Thursday, July 23, 2009

Learning Languages is Not A New Thing 3

Keith kindly left a comment on my last post that allows me to tie up this theme for now.
I hope that some day I will have a chance to learn a language like this. I would find 2 really talkative people to live with and hang around for a year while I listen to and watch everything going on. They would even talk to me but I would not be expected to talk back.

I couldn't have put it better myself, not only would I also be interested in such an experiment, if you think about it this is exactly how a child starts to learn their own language. As time goes by the child is expected to participate but expectations are low and the amount of input is high,

So learning language is not a new thing, not just because people have been doing it for many thousands of years but also because we have all done it before.

Keith takes my thoughts one step further than I was intending with his latest post. Experience tells me that Keith is correct, but that doesn't mean I am right of course. I want to spend some time investigating the research behind the erroneous (I think) proposal that adults are at such a big disadvantage learning new languages.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learning Languages is Not A New Thing 2

In my last related post I started exploring what language learning may have been in the past. Some time ago I watched a film called The 13th Warrior, not a particularly memorable film except for a scene related to language learning that sent a shiver of recognition down my spine. You can watch a clip, unfortunately embedding is disabled otherwise I would have placed it in the post, the language learning scene starts about one minute into the clip, although my journey is far from complete, I have experienced enough that this rings true for me.

Is it realistic that the Arab could learn Viking just by listening? Many people actually think this part of the film is far fetched or even ridiculous, as this guy says Still, the script leaves a lot to discuss as the story is hardly believable at some times (Banderas learning viking language just by listening to them ?).

First you have to realise that this was a long journey and the camp-fire scene represented many evenings (the fades and changing weather are a clue). Although the Arab speaks a little too well on the first attempt (I think we can allow a little poetic licence) we have to remember that he is not just listening to camp-fire conversation, he would be experiencing the stops at settlements, the daily routine etc.etc. in fact he would be in a full-time, completely immersive version of Keith's TV method.

If you have the time I would appreciate your opinions.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Learning Languages Is Not A New Thing 1

A recent post from Steve Kaufmann reminds us that people have been learning new languages for a long, long time. It bothers me, it has bothered me for some time that after thousands of years of people learning languages where they needed to, somehow, recently we seem to have come up with so many ingenious ways to mess it up. When I say bothered I don't mean a foaming at the mouth kind of bothered, the kind that some types of grammar pedants get into every time they spy a misplaced apostrophe or similar. The botheration has reached a point where I feel like writing about it though.

As Steve points out:

The invention of printing was even more recent, and it helped spread the written word. But for most people around the world, things did not change. Most people could not read until the previous century.

Now it seems a common concept that Chinese is especially difficult but if you go back a little in history it was not so clear cut, in fact learning fluency in spoken Chinese did not seem to be such a big deal assuming that you had access to native speakers of course, Take Giles, Herbert Allen, 1845-1935 for example you can read a transcription of an introductory lecture to Chinese he gave.

Giles does not seem think that colloquial (spoken) Chinese is particularly hard:

Colloquial Chinese is a comparatively easy matter. It is, in fact, more easily acquired in the early stages than colloquial French or German. A student will begin to speak from the very first, for the simple reason that there is no other way. There are no Declensions or Conjugations to be learned, and consequently no Paradigms or Irregular Verbs.

In a day or two the student should be able to say a few simple things. After three months he should be able to deal with his ordinary requirements; and after six months he should be able to chatter away more or less accurately on a variety of interesting subjects. A great deal depends upon the method by which he is taught.

Giles does think that the written language is very hard but bear in mind that at that time written Chinese would be much further removed from the spoken form than today. If Giles is correct then why would I find so many people on forums who are still of the opinion you must learn the written alongside the spoken form right from the start.

Writing has become connected with the concept of education, to the extent that to some it would seem un-educated not to learn to read the target language, one put down I received was "I don't want to be illiterate like you seem to". But if we assume that the thing that makes Chinese particularly hard is the written form then why not delay that until you have gained some spoken ability (I learn reading now).

Steve introduces the education element:

Somewhere along the line governments decided that everyone should go to school and read text books. Soon people thought that learning only took place in classrooms.

Gradually our view of language learning changed. School teachers, text book publishers, and linguistics theorists took over.

Ironically Giles actually wrote a book entitled Chinese without a teacher, being a collection of easy and useful sentences in the Mandarin dialect, with a vocabulary, you can read it online. This book is mostly a collection of phrases, not much help in isolation I guess Giles seems to have written it for those in China who needed an intro to get started, I am pretty sure that Giles himself would freely admit that it was poor a substitute for being in China and getting stuck in. The point is that at that time there was no alternative for those not in China so for a little while (relatively speaking) textbooks would have evolved and improved somewhat, would have been presented by teachers in classrooms etc. Now we are at the point however where recent (and not so recent) advances in technology provide a much, much better solution, lots of people don't appear to have noticed (maybe they have a vested interest in not noticing?).

People have been learning languages by listening for thousands of years, when that is an option (which it wouldn't have been for most that read Giles's book) I would suggest that it should be the main option.