Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Learning A Language

I recently made a rather late New Year's resolution to learn one new Arabic and one new Japanese phrase every day in 2016.  I hope I keep it up although I tend not to stay on task so I may not. Another hope is that there will be a learning curve in the sense that I will start to notice similarities and patterns I can then apply more widely, for instance the root S-L-M in salaam, Muslim and 'Islam.  Semitic languages have the added challenge for people literate in a Latin script that of them, only Maltese uses the Latin alphabet, and in fact I do plan to take a look at Maltese as part of my strategy as some of its vocabulary remains Semitic.

Arabic, more specifically Egyptian Arabic, is one of the languages our daughter knows something of.  This is because she used to go out with an Egyptian, and that motivation is pretty powerful, as I've found myself.  As a child, the German taught to me in school didn't take and this partly resulted from not having a firm reason for wanting to learn it and partly down to the teaching.  The number of pupils in my year who even got grades in O-level German were in single figures, let alone those passing.  This in itself is of interest because I was in fact highly motivated on an intellectual level to learn German, so it's rather odd that that didn't translate into proficiency in the language.  All that was to change a few years later the year after I graduated and started going out with a German.  I then had a strong personal connection with the language and a good reason to learn it - I was in any case interested in it as an attribute of my partner and also in order to share the burden of attempting to communicate verbally.  It seemed unfair that one of us should have to make the extra effort to express herself in a second language when the other didn't, so I learnt German, and found it to be extremely easy.  I proceeded to read for a Masters in continental philosophy during which students were expected to acquire a reading knowledge of French or German during their time of study, so I read the works concerned in German and largely ignored the French ones, although I did also generally read them in French too when I had to.  Disappointingly, those students who were not already fluent in French or German at the start of the course did not become proficient in them by its end, although of course I did.  Some of them did try, but not for long.

By the end of the course, my German was good enough for me to get paid for translation and I was close to being bilingual.

A couple of years later, I had a daughter with an English partner who was, however, fluent in Castilian and French, and decided to attempt to bring her up bilingually.  Learning to speak is the example par excellence of home education because virtually everyone is home educated at the stage of first language acquisition, and the feat of learning language is formidable.  Incidentally I reject the idea that humans have a specific aptitude for language but I won't go into that here except to say that the ability to do something as daunting as learning a language within the first thousand days of your life, when you can't even hold a knife and fork and aren't even toilet-trained or capable of dressing yourself basically means the human capacity for learning is greatly underestimated.  There is also the question of how much in the way of knowledge and skills can be seen as linguistic.  For instance, the fact that a doctor has learnt the word "syndesmosis" will lead her to being able to generalise about that particular kind of joint in a manner which would be a lot harder if she didn't know the word and what it meant, and go on to understand syndesmotic injuries better.  What has been learnt there is as much a new word as a set of medical facts.

Back to our daughter.  I made a point of speaking to her equally in German and English.  The first item she appeared to name was the door to the flat upstairs from us.  However, it wasn't clear whether she used the word "Tür" or "door" since her diction wasn't entirely that of an adult.  This raises the issue of where meaning is.  Is a child's first word something the child intends or is it the first successful communication between the child and another?  For all I know, our daughter may have considered herself to have been using words for ages before that, and I can remember myself being misunderstood by adults and getting very frustrated in the process because they couldn't understand what I was saying.  In fact I am constantly amazed at how patient children seem to be at that stage when they're surrounded by people unable to understand their needs or anything they're saying, but for some reason they don't constantly have tantrums, although of course they do have quite a few, which in the circumstances is fair enough really.  I can say that from a distance of nearly two decades of course!

My project was not very successful.  It turned out that our daughter regarded Castilian and French as possible other languages which she was motivated to some extent to speak but she saw German merely as a noise one of her parents made for no apparent reason.  This was because French and Castilian were spoken by lots of people around her and she could see an immediate practical reason for learning it, whereas German was just spoken by me and my ex.

A rather more successful undertaking was my practice of speaking to her in something like Elizabethan English.  This ultimately led to her being able to read Shakespeare with less of a language barrier and also act more convincingly in his plays, and she is now reading English Literature at university, so in a way that worked out.  To her, reading Hermia's lines in  A Midsummer Night's Dream is just like watching the latest episode of her favourite soap or singing along to a contemporary pop song, and this has stood her in good stead.  Moreover, her German is not completely dead.  She can still substantially understand German when she hears it and she speaks in German in her sleep.  Furthermore, her willingness to learn Egyptian Arabic when motivated to do so was doubtless down to the attitude that nothing is really that daunting, an approach instilled in her by the fact that she didn't go to school.

The point of all this is that motivation is key.  If a child, and often an adult, can't perceive a captivating reason for learning something, she won't find it interesting enough to learn it.  In school, there may be a disconnection between these  for a variety of reasons.  It may separate the pupils from the practical use of their skills and from their community, and to some extent the children need to stay in step with the order of the curriculum and the rate at which topics are covered through the very nature of the institutions.  Having said that, I can't say that I have any insight into why there was such a big discrepancy between how poorly I managed to learn German at school when I was in fact fascinated and obsessed by foreign languages at the time and how well I learnt it later unless it's to do with having a personal connection.  It so happened that even as I was failing to learn German, I was succeeding in learning Mandarin Chinese, Sanskrit, Finnish, Russian and several other languages, though somewhat poorly no doubt, and I have long since forgotten most of what I learned.  School to me was an irritating distraction from study and learning, although socially it was a marvellous escape from home, not because there was anything wrong with my home but just because it was part of growing up.  Home ed also provides plenty such escape, incidentally, but that's not the subject of this post.