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Language learning

November 8, 2011

As most people who know me know, I listen to podcasts, one of which is “On Being” from National Public Radio. The host, Krista Tippett, is fabulous – I envy her for her job because she gets to talk to some really interesting people, and I can only imagine the personal development and satisfaction she gets out of what she does.

As most people who know me know, I listen to podcasts, one of which is “On Being” from National Public Radio. The host, Krista Tippett, is fabulous – I envy her for her job because she gets to talk to some really interesting people, and I can only imagine the personal development and satisfaction she gets out of what she does.

Last week’s program was called “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life”. The summary paragraph for the program reads:

“Linguistics pioneer Jean Berko Gleason unlocks the way we learn an amazing and crucial human skill, learning to talk. She studies how language emerges from childhood on, and says it reveals unexpected truths about our human relationships with our world, and our consciousness of ourselves. ” 

She talks about language learning starting while babies are in utero, that while a child is hearing, it is also learning how to put together complex sentences using complex language ideas, and if they are hearing two languages, they are building a bilingual brain.

That’s pretty cool. I never really thought about how we learn language because it was so long ago that I learned a foreign language – one was in school, and it was pretty cool when I was able to use it and be understood – and the second language was gained solely through living in the country. In other words, I learned my first foreign language was gained in mainly academic environments, and my second in a more organic environment.

Is there a “better” way to learn a language? According to Gleason, “Language development is a cooperative event. It happens between children and the people around them, and I think you need not just the cognitive stuff to understand how to, you know, abstract rules but you also need to have emotional underpinnings.”

Language development is a cooperative event. That is what my language learning has become here in Ukraine.  Quite often I feel like a child, and the hard part for me is not only the cognitive, but being able to understand the emotional underpinnings as well, because of the differences in cultures.

I thought again about the podcast when I was walking down the street today and a child was with its mother, and the child said “window” (in Russian, of course). The mother repeated it, and then the child repeated it. Cooperative.

Perhaps all of the studying I have done will never do any good – perhaps my current pattern, where I do some studying but more interacting with people, will help me to develop my language skills more quickly. I recently have met with some different people, one of whom is a retired woman (mother of my friend) who is bored and offered to help me. It will be interesting to find out whether it will make a difference.

For anyone interested in learning more about this topic, I would suggest that you go to the On Being web site and listen to the podcast. It is quite thought-provoking.

One Comment leave one →
  1. R. Strina permalink
    November 14, 2011 3:54 am

    Hi Karin,
    Really liked your post on language learning! I have learned several languages, but really only speak 2 fluently. To learn a language, one has to live in the country or be around native speakers of the language. The language part is actually easy to learn, it’s the culture part that is the tough part and can only be learned by experience, but even that is hard, because we experience culture individually. The example I’m thinking of is East & West Germany before the wall came down. I grew up in West Germany and I will never know what it was like in East Germany simply because I never lived there. Anyway, very interesting post! Thanks for the hint on “On Being”. Greetings, Renate

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