Anguish Acquisition

Having children certainly inflects your experience in interesting ways. Before I had my son, I naively believed two things to be true:

  1. That children pick up language much more easily than adults.
  2. That this happens automatically, through some mysterious interplay of human neurology and immersive exposure.

I never thought about it much, but my model of language acquisition went something like this:

Parent holds cocktail party with friends. Young child toddles into room.

Parent (to friend): “It’s true, I disagree with most of his policies, but I don’t know what to make of this business with the new trade agreements.”

Child: Tade agheemunt.

Parent: Did you hear that? Buster said, “Trade agreement”!

Everyone: Wow!

With the assumption, of course, that humans are a naturally imitative species and that all stages of language acquisition proceed through unconscious mimicry and experimentation.

Now that I actually have a child, I can see that the process looks more like this:

Parent and child sit alone at home for many hours. No cocktail parties are in the offing.

Parent: See that? That’s a book.

Child: Buuuuuuh!

Parent: Close. Book.

Child: Baaaah!

Parent: Book.

Child: Boo-ahh-ee?

Parent: Oh, how cute! Now, try this: Book.

Child: (Stares at parent in utter perplexity. Eats book.)

Repeat four million times for several years.

I can’t help but contrast this with my own experience learning French, which went something like this:

French speaker: Oh, you speak French? Ca va?

Me: Bien.

French speaker: What? WHAT? Bee-enh? Bee-ENH? Oh, God, what an atrocious accent. Ai, it hurts just to hear you. Bee-ENH? Hey, did you hear this guy? Yikes.

Me: Comment-allez vous?

French speaker: God, just stop. Don’t even try. It’s too painful. I can’t stand it. I mean, it hurts, physically hurts, just to hear you try to speak.

Me: Je fais de mon mieux.

French: What? I can’t even understand you. This is horrible. What’s the point? Please go away.

Me: I guess we should just talk English, then.

French speaker: That’s the trouble with Americans. They never bother to learn a foreign language.

And we wonder why adults are so slow to pick up a second language! And why they tend to rely on inefficient methods like laborious book study and dull classes, instead of plunging into the hurly-burly of colloquial conversation.

I suppose linguists have the inside word on this stuff. And there are good reasons to believe in neurological boosts to early language acquisition. But man, I wish I could have gone to France as a teenager, wandered around babbling like an idiot, and had people patiently say to me, “Non, c’est un livre. Peux-tu dis livre? Livre? Li-vre. Et encore: leeee … vre? Ah, bien, pas mal! Bon essai!”

In other words, it seems to me the unique social environment of childhood is a fairly non-trivial factor in skills acquisition.

Just sayin.

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