Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Language Learning : BASICS2

In order to answer the question 'How do children learn language?' we first need to acknowledge something that absolutely fundamental - that language exists inuse, and only by using it can it be learnt.

Language exists in USE - And only by using it can it be learnt!
Much of language learning has to do with skills - and it is a characteristic of skills that they need to be put into practice in order to be learnt. And there lies the difficulty - much of the time we get children to listen to us instead of using the language themselves. And simply asking children use language isn't enough either. For instance, if I said to you: 'hey, say something!', your normal reaction would be: 'huh, say what? to whom? for what?' And you wouldn't be wrong - for if there is no purpose, we don't use language. Therefore one of the key responsibilities of a teacher is to create a reason for children to use language - because language is something that is used; and used in contexts and for purposes that are relevant / meaningful / purposeful to the user (this sounds a little repetitive - but it needs to be repeated!).

So how can a teacher generate contexts / reasons / purposes for children to use language? In day to day life, we use language only in real contexts, to achieve some real purpose for ourselves. If we talk, it is to tell somebody something; or if we are talking even to ourselves it may be in the form of thinking aloud, or communicating to oneself or expressing what we feel. (Such as "Ouch!" or "where on earth have I kept the salt?"). Similarly, if we write, it is for a purpose (such as sending somebody some information, instruction or feeling, recording something, or to organise our thoughts etc.) Of course we also use language for pleasure, as an aesthetic activity. However, in all cases, language is used for a purpose.

What do you think might be some ways of generating such purposes in the classroom?
A Discussion point: We use language to communicate with others. Therefore, what is important is whether the language being used as facilitating communication, rather than whether it is "pure and correct." Sometimes, "good" language is hard or even impossible to understand. What do you think?

How do children learn language at home?
Just as real life language is used in contexts, language learning too takes place through a child's interaction with language in contexts, initially at home. We're all familiar with how a child learns the words for "mother" or "father". (Can you elaborate how?) Similarly, when a parent points to a glass and says "glass"... Or says "get the glass here".... Listening to such statements, a child begins to perceive the link between the words/sentences and their meaning.

When the child discovers that she can achieve something by uttering words/sentences (such as "give mum-mum" and pointing towards food), she starts using spoken language. Slowly, she gets around to using more complete sentences. By the time a child comes to school, she can speak a great deal, and more important,
  • has learnt every bit of it through actual use; and
  • has learnt it without being aware that she was learning language! 

Language learning in the Classroom
It is clear that we use language in order to:
  • understand what has been said by somebody else
  • express what we want to say
  • understand something written by reading it
  • express ourselves through writing

Naturally, the purposes for which language is used determines the objectives for language learning in the classroom. As you will see in every curriculum, it is expected that children will develop the skills of understanding and expression in both spoken and written language. And skills (sorry to repeat this!) are best developed through practice.

What all this implies is that the best means of promoting language learning in school would be the creation of meaningful contexts for language use in the classrooms. Children cannot be forced to use language in contexts meaningless to them simply because the teacher wants them to. Nor can they develop a skill in a situation where they are at best spectators rather than actually practising the skill.

That is why mere memorisation is dull and meaningless. If children learn, it is in spite of it rather than because of it; and they learn under fear, never enjoy learning and think of it as unpleasant, and, worst of all, never really become confident in what they have learnt. This also explains (at least partially) the outcome of several surveys where it has been found that at the end of class 4/5 children are not fluent in reading and writing.

What are 'meaningful' contexts
So an important question to ask would be: What kind of contexts have meaning (or are meaning-full!) for the child?

Experience suggests that these would be contexts that:
  • are non-threatening (and offer the chance to freely use home language in the classroom), and/or
  • have something to do with the child (such as writing down the child's name, or something to do with the immediate, known environment or relating to the child's experience) and/or
  • are interesting to the child (because there's something funny, or fantasy-based or unusual) and/or
  • provide the child the opportunity to do something herself, with her mind and/body, rather than sit passively and listen or see.

This also means that though fantasy or "nonsense" may not have meaning for adults, if they have meaning for children, they'll have a place both in the textbook as well as in the classroom.

Your turn now...
Now that all this 'theory' has been put forth, can you think examples that have one or more of the characteristics described above? Will include the more exciting ones in future post/s.

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