Saturday, 5 April 2014

Learning to use languages


In my previous post, I wondered about the purposes for which language learning is currently being encouraged.

My understanding has always been that we actively strive to learn languages if the need to use them arises, and that this need is what triggers our will to learn. So when I found myself immersed in a new full-time job, Stay-At-Home Mum, on account of repeated blitz-like family moves across countries and continents, I leaped at the chance of documenting my children’s daily development of their (then) two languages, from Day One. My children were exposed to Portuguese and Swedish from birth, from mum and dad, respectively (English came into our family a bit later), and they were also the first multilingual children from both sides of our family, which added extra appeal to this task. I then reported my observations in my book Three is a Crowd?

My children taught me four things. First, that while it may be true that we learn in order to use, the converse is no less true: we use in order to learn. The children both practised their languages and demanded practice in them at every opportunity. Their eagerness to train themselves to do whatever they needed to do with their languages reminded me of Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s thought, in The Story of Philosophy: “[...] we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Second, that selective practice works best. It is well known among child language researchers that children’s babbling preferences change along time. In particular, at what is called the reduplicated (or “canonical”) babbling stage, babies appear to lose interest in their earlier exploration of a wide range of vowel and consonant articulations to settle for a limited repertoire of baba-dada-like syllables. We could be fooled into thinking that less varied child productions such as these signal a regression in our children’s articulatory abilities. But there’s less variety of vowel and consonant articulations only, and languages are much more than the inventories of sounds – or words, or grammar rules – that our textbooks insist on mistaking them for. My previous work had focused on the role of prosody, the rhythmical and melodic patterns which are necessarily present in any spoken utterance, in adult language learning, so I naturally turned my attention to my children’s use of prosody. 

My observations were that “monotonous” baba-dada babbling was anything but monotonous: these syllables served as baby-friendly carriers of extremely rich prosodic variation, encompassing parameters of rhythm, amplitude and pitch, which the children now explored extensively and often babbled one at a time. My report of their “singsongs” resulted in the first (and, I believe, so far the only) database featuring annotated prosodic transcription of infant vocalisations, from birth up to age 1.

Third, I learned that prosody rulz, as it were. Through prosody, the children were able to make their two languages as different as they managed to, engaging in differential babbled dialogues with Swedish and with Portuguese relatives, friends, paediatric clinicians (and with different toys), where typical cadences of each of the languages could be recognised – and responded to, in (adult) kind. Several months later, first words and first grammar constructions seamlessly emerged from their prosodic entry gates to each language, now firmly in place. Swedish and Portuguese words and grammar fitted their respective foundational chanted patterns like a glove. It made me wonder: how many of us parents go about boasting excitedly among relatives and friends that Baby has just produced her first falling-rising tone, rather than her first “word”? And why don’t we do this?

Practice, selective practice and differentiation characterised my children’s later language learning, too, including for words which sound very similar in Portuguese and Swedish (like banana, crocodile, or mum and dad) and for their own names. It became clear to me that learning to use languages means learning to facilitate engagement through those languages with the different people who use them. Useful engagement, for learning purposes, in turn meant favouring topics which made sense to everyone involved. This made sense to me, too, in the light of research showing that adult learners show better command of their new languages among relaxed company than in formal classroom settings, as Rod Gardner and Johannes Wagner reported in their book Second Language Conversations. More recently, Aria Razfar made similar findings in a study titled ‘Multilingual mathematics’.

Lastly, I learned that we adults might do well to seek inspiration from child learning strategies to facilitate our own language learning and teaching. There is an important sense, I believe, in which new languages are new to child and adult learners alike. Children get at their languages by learning to sing them first, so why not use singing to learn for us adults, too? The next post, a guest post, discusses the core role that music and prosody play in adult language learning, and offers practical suggestions to include songs in language classrooms.


© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Singing to learn pronunciation in a foreign language, by Karen M. Ludke. Saturday 3rd May 2014.


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