Saturday, February 28, 2009

the natural order of natural language acquisition

On Wednesday evening I started watching 西太后の紫禁城 for the 5th time and I just finished it this morning. I believe I learn something new every time I watch the series and everything I already learned gets reinforced. This time I believe I learned the words for prince and princess, although I can't be 100% certain because I didn't consult a dictionary. The reason I couldn't figure this out before is because the word that I believe to mean 'princess' is not used as often. I already knew that the word for 'prince' referred to a son, simply from exposure to it. There is one young woman who is always called by what I now believe to mean 'princess', but her father is not the emperor, although he does have a high status which I can tell by the clothing he sometimes wears, but I cannot figure out what exactly his relationship is to the ruling family. At first, I thought that maybe this word was her name, but I found it to be a rather weird name, so I thought it was a nickname because the word sounds similar to the word for big brother in Chinese. So naturally in the beginning I thought it was that word for older brother since her brother is retarded, I thought she must have had to take on the role of the oldest male offspring for her family. But then during this fifth viewing of the drama I heard one of the characters ask something to the equivalent of "she is the princess of whose place?" In other words, I heard the word "where" used with her title and obviously in reference to her. I have long suspected that her father might be the brother of the queen/empress but I'm still not sure. Anyway, by the way the question was phrased, I could rule out that the word was definitely not "brother" and thinking about "princess" I figure that would work well in that sentence. Then later in the series, there is a woman who gives birth to the next heir to the throne and the queen was wanting to know if it was a boy or a girl. So it was at this point that I heard the two words together that paired them up and made perfect sense. "Do I have a prince or a princess?" she says. Before I had never really caught the last word, or I hadn't linked it to the woman who is always called this. Once I had enough pieces to the puzzle I could validate my suspicions. And with respect to the other TV drama that I have watched 5 times, the word "prince" makes perfect sense because in that drama the Emperor/King has many sons whom are all called this word from time to time. This is not the only thing I learned this time but it is the biggest one for me. I kept wondering why and couldn't understand why they kept calling that young woman a name which sounds to me like older brother!

The other thing I couldn't keep from thinking about was how helpful it is to be able to hear the language. If you think about your native language, it is so easy to hear what's being said. You don't even have to be fully paying attention! In your native tongue, you don't listen for words. You don't need to have your ears perked up. You can follow what's being said even if your mind wanders a little bit. After 300 hours of the TV method, that's what I'm starting to be able to do. There are those sentences and words that are so familiar to me that I can't miss them so easily. Even when the audio seems a bit muffled, I can understand those sentences that I'm totally familiar with. And I do it without even trying. There's no effort. The familiar words don't even trigger a reaction. I'm so used to them.

What is the order of language learning in a typical classroom course? Perhaps it goes like this: First learn to read the alphabet/writing system of the language. Then associate some words to meanings through vocabulary. Next learn to pronounce those words. Then learn to speak/reproduce some sentences while learning grammar. And finally learn to hear the language. And no doubt, all of this attempted on the first day!

What is the natural order? Hearing comes first! The most important thing is to be able to hear the language as well as you hear your native language. With the ease of hearing comes the ease of attaching meaning to words. The more you can hear, the more you can understand. When I started out on the TV method and I could only understand 1%, that was because I couldn't hear all the words which I had already studied. They were there! But I just couldn't catch them. And what I did catch, I was pulling up translations for, which made me miss out on the rest of the sentence as well as the following sentences.

Second in the natural order is meaning. You're going to find out the meaning of what you hear. The wonderful thing about this order is the fact that you may have been hearing the word for a long time before you learn its meaning. That means you are quite used to that word. When you hear a word you are used to hearing but don't know the meaning of, you don't even react. You are trained not to respond. After you add the meaning, you just relax and understand. You don't get excited, because you've already been hearing that word for quite some time. Your relaxed state of mind allows you to keep listening.

What happens when you study new words? You catch the word and then you react. You're like,
hey there's a word I was just studying!! Now what does it mean? Let me think. Oh yeah, now I remember... it means ______! Whoohoo! I'm really learning now!
And all the while you completely miss out on everything else that has been said. The next time you hear the word you do the same thing. You've got yourself trained to react. Maybe you don't hear the word for a while and then it takes you longer to recall it. That means you tried learning a word you weren't ready to learn. If you're cramming vocabulary then you're just getting way ahead of yourself and setting yourself up for a long, slow journey.

The third step of the natural order is speaking. I'll have to write about that when I get there with Chinese. But hopefully by now you can see the aim of my method is to not get bogged down by thinking about the language.


  1. Keith,

    Would reading a brief description of what the movie is about truly go against your method? Wouldn't it help? A child naturally learning his/her first language and watching a cartoon always seems to ask an adult or older child about what is going on, and who that is, and who this is, etc. In fact, I've never known a child to be able to watch tv and be silent. I am not suggesting a detailed explanation, but perhaps the gist of the movie. Que no?

  2. I don't see any harm in knowing the plot of the story. If there were, then I'd only be able to watch each drama series once. I don't know if it would help or not. I suppose if you knew every line of the English version you might be harming yourself if you thought the foreign language dubs were exact translations. There are some expressions which just don't translate between languages. But anyway, you just asked about reading a brief description and the answer is that there is no problem with that. In fact, I like to find a description of what the series is about before I order it so I can try to decide if it will be interesting or boring. If it sounds like it will have a lot of shooting and fighting then I know it will not be as dialogue intensive as something more intellectual/emotional and so I won't buy it.

    I'm sure you've known lots of children watching tv without asking questions. At age 2 or 3 they don't even care about who and why. They don't know all the words but they don't try to ask. When we learn a new language we start from the stage of not being able to ask questions. Little children are quite used to not knowing exactly what is going on so it doesn't bother them to remain silent.

  3. In languages that a person is fluent in they don't have to be listening outright, as you said. They might miss a few words, but then they can go back in their mind a few seconds later when they start listening fully and recall the words that were said. I took a prototype test that was supposed to measure how well you knew a language and the main thing the test had you do is repeat sentences that you heard. If you can remember really long sentences then you are most likely fairly fluent in the language.


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