To blog or not to blog thought I, whilst upon the beach I lay. In the end Moby Dick was more attractive.
Living in France, I often wonder if reading English literature is all that keeps me from succumbing to the world of so-called ‘Franglais’. One of the most notable culprits is the word normal. In French, the word normalement can be used in the sense of “supposed / expected to be,” e.g. “Normalement la réunion sera fini avant midi,” which when translated pragmatically means, “The meeting should / is expected to finish by midday.”
To say “Normally the meeting will finish by midday,” is unnatural, and an example of a ‘false friend’. The problem I, and many English expats, have is that we are exposed to these kinds of expressions every day. We often refrain from correcting our conversation partner for fear of offence. This leads to our eventual replication of such false friends in conversations with foreigners, sometimes even with other Anglophones.
Imagining the implications for language learning in general is fascinating. This means that the language centre of the brain, even in the oft considered ‘cemented’ bastion of the ‘mother-tongue’, is open to change, and is influenced by the users immediate environment and what structures or language they hear most frequently.
This reminds me of research presented on TED.com by Patricia Kuhl when she tested babies on how well they can recognise common phonemes in different languages. She found that between 6-8 months and 1 year old, a critical stage in sound recognition occurs, and American babies who before didn’t distinguish between English or Japanese phonemes, suddenly reacted more quickly to the former than the latter, and vice versa for the Japanese babies. She proposed that these babies were taking statistics of the sounds they heard in their immediate environment. If this is already happening at such a young age, what’s to say adults don’t continue this statistical analysis of their environmental language?
This would help explain, for example, why young children can very easily learn and internalise new words (e.g. The Wug Test) but are not so easy to trick into making mistakes. We can imagine us having a statistical record in our brain that creates a ‘feeling of correctness’ that most native speakers claim to have, that is, something is correct or incorrect simply because it feels right or wrong. It follows to my mind that even as adult native speakers, if we are exposed to daily language input in our immediate environment that is technically wrong, it will eventually influence this dichotomy.
If environmental input is so powerful, and seemingly uncontrollable, it makes yet another strong case for the natural approach to language learning. We cannot necessarily control what students learn, so why try to pre-define what we intend to teach them?
A more practical approach could be leaving what the student’s brain picks up from the environmental input to chance, then asking the student themselves to reflect after the class on what they feel they learned. This way, language input is not pre-defined, rather it is identified retrospectively.
I would like to experiment further with the idea of increasing and diversifying environmental input to maximise the chance of language learning. To do this, I’ll conduct some lessons outside the walls of the classroom and have the students make notes on their experience in journals. The principles of Dogme language teaching will be useful here, as its focus on natural learning fits perfectly to this idea of Locational Learning.