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How We Learn Language

Two weeks ago, Ben Zimmer published an article in the NY Times on how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory.

From the Zimmer article:

Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary.

In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.” In the 1960s, the linguist Michael Halliday pointed out that we tend to talk of “strong tea” instead of “powerful tea,” even though the phrases make equal sense. Rain, on the other hand, is much more likely to be described as “heavy” than “strong.”

A native speaker picks up thousands of chunks like “heavy rain” or “make yourself at home” in childhood, and psycholinguistic research suggests that these phrases are stored and processed in the brain as individual units. As the University of Nottingham linguist Norbert Schmitt has explained, it is much less taxing cognitively to have a set of ready-made lexical chunks at our disposal than to have to work through all the possibilities of word selection and sequencing every time we open our mouths.

I found an interesting response to this thinking, on a blog called Child’s Play by a “Professor Plum”:

The chunks aren’t “chunks” — they are strings of sounds / meanings that kids hear more often, and so they have learned that — given one part — the rest is more likely to follow.  When you hear “can we just get to the…” the word “point” is really likely, whereas “destination” is less likely (though it could go there too). Just as we find our normal way of tying shoe laces easier than a different way, kids will find more practiced bits of language far easier to work with than less practiced bits.

If you think about it this way, then what kids are doing is not so much storing words / chunks, but rather learning about the likelihood of what they might be hearing / saying, and the likelihood that it has a given meaning.  –Meaning it’s hardly surprising that they are better at using and understanding the more practiced bits than the less practiced bits.  And of course, because adults do this too, over time, some “chunks” become more and more likely than others.

Plum continues with an interesting thought on how we communicate over noisy communication environments:

Try this: listen to the kinds of things people say on cell phones.  –Because talking on a cell phone is an awful (noisy) communication channel, we tend to use frequently-used, predictable phrasing to make ourselves understood.  Or else, if people haven’t figured this out, we end up asking them to repeat themselves a lot, or holding the phone at arms length.  (This is also why it’s so much easier to talk to people you know well on the phone — they are far more predictable, so you can fill in for them more.)

What all this means is that we shouldn’t be talking about teaching kids so that they “know” this word or that chunk – or talking about them “knowing” words or bits of grammar even. Instead, what we should focus on is what they should be practicing so that they can get *better* at their language skills. (My guess is that parents are far more aware that language is an incremental skill than are the people who claim to be experts.)

You might also be interested in “Does your language shape how you think” and “How to detect lying over email.”
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