Image credit: Niharikakohli. (CC 4.0)
Think back to when you first started learning a foreign language. For many readers it was probably French, German or Spanish at school.
I was one of those considered lucky enough to be “good at languages” and I studied all three. Like me though, I imagine you can remember friends who froze at the thought of speaking a second language in class.
The psychologist Albert Bandura called this “social persuasion” – I just call it fear of being shown up in front of your mates. Teachers often define this in terms of “having (or not having) a gift” – student A is good at languages but student B just isn’t.
But there is another argument: that actually language learning has nothing to do with natural aptitude, and much more to do with other factors – such as your learning environment and exposure to language.
Noam Chomsky introduced a controversial idea about learning languages in the 1960s – known as the “language acquisition device”. He suggested that children have an inbuilt universal grammar that enables them to learn any language. In short, learning a first language is easy because you are programmed from birth to be able to do it.
But this concept is a bone of contention among many researchers, because there are logical reasons to disagree with Chomsky’s ideas as he presented them.
The linguist Yukio Otsu for example, made the valid point that the “language acquisition device” did not seem adaptable to different dialects and accents.
Other research has questioned why some people learn languages slower than others. Because if Chomsky’s device existed, then it should – theoretically – automatically activate at the same rate for every learner.
However, a recent study at Florida Atlantic University seems to imply that Chomsky’s device may indeed exist – albeit one that behaves in a slightly different way.
The researchers were looking at the learning of vocabulary and grammar among students who spoke both English and Spanish as first languages. They found that the children developed a separate set of “tools” to cope with each language they learned.
The study was carried out with children in US schools, where both English and Spanish are spoken widely. The researchers found that as the childrens’ English got better – due to being in a largely English speaking environment – their Spanish got steadily worse.
What this means in real terms, is that the students do not just have one “grammar” – or one universal set of rules that covers every language they learn. Because if the children were using the same “rules” or “resources” for learning both languages, the decline in Spanish wouldn’t have happened. Instead, these students were able to create new grammars – or new tools – each one very different.
These findings are interesting because they hint at the brain being able to develop limitless sets of resources – each one unique to the additional language you learn – whether it’s your first, second or even 20th language.
The team that carried out the study suggest that this barrier might be more environmental – based on language exposure – and so not linked to the brain at all.
Put that way, the suggestion that we already have the resources to learn as many languages as we like is possibly a game changer. This is because it could potentially create conditions for everyone – regardless of age or level – to master multiple languages at once.
But while this new study shows the quality of a language learner’s “input” to be key, this is not a major discovery in itself. The linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen has spent years arguing this to be the case.
The quality of “input” or the language exposure students receive is clearly a big factor in the learning of new languages. But how input is delivered could also be just as important. And this can be seen in the changing way students learn languages, both inside and outside the classroom.
We live in a digital world, where our students seem to be more and more inclined to try learning online. And this move towards online learning seems to be getting popular.
Studies have shown how different learners are in a virtual space. They take more risks with language and they appear to be less hesitant to participate. New communities develop in online spaces where students seem comfortable to share ideas, build networks and develop their knowledge together.
The increased use of virtual space means some students are starting to find their identity online. Suddenly, they are exploring their potential without fear of making mistakes.
Take away the fear factor in learning a language, and the possibilities are endless. And it could even mean that being multilingual becomes the norm rather than the exception.
About the Author
Christopher Timothy McGuirk, Lecturer in EFL (English as a Foreign Language), University of Central Lancashire
Becoming Multilingual: Language Learning and Language Policy between Attitudes and Identities (Linguistic Insights)
- Konrad Bergmeister
- Cecilia Varcasia
Studio: Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften
Label: Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften
Publisher: Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften
Manufacturer: Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften
Binding: Kindle Edition
Format: Kindle eBook
This book is a positive voice. It is a voice speaking for those who want to learn their language their way. It is an appreciation of low-budget, high-intensity, low-pressure learning. It is a voice in favour of learning that doesn't need to make economical sense - of multilingualism that transcends the "holiday conversation" paradigm - and in favour of using language for more than a series of predetermined paths.
This book is also a voice of defiance. It is speaking against those who would reduce the world's languages to a series of words. It is against those who would equate language learning with "speaking on holiday." And it is very strongly against the pressure to spend time, money and effort on limiting, constrained and pre-packaged language learning solutions.
This book is to show you that a different route is not only possible, but also more rewarding and much more enjoyable. It may lack the glamour and commercial pizzazz of the mass-marketed "frontal assault" language learning - but it will enable you to find yourself in language - to take what you need from it - and to contribute to the multilingual landscape in a way that's less explored.
Who is this book for?
It is for you, if you want to think a bit more creatively about learning a foreign language. It is for people who fall in love with all the language all the time - and whose motivation for becoming multilingual is the sheer pleasure of having a whole new world in their heads, ears, lungs, and on their tongue.
It is for you, it you're keen to learn a language your way. The book was written by a person who learned, taught, published and managed language education for over 20 years - you don't even need 10% of this time to develop your taste for languages, your budget and your way of learning. If you're determined to have a great time using your new language - then this book will help you do that.
Finally - this book is for you if you're a bit let down by what foreign language learning has to offer. There's that great scene at the beginning of Winnie the Pooh: the Bear is being dragged down the stairs by Christopher Robin, bonking his head on every step. He has that nagging thought that there must be another way of making that journey, and if he could just stop bonking his head on steps, he'd come up with what it was…Well, this book is putting a stop to bonking your head on language-learning steps. This is your chance to look around you, see what's worth your time and money - and what could be replaced by other sources. It would be self-defeating to try to sell you a new way of language learning: this would be just another step to bonk your head on. But I will sell you good questions and demand good answers. And that's enough to point you to your own way down those stairs.
How does this book work?
The first part of the book deals with the "why" - it's a pep-talk, a bird's eye view on language learning and teaching. The second part is the "how" - these are shorter, practical reviews of several popular and effective methods of achieving multilingual life.
You can start and finish anywhere you please - you don't need the first part to pick and choose useful bits from the second section.
The bonus chapters are available online from a password-protected page. Head on to the end of the book for instructions on how to access those!