"The Other Language" or learning from babies

Part 1

“Three days after I was born, as I lay in my silken cradle, gazing with astonishment dismay on the new world round about me, my mother spoke to the wet-nurse, saying: ‘How is my child?’

And the wet-nurse answered: ‘He does well, Madame, I have feed him three times; and never before have I seen a babe so young yet so gay’.

And I was indignant; and I cried, ‘It is not true, mother; for my bed is hard, and the milk I have sucked is bitter to my mouth, and the odour of the breast is foul in my nostrils, and I am most miserable’.

But my mother didn’t understand nor did the nurse, for the language I spoke was that of the world from which I came….”

[Kahlil Gibran, The Madman, Kessinger Publishing – www.kessinger.net]

Hard work for a new born baby to learn a new language! I think that everyone -especially if engaged with the education- should read the whole piece.

After this first scene the novel describes with an effective picture how the training of babies to the understanding of the new language is carried out and how social adaptation and integration into conformist relationships is achieved through the new language acquisition, according to the author’s personal vision. When you read the sad end of the novel, a tricky question may rise up into your mind, whether we should continue to train babies to learn our languages or it would be more beneficial for humankind that we begin to learn theirs…

Assuming that we do have to learn our first and native language [I will call it ‘L1’ according to current practice in literature], we can note that in so doing each human being -while learning his/her native language- adapts the mentality, culture, life style and outlook of those who speak it and put down his or her own roots within the spiritual cultural ground of the community in which he or she grows up.

I have found it really inspiring to observe and explore ‘how’ a new born baby achieves mastery of the ‘new’ language and hope to show the relevance of those observations to the process of second language learning although one may object that the acquisition of the mother tongue is slightly different from learning a second language.

The acquisition process of L1 goes through a repetitive consistent daily learning which involves the whole human constitution since the stimuli to the learning process come from the sounds of the language as well as from movements, gestures, musical elements, visual input, actions, behaviour, implicit links from ‘the new world round about’: all of which give a baby very early on the confidence first to understand, then to use language with the fluency, spontaneity and simplicity that everyone can experience with his or her mother tongue.

A similar acquisition is performed by children learning two languages at the same time from the early years. Supposing for example a child has grown up with the mother speaking English, the father German and the childminder Italian or French or Spanish, that child will relate to the three different people with the language that each of them speaks, without thinking: ‘now I have to speak English, now German, now Italian or French or Spanish’, but just switching magically to the appropriate language! This is a wonderful faculty which may well become real, popular and ‘natural’ for future generations… and indeed bilingualism is already more common than the monolingualism throughout the world…

Part 2

The general drift of life today is propelling us toward a cosmopolitan condition in which children learn very early to speak more than one language. It is still more common that learning a second language follows quite a different pattern from learning the mother tongue.

Experience has shown that people who have learnt a second language late in their life (or even in their youth) rarely achieve fluency and correct pronunciation in the new language, even after years of living in their new country.

There are of course many notable exceptions: on one side we can see children born in one country and moved to a new one in their early years, becoming fully integrated with the new language and sometimes not even speaking the language of the country where their family came from. Just to confine myself to my personal experience, I can cite a few children who moved to the United States at an early stage with their family and never learnt to speak their parents’ the mother tongue.

There are on the other hand children who emigrated with their family to the new country and have very great difficulties integrating and learning the language because the bond of family or nationality was stronger than the social connections within the new community.

In all cases individual attitudes and qualities play an important  role.

What I would like to highlight is that we can experience two different paths: “learning a foreign language” or proceeding to “second language acquisition”. The first path relies on explicit teaching, the second on the ‘absorbability’ of the second language through a process more similar to mother tongue acquisition.

All the educational programmes nowadays include languages as a significant subject in the school curriculum and as a key for a personal development.

Many have taken into account the second approach mentioned above, promoting projects for cultural exchanges between students of different countries, planning more time for the spoken language at school or supporting short or long stay in the other country alongside traditional teaching.

The whole sector of second language acquisition has benefitted significantly from the findings of research over the last fifty years on the learning process and on the development of the brain.

According to this research, the brain of a baby works as a “whole” [or -as someone might say- “holistically”] for the first four to five years of its life, then the two cerebral hemispheres begin to specialise into different functions, the left hemisphere ruling the understanding and production of language and the right hemisphere being relevant to all the “other languages” such as arts, music and all the creative activities and attitudes.

Although there are different theories about second language acquisition it is generally agreed that:

* children have a neurological advantage in learning languages,

* puberty is associated with a turning point in language learning ability,

* the golden age for second language acquisition is between two and about fourteen, after which the brain begins to lose its plasticity and becomes more and more rigid. This diminishing the potential for languages or rendering language acquisition less easy or less ‘natural’.

I find it a wonderful encouragement that the above outcomes have been established scientifically to ground our practical educational wok.

Part 3

In the past -according to experience and common sense- it was possible for instance to point out that learning a second language was easier for children than for adults.

Now it seems that something more may emerge from the latest research. Learning a second language [or more languages] may be connected with a wider capability and flexibility in human understanding, which are exactly the talents we need to develop if we want to achieve a more tolerant, peaceful, meaningful existence.

In the same time those findings stimulate some questions, which I want to simplify with an example of my personal experience.

When I was in the upper school, I was very fortunate to have some very good teachers, having qualities which I would like to see alive in every teacher: imagination in teaching, enthusiasm for their subjects and love for the students. Which means -to avoid any misunderstanding- an attitude of seeing the students -and probably other human beings too- always in their best light and positive potential rather than judging negatively in every little detail.

One of them was my teacher of Philosophy and once he said something like this: “As you get older, your body ages but your spirit can become younger if you have worked on it”.

It was one of those sentences which impress themselves upon you for lifetime. It does however raise a few very basic concerns: is it possible to educate a young human being -let us say the baby in the novel up to the puberty and after in such a way that in later life his or her mind and heart will stay as fresh, agile and alive as in the younger stages and free from conformist thinking and behaving? Is it possible, if the children have grown up with such a good human-centred education, that some doors may stay a little more open between the two cerebral hemispheres to prevent or at least to reduce the rigidity coming after the brain functions split? Is there an educational path which may help human beings learn with the potential of the ‘other side’, I mean heart and limbs for example, not only the brain?

These questions are not intended to direct criticism at well supported theories nor to doubt their validity in the area where they were generated. Indeed, I wholeheartedly acknowledge place they hold.

We now hope that a new human-centred development is possible if we are able to explore insights into the human being which take into account the complexity of all the human constitutional elements, spiritual, psychological and physical; if we eventually have the courage to free ourselves from prejudice and undertake a new educational path deeply related to a more sustainable, harmonious human development.

This hope may become more realistic if we will rise to a different picture of what constitutes a human being and if we can perhaps experience the brain as a small kernel into a wider juicy element working around it and keeping it open to inspirations and impulses for a good future… Who knows?

It is a common experience to meet elderly people with a very fixed rigid mind  but also elderly people with such shining speech and bright thoughts, flexible mind, wisdom, ever-present willingness to learn and enthusiasm for the future!

Where did they get such a magical source of life?

Let’s cherish the hope that the young generations can be educated to achieve this ideal of getting older while becoming younger in their spiritual life; and that good teachers will be able to encourage their pupils toward this goal.

v.r. – january 2009