Saturday, April 04, 2009

I have just started to read the book "Language Instinct" written by Steven Pinker. The beginning of this book, and my recent experiments with Rosetta Stone course (I have been following Spanish course and almost done with it by now...) have inspired some thinking.

First, I really don't like Rosetta's principle to rely to full osmosis, when it concerns the grammar. I'll try to explain why.

The point of Rosetta Stone system is that every human being, when he or she was a child, has learned his own language via osmosis, therefore if you try to (very roughly) simulate the environment in which the child learns the language (as much as the structure of the computer program allows it) you can teach an adult person the new language without actually explaining anything, just by trial-and-error method.

Well, to some extent, it works. It is a great way to remember the meaning of words. But but but!.. The grammar!.. Don't you have to go to school for the grammar lessons in your own mother tongue?.. And if you don't, will you be speaking properly? (You know the answer - chances are big that you will end up speaking some dialect but not the language the way as it should...)

Now, Pinker comes into picture. He mentiones there the interesting phenomenon known as "creolization". The schema is the following:
- first, many people from different cultures are brought together; they don't know each other language and have to choose some "common" language (historically, those chosen languages happened to be English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese) to commicate with those who brought them (the bosses) and the other coworkers (the peers).
- as a result, "pidgeon English" (or whatever) comes into being - not a language, but rather a crude simulacrum, most importantly without a consistent grammar; you need lots of nonverbal help to understand those who speak it;
- then, as soon as there are the children who get to know this language at the age of language acquisition (below 6 years), they will create the "right" grammar and make the language suitable for communication; this, according to Pinker, is how the Creole languages were created;
- same process took place in other situations (for example, Pinker describes the development of the languages deaf people use in US and in Latin America).

What is the point? Well, for me, one very important point is that if you don't get a formal education in the language you speak,you end up creating dialect which will mirror the way _you_ understood how the grammar works. Examples: the Creole languages; the dialects of ethnic or social groups; may be, even the Roman languages (which have all, more or less, stemmed from Latin long time ago) initially could fall into this category.

The explanation is also quite simple: a language (real language) is a fruit of labor of more people then any dialect. This gives the mainstream languages their finesse and beauty. A small group is just not capable to do the same - it does not have the resources for that. A dialect can be nice but that's all you can say about it....

Which brings the following conclusion: if even in the content-rich real life environment without any additional education you might never really master the grammar of the language you learn to speak, in the extremely meager learning environment you won't get perfect grammar, either. Which is fine with me because I would not be using Rosetta Stone as a single point of reference for language learning (can't help remembering the words of polyglot Ilya Frank: learning language is like assembling little threads into one huge ball; you should get these threads from all possible places to succeed). But they really shouldn't claim that their method is the only thing needed to master the language.

Nevertheless, as I have already noted, for memorizing basic vocabulary and grammar constructs Rosetta is great. But there are several things you have to take along: a good grammar reference (with exercises), plenty of books (starting from simple ones) and then, live speech examples (e.g. radio or podcasts). And all this won't save you from very clumsy way of communicating until you create your own little collection of set phrases and canned responses :)

Still, learning language is great. It would be even greater if a system for language learning would have been an open-source one, with the possibility for everybody to add new modules, and with the dictionary which would also show the context usage of requested words. But for now, it looks like a dream... (and it's high time to go and get some :) )

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