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5 lessons from the way that a child learns a new language

“A sponge: as absorbant as a child’s mind?”

Children learn new languages with enviable speed and ease. I think that everyone is agreed on that.

The received wisdom seems to be that when a child is surrounded by a new language, they simply absorb it like an eager little sponge, emerging effortlessly fluent within a few weeks. So admired is this magical ability of youth, that language learning programs often tout the phrase “it is how children learn” as conclusive proof of the efficacy of their language learning system. But is it really that simple? And should we really be trying to emulate their method of study?

Well over the last five months I have been observing my three-year-old daughter Rommy starting to learn Chinese, and it has – in a totally un-scientific way, at which I am sure my fellow Memrisers will scoff – led me to a few conclusions.

Firstly, one often hears that children never translate between languages. Well, in that dogmatic form, it is patently untrue. Every day I get questions from Rommy on translating into Chinese. She not only asks how to say particular things in Chinese, but she can translate words when I ask her. She translates, no question.

Not only that, but I actually believe that translating was totally crucial to her beginning to learn the language. We tentatively dipped our toes in the “full immersion” pond when we first arrived in China, but found that being surrounded by such an utterly unfamiliar language only served to frighten, worry, confuse and annoy her and generally to set her firmly against the idea of ever trying to learn Chinese. Of course we could have persisted with it – and refused to converse in English with her at all, at least outside the home. This might have worked. But I don’t think it would have been any quicker. Indeed evidence from another child of the same age who started fairly full immersion at that time seems to lend tentative support to this.

Instead we started to teach her word by word. And as she learned words, she found that she loved the reaction of delight that she got in shops and from Chinese friends when she spoke them to people: when she said, “older sister,” and pointed at herself or, “younger sister” and pointed at her younger sister. The audience would clap and laugh in delight and Rommy would bask in their attention. She became enthused and excited about learning, and began to pick up words fast.

from kodomut on Flickr

“Rommy’s first language partners”

Secondly, Rommy studies hard. It is true, her study technique is not one that is very common amongst adults. But perhaps that is our problem. The way that she studies is by constant repetition and practice. Even when she knew only two words of Chinese, those words would crop up constantly in her play. Her dolls were calling each other 姐姐 and 妹妹 before she could even say hello in Chinese. Now entire stories are played out in a bizarre bilingual mishmash, often requiring elaborate imagined situations to fit whichever word and phrase she has happened to catch hold of and learn. (“You don’t want to wear a seat belt? You must wear a seat belt. Where is the seat belt?” I overheard her toys frantically shouting at one another in Chinese this afternoon.) And this goes on all day. She basically never takes a break. I have never seen a student put so much time in. The fact that she clearly enjoys this study is part of the cunningness of children’s learning; they do naturally exactly what we are trying to do at Memrise by making a compelling game out of their learning.

Thirdly, now that she has some ability in the language, she is more than happy to talk in Chinese even when she lacks the ability to say what she wants to express. This is the real nub of the “children don’t translate” idea, I think. For example, yesterday her younger sister was trying to give Rommy an orange. Rommy didn’t want it.

from Gary Soup on Flickr

“oranges: not what Rom was after”

“我不要, 不给你, 我回来,” she said, roughly translating to, “I don’t want it, don’t give it to you, I am going back.” Clearly nonsense. Then she turned to me and said with great earnestness, ” I am telling her that I don’t want it and that she should keep it because I don’t like oranges.” But she didn’t have the grammar to express that, although she actually knows all the words that would be needed. Instead she came out with a series of phrases that she could say, although they didn’t actually express her meaning at all.

What to learn from this? Well, it suggests to me that on a sentence level she is not translating. She has got a series of phrases that fit very roughly with the feelings that she is wanting to express, and she wheels them out. She doesn’t concern herself with the details. Should we then do the same when we learn a language? Should we jabber away talking nonsense that we know rather than trying to say things that we don’t know how to express? Well, perhaps, in a sense, we should. When I look closely at the way that I express certain ideas and thoughts in Chinese, it occurs to me that there are instances when I do so in a way that a Chinese person probably wouldn’t do. These instances almost always have their root in my trying to express ideas that I don’t know how to express, and then translating from English to try to get my point across. After I have said this kind of sentence once, I am more likely to say the same sentence again. Each time I say it I am just about understood, because even if the grammar is clumsy, they can usually pick out the gist of what I am trying to say. And each time I become surer of what I am saying. But I am wrong.

from Patrick Hoesly on FLickr

“fitting the pieces together”

So what if, instead, every time I felt myself unable to express myself, I stopped, made a note and then later went and found out how to say it right? Learn the language phrase by phrase and not try to actively avoid over-stretching myself and thereby set up incorrect habits? I don’t know. And I suspect that I would find it impossibly hard to try now; my enjoyment from speaking Chinese comes from talking with friends, discussing ideas and debating opinions. And most of these conversations will keep me constantly at the very furthest edge of my ability to express myself correctly. If I could only say things that I was confident of saying correctly, then I wouldn’t want to have any of the friends who would be so catatonically dull as to be interested in what I had to say. A bit of a Catch 22.

The important implication for us at Memrise (which, like all good conclusions, was in fact pretty much what we thought anyway) seems to be that we are going to need to build a tool that goes beyond the vocabulary learning that helps with learning of full sentences and phrases – that way, when you do speak to friends (or try out a bit of language role play by yourself at home), you can be more sure that what you’re saying is right.

Fourthly, and this is not a great surprise, children find tones really, really easy. Rommy’s tones are just spot on. Completely, consistently flawless with no effort at all. She just says them right. Sometimes I even think that she has made a mistake, but am contradicted by a Chinese friend who says that she is actually right.

from christophercjensen on Flickr

“the knowledge that someone is champing at our heels can drive one to ever greater heights”

Which, fifthly, leads me to my final, and most personal observation. I have spent years working on and off to wrap my brain around Chinese, only to watch my three year old daughter make boundless progress in a few short months. She is learning to speak with an accuracy that I will never have. This is causing me to experience a very curious mix of profound paternal pride and subtle irritation.

For the moment the pride is winning out. But what about, in three or four months’ time, if her Chinese overtakes mine, what then?

Well one thing is for sure: I am finding myself driven to keep studying to put off that inevitable moment for as long as conceivably possible by keeping hard at my studies.

Christ, let me just say that again: I am in a genuine competition with my three year old daughter. Talk about a competitive dad! And what’s worse is that it is a competition that I am almost bound to lose. Which, as well as being shameful and pathetic, does remind me of the immense motivational power of competition.

And there is a lesson in that for Memrise, too.

Try it Now Remember, Memrise is totally free!

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