4.0487 Languages and Learning (4/163)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Fri, 14 Sep 90 17:14:23 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0487. Friday, 14 Sep 1990.

(1) Date: Fri, 14 Sep 1990 12:38:41 GMT+0400 (96 lines)
From: Judy Koren <LBJUDY@VMSA.technion.ac.il>
Subject: RE: 4.0481 Language Learning

(2) Date: Fri, 14 Sep 90 09:09:35 EDT (21 lines)
From: Frank Dane <FDANE@UGA>
Subject: Re: 4.0477 Language Learning

(3) Date: Fri, 14 Sep 90 10:15:09 EDT (19 lines)
From: Clarence Brown <CB@PUCC>
Subject: Delicate spoof

(4) Date: Thu, 13 Sep 90 15:58:57 -0500 (27 lines)
From: ooi@mace.cc.purdue.edu (Jim Porter)
Subject: Learning Languages

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Fri, 14 Sep 1990 12:38:41 GMT+0400
From: Judy Koren <LBJUDY@VMSA.technion.ac.il>
Subject: RE: 4.0481 Language Learning

A few comments on Sheizaf Rafaeli's questions about multilingualism. I
did quite a bit of reading on the question before deciding to talk
English to my own kids from birth. The reading is now out of date -
that was 13 years ago - but the consensus, then at least, is that
growing up multi-lingual usually delays the onset of speech a few months
but is otherwise beneficial, and there seems no observable limit to the
number of languages a child can absorb simultaneously (there are
published studies of children who grew up learning 4 or 5 languages
simultaneously, one from each parent, one from each set of grandparents,
and that of the dominant culture...). The point was made, and certainly
applies to my own experience, that it's important for a particular
person to consistently talk the same language to the child: s/he can
learn 4 languages from 4 people, but not 2 languages from one person,
s/he gets confused separating out which language is which. There seems
to be some evidence that the brain is "wired" for language acquisition
during a critical period, which, as we all know to our cost, ends during
childhood. I don't know when, but I would guess shortly before
adolescence. Of the people I know who are not native Israelis, those who
immigrated before about age 10-11 are likely to have no foreign accent,
those who immigrated around 10-11 or later probably will have one.

There is quite a bit of evidence that immersion in the language is
critical. Speaking a language only in the home is sufficient up to
about age 3-4. Then the child realizes that the dominant culture does
not understand the second language (he may have been in a day-care
center from the first year of life, but only now does it bother him that
the big wide world doesn't understand one of his languages), and a
psychological reaction sets in. The child refuses to utter a word in
the second language. If the parent goes on talking it to her
nonetheless, or the parents talk it among themselves, the child will
grow up understanding it but quite unable to speak it. Israel is full
of now-middle-aged people who understand, but cannot speak, Yiddish or
Arabic because their parents spoke it, of children who understand, but
cannot really speak, any one of 50 European languages, and of under-5s
who are fluent in 2 or 3 languages.

We spent a year on sabbatical in Canada when my kids were 2 and 5. My son
spoke English, with an Israeli accent, on arrival (he had started life
with a British accent just like Mother's, but it fared badly from age 3
on). 3 weeks after arrival, he announced "nobody here speaks Hebrew and
I'm not going to speak it", and from then on we couldn't get a word of
Hebrew out of him. He arrived back in Israel to enter 1st grade with a
flawless Canadian accent; he understood everything said in the classroom
but couldn't say a word in Hebrew, even though, obviously, he very much
wanted to. It took him 3 months to get back fluency in Hebrew.
Incidentally, he started talking late, right in line with the
predictions, but in both languages from the start, and could separate
them out from the beginning and translate between them with no problems.
We went through similar rejection problems with his sister. If it
weren't for the fact that we tend to spend a month in the States every
summer and could threaten them that if they didn't talk English they
wouldn't be able to talk to their old friends and buy icecream, I have
no doubt that neither of them would still have been able to speak
English 2 years after returning to Israel, even though I stubbornly
continued to talk English to them.

BUT once they get to around age 6, the resistance miraculously vanishes,
suddenly they are happy to talk the second language again. This, too, I
have heard from several friends, not just from my own experience. Of
course if they haven't talked it from age 3, they're quite unable to
start doing so now unless they get back into an immersion situation (such
as another sabbatical).

All the above musings were intended to illustrate that, apart from the
"critical period" and the waning of the ability to learn by immersion
starting from late childhood on, there are a lot of other factors,
psychological and social, which influence second-language acquisition.
The conclusion, though, is clearly that the earlier you start the better,
and the more languages you present them with, the better or at least it
doesn't affect them for the worse. The studies I got hold of left me
with the impression, at least, that bi- or multi-lingual children tested
as more flexible and receptive in their abilities to form new concepts
and restructure old ones than monolingual children. This isn't
surprising, since each language categorizes the world differently and
you have to adjust conceptualizations as you move between them. There
was a load of work done on bilingual children in the first half of the
century, down to the 1960s, which came to quite erroneous conclusions
because their subjects were the children of immigrants, usually fleeing
persecution, poor, and despised by the dominant society, and they failed
to take such factors into account when trying to explain why the
children tested poorly on language ability and general IQ (on an IQ test
given in English of course). It took U.S. scholars a long time to
realise that in Europe, multilingualism is the norm, not the exception;
European scholars weren't studying it so much, perhaps because they
didn't define it as a problem. So the literature down to the 1960s, as
said, most of it American, concluded that if you bring your kids up
bilingual they will be linguistically and cognitively disadvantaged,
whereas the literature of the 1970s on comes to the exact opposite

Sorry this was so long. Happy Rosh ha-Shanah to all of you who care!
Judy Koren
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------29----
Date: Fri, 14 Sep 90 09:09:35 EDT
From: Frank Dane <FDANE@UGA>
Subject: Re: 4.0477 Language Learning

"STEVEC" (no signature) perhaps came closest to my view on the value of
learning another language. Grammar can be learned from the teachers of
one's native language, culture can be learned in a Western Civ. or
Anthropology course. What cannot be learned other than through a
foreign language is thinking differently. Using the words and syntax
of another language forces one to consider alternative ways to
conceptualize, a different "logic" if I may be allowed to play loose
with terminology.

I no longer remember my Latin, nor much of my German. But I retain
the notion of attention to proper tense vis-a-vis an argument for
the future based on information obtained in the past, and I remember
the importance of subtle differences in the activity level of verbs.
Then again, some of these things were reinforced by other foreign
languages: Fortran, Basic, Assembly, and so on.

Frank Dane, Mercer University
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------24----
Date: Fri, 14 Sep 90 10:15:09 EDT
From: Clarence Brown <CB@PUCC>
Subject: Delicate spoof

DELICATE SPOOF #2. Why is it that everything Willard writes is
considered sage, everything Kessler writes gloriously mad, and
everything I write "a delicate spoof"? But I assure you that I am
grimly earnest in thinking Lehigh's diploma diminished by their dropping
the language requirement. And it is not a spoof that one cannot really
know English without also knowing something that is NOT English. We
know what is big by knowing what is small, or bigger. The tot who says
"I digged it" knows to perfection the fundamentals of his language and
only later has to learn the crazily aberrant form "I dug." Such
knowledge, slightly enhanced, will get most people through their
linguistically undemanding lives. But suppose you want more than this
minimum? You must stand outside English and look back on it. I knew
that the Earth was beautiful, even in New Jersey, but the lovely NASA
photograph convinced me at last that it really is Nabokov's "orbicle of
jasp." Clarence Brown, Comp Lit, Princeton. CB@PUCC.
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------41----
Date: Thu, 13 Sep 90 15:58:57 -0500
From: ooi@mace.cc.purdue.edu (Jim Porter)
Subject: Learning Languages

I'm all for people learning foreign languages--in fact, I'm for people
learning lots of stuff they don't know. It would be nice if they knew
French and English, better if they knew Latin, French, English, and
economics, better if . . . and so on.

The issue to me is what we are cutting out when we put something else in
the curriculum. Obviously more learning is better than less
learning--but how are we going to make judgments about what to choose
when there is so much to learn? I'm a writing teacher who is very much
in favor of teaching students BOTH grammar and writing. Unfortunately,
the curriculum does not afford the space, at any level, for students to
take grammar, writing, and--to throw in another--literature. Too many
take the choice of teaching grammar in place of writing, ignorant
perhaps of the research that indicates that the study of grammar (in
place of "writing") actually has a deleterious effect on the quality of
writing (see George Hillocks, RESEARCH IN WRITTEN COMPOSITION). An
argument for putting more in ought to make a corresponding argument for
what to take out.

Jim Porter
Purdue University