiwan since he was in junior high, and speaks English fluently.

"Listening and speaking, that's no problem for me," says Ho. "The most difficult part is the writing. We have totally different writing styles, English and Mandarin. In Mandarin we don't write things directly. We try to use metaphors. We never point out things right to your face. Here, you have to be direct, and the best way is to [present] the point of your thought immediately - which is considered the worst in Mandarin."

Gaps like this are easier to bridge the earlier one starts, says Costello. Until the early teenage years, he says, children learn a second language much in the same way that they learn their first language. This makes the process fairly effortless. The ability to learn a new language in this manner disappears around the time of adolescence, as the brain lateralizes. Lateralization is the process by which one side of the brain becomes dominant over the other, the same process that determines whether a person is right or left handed.

"Basically when your brain starts increasing its lateralization at about the age of adolescence, the strategies that you use, that children use [to learn a language], start to fade away," says Costello. "And if you're going to learn a language after the age of adolescence it gets done in a very different way, it is far more conscious and it is extremely intellectual. It's like problem-solving, almost like mathematics."

This affects the way that an English class for adults should be taught, claims Costello, who says that looking at the way people learn their first language is not necessarily the best way to determine how they should learn a second.

"Some people make the erroneous assumption that since children can learn several languages the same way that they learn their first language, which is largely by exposure and conversation and not by formal teaching using grammar, that if you just can do that to the greatest extent possible for adults, adults will learn a second language much better," Costello said. "The reason that this isn't correct is because the adult is already thinking differently from the way that a child thinks."

Costello disagrees with what he says is the commonly held belief that an adult's ability to learn a second language is hampered by being bogged down with grammar instead of focusing on conversation. "I don't think that it is really the matter of classroom as opposed to playroom," he says. "It's really a matter of how effectively you can teach."

Elizabeth Shannahan, an ESL teacher in a high school in the Bronx who has also taught in Korea and Kyrgyzstan, says that a devoted adult can pick up a language as easily as a child. And without the disciplinary aspects of teaching a classroom full of young or teenaged students, she finds a classroom full of adults to be a pleasure to teach.

This summer, Shannahan taught an ESL class to adults. The members of the class were very excited to learn, she says, with many of them traveling very far to participate in the class. Her students' desire to learn made it one of her most rewarding teaching experiences. "I had a great experience this summer," she says, "We had all adults, and it was wonderful. They were so motivated. Picking up on grammar points they wanted to talk about and so on."

For Shannahan, the amount of effort a student willing to put into the language is the deciding factor in how well they will master English, regardless of their first language or age. This is something that a teacher cannot give a student, she says.

Maria Elisa seems willing to put forth the effort. After school at her parents' restaurant, she continues to work hard on her English. She is confident that her efforts are paying off. "I never took my classes in Spanish," she says. "Because if I want to learn English I have to think in English." She shrugs off the added workload that she has in every class, learning the language along with the assigned material. "I have to improve."

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