Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A talent for language

Last night on Channel 4, Hidden Talent looked at how people learn languages. It's something I've been interested in since studying theories of language acquisition as part of a teaching course at Manchester College of Arts and Technology in the mid-90's.

I broadly agree with those - including Chomsky, Krashen and Pinker - that humans have an innate abilty to learn languages ("Language Acquisition Device") and that the key to doing so is exposure to a level of language just beyond what you understand ("comprehensible input", or i+1, in linguistic jargon).

The programme touched on some of the issues around language acquistion. Learning a foreign language is not the same as learning your first one but there are some shared features such as being motivated to learn (a "low input filter"), not afraid to make mistakes (a "low output filter") and prepared for the the "unexpected answer", for example: "Which way is it to the town centre?", "I'm sorry, I'm not from here."

A lot of what they argue rings true to me. I studied German to A Level but only went to Germany for the first time three years ago. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly things I thought I'd forgotten came back, my increased fluency after a few days/beers and the increased friendliness of people when you speak their language, despite or even because of a few grammatical errors.

The Channel 4 programme was moving at another level. The person chosen as a guinea pig was a young homeless guy living in a hostel who had dropped out of college and become estranged from his family. In the process of learning Arabic (referred to strangely by the programme makers as "one of the world's most complex languages"), he travelled to Jordan, where after a few weeks he was fluent enough to do a live TV interview, and also was reconciled with family. You could argue - and I would - that most people exposed to a language for a lengthy period will learn it but even so his was still an impressive achievement.

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