Guide Other Children, Other Languages: Issues in the theory of Language Acquisition

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Chomsky's offhand and unguarded confession to being "rather sceptical about the significance, for the teaching of languages, of such insights and understanding as have been attained in linguistics and psychology" CHOMSKY, , p. When all was said and done, the final message that got percolated through to the common sense perception of things was that the teaching of a second language must be reserved for the adults, if at all.

Children should, under no circumstance, be subjected to the teaching of a second language, for it would amount to an act of violence, may interfere with the process of their linguistic maturation and may end up jeopardizing their natural growth into linguistic maturity. Things have begun to show welcome signs of change, but suspicions still lurk in many quarters and it is not difficult to come across concerned parents who ask themselves if it is prudent to send their children to language schools at an early age.

In its turn, the so-called expert opinion also draws on the lay opinion or folklore or what has been come to be referred to, often pejoratively, as 'folk linguistics'. Bloomfield noticed this as early as , when he observed:. Traditional lore [ It is not surprising at all therefore that many popular views concerning language and the best way to learn it are of a piece with the expert opinion.

For instance, an abiding and deeply-entrenched popular view of language learning is that children are ideally raised in monolingual environments. This discourse blissfully turns a blind eye to the undeniable fact that, as of today, there are many more bi multi- linguals in the world than there are monolinguals and so, if for nothing else, on statistical grounds alone such a claim must be suspect.

And with the large-scale movement of entire chunks of populations on the move across the world due to the ongoing process of globalization and its attendant problems such as economic migration , those numbers are currently growing exponentially. In her book Bilingualism , Romaine [], p.


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It would certainly be odd to encounter a book with the title Monolingualism. However, it is precisely a monolingual perspective which modern linguistic theory takes as its starting point in dealing with basic analytic problems such as the construction of grammars and the nature of competence. As proof for her claim, she goes on to cite the most famous and, by all means, the most-quoted of Chomsky's claims "Linguistic theory is primarily concerned with an ideal speaker-hearer The fact of the matter is that, no matter what the theoretically oriented or theoretically obsessed?

Furthermore, the environments in which the people involved grow up are societally multilingual. Edwards observes that in a metropolitan city such as London there are today upwards of languages spoken. This may strike many of us as indeed intriguing, because we have got used to regarding countries like Great Britain as rigorously monolingual-a myth long exploded by Stubbs who insisted that the country is in reality functionally multilingual.

As I wrote in Rajagopalan a, p. Multilingualism has long been a topic of mixed reactions and varied and often conflicting appraisals. At the individual level it is typically seen as an asset, a mark of superior intelligence and of cultural finesse.

2. Cartesian Linguistics, by Descartes

Societal multilingualism, i. Societal multilingualism differs from individual cases of multilingualism in that the use of the several languages that make up the multilingual mix is neither haphazard nor arbitrary, but has its roots deep in history and code-switching, which is an integral part of the linguistic comportment of the society as a whole is, to a considerable extent, rule-governed.

Julia Parish-Morris

But the fact remains that, as of today, even many of the so-called sociolinguists have failed to grasp the inherent complexities of societal multilingualism in their entirety. To the outsiders, especially those who regard societally multilingual realities from the 'etic' perspective of non-participant observers and armed with concepts and categories forged from a monolingual standpoint, the picture presented by these societies is somewhat chaotic and unmanageably cumbersome.

Many would even regard them as bordering on the dysfunctional. Many others would regard the linguistic demands made by the society on the individual in such environments as unduly taxing and burdensome. The underlying logic would seem to be: if a single language is already unevenly distributed among the members of a given society, imagine the presence of two or more languages that are operative in one and the same society!

There are others who see the presence of multilingualism as a curse upon societies, impeding their progress and economic development. As already pointed out, such impressions are created only to the extent that we insist on taking a rigorously monolingual perspective as our point of departure. Once we take an 'emic' point of view, a completely different picture begins to emerge.

In a societally multilingual society the languages that take part in the overall mix form a neat mosaic, with each of those languages having a more or less preordained and fairly predictable role. Functionally, they dovetail into one another to form a composite whole. An important part of being communicatively competent in such a society is being reasonably proficient in each of those languages but, even more importantly, knowing when to use one language rather than another. In this respect, a speaker's capacity to code-switch from one language to another is analogous to that of the typical speaker in any monolingual community to move from one register to another in an orderly fashion.

He or she does it naturally and effortlessly most of the time, but a miscalculation at any moment can land the speaker in a veritable faux pas. It is as yet a language very much in the making and practically everything about it is right now up for the grabs. But what one can say with a reasonable amount of certainty is that its defining trait is hybridity at an unprecedented level.

Originally, of course, it started off as English, just plain English, as it was spoken in good old Albion.

The Search for a Unified Theory of Language Learning

It embarked on its journey worldwide with the rise of the British empire, dating back to the early 17 th century and reaching its apex towards the end of the 19 th. But then the price its speakers had to pay was to witness it slowly but steadily slipping out of their control. Here it is important to bear in mind the crucial difference between settler colonialism and exploitation colonialism.

In its first great expansion to the four corners of the earth, English was largely confined to its so-called settler colonies like America, Australia, and New Zealand. Settler colonies are the result of organized emigration of large populations en masse from the mother country. These settlers carry with them their native customs and habits, including language, and endeavor to preserve them intact and, if that becomes difficult, adapt them to their new habitats.

They either exterminate the local populations already there or decimate them to numbers that no longer represent a threat to their existence or ways of living. But this is a far cry from the colonies which were established purely for the purpose of daylight robbery and unabashed plundering of alien wealth. In the colonies of Africa and Asia where Britain managed to spread its tentacles, English inevitably came into close contact with local languages, many of which had millions of speakers and literatures dating back to pre-Christian era. The inevitable outcome of this cultural encounter was hybridity.

Though it must be noted that hybridity was by no means exclusive to the new 'Englishes' of Asia and Africa cf. But colonial contact also caused hundreds of pidgin languages to spring up and mushroom in different parts of the world. By the middle of the 19 th century, these languages-hybrid par excellence -were too numerous to be ignored. Kaye and Tosco observe that, initially at least, many scholars preferred to brush them aside as 'linguistic monstrosities' or accidental aberrations, rather than holding a key to a proper understanding of the very idea of language.

It is unfortunate that many early writers on pidgins and creoles considered them "tropicisms" or amusing sources of cocktail party jokes or tidbit-type humorous, anecdotal information. One can only imagine, e. Although the putatively unassailable authority of the figure of the native speaker has been questioned by many researchers cf.

But there are some welcome changes already in the air. The commodity fetishism around the figure of the native-speaker is mostly a thing of the past and, as McKay rightly points out, very few people think today that a native competence is what they should aspire to or set up as a desirable goal in learning a foreign language. But the second part of her claim seems to be far more resistant. Many are still reluctant to give up the idea that the native culture is what should inform language teaching materials. Now, this is a matter of fundamental importance.

In fact, as recent research by Sakai and Kikuchi shows, learning contents and materials ranked top among what have been referred to as factors of 'demotivation' for EFL students. Their research primarily took into account reactions from a group of Japanese students, but it is fairly likely that similar results could be expected from surveys in other parts of the world.

The fundamental difference between the English language spoken in monoglot households and World English as it is spoken around the world is that the latter is spoken and nurtured, as we have seen, as part of a multilingual mix. On the issue of growing multilingualism in the world, particularly in the context of globalization, here is what Kramsch and Whiteside , p. This has the inevitable consequence that it is constantly being affected by the other languages that participate in the speakers' overall linguistic repertoires. As only to be expected, it takes on different hues and shades, depending on the specific characteristics of each of these circumstances.

However, as soon as one spells out these properties of this really weird phenomenon called 'World English', a typical reaction from those who are incredulous by nature and doomsday pundits by habit is this: doesn't it make the language somewhat amorphous and hence bereft of a uniform code, rendering it unfit to take on the role of a world language?

For instance, Bamgbose , an enthusiast for the legitimation of postcolonial new Englishes, came up with this rather surprising remark:. Here is what he has to say by way of shoring up his earlier remark:. Crucial to the entrenchment of innovations and non-native norms is codification. Without it users will be uncertain about what is and what is not correct and, by default, such doubts are bound to be resolved on the basis of existing codified norms, which are derived from an exonormative standard BAMGBOSE, , p. The best way, if you can manage it, is to put children in situations where only the "less important" language is used so that there is no temptation to mix languages or revert to the "more important" language.

One language is likely to seem more important to children when that language is needed more frequently than the other. For example, suppose the American woman and Turkish man in the bilingual home speak English with each other. The children will notice that English is used in cases where Turkish isn't and think that English is "more important".

But if the same family moves to Turkey, the children will notice that Turkish is used in lots of cases where English isn't, and may decide Turkish is "more important". Some children are very sensitive to these differences and may be reluctant to use the "less important" language—especially if other children don't use it. Others don't seem to mind. When we talk about one language being "more important" here, we're only talking about the children's point of view!

Linguistics Language Learning by Adults

Nonetheless, many adult bilinguals are "dominant" in one of their languages. Even if the differences between their two languages are subtle, most bilinguals feel slightly more at home in one language than the other in certain settings or for talking about certain topics. No, definitely not, especially in the bilingual home situation where the second language is likely to seem "less important" to the children anyway. Introducing the second language later is just about guaranteed to make them think it's less important and not worth the effort.

On the other hand, in the bilingual setting situation say, the Korean couple living in the United States , there isn't any harm in letting children's exposure to English begin naturally and gradually. As long as the family stays in the US and the children go to American schools, there is no risk that they will fail to learn English. Actually, the more common problem with the bilingual setting situation is that the children sometimes reject their home language in favor of the outside language.

Many experts recommend the "one-parent-one-language" method for a bilingual home. The idea is that Mommy or Mamma, or Mutti always speaks her own language with the children, and Daddy or Papa, or Vati always speaks his own language with them. This is a good basis for a successful bilingual home, but it's not the only one, and even one-parent-one-language can go wrong. One problem can be balance. Children need to hear both languages often and in a variety of circumstances.

If they never hear the "less important" language except from one parent, they may not get enough exposure for that language to develop naturally. It is especially true that when both parents understand the "more important" language, the children don't feel they need the "less important" one. In these cases it is essential to find other sources of exposure and other ways of creating the sense of need.

Monolingual grandparents can be especially helpful! Can you enlist a cousin or grandmother or a paid babysitter who speaks the other language to look after the children? Is there a daycare or playgroup where they can hear the other language? Can you get videos and story tapes in the other language?

1. Plato’s Problem

All of these can make a big difference—especially exposure that involves interaction with other people, not just watching TV. When our children were small, we did things like this to reinforce Italian in a largely English-speaking setting. Another problem is keeping the situation natural. If children feel that they are being forced to do something weird or embarrassing, they will probably resist it. Explicit rules—say, speaking one language on some days and the other on others—can be very hard to enforce and can help create a negative attitude.

Factors affecting speech and language development

Still another problem is exclusion. If one of the parents doesn't speak the other's language in our example, suppose the American woman doesn't speak Turkish , the children will know that every time they say something in Turkish to their father they are excluding their mother from the conversation. This may make children reluctant to speak one of the parents' languages when both parents are present. In our experience, a bilingual home is more likely to succeed if both parents at least understand both languages—that way, nobody is ever excluded from a family conversation.

Centuries later, the French philosopher Descartes took a crack at linguistic philosophy. But rather than Descartes himself, it was the rationalist movement that he symbolized and that was thriving in the time period when he lived that was most important for linguistics. To state it briefly and in a simplified manner, this is the idea that all knowledge comes from outside ourselves through sensory experience rather than through innate knowledge that we have at birth. This naturally carried over to language theory with Locke rejecting the idea that there was an innate logic behind language.

But they have important implications. If Plato and the Cartesians are right, then the emphasis in language learning must lie on what we already know , using our innate abilities to come to an understanding of the particularities of a specific language.


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If Locke is right, then we must focus our attention on sensory input , gaining as much external input as possible. In the practical, everyday world, all of this can easily be done with FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos with familiar formats—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. In the middle of the 20th century, B. What differentiates Skinner from those who came before him is the level of detail he went into when connecting behaviorism and language learning.

What this means for us as language learners, should his theory be even partially true, is that a process of conditioning must be achieved for us to succeed. When we say the right thing, we must be rewarded. When we say something incorrectly, that too must be made clear. In other words, we need feedback to succeed as language learners. Namely, Noam Chomsky. The theory that Chomsky proposed would be called Universal Grammar and it would assert nearly the exact opposite of what Skinner had offered in his theory.

Where Skinner saw all learning coming from external stimuli, Chomsky saw an innate device for language acquisition. After all, if Skinner is right, how is it that children can learn a language so quickly, creating and understanding sentences they have never heard before?