mercredi 7 avril 2010

A child's guide to language acquistion - documentary

A child's guide to languages

This excellent documentary compares the ease with which children learn languages, compared to the difficulties that teenagers/adults face when learning languages. Not sure who it's produced by or when it was made (seems to be 80s) but I found it a fascinating and informative documentary to watch and learn from. I have typed out some parts of the video (about a half of it).

...Children pick up language in their own way and in their own time. Attemps by adults to interfere don't usually have much effect.

Prof. Stephen Krashen, Dept. of Linguistics, University of Southern California: "Error correction doesn't help acquisition. We have a lot of evidence for this. Parents only correct a very small part. They correct verbs like 'goed' and 'went', they correct pronunciation and they correct dirty words and that's about all. All the rest of the grammar grows by itself."

Dr. Jean Aitchison - Senior Lecturer in Linguistics: "Oddly enough, parents seem to praise their children when they tell the truth and not when they speak well so that if a child showed a mother a teddy bear with a sock on and said, "Teddy sock on" - which isn't very good English - the mother would say, "Yes dear. Quite right. Teddy's got a sock on." but if the child said, "Look mother, my teddy has a sock on" which is quite good English but there was no sock on the teddy bear then the child would get disapproval, so one American researcher has said that if approval and disapproval worked you'd find children growing up speaking the truth but ungrammatically. And in fact they do the opposite."

This ability to pick out language in the noise of speech, to absorb the words and grammatical rules unconsciously is called language acquisition. We can all do it when we're very young. And it works. It works for one language, for two, for three, or for more. But why does it work? And why does it appear to work best when we're very young?

"If language skills are centered in the brain, does the fact that the brain is developing the fastest when we're young explain young children's apparent success? If language can only be acquired during the period when the brain is malleable and developing fast up till the age of puberty then have adults simply missed the boat?

Dr. Jean Aitchison - Senior Lecturer in Linguistics: "Children do seem to learn languages amazingly quickly if you don't look at them carefully. When you look at them carefully you'll find that it isn't so magic as was once thought. In 1967 there was an American, Eric Lenneberg who thought up the critical age theory that between the age of 2 and 13 children did have some special propensity for acquiring language and this seemed to explain a lot, and most people became very enthusiastic about this theory. However, after the initial excitement had died down and people started looking at his strands of evidence more carefully, it was found that a lot of them really didn't stand up to the test of time."

In the mature brain, language is usually in the left hemisphere. But it doesn't begin life that way. In the early years, the language area (in the brain) is much more spread out. Lenneberg claimed that the period in which language became concentrated in the left side of the brain, coincided with his critical age for language. The process was completed by age 13. This explained why children found language was easier. But he was wrong. We now know that the process is completed much earlier, by about 5, not 13. And it begins not at 2 as he thought, but much earlier. It's even going on in the womb. The evidence doesn't support that critical age theory.

Nevertheless, the theory was influential enough to inspire a large experiment in the 60's to introduce French in primary school. To many people's surprise, the younger children didn't do very well. And they later compared these with the ones who'd begun secondary school French as usual, and they'd found little difference. The report concluded: "Pupils taught French from age 8 do not subsequently reveal any substantial gains in achievement." Since then, research has shown, that contrary to popular belief, young children are very inefficient learners of everything, including languages. Apart from pronunciation, young children are not really that good.

A recent volume of research papers comparing children and adults found "the 3-5 year olds scored consistently worse than older groups on all tests... it does not support the critical age period hypothesis for language acquisition."...

If children had to learn languages under the same conditions as most school children or adults they'd be the dunces of the class. But of course, they don't. Most young children get their language in a quite different way. They do it by growing up in a pretty perfect environment. Not for language learning but for language acquisition. They have plenty of time, they're not under pressure and they're unaware for the most part that they are doing it. If we follow their method we should be able to do even better...

...Adults may be smarter than young children but they expect much more of themselves and they expect it much more quickly. Anxiety, error correction, over emphasis on formal grammar all have the effect of producing a barrier to language acquisition. Thus, many adults convince themselves they're just no good at languages. By comparison, young children have none of these disadvantages. For the most part they are unaware of language. It's secondary to whatever they're using it for. Their mistakes aren't continually corrected. And most important, they are allowed to be silent. No one can make them talk before they're ready...

Children succeed at languages because they always get 3 things:
1. Lots of comprehensible input
2. A stress-free environment
3. Nobody forces them to talk until they're ready, the right to be silent.

...Total Physical Response... it's based on the way we acquired language as a child through the commands we get from our parents. "You can see TPR operating beautifully by simply observing a mother and an infant. The intimate relationship between the language and the child's body. If we can simply follow nature's blueprint, this entire language acquisition process can be very graceful and very enjoyable. There's absolutely no reason that it has to be a frustrating, painful, failure experience repeated. It's inexcusable.

It's not just fun. TPR's been evaluated probably more often than any other language teaching technique. In beginner's classes it totally outperforms conventional methods.

..What the Canadians have done. This school is in Toronto. There are hundreds like it all over the country. The children all come from English-speaking families and watch English language television. They are typical of North American children. And yet when playtime ends, it's as if they've entered a different country. ..

All of the schooling is provided in French. The child arrives at Kindergarten and is greeted by a teacher who speaks French but understands English so the children are completely comfortable. They can speak in English to the teacher but the teacher will always respond in French. After a year, these 5-year old children are confident in French and use it naturally for all their lessons. At the outset of the scheme, many people were worried that the children would lose their English and what about their academic progress? Would they learn science and other subjects properly? And would they really learn French?

You cannot pick up a journal in applied linguistics without reading the reports of some immersion programme or other and it comes out remarkably uniform. Here's what they have found:
1. The children don't forget English. They have language arts in English, they go home to an English speaking community and they do fine in English.
2. They learn their subject matter just as well as kids educated in English.
3. They acquire LOTS of French.
They are not perfect in French when they finish but they are very good. After 5, 6 years, on certain tests they come close to or match native speakers. You do see mistakes. They do have an accent. They'll say things like j'ai tombé instead of je suis tombé but their French is good enough so that they can use it easily outside the classroom. They have met that standard of being a genuine intermediate. And I'm told from Canadian researchers that when these children do finish school they often do go on to French-speaking universities and they do that fine. They are in that position where they can continue to utilise that language outside the class and continue to improve.

What have we learned from immersion? What we've learned from immersion is that subject matter teaching, when it's made comprehensible, is language teaching.

...100,000 Canadian children are now enrolled in French immersion and it always works. Successful immersion doesn't depend on age. It depends on making the subject matter comprehensible.

How has the rest of the world responded? The United States now has a few immersion schools but what about Britain? Apart from Wales, which has had its own Welsh immersion schools for decades, there's almost nothing. Why are the British so bad at languages?

Prof. Nigel Reeves, Dept. of Linguistics and International Studies, University of Surrey - "Teachers teach to the syllabus of the GCSE examinations. They see they have little choice and the GCSE boards until recently, have been very conservative in their approach to language examinations. They've been academic. The written skills have had more value attached to them than not, more than oral and aural skills. I think that the A levels in particular has quite a lot to answer for. A large part of the A levels afterall, consist of the discussion in English, of foreign language literary texts. The candidates write their essays in English. They discuss the texts in English. The only French or German they are learning through this process is really the French or German of the text itself. And since the texts are often not contemporary and certainly of literary style, it doesn't serve this objective of communication very adequately.

...There are very good reasons for for learning foreign languages. In fact only 25% of our export market are English speaking now. The other 75% are not. Over 50% of our exports go to Western Europe and people and people in Western Europe expect you to have the decency to speak their language if you're going to sell to them. When the British Overseas Trade Board investigated the matter in 1978 under the chairmanship of the Duke of Kent, we interviewed a number of the commercial counsellors who worked for British Embassies abroad and they made it quite plain that many business opportunities were being lost because we weren't approaching the foreign customer in their own language."

The Dutch and the Scandinavians are exposed to far more English as a foreign language than we are to French or German as a foreign language. Practically every pop song is in English. Pop songs carry great weight amongst children. Every evening on television there are English films being broadcast with subtitles so a large part of their viewing takes place in English. It's almost like living for part of their life in Britain and that's the key to learning any foreign language: residence abroad. We don't have that. Look at the BBC's example. Whenever a politician is being interviewed, the moment he/she starts to speak, the sound is turned down, and the translation is offered in English, not subtitles. We're never offered the chance to try to grasp what the person is trying to tell us in the foreign language.

The British are the victims of speaking a world language. So we need radical methods to force us to take other languages seriously. Like the Canadians, we must use the classroom as a foreign country.

"The job of a classroom is to give you the comprehensible input that you cannot get on the outside. That's what classrooms are for."

...The best place for languages is school. Enough is now known about the process of language acquisition to suggest that language teaching can be more effective and more enjoyable. Languages don't have to be learned very young. Rather, we have to create, in the classroom, the perfect language environment which most children take for granted. Comprehensible use of language about relevant and interesting things and not making people talk until they are ready.

18 months ago, these Canadian children knew no French. Now, even though they live in an English speaking city, French is part of their lives. Like other British babies, Kirsty will have no problem acquiring her first language, English. But, unless there's a radical change in attitude and approach beginning in our schools, English will probably be the only language she will ever speak.


David a dit…

Thank you for posting this video collection. I am currently writing an essay about first language acquisition and this programme was very interesting.

However, you seem to have posted part 3 of the clip twice! I found part 4 on you tube:

La Petite Blogueuse a dit…

Hi David,

Glad you liked it and thanks for pointing out my mistake. I've edited the post so part 4 is there now. Happy essay writing :)

David a dit…

Mademoiselle Blogueuse

There is another Horizon documentary on language acquisition entitled “Why do we talk?” It was first broadcast in 2009. I haven’t watched it yet, but it will be interesting to see how far our knowledge has progressed since the 1983 documentary.

Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube. The first clip is at:

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