Friday, October 31, 2014
Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 8
The Child Approach, or Dancing Until You Are Exhausted
Often, a so-called ‘natural’ or ‘child’ approach to studying a foreign language is set forth and even practiced to some extent. Usually, this method is imposed upon adults in the form of singing children’s songs, reading clumsy poems written during a hangover by balding, pot-bellied men and other similar futile endeavours.
The logical basis of this method is the following: you must approach the learning of a foreign language as children do since neither you nor they know this language but are only making an attempt to become proficient. The followers of this approach assure us that children learn a language by singing songs, reciting poetry and dancing inexhaustibly day and night.
They suggest that you, my friend, should become similar to these little angels with their innocent little toys and that the ability to chatter in a foreign language will immediately come to you like singing does to birds.
There is definitely some logic in this argument. Children certainly are not born able to speak; they have to learn how to do it just like we have to learn a foreign language. Why, nevertheless, do I feel like asking (from the back row of the class) one very simple question: where, in what circus, have you seen children singing, dancing and reciting poetry at the age when they uttered their first words? Show me those little monsters—I want to see them, here and now!
Clearly, my question was purely rhetorical since such freakish children are not and never have been in existence.
For children, the learning of a native language does not start with performances of sappy poems and songs of dubious quality; children in general do very little singing, poetry reciting and least of all dancing, in the process of their natural development. Normally, these activities are enforced by adults. What it does start with is months and years of observing their parents and other members of their families and attentively listening to how and to what they say to the children and to each other.
That is how a language is really assimilated by children: first through hearing, then through listening, then through understanding with the use of deep internal analysis and, when ready—through imitating the native speakers around them. Do not let the fact that it takes children months and years before uttering their first words disturb you, my dear friend. You and I have one great advantage—we are no longer children! Unlike children, we are able to control this process, manipulate it, make it richer and less extensive, while preserving its main principles:
Hearing, listening, analysis, imitation.
So let’s really start learning a foreign language like children, but without wearing diapers, drooling and sucking on pacifiers. We, my smiling and grown-up friend, couldn’t do it anyway; unfortunately, this golden age is irretrievably gone for us.
[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]