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.

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

  1. I remember being told that the Sherlock Holmes reference was one of those things that can catch out even a good translator: the first description of William of Baskerville is apparently the exact description of Sherlock Holmes from the Italian translation of A Study in Scarlet, but the English edition of The Name of the Rose back-translates it into English rather than using the actual quote from Conan Doyle. So it ends up sounding tantalizingly familiar but not quite right.

    A Study in Scarlet:
    His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawklike nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.

    The Name of the Rose (translation by William Weaver):
    Brother William’s physical appearance was at that time such as to attract the attention of the most inattentive observer. His height surpassed that of a normal man and he was so thin that he seemed still taller. His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout, save in certain moments of sluggishness of which I shall speak.

Comments are closed.