Saturday, October 4, 2014

Learning to learn


First language acquisition. I read an awful lot about this back at uni and have always been fascinated at how children absorb their first language. I studied how to be a second language teacher (namely English) but the skills needed for that are very different for your first language.

I had always thought I wold conduct little language experiments on my children but I see that everyday is a lesson for me about my own language use in front of my child. I can clearly observe how my daughter is able to infer meaning from repeated sounds, gestures and routines. She is building the passive scaffolding needed for active language generation a little further on the track. Sure, she can mimic all kinds of animal noises but what does that mean for her except fun and games? But when she says, 'nana' and I give her some banana then some meaningful exchange is happening.

There are two books that we read to ad nauseum. Before we reach the the last pages she already puts her finger up her nose and says, 'Shhhhh' mimicking the sleeping animals at the end of the books.


Post completed months later....

Shiri is now 2 years old and her vocabulary and articulation are beyond what I ever expected for this age. We also receive many surprised comments from people who agree that her speech development is quite advanced for her age. We don't feel like we do anything particularly special with her to encourage her ability to speak and speak profusely. As I noted above, she's an amazing mimic. She will copy everything you say quite competently and is able to generate a number of grammatical rules like 'ed' for past tense, 's' for plurals and 'ing' for participles.

Like any language learning enterprise the key is authentic exposure and masses of it. By authentic I don't mean static input like TV or even the somewhat interactive iPad apps or LeapFrog toys. Nothing beats human to human interaction. The back and forth that we engage her in models appropriate language, corrects non-standard speech and also exposes her to new vocabulary and sentences structures.

It strikes me that Shiri loves to repeat little stock phrases: 'Bless you, frog' (after a sneeze), 'I love you so much', 'No, don't do that, Mummy', 'Catch me, Daddy'. Phrases like these fill up her store of conversational starters and continuers. She can initiate conversation as well as encourage us to participate in further conversation with little phrases like these.

When learning a first language or really, acquiring a first language, it astounds me that not only are you breathing in that language, you are creating the scaffold of language learning. When you learn a second language you build on what you already know of language and communication and simply substitute in new vocabulary and new grammar.

My mind now wonders over to my (brand new!) second child - a son, Isaac. His language acquisition will be heavily coloured by Shiri's influence. They will talk to each other and eventually his cute 'interlanguage' will be peppered with linguistic items that neither Nathan nor I understand. His authentic exposure to English will include Shiri's language.

All in all, I marvel at how God has created language. He was the first to communicate. He communicated within the Godhead - between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And then he communicated with his creation. The Word is exactly that - a word. The word. The first word.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Click, click, click


We bought our daughter, Shiri, a few alphabet books. I was struck when browsing alphabet books that the examples chosen by the author would not be the same as what I would choose. The books we we had bought were Africa focused which are of course different from the Australian focused alphabet books I grew up with e.g 'K is for kangaroo' etc. 

What I really found strange was the example for the letter 'X'. The example given is 'Xhosa woman'. I really struggled to understand how this was an appropriate example for this particular letter. As far as I can make out, this book is focused on giving uniquely South African examples for the letters of the alphabet but the alphabet used is the English alphabet. When I read the word 'Xhosa' I read it with the Xhosa pronunciation i.e with a lateral click at the beginning of the word. When the word is used as a loan-word or a borrowed word into English, the word is pronounced more like /'ko:sĘŚ/. 

So I was confused. This word, in English, seemed like a better example for the letter 'K' than 'X'. But why was this word even in an English alphabet book? 'Xhosa' isn't an English word. It's a Xhosa word. The letter 'X' doesn't represent the same sound in English and Xhosa. 

I can only assume that this book isn't really trying to be a piece of genuine English educational material but a small insight into the cultural and linguistic diversity in South Africa. In South Africa there are 11 national languages. I live my life primarily in English but have some interactions in Afrikaans but they are limited to just greetings. It's the same for me with Xhosa. But for the majority of South Africans each day is made up of multiple multilingual interactions and actually the far majority is at least bilingual. I have found that most English speakers will pronounce the word 'Xhosa' with a /k/ rather than attempt the click. I can understand the reticence to attempt a foreign consonant but at the same time I do wonder how much this reticence reveals an underlying issue of language status and power. 

It's a funny thing that even though the majority of South African speak Zulu, English is the language of education and government. Most people, like I said above, are at least bilingual but being bilingual in Swazi and Tswana isn't going to get you as far as if you were bilingual in English and Afrikaans. 

I think my discomfort with this example in a children's alphabet book is that it's a deliberate choice to subvert the Xhosa pronunciation and replace it with an English pronunciation of a Xhosa word. I don't find it to be a cute cultural observation but an acute observation of language prestige. It seems like English is presented as superior to Xhosa.