Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

July Books 7) How Languages are Learned, by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada

A textbook mainly for language teachers (which I am not), from which I got two interesting things. The first is that it's amazing how little we actually know. Even the apparently obvious point that children find it easier to learn languages is only weakly backed up by research. There's obviously a big difference between learning your first language (or languages) and learning another after you can already talk. But I didn't feel that researchers had got much beyond accumulating data.

The second point is that one of the things that is known is that some grammatical elements are easier to learn than others. Take this list of English grammar points:
  1. present progressive –ing (Mommy running)
  2. plural –s (Two books)
  3. irregular past forms (Baby went)
  4. possessive 's (Daddy's hat)
  5. copula (Annie is happy)
  6. articles the and a
  7. regular past –ed (She walked)
  8. Third person singular simple present –s (She runs)
  9. Auxiliary be (He is coming)
Apparently a child who has learnt the lower items is sure to have also managed the upper ones, but the reverse is not true. (Slightly odd that irregular past tense should be learned before regular past tense; but there you go.)

I'd be hugely interested to know if anyone has tried researching such a table for cases other than English - looking at it, I thought immediately of Russian, which uses neither copula nor articles, but of course has numerous cases for nouns and distinguishes between transitive and intransitive verbs. Surely we could learn quite a lot about deep structure, including whether there is really much evidence for it in the first place, by comparing surveys like that across different (or indeed similar) languages?

Anyway, I shall continue the occasional browse of our language shelves.
Tags: bookblog 2014, linguistics
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