teaching foreign languages at an early age

A. Katz amnfn at well.com
Wed Jan 12 14:25:17 UTC 2011

It's nice to see people recognizing that there is such a thing as talent, 
after years of the pretense that all native speakers of a language have 
equal proficiency, and that everything depends on exposure.

However, I think we also have to recognize that the degree of difficulty 
post puberty in the acquisition of fluency in a new language depends not 
only on the level of exposure and the specific internal motivation of the 
learner, but also on the extent to which the new language differs from the 
languages that learner acquired fluency in, pre-puberty.

It can't be very hard to learn Spanish, if you already speak Portuguese, 
or to pick up Italian if you already speak Spanish, but when the languages 
are not closely related, and also not typologically similar, it's more of 
a challenge. I found that picking up Russian post puberty was easy, because 
somehow there's a structural similarity to Hebrew, but also because I had 
a good teacher. German was harder to become fluent in, even though it's 
related to English, and I spoke English fluently. Picking up a tone 
language in middle age for the very first time is really hard. Sometimes 
what we think is talent has a little more to do with similarity to a 
familiar language. We piggy back what we can onto existing structures in 
the brain, building new ones only when absolutely necessary.


On Wed, 12 Jan 2011, Tom Givon wrote:

> Actually, I have always thought that 'talent', or whatever you want to call 
> an inherent/innate variable, was a huge predictive factor in post-puberty 
> SLA. But notice that it is much less relevant in natural child-language 
> acquisition, where everybody becomes fluent fairly quickly, albeit with 
> well-known induividual variation. My own informal cumulative observation over 
> the years has been that ca. 5% of the population can learn a 2nd (or 3rd, or 
> 4th) language fluently popst-puberty. As for the rest, it's a struggle, sheer 
> drudgery.  TG
> =========
> On 1/12/2011 5:46 AM, Danielle E. Cyr wrote:
>> In Canada, an officially bilingual country, many if not most of the French 
>> as a
>> Second Language (FSL) students enrol in these programs for political 
>> reasons.
>> Indeed most of our students are first or second generation immigrants. They
>> REALLY aim at becoming the "perfect" citizens, thus at becoming bilingual.
>> However, all are not equally talented for learning a SL. Some end up at the 
>> end
>> of their undergraduate studies with a middle and high school background of
>> French core courses and four years in departments of French Studies with 
>> very
>> little command of spoken French and even less of written French. Others 
>> come
>> out brilliantly fluent in both. They all had the same motivation at the 
>> onset.
>> Once, in a undergraduate course - Linguistics applied to the teaching of 
>> FSL (a
>> course for future FSL teachers)- a student had the idea of having all her
>> classmates to go through a basic multiple intelligences test. Between 1/3 
>> and
>> 1/2 of the class had not languaging as their major form of intelligence.
>> I was too busy teaching overload during that year and FSL not being my main
>> research area, I did not think of searching for correlations between the 
>> test
>> results and the student performance in FSL.
>> Yet the idea of my message here is that talent is a big factor that is hard 
>> to
>> measure although it has to be taken into account.
>> Talmy I agree with you that invoking talent might look like drifting away 
>> from
>> science. However, there must be methodologies for taking it into account: 
>> the
>> heredity factor, family members as role models, broad educational history, 
>> etc.
>> These methodologies should also be used for detecting good (FSL) teachers. 
>> I say
>> so because in the same class I refer to above, more than half of the 
>> students
>> had grand-parents, parents, older siblings, uncles /aunts etc who were also
>> teachers.
>> Excellence in languaging and teaching it might be something partly "gifted" 
>> at
>> birth and reinforce by role models, educational orientations, etc. Science
>> should find a way to account for that.
>> Best,
>> Danielle
>> Quoting Tom Givon<tgivon at uoregon.edu>:
>>> I suppose I should have indicated by some graphemic means that I was
>>> using the terms 'imperial' and 'liberation' tongue in cheek. I think
>>> they pretty much characterize the ideological position of many of my
>>> Catalan friends. But as is the case in at least one other region in
>>> Spain, the ideological/national aspirations of one group cut into the
>>> legitimate rights of another. Internal migration ('imperialism' to some)
>>> in Spain has made all AutonomIas linguistically mixed. It is fun to
>>> speak Anzaluz with the taxistas in Barcelona, and once you get them
>>> going, they will tell you their tale of woes about Catalan linguistic
>>> nationalism. It is not that in Anzaluzia people don't poke fun at the
>>> way NorteNos speak, but at least they don't curtail their civil rights.
>>> These are all subtle details of multilingualism (tho Andaluz is not
>>> recognized as a language). My point remains tho, that once you get in
>>> the midst of ideological nationalist zealotry, science becomes murky.
>>> Best,  TG
>>> =========
>>> On 1/11/2011 9:58 PM, Moore, John wrote:
>>>> Against my better judgement I feel I should add a rejoinder to this;
>>> anything said in this domain is bound to bother many, if not all.  The
>>> linguistic situation in Catalunya is, indeed complex.  However, to refer 
>>> to
>>> Catalan as 'liberation' and Spanish (or Castellano) as 'imperial'
>>> over-simplifies.  Catalan is, of course, the indigenous language of the
>>> region which was strenuously repressed during the Franco period.  Spanish, 
>>> is
>>> also clearly the national language that was imposed, also during that 
>>> period.
>>>   However, since around the 1950s, there was a significant internal 
>>> migration
>>> of of Spanish-speaking Andalucians to Catalunya, who  formed a
>>> guest-worker-like Spanish-speaking underclass.  This leads to the 
>>> question:
>>> how much of many Catalans' aversion to Spanish is because of historical
>>> repression, and how much is due to old-fashion prejudice against an
>>> under-class?
>>>> John
>>>> ________________________________________
>>>> From: funknet-bounces at mailman.rice.edu [funknet-bounces at mailman.rice.edu]
>>> On Behalf Of Tom Givon [tgivon at uoregon.edu]
>>>> Sent: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 5:42 PM
>>>> To: funknet at mailman.rice.edu
>>>> Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] teaching foreign languages at an early age
>>>> Well, maybe it is also worth mentioning that when you get into
>>>> Catalunia, you get into thick layers of language politics and liberation
>>>> ideology. So sometimes it is not all that easy to tell when the science
>>>> ends and something else begins. Of course, Catalunia is not the only
>>>> place where this can be observed. But once you get into the convoluted
>>>> relations between a dominant/imperial language and an
>>>> indigenous/liberation language, it becomes harder to do simple science.
>>>> People have all kinds of axes to grind. Our earlier discussion last year
>>>> about the Israeli-Arabic situation certainly overlapped with these
>>>> issues. I am not so worried about the oft-subconscious effect of
>>>> socio-linguistic factors on SLA. This should be studied as part of
>>>> science. It is the deliberate ideologs that scare me.  Best,  TG
>> "The only hope we have as human beings is to learn each other's languages. 
>> Only
>> then can we truly hope to understand one another."
>> Professor Danielle E. Cyr
>> Department of French Studies
>> York University
>> Toronto, ON, Canada, M3J 1P3
>> Tel. 1.416.736.2100 #310180
>> FAX. 1.416.736.5924
>> dcyr at yorku.ca

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