Learning Mandarin at 0, English at 10, French at 22

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, Master of Museum Studies student / Summer Intern at the CLM

Language acquisition is my area of interest and I am fascinated by the theories about the connections between language learning and age, language distance, and level of exposure.

Sometimes I observe people and ask questions to draw connections between what I learned and real-life scenarios, but the best subject to study is always myself. Since I decided to challenge myself and pick up French, I started to reflect on my experience learning other languages.

Linguists believe that everyone with regular cognitive ability is able to acquire their first language effortlessly under normal development. The abilities to comprehend and to speak are considered innate, similar to the ability to walk or run. Like many, I have no memory of the acquisition process of my own first language. I am a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and the knowledge I have regarding Mandarin is mainly unconscious knowledge, or competence. I could easily distinguish grammatical sentences but would have difficulty explaining the exact grammatical rules. On the contrary, when I learned English in school, I learned systematic information about English clause types and conjugation rules, or what is commonly referred to as grammar by non-linguists. Even after more than a decade of study, I still make mistakes speaking or writing English, but if I need to lay out the rules of the English language one by one, I might do better than many native speakers who didn’t study linguistics or English grammar. This type of knowledge is conscious, like solving a math problem or citing a verse. I need to actively think about what I need to say and whether sentences are grammatical before producing them, whereas the same process is more intuitive for a native speaker. Even though the task became less demanding as I became more fluent, it was almost impossible to ever process English as a native speaker does.

“Le nouveau taxi!”, beginner’s textbook for learning French as a second language, Chinese edition. (Photo: Jingshu Helen Yao)

Learning French this summer reminded me of the initial stage of learning English. I struggle to produce every sound, pause for long times to think about what I need to say and how to say it. However, learning a foreign language as a child and an adult is rather different. On one hand, I have a big advantage of having studied linguistics and understanding terms such as “tense”, “aspect”, and “grammatical gender”. If I had been exposed to French at a much younger age, the complex verb conjugation rules and the masculine and feminine genders of nouns would have completely throw me off, since none of them were in my first language Mandarin. I would have asked questions such as “Why are the chairs feminine and why are the walls masculine?”, to which the answer could only be “That’s how the language works.” That definitely wouldn’t have satisfied the mind of a child. As an adult learner, I am more comfortable with just remembering the genders rather than trying to figure out why. On the other hand, I didn’t feel as much pressure when I tried to pronounce English words as a child. I wasn’t aware of “having an accent” and wasn’t as embarrassed about making mistakes as I am now. Even though I understand that making mistakes is a natural process during learning, I find myself less expressive and less willing to speak out loud, which is a barrier in language learning.

Aside from age difference, language distance is another factor that I think about. Mandarin is very distant from English geographically, historically, and structurally. Learning English meant learning completely different phonological rules and morphological structures. For example, a syllable in Mandarin usually contains only a consonant and a vowel, whereas an English syllable can have several consonants together in a cluster, and a syllable can end with consonants. English also has a larger vocabulary than Mandarin. On the other hand,  French and English are much closer, since they are both Indo-European languages and French heavily influenced English in its development. The two languages share many words that were either of the same origin or borrowed from one another. Even before I started learning French, I could figure out part of the French information on a snack package using the knowledge I already had in English.

Closeness of French and English shown in the Indo-European family tree.
Source, emphasis by CLM.

I was often asked how many languages I speak when people learned that I study linguistics. The question frustrates me from time to time since linguists are not human-shaped Google Translate. Rather than learning languages themselves, they study everything about languages. However, learning a new language as a linguistics student is a fun experience and my journey learning French has just begun.