Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Language Learning

More specifically, this is "Why Learn Swedish Part II" except that it's not really about Swedish so much as language learning in general, which is why it's here rather than zerothly.

Sarada once mentioned to someone that I had books in about fifty different languages but wasn't actually fluent in most of them, to which our friend responded that I was "Mr Theory".  Whereas I may disagree with the title she applied to me at that point, the surname is, sadly, entirely appropriate.  As a child, I used to practice my cursive handwriting in the requisite exercise books at school but continued to print in every other context.  To me this reflects the way formal education can fail to work at times and it leads to the oft-uttered objection "we're never going to use that in the real world", something which, to me oddly, is particularly often applied to algebra which I find myself using constantly.  However, I've always very much been into learning for the sake of learning more than concerning myself with applications and in fact I'm sometimes startled when something actually turns out to apply to the real world for once.  It's no coincidence that I have a Masters in Philosophy, although I would argue that Philosophy, which always has a capital P for me, applies par excellence to everyday life and when you look at events such as the election of a certain head of state you can probably see why.

Fundamentally then, the reason I'm learning Swedish is just because I want to and find it interesting.  I'm learning it for its own sake.  I will naturally hope to understand Scandinavians when they speak as a result, and read it, and that's part of my motivation, but in the end it amounts mainly to my fascination with language generally.  Languages to me are interesting because of the world view they represent.  It isn't true, or rather it's very misleading, to say that Esquimaux (no, not Inuit but that's another story) have hundreds of words for snow, but it is true that culture and environment have major implications for language, which develops organically rather than through deliberate design, and the demotic has long fascinated me.  This, incidentally, is why I feel pretty sure that new gender-neutral pronouns such as "ze" will never catch on.

All this, though, reminded me of our approach to language-learning when we were more involved in "home education", also known as parenting.  Clearly the children picked English up about as quickly as could be expected although I was also speaking to them in German.  As far as they were concerned, though, German was just this strange noise one of their parents made, unlike Castilian Spanish and French which they heard from their other parent and also from a number of other people.  This seems a bit odd to me because children tend to be very keen on playing and often learn to play, and pretend play is important to them when it's often very divorced from their everyday experience.  I would expect other languages to appeal to them for this reason and also because it's like a secret code and, depending on where you live, a family thing which binds people together.  Nonetheless they were not keen on German.  Oddly, some of it really did seem to be about the sound because they preferred French even though they never heard it except from their mother.  I always assumed that the sound of languages was liked or disliked because of their associations, so you might expect Brits in the Second World War to dislike German, but judging by the reactions of our offspring, this isn't so.  Moreover, they seem to need a practical reason to learn a language, mother tongue or otherwise.  Having said that, the relics of my efforts with German persist in the fact that our daughter occasionally speaks German in her sleep, and it's said that children who have grown up hearing more than one language can pick up pronunciation and distinguish the sounds of other languages as adults more easily than monoglots can.

Bilingual children may be the norm, historically speaking.  There was a time when people lived in small tribes speaking their own language and in some places this is still the case or was so quite recently.  For instance I've heard the claim that before the Europeans got there the people on either side of what's now Sydney Harbour spoke different languages, and there are also hundreds of languages spoken in Papua New Gunea, with a population of seven million and an area slightly larger than Sweden.  Intermarriage between tribes in such situations, if it happened, would mean growing up with the need to speak two languages, and it would also be very helpful to be able to talk to the neighbours.  This would lead to pidgins and creolisation of course, but there are also very firm boundaries sometimes, such as the Solway Firth, which is the most abrupt in the English-speaking world. Even in Europe the bilingual condition is very common.  It occurs, for example, in Belgium, with great reluctance of course, in the non-hexagonal parts of France and in Switzerland.  Linguistic continua are also very common, although they are quite unfamiliar to Sassenachs.  Basically the whole area of Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and French-speaking Belgium and Romance Switzerland along with the smaller countries within them consists of people who can speak perfectly well with their neighbours but have completely different languages at a distance, and the same is true of the area of the Low Countries, Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, German Switzerland and continental Scandinavia with Germanic languages, and so on.  This often means that people speak in two registers there, with their regional dialects along with the official version of the language.

Nonetheless, this doesn't mean we're actually set up to be polyglots.  Whereas Noam Chomsky believes humans have a brain hard-wired to pick up language, my own view is that we have stumbled upon it, although that has undoubtedly influenced our evolution since we did so.  I consider Chomsky's view problematic because it sets humans apart as special while ignoring the apparent linguistic abilities of various other species, some of which are not closely related to us at all and don't appear to use anything like language in their own habitats, and also because the human brain is very flexible.  Therefore when we pick up a language it's just like any other learning.  It should be noted, though, that those other kinds of learning often do involve language, for instance jargon.

On that subject, one of the things we did with children in the 1990s and 2000s was to facilitate their learning of Latin and Greek.  These are of course the posh dead languages, and you might be given to wonder what the point of focussing on them is.  Well, there are in fact plenty of reasons for doing so, one of which is that because they used to be the language of learning in Europe, much of our jargon uses Greek and Latin, meaning that if you want to learn a technical subject of some kind it will really help you to be able to pick apart those terms.  For instance, a dermatologist has been described as a person who gives a skin condition a Greek name and prescribes a topical steroid.  This is in fact quite unfair because there's also the maxim, "if it's dry, wet it.  If it's wet, dry it.  Congratulations, you are now a dermatologist", and the observation that if you didn't know what an African elephant was but saw two in a row, you would still realise you'd seen two of the same animal.  I mention this partly because this blog is called "home ed and herbs".

That's one reason but there are several others.  It helps to know Latin in particular because its descendants are so widely used, and it helps to know both because they have been systematically analysed and that lends itself both to formal logical thinking and the related skill of good grammar in one's first language.  There are many other reasons, and some are elitist, but when they are that can be a good rather than a bad reason for learning them.  For instance, works on rhetoric written in classical languages are a source of political speeches and other means of persuasion and it can be important to pick those apart when you listen to cabinet ministers and the like.  They themselves learnt these skills in public schools and they got them where they are today.  Learning these skills as hoi polloi gives us power.

The other languages we've engaged with during our involvement with home ed were German, French, Spanish and Japanese.  This is where one of the problems, to my mind, of home ed emerges.  I used to help out in a group for learning German and found that because children, being autonomous learners, would constantly join and leave it, there was basically no progress because there were always beginners in the group.  Although this is problematic, particularly because it means you can't learn by immersion, it does at least perform the function of reassuring them about learning another language and making the process more familiar and associated with fun.  Nonetheless I was always quite frustrated (and this was pre-transition sote frustration was a major part of my life at the time but I still don't think it was ideal) that progress was not being made.  However, clearly I am talking about what I've called Sassenach families here, i.e. white families with an ethnically English background growing up in England, and there are plenty of counter-examples to that, such as Cornish families, other "Celtic" families families with South Asian origins, Muslims, Jews and families with non-British parents, all of which were found among us at the time.  There are a lot of resources there in fact, which are frequently underexploited in schools.  Japanese proceeded rather differently for us, as it happened spontaneously when the children watched Japanese television and anime, although it didn't seem to get very far.

This brings up a further approach to second language learning which has been tried among home edders, although I haven't seen it first hand.  This is the attempt to apply learning through play without using foreign language input beyond what's known within the group.  This is more an experiment in exploring the limits of what learning through play can do, and was tried with Japanese.  It's similar to "social sight reading", which is where the shapes of words are acquired, often by osmosis, rather than learning through phonics or in other formal ways.  For instance, a small child may recognise the "WAIT" sign on a pedestrian crossing and know not to cross if it's lit, the logo of a supermarket or the title of a favourite TV programme from their look rather than by actually reading it.  Fully literate adults do this too:  if other words are written in the style of the "Coca-Cola" logo it may take some time to recognise that it doesn't in fact refer to a soft drink at all.  Similarly, learning Japanese through play might lead someone to recognise trade names such as Kawasaki and Yamaha, and perhaps words such as karate, karaoke or sushi.  Beyond that, certain Japanese characters could be recognised, including 東京 (Tokyo) or exclamation sounds in manga, and more intense examination of the words would reveal other features, such as the probable meaning of "kara" as "empry", "te" as hand and the fact that consonants and vowels alternate with few exceptions and consonants rarely occur together.  Beyond that, though, learning would grind to a halt unless one was actually in Japan or experienced a lot of Japanese culture.  The question then arises of what can and cannot be learned through play as a general prinicple.

On this blog and elsewhere online, when I have tried to bring up the subject of home ed I have very much seen it as an opening line in a discussion. Although this does sometimes happen, the normal situation is that my thoughts disappear into a void and there's very little response.  I know there are many home edding families out there who have approached second and further language learning in various ways, and I'm really hoping against hope that this time, at last, this blog entry is the beginning of a discussion.  I don't expect this, but I would very much like to be proven wrong.