Psychology of language learning


in Geek stuff, Psychology, Science

Continuing with the introductory psychology course I mentioned earlier, I have gotten to the section on language. A few of the things mentioned in it seem to have quite a bit of practical importance:

  • Elaborate language learning tools like flashcards are pointless, for teaching children language.
  • Pre-pubescent children are fundamentally more capable of learning languages than people beyond puberty, who will likely never be able to speak new languages without an accent.
  • Children learning two languages at once learn both just as fast as children learning only one or the other.
  • Being intelligent and social is not sufficient for a being to be capable of learning language. For instance, mutations in certain human genes can prevent people from ever being able to speak or understand language.
  • There is a strong genetic component in the ability people have to learn languages; those with parents skilled in the task are likely to be skilled as well.

The take-home message seems to be that if you want to give a child linguistic advantages, expose them to two or more useful languages as young as possible.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan April 23, 2010 at 1:48 am

These points confirm my general feelings towards learning languages. I feel very lucky that I was placed in a french immersion situation from the beginning of elementary school. I actually tried to write that sentence in french, but my grammar and spelling is not something I want posted on the internet. Still – languages are mostly for expressing ideas and communicating, grammar is a secondary issue.

Unfortunately, the ease with which I learned French is a major reason I have little interest in learning German, despite it’s obvious scholastic advantage for someone in my situation. It’s depressing to know I could never deal in German as well as I already deal in French – why even try. Better to concentrate more on French writers instead.

Milan April 23, 2010 at 8:35 am

This is also interesting:

The slave trade revolving around tobacco or cotton or coffee or sugar would tend to mix slaves and laborers from different language backgrounds, in part deliberately, so as to avoid the possibility of revolt. What would happen is these people who were enslaved from different cultures would develop a makeshift communication system so they could talk to one another. And this is called a “pidgin,” p-i-d-g-i-n, a pidgin. And this pidgin was how they would talk. And this pidgin was not a language. It was strings of words borrowed from the different languages around them and put together in sort of haphazard ways.

The question is what happens to the children who are raised in this society. And you might expect it that they would come to speak a pidgin, but they don’t. What happens is, in the course of a single generation, they develop their own language. They create a language with rich syntax and morphology and phonology, terms that we’ll understand in a few minutes. And this language that they create is called a “creole.” And languages that we know now as creoles, the word refers back to their history. That means that they were developed from pidgins. And this is interesting because this suggests that to some extent the ability to use and understand and learn language is part of human nature. It doesn’t require an extensive cultural history. Rather, just about any normal child, even when not exposed to a full-fledged language, can create a language.

And more recently, there’s been case studies of children who acquire sign language. There’s a wonderful case in Nicaragua in sign language where they acquire sign language from adults who themselves are not versed in sign language. They’re sort of second-language learners struggling along. What you might have expected would be the children would then use whatever system their adults use, but they don’t. They “creolized” it. They take this makeshift communication system developed by adults and, again, they turn it into a full-blown language, suggesting that to some extent it’s part of our human nature to create languages.

Also, every normal human has language. Not everybody in this room can ride a bicycle. Not everybody in this room can play chess. But everybody possesses at least one language. And everybody started to possess at least one language when they were a child. There are exceptions, but the exceptions come about due to some sort of brain damage. Any neurologically normal human will come to possess a language.

If you plan to have children, tht could be one good reason to learn a new language as an adult, even imperfectly. From the exposure to your imperfect German, they might be primed to eventually speak it much better than you.

All this reminds me of Anna Karenina, in which one of the aristocratic households varies languages by day of the week, for the benefit of the children.

Milan April 23, 2010 at 6:11 pm

This lecture includes some fascinating information on how our memories are flawed, how false memories can be implanted (intentionally and by accident), the nature of hypnosis, etc:

Conscious of the Present; Conscious of the Past: Vision and Memory (cont.)

Lessons implied include not being too confident about eyewitness testimony, or the memories of people who have been subjected to guided forms of questioning, especially by figures like the police or psychologists.

Tristan April 23, 2010 at 9:38 pm

If you are interested in the ways consciousness is flawed more generally, you may really enjoy Jordan Peterson’s talk on the role of motion in cognitive framing.

The following link is to a blog post, with links to a paper and two different talks:

. September 9, 2010 at 1:24 pm

“Language researchers have long used their children as subjects. All parents feel a sense of wonder as they watch their children piece together their first words, and their first phrases; scientist parents can’t help but feel professional curiosity as well. Because some have given in to the pull of this curiosity and turned their observations into data, we’re a little bit closer to figuring out the mystery of how humans acquire language.

One of the early notable studies of a child by his parent was published by the philosopher Dietrich Tiedemann in 1787. From Tiedemann’s careful notes we learn that his son Friedrich began to communicate by pointing at 8.5 months, that he first said “duck” and “potato” at 23 months, and that he had a much easier time pronouncing p, t, and k than z, w, and sp. In those days there was plenty of philosophical discussion about the nature of children and what they knew when: Were they blank slates, or did they possess innate knowledge? Did they understand concepts before language? For the most part, these issues were debated in armchairs. Tiedemann’s approach was more practical: Here is a child, let’s see what he actually does. He rejected anecdotal evidence and out-of-thin-air wisdom, relying instead on carefully recorded observations. His study didn’t settle the blank-slate debate at the time, but it encouraged others to try an empirical approach to scholarship. Tiedemann’s conclusion—that children do, in fact, posses some pre-linguistic knowledge—has since been borne out by a couple centuries’ worth of research.”

. September 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm

The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. “We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

Anon January 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm

. January 31, 2012 at 9:01 pm

The British are probably the world champions of euphemism. The best of these are widely understood (at least among natives), creating a pleasant sense of complicity between the euphemist and his audience. British newspaper obituaries are a rich seam: nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, yet many enjoy a hint of the truth about the person who has “passed away”. A drunkard will be described as “convivial” or “cheery”. Unbearably garrulous is “sociable” or the dread “ebullient”; “lively wit” means a penchant for telling cruel and unfunny stories. “Austere” and “reserved” mean joyless and depressed. Someone with a foul temper “did not suffer fools gladly”. The priapic will have “enjoyed female company”; nymphomania is “notable vivacity”. Uncontrollable appetites of all sorts may earn the ultimate accolade: “He lived life to the full.”

In the upper reaches of the British establishment, euphemism is a fine art, one that new arrivals need to master quickly. “Other Whitehall agencies” or “our friends over the river” means the intelligence services (American spooks often say they “work for the government”). A civil servant warning a minister that a decision would be “courageous” is saying that it will be career-cripplingly unpopular. “Adventurous” is even worse: it means mad and unworkable. A “frank discussion” is a row, while a “robust exchange of views” is a full-scale shouting match. (These kind of euphemisms are also common in Japanese, where the reply maemuki ni kento sasete itadakimasu—I will examine it in a forward-looking manner—means something on the lines of “This idea is so stupid that I am cross you are even asking me and will certainly ignore it.”)

A thematic taxonomy of euphemism should have a category devoted to commerce. Business euphemisms are epitomised by the lexicon of property salesmen. A “bijou” residence is tiny (it may also be “charming”, “cosy” or “compact”). A “vibrant” neighbourhood is deafeningly noisy; if it is “up and coming” it is terrifyingly crime-ridden, whereas a “stone’s throw from” means in reach of a powerful catapult. Conversely, “convenient for” means “unpleasantly close to”. “Characterful” means the previous owner was mad or squalid. “Scope for renovation” means decrepit; “would suit an enthusiast” means a ruin fit only for a madman.

Personal ads provide an entire subgenre of euphemism. “Cuddly” means “fat”. “Romantic” means needy and clingy. “Old-fashioned” means inconsiderate sex (if male) or infrequent (for females). “Outgoing and fun-loving” mean annoyingly talkative, promiscuous or both. “Open-minded” means desperate.

. March 11, 2012 at 11:20 am

German dialects
Teenagers’ argot
Purists may disapprove, but multi-ethnic dialects are spreading

THIRTEEN languages in Germany are on UNESCO’s endangered list. Kiezdeutsch, the argot of inner-city teenagers, is not one. “Morgen ich geh Kino,” meaning “Tomorrow I’m going to the cinema,” a young Kreuzberger may say. In standard German that would be “Morgen gehe ich ins Kino”, with the verb restored to second place and a missing “to the” added. Words borrowed from Turkish (lan, meaning dude) and Arabic (yalla!, or come on!) might also intrude.

You will hear such language in Berlin and other big cities. Most Germans assume that the speakers are immigrants or their children. Not necessarily, says Heike Wiese, a linguist at the University of Potsdam who has written a new book on the topic. “All types of kids in multilingual areas,” including those with German roots, speak Kiezdeutsch. There are foreign analogues: straattaal (street language) in the Netherlands; Rinkeby-svenska, named for a multi-ethnic Stockholm neighbourhood in Sweden.

. September 22, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Equipping pupils to prosper in the global economy is at the core of the Avenues curriculum, which has been developed by various experts including some from Harvard’s School of Education. Mr Whittle thinks that even America’s best private schools have a “stale” curriculum in this respect, especially when it comes to foreign languages, which often are not taught until pupils are 11. From the day they enter kindergarten at Avenues, pupils will be taught half their lessons in a foreign tongue, either Mandarin or Spanish—an “immersion” process that Mr Whittle reckons will make every pupil fully bilingual within seven years.

. July 2, 2018 at 7:09 pm

To master a language, start learning it early
New evidence suggests a drop-off in results after the age of 17

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