Friday, May 21, 2010

About learning : Those things you shouldn't care about...

En français
This post is I believe more specific to learning languages than the other posts in this series. I wanted to be general but I always tend to end up thinking in terms of language learning anyway.

When learning a language, there are a lot of things that traditional teaching tend to put in our way, like for example : grammar and rod memorization, penguin talk (I mean textbook version of the language)... I'm not going to tell you about how grammar doesn't exist here as it has already been done on ajatt probably in a better way than I could do it. So I will rather tell you about yesterday suddent discovery and how it made me think about a discussion I had with someone about a year ago about how babies learn.

Yesterday, I was having an improvised lunch with some people, mostly Chinese friends and I suddenly realized that there is no tons in Chinese. Which now gives you two options, either you think I'm crazy and walk away either you read how I came to that conclusion.

First I don't speak Chinese. I took some classes, I had friends teaching me words. I pick up words when people speak Chinese around me. At some points some of my friends even didn't bother to translate things anymore, but since that time, few years ago, I forgot a lot (lack of practice). Anyway one of my friend told me recently that I can understand 2% which I consider still better than nothing (for the moment). So yeah I have no authority to go around telling people that there is no tons in Chinese, but I'll still do it, just because I can.

So here is how it happened.
My friend was explaining the difference in meaning between two Chinese words apparently really close but for me they were sounding different, like really really different. Then we had the pronunciation practice to repeat the words. I know that's weird to do that during lunch time but we do that all the time, probably due to international environment. Normally I repeat and I don't get it right and people end up giving me the tons which doesn't make it always easier. This time I just got them both right. And I realized that I didn't try to figure out the tons before saying them. I just repeated what I heard. That seemed a lot easier actually. That also makes sense.
Do you think Chinese kids are wondering what tons the word has before saying it? No they don't. Just like I don't have to worry about the genders and cases when I'm speaking German because German people don't, of course with some words I still wonder but that's just because I didn't hear them enough. Ask my little cousin why he says "je suis" and not "je être" and he is going to have no clue what you are talking about.
To really speak a language you need to be more like a parrot that like a rule-learning-machine.

Which bring me back to my discussion with that guy about learning. He was telling me that baby learn "by trial and errors" and I was telling that they were learning "by exposure to things and repetitions". (You know which school I'm coming from.) At some points we asked to someone with a young kid, that's seemed to be the easy way out. He answered "by trials and error" because no matter how much he showed to his daughter that she had to push the bottom of the bottle up to get the liquid out she was never doing it. So we said "ok", and walked away.
But now I can say that the reason is not because she learn by trial and error the reason is because she was not yet used to the way her body and the liquid in the bottle move. I can look at my friend playing the piano forever. I will never play the same way as he does unless I sit there and hit the keys. By repeating and repeating the same song over and over again I will get there, because first I know what the song should sound like.
 Same for languages if I listen enough the sounds are going to come out right.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I guess you can say that alright. My L1 has 7 tones, but I have no idea. Somehow I just know the differences. ppl do learn their L1 this way. I learned Mandairn at the first grade and teachers taught us tones start from the beginning, we got to practice tones. This is how I learned my L2 though.
    I think babies are bombarded with the language at first and all the way till they can fully understand everything, but they also learn it from errors and repetition when they come to the point of start "speaking the language". Exposure always come first. Kids probably learn more from errors when they come across new stuff, like idioms, things like that. well, just some thought;D