Learning language like children do – as if!

I keep hearing the claims that one should try learning a foreign language like children do. Roseta Stone is a famous example of software that convinces people that they can do just that.

I have a couple of problems with that approach.

First one is that even if the immersion method was sufficient, it would have to be as immersive as what a child gets – 24 hours a day minus sleep. One hour a day is not sufficient in my opinion. And if you are studying foreign language in an immersive environment, Roseta Stone is just a way to concentrate your mind more than anything. And with its price tag, a very expensive way to concentrate the mind.

The other reason is that when people say immersive environment, they usually mean no grammar rules. Just listening and talking, reading and writing. That’s what children do, right?

Wrong! At least it is wrong for the Russian language. School in USSR used to have a class called Russian Language which run for several school years. It was not about the Russian literature, that was a second, separate class. Russian Language class was about learning the orthography and grammar of our own mother tongue and – trust me! – it was hard.

Declensions were hell. Russian language has six of them and we had to have mnemonics to just remember their order (I still remember «Иван Родил Девчонку, Велел Тащить Пелёнку») The rules for when to write soft and hard sign letters were a story of their own. And dictations! That is when you think that the teacher’s whole purpose in life is to make you want to cry. When every misspelling and a missing coma would drop your grade! And then (the next year) you get rephrasing exercises where you listen to a story three times and have to write it out in your own words afterwards. And you are marked for style as well as orthography.

And, I am sorry to say, we made fun of Georgians and Armenians, because – trying to learn their own complex languages – they never sounded quite right speaking Russian, even though they were also part of USSR. We learned how to say things correctly, because we had anecdotes being told and retold on exactly how they got it wrong.

I always admire people who decide to learn Russian and persevere with its alphabet, its grammar and its pronunciation. But those who think that ‘learning like children’ approach means learning through absorption and with no grammar study, I don’t have much time for. It did not work for us, when we were children. I don’t see how it will work for you, however much you will pay for the software with the fancy claims on its cover.

3 thoughts on “Learning language like children do – as if!”

  1. Surely there is an argument to be made for teaching at least the more complex grammar later? The Russian school system sounds quite hardcore but in my experience around the world, children don’t generally learn this stuff until at least high school.

    I don’t have an opinion on the Rosetta software but I think different people learn in different ways. There will be some people, probably those of a more intellectual or analytical bent, who will want to apply a logical approach and learn the grammar and vocabulary and try to put it together. There are others, and I think this is probably the majority of people, who want the gratification of being able to talk to people and communicate and will want to get to a certain level before they start learning complex grammar rules. I agree that they need to learn grammar to become proficient in a language, I’m not sure I agree that it needs to be the starting point.

    In 1980s Australian primary schools, we learnt a bit of English grammar – punctuation, tenses (only really as far as swim/swam/swum) – but not much. We were expected to learn it intuitively from reading and writing. It was interesting when I did training and a journalist and sub-editor to read the in-house style guide and books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style because it covered stuff I had never formally learnt yet somehow I knew 99% of it. I write for a living and it’s always been something I’m good at so maybe not everyone can say the same thing but I doubt very much that an increased emphasis on formal grammar instruction would have helped. It probably would have just made them bored and disengaged.

    In Steiner/Waldorf education, it goes even further as children are not taught to read until they are seven. Their language learning before that time is exclusively oral, from learning poems and being told stories. Similarly, all Steiner students learn a foreign language (in Australia it’s German given the German roots of the educational system; in Germany it used to be both English and Russian). The children are taught this via story and song until high school when formal grammar instruction begins. It’s not a soft option – Steiner students do very well compared to their state counterparts in statewide exams and university.

  2. arafalov-
    You have a complete misunderstanding of how a language is really learned, and what language itself even is. You make it sound like Russian children don’t speak Russian, the playgrounds are silent and when they come home from school they are unable to even talk with their parents about how much they hate Russian Language class. Children indeed ‘absorb’ their native language, and adults who successfully learn a foreign language do ‘absorb’ it. The proper term is acquire (look up acquisition/learning distinction). People are very bad at associating an effect with its cause. Grammar study isn’t the cause of actual language acquisition. I would be willing to bet that Caitlin is an avid reader, and probably absorbed the rules that were in Elements of Style by reading a lot. Some grammar study may be helpful to fill in gaps that have yet to be acquired, but its effect is rather limited.

  3. whaoJ – Thank you for the comment.

    I think we need to distinguish between speaking a language acceptably (e.g. hopefully my English) and speaking it correctly. Russian children learned to use their language through absorption, but they did not spell right or did not use verb cases correctly until they went through formal study and grueling dictation exams. I believe the same applies to French.

    So, we are both right that grammar helps to fill in gaps, I just argue that those gaps are – well – gaping!

    And, isn’t using ‘Elements of Style’ a rather bad example in discussion of grammar. After all, it is about style, which is different from grammar.

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