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June 13, 2012

How Do We Learn Language?

How do we really learn language? There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books and studies about how we learn a language. It's very strange that...

...virtually all of us learn at least one language.

Some, like Chomsky, assert that we have a 'language gene' and are compelled to communicate. Others say that cultures demand that we participate via spoken and written language (for a quick analysis of the debate over the place of culture and biology, check out this website - http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/04/24/151310809/culture-not-biology-shapes-language.

As I write this, I have been spending time with my 15 month-old grand-daughter. I am observing how she absorbs, responds to and, ultimately, makes her own, the words around her.

She reminds me that learning a language - any language is an arduous process - one with endless fine-tuning and fumbling (though oftentimes cute) mis-hearings or mangled pronunciations.

There's language, dialects and, of course, accents. My grand-daughter has been illustrating some linguistic principles that I knew but have either forgotten or have not recently seen in action. Here are a few examples; "B" sounds are easy to make - and, coincidentally or not, "B" sounds are extremely common in the vocabulary of a child that age. "Baby", "bottle" and "ball" are only a few of the familiar (and practical) words a child of this age finds it easy to master.

"W" and "th" sounds are far more subtle and can be tricky both to hear or replicate correctly. I've noticed the the word 'water' is very difficult for her to say. She says something like 'bawa" to designate water.

Vowel sounds seem to come easy as well. Her first intelligible phrase was "Oh, wow".

Phonetically speaking, this is a very easy phrase to pronounce. It also captures the essence of encountering this ever-challenging actual - as well as linguistic - world around us. She, like every one of us, is continually encountering and puzzling over this strange - and wonderful - human creation.

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.


Also, Morf just might be available to visit your school or agency this coming summer. You can contact him at mmorf@mail.com.

Posted by mmorf at June 13, 2012 10:05 PM


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