Are we wired for language?

We’ve all tried countless language courses and learning methods in our lives – with greater or less success. Most of us have been victims of “traditional” methods consisting of long hours spent with hefty grammar books, translating lists of random sentences and pretty much learning by rote. Speaking? Not that much. Did it work? Well, you tell me.

More modern methodologies have tried to adapt learning to the “real world” and attempt to replicate real life situations so that we learn in context. Grammar is not at the centre of the picture anymore but communication is, and the emphasis is thus on enabling us to get by in different kinds of situations we come across in our daily life. That’s why we hear this jibba jabba about “learning by doing” and marketers try to convince us of how realistic it is to learn a language in just 1000 words. In the same way that we acquire our mother tongue… Or not?

A bit of history

During World War 2 the need to train the military and the secret services created an urge to develop language courses. These consisted mainly of learning by repetition…. and more repetition. The assumption behind this is that our minds are blank slates on which knowledge and new skills are “written” through experience. Drawing on Pavlov’s theory of classic conductism – you might have heard about the famous dog experiment – the concept of operational conditioning was developed. Reward and punishment were considered the two main factors to change conduct and learning was just a matter of observable behaviour that could be modulated by using the old carrot-and-stick.

 

As much as we’d like to think that learning a language (or anything else for that matter) is done that way, experience and common sense show us that there must be something else at play. If we consider the way babies acquire their native language the first thing that will call our attention is how fast it happens. Another impressive fact is how poor the input they receive from parents and caretakers is in relation to the complex grammatical maneuvers they soon master, to the point that from a very young age us humans are capable of uttering unlimited new and original sentences- even stuff we’ve never heard before. Think for example of poetry, music or just anything creative or scientifically avant-garde: language is at the basis of much of our creative thinking and it is necessary for the transmission of those innovative concepts.

Is it really that way?

In view of this evidence Noam Chomsky couldn’t but object to the idea that we are born knowing language and Plato suggested back in ancient Greece – after all everybody makes lots of mistakes in the process of learning-  or to the blank slate concept of the English empiricists that John Locke (not the one in Lost) posited and 20th century behaviourist psychologist later “demonstrated”.

For Chomsky the best possible explanation is that humans are endowed with inborn structures in our brains called the Language Acquisition Device (LAD for short). This inwired system would be the base of our natural propensity to organize the spoken language that we hear in various grammatical ways. It could be explained as a sort of computation that gives us the ability to distinguish the different components of a string of elements and extract the rules that govern them and the way they relate to each other… by instinct! Well, quite impressive for our brain, you have to give it that. Consider the way you learned the grammatical rules of your own language, nobody told you how to conjugate the past tense or gave you a list of prepositions at the age of two, so there’s clearly something else behind such a fast, effective learning process.

The language “software” in our brains

Chomsky defends the idea of a Universal Grammar, a language structure hard-wired in our brains that is common to all humans. A bit like the slate empiricists talked about, but with some information already written on it- the same for everybody. Exposure to our native tongue and experience helps us complete the info on that slate, in a way that only speakers of our own language can read what’s written on it. Chomsky would very much prefer a computational simile here, so let’s put it this way: we are born with the software installed in the our computer/brain but as we go we select and adjust the settings to our environment and needs. The software package would be the same for everybody (our LAD) and so a certain numbers of settings that regulate and differentiate languages and which are defined by the rules of the Universal Grammar: tense, number, etc.

Where does that leave language learning when it occurs at adult age? Well, firstly we’d have to conclude that isn’t just a matter of memorizing words or sentences. Putting all that information and structures in context is key to re-enacting the natural way acquisition occurs in our first language. Reflecting on form is also important as we advance, as we are able to extract rules naturally but acknowledging them and trying to understand them in the foreign language will help us apply them to new situations, so don’t be afraid of grammar! After all it’s child’s play.

 Vocabulary

  • Hefty (adj): heavy, weighty
  • Rote (n): a routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical procedure. To learn by rote is to do it by memory, without thought of the meaning.
  • Endowed (adj): to have, to be provided with
  • Inborn (adj): innate, naturally present at birth.
  • Re-enact (v): to repeat the actions of an event

How is your experience learning foreign languages? Is there any method you really hate? What works best for you?

 

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