Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

Language Variety. Click for credits.

Second Language Learning

This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.

If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.

Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.

Reading for (Self) Improvement

Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.

1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.

2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.

3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.

4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.

[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we’re not alone in this. Just check ‘literature’ out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]

Book. Click for credits.

What to Read

In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.

Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)

No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.

Old Books. Click for credits.

Writing. Style & Content

Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.

If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.

Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?

But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.

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As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)

A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s (Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.

Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.

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Related posts:

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger
Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Power of Reading
Guess What is Better than Prozac
Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head
Books, Multimedia and E-learning
Locking Horns with a Young Roman
Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

Love Words from Egypt

Cairo. From Ansa. Fair use

The Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz is dominated by the robust personality of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, wealthy merchant, almighty husband and father, pious, stern and inflexible with his family by day, sensual and witty with his male friends and Cairo’s ladies of pleasure by night (Nicole Chardaire). He is the Egyptian patriarch par excellence whom “both men and women throughout the Arab world view … with melancholic nostalgia and admiration” (Sabry Hafez). Among other characters are his wife Amina, submitted to her husband though strong and the real emotional centre of the family, and the young son Kamal, who, unlike his brother Yasine, pleasure-seeking and superficial, is all absorbed in his ideals of poetry and wisdom.

Kamal falls in love with an inaccessible and beautiful young woman, Aïda, who lives in a splendid mansion – thence the name of the second novel of the Trilogy, Palace of Desire – and has spent some time of her life in Paris. The events are set in the first decades of the last century.

While Aïda is away, Kamal is sighing in her absence and remembering. Here are some of his love words (the French translation being in my view better, I add some of it for those who can read this language):

Egyptian jewel

“Ta peau d’ange n’est pas faite pour la chaleur brûlante du Caire. (…) Your angelic complexion was not made to roast in the heat of Cairo (…) Let the sand enjoy the tread of your feet. Let the water and air rejoice in seeing you.”

“Le Caire est vide sans toi. Y coulent tristesse et solitude (…) Without you, Cairo’s is a wasteland exuding melancholy desolation (…) no place in Cairo offers me any solace, distraction or entertainment (…) so long as I remain under your wing, I feel fresh and safe, even if my hope is groundless. Of what use to a person eagerly searching the dark sky is his knowledge that the full moon is shining on earth somewhere else? None … Yet I desire life to its most profound and intoxicating degree, even if that hurts (…)”

“Today, tomorrow, or after a lifetime (…) my imagination will never lose sight of your dark black eyes, your eyebrows which join in the middle, your elegant straight nose, your face like a bronze moon, your long neck, and your slender figure. Your enchantment defies description but it is as intoxicating as the fragrance of a bouquet of jasmine blossoms. I will hold onto this image as long as I live. (…)”

“Don’t claim to have fathomed the essence of life unless you are in love. Hearing, seeing, tasting, and being serious, playful, affectionate, or victorious are trivial pleasures to a person whose heart is filled with love.”

“Ton cœur ne sait plus où jeter l’ancre, il va à la dérive, cherchant sa guérison à travers toutes les médecines de l’âme qu’il trouve tantôt dans la nature tantôt dans la science, dans l’art et … le plus souvent … dans l’adoration de Dieu …”

“Your heart [Kamal’s] could find no repose. It proceeded to search for relief from various spiritual opiates, finding them at different times in nature, science, and art, but most frequently in [religious] worship.”

“Seigneur Dieu, je ne suis plus moi-même (…) Mon cœur se cogne aux murs de sa prison. Les secrets de la magie dévoilent leur mystère. La raison vacille jusqu’à toucher la folie.”

“Oh Lord, I was no longer the same person. My heart collided with the walls of my chest as the secrets of the enchantment revealed themselves. My intellect raced so fast it courted insanity. The pleasure was so intense that it verged on pain. The strings of existence and of my soul vibrated with a hidden melody. My blood screamed out for help without knowing where assistance could be found.”

“Husayin, Isma’il, Hasan and I were busy discussing various issues – Kamal recalls – when there came to our ears a melodious voice saluting us. I turned around, totally astounded. Who could be approaching? How could a girl intrude on a gathering of young men to whom she was not related? But I quickly abandoned my questions and decided to set aside traditional mores. I found myself with a creature who could not possibly have originated on this earth. (…) At last you asked yourself whether there might not be special rules of etiquette for mansions. Perhaps it was a breath of perfumed air originating in Paris, where the beloved creature had grown up.”

Kamal keeps on remembering his first encounter with Aïda: “The charming look of her black eyes added to her fascinating beauty by revealing an agreeable candour – a daring that arose from self-confidence, not from licentiousness or wantonness – as well as an alarming arrogance, which seemed to attract and repel you at the same time.”

References. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of desire, English translation by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny and Olive E. Kenny, 1991, by the American University in Cairo Press, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf.
Naguib Mahfouz, Le Palais du désir, French translation by Philippe Vigreux, Jean-Claude Lattès, 1987, Livres de Poche.

Note on translation. As far as translation of novels and poetry, we usually prefer a beautiful and unfaithful translation to an ugly and faithful one, meaning by ‘unfaithfulness’ only “aesthetic respect of the new language we are translating into” (and possibly not distortion of the original meaning). One might guess that we consider the French version belonging to the former. Yes, we do, although its type of ‘unfaithfulness’ is hypothetical since Arabic is unknown to us.