Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Difficult? (Hénrenguti?)

In one of my graduate classes this week, we are discussing affective (emotional) and personality factors in relation to language learning. One of my colleagues posted the discussion question, "Are there difficult languages?" in relation to Bernard Weiner's "attribution theory," which "focuses on how people explain the causes of their own successes and failures (Brown, 2007, p. 156). Is language success and/or failure due to ___?:

1) my ability
2) my effort
3) my perception of the difficulty of the task
4) luck

I have been thinking and re-thinking this.

Before I started learning Garifuna, I would have attributed and celebrated successful Spanish learning to both (1) and (2), having to choose among these options. (NOTE: I'd want to add my own attribution of God's gracious gift of loving Spanish and Spanish speakers, wonderful professors, many opportunities to learn the language, kind Spanish-speaking friends who have helped me and loved me, etc....)

My perceived difficulty of Spanish was low:
• Lots of people learn Spanish.
• It has similar words and features compared to English.
• I had abundant resources and opportunities to learn it (widely-spoken and accessible).
• OTHER people had cracked the idiosyncratic quandries of Spanish and related languages and handed it to me in a digestible and structured way.

Spanish was not difficult! Instead, I see my learning process as a kind of love story with a happy ending that keeps going...

Returning to the question of whether there are difficult languages or whether the difficulty is in my perception...

If I had to answer the above question regarding Garifuna, I would be likely to put (c) first. I'm supposedly "good" at languages, I am disciplined about studying, but I feel like the language itself is my greatest challenge at becoming proficient.

This is what I've heard/know about Garifuna:
• "That's not a language... it's a language and a half!" (SIL professor)
• "When you figure it out, let me know" (SIL translator who knows about 10 languages)
• "Do you know of any outsider who has really become fluent?" (me to a Garifuna speaker) "Not really."
• "The grammar is... complicated." (I heard this one often from my favorite language helper)
• Question: How many Arawakan languages are widely spoken, studied, and taught? Answer: None that I know of.

My perception that Garifuna is difficult for me seems well-validated, right?

"Difficulty" from a linguistics angle can mean (1) complicated features in the language itself and (2) relative proximity to one's native language to the one being learned. From a sociocultural perspective, "difficult" can mean accessibility and receptiveness between the target culture and my home culture.

BUT... I think it is fair to say that you can have all of the perfect variables in order, yet your attitude toward yourself, speakers of the language, and the language itself can make or break your success. On the other side of the coin, you can view challenging variables as "doable" (or fascinating, opportunities for growth, etc.) and become a proficient learner. (Or so I say to myself.)

Do I think Garifuna is difficult ('hénrenguti')? I realize I use this word A LOT. It reminds me of a common saying in Cuba: "No es fácil" ("It's not easy"). After spending a month there, I found myself saying it quite frequently, and it really did affect my outlook on whatever "difficulty" I was describing. Do I really want to keep telling myself and others that Garifuna is difficult? There are days I feel like proficiency is an elusive goal... but maybe the greatest barrier is my own perception.

As excellent as my graduate readings are, nothing beats the Bible for addressing this. I find it interesting that Jesus Himself is called the Word ('verbo'), and our ability to use words reflects His fingerprints and purposes for us. I also find it interesting how countless narratives describe the outcomes of doubt ('hénrenguti') versus faith ('afiñeni') (note: not 'ménrenguti,' or 'easy').

So, my new learning goal is not a set of new vocabulary or a new verb paradigm, but to stop letting 'hénrenguti' color my perception of what could turn into a beautiful story of its own.

Brown, Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. 5th edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.


  1. Alison, what a wonderful post! Your blog is very uplifting to me.
    Thank you so much!

  2. Thank you, Beth!! Thanks for taking the time to read it. I saw you went to Brazil - fun!! Did you pick up some Portuguese? =)

  3. Hi, Alison,

    I sent you an encouraging e-mail instead of posting.
    I tried and tried to post.

    Anyway, Spanish, Garifuna, Bulgarian, Xhosa or any language...it's easier to learn with the Bible.

    Easy or Difficult?
    You can find the word for water in a dictionary.
    In the word is set in a more difficult story along with all the changes of the word: The Samaritan Woman at the Well. The word for water is in there many times (About 15). What IS the word for water in Garifuna anyway?

    I don't have a Bible or a dictionary!