L’apprendimento naturale delle lingue straniere

Trascrivo integralmente un articolo molto interessante di Antimoon. Spero non si arrabbino.

Cosa si intende per input?

Input è il termine che si usa per indicare “frasi che leggi ed ascolti”. Input è l’opposto di output, che significa “frasi che dici o scrivi”.

Modello di apprendimento della lingua

Ti sei mai chiesto come sia possibile parlare la propria lingua madre così facilmente? Quando vuoi dire, esprimere qualcosa, le frasi esatte ti escono spontaneamente. La maggior parte di questo processo avviene in maniera inconscia: semplicemente, le cose appaiono nella tua testa. Puoi decidere se dirle ad alta voce o no, ma non sai da dove sono arrivate. Questo modello spiega come questo sia possibile:

  1. Ricevi input – leggi ed ascolti frasi in una lingua. Se capisci queste frasi, significa che sono immagazzinate nel tuo cervello. Nello specifico, sono immagazzinate nella zona del tuo cervello che si occupa del linguaggio.
  2. Quando vuoi dire qualcosa in quella lingua (quando vuoi produrre output), il tuo cervello può cercare una frase che hai già letto o sentito in precedenza – una frase il cui significato si accordi con ciò che vuoi esprimere. Il cervello, poi, imita la frase (ne produce una uguale o una simile), così che tu possa dire la “tua” frase nella lingua in questione. Questo processo è inconscio, il cervello lo esegue automaticamente.

Commenti sul modello

Ovviamente, questo modello è semplificato. Il cervello non cerca frasi intere, ma parti di queste. Con queste parti può costruire frasi molto lunghe e complicate. Non si limita, quindi, ad “imitare” una frase alla volta. Usa invece molte frasi allo stesso tempo per crearne di nuove.

Ad esempio, il cervello “sa” che in una frase può sostituire una parola con un’altra equivalente: se ha sentito “The cat is under the table”, può facilmente produrre “The dog is under the table”, o “The book is under the chair” (se ha già sentito e capito i nomi dog, book e chair). Può sostituire più di una parola, come nella frase “The cat is under the big black table”.

Il cervello può anche fare trasformazioni più avanzate. Se fornisci al cervello queste tre frasi,

I like golf.
I like fishing for salmon.
Golf is relaxing.

potrà produrre questa:

Fishing for salmon is relaxing.

Abbiamo quindi una nuova frase, diversa anche grammaticalmente dai tre input precedenti.

Ma queste considerazioni non cambiano il fatto principale: il cervello ha bisogno di input. Più materiale corretto ha a disposizione, più frasi può imitare, riuscendo quindi a costruire meglio frasi nuove.

Il modello di apprendimento della lingua descritto sopra corrisponde alla “comprehension hypothesis” (o “input hypothesis”) elaborata dal professor Stephen Krashen dell’University of Southern California ed è parte del suo “approccio naturale” all’apprendimento della lingua.

Il modello descrive il processo per il quale un bambino impara la lingua madre. Il bambino ascolta i suoi genitori e le persone che lo circondano. Il suo cervello raccoglie ciò che sente e diventa sempre più abile nel produrre frasi proprie. Già a 5 anni, il bambino parla abbastanza fluentemente.

Lo stesso modello funziona anche per le lingue straniere. Infatti noi pensiamo che questa sia l’unica maniera per imparare bene una lingua.

Cosa significa tutto questo per chi sta imparando una lingua straniera

Le parti più importanti di questo modello dal punto di vista di chi sta imparando una lingua straniera sono queste:

  • Il cervello produce frasi sulla base di quelle che ha già sentito o letto (input). Per migliorare il tuo livello linguistico, quindi, hai bisogno di nutrire il tuo cervello con moltissimi input – frasi (scritte o dette) corrette e comprensibili. Prima di poter iniziare a parlare e a scrivere in una lingua straniera, il tuo cervello deve avere a disposizione abbastanza frasi in questa lingua.
  • Non hai bisogno di regole grammaticali. Hai imparato la lingua madre senza studiare i tempi verbali o le preposizioni. Nello stesso modo, puoi imparare anche una lingua straniera.

Come l’input può cambiare il tuo inglese

Se leggi qualche libro in inglese, vedrai come il tuo livello linguistico migliorerà. Inizierai ad utilizzare parole e strutture grammaticali nuove a scuola e nelle e-mail. Ti sorprenderà il modo in cui le frasi in inglese ti usciranno spontaneamente mentre scrivi o parli! Cose come il past simple o l’uso di since diventeranno parte di te. Le userai automaticamente, senza pensarci. Le frasi esatte appariranno da sole nella tua testa.

Diventerà facile usare l’inglese, perché il tuo cervello starà semplicemente ripetendo le cose che ha già visto molte volte. Leggendo un libro in inglese, fornisci al tuo cervello migliaia di frasi in inglese. Ora queste sono parte di te. Come puoi sbagliare dicendo “I feeled bad”, quando hai già visto la forma corretta “I felt bad” 50 volte nell’ultimo libro che hai letto? Semplicemente, non sbagli più.

Sicuramente ti renderai conto dei tuoi progressi durante il tuo prossimo esame di inglese. Ad esempio, nelle domande a risposta multipla “sentirai” qual’è la risposta corretta. Magari non saprai perché è quella esatta, non sarai in grado di dire quale regola grammaticale segue, ma saprai che è esatta. Lo saprai perché l’avrai letta già molte volte.

Questo funziona per tutte le parole e le regole grammaticale. Se leggi in inglese, puoi dimenticarti delle regole grammaticali. Butta via il tuo libro di grammatica! Non hai bisogno di sapere che regole segue il present perfect tense. Non ti servirà nemmeno sapere che si chiama così. Leggi invece un po’ di libri in inglese, e presto saprai che “I have seen Paul yesterday” è sbagliato, mentre “I saw Paul yesterday” è corretto. La prima frase, semplicemente, ti suonerà sbagliata. Com’è possibile? Semplice. Il tuo cervello ha visto frasi come la seconda 192 volte, mentre per la prima il conteggio si ferma a 0.

Sai qual è la differenza tra un madrelingua e qualcuno che sta imparando? Il madrelingua “sente” cosa è corretto. Può dire se una frase suona bene o male, innaturale, e non ha bisogno di regole grammaticali per questo. Lo può fare perché ha sentito e letto migliaia di frasi in inglese nel corso della sua vita. Questa è l’unica differenza tra un madrelingua e qualcuno che sta imparando – la quantità di input. Puoi diventare anche tu come un madrelingua, se ricevi molto input.

Come ho capito che ero un madrelingua (Tomasz P. Szynalski)

Non dimenticherò mai la prima volta che aprii Practical English Usage di Michael Swan. E’ stato alla fine della scuola superiore ed ero già molto bravo in inglese. Il libro era pieno di grammatica inglese e problemi di utilizzo della lingua, come “quando utilizzare below e quando under?” e “cosa si può esprimere con la parola must?”. Per ogni problema c’erano frasi d’esempio che mostravano il modo esatto e sbagliato di dire qualcosa e regole come “Usa under quando qualcosa è coperto o nascosto da ciò che è sopra esso e quando le cose si toccano”.

Ho guardato il libro pagina dopo pagina. Quando leggevo un esempio di frase sbagliata, pensavo: “Certo che è sbagliata! Suona malissimo!”. Quando leggevo una regola, pensavo: “Oh, non sapevo che ci fosse una regola per questo”. Pagina dopo pagina, avevo l’impressione di non conoscere nessuna delle regole scritte nel libro, e… non mi servivano! (E nemmeno volendo avrei potuto impararle tutte). Potevo semplicemente prendere una frase e dire se suonava bene o meno.

Ero come un madrelingua inglese. Leggendo libri, guardando programmi televisivi, ascoltando registrazioni ecc. avevo ricevuto un sacco di input ed avevo sviluppato un intuito naturale per l’inglese.

Ci sono molti esempi di persone che ora hanno un livello di inglese quasi da madrelingua grazie all’input intensivo – ad esempio io, Michal ed altri autori nella sezione Successful English Learners. In un articolo scientifico di Stephen Krashen puoi anche leggere qualcosa su due casi interessanti.

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Due post pubblicati su The Notebook che trattano argomenti analoghi:

Scrivere un blog in una lingua straniera
Perché alcuni scrittori abbandonano la lingua materna

How To Easily Learn Ancient Greek and Latin (1). Poems Assemblage

Modica, a comune in the Province of Ragusa, Sicily. It was the original Greek polis of Μότουκα. It's my picture. I give it to the public domain (the next one too)

[I asked Mario and Extropian for some fun. They helped me to write what I was too lazy to write]

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Along We Are, Together On A Journey

I often try to learn and teach to myself and to others. I’ve always been a teacher.

“A misguiding one” Mario and Extropian are telling me now.

Well, my readers are adult and vaccinated and have supported this rogue of Rome. With only 139 posts to date (a book of 400 pages?) we’ve been engaged in conversations totalling more than 2,300 comments, many of which extremely long (a book of 1500 pages just the comments? More? Less?)

So dear readers, you surely have accompanied me on a mind journey mixing past and present and starting from the viewpoint of a homo medius de Roma. And mind: the journey has just begun.

Brushing Up Ancient Greek And Latin

Since its beginning my research assumed a brushing up of the Ancient Greek and Latin languages, among the rest. Of them I had knowledge albeit rusty and forgotten mostly, after 16 years of Information Technology.

Latin and Greek are important to understand the Greco-Romans.

The Ear of Dionysius carved out in Syracuse's limestone (Sicily). Dionysius I (432–367 BC) used the cave as a prison and possibly liked to hear the amplified screams of his prisoners. The Latomìe close by, made of the same limestone, were the horrible stage where the flower of the Athenian youth found its death.

Not that those who can’t read these 2 languages are not capable of understanding antiquity. I’m not saying that. As for my experience I understood enough of the Russians just by reading their great novels in Italian.

However, it is undeniable, the feel of a folk a language can provide is not only part of the fun of any journey, whether in space or time. Such feel also transmits deep experiences that, in a world increasingly shallow, are precious currency beyond any doubt – or so it seems to me.

Big Poems. Two, Actually

Mario [*exasperated*]: “You wanna defeat Latin and Greek at your age and MAKE US ALL CRAZY??? You wanna do that??? Tell us WTH is your dirty little secret for miracles then.”

MoR: Oh, my dirty little secret. I have a couple. So do me the favour to listen to me:

I propose the construction of two long gradual poems, one in Latin and one in Greek.

How? Via the assemblage of wisely picked passages from the two respective literatures.

With bits of motivation (and dogged spirit) Latin and Greek will be leisurely, leniently, delicately (and deeply) SHOT into our blood, electrifying it wholly.

Extropian: “WOW! Electricity into BLOOD! How stupid of me not having thought of that.”

Poetry is Music, Pure Magic

Muse with lyre, Musée du Louvre, Paris (ca 360 - 340 BC). Fair use

I like poetry immensely, also because it is so close to music. Months ago I met this blog of poems from a certain ‘Woman in a window‘.

“Wow – I said – this woman knows how to reverberate esoteric emotions through words. I adore her and want to write poems too.”

Not that easy, I can’t. And not just in this hyperborean language, but in my own native bastard Latin neither.

Collage game. So I invented the ‘collage game’. I did a little experiment with Walt Whitman, one of my favourite poets.

Every game has its rules. Here were mine:

Walt Whitman, US poet (1819 – 1892)

1) Collection of emotional verbal materials (CEVM). One randomly leafs through Walt Whitman’s (or any other poet’s) pages and when something strikes an emotional note one jots it down and continues until ‘emotional materials’ collected are enough to make her/him happy.

2) Assemblage of  collected (emotional) materials (ACEM). After collecting it’s due time for assembling. Lines get broken down to attain rhythms following our whims plus we add editing. That all should suit our mood & taste is crucial since, if we comply to CEVM and ACEM, the final outcome will magically reflect our feelings and result in sincere poetry expressed with gorgeous words.

COOL isn’t it? Poetry made easy through plagiarism.

Ψ

Extropian: “You will be caught.”
Mario (the Neapolitan):
“Caught? Everybody is stealin’ from everybody man. Go ahead!”
MoR:
“Whitman is long buried and won’t protest but don’t want to wrong him. It was only an experiment, 80% Whitman, 20% me. Emotions? Fifty-fifty possibly. I had pig flu so I was down. It influenced the tone making it all compliant with CEVM and ACEM btw.

BUT, the whole point is THE experiment, not the result (bad).”

Extropian: “Actually I don’t see the point of the experiment.”
MoR:
“Me neither, would I be Man on Roma if I did? Now shut that helluva mouth up and listen to my canzone.”

Ψ

I raise a voice to sing today
With foreign words
A song.

I would like to sing the amplest of poems
And to say of the moon that descends on the Capitol.
But I am no man, my strength is dried up.

“Lift up your head man.”
Oh my strength is dried up
And I am confounded,
My body in deep pain.

“Lift up your heart you man.”
Oh but I am a worm, no man, and
Who are you by the way
to talk to me like that?

[MoR gets upset a bit, but the voice fades away, never to be heard]

Whoever you are I will say:

He’s no man
Whose life was consumed
with chimeras and dreams

and with etc. etc. etc.

Ψ

Two Gradual Ancient Poems Going Backwards

Leaving Whitman behind, our 2 poems will be assembled so as to be gradual in their difficulty, from the easiest to the hardest. We’ll go backwards in time, starting from late debased Latin & Greek [the Greek Septuagint and the Jerome’s Vulgate translations of the Bible] that are much closer to modern languages, hence a lot easier (baby’s talk often, compared to Plato or Cicero.) We’ll then gradually proceed towards the most pure and  classical.

Mario: “A dantesque ascent from impurity to purity?”
MoR:
“No, no, only in language, not content. How can the Bible be impure? Although from a strict linguistic viewpoint the progression from impurity to purity is undeniable.
Mario:
“You wanna disrupt phrases and words as you did with Whitman?”
MoR:
“No. Whitman was just an experiment. The 2 poems will be respectful of the originals. The collage will only imply a choice sequence of appropriate passages – we’ll see along the way.

Readers as well – it is important – will be asked to contribute with passages chosen by them.

We’ll build 2 long poems. It will be fun!”

Extropian: “And the grammar? Nobody learns a language by hurling headlong on texts without any formal preparation.

MoR: “THAT’s my dirty secret, what did you think? Read my post on the nonconscious acquisition of languages.”

The two draft poems are about to arrive.

The Clementine version (1592) of the Vulgate, from the Wikimedia. Click for a larger picture

(to be continued)



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

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger

American, British, French and Italian flags in New York City. Click for credits

This blog is written in a language that is not my own. They say that the older we grow the closer we get to the womb. While I was more drawn to the Germanic languages in my youth I now prefer my mother tongue or any Latin language. Writing in English is hence sometimes a pain to me although English being the first foreign language I got into in my adolescence it’s like a first love one cannot easily forget.

Toiling with Words and Sentences

At times I write directly in English without any problem. Other times I also directly write in English but I am unsure of myself. I continuously correct and rewrite sentences in blog writings and comments. I often paste a passage into a new clean white page, which refreshes my imagination. Sometimes it takes many new white pages to reach a passage that satisfies me, although I’m never satisfied. When I’m tired or when I’m writing something complicated I first write in Italian and I later translate all into English. This also happens when, afraid to let an idea slip away, I quickly jot it down in Italian.

Languages Contain Elements of a Culture

I have stopped blogging in both Italian and English although it has been an instructive experience. Working tightly with two languages was a little bit like thinking with two brains. A language contains elements of a culture. A language brings along a mentality, it brings along attitudes, values and also phrases often with no equivalent in other languages. It is also one good example where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, since for instance – and focusing only on two varieties of the same language – the lexicons of a cultivated American and a cultivated British are almost identical, but the choice of words and the way they are assembled produce something different, one feels it clearly, which is evidence of a different culture underneath. Of course with globalization such differences are getting less evident.

Latin Words in English

English contains a lot of Latin words, but its core is Germanic. The return to the Latin womb brings me to prefer English words from Latin, although I cannot always predict the effect they will have on my readers. ‘Comprehensible’ instead of ‘understandable’ sounds warmer to me, but the effect is formal instead. I mean, it’s not that easy to control the colouration (connotation) of words in a foreign language. Even the main meaning of a word (denotation) can be a problem. The same Latin words in English and Italian are sometimes false friends, namely words that are similar but have a different meaning. Actual for example means real in English but up-to-date in Italian (attuale), while preservative is an additive in English and, well, a condom in Italian (preservativo).

Prose and Rhythm

Writing is hard discipline in any language

I like prose with a rhythm. It is something beautiful which I can hope to attain in my language, not so much in a foreign language I learned through toil. At times I rewrite my English sentences until I find a rhythm that satisfies me. Reading good prose can be of great help and classics are always the best. Which brings me to the last point of this writing, the natural learning of languages.

The Input Method

When I was 14 I flunked English so I had to spend a bitter summer studying. For some weird reason instead of studying grammar I started reading American comic books (Superman) and the Longman series in easy English (now probably absorbed into the Penguin Readers graded collection). I discovered a new world!

I was absolutely delighted by colloquial American English and by these great English literary texts made so easy. My progress was sudden. I therefore applied this method to the study of ancient Greek and Latin by reading the Bible, the only easy text available in these two languages at that time. My progress here was amazing as well and my marks boosted up, much to my schoolmates’ astonishment.

A few years ago I was surprised to see that some people had sort of made a theory out of all this. It is sometimes called the input method in language learning. One learns a language by constant exposure to language input (reading and listening): texts, possibly good, and movies, TV etc. Output (writing and speaking) will come out naturally. It is after all how babies learn a language: they silently listen a lot, then they start speaking as if by miracle. Grammar can be useful at a later stage, to sort out things a bit (and in fact children later go to school). Some people even skip grammar. I once met a French-Canadian who was fluent in 9 languages: “I’m proud I didn’t touch any grammar“ he said.

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I’ve talked a bit about my English blogging experience and about my relationship with this beautiful language. In 3-4 days I will provide infos and links about the tools I use everyday in order to produce decent enough English texts. Hard toil, yes, but great fun as well.

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Other related posts:

Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition