Looking at Language Learning From The Bottom Up
What can we learn from the infants experience?
Maybe you have thought about the question – “Why is it that nearly all infants, barring the very few with some chemical or physical issue, learn to speak their mother tongue(s) to the level of their peers and only a few years later these figures get reversed?” That is very few children once they go to school ever learn a subsequent language to any level of decent proficiency. This situation does not improve any in later years.
Some children in fact learn multiple languages at the same time. It’s not some special ability. It is just that they learn to be so perceptive about their environment. As they develop, their acute perception seems to permeate all that we wish to hide from them. 🙂
Within the space of a few years the awesome ability to learn we all had to learn languages seems to all but evaporate. There are all manner of reasons that are given for this, like:
- In our early years we are like sponges
- We have a special language learning brain designed for learning our first language
- Even at the foetus stage we are learning our first language
- Our brains are very malleable in those years, and that changes later on
- Our memory is in tip top shape then.
These reasons can be used to justify why we seem to lose our language learning abilities. I have never been satisfied with these reasons. It never made much sense to me why this would happen. I could accept some deterioration but a complete reversal seemed to me too much to swallow.
For adults there can be other factors that impede the learning, like poor learning habits, insecurities, distractions, other priorities, perceived poor memory etc etc. We could look at these issues more closely but for now I want you to consider why it is that even young children – who go to school in the early years- who wouldn’t have these issues manifest to any real degree still have such problems learning a second language.
In fact most young children, after their experiences in learning languages in school end up believing that they are no good at learning languages. Isn’t that truly amazing! So why is it that there is such a change from being someone who does not question their learning abilities to someone who struggles to learn a new language.
We could consider the physiological changes that happen in children and say they contribute to this change. However, is it enough to explain the reversal? I wouldn’t have thought so. Even if this change is a factor, are there any other factors at work which we could look at? The lack of exposure to the new language is inevitably another factor and its effect should not be underestimated. One cannot expect anyone to learn a language without adequate exposure.
I believe there is another issue which is at the heart of the generally poor results we see world wide and that is in our early years we learned our mother tongue, whereas at school we are taught it. Is it possible that the teaching, the way it is done in most schools, itself is the problem that creates the language learning cripples we see all around us?
Language teaching as it is currently taught currently rests on a number of beliefs and they create practices that reflect these beliefs. They are: we need to:
– memorise the language
– memorise the vocabulary ( associating words with pictures or through translation)
– learn set phrases
– imitate or copy others
Nowhere in this is there any understanding or recogniton of the incredible powers we all demonstrated in learning our first language ( along with all the concepts and thinking that goes along with that). For example most people think that we need to memorise vocabulary and if we don’t succeed we are considered to have a bad memory. This is despite the fact that all of us can demonstrate great memory skills in areas that we are interested in (our hobbies, gossip, sports, etc). So the problem is to do with our strategies not our capacities. There are ways to retain words that do call on other faculties and which we can all be successful in.
Could we have ever learned something as complex as language through copying, memorization and repetition. Of course not. If we expect children to learn languages through these skills it is no wonder that they are not successful at learning languages. There are the few of course that make the necessary mental adjustments inside to work around the way they are taught – but these are in the minority. The rest end up believing the teachers and do what they are told. Within a short time they come to the conclusion that they have no language learning abilities.
This belief carries on into adulthood. Unless we have contrary experiences, which is unlikely because later on the teaching methods are much the same, this belief only gets firmed up and when that is put on top of the other issues that adults come to face ( like their insecurities, pressures, well established habits of thinking and learning, etc) it is no wonder that the results we get later on are so poor.
What we need is a re-examination in the understanding of how we learn. One of the best, easy to access explorations of what children do to learn I have read is the book What We Owe Children: The Subordination of Teaching to Learning. (If anyone has any others, do let me know and I will list them here.) If we started to use insights like these to drive our learning and teaching the results we are getting would soon start to change.