Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Semi serious thoughts about language learning

I remember when I was a boy in Jewish Day school. While I loathed all homework, I recall reserving a special place in my bowels for Hebrew homework. I guess part of that had to do with the teachers and maybe part had to do with what we now call "trouble with languages." I was never really sure. But I have been spending some serious minutes wrestling with the idea of why it is tough to learn a language. Some has to do with the various physiological and chemical processes of the brain which I will never fully understand. Or at all.

But I was sitting having lunch with Muzzy, the poorly animated multilingual bear who tortures my mind with the phrase "bonjour, je sui Muzzy" over and over and he mentioned something that resonated. He talked about small children learning language in a natural way, the way they learn their first language.

Now that's nothing new. Everyone knows that smaller children pick up a second or third language easier than adults. We also all know that learning a language by immersion and use, the way we learn our first language, is most natural (my friend Rosy T. Stone taught me that). So what was the a-ha moment?

It has to do with the gap. It's always about the gap.

Why did I get frustrated by writing Hebrew essays? Because I didn't get frustrated by writing English essays! It is all clear to me now. Learning 2 languages at the same time is easier because your ability to express yourself grows in parallel and there is no gap. The more the gap widens between the ability to communicate expressively in one and the other, the larger the frustration index. If I can say "the breathtaking explosion of colors in last night's sunset left me awe struck" in English, but only have the vocabulary to say "the sun was nice" in Hebrew, I will dread trying to write in Hebrew. The wider that gap (either because of a predilection for native expression at a young age, or a significant number of years of practice at native language before the introduction of another language) the less likely the success for language learning, unless someone happens to be wired in a way which allows for language acquisition.

So if you start early when there is no difference between the complexity of vocabulary in the two languages, or any real depth to the thoughts which prompt the writing, languages can be acquired naturally. The vocabulary in the 2 languages grows in the same fashion and both (and either) develop as the innate need to express grows. I wonder two things:

1. could this be used to explain frustration in other fields -- gaps between an understanding and a discipline-based vocabulary or mode of understanding make for difficulty

2. could this be tested by tracing language expression/acquisition among young learners who acquire native language expression skills at different paces? Theoretically, the ones who develop as (in my case) English writers more slowly should have less trouble (paradoxically) acquiring Hebrew at the same rate. Stronger English students should see the gap with vocabulary and expression in Hebrew unless instruction is ramped up to keep pace with English development (the slower the class, the harder?) How very counter-intuitive.

Linguistics/Sociology/Psychology students, you have your orders.

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