Thursday, July 21, 2011

On the path to the most efficient way to learn languages

I think that the secret to understanding the most efficient way to learn a foreign language is in watching children.  There are differences between learning your second language and learning your first not the least being that you tend to do the latter with an adult brain which has more life experience and cognitive capabilities. But understanding the way that children do it may just give us the way that is most easily digestible for the brain.

My daughter turned 2 years old yesterday and I have noticed many things that have changed the way that I think about how languages are learnt.  First, I must mention that my daughter is being raised bilingually (English and Thai) which they say means that her first utterances will come later but she will have cognitive benefits in the long run (being able to explain the world in two different languages).  And I have to admit, this has been the case.  My daughter has a cousin who is one week different in age (being raised in a monolingual New Zealand family) and when I compare the two, she did start off behind as her little brain sorted through two very different sets of sounds.

Imagine learning a language just from watching DVDs in that language.  Not easy right?  Now imagine learning two languages just from watching DVDs but the languages switch and you never know which language you are listening to at any one time.  Sure you get used to the sounds of the two languages eventually and distinguish them but it takes a little longer.

Having said that, at the two year old point, she is not particularly suffering.  She can communicate ideas as well as any two year old.  She has developed the strategies for communication failure and seems to be more used to it than a monolingual two year old.  She does not get frustrated but quickly tries substituting for other words that she knows.  Often this means substituting the word in English for the Thai word or vice versa.

  • She does tend to use the language that is most preferred by the speaker.  She speaks mostly English to me and mostly Thai to her grandmother (who speaks no English). 
  • The words that she knows seem to be mostly labels and verbs that she can demonstrate (jump, eat, sit here, brush your teeth as apposed to drive, think etc).  She has very few social phrases and is reluctant to greet (shyness?). 
  • Her sentences are telegraphic in nature; she has recently started to string together 3-4 words to convey more meaning but most tend to be the typical 2 word (subject-predicate type) utterances. 
  • She can say many adjectives but is reluctant to put adjectives and nouns together for whatever reason.  She says red and car but does not use the two together.
  • She is definitely creating combinations of words that she has never heard (e.g. she said "pink up" when she wanted me to throw the pink balloon into the air) showing creative use of the language.
  • Correction tends to be very effective on a lexical level but not on a behavioral level.  If she says blue and it is purple, she can be corrected with the simple words "that is purple".  This might suggest that she is aware of the fact that she is experimenting to some degree and is not heavily invested in the idea of using one word over another.  Trying to stop her from doing something that she wants to do however, totally different story.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this?  I think that at this age, she is learning by creating.  She tries new combinations of parts that she knows and has learnt from her environment but the combinations are entirely hers.  Later, she will start to learn bigger chunks in the form of phrases, idioms, proverbs etc.

I believe that the advantage that children have is partly biological (learning the language at the time that the brain is creating the synapses (the connections).  And perhaps it is partly due to the simultaneous development between language and cognitive ability (you see the thing for the first time and you learn a new name-that's easier to remember than trying to attach a new label to a common everyday item that you already have a label for).

The environment as behaviorists suggest does provide guidance and I am sure that later in life, she will see the world through the limitations of the language(s) that she is speaking.  But this will always be at odds with the need to speak creatively and express unique ideas and problems and above all think in a way that only she can.

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