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.

2 comments:

  1. I never quite realised the impact of siblings on language learning, but seeing how much Toby would pick up expressions that had become distinctive of Samantha (not just in words, but also hand gestures and facial expressions) was pretty surprising to me.

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    1. Yes, I find language development within individual families fascinating - twins are especially interesting!!

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