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June 28, 2012

How Do We Learn Language? Part 2.

Language is very strange isn't it? We all know at least one language which we learned essentially due to our circumstances and then...

...sometime later in life we (or an adult in our lives) deliberately decided that we should learn another (and for some, another and another), but the process of absorbing a native language is very different - almost the opposite - of how we learn a second or third language.

We pick up our native language as children - or even infants - from every available source; from siblings, parents, neighbors, virtually anyone who is willing to talk to a child will influence that child's language - and everything about that child's language. From accent to pronunciation to vocabulary, we pick it up from everyone around us.

But how exactly do we do it?

There have been many studies, but the bottom line is that we don't really know - we just do it.

And we do it very differently from the structured system of the classroom where words are divided into categories like nouns and verbs or adverbs and adjectives and we learn our new language in separate stages, usually defined as level 1, level 2 or beginning, intermediary and advanced. But is that really how we learn a language?

As a teacher, I like to focus on the rules of grammar, and I am always interested in word roots and vocabulary development, but I'm not sure it really helps - especially at the beginning stages.

Here's a good article on yet another theory - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19FOB-OnLanguage-Zimmer.html?_r=3&scp=1&sq=chunking&st=cse.

The premise is that we don't learn primarily by memorizing individual words or rules, we learn in 'chunks'. If you listen to a child as it reflects what it is learning, you might notice a messy, but increasingly accurate, phonetic copy of what it is hearing.

My 15 month old grand-daughter for example, uses a term barely recognizable as 'thank you'. She doesn't pronounce it exactly right, and probably has a limited sense of what it means (she knows it has something to do with giving and receiving), but for an infant, close enough is good enough. At least for a while.

As always, send us any words or phrases that make you crazy and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


Posted by mmorf at June 28, 2012 06:22 PM


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