9.1.1 Universals and Definitions, from Sarah Harmon
As we talk about language acquisition, both child language acquisition and adult language acquisition, it's really important to keep a few universals and a few definitions in mind. Before we actually start off with those universals and definitions, I'd like to tell a couple of stories, both of which were told to me and have been documented by someone else; they actually come from journal articles publications. They encapsulate so much about what it's like to learn a language from a child's point of view.
Let me start with the first one. This little boy, who was about three, has this plastic fish toy, but he doesn't say fish with that post-alveolar fricative; he says [fɪs], so he swapped [ʃ] for [s], right? That's what he produces. Whenever we do these kinds of data collections with children, we always have adults present, usually the researcher, perhaps the parents, etc. There's always some kind of interaction, and, in this case, a researcher worked with the little boy. So, the child is playing with this plastic fish, and the adult decides to use the same pronunciation as the child.
- The adult points to the toy and says, “Is this your [fɪs]?”
- The little boy says, “No, this is my [fɪs].”
- The adult tries again: “Yes, this is your [fɪs].”
- The child is still confused: “No, this is my [fɪʃ].”
- The adult pivots and says, “Oh, this is your [fɪʃ].”
- The little boy says, “Yeah, this is my [fɪs]!”
You probably have come across something very similar to that with either your own children, your siblings, or any other young child who's about three or so.
A different scenario, in this case you've got a bilingual situation. The child is about the same age, about 2.5-3 years old, and is a French-German bilingual. Usually in those cases, one parent speaks one language, while the other parent has the other language. You can think of eastern France, western Germany, and Switzerland as well, where French and German bilingualism would be very common. This child is with his father; this is another again very common setup where the investigators are just observing the interactions between the child and the parent. In this case, the little boy has a bunch of different things that he's playing with, and one of the things that he has in his box of toys is a button. Normally the child uses German with the father.
- The father points to the button and says [lnopf], which is the German word for ‘button’.
- The child says [nop].
- The father tries again [knopf].
- The child tries again [nop]. He's not quite getting the pronunciation down.
- Father tries a third time and says [knopf].
- The child thinks, “To heck with this, I am switching languages,” and he says [butõ].
This concept of the child maybe not able to produce, but as able to understand, and in the second case, with some more tools under his belt. I want you to keep in mind both of these scenarios throughout all of this chapter, whether we're talking about child language acquisition or adult language acquisition, because they are very much an exemplar of what is typical in language learning situations.
To start off with this section, and with this entire chapter, we really have three main questions that we're going to answer:
- We're going to talk about how humans learn their first language;
- We're also going to talk about humans learn an additional language, both as a child and as an adult.
Those three are different setups or different questions for a reason and we'll come back to it later; anyone that tells you that to learn a language as an adult is exactly the same as learning it as a child is lacking an extreme amount of information. We'll get to that soon enough.
Both of the stories that I brought up. and, in fact, everything having to do with language, comes down to this question of competence versus performance. I talked about that in the first chapter, but just to refresh your memory a bit, competence is also considered knowledge. If we think about it that way, knowledge or competence is what you know of a language. The performance is how will you use it. To put it another way, language is a skill. Using this skill, using this tool, is part understanding what you have to do, but also part performing the action. If I want to learn how to cook, I have to understand a couple of basic principles: how to turn on a heat source, how do extinguish said heat source, how to gain water and make it do different things. You don't need tons of knowledge—the old saying is, if you can boil water, you can cook—it's not entirely true but certainly it's a basic first step. The same is true from language; language is a tool and using it is the skill. We have to understand basic concepts before we can produce them. Just because we can't produce them does not mean we don't understand them; I’m a very advanced cook and can basically cook anything—I don't just mean an American sense; I mean literally I cook cuisine from around the world and have learned techniques from around the world. I can cook just about anything. Most of you probably do not have that skill set; you just haven't learned it yet. But you can taste everything for the most part. You can go to a restaurant, regardless of its cultural background, regardless of the techniques that they use, and you can taste the different textures and flavors, and smell the aromas. You can understand the food; you may not be able to reproduce that soufflé or that barbecue, or anything else that you're eating, but you can understand the food and the flavors. Language is the same thing; language is a tool, and using it is a skill. You have to understand it before you can perform it. You can understand a lot more than you can perform for any language that you're still trying to acquire.
It always makes me giggle in my Spanish classes, when a student tells me that they can understand Spanish better than they can speak it. I tell them that's because they're a normal human being; this is what we do. We comprehend before we can perform.