On the miracle of language acquisition


About ten years ago I decided I was fed up of my job and quite fancied a career change. I had a bit of a brainstorm and came up with these options: horticulture; curatorship; TEFL. As I quickly realised I couldn’t tell my hydroponics from my hydromatics (is that even a word or did I just get that from Grease?), my knowledge of art history pretty much extended to some fictionalised Vermeer antics (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and a little bit of Bruegel (Headlong – by Michael Frayn – well worth a read by the way!) it didn’t take long to realise that a little evening class in the joys of teaching the English language to foreigners was in order.

To cut a long story short, this didn’t really pan out for me as a career either (this could have had something to do with a room full of Italian teenagers and my ever so slight lack of any sort of authoritative presence…). However, what I did gain from this experience was a newfound respect for anyone who takes on the beast commonly known as the English Language. My course alerted me to the fact that English is by far the most complicated language in terms of both grammatical structure and massive vocabulary. It is also a living language to boot so this year’s ‘new’ word “selfie” is equally, if not more relevant to a 15 year old Japanese school girl than how to figure out why on earth we insist on a big red car and not a red big car. Its little rules like this that we aren’t even aware of because, lucky old us, we soaked up this information completely unconciously between the ages of two and four.

According to experts the brain circuits associated with language are more flexible before the age of four, offering a possible explanation for why young children are good at learning foreign languages. A study by King’s College London and Brown University tracked the distribution of myelin (a type of cell) through the brain. From the age of four, it was found to become more fixed. I find this absolutely fascinating and kind of wish that I’d done as the Japanese do and got JJ studying Spanish and French as a toddler (I believe the Japanese prefer English – it is the international language of business after all and what self-respecting toddler draws a blank on that all important conference call to Nebraska?).

At the moment I’m finding the nuances of language acquisition coming to life every day as JJ comes out with something not quite right gramatically (“we was in the garden” – “were, JJ, were”) or just not quite right – for instance, last weekend in the garden centre: “Mummy, they’ve got pineapples on the Christmas tree”, me (after a good long look) “Hmm, I think you mean pine cones JJ…”

I’ve just had the sneakiest peak at the related articles I’ve chosen to highlight below and I’m absolutely loving this exploration of what makes English unique, bizarre, evolutionary, and hilarious! To be continued…


Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

8 thoughts on “On the miracle of language acquisition

  1. “we soaked up this information completely unconsciously between the ages of two and four.”

    How much that child soaks up also depends on the lifestyle of the parents. If the parents don’t read and are functionally illiterate or illiterate, the odds are the child’s vocabulary will be much smaller.

    A child from a low-income family enters kindergarten with a listening vocabulary of 3,000 words, while a child of a middle-income family enters with a listening vocabulary of 20,000 words.
    Source: http://www.heartofamerica.org/literacy.htm

    That is a huge gap between the average low-income child and one from a middle income family, and the English language has more than one million words and as you said, adding more all the time.

    Now imagine a elementary grade teacher using a book designed for the kid who started with that 20,000 word vocabulary. What happens to the kid with only 3,000 words?

    • Meltdown?!! You’re right there is a massive gap. Its a sad indictment of our times that good well-rounded, grammatical ‘English’ seems to be losing its value in society as kids are allowed to complete exams using txt spk etc. But equally it must be incredibly difficult and frustrating to try and teach kids in public (US) or state (UK) schools who come into the system with such a gulf of knowledge between them. Ultimately someone is going to lose out whether it be the one slowed down or the one left behind. Thanks for commenting Lloyd.

  2. Although the English language is undoubtedly one of the toughest to conquer, I amazed on a daily basis by how easily absorbed it is for our girls. They really are little sponges 🙂

    • They are! I always try not to ‘dumb down’ my language either and I don’t think anyone should because even if they don’t understand it to begin with they get it in context and soak it in. Just this evening I heard JJ searching for his night-time dummy after lights out and say to himself “this is ridicalous!” – so cute!

      • Haha it’s brilliant when you catch them say things like that. Our 21mo has started saying ‘cool’ and sounds so sweet. I really love it when they start talking, and are really proud of themselves for learning new words.

  3. I laughed so hard at the idea of pineapples on the Christmas tree!

    You are right, English is so difficult. I would be interested to see a study on the social attitudes different cultures have depending on whether they are generally bilingual or not. Like the Dutch. They all seem to speak English. I’m sure it must add something to your thought paths to know more than one way of approaching the same thing.

    • The Dutch amaze me! In fact so does anyone who is fluent at more than one language. As adults some people seem more able to absorb another language than others. Maybe that’s just like being someone who is a natural at maths or something? Just the luck of the draw?

      • I think the idea of absorbing a language as an adult is beyond me. But then, we have so many things to push languages out of our minds as adults. Maybe those who succeed are those who are more motivated?

        It makes me think – the Dutch as a nation have varying levels of intelligence in the population, just as any nation. So there must be something cultural at play.

        Having said that, one of my daughters is talkative and has a very good memory and that helped her in the early years be good at languages at primary. Yet in secondary school her interest has waned a lot. So it’s difficult to say what the natural requirement for a language to sink in is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s