‘Acquiring a second language is not only cognitively challenging, it also has emotional, social, and political implications.’ (School Reform and Student Diversity). Before facing the real challenges, it is important to understand the term ‘Bilingualism’. It is a broad term that is applied to those who use more than one language in their daily lives. Bilingualism does not mean that the user speaks and also reads both languages with equal ability. Such a parameter of bilingualism will exclude many who regularly use more than one language. Bilingualism in fact implies the use of more than one language either productively or receptively. It is hard to believe that people using more than one language in their regular lives are in minority. Normally it is seen that people using more than one language have one language which is their dominant language in which they feel more comfortable. This is in fact the language in which they prefer to speak. Such dominant language is the language of the community in which they have lived for a longer period.
Bilingualism is adopted under two circumstances. The first category is where the two languages are acquired simultaneously. For example, when either parent of a child has different dominant languages as each one of them belongs to a different community. The other category is when the language is acquired successively. Immigrants to a country normally come under this category. They may have first acquired a language (say other than English) and later on they have been exposed to English. People falling in the first category will be balanced bilinguals; whereas other category people will definitely have first acquired language a dominating language. This makes it very clear that the people belonging to the second category are more prone to falling into the problems of adopting a language other than their dominating language.
The challenges of acquiring a language (i.e. English language) other than the dominating language of the learner basically fall under the three categories, namely challenges of the sound, challenges of spelling and reading, and challenges of writing the adopted language. An analysis of each one of these challenges is made hereunder:
Challenges of sound
‘Generally, second language speakers develop fluency in listening and speaking before they develop fluency in reading and writing. In speaking and listening, you do not have time to worry too much about correctness.’ (Douglas College Learning Centre)
The phonological system of every language is unique and thus different than the other languages. The language of English uses an alphabetic system and learners are required to understand the relationship between letters and the different sounds these letters make. For example, in English, the learner has to understand the difference of sounds /e/ as in the word ‘feet’ and /i/ as in fit. In English, many words are distinguished just by these two sounds (phonemes). For example, chip and cheap, hit and heat, lick and leak, and many others. The difficulty lies when such sounds are not available in dominating language. In Spanish sounds like ‘fit’ are rarely found. That is the reason Spanish find it difficult while making and understanding the sounds of English. It is really difficult (not impossible) for the learners to grasp the difference between the words such as chip and cheap as they sound almost the same. English learners must first try to hear the distinctions between ‘phonemes’ before trying to read or spell them. One must understand that it is not very important that a bilingual produce the same sounds of phonemes if he can distinguish the two sounds without being able to reproduce such differences in the sounds.
Challenges of spelling and reading
‘Few people read well, most people cannot spell well. Learning to read English is is notoriously difficult.’ (Oz Ideas and Innovations) Learners with disabilities in reading usually have problems in spelling as well. Proficiency in spelling the words is attained over a longer period of learning and that too only up to an extent. The challenge confronted on the grounds of spellings becomes intense particularly when sounds of similarly written alphabets are different in dominating language of the learner. For example, both English and French have the ‘sh’ sound as in the word ‘ship’. In French, this sound is written as ‘ch’ (as in the word ‘chef’). Take another case of sound /o/ in the American English word ‘father. In Spanish the sound is represented by the by the letter ‘a’ (as in padre, Spanish for father). Spellings are the real source of confusion for the learners of English. The only solution to this is to familiarize oneself with the commonly occurring problems and practice them more frequently.
Challenges of writing
There are three writing systems, namely alphabetic, syllabic, and logographic. Languages like English, French, Russian, and Arabic use an alphabetic writing system. In these languages, the letters of the alphabet correspond to phonemes, or the distinctive sound in the language. Those learners whose dominating language has an alphabetic writing system will find it easy to transfer their knowledge of dominating language to learning to read and write English. Certain languages like Japanese use syllabic writing systems. In these languages, the symbols represent the entire syllables rather than individual sounds. In Japanese, each syllable KA, KE, KI, KO, and KU is represented by different symbols rather than two symbols, as in English. Those whose dominating language has a syllabic system will find more difficulty in dividing words into phonemes than those learners whose dominating language has alphabetic systems. In languages using logographic systems like Chinese, symbols do not represent phonetic elements of words. These symbols are like the pictures of the words they represent. Learners, whose dominating language uses the logographic system, need an extra amount of hard work in acquiring the alphabetic principles of the English language as the difficulty is on both syllable and phoneme fronts.
Challenges are there in every field of learning. English is a universal language and learners can always take help from the way English speaking use the language. English learning may be difficult for bilinguals having their dominating languages using logographic systems, but it is not impossible.