The Child\\\'s Learning Strategies
Oct 22, 2008 Young Learners 1904 Views
First, a child is not in the least interested in language for its own sake. In fact, a young child never focuses his attention upon language at all. He is too interested in his toys, in his playmates, and in the things that he can find that are not to be played with. Language is always of secondary importance, and all of his early language learning is peripheral learning. To a child, the value of language is measured by its ability to help him better enjoy his primary interests. If he breaks all the imaginable rules of grammar and pronunciation, and yet gets the response he wants, he feels as if he has been completely successful. In Colin's case, this explains why he is perfectly happy to use words and constructions that he does not hear from anyone else's lips. He has continued to use the words wow, eehu and gaga precisely because we understand what he means. They function for him, and that is all he cares about.
Second, a child does not let language that he does not understand confuse him. When he hears something he does not understand, it disturbs him about as much as water disturbs a duck's back. This is related to the fact that language is never the center of his attention. So he just does not care about what he cannot understand.
Third, a child enjoys the repetitive events of his life, and uses this enjoyment to help him learn the new language. These repetitive events give the child a sense of security and order, and as he begins to understand the order in the events of his life, he also begins to understand the order in the language that is associated with those events. Conversely, rare events rarely leave much of a mark on a child's language ability. For an illustration of this, one only needs to look at the words that appear on Colin's vocabulary list, and compare it to the words that did not make it.
Fourth, a child uses his primary interests to help him learn the language related to those interests. Whatever captures his attention captures it all. He focuses his attention on that one thing, excluding the rest of the world for that moment in time. And thus, the language associated with his object of interest is brought to the front and center, and all the rest of the language around him is temporarily pushed back into the shadows. This can be illustrated from Colin's speaking vocabulary by looking at one of his earliest words, eye. When I would lie down on the couch, Colin would lie on my chest and use his hands to play with my face. His first point of interest was my eyes. When I would try to redirect his interest in my eyes, interest that he expressed by putting his fingers in my eyes, to some other part of my body, he would have none of it. He wanted to touch my eyes, not my ears or my hands. And because his interest was so strongly focused on my eyes, he learned that word first.
These last three points are closely related. They deal with how a child focuses his attention. He does not simply let the language pour over him and slowly ooze into his mind. Rather, he is very selective about the language he pays attention to. An adult learner tends to become first confused then discouraged when he receives too much new information at one time. He tries to take in all that is presented to him, often with the result that he does not learn any of it well. Because of this, special care must be taken not to present too much at one time to an adult learner of a foreign language. The excess causes the adult learner real problems. But a child never tries to take in all that is around him. He is the one who is in control, and he selects what he likes best, ignoring the rest. A child is very picky about the language he listens to, just as he is often very picky about the food he eats. But precisely because he is so effective in shutting out what does not interest him, his mind is not cluttered or divided, and he can bring to bear the full resources of his mental facilities for the purpose of learning what he has selected. This ability to focus on the material at hand while effectively excluding the rest is a very important ingredient in learning.
Fifth, a child directs his attention to things that are easy to understand. He does not think about the world economy or foreign cultures. He thinks about the people around him, and the things around him. And these things can easily be given a name. One of the interesting features of Colin's vocabulary is the lack of verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions. The words are mostly nouns. Late in the list, some verbs appear (read, walk), and one adjective (hot), but the great majority of his first words were simple nouns that were easy to learn from context.
Sixth, a child possesses a natural desire to call an object by its name, and he uses that natural desire to help him learn the language. He receives real joy from just pointing out something and calling it by name. He never thinks it is stupid or silly to say something that others might consider obvious. For him, it is delightful. When Colin learned the words for star and moon, he would point them out to us at every opportunity. He could not play with them or eat them, but he loved to call them by name.
Seventh, a child uses his natural desire to participate in the life around him to help him learn new language. He wants to do what he sees others doing, and when that includes language, he want to speak it too. Here a child often says things he does not understand at all. He is simply imitating others. He has learned that in a given situation, a word or phrase is always used, so he tries to use it too. In Colin's case, his word dodeedah illustrates this point. We did not try to teach him the word thank you. He was too young to learn it then. But we had taught his older brother how and when to say thank you, and were (and still are) trying to get him to use it more consistently. So Colin, in his attempt to imitate those around him, felt that he should say a word when he received something. At this point in his language development, most of his sounds were still babble, so he merely selected one set of sounds from his babble and elevated it to the position of a word to say after receiving something. His words hi and bye bye were also first learned in this way.
Eighth, a child adds words to his speaking vocabulary more easily if he already knows how to pronounce them. In other words, he can attach a new meaning to a sound sequence that he already knows more easily than he can learn both a new meaning and new sound sequence. For example, Colin's words for nail and snail, which are both pronounced as nail, became a part of his speaking vocabulary at about the same time. They had both been in his listening vocabulary for quite a while, but it was not until he had learned to say the word nail for nail that he was able to point to the picture of a snail in one of his books and give it a name. He used related sounds to help him learn. Another example of this comes from the Colin's word for tree and the name of one of his friends, Julie. Julie and Colin have not spent a lot of time playing together. He has other friends that he has spent more time with. But he learned Julie's name first because the sound of it is related to a word that he already could say, tree. Duwee has become his word for both tree and Julie.
Ninth, a child immediately puts to use the language he is learning, and uses his success in communication to build up his confidence. He does not try to store up his knowledge for use at a later date. He applies it in context as soon as he can. And every time he uses a piece of language successfully, it is reinforced in his mind and his confidence grows. And this confidence encourages him to use the new language even more, thus bringing him more success, more reinforcement, and more confidence. This confidence cycle built upon successful usage of the language is difficult to establish and keep going in an adult learner. But a young child is able to get it going and keep it going in the face of a lot of obstacles. All of the learning strategies mentioned are important, but this one, it seems to me, must be one of the most important. A learner without confidence is in trouble from the very beginning, but one who possesses the confidence that comes from success, even when the success is limited, can overcome a host of other learning problems.
And tenth, a child brings tremendous ingenuity to the task of learning a new language. He has no fear of failure. He is not inhibited by what others might think. He just plunges in head first, attacking the problems with all the resources that he has. Just one of the many places where a child's ingenuity is evident is in the associations he makes between objects and words. Many of these associations are obviously wrong (to us), but he does not know they are wrong and he does not care. He sees the world through different eyes, and orders it in different ways. Who can say that our ordering of the world is any more logical than a child's? For a child, why should the word train be any better than the word gaga? After all, gaga more closely represents the sound that you hear when a train is approaching the railroad crossing where you happen to be waiting. And why should the word airplane be any better than the word dayday? When we see an airplane in the sky, it is soon leaving us, so why not call it a dayday (which came to mean good bye by a similar application of ingenuity)? Colin's ability to use language in this way is not at all exceptional, as any parent can testify. But because this ingenuity is common among children, it is no less wonderful, and no less important in helping them to learn their first language.
This concludes the list of learning strategies. It also concludes my observations on how a child begins to learn his first language. To end this report, I will make one comment and ask one question. First the comment: God has certainly endowed the young child with the magic of a rich environment in which to learn his first language and the magic of a wonderful ability to acquire that language from his surroundings. Now the question: Is this magic limited to childhood, or does some of it remain long after childhood has ended, waiting to be used again, this time to help tame a foreign language?
Summary of the Child's Learning Strategies
The Child's Learning Strategies
- The child in NOT INTERESTED IN LANGUAGE for its own sake.
- The child is NOT DISTURBED by the language he does not understand.
- The child ENJOYS THE REPETITIVE events of his life, and uses this enjoyment to help him learn.
- The child USES HIS PRIMARY INTERESTS to help him learn.
- The child directs his attention to things that are EASY TO UNDERSTAND.
- The child possesses a natural desire TO CALL AN OBJECT BY ITS NAME.
- The child uses his natural desire TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIFE AROUND HIM to help him learn new language.
- The child adds words to his speaking vocabulary more easily IF HE ALREADY KNOWS HOW TO PRONOUNCE THEM.
- The child IMMEDIATELY USES the language, and his SUCCESS IN COMMUNICATION BUILDS CONFIDENCE.
- The child brings TREMENDOUS INGENUITY to the task of learning.