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#20240 - 03/01/01 05:20 PM Re: English a Global Language
AnnaStrophic Offline
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 03/15/00
Posts: 6511
Loc: lower upstate New York
As it seems we agree: Sadly, this is, by and large, true. The more languages you learn; the more superficial your understanding of the subtle nuances of each is.

Yes. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good bilingual writers: Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad (thinking hard here...)

Meanwhile, Max moans: What irks me is the facility with which children raised in polyglot households prove themselves the exception to this general rule. I agreee with your assessment, and it seems to me that the only way to be truly multilingual is to be exposed to the languages in question from birth.

Indeed, as set forth in "Language Acquisition" under Miscellany After puberty your language-learning center shrinks.

#20241 - 03/30/05 02:53 AM Re: English a Global Language
BraveLad Offline

Registered: 03/29/05
Posts: 31
Loc: California
In "Love's Labours Lost" there is a phrase "they have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps" or something like that. Our linguistic capacities may suffer the same finite limits as eating, learning speed aside. The person who 'consumes' many tongues may or may not possess the requisite ‘linguistic stomach capacity’ to master them all.

Part of the problem with adult learning of language is the theoretical rather than natural approach taken. Immersion is a better way for most people than the typical school approach. But even immersion is not really natural. Did you get adult language addressed to you as an infant and child? Typically adults 'talk down' to children. By simplifying the language we present children, we ease their task of leaning it.

Also the playmates of children do not speak to their companions in complex ways early on. Also natural language acquisition proceeds by accretion and connection to previous acquisitions. When we learn a new language by contrast it is like being asked to sprint before we can crawl or being thrown in the middle of a pond and being told to swim out before getting any swimming lessons except a theoretical briefing on the process. Things we have to learn to do, we learn by doing I think Aristotle said.

One example of language learning that impressed me as likely to succeed (and which did succeed by the way) was when two brothers from Spain immigrated to our town and entered the first grade even though it was 5 and 8 years below their grade level in Spain. In a few months they had proceeded through all the intervening grades relearning in English what they had already learned in Spanish. This had two advantages. First the language was simpler in the first grade. Second they already knew essentially all the material presented in each grade they whizzed thru!

In the case of expanding one's mastery of one's own native language the dictionary studying approach or getting a new word in the email every day is not natural. Hearing a word in a real and important context so there is a motivation is more natural. Also since few like to admit not knowing they don't know a word or do not have time to pursue such a question when they are getting the gist of the conversation, we typically form conjectures at least as to part of speech and general semantic category before we really learn the word. If we don't hear the word again, we will forget it. But if reinforcement occurs, then we will learn its meaning from context the gradual way, the natural way.

When we think we have heard a word for the first time, we are probably wrong. We just didn't notice it before. I offer the following in proof of this contention. After you hear a word for the first time, it often seems as if everywhere you turn you encounter it. Is there a great conspiracy afoot to teach you this word!? I think not. The fact is that now that this word has caught your attention, you have been sensitized to it and hence the remarkable number of times you hear it soon after you hear it for the 'first' time!

To reinforce my point about the unnatural means used to teach languages, the first one is that in the first place you are not 'taught' the language. It is more as if you caught it. Adults talk baby talk to you. You goo and babble after a certain point. You hold your peace for a considerable period though, just to make sure you don't make a fool of yourself. It can often take two to four years before any significant speech occurs. I started talking in earnest at age 14 months. In a couple of weeks, my father, who had recently returned from WWII, stopped counting the new words at 200.

You see on the surface how very unlike this procedure typical language schooling is. Of course I am not maintaining that lying on you back sucking on a bottle of milk is essential to language learning, but it might be worth a try! Keep an open mind is all I am saying. (Well not all, but part of it!)

Hi David! It's me, Markham (know as Mark) from Prodata days. Give Mary and me a holler real soon! My profile has my email address.

Oh and as to the vast size and complexity of English expression, only a core set of words is required to express oneself. Two or three thousand should do for a start. The 800 some word set of Basic English is a bit spare, but it makes the point. Comprehension is harder than such basic expression, but if you have the core, you can expand on it.

The ideal way to get that as an adult is much different than the approach we use. Here is how I think we should proceed. First we start with a “See Spot Run” English text, Then we introduce the ‘same’ text, but with some of the word order and inflections of the target language. We keep this up until we are fluently reading and speaking using the grammar of the target language without learning a single word of its lexicon yet.

The next step is to learn this book gradually substituting the target language word for the strangely placed and inflected English word. Now we have both lexicon and grammar and the language. We can now introduce more complex material starting again with a text using more complex forms and new inflections, then another series of lexicon substitutions. Has anyone ever tried something like this?

Markham Robinson,
CEO MasterPlan Financial Software

#20242 - 03/30/05 05:28 AM Re: English a Global Language
maverick Offline
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 09/15/00
Posts: 4757
Hi Mark, welcome to the board. I don't know which David you were greeting - we've got more than one with a tech background too!

You make some interesting remarks about language acquisition - my gut instinct is that you probably have a measure of broad truth in the proposal that the current 'normal' method of learning is both unnatural and less effective than some other ways, though I am not sure about the detail of your suggested reform. I am just trying to remember if there are any teachers of English as a foreign language around here - ASp, is that you, or indeed are there others perhaps lurking?

#20243 - 04/05/05 04:14 PM Re: English a Global Language
BraveLad Offline

Registered: 03/29/05
Posts: 31
Loc: California
Hello Maverick! Thanks for the warm howdy.

The David I was referring to is indeed David Gjerdrum, the author of the post to which I replied. I met him in a tech context to be sure, but his most memorable aspects were his linguistic studies, involuted speech and inkhorn vocabulary. A most unforgettable character!

The points of my rambling comments on language acquisition were several. They may have been somewhat obscured by the 'steam of consciousness' style I fell into the day of my post.

You took my point about the unnaturalness of language teaching techniques indeed. What was less obvious was that I think that we cannot repeat our early linguistic learning context very well at all. This is true even if all the talk about a loss of linguistic plasticity is a heap of tripe.

The act of learning some language changes the state of our brains fully as much as 'natural' maturation processes. If we learned a new tongue the same as we learned our first, then it would have to go into a separate compartment and we would be hard put to even translate between the two.

The fact is that our minds insist on making connections with knowledge we have already acquired. When I learn new vocabulary the 'natural' way for instance I learn it in context from reading or hearing it.

Let me use an analogy. Consider a young sapling. Its growth is rapid in linear terms. From day to day you can see its progress. But when you look at a mature tree, it looks the same from day to day. This is quite deceptive. Its growth is spread out over a wide area. If you looked at the tips of the limbs, you would see a growth at the extremities much more like its youthful growth. And because there are so many such branches each of which is of the scale of the sapling, even at their slower growth rates, the overall absolute growth of the mature tree is much, much greater.

As long as one is actively engaged in reading a good quantity of material I believe the case of vocabulary acquisition is similar. By making small advances over a broad front, you may be surprised at how much you are really learning compared to when you were a youngling!

So the strategy behind my proposal was to find some way of connecting new linguistic facts about another language with what you already know. The other principle of learning that I was using was to go in tiny steps so that the process was relatively painless.

My proposal was motivated by my experiences with learning two languages: French and German. German I found more difficult. Both languages have those annoying gender inflections found so much less often in English. German word order I found difficult. By separating the order and inflection acquisition process from the vocabulary acquisition I am guessing that the way would be eased. By using familiar material progressively transformed, I hoped to make the steps of learning small and easy.

Another part of the process should be constant memory practice, otherwise known as testing. I think that we place altogether too much emphasis of the rating aspect of testing while ignoring its function of practicing access to what we have in fact stored. If you can successfully recall information on which you are tested, then you have practice remembering it. But, if you fail to answer the question, you get a different benefit. Now you have a question to which you do not know the answer and a greater readiness to receive information on that matter. So when you 'review' material, only part of it is review, the part of it you were or would have been able to answer. The other part of the review is what you did not pick up on the first time. Both aspects are useful in their own ways.

I believe that our whole approach to learning is flawed. I prefer the 100 percent mastery approach, where you learn all of the teaching objectives before progressing to the next phase. These phases of course should be much smaller than grade levels. The ability to follow such a procedure is much greater in contexts such as home schooling, which is probably why the results are so much better there as well as the exposure to other children at different stages of learning and their opportunity to act as teachers.


Markham Robinson,
CEO MasterPlan Financial Software

#20244 - 04/05/05 05:01 PM Re: posts
AnnaStrophic Offline
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 03/15/00
Posts: 6511
Loc: lower upstate New York
Hi, BraveLad! Just a quick heads-up: the David you were replying to hasn't posted here in four (4) years. In fact, I was surprised you found this thread, so buried it was. Anyway, welcome and I'm glad you enjoy discussing words and language as much as we do!

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