Vignettes of Language Learners’ Perception of Learning Difficulty:
Mingling the Native and the Target Languages
*Dinesh Kumar Thapa
This paper presents two reflective cases regarding foreign language learners’ perceptions of difficulties in the early stages of learning a foreign language. It is a comparative presentation as to how a Nepali learner of English feels as the difficult areas while learning English, and how an English learner regards while attempting to learn Nepali. In elaborating the phenomena, an equal reference point has been made to the contexts of the Nepali speaker learning English and the English speaker learning Nepali, both as learning a foreign language/ distant language. Deliberation has also been made for the emergence of a unique form of English as an International Language.
Vignette One: Concerns of a Learner of English
I am Dinesh Kumar Thapa. I started learning English when I was about 10 years old. I learnt the alphabets of English from grade four as a compulsory subject in my primary school.
When I recollect my journey of learning English, I can now locate many areas where I had difficulty in mastering. When there came the time to use articles, I had to think twice before I used one. These tiny words were so mind blogging that I, often, missed using them, and even if I did, there was an over- use of a single article (the). I think it happened because in Nepali there are other determiners to express for what articles do in English. Similarly, the use of prepositions was also a hard nut to crash. Typical problem in this area were in the choice of the correct proposition for a verb or an adjective as collocation. Sometimes, confusions were experienced while choosing the correct preposition of location (at, in, on).
I also experienced a lot difficulty in deciphering and using set- phrases, colloquial English expressions. I still vividly reminisce the day when my English teacher asked me to read the print of a visitor’s T- shirt (which contained the phrase ‘See You’) and to translate the meaning in Nepali. I did it at once, and said that it meant ‘I want to look at you’. It was indeed a blunder, but there are many set phrases and colloquial expressions in English which pose an immense challenge for me still to- date. In the absence of my exposure to naturally occurring English then, it was impossible as well to learn what ‘kick the bucket’ or ‘bite your arm off’.
Another problem I had experienced during my initial English language learning was the peculiar sound- spelling system in English. When I needed to write the word, ‘putting’, ‘dropping’, etc. there needed doubling of the letters ‘t’ and ‘p’ respectively, whereas for “Shooting”, there was not. The ‘ck’ spelling- cluster in “pocket/ rocket/ jacket” did not work with “basket’, although the latter also has ‘k’ sound in the middle. Similarly, the spelling- changes made with inflectional suffixes, as in ‘carry= carried’, ‘copy- copied’, etc. did not work for ‘stay’, ‘delay’, etc. There were many other frustrating experiences regarding the spelling system of English, and I believe these are still there with the learners.
I am still facing grave problems in the pronunciation of certain English exponents that, I think, I had learnt improperly regarding their pronunciation during the first stages of my English language learning journey. When I utter even the most frequent English words (such as, Because, Yellow, Yesterday, Skipping, etc.), I still need to give a careful thought that I should not fall into my own idiosyncratic habits. I also feel a similar situation with respect to the intonation and stress patterns of English utterances. When I have to utter a statement with a tag, I need to consciously make sure that there is ‘fall and rise’ in my pitch, and, for making a list of things, there is a ‘fall- fall and rise’ pattern. Similarly, when the time is for separating ‘She’ from ‘Sea’, I have to make sure that the ‘contextual clues’ help differentiate it, rather than the voice only. In my Mother Tongue, Nepali, I do not feel much practical difference whether one speaks with shortening or prolonging the tongue. Thanks the componential intricacies in a human language. When one aspect fails, there are others to help get the meaning across while communicating. The case of producing interdental fricatives, /θ̱ and ð̠/ is also problematic for me, as these are plosive sounds in Nepali. Other numerous cases are there, such as, production of the different variants of /r/, adding appropriate aspiration, production of the different shades of difference in vowels, and many more. Not only this, I also feel a great difficulty to catch up with the voices of the Americans or the Britons when they are interacting each other. They speak too fast for me to comprehend; speakers in informal conversation are hard to catch up; but in formal settings, such as, in presentation or reporting, they are good enough to comprehend. There are many informal conversational markers that are really hard to get across. When someone says, “Say it again”, I tend to understand it as “Said again”; for “What’s up”, I understood as “Watch ha”.
These are but some sample cases where I, as a learner of English felt problems in, and these are some sample cases where the Nepali learners of English tend to feel difficulty regarding the aural- oral manifestation of English. This situation sometimes makes me feel that I am inferior as a user of English, and as a teacher, too. But when I listen to many English teachers’ speak English, I find that they too are short of English- like pronunciation. Then I feel there indeed is something unique among the Nepali teachers of English that marks this group differently from the English people- like impression of producing English. The case of the mass of learners may also be no more different. So far, with almost all learners having exclusively dependent on the teachers for having a purposive chance to listen to English (yes there are media broadcasting in English and there are interactive machines available, but to quite a few learners only), it is natural to gauge that the Nepalese learners of English also possess a unique spoken dialect in terms of the production of English in its spoken form. Now I think it is because of reasons, such as mother- tongue influence and Nepalese linguistic- ecology based variants in the use of language, many Nepalese ELT educators have expressed their voices about the need for legitimizing the ‘Nepali- English’ (Neglish) variety, and this proposal is targeted mostly to the legitimacy of the Nepalese spoken variety. We have, in reality, only a binary of options: either to accept the Nepalese spoken variant as valid English or to stop teaching and learning of the spoken language as such. It is almost impossible to train the learners en- mass with the correct spoken English owing to our limitations in the supply and infrastructures of teaching English. Then, this Nepali- English variety should be judged in terms of its international intelligibility, rather than its closeness to the native speakers of English. However, having a Nepali- English variant should not imply that any idiosyncrasy is possible and acceptable; rather it indicates that many of the surface nuances in the spoken manifestation of English will be tolerated, and not sidelined, to the extent that the speech is intelligible to the speakers of English around the world.
Vignette Two: Concerns of a Learner of Nepali
I am Tracy Tyson, a native speaker of English. I learnt Nepali as a distant language / foreign language in my late 40’s. When I started learning the Nepali language, I faced certain difficulties, the first of which was my age. You have a much better memory when you are a young child or teenager than when you are middle-aged, and having a better memory makes learning a foreign language much easier!
Another difficulty I had was hearing the subtle differences between certain sounds in the Nepali language, such as ‘c’and ‘cf’, or between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants, such as ‘u’ and ‘3’, or ‘s’ and ‘v’. These subtle differences are obviously very important in spoken Nepali because they distinguish one word from another word with a completely different meaning. Initially, it was very difficult for me to hear the difference between words like ‘klg’ and ‘kfgL’, or ‘tn’, ‘tnf’, and ‘tfnf’. Not only did I not hear the difference between these words, I often mispronounced them and made an ‘cf’ sound where I should have made an ‘c’ sound and vice versa, which doubtless confused the Nepalis listening to me! Similarly, it was difficult for me to distinguish between words like ‘sfd’ and ‘vfd’, or ‘aGb’ and ‘eGbf’. Moreover, because I didn’t hearthese subtle differences between sounds, I sometimes spelled Nepali words incorrectly. Another difficulty I faced when first learning written Nepali was that I frequently confused Devanagari letters that look similar, e.g., ‘3’ and ‘w’, ‘y’ and ‘o’, or ‘e’ and ‘´’.
One difficulty that I think anyone learning a foreign language faces is that native speakers tend to speak their language very rapidly and they often don’t enunciate clearly, which makes it difficult for someone learning their language to understand them. This is true for me as well, but it is compounded by the fact that my native language is English, and many Nepalis already know English or are learning it. When I meet Nepalis they often want to practice their English with a native speaker, and they speak English with me instead of Nepali. And even if they do speak Nepali with me, as soon as I have difficulty expressing something they start speaking English instead of waiting for me to figure out how to say what I want in Nepali. However, I have to admit that I contribute to this problem because when I am feeling lazy I will sometimes just say something in English instead of forcing myself to use Nepali. When I spend time with Nepalis who don’t know English, which forces me to speak Nepali, I notice an improvement in my speaking ability.
Learning proper Nepali is also made difficult by the fact that for many Nepalis, Nepali is not their native language. It is a second or even third language for them. Their native language may be Newari, Tibetan, Sherpa, Tamang, etc., so their pronunciation, grammar, and word usage in Nepali sometimes deviates from the “standard” Nepali I have been learning, and this can be confusing for me.
The difference in the way a particular verb tense is used in Nepali and the way this tense is used in English can create confusion for me as well. For example, in English the past perfect tense is used only to describe a past action that occurred prior to another past action, e.g., “I had visited a friend and then I came home.” But Nepalis often use the past perfect tense to refer to an isolated action completed in the past that has no reference to another past action, e.g., “dk;ndfuPsf]lyPF.” In English the simple past tense would be used in this type of sentence—“I went to the store.”—so this is the tense I use in Nepali when I talk about actions completed in the past. However, Nepali speakers sometimes correct me and use the past perfect instead.
The present progressive tense is used much more frequently in English than in Nepali, and sometimes when I use it in Nepali to describe an action I am currently doing, which is how I would use it in English, a Nepali speaker listening to me will correct me and use the simple present or even the simple past. In addition, in Nepali the verbs ‘/fVg’’ or ‘/xg’’ are often combined with a verb to express duration of an action and it can be confusing trying to determine if I should use the present progressive tense or a compound verb with ‘/fVg’//xg’’.
There are also tenses in Nepali that donot exist in English, such as the indefinite future tense, the unknown past tense, etc., and I often forget to use them. Instead, I use an adverb or some kind of modifying phrase, which is what I would do when trying to express the indefinite future or unknown past in English.
There are also many more verb conjugations to learn in Nepali and remembering all of them is challenging. Many Nepali pronouns, both singular and plural, have a masculine and a feminine verb conjugation. English has the pronouns “he” and “she” that indicate gender, but their verb conjugations are identical. Another reason there are more verb conjugations in Nepali than in English is that there are more pronouns in Nepali than in English. English has only one second person pronoun, “you”, and three singular third person pronouns, “he”, “she” and “it”, whereas Nepali has several second person pronouns and even more third person pronouns than English, each of which reflects a different degree of respect and/or intimacy. While some Nepali pronouns have identical verb conjugations, many do not. As a result, I sometimes feel as if my mind is swimming in a sea of Nepali verb conjugations!
English has relatively few nouns to refer to family members, whereas Nepali has a unique noun for almost every relative in the family. The sheer number of nouns that refer to various family members in Nepali is mind-boggling, and I have long since given up trying to learn them all!
Despite the difficulties I sometimes have learning Nepali, I have truly enjoyed studying it. All the Nepalis I meet are pleased to hear me speak Nepali and they are very encouraging, even if they do still sometimes respond to me in English!
What does English as a Lingua Franca (LF) or International Language (IL) mean for Nepalese teachers of English? It is often observed that it can be difficult for a learner of English from one country to understand a learner from another country; and it is also the same for a native speaker of English to understand the learners. English as LF or IL should replicate in our classrooms in diverse forms. I remember one Chinese Professor in Translation Studies (to mean that he was educated) speak, “Shank You”. I simply nodded at his remark as I was confused over what he had meant to say. Only after some repeated occurrence of the expression, I understood that he was telling “Thank You”. Similarly, the variety of English between the American mainland speakers and the British ones is also remarkable. One day, we were in a workshop undergoing a group activity, and we were assigned to prepare a plan for the improvement our schools. In our group, there was one American teacher leading the group. Then she asked me to develop the “skejual’ for the plan. I did not understand at all what she intended me to do. She repeated the expressions several times, but I could not grasp a sense. I was frustrated, and she seemed irritated. Finally I asked her to write on the paper what “skejual’ looked like in the word- form. Then it was none other than the old “Schedule/ sedule/”. English as IL, therefore, also needs to embrace these simple but immensely important aspects of the varieties of English. Within English there should be a pluri- lingual approach, not simply a monolingual one. It is important that the students learn to understand a wider range of accents and errors, and what they speak to each other reflects true class-based “English as a Lingua Fanca”. The accents of the learners from different mother- tongue backgrounds differ; and the teacher needs to be receptive of the differences and streamline them in the true English as IL direction. Barring few cases, it is almost impossible to ‘mold’ all learners into the same ‘frame’ of English. The two cases presented in the earlier section suggest that there are some common challenges a learner of a foreign/ distant language faces. Basically, primary difficulty occurs in the pronunciation of the words phrases and the exponents in the target language. Similarly, the high tempo and pitch of the target spoken language makes the learners feel disoriented, as they cannot catch hold of the incoming aural input. The aspects of grammar and their immense situational varieties also pose a significant challenge for the learner. When there are differences in the word- members of the same semantic field between the native and the target language, learners also feel a loss of courage. The subtle differences in the shades of meaning among lexical items, and the non- correspondence between a linguistic form and its pragmatic/ functional value are also equally the areas of challenge for language learners.
(* Mr. Dinesh Kumar Thapa, a life member of NELTA, is serving NELTA Lalitpur as Assistant Secretary at present. He holds M. Ed. degree in English Education from Tribhuvan University, and is currently a scholar pursuing M. Phil. in English Language Education from Kathmandu University. He has been teaching English at different levels for over 10 years. He is also involved in EL teacher training. He has published on issues related to ELT in different local and national journals. He is one of the editors of NELTA ELT Forum .
Ms. Tracy Tyson is a teacher certified by the American Montessori Society. She holds master’s degrees in Clinical Psychology and Translation Studies. She is involved in different volunteer activities related to teaching and teacher training.)