Monday, April 05, 2010

How much do you want to learn like a child?

I am working on a mini-project at the moment that is helping to focus my views and opinions on language learning. One big battle that is raging is between natural methods and academic methods, although I guess very few people sit right at either extreme. Part of the battle rages over learning like a child (natural) and the view that once we have passed puberty we can't use certain abilities (that help us absorb language rather than study language for example). My approach is developing into a mostly natural one but with some big exceptions, I justify my exceptions on the basis that in many ways children suck at learning languages.

Children and nature do some really dumb things when it comes to learning language, some are their own fault and some are just down to plain circumstance, here are a few examples.

Firstly they start learning languages before they have the cognitive ability to do it properly (or maybe they need the language to develop the cognitive ability it doesn't matter either way). So even at the stage when they have a growing vocabulary a good ear for their mother tongue they are still missing some abstract thinking capabilities, the ability to see things from someone else's point of view etc. this really restricts their progress and understanding of the language.

Secondly they spend a lot of their formative years hanging around with and conversing with other learners of the same language (other Children in fact). Don't they know that they should live in the target language not hang around with a bunch of 'expats' that don't speak it properly yet.

Thirdly they are lazy, very lazy most of them don't try, they can learn their target language far faster if they apply themselves rather than let nature take its course, the occasional precocious child or bookworm show quite clearly how much faster they could learn.

Fourthly they consistently try to talk even before they are ready (whoa there you are going to get fossilized little fella stop that meaningless babble and wait until you are ready to say it properly).

Fifthly as they get older many of them not only hang around mostly with fellow learners they even actively resist the target language, often going so far as to make up their own words, change the meanings of words or adopt language from another culture/dialect just because it seems cooler. They can carry this to the extent that they will alienate any of their fellow learners who appear to be too good at the target language ("grown up").

Sixthly there is no consistency each child depending on circumstance and interest bumbles around picking up what they can, so a bunch of little classmates may have some who know how to say their primary colors, a precocious child who loves learning colours and knows the difference between tope and aqua-marine, some annoying child who loves cars, won't say any colors and points at red saying "brake light" and little billy who seems happily oblivious to any color language and if you don't pull up your socks young man I am going to have to fill in a bunch of forms, talk to your parents and get a specialist in to test your vision (sigh!).

Do I need to continue? There are many more stupid things that Children and nature do when it comes to language, perhaps because it is compromise, perhaps because talking apes aren't natural at all, perhaps because the selfish meme idea is correct (do we speak languages because we evolved that way or did we evolve this way because some ape like creature got infected with proto language and from that point there was no going back).

Because of all this and because of the fact that I was already almost 40 before I started learning foreign languages (and I want to learn about five of the damn things mostly becasue it is best hobby I found for a long time) I will cherrypick. I am happy to listen to language I don't understand (when I think it is helpful). I am also happy to watch video WITH subtitles, and without, unlike the Child I have already been infected with one language I can use it to speed things up (if I am careful). I am not afraid of fossilisation (I don't see how some naturalists can argue that yes I can absorb like a child but no I can't avoid fossilisation of my mistakes like a child).

I am a naturalist, I disdain grammar study, ignore textbooks, I will use the most natural effective approaches I can and armed with my Ipod touch ERRRK (not exactly natural), armed with my Video ERRRK (also not very natural), my mp3's ohhh damn this isn't looking anything like when I learned my mother tongue!

Sighh nothing is ever simple is it? Perhaps I should just grab the language when and how feels good at the time, apply meaning to it when and how I feel like it, check back with reality every now and again to ensure I am making progress avoid stress and have fun. I do want to make reasonably rapid progress though so when that stops happening I will think again.


Anonymous said...

I think the issue for most people isn't whether or not the method is "childlike", but whether it has sufficient input. Most people seem to have been trained to think that if they stare at vocab lists for long enough, and stare at grammar rules for long enough, then one day they'll magically be able to speak and understand, without ever having listened or read more than trivial amounts.

Looking up some vocab words can help us (adults) understand more of the content that we listen to or read, but it doesn't eliminate the requirement that we still have to listen and read (a lot)

Megan said...

For adult learners...well, children too...but since we have more of a choice, I believe it's crucial that we find a balance between what we find enjoyable/comfortable/motivating and what is effective.

Staying motivated across the time it takes to acquire a language can be very difficult, but getting "stuck" on methods we find entertaining, but not necessarily productive is a very real problem.

I had methods I enjoyed, that worked very well for me in learning Spanish, but with Mandarin, I've had to pick up some habits (especially in learning characters) that I don't really enjoy, but that keep me moving in the language and improve me in areas I do enjoy. Great post!