A language, this time, for which there is no dictionary, no “Learn X in 40 days” handbook, no livemocha courses (check them out, they have pretty much everything else) and no grammar guide with nifty conjugation techniques.
The only way to learn it is complete and total immersion, with a 17-month old as your teacher.
I’d never really thought about how people learn languages. Of course, we had classes on linguistics at the language department where I studied but as my chosen track was culture and literature I wasn’t much exposed to how actual language acquisition works.
Enter: my nephew. I’ve learned a lot about learning languages from him, although I can’t put names on any of the concepts. I leave that to all you more educated linguists. I can just describe what I’ve seen.
When he was over for Christmas, he was 15 months old and enthralled with naming things. Funny how it really is true that giving names is creating a world (from Genesis onwards), making it your own. He would go around for hours pointing at things and saying their names. “Tee” he would say and point at the Christmas tree. “Gocky!” would accompany a prod to our faithful pet. 15 seconds later, he would rediscover the tree with the same excitement; 15 seconds after that, it was the dog again. Apparently before going to sleep each night, or even in the middle of the night, he would list every word he knew. Is that to make sure he knows his whole world, to feel comfortable that everything is in its place? To make sure that what he experienced during the day exists?
A month passed and I could already hear the difference in how he expressed himself. Earlier it had been just the words; now, there were connections between the words. The “cocky ca” was now owned by “Daddy” = his father’s coffee mug. “Choo choo train kye!” now expressed the fact that a metro train had passed by outside (anything that is outside or a big, open space, is ‘sky’).
In the month that passed, he’s added adjectives to his repertoire. The streets are now filled with ‘gay ca” = gray cars. Most other things, however, are ‘gee’ = green. Is that because it’s his favorite color, so that’s the color that he wants things to be, or has the concept of colors just not registered yet? He also knows the concept of ‘two’ which encompasses all plurals. One doggie, two doggies, two doggies, two doggies… But what this kid does have is a pretty awesome command of phrasal verbs, that bane of every non-native English speaker. He definitely knows when to get out of the stroller, get out the calculator from the vent he’s stuffed it in, and when the train goes away.
Every day is a new adventure when you’re discovering the world and creating logical links between known and unknown things. A piece of spinach puff pastry is dubbed “boki tee” due to its resemblance to a piece of broccoli with its tree-like stem. And sometimes, you see two ‘itty ats” (kitty cats) where all other, older and supposedly wiser people, see nothing.
You can travel the world over, meet new people, unearth new places and imbibe new languages, but sometimes the most fascinating things are just waiting to be discovered closer to home…
Said by a much wiser “Ciocia”!