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Language Acquisition Theories: How they can help you learn

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Make Universal Grammar work for you

In the previous article on modern language acquisition theories, we learned how Universal Grammar forms the basis for a child’s initial acquisition of language and generally how that acquisition actually works. Now we can turn to the practical application of the science.

What do these language acquisition theories mean for the language learner?

First, they mean that age is not any kind of a barrier to language learning. After the age of around ten you can learn language equally well at any age. The deciding factors are motivation, amount of study, degree of immersion etc., but not age.

The current language acquisition theories also mean that you will probably not become fully “native” though you may get very near it. They also tell us what the key to this is:

The more you can map your target language onto Universal Grammar rather than onto your first language, the nearer you can become to native.

Now there is a balance here. Especially in the early stages, learning via a known language is a very important short-cut. Remember that contrary to popular belief, small children do not learn language quickly. The number of “study hours” it takes a small child to be able to express herself even rudimentarily is very large indeed. By mapping onto your already-acquired native language at first you can and do cut down this time radically.

Learning grammar rules, as I have often said, is a quick-and-dirty shortcut to learning language. But it is a shortcut and it does work (here is how to go about it efficiently without getting bogged down in it).

Pseudo-immersion methods, like Rosetta Stone, which try to replicate the small-child-learning process fail for a number of reasons: there is no human interaction, it is not done for every waking hour, but primarily they fail and must fail because the user already knows Language. Whatever happens, she will be mapping what she learns onto her native language—just doing it very inefficiently. At the end of many, many hours she knows a lot of nouns, some verbs, and almost no grammar. If she doesn’t give up at that point, she will, very wisely, invest in a grammar textbook.

So do our language acquisition theories deny the possibility of immersion-learning for adults and older children?

Absolutely not. But these, I believe are the conditions:

1. If you can find a genuine 100% immersion environment—all Japanese all the time with complete isolation from your own language—then absolutely go for it. I envy you. You will learn even with no theoretical teaching—though it will take a long time and will actually be much faster if you have mastered basic grammar first. But having said that, it is probably the best way to learn.

2. Failing that, what can and should you do by way of immersion, and how will it work in accordance with our language acquisition theories?

Remember that our aim is, as far as possible, to map Japanese onto Universal Grammar and not onto English. You should start by learning the grammar through the medium of English (or your native language) because that quick-and-dirty shortcut will give you a big head-start once you begin the real thing.

What is the real thing? It will vary from case to case, but our aim is to think in Japanese, not to think in English and “translate” Japanese back to ourselves. To this end, we should:

a. Imbibe native materials (not for-gaijin Japanese) as soon and as much as possible. I have talked about how to do this via anime. Personally, I do not have any recreational activities in English. Japanese to me, outside of necessary English communications (like this one), is not “a language” but Language per se. If I can’t watch an anime in Japanese (with Japanese subtitles), I can’t watch it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. If I can’t read a book in Japanese, I can’t read it. I don’t allow myself any recreational English activity.

b. Talk in Japanese every day if you possibly can. Whether it is with Japanese friends or other learners. Some people worry about talking Japanese with non-Japanese people, feeling they may “learn wrong” or pick up mistakes. If you are doing a. you should be getting exposed to a lot of correct Japanese through that. But I also believe that even if you are picking up or cementing in some incorrect language that is not nearly as important as the fact that you are using Japanese regularly. Small children don’t always speak correctly, and often their conversation is with other children who don’t speak correctly. But they do use the language because it is, for them, Language per se—the only means of communication. So it should be when you speak Japanese: even if you both know English, if you can’t say it in Japanese, you can’t say it.

Ideally, it is good to have practice partners  with whom you only ever communicate in Japanese. This is important not merely because it extends the amount of time you spend speaking it. The most important element is a subtler, but vitally important, psychological one. You are building a human relationship in which Japanese is the only language—Language per se. Language is the basis of our human relationships, and human relationships are the basis of our initial acquisition and continued use of language.

You see the pattern here. What you are doing is carving out areas of your life where Japanese is not a language but Language per se. You are not practising Japanese, you are using it. If you want to say something to your Japanese-partner friend you have to say it in Japanese because there isn’t another language. If you want to see a movie or play a game, you have to use Japanese because there isn’t another language. Your limitations in Japanese are your limitations, period—at least for the areas of your life that have become Designated J-Zones.

c. Think in Japanese. This is probably the hardest part but also the one that will most effectively map Japanese onto Universal Grammar rather than onto English in your mind. You need to begin putting your internal monologue into Japanese. If not permanently, then at least for designated periods. While this is difficult, it is very possible. You can “dethrone” English from its place as your thinking-language though it takes a lot of ganabaru and a spirit of taihen da kedo zettai ni akiramenai (I definitely won’t give up however tough it gets).

And it will get tough. English will try to hang on to its position as your representative of Language per se—or Universal Grammar—like grim death. Inch by inch you will have to force it out. The more you do this, the more your “first thought” is in Japanese, the more you are mapping Japanese to Universal Language directly rather than to Universal-Grammar-via-English.

By these methods you are forcing your mind, at least to some degree, to map Japanese to Universal Grammar (its root language model) directly rather than via English. Thus you will be using language acquisition theories to your advantage and absorbing and using the language in the most natural manner.

NOTE: Since writing this I have discovered that learning to think in Japanese is much less difficult than I made it sound here if you use the method I recommend. I don’t know if this will work for everyone but it has certainly done wonders for me.

Language Acquisition Theories and What They Mean for Language Learning

language-acquisition-theoriesLanguage acquisition theories have changed a great deal over the last half century. The most popular notions—for example that language learning ability declines with age—are based on ideas half a century old and not supported by the last several decades of research.

The idea that language-learning ability deteriorates with age is largely a myth. What is true is that very small children have one very important advantage in language learning.

Actually they are not that fast. It takes about four years to become fluent, but by no means adept, in one’s native language—and remember that children are “studying” the language almost every waking hour for that time. But their enormous advantage is that they don’t know any other language.

In some ways this is a disadvantage. It cuts out many of the shortcuts second-language learners can (and should) use—definitions of words, grammar explanations, etc. This actually does slow them down in relation to older second-language learners.

But far, far outweighing that disadvantage is the advantage that they learn language organically. They learn to associate words directly with concepts, not through an external medium (another language).

Many current language acquisition theories now accept the concept of Universal Grammar (UG). This means essentially that basic grammar is part of the inborn human mental apparatus. This theory is necessitated by the fact that small children learning language actually know more than they do, or can, explicitly learn.

What small children are in fact doing is mapping the local dialect (the native language) onto universal grammar structure that already exists in the brain. This is why, despite their great differences, the fundamental similarities of human languages are even more striking. They all have something like nouns, something like verbs, and something like adjectives, for example, and they all link them together to form descriptions of objects, events, and concepts in patterns that, while widely various, essentially work in the same way.

In the sentence:

Mary threw the ball at Susan

Mary is the grammatical subject, the ball is the direct object, and Susan the indirect object. English marks these simply by word order. If we say

The ball threw Susan at Mary

the ball has become the grammatical subject, Susan the direct object, and Mary the indirect object, and while the sentence may be absurd, it is perfectly grammatical and understandable.

German and Latin mark these three cases (subject, direct object, and indirect object) by declining the verbs with case-endings, making word-order largely interchangeable. Japanese does the same thing by appending a particle to each noun (ga,* wo, and ni respectively). But all the languages are doing the same thing. They are taking Universal Grammar and expressing it through different local conventions.

So each child begins, not with the tabula rasa (blank slate) postulated by the early-modern language acquisition theories of Rousseau and his followers in the 18th century, but with the fundamental structure of grammar in place and ready to have actual words and local structures mapped onto it.

To this child, the local words and structures she learns become the “incarnation” of Universal Grammar. She does not feel that she is learning “a language” but that she is learning Language. And in a sense, she is. She is learning, or more exactly actualizing, Universal Language in the particular form in which her local culture embodies it.

This is why the “native language” is nearly always more fluent than later-learned languages. To the mind, the native language is Language per se, while any second language is learned through the medium of the native language and therefore is mapped not to Universal Grammar but to the native language. It is a second-level mapping that can never be as organic as the primary mapping.

Many non-specialists are still influenced by 1960s language acquisition theories based on the exploded theory of the brain’s plasticity being greater early in life (it isn’t) and therefore language acquisition being easier at that time. They may point to the fact that a child learning a second or third language very early in life can pick it up to near-native level quite naturally.

The truth here is that the mapping of the local (native) language onto Universal Grammar is still not complete and “hardened”. Small children, even when fluent, still make many mistakes that even the most uneducated adult or older child never makes. Thus with the mapping still in a fluid state, a second or third language is mapped partly onto the first and partly onto Universal Grammar. In the case of a child exposed to two languages from birth, both may be mapped onto Universal Grammar and thus both will be “native”.

Now that we have looked at the basis of language acquisition theories, let us see how we can apply them to learning language in general and Japanese in particular, and especially to the problem of how we can try to map a second language to the Universal Grammar structure in our brains rather than to our first language. Because this is the key to near-native proficiency.

Proceed to: Using Language Acquisition Theories to Learn Language

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*Those who would argue that if wa is used the grammatical subject has not been marked should read my essay I Am Not an Eel.