Monday, September 10, 2007

From the mouths of babes

Thanks to a comment from Edwin and about learning in the manner of children and thanks to reading a post on his blog. I thought it would be good time to tell about something that happened last Easter.

Learning a foreign language has made me far more observant about language learning and about people speaking my mother tongue (English). I have two nieces, one is four the other is seven, both are very smart and have advanced language for their age. The four year old is extremely brave and experimental here is an example.

Surrounded by a small cluster of adults she "takes the stage" and tells us about some cooking she has done with her mum. It is clear that she realizes the difference in level of adult speech and wants to make a good impression. You can see the concentration and internal preparation as she says "Then mummy helped me grate the limes", there was a pause here, the key word being "grate" she was not sure but she saw everyone understood and continued feeling proud. "We put the lime ???" ahh she didn't spot this one what is the result of the grating " in the bowl and added lime juice". She found a substitute word a got through it.

None of the adults corrected her about "skin", that might make her feel bad. Perfectly naturally her grandmother asked her "What else did you add to the lime zest?". You could almost see the cogs turning in her head, now she knows that zest would be a better word for the result of her grating. Note she has been allowed to participate and not been overtly corrected, also note that even at the age of four she is equipped with some fairly sophisticated tools to learn her mother tongue.

Her elder sister is not so experimental and does not like to make mistakes publicly. She is also very observant though (again you can see cogs turning when she finds her self in a situation with a bunch of new adults). They live in South Wales and are learning a little Welsh language at school. The conversation turns to language a few times, my brother in law lived in Japan for two years at that time I had just started to learn some Japanese and he was asking question about Chinese. Both girls are proud to show of some bits of Welsh they have learned, they teach me to count in Welsh (nothing boosts a child's confidence more than teaching an adult something ;)).

We heard some Welsh words and a couple of songs. I talked to my older niece about her Welsh. She had been watching me talking about language with her father and quickly set me right "They only teach us some words and songs at school, they don't show us how to make sentences, I can't speak Welsh". She was right of course, that type of teaching wasn't going to make her a Welsh speaker ever.

I think an adult has the advantage of greater concentration, and attentiveness, also perhaps we can make more intelligent filtering decisions, but do we have any better strategies than a smart seven or eight year old child?

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