Oh to be estar

Thomas Leverett, April 2008


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If language were a shallow set of tools that one could use to do a particular job- a set of words, sounds, rules and directions that one would use much as a carpenter would approach a pile of lumber, then learning a second language would be very much like learning a first language: you could look at the tools at hand, read the directions, master them, and be on your way. There would really be no reason that the first one would have to get in the way of the next, any more than learning to ride a bicycle would get in the way of learning to drive later, or, say, learning to play a guitar might get in the way of later learning to play a piano. One would simply be able to drift out of using one active set of skills, and into another.

Yet learning a second language takes an inordinate amount of time, skill, and patience, for adults, with the patterns of the native language so deeply interwoven and so troublesome, that one can only conclude that native patterns for adults are now fused to the very markers that one must use to learn the language. And in fact they are. One must explain, somehow, why it is so much harder for adults to learn a second language than a child, when adults have so much more wisdom, intelligence, and experience. It is, after all, easier for adults to learn to ride bicycles, drive, and play guitars. Yet children pick up languages quickly, effortlessly and fluently, while adults lag behind, only learning a finite percent of a language, never quite fixing bad grammatical patterns, taking forever, unable to lose their accent even when they want to. If genetic machinery took over in the process of second language learning, one could argue that it should be very much like learning the first; yet it's not, it's much harder.

One could say, I brought a few assumptions and habits when I came from my first language, and it will take me a while to change either. Yes, but what we are dealing with is a little stronger than assumptions and habits, I would argue. The minute you stepped into a new country, you had to let go of a number of assumptions: assumptions about which side of the road people drive on, what they wear, what they eat, etc. If you don't let go of the assumption about driving on the left side of the road, you might not live to see another day; you change those assumptions right away. If you have to go to a store to get food, and use sign language in the process, you make a new habit of that fairly quickly, as this is a habit that will be required for survival.

But set about learning the language, and what you have is a little stronger than assumption and habit. You learn a new word for "tree," say "arbol," and at first it's easy, every time you see one, you say to yourself, "arbol," and you're on your way. You soon find out that it's no picnic; there are thousands of words, grammatical rules, new sounds and sound rules, whole sets of social phenomena to master.

But let's get back to "arbol." As long as "arbol" is a new word for "tree," it is a secondary symbol, with "tree" being primary. One can assume that we have a conception of tree; perhaps that is primary, with the first language word, "tree," representing it. Then "arbol" would be an extra step away from the actual tree you are looking at; it is no longer even a secondary symbol but a tertiary one or even more distant. Unless you are a gifted language learner, or a young child, you are learning your second language through the first, and thus all the language baggage that a word like "tree" carries is part of the picture as your word, "arbol" goes through your native word on its way to what it truly represents, the tree itself.

So we come to some of the more common language learning problems. First is that semantically, words in one language aren't perfect corresponding fits with words in another; perhaps certain bushes count as trees in English, but not as "arbols". Saying to yourself, and teaching yourself, that one means the other, thus presents a certain hazard which will complicate your life as a language learner, later. This is a perceptual habit, one might say, a simple habit that one could get out of: I will simply redefine "arbol" here, and be on my way.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. If "tree" is fused to the very concept that one is working with, as a label, then it's not going to be so easy to redefine what one considers as a "tree." In your mind is a box labeled "tree," and you can't remove some of its contents and relabel them, and pass it back and forth in your mind easily. It has grammatical restrictions: would you take those with you? Your life has become complicated, because we are not just talking about a simple set of tools here. Rather, you are upsetting your very conception of life as a set of quantifiable and definable objects; this particular group has been fused together and labeled, collectively, "tree." It is difficult now, to change not only the words, and the grammar that goes with them, but also the very semantic space that the word applied to. And go on as if nothing happened; we cut the trees, we climb the trees, we paint the trees, etc.

And beyond that, language is made up of words that are not as simple as tree, not as clear or easy to see in one's mind as a discreet concept, not even as likely to share the same semantic space as "arbol" and "tree," which at least both for the most part have branches, leaves, roots, etc. This was driven home to me when I was learning Spanish, and found myself in a very instructive situation involving the verb "be," which is Spanish is two different verbs, depending on whether one is using the locational be ("estar" in Spanish, as in, he is in the kitchen) or the others which I will refer to as the essential "be" (ser, he is a teacher, that's his essence). The native English speaker (as I was) learning Spanish has to set up a mechanism in the brain to say, which one do you need? If location, use estar, etc. One can see that our predisposition to treat ser and estar as a single verb is a handicap in Spanish; that our life would be much simpler if we simply started out with different verbs, never having to separate out what is, to us, both uses of be. As a side note I'll point out here that the concept pod for be, if that is the appropriate word for it, would clearly be less tangible than that for tree- yet be is a word we use much more often, so a complex machinery to determine which one to use, not to mention conjugate it correctly and get the tense right, is too much trouble at just the wrong time. So, I was surprised to find one day that my mind was just ready to skip the step involving be. This would be roughly analogous to taking concepts out of a box marked be and putting them into two different boxes marked essence and location. Rather than organize in an English-language system, I was ready to organize in a Spanish-language system, because it would be much more efficient in producing the right thing, and I needed and valued efficiency at that point.

I learned several principles from that experience. First, part of the reason that particular reorganization happened so quickly was precisely that I needed it frequently. It is on your daily path that you are most likely to try your first short cut. Familiarity makes it easier to take the chance; when you know the risks, know the price, are familiar with the choice, and see others choosing the faster/better way and getting to the destination faster and/or better, you're ready to reorganize. And you do. Nobody has to lead you to it, though showing the other way to you doesn't hurt. You naturally want the fastest, best way to communicate. You want to get it right because it works better, and it's faster.

Second, this did not happen on the same day I learned the difference between the two verbs. I had, in fact, learned the difference way back in high school, but at that time it was an academic issue, i.e. useful on tests, but not anywhere else. Using Spanish daily, I soon learned that this was something I perhaps should have remembered better from high school. But I had already learned it, long ago. It was only when I realized it would make virtually every sentence easier and more efficient that I seriously considered just learning it and internalizing it.

Third, letting go of my first-language organization and understanding system would be easier in some places and harder in others. I had no particular attachment to the word be and even enjoyed the differences between Spanish and English in its use. But I was much less able to quickly change my ways in some other areas; for example, in Spanish my hand becomes el mano but is no longer mine; this was unsettling on a deep level and I wasn't sure I wanted to let go of my hand quite yet, so I continued to say mi mano for a while and decided not to worry about it if someone took offence or thought I was a rube. Language learning is in fact full of decisions like that; priorities to make on what to work on or what to change, based on perceived advantages and risks, based on present accumulated understanding of how a language works and how to use it properly, based on the second law which is that understanding it will definitely precede, though God knows by how long, one's successful reorganization of one's own system.

Fluency thus is developed in a series of reorganizations which effectively make us more efficient and faster; we change our own systems at our own pace and by our own free will though sometimes it's actually unconscious.

Our first language is more likely to influence us the older we get; there are two natural development milestones, one being at about five, and the other one being at more like 16; at some point the suitcase and its label become one, and we English speakers can no longer distinguish the different functions of be as being unique, unless we have daily or at least regular contact with Spanish. But as we become older, the suitcase marked "tree" becomes the same as the "tree." We resist taking the label off the box, let alone spilling out and analyzing its contents; we find ourselves increasingly more stubborn, as we get older, and this is in spite of the fact that we could probably figure it out faster than we could as youths.


Leverett, T. (2008, Feb.) Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century. Google Docs. Available: https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1cLotkxQwR3He_HvoyDw3zkYzaVr5aMYSz43h3j_F-yY

(working paper; part of a larger unfinished work)