Saturday 15 October 2011

Children, toys, and languages

When it became clear that the internet and its associated paraphernalia had come to stay, my family decided to invest in a brand new (and expensive) desktop, complete with all the latest hard and soft gadgetry that, to our minds, also had come to stay. To us, parents, deciphering the workings of the cyber-friendly software by means of actions performed on the not so friendly hardware was a whole new language, which we duly set out to learn the way we had learnt our other new languages: instruction leaflet in hand, we typed and clicked the rules that someone else had worked out for us, with kid gloves and bated breath.

What we forgot, however, was that our children were by then big enough to sit unaided in front of a computer, and to tackle it, also unaided. One morning, we found all three of them huddled around the precious contraption, that we thought we had left safely turned off and off-puttingly covered the night before, taking more or less orderly turns at hammering away at mouse and keyboard, exclaiming at findings and commenting on procedure. Never mind about exercising parental authority right there and then, the facts were that the children turned to us to actually inform us about computer management tricks that we had timidly glimpsed on the Advanced Uses pages of the leaflet. This was as much a first for them as it had been for us but, well, the kids didn’t know about gloves, and their breathing was profoundly relaxed.

Small wonder that they treated our languages with the exact same lightheartedness. To the children, languages were yet other intriguing things to play around with, for the same purposes – to find out how they work. Neither the bulky desktop nor the languages had come to stay, as it turned out. Our (parental) problem, there too, was that we thought of our languages as, literally, our languages. We kept forgetting that the languages were theirs too and that, like the computer, the children could use them unaided.

Like all children, they created their own words, or new meanings for adult words and, like all multilingual children, they mixed their languages and the body language that they had learnt to associate with each one – more on which in a later post. Just like they used tea towels as turbans, or disassembled a toy car to check out the effects of an alternative assembling. These things are not part of user’s manuals for tea towels and toy cars, but they are part of the possible uses of tea towels and toy car parts.

Exploring possibilities, to my mind, is what learning is all about. Playing is often defined as engaging in some (idle) activity for pleasurable purposes rather than serious ones. That is, playing for serious purposes seems to be a contradiction in terms – though one wonders what to make of the “playing” in golf and bridge tournaments, or of playing video games for a living. Add to that the idea that learning is a serious endeavour, which should be seriously managed by serious policy-makers, and we end up with the conviction that learning must be achieved through boring activities, because achievement takes 99 parts transpiration to one part inspiration, and where there’s no pain there’s no gain, that sort of thing. Children’s spontaneous learning tells us a different story: it is precisely because learning is such a serious activity that play plays such an important role in it.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Child play may even strike some of us as aimless waste of time, because we believe that learning as much as possible as soon as possible is what children are there for, and that learning aims at goals which are well-defined, through equally well-defined learning routes. If you’re learning languages, for example, you should be learning words and ways of putting them together to form sentences. I’ve said a few things about this before. But small children have no idea that they are learning languages, or that they are learning at all. In their article The development of embodied cognition: six lessons from babies, Linda Smith and Michael Gasser put it this way: “How can a learner who does not know what there is to learn manage to learn anyway?” Their answer: “babies can discover both the tasks to be learned and the solution to those tasks through exploration, or non-goal-directed action”. In babies, they add, “spontaneous movement creates both tasks and opportunities for learning”.

So how come we adults forgot all about non-goal-directed action, spontaneous whole-body engagement with learning, and creating opportunities for learning? Sir Ken Robinson, in a 2006 TED talk, explains how traditional, “serious” learning practices have put child creativity, and so human creativity, to waste (obrigada pela dica no seu blog, Cláudia!). Perhaps not knowing what there is to learn, and not knowing that one is learning, is what makes learning effective. And why we learn best through play. My next post will have a few examples of how multilingual children learn to be multilingual, their way.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Learning to be multilingual. Saturday 22nd October 2011.

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