Friday, April 10, 2015

Language Proficiency; Making the Right Moves

I have completed the second week of the Coursera on line linguistics course.  I am pleased to say that the course has already provided me with some answers to questions I have had about language acquisition and proficiency.  Of course, there also have been answers to questions which had not previously occurred to me.  The exercises in the fundamentals of phonetics, for instance, gave me some insights into how consonant and vowel formation actually takes place and how it can be systematically analysed.

In the end of the week wrap-up video the professor, Marc van Oostendorp, gave a glimpse into the course's demographics.  About 42,000 participants from 190 countries are now engaged in studying the basics of linguistics.  The email referring to participation mentioned that it would be revealed in the video what was the age of the youngest and oldest students.  I approached that revelation with some trepidation as there was a possibility that I might be the oldest.  In fact, while I am certainly located in the narrow right tail of the age distribution curve, the honor for oldest went to "Margaret", an eighty-year-old South African.  The youngest course participant turned out to be just fourteen years old and a resident of India.  It would be interesting to see more on the statistical profile of the student body; I'm sure the U. of Leiden will be paying close attention to those numbers.

Participation in the linguistics course has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on my own struggle to attain some proficiency in Spanish as a second language.  On the one hand, it is a little dispiriting to observe that a life-time of study and practice has not resulted in anything close to perfection.  At the same time, I am encouraged by the fact that I seem to have made some progress over the past couple of years.  I am reading more challenging books than I was comfortable with previously and I feel that my comprehension has improved.  It seems unlikely given the state of my memory that any improvement is due to vocabulary enhancement.  Rather, I would attribute my perceived gains more to some improvement in attention and engagement.

I have found that making a conscious effort to focus on the meaning of the text I am reading actually pays off.  I tested this idea recently by going to the UNM library and sitting down to read a short story by a writer who was new to me, Mercè Rodoreda.  While I did not have the crutch of the Kindle translation dictionary and did not consult a dictionary in book form, I was able to follow the story line without great difficulty just by taking my time to absorb the writer's intent.  Given those encouraging results I went on line and ordered a copy of the author's best-known novel, La Plaza Del Diamante.

At the other end of the spectrum from me is that fourteen-year-old Indian kid.  He is taking a college-level course taught in English, just one of several languages he speaks.  Those facts highlight the well-known capacity to absorb languages at an early age, which seems to atrophy as we get older.  Receptivity to language acquisition is likely based in part on pattern recognition capacity, and that may well extend to other areas of learning as well.  For instance, I am thinking of a news item I saw recently about the chess grandmaster, Sam Sevian, who attained his title at the age of thirteen.  As seems to have been the case with many other chess greats, Sevian was introduced to the game by his father before he was old enough to start school.  There may be a genetic component to Sevin's success in chess given his father's expertise in the game, but it also seems possible that missing that early opportunity to be exposed to the game could have closed the window on achieving the extraordinary potential which was initially available.

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