Wednesday 14 December 2011

Language geniuses and language dunces

Suppose you’ve spent the first couple of decades (or so) of your life in a happy monolingual state, and you then learned a new language in which you as happily came to reach reasonable (or so) proficiency. Before I go on, I must apologise for the hedges (or so): the thing is that nobody has any idea whether it is years, decades or what which make a difference for successful “late” language learning, and nobody has any idea what “reasonable” proficiency in a language might mean.

But suppose anyway. If this progression matches your language learning record, then you are likely to have created a problem for accepted accounts of language learning abilities – or ingrained beliefs about these abilities, which often amount to the same thing. You cannot have acquired proficient command of your new language because only children are able to do that, and you were no longer a child when you started your multilingual journey. But if you have indeed acquired proficient command of your new language (child-like command, perhaps?), you cannot be an adult, or at least not a typical adult. Since black-or-white persuasions like child = good language learner-or-adult = bad language learner take much toil and trouble to be thought over and revised, it’s easier to create a new label that fits them. You must then be a cross-breed of adult state and child ability, which obviously is something wondrous that we can’t really explain – and perhaps shouldn’t attempt to explain, lest we spoil the magic of it all: in a nutshell, the stars must have been partial to you.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Magic” is the right word. Even in academic publications, the process and the product of successful “late” language learning deserve words and expressions that connote unfathomable mysteries, the least emotional of which is “exceptional”. If you’re curious, I discuss a sample of these and other epithets that go on sticking to multi-language learners in a book chapter which is available online, Multilingualism, language norms and multilingual contexts (click on 59637_Intro.pdf ).

Believing in starred giftedness has side effects, of course, one of them being that it involves believing in starred un-giftedness. We’re born geniuses or morons, and that’s about all there is to it. As far as language learning is concerned, the unlucky ill-fated ones thus have a good excuse not to bother – and so do their teachers, naturally, whether they themselves are among the lucky ones or not. I’m not saying that talent (or genius, or giftedness, whichever way you prefer to label something that you’d rather not define precisely) doesn’t exist. Some of us have a knack for languages like some of us have a knack for finding bargains at flea markets. I’m saying that you can’t be good at finding flea bargains if you haven’t practised being around flea markets, and that the same goes for languages, wherever they are used. I’m also saying that if you, the genius, are found to be really good at what you do because you’ve worked really hard at what you do, then you’re not a genius after all: you’re a boring, unexceptional workhorse.

One good method to work your way to linguistic talent is to develop a friendly relationship with books. I’ll talk about this next time. Books are friendly things: they nurture you in the arts of using language, demanding no more gifts from you than an ability to flick pages – and, best of all, they do all this without sticking labels to your linguistic abilities.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Bookworming. Wednesday 21st December 2011.

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